Guest Blog by Phil Gallagher: Going Solar 2

This week, we have a follow-up guest post from my friend Phil Gallagher updating us on his “going solar” journey.

It’s been about seven months since I reported on the solar panels we installed last April 15; time for an update. Last July I noted that we received our first invoice from Con Edison: we were paying about $21 for delivery of electricity and $0.00 for electricity itself. Since we spent 110 days at our Maine hide-away between mid-June and early October, that first Con Edison bill didn’t really tell us much—we weren’t using their electricity because we weren’t here in Brooklyn.

We’ve been home in Brooklyn for a little over 5 months so we’re back to using Con Ed’s electricity once the sun goes down and on very cloudy days. As Con Ed’s invoice and net metering report for the period from December 5, 2022 to January 5, 2023 shows, we used more energy from the grid than in brighter months with longer days; during the winter we’ve been largely drawing on what was generated and ‘banked’ in the 110 days when we weren’t here. Bottom line: our monthly Con Ed payment is still less than $21.

In analyzing the net value of our solar panel installation there are a number of factors to consider; I’ll mention just two of the most important. Starting in late November and continuing to the present (March 10, 2023), we’re using 30% less natural gas from National Grid to heat the house. This is partially due to the fact that we’ve been using our LG mini-split system to heat individual rooms.  Since the outside temperature has gotten into the low 40s and 30s we’ve been using our gas-driven circulating hot-water heating system for only 30 minutes most mornings to warm the house; we’re using our electricity-driven mini-split system to keep specific rooms at 72 degrees throughout the day. We have mini-split units in 4 rooms; each can be controlled separately, enabling the heating of the kitchen or the living room or my wife’s office or the master bedroom without heating rooms that are unoccupied. Another factor keeping energy use less than in previous years has been the weather: this has been a warm winter so far. To fully analyze our savings in energy costs we’d have to have data from a number of years.

By late spring I hope to have additional data from both electric and gas bills.  Another type of data may also be available: the money we’re getting back from federal, state, and NYC tax incentives.  We’ll see our tax accountant soon. By early June there should be more data on which to judge the overall results of our solar panel installation.  Until then this report can only be considered a report in progress, but it’s encouraging. As for the future, I can announce that we are retiring our ‘restaurant’ gas stove (a Garland) which we’ve had for about 40 years and have ordered a fully electric LG induction range which we should receive by early April. Stay tuned.

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Population Decline: Remedies

Starting on February 28th of this year, I’ve posted a series of blogs mentioning proposed remedies to the local implications of the global population’s declining trend and consequential societal aging. These include seppuku (voluntary suicide of the old) suggested by a Yale, Japanese-born professor (February 28th) as well as some more “practical” approaches in Japan:

In 2020, Japan’s health ministry launched eight “living labs” dedicated to developing nursing-care robots. Yet in a way, the entire country is one big living lab grappling with the repercussions of a rapidly aging society. In business, academia, and communities around Japan, countless experiments are under way, all aiming to keep the old healthy for as long as possible while easing the burden of caring for society’s frailest.

Also on the books are a modest increase in retirement age in France and various experiments in Russia to use payments to encourage families to have children (March 7th blog). While these are state-led measures, other approaches are more individualistic. For instance, a more recent trend in Russia, directly connected to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is the increase in “baby tourism”:

These are just some of the Russian women who posted on popular forums for “baby tourism” – a phenomenon that has been growing since the Kremlin launched an invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Since then, authorities say thousands of young Russians have flown to South America, Argentina in particular, where they don’t need a visa to enter the country, and where their babies are guaranteed a less restrictive foreign passport.

The Moscow-Buenos Aires route is also an easier way for the mothers to acquire local nationality. But now officials are concerned about the sheer scale of the problem after one Ethiopian Airlines flight landed in February with 33 pregnant Russian women on board.

A Euronews investigation has uncovered the network of Russian travel agencies and support services that charge up to $35,000 (€32,840) to pregnant Russian women and make false promises that lawyers say are tantamount to criminal activity.

On the other end of the life cycle, recent trends in China suggest attempts by certain segments of the population to make money on what they consider to be unavoidable trends resulting from the aging process (Analysis: As China ages, investors bet they can beat retirement home stigma):

HONG KONG/SHANGHAI, March 3 (Reuters) – Investors are betting big on a major attitude shift among elderly Chinese – that they will warm up to retirement homes as the world’s most populous country ages and smaller families struggle to support parents and grandparents.

Who takes care of the elderly in China, where pensions are tiny, is one of the major headaches policymakers face as they deal with the first demographic downturn since Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.

Costly nursing homes are out of reach for most elderly and are generally frowned upon, with many judging the use of such facilities as a sign children are not fulfilling their duties.

But the hope of companies investing in the sector in China is that those attitudes will change soon, and fast – at least among the small percentage of elderly who got rich before they got old. China’s 1980 to 2015 one-child policy means smaller families are expected to support the old folk, some of whom would have no choice but to seek professional elderly care, investors say.

In the US, frightening and unlawful trends are being exposed of companies relying on populating the labor force with unaccompanied migrant child workers:

These workers are part of a new economy of exploitation: Migrant children, who have been coming into the United States without their parents in record numbers, are ending up in some of the most punishing jobs in the country, a New York Times investigation found. This shadow work force extends across industries in every state, flouting child labor laws that have been in place for nearly a century. Twelve-year-old roofers in Florida and Tennessee. Underage slaughterhouse workers in Delaware, Mississippi and North Carolina. Children sawing planks of wood on overnight shifts in South Dakota.

Largely from Central America, the children are driven by economic desperation that was worsened by the pandemic. This labor force has been slowly growing for almost a decade, but it has exploded since 2021, while the systems meant to protect children have broken down.

This brings us to the issue of immigration.

Figure 1 in last week’s blog showed that now, while there is a global trend of population decrease, the slow-down of population growth and the aging of the population are much more pronounced in developed, rich countries, than in developing ones. This dynamic opens the door for increased immigration from developing countries to developed ones. As shown in Figure 1 below, this trend is being quantified through increases in foreign-born residents in rich countries compared to developing countries. The situation in Russia in Figure 1 is a bit misleading, however, because it presumably contains many people who were born in the Soviet Union and became “foreign-born” after the USSR’s break-up in 1990.

Figure 1 – Percent of immigrants throughout the world (2017)
(Source: Pew Research Center)

The number of foreign-born occupants shown in Figure 1 integrates over the lifetime of the immigrants. These numbers apply to anyone born elsewhere, regardless of how long they’ve lived in their current country. Figure 2, on the other hand, shows recent trends of integration, counting only those who moved over the last five years as separate; native-born and six-year immigrants are grouped together. The two show similar trends, with some noticeable differences (Saudi Arabia, the US, Canada, etc.).

