Recent comments, mostly on Taipei Times editorials and letters

The future is bright – the future is Europe!

I spent my summer in Germany, and despite the misgivings I have about the political, economic and environmental situation there, I could not help but notice that Germany has really become quite modern. Shiny new airports are connected with punctual, frequent public transport which one can use to travel everywhere. Once you get to your destination, there await pedestrian zones which invite you to stroll around or relax. Streets are clean and safe, with clearly marked bicycle and pedestrian paths.

While anti-government governors (what an oxymoron!) in the United States refuse federal money to invest in public transport, high speed trains connected to an extensive railroad network are now the norm, not the exception, in many European countries. Cars are becoming more energy-efficient thanks to government regulation, and bicycling is actively encouraged in many places: how commonplace and enjoyable it has now become to cycle on rented bikes through major European cities such as Berlin, Paris or Copenhagen!

In Germany and several other European countries, one can see the signs of governments steering their market economies towards sustainability through sensible policies and investments. Wind farms are sprouting like mushrooms in wet soil in Germany and other European countries such as Denmark and Spain thanks to governmental subsidies which stimulate private investments. Solar panels are becoming customary on rooftops thanks to laws which allow private house owners to sell their electricity back to the grid, thereby breaking the monopoly of the large energy firms.

But the starkest contrast is the overall feeling: in Europe, people are cautiously optimistic about the future because they feel that governments and enterprises have struck a sensible and sustainable path into the future. In stark contrast, doom and gloom seem to spread among American citizens because they do not see the government as a force for positive change anymore.

So my message is: do not look to the United States for guidance on how to build a sustainable future because: The future is bright – the future is Europe!


Different paths to our future

Could the contrast be any starker? Two editorials (9 Sept, “Europe needs to liberalize policies to foster growth”, “The economics of happiness”) prescribed two very different paths for our future. The first one prescribes continuing economic growth through further liberalization of trade and government rules while the second one asks us to consider for a moment where the first path is leading us to.

The first one is a typical example of economic fear mongering. Whenever economies stop growing, thousands of editorials around the world use negatively loaded words like gloom, stagnation or deterioration. But what would the end of growth really mean for prosperous nations? They would stay as rich and prosperous as before, and to be honest, most people in these countries live a pretty charmed life. And those that have bad lives do not suffer because of the absence of economic growth, but because of the unequal distribution of wealth and power and the unwillingness of the rich and powerful to share the spoils with those less fortunate through redistribution of the nation’s wealth.

These simple truths are ridiculed by armies of conservative PR people who feed us the myth of trickle-down economic growth which supposedly one day in the distant future will make us all rich. Well, the statistics just do not bear it out: while economic growth in poor countries has indeed lifted people out of grinding poverty, the economic growth in developed countries has not gone to the poor or middle classes, but has gone disproportionally to the rich and super-rich whose only concern these days seems to become mega- and hyper-rich, presumably to impress their pals when they show off their new super- and mega-yachts.

And even in many developing countries, we see rising unequal wealth distribution which has been leading to political protests around the world.

So while the myth of economic growth through trickle down economics does apparently not work even when assuming an unlimited planet, it is of course simply impossible on a limited planet!

The second editorial spells out a different path: here the emphasis is on policies for the fair distribution of the planet’s limited resources that make us not wealthier but happier by recreating “a sense of community, trust and environmental sustainability”. Such policies could be: less working hours to spend more time with family and friends (Denmark and Sweden thus created jobs and boosted their birth rates).  Ecosystems that clean our air and water instead of polluting industries. Safe, affordable public transport instead of pollution, accidents and traffic jams. An emphasis on quality of life, well-being and happiness instead of the meaningless stockpiling of cash. Such policies would lead us towards more fulfilling but also more sustainable lives.

We simply have to find a better way to all live together on a very small planet, a planet which by some incredible stroke of luck is hospitable to live. That hospitability could be destroyed easily if we push too hard – and at the moment, through exponential economic growth, we are hell-bent on pushing harder every year! In the words of the late Stephen Schneider, this is not good planetary management.

For good recent books on this topic, see The Price of Civilization and The Great Disruption, and of course CASSE (see also “As the dream of economic growth dies, a new plan awaits testing“).


Shark fin soup is a disgusting stain on Taiwanese culture

Today I realized once more that I am living in a culture which has a long way to go to develop a sustainable environmental ethic.

