Natural selection

It’s important to step back for a moment and consider the scrum from which the hype around Artificial Intelligence arises.

Even without casting [m]any aspersions on the tools as they are bandied about – and there ARE documented, purposeful uses for crunching data with super computers, from folding proteins to finding exoplanets; real stuff and revolutionary for these fields – the general rush to embrace AI for all sorts of, let’s say, less purposeful application should be acknowledged.

After decades of artificial sweeteners, fabrics, food, and foliage, and of course the accompanying, devastation of health impacts and pollution from plastics, PCBs, and many more, a noticeable shift toward the all-natural, hand-selected, bespoke, organic, non-invasive ensued, at least in the marketing materials. This acknowledgement, more human-centered, initially had a kind of desperate last-gasp tone to it that morphed into a realm of preference, if not elevated choice. Thanks, branding!

But it was more than that, and the shift itself coincided with a growing awareness about the dangers of this fakeness and its seamless integration into the activities as well as the mindset that led to and accelerated global warming.

So, now – if you’re keeping score at home – because some of our overlord disruptors in Silicon Valley need to get in on the ground floor of the next new thing, we’re ready to reek further devastation on the information and images we use to navigate the world. It’s not enough to use the verb ‘consume.’ Once we began to use the word and consider ourselves consumers and now just customers instead of citizens, students, patrons, whatever, everything else became easier. And by everything else, I refer to most things unpleasant, empty, lesser, vapid, wasteful of your time, and detrimental to your heart. Yes, doesn’t that sound quaint. Your heart, come now! C’est drôle.

It’s not that the next new thing could destroy us, but that we are so happy to play our part in the destruction. Suddenly we’re helpless to watch another dynamic seize control of how we navigate the physical world as humans. You need not be an AI skeptic to be a tiny bit underwhelmed by that prospect.

The next new thing after this (not investment advice!) will surely consist of selling us back the key to imagination(tm) we somehow lost because everything is fake.

We worry about AI taking jobs but do our part in cheer-leading the takeover, in wonder no less at the ease with which it all happens and the productivity gains sure to follow. In this senseless meandering from one shiny thing to the next, AI might appear to be just another trend we might try, even get used to. Meanwhile, our only job ever has been to discern not the good from the bad, but the real from the fake.

Natural selection, by humans. Darwin should have been more specific.

And by the way, I’m not at all amused by the extent to which this all rhymes with the original rationale I presented for the green blog, oh so [no that] many years ago.

Roiling the Newness

Recent NYRB piece on the poets Ida Vitale and Tomasz Różycki—of Uruguay and Poland, respectively, is deserving of elevation and you, dear reader, deserving of its riches:

“Poetry,” Ida Vitale remarks in the essay included in her new collection, “like death, perhaps, is surrounded by explanations.” Now living again in Montevideo, Uruguay, where she was born in 1923, Vitale can take poetry’s prestige for granted. Over the past century or more Latin America has commanded a world stage: the writings of César Vallejo, Jorge Luis Borges, and Pablo Neruda, among others, hardly require explanation or defense. Her own cohort, the Generation of 1945 (the “Generación Crítica”), was instrumental in keeping Montevideo abreast of cosmopolitan developments in literature, theater, and critical theory. Vitale has received numerous prizes in Uruguay, Mexico, Spain, and France, as well as the rank of Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters of France in 2021. Yet her first selection of poems in English translation (over seventy years’ worth of work, presented in reverse chronological order) contains just one brief manifesto, “Poems in Search of the Initiated,” registering a delicate protest against the diminished readership for poetry:

The challenges awaiting a less confident reader may include unusual verbal constructions, not worn out by use, and a richer vocabulary. These are not impossible to face. The pleasure of enthusiastic decipherment releases a mysterious energy that moves not only the pages of poetry, but also the world’s great prose.

Mystery, Vitale notes, is “that which is reserved for the mystai, the initiated,” and “on the other hand…leads us to the idea of ministry.” But in a democratic age—or, more accurately, an age when democracy is teetering toward authoritarianism—“the initiated” evokes the specter of an elite despised on all sides: “rarefied poetry for the few, almost for specialists.”