Figure 2 – Global migration (Source: Statista)

Statista, the same reference from which I took Figure 2, summarizes the recent immigration situation in the following way:

This map provides an overview of the migration trends in the world. It shows the annual net migration (arrivals minus departures) of all countries and territories, relative to their population size. Between 2017 and 2021, the regions of the world that lost the largest share of people via emigration were the Marshall Islands and American Samoa in the Pacific Ocean, followed by Lebanon and Venezuela. During this period, these four territories, some of which are experiencing severe economic hardship, experienced an average net loss of 28 to 42 inhabitants per 1,000 people per year.

In contrast, the regions that attracted the most migrants relative to their population size were the New Zealand-administered Tokelau Archipelago, the Caribbean tax haven of the Turks and Caicos Islands and, in Europe, Malta. For these three places, the average annual net migration was between 22 and 45 additional persons per 1,000 inhabitants.

The site quotes 281 million international immigrants in 2020 (3.6% of the global population). The immigration issue is complicated. Put the word “immigration” into the search box above and you will get many blog posts. However, the unfortunate reality is that globally the immigration process has become highly politicized. It’s transformed some democratic countries into “illiberal” ones where bigots float “replacement” concepts that claim immigrants leave their countries to “replace” richer native-born citizens. For a long time, immigration policies were tailored to attract young professionals that were in shortage in the target country. Canada often serves as an example of a more holistic immigration policy:

In recent years, Canada has become an even more attractive destination for immigrants after policies enacted under U.S. President Donald Trump severely restricted access to the United States. Yet, Canada is also experiencing a labor shortage exacerbated by a dearth of skilled workers. Its immigration system faces an array of other challenges as well, including a surge in asylum claims, rising deportations, and labor abuses against temporary-visa holders.

I will return to these issues often in future blogs.

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Population Decline: Impacts

Last week’s blog focused on the dynamics of global population changes, which are determined by the balance of births and deaths. The global population is still growing because births are still outpacing deaths but the near-term (one-generation) trends predict a coming reversal when the global population will reach a maximum beyond which it will start to shrink. An important impact of these changes is the global increase in median age: the world is aging. However, the timing of these global trends is not universal. Figure 1 shows the present distribution of older people (>65) in 2015 with its projections in the near future (2050).

Figure 1 – Percentage of elderly by country (Source: US Census)

An aging, shrinking world requires overcoming shrinking economic activity that often scales with population and increase in social spending. The OECD list of social spending by (mostly) developed countries is shown in Figure 2. It is a substantial fraction of these countries’ GDP. That fraction increases with the aging of the population.

Below is a list of three major countries that are experiencing these trends and some steps that they are trying to take to mitigate the situation. I will expand the list in next week’s blog, where I will put the emphasis on immigration:

France

Figure 1 shows that France is not in the worst position in terms of the aging of its population, but Figure 2 shows that it is at the top of the list in terms of social spending. Figure 3 shows that it has one of the lowest retirement ages in Europe (Ukraine and Russia have traditionally had lower retirement ages but we have yet to see how these will change after the war). Yet, the French government is now proposing to remedy this situation by raising the retirement age from 62 to 64. Major demonstrations are now taking place to block this “major” adjustment:

PARIS, Feb 7 [2023] (Reuters) – Public transport, schools and refinery supplies in France were disrupted on Tuesday as trade unions led a third wave of nationwide strikes against President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to make the French work longer before retirement.

Tuesday’s multi-sector walkouts come a day after pension reform legislation began its bumpy passage through parliament and are a test of Macron’s ability to enact change without a working majority in the National Assembly.

The government says people must work two years longer – meaning for most until the age of 64 – in order to keep the budget of one of the industrial world’s most generous pension systems in the black.

The French spend the largest number of years in retirement among OECD countries – a deeply cherished benefit that a substantial majority are reluctant to give up, polls show.

The French love to demonstrate; we will see how this will play out.

Figure 2 – Social spending by country (source: Statista via World Economic Forum)

Figure 3 – Retirement age by country (Source: Royal Maps via Maps on the Web)

South Korea

South Korea is among the record holders, in terms of both shrinking and aging population:

South Korea’s statistics agency announced in September that the total fertility rate — the average number of babies born to each woman in their reproductive years — was 0.81 last year. That’s the world’s lowest for the third consecutive year.

The population shrank for the first time in 2021, stoking worry that a declining population could severely damage the economy — the world’s 10th largest — because of labor shortages and greater welfare spending as the number of older people increases and the number of taxpayers shrinks.

Many young South Koreans say that, unlike their parents and grandparents, they don’t feel an obligation to have a family. They cite the uncertainty of a bleak job market, expensive housing, gender and social inequality, low levels of social mobility and the huge expense of raising children in a brutally competitive society. Women also complain of a persistent patriarchal culture that forces them to do much of the childcare while enduring discrimination at work.

Russia

Russia is now at the center of the news because of its invasion of Ukraine but its decline in its population started way before that:

Crippling disruptions from the war are converging with a population crisis rooted in the 1990s, a period of economic hardship after the Soviet breakup that sent fertility rates plunging. Independent demographer Alexei Raksha is calling it “a perfect storm.”

As mentioned above, the decline in the Russian population started with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990. The government started experimenting with various payments to encourage families to have children, and has continued the policy. More recent promises came out to a few thousand dollars. President Putin came to power in 2000. I traveled to Russia in 2006. Part of the itinerary was to take a river cruise from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Many of our guides on the cruise were young Russian ladies. I asked some of them if the incentives offered by the president would encourage them to have children. They laughed and said that if President Putin promised them an apartment, they would start a conversation.

In next week’s blog, I will discuss a new angle on this topic that has emerged since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

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Population Decline – Background

Figure 1 (Source: World Economic Forum)

While I was busy over the last few blogs talking about living and dying in the Anthropocene, a few major changes in the demography of the planet took place. These changes drove me to return to these issues, to try to analyze their consequences and impacts.

In a guest blog about 9 years ago, Jim Foreit, a noted professional demographer, addressed important demographic global developments that were in focus at that time (January 14, 2014). I wrote a thank-you comment to his blog that is probably still the longest comment of the 11 years that this blog has been running. A few key lines from my response are repeated below:

“The nature of exponential growth or decline are such that left unchecked they will lead to disasters. As Jim’s blog made clear, we have yet to develop some understanding how to stabilize populations on any level. The UN fiat of stabilizing the population at replacement rate without suggesting what policies have a chance of accomplishing it, is untenable.”

Nine years later, in November 2022, probably the most important marker in global population took place when the global population passed the 8 billion mark (it was 2 billion when I was born)

Another important marker that took place in the last few months is that China lost its “crown” of being the most populous country in the world, to India:

They are among hundreds of thousands of Chinese couples who turn to assisted reproductive technology every year after exhausting other options to get pregnant. They travel from all corners of the country to big cities like Beijing in the hopes of beating the odds of infertility. Many wait in long lines outside hospitals before sunrise, just for the possibility of a consultation.

Now, the Chinese government wants to make the technology [IVF], which it made legal in 2001, more accessible. It has promised to cover some of the cost — typically several thousand dollars for each round — under national medical insurance. It is one of more than a dozen policy measures that Chinese officials are throwing at what they see as a very big problem — a fertility rate so low that China’s population has started to shrink.