My wife and I were already on our way to a Taiwanese wedding when my wife told me that, because it was a traditional wedding party, they would have shark fin soup on the menu. After a few seconds thought, I told her that there was no way I could enjoy the wedding party under these circumstances, and luckily she understood that I had to go straight back home, while she would go on attending her friend’s wedding (but promised not to eat the shark fin soup).

It really is baffling, isn’t it? Most people would choke on their food if they knew their beef steaks or hamburgers came from a cow whose leg was cut off without anaesthetics and who was then left to slowly bleed to death. Well, that is exactly what happens to the sharks which are finned and then thrown back into the water. Never mind that we are also removing an amazing top predator from ocean ecosystems thereby endangering their continued existence and condemning millions of years of evolution to extinction. And never mind all the ecosystem services we get from sharks: to mention just one of them, think of the shark suits that Michael Phelps and other top swimmers wear which is a wonderful example of biomimicry. Without the sharks, we could have never invented them.

So it was very sad for me to realize that for most Taiwanese, it is still more important to “enjoy a bit of arrogant showing-off”, as Flora Faun pointed out correctly, than to protect one of the most amazing creatures of the planet from painful and reckless slaughter. The pointless and thoughtless use of animal products of endangered species, be they tigers, rhinoceroses, bears, dolphins, whales, or sharks, will forever be a stain on the conscience and history of far eastern cultures. Therefore, I can only support the call to immediately “ban the catch, sale and consumption of all shark meat and fins“.


The pursuit of environmental nonsense by the Taipei Times

In their relentless pursuit to publish letters containing environmental nonsense, the Taipei Times has struck out four times recently:

Strike 1 – 13 September 2011:

Wilful stupidity knows no bounds. Another anti-science denialist outed himself in the Taipei Times, calling human-caused global warming “an elaborate hoax” and “quack science.” Well, I have news for you, Jason Dementia. The earth is flat and the sun revolves around its flat plane! The arguments you use are as wrong as the ones used against Galileo Galilei or the less well-known Ignaz Semmelweis who used scientific methods two centuries ago to prove that hygiene improves the survival of hospital patients. Science denialists, in no short supply even then, eventually drove him out of his job and into depression.

Just as today with global warming, thousands of lives could have been saved if people had looked at the evidence (funnily enough, printed in the same issue of the Taipei Times on page 6, “Arctic melting fastest in 40 years”) instead of repeating their own personal prejudices. For almost one hundred years, Semmelweis’ was ignored and people kept dying of horrible diseases.

The annoying thing about science is that it is objective: the factual evidence does not care about political sensitivities (see also my comments below about Dan Bloom and Wendy Shin). For political reasons, global warming is opposed by those affiliated with the fossil fuels industry and therefore portrayed as some grant conspiracy by communists bent on establishing some evil world government.

The simple truth is that physics does not care about politics: the inevitable and already too apparent effects of man-made global warming will hit us all, no matter where we stand politically. Tsunamis are caused by earthquakes, and more intensive storms are caused by greenhouse gases, and both will kill you if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, no matter whether you ‘believe’ in them or not.

Just because you do not understand how science works does not mean it will not affect you, Jason Dementia. And just calling Nobel-Prize winning scientists quacks does not win the argument, no matter how often you repeat it.

Strike 2 – 25 September 2011:

It is lamentable that more and more science fiction makes it into the letters section of the Taipei Times. After the deplorable denial of the real existence of global warming in Jason Dementia’s letter (see Strike 1), we now have an environmental scare story in Dan Bloom’s recent letter. Both letters have in common that they are not based on science, but on fiction.

Neither letter made any reference to a scientific publication or a book based on scientific publications, e.g. the book ”The World in 2050” by Laurence Smith. As Professor Smith himself stated in his excellent talk yesterday, global warming is a scientific fact (the evidence also well summarized in these letters) while Dan Bloom’s assertion that we will all live in ‘desolate polar cities’ by the year 2080 evoked but a slight chuckle from Professor Smith. Dan Bloom does not cite any reputable scientific source for his assertions, and is therefore in the business of story-telling, not of developing credible future scenarios based on facts and serious scientific modelling.

Both Dementia’s and Bloom’s letters are rather based on the idea that there is a great big scientific conspiracy going on, in  Dementia’s case that the scientists proclaim a catastrophe which does not exist, and in Bloom’s case that the scientists do not proclaim a big enough catastrophe. Both are as factual as the blockbuster movie “2012.” For example, the claim that “more than 8 billion people will die” by 2100 is laughable unless Dan Bloom can back it up with any evidence.