Speak, dear authors. Everyone needs to be intrepid about everything, and that definitely includes reading and writing, but also looking at sculpture and paintings, watching dance performance. Hearing poetry.

If we are what we pretend to be, as Uncle Kurt, it’s past time to get serious about that.

Image: Author photo with Mrs. G in the old part of an old city.

The Green Revolution

No, not that one. This one:

The Green Revolution refers to a transformative 20th-century agricultural project that utilized plant genetics, modern irrigation systems, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides to increase food production and reduce poverty and hunger in developing countries. The Green Revolution began in Mexico, where scientists developed a hybrid wheat variety that dramatically expanded yields. Following its introduction, hunger and malnutrition there dropped significantly.

The model was subsequently extended to Asia, Latin America, and later Africa to increase food production for growing populations without consuming significantly more land. Over time, however, the techniques and policies of the Green Revolution were questioned as they led to inequality and environmental degradation.

Ahem. Such language. But being mindful of these transformations is important, especially as we seem to be on the verge of several others happening simultaneously and at terrific speed. For instance, which kind of battery will follow lithium-ion? In early 2023, we heard about iron-air batteries that use a water-based electrolyte and store energy using reverse rusting. Now, that’s the sexy tech we need. Companies are being funded and manufacturing facilities built. The storage needs changing, not to mention the problematic issues around mining lithium, are driving this ongoing series of shifts. Like the earlier Green revolution, it’s less important to cheer these development as good or bad but rather to see them in a kind of continuum and consider how each new standard performs under these changing market conditions. Yes, market – the economics as well as the social and physical constraints.

Climate tech is on-again, off-again as we get jaded accustomed to shiny new things, seek improvements and various strategies win out. But as the pressure continues to push costs down and use up, the newer green revolution can usher in a more stable form of societal improvements for everyone.

That, we should expect.

Video: the great Arthur Blythe (Thanks D!), with Bob Stewart on Tuba, doncha know.

Fighting emissions with AI

Fossil fuel-derived emissions, that is. Ahem.

So… some of the coverage of COP28, when it’s not debating whether science supports eliminating all fossil fuels, has of course focused on our latest and shiniest of objects, AI.

Artificial intelligence has been a breakout star in the opening days of COP28, the United Nations climate summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Entrepreneurs and researchers have dazzled attendees with predictions that the fast-improving technology could accelerate the world’s efforts to combat climate change and adapt to rising temperatures.

But they have also voiced worries about A.I.’s potential to devour energy, and harm humans and the planet.

We should just go with ‘machine learning’ but that train has apparently left the barn, been sold for parts and reassembled as an uncanny train. But there is a direct conflict with using inordinate computer power to push giant algorithms to solve immense problems, namely the word ‘power.’

Leaders at the companies developing A.I. technology have already cautioned that it could someday pose a risk of extinction to humanity, on par with nuclear war. Researchers at COP28 have focused on a different risk — that the computing power required to run advanced A.I. could be enormous. That electricity appetite could send emissions soaring and make climate change worse.

A peer-reviewed analysis published in October estimated that A.I. systems worldwide could use as much energy in 2027 as all of Sweden. That would almost certainly add to emissions, even though countries are lagging on their pledges to cut them. (A Boston Consulting Group study for Google also noted that powering A.I. would quite likely require vast quantities of water and produce an increasing amount of waste.)

So, here’s your query, Alexa/Google/Siri: if super-computing will require all of the energy we produce – what is energy or super-computing for?

Image: remember Fantastic Contraption?

Making Whether

This Bloomberg Cleaner Tech (!) article about whether humans can control forces beyond our control (the weather) accidentally highlights the ways we ignore the choices and actions well-within our grasp:

In an effort to control future rainstorms, scientists in Japan are working on an ambitious government-backed project involving everything from giant curtains floating on the sea to fields of wind turbines to protect the island nation. Their goal, they say, is to turn extreme weather into “a blessing” — if it works.

The effort feels ripped from the pages of a sci-fi novel, but it’s attracted dozens of researchers across Japan. The team, led by Kosei Yamaguchi, an associate professor at Kyoto University, is focused on reducing so-called “guerrilla” rainstorms that can bring large quantities of rainfall within a short period of time. Their goal is to develop an array of weather control technologies that can reduce deluges to manageable rain and roll them out by 2050.