However, there is only one mechanism for the global population to change – changing the balance between births and deaths.

Figure 2 (Source: World Bank)

Figure 2 shows that almost all over the world, births still exceed deaths. In Europe and Central Asia (I’m not sure what exactly is included in that category), the two dynamics have trended toward each other. The world population is still growing. However, in almost all the regions, the decrease in deaths is much slower than the decrease in births. Figure 1 shows the reason: fertility rates are decreasing almost everywhere, while the death rate is staying at a more constant rate (Figure 3).

Figure 3 (Source: Our World in Data)

Figure 4 (Source: Statista)

Figures 3 and 4 both illustrate the trend. Figure 3 shows the convergence of global life expectancy with age and Figure 4 shows the steady increase in the global median age. As these data show, globally, birth rates still exceed death rates but both trends show that in a few years, the death rate will surpass birth rates and the global population will start to shrink. Figure 4 also shows that the population is aging significantly, with the median age doubling from 1970, almost coinciding with the start of the Anthropocene. What are the consequences of these shifts and are we prepared to face them? Below are two paragraphs from a report that the UN wrote about the transition:

“Population ageing is a defining global trend of our time,” the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs writes in its World Social Report 2023, calling it a “major success story” that brings both challenges and opportunities. One of the main challenges for countries with ageing populations is to ensure that the economy can support the consumption needs of a growing number of older people, be it by raising the legal retirement age, removing barriers to voluntary labor force participation of older people or by ensuring equitable access to education, health care and working opportunities throughout the lifespan, which can help to boost economic security at older ages.

Especially countries in the early stages of the demographic shift have the opportunity to plan ahead and implement the right measures ahead of time, to effectively manage the challenges that come with an ageing population.

Japan has one of the world’s lowest fertility rates (1.37). Here is what a recent National Geographic article said about the situation there:

Japan’s path foreshadows what’s coming in many areas of the world. China, South Korea, Italy, and Germany are on a similar trajectory; so too is the United States, although at a slower pace. Five years ago, the world reached an ominous milestone: For the first time in history, adults 65 and older outnumbered children under five years old.

If Japan is any guide, aging will change the fabric of society in ways both obvious and subtle. It will run up a huge tab that governments will struggle to pay. Meeting the challenge won’t be easy, but the future isn’t necessarily all downhill. Japan’s experience, with its characteristic attention to detail and design, suggests extreme aging—a world in which an increasing share of the population is old—may inspire an era of innovation.

In 2020, Japan’s health ministry launched eight “living labs” dedicated to developing nursing-care robots. Yet in a way, the entire country is one big living lab grappling with the repercussions of a rapidly aging society. In business, academia, and communities around Japan, countless experiments are under way, all aiming to keep the old healthy for as long as possible while easing the burden of caring for society’s frailest.

Here is how one Yale Professor (Born in Japan and educated at MIT) suggested dealing with the Japanese aging issue:

In interviews and public appearances, Yusuke Narita, an assistant professor of economics at Yale, has taken on the question of how to deal with the burdens of Japan’s rapidly aging society.

“I feel like the only solution is pretty clear,” he said during one online news program in late 2021. “In the end, isn’t it mass suicide and mass ‘seppuku’ of the elderly?” Seppuku is an act of ritual disembowelment that was a code among dishonored samurai in the 19th century.

Since Japan is an early indication of what is awaiting all of us, we should hope that we can find a better alternative that lets us learn to live in a declining, aging world population. I’ve said that climate change amounts to self-inflicted genocide but that doesn’t mean I endorse mass suicide. The next few blogs will focus on symptoms of population changes, more realistic remedies, and scaling (different rates of decline in different places).

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Back to Educating in the Anthropocene

(Source: The Lancet)

The original caption of this figure reads “The Planetary Health Education Framework.” However, it is similar to the Venn diagram that I discussed in a previous blog (August 4, 2020), which includes climate change, equity, Covid-19, population, and jobs.

Previous series of blogs on the topic of this blog include some of the following (February 25 – March 25, 2013 and May 24June 14, 2016). Additionally, 5 blogs, starting on July 19, 2022 and ending on October 4, 2022 (with some interruptions) have titles that include “Campus as Lab.” This topic is obviously close to my heart and is big enough to withstand frequent revisits. I often mention the need to expand our educational programs in interdisciplinary topics. For reasons that I have mentioned in previous blogs, my involvement with attempts to apply this idea within my school has often gotten me into direct confrontation with campus politics. In many cases, departments view such expansion as competition for resources.

In this blog, I would like to focus on alternatives to interdisciplinary education that do not directly compete with the departmental underpinning of campus structure. All the examples in this blog will come from the school that I am most familiar with, the City University of New York (CUNY). CUNY is a multi-campus consortia institution that I’ve described earlier (September 20, 2022 or just put CUNY into the search box). CUNY’s sustainability efforts were also described earlier.

Like most other academic institutions, the faculty is responsible for all academic matters (The quote below comes from the AAUP, which stands for “American Association of University Professors”):

The faculty has primary responsibility for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process.4 On these matters the power of review or final decision lodged in the governing board or delegated by it to the president should be exercised adversely only in exceptional circumstances, and for reasons communicated to the faculty. It is desirable that the faculty should, following such communication, have opportunity for further consideration and further transmittal of its views to the president or board. Budgets, personnel limitations, the time element, and the policies of other groups, bodies, and agencies having jurisdiction over the institution may set limits to realization of faculty advice.

As the quote emphasizes, the academic responsibility of faculty comes with an important caveat: the administration is responsible for the budget. Since everything that can be done depends on the availability of budget support, this policy negates the exclusivity of faculty in decisions on academic affairs. It also negates the administration’s ability to implement academic decisions that the faculty opposes.

As I have mentioned at many previous opportunities, the Anthropocene describes the major changes that the world is now experiencing. Many of us think that academic institutions should be at the forefront of preparing students to function effectively through these changes. This realization is not yet embedded in the political reality of most countries, though. Below is a commentary from The New York Times about this moment and what the President of the United States did or did not say in the recent State of the Union:

In his State of the Union address, Biden offered no ambitious plans to fix America’s ailing schools. The Republican Party can’t utter a complete sentence on the subject of school reform that doesn’t contain the initials C.R.T. (Critical Race Theory). What we’re seeing here is a complete absence of leadership — even in the midst of a crisis that will literally bend the arc of American history.

This moment of disruption should be a moment of reinvention. It should be a moment when leaders rise-up and say: Let’s get beyond stale debates over charters, vouchers, gender neutral bathrooms and the like. We’re going to rethink the nuts and bolts of how we teach in America.

The consortia structure of CUNY makes it convenient to pioneer changes within the school that reflect the real changes around us. The multi-campus structure enables us to experiment with the impacts of individual changes on a trial basis before instituting any mandates for change throughout the whole university. CUNY is a public university, and like all public institutions, it has to follow the policies of its governing bodies and at the same time lead the academic changes that are in force all around us. It can do this only in a cost-effective way that is consistent with the budgetary priorities of its governing institutions.

