The limits of Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion flags in Bristol July 2019

Why was I absent from Bristol’s Extinction Rebellion protests last week? I’m a left leaning voter who accepts time is running out for climate change action. Last winter I spent eight days upgrading my loft insulation to reduce my gas consumption by about 10% – which is one of many actions I’ve taken to reduce my carbon output. So why did I cycle past the protest each day instead of joining in?

Although XR are doing an important job of keeping climate change in the news cycle, I believe there’s a limit to what these street protests will achieve.

Firstly while the group’s name reflects the uncomfortable truth – unchecked climate change really could bring about the extinction of our species – sounding that alarm is unlikely to influence many climate change skeptics. Humans prefer to be re-assured than alarmed and we like putting things off until the last minute. I don’t say this to make pithy observations about human nature, I say it because these tendencies are a serious issue where climate change is concerned. The fossil fuel industry have vast resources and lobbying power which consistently deliver the message that we can just carry on as we are. Their message is a perfect fit for those basic flaws in human nature.

Secondly for anyone who seeks to turn the tide, are they aware of how they are perceived by those still going with the tide? Even non-skeptics can be annoyed by the disruption. On Weds 17th July 2019 the Bristol group went outside the official planned protest and blocked the M32 motorway, causing a son to miss his father’s dying moments. Sadly this very personal tragedy will be what some remember of XRs protest. And I’ll bet some will view the protest as a bit self-indulgent, especially when their daily life is forced to detour around a yoga session on a blocked road.

And that brings up the third reason I wasn’t at XR protests. The tent covered Castle Park had a festival feel this week. And with the drumming and chanting it just wasn’t really me. Without meaning to offend any protesters, I would say it all looks a bit “knit your own yoghurt” (to quote Alexi Sayle). This is the cultural baggage that comes with XR’s street protests. No matter how inclusive they aim to be, they are mostly appealling to specific groups of people. With the rise of populism, and the ideological silos of social media, cultural identity dominates politics now, frequently forcing rational policy discussion into second place. The UK media are reinforcing this too, and the right wing newspapers contain plenty of climate change skepticism, even denial. The total circulation of The Sun, Daily Mail, Telegraph, Times and Daily Express is around 3.6 million. The left leaning Guardian and Mirror, only 0.6 million. Were there any Daily Mail readers at XR’s protests? Precious few I would guess. And how many more viewed XR’s protest as the unwelcome actions of people they have little in common with, which means their message can be safely ignored?

The Extinction Rebellion banners say ‘System change not climate change’ which sounds radical. But XR have no specific policy solutions to achieve the seemingly impossible task of removing fossil fuels from the world economy. They are right that humanity must stop measuring success purely in GDP terms, which is at record levels while poverty continues and we torch the planet’s dwindling resources. But this obvious insanity has not led to a surge in support for the left. Frustration with an economic system that primarily serves the already wealthy has led to Brexit and right-wing populists like Trump.

Don’t get me wrong. Extinction Rebellion should continue to protest and keep climate change in the headlines. But to get lasting and meaningful change, policies with cross-party appeal are essential, and I believe the only cross-party policy that has a chance of implementation is some form of carbon dividend. The dividend calls for widespread carbon taxation, but unlike other taxes all the income is divided equally among the citizenry, instead of going into government coffers (I discuss the pros and cons in this post. The dividend appears both in the UK Green Party policy statement and is the key aim of heavily Republican/Libertarian US group The Climate Leadership Council. Our politicians are thinking in 5 year election cycles and we are running out of time to win over enough climate skeptics. Surely the Green Party should be heavily promoting the carbon dividend because ideologically it works for the small government right as much as it fits the left’s primary purpose of making society more equitable?

The environmental left must also harness the consumer desire for the latest technology. Tesla have single-handedly changed the perception of zero emission electric cars, which sell as much for their high comfort level, in-car technology and low running costs as they do for their contribution to air quality and low carbon. Electric cars and aircraft and electric planes are quieter, more comfortable, versatile and more efficient. With cost, range and charging speed improving, electric transport is better all round.

I’m not saying electric cars will save the planet – all cars consume resources. But there is no sign people are tiring of consumerism or switching to public transport quickly enough to significantly reduce energy demand. Those resources must become low carbon as soon as possible, and promoting quality of life improvements in a post fossil fuel world is the carrot that is needed to persuade skeptics that ending the oil age is a positive thing. And that is needed every bit as much as environmentalists, scientists and grass roots groups like XR continuing to ring the climate alarm bell.