The truth, as told by Laurence Smith and countless other reputable scientists, is somewhere in between, and it is publicly available on the websites of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Stern Report, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Energy Agency, or the countless other scientific publications cited within Professor Smith’s book. And, unlike in a conspiracy, they are accessible to anyone.

Neither Dementia nor Bloom bothered to read any of these credible sources before making their outrageous and completely unfounded claims. Why is it so hard to read up on those sources? Because it is easier to concoct up a scare story, and easier to get it printed because it makes for good headlines? Is it because ‘science’ is seen as boring and conspiracy stories as exciting?

I have no answer to these riddles, but I know that mankind would be well advised to listen to credible scientists instead of headline-grabbing conspiracy theorists. So please let discussions about the future of our planet be based on science and not on science fiction.

Strike 3 – 28 September 2011:

In his letter “An idle mind is a dirty mind,” John Fleckenstein complains –rightly – that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is condoning that motor vehicles may idle for up to three minutes before being fined. He then emphasizes that drivers should also stop idling at traffic lights, as the campaign ‘Idle-Free Taipei’  attempts to do. While I wholeheartedly support any campaign to improve the environmental situation in Taiwan, I also have to make the point that campaigns that focus on so small a change will generate “a lot of huge smiles, thumbs ups and even instances where a whole section of waiting scooter operators applauded,” but unless they are the starting point of a system change to the entire traffic system, they will not make any appreciable difference to either local air pollution or global warming.

Campaigns which focus on small things can be the starting points to tackle the large problems, but they can also just be used to make us feel good, in the vein of: “Oh, I am turning my scooter off at the traffic light, so now I can take that holiday flight to Bali.” If anybody thinks that the environment will be saved by a campaign to stop idling, they are massively deluded. Stopping idling will decrease local air pollution by about 1% and global warming by such a minuscule amount you would need an electron microscope to spot it. Small changes will just be that – small and insignificant. They may make us feel good about ourselves, but they ain’t gonna achieve anything unless they lead to something much bigger.

However, if such a campaign is the starting point for bigger changes, such as I advocated at times when the Taipei Times was still publishing reasonable letters, then such a campaign can be the seed for the big changes that we so desperately need:

– Change to a truly integrated public transport system and the exclusive use of electric cars, buses, taxis and scooters

– Change to an economy run exclusively on the three truly renewable energy resources which are solar, tidal and geothermal (e.g., letter 1, letter 2, letter 3, IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation, SciDev.Net article)

– Change to liveable cities where space is given to pedestrians, bicycles, trees, parks, sporting facilities, and public transport but not cars which are the most space-consuming and energy-inefficient way of urban transport (e.g., “How will the EU eliminate cars from cities?“)

So I challenge John Fleckenstein and all other people concerned about the future of our planet to broaden their environmental perspectives and embrace campaign goals that will truly change our future for the better and not just make us feel good about ourselves.

Strike 4 – 9 October 2011:

In her letter “Nuclear power fallout,” Wendy Shin postulates that “if a nuclear crisis is to arise, it would cause the extinction of all creatures.” While I am no fan of nuclear energy myself, hyberbolic statements such as this one or Dan Bloom’s statement above discredit the environmental movement.

Even after a full-blown nuclear war, there would probably be some creatures left on this planet to start the evolutionary cycle again, just as there were survivors after the meteorite slammed into the earth 65 million years ago, which most likely spelled the end for the dinosaurs. So even if all nuclear reactors blew up tomorrow, life would certainly continue, and there is even a chance that humans would survive in some less populated areas. Anyway, while there is always a small chance of another Chernobyl or Fukushima like disaster somewhere in the world, the likelihood of civil nuclear energy spelling the extinction of all creatures or even just the extinction of all humans is virtually equal to zero.

I wholeheartedly agree with Wendy Shin that “there is still the serious problem of what to do with radioactive waste”, which is an unacceptable burden to future generations which will receive no benefits and only costs from our short-sighted use of nuclear energy (as well as fossil fuels) and, in my opinion, remains the most important argument against the use of nuclear energy. I also agree that we need “to find affordable and workable alternative sources of energy” (see my citations above).

However, overstating the case by claiming the extinction of all creatures makes environmentalists look ridiculous and untrustworthy. Therefore, our claims about the possible consequences of different technologies should be grounded in scientifically justifiable arguments, not attention-grabbing hyperbole.

Dear Taipei Times, in baseball, it only needs three strikes to strike out. And you struck out four times already! How was that with being responsible journalists (see also “The superhuman cock-ups of Christopher Booker“)?

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