One effective way to accomplish these changes in a cost-effective way is to cooperate with the community that surrounds us; that includes the business community:

University-business cooperation has risen to one of the top priorities for many higher education institutions, with its importance mirroring attention from scholars and policy makers worldwide. Despite prolific research in this area, however, few have investigated curriculum-related university-business cooperation or its facilitators. Hence, this study investigates five mechanisms as drivers of business engagement in the design and delivery of the curriculum and the alignment of the curriculum with business needs. Results of a European-wide survey of higher education institution managers show the positive impact of senior management engagement, alumni networks and external communication of university-business cooperation, particularly on business engagement in curriculum design and the curriculum meeting industry needs. The higher education institution’s dedication of resources emerged as irrelevant in this context. The conceptual model is validated across higher education institutions with different levels of curriculum-related cooperation with business and across three countries, leading to implications for management and future research directions.

Below are two examples from my environment that are presently in force:

1.    Joint programs between STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), Social, and Business

Below is an example of the degree programs of our (Brooklyn College) Department of Business and other departments:

The department has pioneered several multidisciplinary programs with other departments within the college. Business students may pursue a program in earth and environmental sciencesfilmphilosophy, or Puerto Rican and Latino studiesModern language majors in French, Italian, Russian, and Spanish may take a joint program in language and business. In conjunction with the Department of Computer and Information Science, the Department of Business Management also offers a Bachelor of Science in information systems. The department works closely with the Brooklyn College Magner Career Center to provide students with internships, identify job opportunities, and prepare students for their job search.

  1. School Programs that mutually serve students and communities:

I will mention here two successful programs that enjoy community support:

The Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay (SRIJB):

The Institute is a partnership among the National Park Service, the City of New York, and the City University of New York (CUNY) acting on behalf of a Consortium of seven other research institutions: Columbia University, Cornell University, Rutgers University, Stony Brook University, New York Sea Grant, Stevens Institute of Technology, and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Our mission is to produce integrated knowledge that increases biodiversity, well-being, and adaptive capacity in coastal communities and waters surrounding Jamaica Bay and New York City.

The Institute is hosted and supported by Brooklyn College working closely with other CUNY colleges.

The Aquatic Research and Environmental Assessment Center (AREAC)
Below is an example of student activities in this program:

A few months ago, a student walked into AREAC and announced his desire to elevate his interest in vermiculture into a full-fledged research project. Self-motivated students are always welcome in AREAC, and Jorge will be conducting growth rate experiments on Tilapia using Red Wiggler worms to supplement their diet. This is an effective means to recycle food waste and turn it back into food production, and the use of worms as a diet supplement in urban aquaponics systems has already been demonstrated. Jorge hopes to calculate the nutrient and carbon recapture from this practice.

This will be the last blog in my attempts to analyze the needed societal changes to the emerging Anthropocene. Many more examples are at stake here (one suggested in the opening picture is the global healthcare aspect). I will return to this coverage once we have some progress in the formal labeling of our new epoch.

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Dying in the Anthropocene: A Global Perspective

Figure 1 – Terracotta Soldiers in Xi’an

Figure 2 – Petra (Source: Britannica)

Last week’s blog focused on the finite availability of burial land and the unfulfilled wish of many of us to leave behind our stories without crowding the planet with even more stone memorials. Most of last week’s blog focused on the practices of the rich world. That blog ended with the promise that this blog would expand the coverage to include many more practices, with a particular emphasis on the global distinctions between cremation and burial. Below is a Wikipedia summary of global cremation rates:

This article is a list of countries by cremation rate. Cremation rates vary widely across the world.[2] As of 2019, international statistics report that countries with large Buddhist populations like Bhutan, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Japan, Myanmar, Nepal, Tibet, Sri Lanka, South Korea, and Thailand have a cremation rate ranging from 80% to 99%,[2] while Roman Catholic majority-countries like Italy, France, Ireland, Latvia, Poland, Spain, and Portugal report much lower rates.[2] Factors include both culture and religion; for example, the cremation rate in MuslimEastern OrthodoxOriental Orthodox, and Roman Catholic majority-countries is much lower due to religious sanctions on the practice of cremation, whereas for HinduJain, and Buddhist majority-countries the cremation rate is much higher.[2] However, economic factors such as cemetery fees, prices on coffins and funerals greatly impel towards the choice of cremation.

However, burial practices are as old as civilization. Two of the most famous ones, still among the most active tourist attractions, are shown in Figures 1 and 2. I took Figure 1 during a visit to China in 2015, and Figure 2 comes from a Britannica entry. Below are two short descriptions of the Terracotta Soldiers in Xi’an. The travel guide includes a more general description of burying practices in China.

Wikipedia:

The Terracotta Army is a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. It is a form of funerary art buried with the emperor in 210–209 BCE with the purpose of protecting the emperor in his afterlife.

The figures, dating from approximately the late third century BCE,[1] were discovered in 1974 by local farmers in Lintong County, outside Xi’anShaanxi, China.

China Highlights:

Since ancient times (roughly from the Shang Dynasty, lasting from 1,556 B.C. to 1,046 B.C.), Chinese people believed that the souls of the dead lived in another world: the nether world and graves were their earthly residences. Death of course brings boundless grief to the living, but the living have traditionally held grand, even extravagant funerals to see off the dead. Today, funerals are much more simple and economical.

Besides the grand funeral, people would bury some funeral objects for the dead, such as gold, silver, bronze wares, pottery, and other precious things. That’s why China has so many historical relics hidden underground and why grave robbery has been so prosperous in Chinese history.

Take the mausoleum of Emperor Qin, the largest underground mausoleum in the world for example. The mausoleum covers an area of 56 square kilometers. Up to now, more than 50,000 historical relics have been unearthed at the mausoleum. Among these historical relics, the Terracotta Warriors are the most famous ones. The site is about 2 kilometers from Emperor Qin’s Mausoleum, and they were created as the guards of Emperor Qin’s Mausoleum.

Next, we have a short Wikipedia description of the royal tombs in Petra.

The Royal Tombs of Petra embody the unique artistry of the Nabateans while also giving display to Hellenistic architecture, but the façades of these tombs have worn due to natural decay. One of these tombs, the Palace Tomb, is speculated to be the tomb for the kings of Petra. The Corinthian Tomb, which is right next to the Palace Tomb, has the same Hellenistic architecture featured on the Treasury. The two other Royal Tombs are the Silk Tomb and the Urn Tomb; the Silk Tomb does not stand out as much as the Urn Tomb. The Urn Tomb features a large yard in its front, and was turned into a church after the expansion of Christianity in 446 AD.[31]

As I’ve mentioned before, cost is also an important consideration when deciding the mode what to do with the bodies of the dead:

  • Research reveals Japan is most costly place to die sat at over two thirds the average salary

  • The average cost of dying across the world is around 10% of your annual salary

  • China is second most expensive place to die, with nearly 50% of salary

New research from SunLife, the over 50’s life insurance provider, has revealed which are the most expensive countries across the world to die in, when compared to the respective cost of living and earnings.