When is a tax not a tax? When it’s a carbon dividend

Oil extraction

Expect to hear more about carbon dividends in the next few years. The latest IPCC report and the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events this year in particular, is perhaps finally focusing minds across party lines on ways to make carbon taxes politically acceptable.

Scientists and economists have long advocated carbon taxes as the most effective way to remove carbon from the world economy. While left of centre Europeans like me want increased funding for public services, history shows it’s an uphill task selling the tax increases needed to pay for them, even when voters say they want better schools, hospitals or more police on the street. Taxing carbon may be vital but people rarely vote for new taxes. With climate change the real cost is in the future, and it’s too easy for voters and politicians to think short term and let future generations pay, with the cost of inaction rising all the time.

In different forms, the carbon dividend has long been popular with environmentalists, and the dividend is now gaining traction with Republicans and Libertarians. This appeal across the ideological spectrum means a dividend may be the only way to get carbon taxes implemented – and perhaps more importantly, keep them in place through successive changes of government. Continue reading…

How to build a green roofed garden store

Since I laid out my slate patio a few years back I’ve used it less than expected. I realised lack of storage was one reason for this. Along with the inevitable broken flower pots and recycling bins, the odd bag of rubble or scrap of wood temporarily parked until the next recycling centre trip was giving my back garden a builder’s yard vibe!

Instead of storing my rubbish in an ugly plastic box, I built my own green roofed garden store. I chose Sedum turf instead of wildflower because although both encourage pollinating insects, as Sedums are semi-evergreen they give you something to look at through the winter as well as summer. Continue reading…

Climate change, anxieties and actions

Oil refining
Image courtesy of NASA

This summer’s heatwave through Europe and Asia was one of many extraordinary weather events, which along with forest fires, storms and flash floods, are becoming less extraordinary every year. Scientists are not claiming direct cause and effect for individual weather events, rather there is a very simple principle at work – CO2 and Methane put more energy into our weather systems. The more energy goes in, the more energy comes out, with greater frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.

The IPCC October 2018 report and the ‘hothouse earth’ report that rounded off the summer both re-state that climate change may become irreversible, but with the worrying twist that the tipping point may be closer than previously thought. There are more frequent warnings that we really could leave Earth permanently damaged for our species, perhaps within a few generations.

Such headlines grab the attention for a time because our hunter-gatherer brains are hardwired to monitor for immediate threats. However as the solution requires action outside of our control, what remains is often a sense of powerlessness.

Those of us who grew up in the shadow of the nuclear arms race lived with a similar sense of anxiety and powerlessness. Every childhood from the 1950s to the 1980s came with the realisation that the complete destruction of everything you love is an ever present man-made threat. The adult world is dominated by a love of abstract concepts – political ideology then, short term profit now – which become more important than life on this planet.

Yet, despite our species many flaws, we have to focus on the positives and believe our species has a strong enough instinct for self preservation to avoid complete catastrophe.
Continue reading…

Is subjective experience the answer to the consciousness problem?

traditional view of humans at top of species pyramid

Humans are considered the only truly conscious animals, because we are not just reacting to our environment but we do so through a rich complex inner world. However I think this complicated, self aware, highly subjective experience is just one type of intelligent awareness. In fact as I will argue here, there are even parallels between our subjective experience and a legacy computer system.

Most people would agree our species sits at the top of the evolutionary tree, the apex of the pyramid perhaps, because we have the most complete, even enlightened awareness in the animal kingdom. Analytic thinking, self awareness, subjective experience and so on, were long thought to be uniquely human traits, which makes their appearance in just one species an ever greater mystery.
Continue reading…

Why do people catch a yawn?

seal pup having a nap

No, don’t yawn. You’ll set me off…..

As infectious yawning is only found in apes and humans, the unanswered question of why we do it keeps drawing in the research dollars. Consensus seems to be settling on contagious yawning as a form of social bonding. But I wonder if our hunter-gatherer ancestry means there’s more to it than a symbol of simple social cohesion, unrelated to sleep?
Continue reading…

Two non-problems of modern philosophy

There are two questions in modern philosophy, which I believe are largely created by a failure to compensate for the nature of human perception.

beach ball and shadow image

The (non) hard problem of consciousness

Philosophers like Daniel Dennet who treat this a non-problem, believe the question will eventually be resolved by more research into the brain itself. I have a slightly different take. I believe by asking this basic question about subjective experience; ‘how does seeing the color blue create the sensation of blue?’ David Chalmers is really asking (in a metaphysical not neurological sense) where do sensations of the external world finally end up?
Continue reading…

Video release

After some months of work, I’ve boiled down the content of three previous blog posts on the measurement problem and consciousness into a 28 minute video.

