Saturday, December 27, 2008

Why We’ll Never Get Visits from Extraterrestrial Intelligence

I’ve never seen either version of The Day the Earth Stood Still, nor have I watched Independence Day. But visits from either friendly or hostile extraterrestrials are a staple of science fiction. My analysis indicates that they will remain fiction.

It’s not that I don’t believe there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. It’s my observations of “intelligent” life here on Earth that have led me to this conclusion.

Self-conscious intelligence is an evolutionary dead end. Using our only available example, we can see that humans’ ability to adapt our environment has made it possible to outstrip our resources and damage our habitat to the extent that our existence is in danger. Within a century, we will see our focus shift to basic survival; if we are able to function at a higher level than our current behaviour indicates, we will be trying to survive within our current societal structures as nations. If our current group behaviour persists, we will be struggling to survive as tribes, families or individuals; higher organizational levels will have collapsed.

Since the kinds of technologies necessary for interstellar travel (assuming it is actually possible) require a highly organized society with plenty of excess production of basic needs, and the leisure for intellectual pursuits, we won’t be continuing down that road.

It is my conclusion that any species developing intelligence similar to humans, intelligence conscious of itself, able to develop technologies to exploit its environment for its own (short-term) gain, will overrun its ability to manage the impact of its total group behaviour, and bring on its own collapse. I hope that, somewhere, some intelligent life form develops socially quickly enough to restrict itself to a sustainable set of behaviours. Such a life form will never choose to dedicate resources to interstellar travel.

So neither the self-destructive nor self-sustaining extraterrestrials will ever come knocking on our planetary door.

I wouldn’t rule out interstellar communication of some sort, however. So our planetary phone might yet ring. I hope someone is still here to listen for the call.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Do future generations a favour: don't breed.

The “global economic crisis” has diverted public attention from climate change. Governments the world over are responding as if the current situation is just an extreme version of the traditional business cycle. And perhaps it is.

But consider this: the conventional economic thinking is based on continually increasing consumption. The crisis is considered to be the result of reduced consumption, and economic stimulus packages are proposed to get those spending habits back up there where they belong, and then all will be right with the world.

This world view is so obviously short-sighted and just plain wrong that it’s clear to me that our species must be wearing some kind of intellectual blinders. We as a species just can’t accept that the world has limited resources, and we’re reaching the end of them. We have too many people wanting to consume too much.

What we really need to do is come to grips with the reality that we’re living in an unsustainable fashion. It’s all very well to want everyone on the planet to have a single-family dwelling, a car in the driveway, a wide-screen TV in the living room, and a refrigerator filled with fresh food all year round. But this could only happen if we had maybe one-tenth the population we already have. And we would also have to replace all our fossil-fuel energy sources with something sustainable.

Climate change is only going to make things worse. In a generation, we will have world-wide shortages of food and water – of course, we already have these shortages in many places. At that point, the car and the TV will be irrelevant.

The bottom line is, if our civilizations are to survive for another couple of centuries, we need to do three things:
1. Consume less.
2. Reduce our population.
3. Use only sustainable energy sources.

We can do this the hard way, which probably will destroy our so-called civilizations: war, famine, pestilence (and of course death), or the unlikely way: global international cooperation to reduce consumption, halt population growth, develop sustainable energy sources, and accept (for the industrialized world) a greatly reduced standard of living. No government anywhere could get elected on that platform, so the hard landing (or bottomless fall) is the only likely outcome.

Read Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse.

And remember: Murphy was an optimist.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Dyer Straight: Four harsh truths about climate change

Vital information from a respected journalist and commentator, from Vue Weekly

Gwynne Dyer /
About two years ago, I realized that the military in various countries were starting to do climate change scenarios in-house—scenarios that started with the scientific predictions about rising temperatures, falling crop yields and other physical effects, and examined what that would do to politics and strategy.