Based on available data gathered by its research team, the figures revealed that Japan is the most expensive place on the planet to die, with the cost of burial or cremation costing just over two thirds of the average salary, followed by China, which costs on average just below half of the yearly wage. Germany is the most expensive European country to die, but it sits far below the costs of China and Japan at only 16% cost of your overall salary.

According to the research, the average cost of a Japanese funeral is around 3 million Yen (approximately $27,900*), more than two thirds of the annual average salary in the country which equates to around $40,863 according to the latest figures from the OECD Better Life Index.

Many of our earlier ancestors believed that the world was flat. This is logical because most of the terrain around us looks flat. As we have evolved, however, many observations have shown things that could only have been accounted for with some kind of spherical shapes. All this thinking is two-dimensional (only surfaces). The Anthropocene is characterized by a third dimension, the density of humans. Figure 3 is an example of such a three-dimensional India.

Figure 3 – Population density in India (Source: Reddit)

Records about India also show that the country is running out of space for its new deaths. According to the latest census, India has just surpassed China as the most populated country, with 1.4 billion people. 80% of the population is Hindu and 14% is Muslim. However, even 14% of 1.4 billion is a large number (close to 200 million). The Hindu majority favors cremation but the article below shows that India, too, is running out of space in its cemeteries, especially given the extenuating circumstances of COVID-19:

NEW DELHI – The tombstones in the area designated for Covid-19 victims at Delhi’s biggest Muslim graveyard – the Jadid Qabristan Ahle Islam – tell a story of permanent exile. Many of the bodies here are of patients from states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, individuals who came to Delhi for treatment but could not return to be buried closer to home.

The authorities in the city still do not permit bodies of Covid-19 victims to be taken back because of sanitation protocols, forcing families to bury them in Delhi’s graveyards.

This burden of interring the dead from smaller towns and rural parts of the country is one of the contributing factors to a problem for graveyards in big Indian cities – they cannot keep pace with the country’s growing Covid-19 death toll.

A similar scenario is taking place in China:

China is facing a space problem, not only for its living residents but also for its dead. While the U.S. currently has around 50,000 cemeteries, China only has about 3,000, Quartz points out, and they’re quickly filling up. Within six years, experts project that the country will run out of currently allocated space for burying people, according to Want China News.

As a result of dwindling supply for millions of aging citizens, plot prices are shooting up. One prime spot in Shanghai sold for $3.5 billion earlier this year, Quartz writes, while the average burial real estate goes for around $15,000. Prices are climbing each year, and one company that owns and manages graveyards has decided to go public, with a rumored IPO of $200 million to be announced immanently, Quartz reports. On the other hand, Want China Times reports that another company was caught selling $48 million’s worth of grave plots on the black-market.

The peaks in the density maps indicate that, at least presently, a lack of space doesn’t necessarily mean an absolute lack of space everywhere. It means a lack of more “convenient” space. Cemeteries near the places where family and friends live, which are increasingly urban places (peaks in the population density), become especially crowded. This also means that even countries with majorities that follow cremation practices, which in principle require less space, can be short of burial space that is convenient for many of its citizens.

To my knowledge, the desire to perpetuate individual stories in a cost-effective way that will go beyond the rich and powerful has yet to be fully explored. We will stay tuned (as long as we can).

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Dying in the Anthropocene

Map of number of graveyards in the contiguous USFigure 1 – Graveyards of the contiguous US (Source: Joshua Stephens via Insider)

I will die in the Anthropocene. The only uncertain part of this statement is whether the global epoch that is now under consideration will be officially named as such by that time. I will not be alone. At the end of last year, the global population passed 8 billion. All 8 billion will die within this epoch. More than that, I was born in 1939. A quick estimate of all the people who have lived on Earth since I was born (the estimated global population for 1939 is about 2 billion) can be helped by an estimate of the number of people that were born over this period (280 million). The total number of people born after the start of the Anthropocene will exceed 50 billion (we obviously have no idea how long the Anthropocene will last and in what form will it end. Most of the dead are buried one way or another (cremation vs. burying will be discussed in the next blog). As I’ve mentioned before, our planet is finite. The situation in the United States is shown in the opening picture of the blog with the suggestion that we are now living in the “land of the dead.” The global population is still increasing (though at a slower rate now). What can we do about it??

This blog will focus on two issues directly connected to our mortality: the finite availability of burial land and the unfulfilled wish of many of us for our stories to remain available after we are gone in a way that will not crowd the planet with stone memorials.

There is some background to these wishes:

In a previous blog (April 12, 2022), I described a recently-erected monument in Farsleben, Germany, which marks the liberation of my group of Bergen-Belsen inmates by the American army. The liberation took place on April 13th as the German army tried to move us from our camp to another camp farther away from the front line (Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the British army on April 15th).

I was involved in the construction of the monument. During the construction process, a friend (and relative), who works in the electronics industry suggested that we embed an electronic chip in the monument that could connect visitors with the story of our liberation. He donated a few chips that are about to be embedded.

A short internet search quickly convinced us that the appropriate technology exists; it has been dubbed the “Personal RosettaStone.” An article from 2010 describes it:

March 12, 2010 — After he dies, Christopher Hill plans to speak to his grandchildren, great grandchildren and even future generations from beyond the grave – not through a psychic medium or his last will and testament, but through a microchip.

“I think that when you walk by a gravestone and only see things like a few words, or a name and a date, it can be somewhat cold, impersonal, and almost incomplete,” the 41-year-old from Northern Virginia told ABCNews.com. “This gravestone is supposed to tell the story of a person, and provide you that connection or emotional remembrance.”

With new technology developed by a Phoenix, Ariz. company, he now thinks that could be a real possibility.

Launched by Objecs, LLC last month, Personal RosettaStones are iPod-sized stone tablets embedded with RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags that can store up to 1,000 words and a picture. When they’re near a mobile phone equipped with compatible technology, the information in the microchip is beamed right on to the cell phone screen. Objecs says the tags, which can be affixed to headstones, can last for up to 3,200 years.

A more recent link lets us see more, although the company’s websites don’t seem to be in service any longer.

As the example shows, the technology is based on RFID (Radio-frequency Identification) tags and is part of the more general category of the Internet of Things.

Such a solution can enhance the durability of our stories, but it will not contribute to more effective burial practices. It can, however, serve as an intermediate step in the burial transition.

I have played with the concept of perpetuating memories for some years now. The first time that I tried was shortly after the German reunification (around 1990). Closely after that event, the German government announced its intent to build a Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. I was inspired by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC and tried to figure out what it would take to construct the memorial as a winding labyrinth with similar characteristics. The length of the Vietnam memorial is 200 feet, with more than 58,000 names engraved. My question was what area it would take to construct a similar memorial with 6 million names engraved using similar fonts and sizes to those at the Vietnam memorial.  I have since lost the details of these calculations, but I remember my conclusion – such a labyrinth was practical within Berlin’s city limits.