(or on Vimeo

The video and blog posts came about because modern science still treats the existence of consciousness in a world made only of atoms and energy as unexplained, even mysterious. Some 25 years after first hearing about the measurement problem, I’ve still not come across a credible account of these things using a scientific or materialist panpsychism. Possibly the word itself is the root of the problem – it just sounds as if Ouija boards must be involved! Advocates of philosophies like panpsychism do sometimes promote unproven ideas, like telepathy or astrology, which may undermine otherwise valid arguments for the scientific community.

However if you properly examine our concept of consciousness in the light of recent scientific research, Continue reading…

BioDiesel. The Good, the Bad, and the Chippy

I do around 2000 miles per year by car. To further reduce carbon emissions and air pollution I’ve been filling up my Golf Tdi mk4 with recycled food oil biodiesel. Crops grown for Biofuels compete with food production for land and water. However recycling food oil into fuel should not be dismissed as it reduces carbon and generally burns more cleanly than standard mineral diesel.

biodiesel tanks on a farm
In use I’ve found no loss of power and the engine runs as smoothly as before, if not slightly better. Because biodiesel contains more Oxygen and cleans deposits from your fuel system, it’s recommended to change the fuel filter after the first 1000 miles. My 2002 Golf Tdi is well suited to running 100% biodiesel. Continue reading…

Frequent fails of barefoot shoes

What’s a long distance to run? 10,000 metres? A marathon? A 100 mile ultra-marathon in mountainous terrain, barely stopping through day and night for 20 hours?

barefoot on leaves

There is a growing understanding that the human body evolved to run for several hours and cover tens of miles daily. Over long distances humans are the fastest animal on the planet because we lose heat efficiently, making us the supreme ‘persistence’ hunters, and our ancestors pursued our prey to collapse for an easy kill. Humans have only made tools for around 200,000 years, so for the first 1.8 million years of human evolution, the ability to run long distances was a probably a key factor preventing our extinction – before large brains and the ability to change our surroundings really gave us the evolutionary leg-up.

Long distances used to be shorter

In 1972 my father watched an athletics event in Edinburgh, where a mix of Olympic hopefuls and lower ranked amateurs were competing. In the 10k the slower runners came in long after the podium places had been decided, but everybody stayed and cheered the stragglers home, feeling that anyone finishing a 10,000m run was achieving something special.

At this time distance running was to the general population a bit eccentric and unnatural. It was the same for many scientists, Continue reading…

10 WordPress plugins for a writer’s blog

WordPress is an excellent tool for getting your writing online, but as a web programmer I know that it lacks some important features ‘out of the box’. When I set up this site I immediately added ten free WordPress plugins to get the basic functionality all good websites need.

Here is my list of ten essential WordPress plugins for any writer’s blog, which I’ve divided into three groups; QA, Extra functionality, Security and utilities. Continue reading “10 WordPress plugins for a writer’s blog”

The consciousness gap and physicalism reloaded

japanese style wave patternHow real is your existence? Is your world constantly re-inventing itself around you? Or is human life no more mysterious than an actor playing a part on a lifeless stage set? Science is well equipped to account for all the matter and energy around us, from the the Big Bang onwards. Yet the most important tool in understanding our world, consciousness itself, is so subjective and potentially unscientific we struggle to account for it. As a consequence science lacks an account of how conscious beings, humans and other animals, can be composed of nothing more than the atoms that compose the unconscious inanimate world that surround us. It follows on from David Chalmer’s idea of the hard problem of consciousness, and I am calling it the “consciousness gap”.

In common with most scientists, I believe our consciousness is a direct product of matter and energy and cannot exist without them. As an atheist I agree our existence and behaviours can be largely explained by evolution, mathematical biology, chaos theory etc, all without reference to supernatural forces or an intelligent creator. Physicalism, materialism and naturalism give us the best explanation of our world to date and largely do so without mythologising human existence.

Yet science cannot bridge that consciousness gap in a way that is useful to our hunter-gatherer brains without some account of how living consciousness comes into being. Continue reading…