It’s the shiny-object school of journalism – the very next words in that article are the subhead ‘Dams in the air’ – we need something new/fresh/exciting/risky/improbable/easy to attract eyeballs and viewers and clicks. What actually happens even when this works – and let’s not consider whether it’s the true function (whoopsie!) – is that people simply move on.

That’ simply moving on’ repeated over and over into perfection becomes its own feedback loop. Not sure ‘soothing’ is the right word, but numbness definitely follows. An ensuing restlessness opens the door to helplessness, what can I do, what does any of it matter? At the bottom of that fountain (l’eau impotable) lies despair. And adding in the crucial context for a business publication, of course Billions are at Stake. And they certainly are. But which billions, other billions, are left unconsidered.

Image: cloud seeding rocket (Photographer: Zhang Haiqiang/VCG/Getty Images)

The Long Slow before the Quickening

Before it takes shape, as it gradually gains hold, the transition to consuming less – basically, what sustainable neutrality reverse is all about, no matter how specifically construed – is happening painfully too slowly. That ‘pace,’ if that’s the right word, explains part of the associated pain that feels all around, as though it were the the only thing accompanying the shift.

News media – ‘legacy’ is a very generous modifier at this point – have little at their disposal beyond the language of cost, suffering, loss, giving up, change in the context of deprivation. We can say this is the wrong framing, but acknowledging the limitation is important, especially if we are going to progress beyond it.

No magic button here, but a recognition of a kind of system-wide failure, of education, articulation, creativity. But that limit is shading another, broader system-wide failure unfolding right in front of us so slowly, slowly as it can and gradually as a massive system/combination of overlapping massive systems does, that it can seem invisible, not believable, deniable.

Maybe it has slipped the bounds of deniability, as several big things begin to occur at once and more quickly. The need to reckon with the slowness and the quickening, while not seeming to be our major challenge, is the key to unlocking all the other challenges. The cognitive dissonance of a world on fire/drowning will lead to despair absent the ability to think our way out of it.

In some quarters, that is indeed a dark thought. But that’s what we’ve got to do. As I’ve written here and elsewhere over the years, the Earth is still a kind of lady in waiting, with waning patience for us to get our act(s) together. She’s going to start touching herself soon and we’re still not close to ready to think about that.

In as much as especially concerning

the future, a significant amount of energy and attention continues to be paid to pointless distractions – and this is certainly not referring to Barbie, good grief, which is entirely legitimate cultural production compared to

Influencers Built This Wellness Startup

Anything related to hyper loops or one-way tunnels, ‘crazy golf’, or fiat money. Hardly an exhaustive list, play along at home.

If the whole artifice rests on ‘there is only so much attention’ (bandwidth in the common parl) then lettuce take that idea to heart. Frivolous at this point is tantamount to dangerous and irresponsible. Concern about not bumming people out in proximity to the imminent collapse of the Gulf Stream leads to, let’s say, an incoherent narrative.

Priority has never been our muse, with one or two exceptions, but let’s get organized. At least theoretically imagining the painful stuff first – what would you be willing to give up? Just go ahead and get it out of the way, at least mentally, because that seems to be what frightens people the most. So, pop the bubble: imagine a world without cruises – no, go deeper – cars! Ouch. But see – that’s where to start.

Even the intention could begin to help (us) re-organize how we think about what we think about. Envision liberation, rather than ignore the possibility of collapse.

Image: Peace. Solemnity. Liberation by Aristarkh Lentulov (1917)

Weather or not…

That orange dot was Wednesday July 5.

You want to believe the reports or your lying eyes, it’s getting more and more difficult to hydrate climate denial. Yes, people are still getting rich doing so, with full employment for lobbyists who still help companies muddle the puddles. But that’s basically what they are now and we are full on in our incoherence meltdown. Slow moving isn’t slow enough for the summer news cycle, and though they are always looks for way to spice things up, there’s not a lot of chase left to cut to:

The past three days were quite likely the hottest in Earth’s modern history, scientists said on Thursday, as an astonishing surge of heat across the globe continued to shatter temperature records from North America to Antarctica.