Figures 2 & 3– Berlin memorial for the Jews murdered in Europe (Berlin Holocaust Memorial)

The actual memorial was dedicated in 2005, and it contains 2711 slabs, shown in Figures 2 & 3 from two perspectives. Rather than being carved into the slabs themselves, an attached underground “Place of Information” holds the names of approximately 3 million Jewish Holocaust victims, obtained from the Israeli museum Yad Vashem.

What Christopher Hill (see the beginning of this blog) wanted to leave to his grandchildren is now being happening without any electronic chip (or headstone). People like Steven Spielberg are “immortalizing” individual experiences of recent genocides, with an emphasis on Holocaust survivors:

In 1994, after the filming of Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg founded the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation with the aim of videotaping 50,000 first-person accounts by Holocaust survivors and witnesses.
The massive global documentation effort began with the first interview on April 18, 1994. The foundation trained 2,300 interviewer candidates in 24 countries, hired 1,000 videographers, and recruited more than 100 regional coordinators and staff in 34 countries to organize the interviewing process in their respective regions. Between 1994 and 2000, interviews with Holocaust survivors and witnesses took place in 56 countries and were conducted in 32 languages.

Within the context of commemorating the Holocaust victims and survivors, a large step forward was recently taken by both Yad-Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, and the “World Memory Project” of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum at the World Memory Project. The Yad-Vashem “Book of Names” installation is on loan to the UN General Assembly for a month, starting with January 27, International Holocaust Memorial Day. (Holocaust ‘Book of Names’ to be inaugurated at the UN underscores the individual identities of the 6 million – Jewish Telegraphic Agency) After New York, it will return to Jerusalem at the end of February. I will visit the UN headquarters to see the installation in a week. Most of the “World Memory Project” is online. I tested it on my iPhone. Within a few minutes, I was able to find myself and most of my family after supplying only my last name. The site contains first names, date of birth, in many cases date of liberation, and the original source of information.

Traditional headstones include a person’s name, date of birth, and date of death, often with a sentence about the greatness of the deceased. We now have the technology to replace headstones and cemeteries with electronic memorials that take up much less space and include much more information.

I realize that this blog is loaded with the death culture of the rich, western world. In next week’s blog, I will try to expand the concept beyond the rich world with an emphasis on India and China, including a distinction between burials and cremation.

Posted in Anthropocene, Climate Change, Holocaust, Sustainability | Leave a comment

Governing the Anthropocene: Federal Globalization?

(Source: Financial Times)

A previous blog defined the Anthropocene as “the period of time during which human activities have had an environmental impact on the Earth regarded as constituting a distinct geological age.” The same blog stated that the widely agreed starting point of the Anthropocene will be the start of the nuclear age. My last blog identified climate change and the military use of nuclear weapons as the two leading environmental impacts that represent existential threats. I also suggested that since both threats are global, we need to find ways to globalize governing to effectively minimize the threats.

Globalization is not a new issue but it has become contentious in almost any political setting. I am not an expert on this issue, so in this blog, I will go through the various relevant entries in Wikipedia, which will hopefully give us a consistent picture to work with.

Let’s start with some definitions:

Globalization:

In 2000, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) identified four basic aspects of globalization: trade and transactionscapital and investment movements, migration and movement of people, and the dissemination of knowledge.[10] Globalizing processes affect and are affected by business and work organization, economics, sociocultural resources, and the natural environment. Academic literature commonly divides globalization into three major areas: economic globalizationcultural globalization, and political globalization.[11]

Our emphasis on trying to minimize existential threats means that we are focusing on political globalization:

Political globalization is the growth of the worldwide political system, both in size and complexity. That system includes national governments, their governmental and intergovernmental organizations as well as government-independent elements of global civil society such as international non-governmental organizations and social movement organizations. One of the key aspects of the political globalization is the declining importance of the nation-state and the rise of other actors on the political scene. The creation and existence of the United Nations is called one of the classic examples of political globalization.

In last week’s blog, I stated that the only “stable” social structure that could act as an example of an “Anti-Snyder” form of time-independent social accretion would need to be global; that global structure doesn’t exist. I want to emphasize here that Prof. Timothy Snyder has nothing to do with the concept of an “Anti-Snyder” social structure. The concept is all mine, but it came as a result of listening (electronically) to Prof. Snyder’s course on “The making of Modern Ukraine.” As I mentioned in last week’s blog, Prof. Snyder emphasized that one does not discuss a nation by taking a fixed piece of land that corresponds to the present sovereign boundaries, populated with people similar to present people, with the same speaking language, and go back as far as you can and call this the “history” of the country (or nation). The only social structure that fits such an analysis is our global society.

Last Wednesday was the start of our spring semester. I started my cosmology course with a question to my students about the logistics of James Cameron filming his film, Avatar, on-site. The movie is about humans:

“colonizing Pandora, a lush habitable moon of a gas giant in the Alpha Centauri star system, in order to mine the valuable mineral unobtanium.[a]

Alpha Centauri is the collection of three stars that are nearest to our sun. Their distance to the sun is approximately 4.2 Light-Years, or approximately 40 trillion km (for comparison, the circumference of the Earth is around 40,000 km). Using some assumptions about the availability of the current best technology, we were able to calculate that it would take the filming crew 80,000 years to get to their target moon. The conclusion was that unless we find some completely new technology we are stuck on this planet, for better or worse. Therefore, we’d better learn how to protect it. Governing the Anthropocene means finding the tools to protect our home. We will be able to do so only if we extend the concept of sovereignty to the global scale. Going back to Wikipedia, sovereignty is a central topic in Political Science:

In international law, sovereignty is the exercise of power by a state

The following paragraph from the site emphasizes some details about the complexity of the concept:

In 2005, the revision of the concept of sovereignty was made explicit with the Responsibility to Protect agreement endorsed by all member states of the United Nations. If a state fails this responsibility either by perpetrating massive injustice or being incapable of protecting its citizens, then outsiders may assume that responsibility despite prior norms forbidding such interference in a nation’s sovereignty.[27]

In my understanding, two main issues stand out in such a transition to global governance. One of the issues is probably not very controversial – global governance must be federal, based on sovereign states. Below is a short description of what is needed:

Federalism is a combined/compound mode of government that combines a general government (the central or “federal” government) with regional governments (provincialstatecantonalterritorial, or other sub-unit governments) in a single political system, dividing the powers between the two. Federalism in the modern era was first adopted in the unions of states during the Old Swiss Confederacy.

The second issue is probably much more controversial. There are prerequisites for people in governing the Anthropocene. They have to have some understanding of science, economy, and social science as they relate to the environment that we will be facing. In this sense, there is a similarity to the medical profession, making international institutions such as the WHO (World Health Organization), or national institutions such as the CDC (Center for Disease Control) in the US, good starting points.

Fortunately, the infrastructure for global governance exists in the form of the United Nations, which was created after World War II. The UN defines its global mandates quite broadly:

As the world’s only truly universal global organization, the United Nations has become the foremost forum to address issues that transcend national boundaries and cannot be resolved by any one country acting alone. Taking a global view reveals some interesting facts.
Did you know:

  • that most of the world’s people live no more than 200 miles from the sea?

  • that decolonization changed the face of the planet, creating more than 80 nations?