The scenarios predicted failed states proliferating because governments couldn’t feed their people, waves of climate refugees washing up against the borders of more fortunate countries, even wars between countries that shared the same rivers. So I started interviewing everybody I could get access to: not only senior military people but scientists, diplomats and politicians.

About 70 interviews, a dozen countries and 18 months later, I have reached four conclusions that I didn’t even suspect when I began the process. The first is simply this: the scientists are really scared. Their observations over the past two or three years suggest that everything is happening a lot faster than their climate models predicted.

This creates a dilemma for them, because for the past decade they have been struggling against a well-funded campaign that cast doubt on the phenomenon of climate change. Now, finally, people and even governments are listening. Even in the United States, the world headquarters of climate change denial, 85 per cent of the population now sees climate change as a major issue, and both presidential candidates in last month’s election promised 80 per cent cuts in American emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050.

The scientists are understandably reluctant at this point to announce publicly that their predictions were wrong; that it’s really much worse and the targets will have to be revised. Most of them are waiting for overwhelming proof that climate change really is moving faster, even though they are already privately convinced that it is.

So governments, now awakened to the danger at last, are still working to the wrong emissions target. The real requirement, if we are to avoid runaway global warming, is probably 80 per cent cuts by 2030, and almost no burning whatever of fossil fuels (coal, gas and oil) by 2050.

The second conclusion is that the generals are right. Food is the key issue, and world food supply is already very tight: we have eaten up about two-thirds of the world grain reserve in the past five years, leaving only 50 days’ worth in store. Even a one degree Celsius rise in average global temperature will take a major bite out of food production in almost all the countries that are closer to the equator than to the poles, and that includes almost all of the planet’s bread-baskets.

So the international grain market will wither for lack of supplies. Countries that can no longer feed their people will not be able to buy their way out of trouble by importing grain from elsewhere, even if they have the money. Starving refugees will flood across borders, whole nations will collapse into anarchy—and some countries may make a grab for their neighbours’ land or water.

These are scenarios that the Pentagon and other military planning staffs are examining now. They could start to come true as little as 15 or 20 years down the road. If this kind of breakdown becomes widespread, there will be little chance of making or keeping global agreements to curb greenhouse gas emissions and avoid further warming.

The third conclusion is that there is a point of no return after which warming becomes unstoppable—and we are probably going to sail right through it. It is the point at which anthropogenic (human-caused) warming triggers huge releases of carbon dioxide from warming oceans, or similar releases of both carbon dioxide and methane from melting permafrost, or both. Most climate scientists think that point lies not far beyond two degrees Celsius hotter.

Once that point is passed, the human race loses control: cutting our own emissions may not stop the warming. But we are almost certainly going to miss our deadline. We cannot get the 10 lost years back, and by the time a new global agreement to replace the Kyoto accord is negotiated and put into effect, there will probably not be enough time left to stop the warming short of the point where we must not go.

So—final conclusion—we will have to cheat. In the past two years, various scientists have suggested several “geo-engineering” techniques for holding the temperature down directly. We might put a kind of temporary chemical sunscreen in the stratosphere by seeding it with sulphur particles, for example, or we could artificially thicken low-lying maritime clouds to reflect more sunlight.

These are not permanent solutions; merely ways of winning more time to cut our emissions without triggering runaway warming in the meanwhile. But the situation is getting very grave, and we are probably going to see the first experiments with these techniques within five years.

There is a way through this crisis, but it isn’t easy and there is no guarantee of success. As the Irishman said to the lost traveller: if that’s where you want to go, sir, I wouldn’t start from here.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries. His column appears each week in Vue Weekly.

Friday, December 5, 2008

You bet Harper was ready for this!

I got a phone call this afternoon. The caller id showed 613-667-9996. I answered anyway.

The caller asked for me by name.

"Speaking," I responded.

It was the Conservative Party of Canada calling. They wanted to ask me a few questions. Was I in favour of coalition governments?

"Depends on who is in it," I said.