The spike comes as forecasters warn that the Earth could be entering a multiyear period of exceptional warmth driven by two main factors: continued emissions of heat-trapping gases, mainly caused by humans burning oil, gas and coal; and the return of El Niño, a cyclical weather pattern.

The sharp jump in temperatures has unsettled even those scientists who have been tracking climate change.

“It’s so far out of line of what’s been observed that it’s hard to wrap your head around,” said Brian McNoldy, a senior research scientist at the University of Miami. “It doesn’t seem real.”

On Tuesday, global average temperatures climbed to 62.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 17 Celsius, making it the hottest day Earth has experienced since at least 1940, when records began, and very likely before that, according to an analysis by the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service.

Up next: stuck weather patterns, wavy flow, amplified troughs and ridges – and that’s just for the mid-latitudes. Get wise to the flimflammery.

Image: By Elena Shao/The New York Times

Super trees, smh

Not to pick on MIT Tech Review – though kicking Silicon Valley is another story and actually fine – but this story reads quite a bit like VCs trying to re-invent the bus:

At Living Carbon, Mellor is trying to design trees that grow faster and grab more carbon than their natural peers, as well as trees that resist rot, keeping that carbon out of the atmosphere. In February, less than four years after he co-founded it, the company made headlines by planting its first “photosynthesis-enhanced” poplar trees in a strip of bottomland forests in Georgia.

This is a breakthrough, clearly: it’s the first forest in the United States that contains genetically engineered trees. But there’s still much we don’t know. How will these trees affect the rest of the forest? How far will their genes spread? And how good are they, really, at pulling more carbon from the atmosphere?

Living Carbon has already sold carbon credits for its new forest to individual consumers interested in paying to offset some of their own greenhouse gas emissions. They’re working with larger companies, to which they plan to deliver credits in the coming years. But academics who study forest health and tree photosynthesis question whether the trees will be able to absorb as much carbon as advertised.

Even Steve Strauss, a prominent tree geneticist at Oregon State University who briefly served on Living Carbon’s scientific advisory board and is conducting field trials for the company, told me in the days before the first planting that the trees might not grow as well as natural poplars. “I’m kind of a little conflicted,” he said, “that they’re going ahead with this—all the public relations and the financing—on something that we don’t know if it works.”

Re-engineering trees, okay. Super-charged trees. His misgivings are right there, as are the preconditions of going ahead with this:  ‘headlines’, ‘public relations and financing.’ Like they just came out of nowhere.

I, too, want super trees to be a thing. But c’mon. Strauss is actually quoted in the article saying, “There could be a negative. We don’t know”

The point is that Climate Solutions Hype (patent pending) continues to outstrip existing effective solutions that we just don’t like, are bored with or wish were sexier and have become one more dynamic with which the Earth must contend. Along with irony.

Image: Regular Lombardy Poplar tree (also quite super).

And they just said No

Maybe because it leans the wrong way, against the grain/norm/whatever, but this is the kind of dissonant outcome that can be difficult to fit into the pro-business framing of most news reporting:

The US Supreme Court turned away oil-company appeals that sought a key procedural edge in about two dozen lawsuits blaming the industry for contributing to climate change.

The justices Monday refused to consider shifting the lawsuits into federal court, where corporate defendants often fare better. The companies say the suits are governed entirely by federal law, giving them the right to move them out of state court.

In the lead appeal, Exxon Mobil Corp. and Suncor Energy Inc. sought to transfer a suit by two Colorado counties and the city of Boulder. The lawsuit contends the oil companies should compensate taxpayers for the increased cost of maintaining roads and fighting forest fires.

At issue was a legal doctrine known as removal, which lets defendants in many cases shift the forum for lawsuits filed in state court. In the Colorado case, a Denver-based federal appeals court said Exxon and Suncor lacked grounds to remove the suit because Colorado state law governs the claims.

Legacy Guilded Age damage usually allows companies preference to advance appeals claims on practically any point where they are held to account, but this time the court just said no. Of course, Alito recused as a stockholder in at least one of the parties(!) and Kavanaugh would have granted the case. But still, appeal denied.

So maybe the lesson is to keep yelling.

Image: Supreme Court portico, via wikimedia commons