  • that women in the labour market still earn on average a quarter less than men globally?

The UN has specific websites for the various issues below:

The charter of the UN was drafted at the end of WWII and is worth revisiting. Here, I will only cite Article 1, in which I have emphasized a few key points:

Article 1

The Purposes of the United Nations are:

  1. To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace;
  2. To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace;
  3. To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion; and
  4. To be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends.

All of this means that an institute such as the United Nations has the mandate to lead the world in the Anthropocene. However, to be responsible for global governance, The UN has to have well-defined, limited sovereignty and the ability to enforce decisions. This is a problematic issue that will be revisited in the future.

It helps that the UN members are voted in by representatives of the people that they govern and that the UN’s charter clearly states its mandate. Presently, the UN charter specifies non-interference in the internal affairs of member states. However, the definition of such internal affairs is not well defined and there is often a contradiction between global human rights and the internal preservation of human rights in member states.

The only UN institution with quasi-execution power is the Security Council. Below is a short description of its structure and functionality. Again, a full description can be found in the UN charter.

  1. The Security Council has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. It has 15 Members, and each Member has one vote. Under the Charter of the United Nations, all Member States are obligated to comply with Council decisions.
  2. The Security Council takes the lead in determining the existence of a threat to the peace or act of aggression. It calls upon the parties to a dispute to settle it by peaceful means and recommends methods of adjustment or terms of settlement. In some cases, the Security Council can resort to imposing sanctions or even authorize the use of force to maintain or restore international peace and security.

The five permanent members have veto power on all UN decisions. Four out of those five permanent members with veto power constitute the main winners of WWII. This structure prevents effective UN action in cases such as Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine.

Extensive work needs to be done to make the UN an effective governing tool in the Anthropocene.

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Governance in the Anthropocene

(Source: Vecteezy)

In last week’s blog, I returned to the definition of the Anthropocene, the name for our proposed new epoch. The dominant proposal for Anthropocene is an “epoch that begins when human activities started to have a significant global impact on Earth’s ecosystem.” This definition concurs with that in the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “the period of time during which human activities have had an environmental impact on the Earth regarded as constituting a distinct geological age.”

I described the dominant proposal to start the new epoch as coinciding with the start of the nuclear age in an older blog titled, “My Anthropocene” (October 30, 2018). This proposal is based on the fact that almost any nuclear experiment leaves detectable residues for future generations to observe. The timing of large-scale nuclear weapon use started with the experimental explosion of an atomic bomb at the Trinity site in New Mexico on July 16, 1945. Most of the current use of the concept is focused on the human role in climate change. We derive most of our energy needs from fossil fuels, whose burning results in the release of carbon dioxide, a stable greenhouse gas that triggers changes in the energy balance with the sun, making it the main cause of global climate change.

However, the proposed definition of the Anthropocene goes beyond human-caused environmental impact. In a sense, starting with my first blog (April 22, 2012) and continuing throughout the 11 years that I’ve been posting this blog, I have tried to connect the likely future impact of the business-as-usual scenario of climate change with the outcome of a global nuclear war. I have repeatedly used the term “self-inflicted genocide.” As I mentioned in an earlier blog (November 15, 2016), in the context of Kristallnacht, which preceded the Holocaust, genocide was an expression coined by Raphael Lemkin in 1944, which came to be defined in the dictionary as, “the deliberate and systematic destruction of racial, political or cultural groups.”

The nuclear age and the major acceleration of greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere started at approximately the same time, making me part of the first generation that grew up in the proposed Anthropocene and the last generation that grew up during the Holocaust (see the first blog for my background). I lived through the consequences of the Holocaust and there is a good chance that my grandchildren will live through some major consequences of the Anthropocene. All of this combined with my educational background were the main reasons I started this blog. This brings me to the present.

Last weekend I had dinner with friends. They were familiar with my background and one of them mentioned a site in which Prof. Timothy Snyder from Yale University is giving a class called “The Making of Modern Ukraine.” I read a few of Prof. Snyder’s books (On Tyranny, Black Earth, and Bloodlands) and I was interested. As I mentioned before, we are just ending a semester break, during which I had time to explore. My reading fully convinced me that he is uniquely qualified to address President Putin’s claim that Ukraine is not a country and that the Russian invasion aims to save Ukrainians from themselves:

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin claims that “Ukraine is not a real country” and that Ukrainians are really Russians. His invasion is to protect Russian speakers in Donbas from “Nazification”.

The site constitutes a full semester’s worth of classes (23), in which Prof. Snyder took a very broad perspective on the Ukrainian nationality, which in some respects preceded Russian nationality (under different names). The essence of his approach is that nations (at least European ones) are relatively modern phenomena. One does not take a fixed piece of land that corresponds to the present sovereign boundaries, populated with people similar to present people, with the same speaking language, and go back as far as you can and call this the “history” of the country (or nation). The history of nations is not defined by the history of their present territory; it depends on context and the documented interactions with those outside of the territory (formation and destruction of empires etc…). I see historians as those who analyze history based on written records, as opposed to archaeologists and anthropologists.

Throughout history, nations have been active aggregates of people that assembled and agreed (or were forced to agree) to a common government. In many aspects (at least for people with my background) it more resembles cosmological accretion in which attractive forces balance dispersive forces to create relatively stable social structures.

In a sense, only a “stable” global social structure would act as an example of an “Anti-Snyder” form of time-independent social accretion—and that global structure doesn’t exist. The next blog will try to make the somewhat controversial case that the Anthropocene requires us to develop such a global structure to ensure human existence.

However, President Putin’s actions count as genocide according to Lemkin’s definition. He is taking destructive military steps to destroy Ukraine based on his “hypothesis” that it is not a “real” country. This is not only verbal genocide. A major target that the Russian army is trying to obliterate is the Ukrainian civilian population. Since the present borders of Ukraine coincide with much of the area that bore much of the weight of Hitler’s genocide, the association is not only verbal.

The Kremlin’s announcement that “the sooner Ukraine accepted Russia’s demands, the sooner the conflict there could end” is a call to dismantle the state through “agreement” (coercion):

Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia would achieve its goals “one way or another” and Kyiv would be better off accepting Russia’s position and settling at the negotiating table.

Moscow has said it is fighting to “de-Nazify” Ukraine and protect Russian-speakers in the country’s east. Kyiv and the West reject these claims as a baseless pretext for a colonial-style land grab by Moscow.

More than that: Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, an ally of current President Vladimir Putin, warned NATO on Thursday that the defeat of Russia in Ukraine could trigger a nuclear war:

“The defeat of a nuclear power in a conventional war may trigger a nuclear war,” former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who serves as deputy chairman of Putin’s powerful security council, said in a post on Telegram.

“Nuclear powers have never lost major conflicts on which their fate depends,” said Medvedev, who served as president from 2008 to 2012.

Such a declaration makes the case that the present nuclear powers (see the March 22, 2022 blog for a list of known nuclear powers and their arsenals) can do whatever they want with no fear of reprisals. The obvious next step would be for almost every country to acquire the technology; the technology itself is not a high enough barrier to stop countries who are trying to join this club. Aside from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in 1945, there has been no recorded military use of such weapons. Not many people are willing to bet that we can keep the military use of such weapons local, though.