"The Liberals, the NDP, and the Bloc Quebecois," the female voice specified.

"That's not happening," I said.

She seemed confused.

I clarified. "This country won't have true democracy until we get rid of the first-past-the-post system and have proportional representation."

She guessed that I didn't support Mr. Harper.

"Thank you for your time," she said, and ended the call.

I guess she didn't really want my opinions after all.

How long does it take to set up a nationwide phone-out? How much does it cost? Was the Harper gang prepared for this situation? Phone banks set up and connected? Scripts written? Staff in place?

Do you still believe this whole thing wasn't fully planned by Steven Harper?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A plan comes together, and we all lose

It's time to touch on Canadian politics.

I think I've got this "crisis" figured out.

Steven Harper has not made a single mistake in this whole episode. It's going exactly as he planned. Harper is orchestrating this whole thing like the second coming of Machiavelli. The suckers leading the other parties are taking the hook and jamming it down their own throats. Harper, the consummate control freak, has foreseen the opposition reaction and the public reaction to every move he’s made. He’s set it up so he can paint all the other parties as power-hungry losers, when that label fits his party equally well.

He can’t lose. Either the coalition takes over and takes the blame for the coming economic crisis, or there’s an election that no average citizen wants that he can blame on all the other parties in the hope that he will finally get the majority he wants. He will then be able to govern through the bad times and (he hopes) back into the good with his hands firmly grasping the levers of power, allowing him to implement all the policies that will reward his corporate backers, and in the process further impoverish the already poverty-stricken and destroy the environment.

You don't believe me? Think about it. First he draws them in with the bait of cutting the $1.95 per vote subsidy, knowing they can't accept it but must come up with a better excuse for a non-confidence motion. And they do - the very weak argument of failing to respond to the economic crisis with a "stimulus" when clearly that can't be rushed while the US is dithering under a lame duck and our economies are intertwined. (The ban of civil service strikes was just extra bait for the NDP.) Then he withdraws those original bait items, knowing the opposition can't back down without looking like the fools they seem to be. Then he delays the vote to give the opposition time to hang itself and him time to rally his supporters with distortions, half-truths and complete lies that we can clearly see now are working like a charm.

The man's a political genius. Too bad he's an evil genius.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

"Thank God I'm an atheist."

One of the disadvantages (perhaps the main one) of not accepting the existence of a higher power that takes a direct interest in human affairs is the limitation placed on expletives. What can you say instead of "Oh my God!" or "Thank God!" or "Go to Hell!" or "Damn it all!" or "What the Hell!" or "not worth a damn" or all the other handy expressions? Euphemisms such as "Good gosh" are also ruled out, as they are just indirect references to the same core belief.

There are of course the usual crude sexual and scatological expressions, but they rarely serve exactly the same purpose.

As a result, my speech is somewhat restrained. But I suppose if one claims to be an unbeliever on rational grounds, that rationalism should extend to the rest of life, and limit the need for expletives. I find it to be so, but sometimes one just needs to let loose with an emotional response.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A move by Black on the International Chessboard

Putin's puppet Medvedev has just announced that Russia will be placing short-range missiles on the Polish border. Let's think about "why".

Militarily, it's meaningless, or even a bad idea. Missiles based near a border are more vulnerable to ground attack or sabotage. They would not be appreciably closer to any likely targets.

But they are a response to the US move to place missile defences in eastern Europe. Those defences are a product of the Bush administration's general belligerance. But the Bush administration is the lamest of ducks. So it will be the Obama administration that must deal with this.

If Russia had left the matter alone, Obama would be able to cancel the missile defences. But if he does so now, he will appear weak and timid on the world stage, one of the things he can least afford. The Russians know this. Therefore, the only possible conclusion is that they WANT those missile defences there.

My guess is that by painting the US and western Europe as threats to Mother Russia, the Russian government will face less internal resistance to its assumption of whatever powers it wants domestically.