Climate change and nuclear Armageddon are not the only global threats of the Anthropocene. The decreasing birth rate has resulted in a change in demographics and we have seen the global spread of pandemics as a result of increased global density and travel with better physical communication. Collectively, we are starting to build governance that can deal with such threats. A recent example of such a step came as an American envoy announced at Davos that environmental impacts will start to be recognized in the Biden administration’s balance sheets:

Forests that keep hillsides from eroding and clean the air. Wetlands that protect coastal real estate from storm surges. Rivers and deep snows that attract tourists and create jobs in rural areas. All of those are natural assets of perhaps obvious value — but none are accounted for by traditional measurements of economic activity.

On Thursday, the Biden administration unveiled an effort to change that by creating a system for assessing the worth of healthy ecosystems to humanity. The results could inform governmental decisions like which industries to support, which natural resources to preserve and which regulations to pass.

The next blog will focus on the challenges of governance in a globalized world.

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The Anthropocene Leads Us Back to the Copernican Revolution

The last day of 2022 was a rainy day in New York City. We were looking forward to the fireworks celebrations without much hope. However, as midnight approached the weather started to clear. We decided to look for the best location in our neighborhood to watch fireworks and give it a try. I took some photographs that later I posted on my personal Facebook feed, including the one above. A clock on one of the skyscrapers is visible, showing it to be a few minutes past midnight. Looking at the post-storm city post-midnight made me realize that I have been missing the main point of our global transformation that is now under the final first stages of discussion of being officially labeled as the Anthropocene. Last week’s blog started with a quote from a recent article in the New York Times that brought me back to the discussion. The last few quoted paragraphs from the article emphasized that the renaming of the geological period is far from being unanimous. Below is a repeat of some of the objections:

… Still, the knives are out for the Anthropocene, even though, or maybe because, we all have such firsthand familiarity with it.

Stanley C. Finney, the secretary general of the International Union of Geological Sciences, fears the Anthropocene has become a way for geologists to make a “political statement.”

Within the vast expanse of geologic time, he notes, the Anthropocene would be a blip of a blip of a blip. Other geologic time units are useful because they orient scientists in stretches of deep time that left no written records and sparse scientific observations. The Anthropocene, by contrast, would be a time in Earth’s history that humans have already been documenting extensively. “For the human transformation, we don’t need those terminologies — we have exact years,” said Dr. Finney, whose committee would be the last to vote on the working group’s proposal if it gets that far.

The opening figure of the last blog shows that if the proposal is approved, the widely agreed starting point of the Anthropocene will be the start of the nuclear age: a dot on the timeline. I described this dot in an earlier blog (October 30, 2018): I was a small kid who had already experienced significant historic events (like the Holocaust) when this dot took place. None of the other eons, eras, periods, epochs, or ages—as designated by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, fits this description and such a designation will be regarded as a major departure. The question remains—regarded by whom??

In many aspects, this whole blog (567 posts since April 2012) is focused on the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is often defined (see the January 17, 2017 blog) as an “Epoch that begins when human activities started to have a significant global impact on Earth’s ecosystem.” However, almost all of my writings, and almost everybody else’s, are targeted attempts to prevent accelerating climate change from causing human extinction. A few relevant old blogs that might be useful to read (or reread) are: “Educating for the Anthropocene” (May 24, 2016), “Two Anthropocenes” (October 23, 2018), and the blog that I mentioned earlier, “My Anthropocene” (October 30, 2018). Looking back at the photograph posted at the start of this blog, I am realizing that most of us miss something central to the Anthropocene when we consider it – that we are all part of it. This sounds trivial, but it is not. As the final decision about formalizing the concept is approaching it will be useful to generalize the concept. As I see it, the impact of the change might turn out to be equivalent in scale to the Copernican Revolution.

This is a big claim, and it will obviously require a few blogs to try to justify it. So, I will start with the photograph. It was taken just after midnight at the tail-end of a storm. The near neighborhood is sharp and clear. Much of the far neighborhood is buried in low-lying clouds with some of the skyscrapers, including the one with the clock (Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower) emerging from the clouds amid glowing lights.

I am fortunate that my background allows me to teach both cosmology and climate change. Since both classes fall under the category of science, I am starting both with a short history of the scientific revolution.  After a short description of the science that prevailed before Copernicus (1473-1543), I progress through the Copernican Revolution. One of the best ways to get acquainted with the Copernican Revolution is to go through some of the original writings. Probably the most convenient way to do so is to scan through a book titled On the Shoulders of Giants: The Great Works of Physics and Astronomy (Running Press 2002). The book was edited, with commentaries, by Stephen Hawking. The bulk of the book (1264 pages) comprises original manuscripts by Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Sir Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein. The book by Copernicus, On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres, is credited with triggering what we now label as the Copernican Revolution.

In a bit more technical terms, the Copernican Revolution moved us from the geocentric model, in which all the heavenly bodies that are visible to us circle Earth, to a heliocentric model, in which we—and the other planets that we can see—circle the sun. Copernicus’ argument was based on detailed calculations that basically show that it is much simpler to account for all our observations if we assume that we are not special (everything circling around us would make us very special).

In the next few blogs, I will start discussing my perspectives on how to live, die, govern, and educate in an Anthropocene that hosts all of us.

The first prerequisite to successfully conducting all these activities is to be guided by proven methodologies to quantifiably understand our new environment. It took all the way to Isaac Newton (1643-1727), almost 200 years, for the Heliocentric model to become the ruling guiding model. The Catholic Church was the leading opponent because the new model directly infringed on its dominance. Many believers before Newton were tried, convicted, and in a few cases executed, for their belief in the new model. Perhaps the most famous case is that of Galileo Galilei, whose retraction did not appease the Church:

Galileo took back his statement, but still lived under house arrest for the rest of his life. It took 359 years and the leadership of Pope John Paul II (left) to recognize the wrong. On October 31, 1992, he formally apologized for the “Galileo Case” in the first of many famous apologies during his papacy.

I don’t believe that people will be executed for believing in the Anthropocene, but I do believe that the social tension overall will be as, or more, intense because the transformation will have a direct impact on all our lives.

Going back to Isaac Newton, by almost all accounts, he was able to put much of the controversy to rest by integrating mathematics into the parts of metaphysics that dealt with the physical environment. Thus, he was instrumental in the formation of two cultures: science and the rest of the academic disciplines. We are now in the process of removing the boundaries between these two cultures (see the July 31, 2012 blog) by integrating databases and some advanced mathematics into our understanding of social sciences. Future blogs will try to summarize how we are doing on this.

Going back to the picture at the beginning of the blog, finding a spot to photograph aspects of what is happening from a distance might help us understand the new reality. We now have the technology to photograph aspects of the universe going back to the initial star formation, now thought to take place more than 12 billion years ago. We are certainly in the process of developing the tools to objectively observe our own planet.

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