Russia Burning: Not Apocalypse, but Its Prelude

This post is a meta-commentary on media coverage of Russia’s drought and wildfires. Now make no mistake, I admire the yeoman work of some journalists in covering Russia burning: no doubt a few will even make their way into the classical cannon such as The Saga of the Burned Foot (Miriam Elder) or The Tale of How Aleksandr Pochkov Quarreled with Vladimir Vladimirovich (A Good Treaty). 🙂 But in my opinion, they almost all fail to consider the key facts that render their Kremlin criticism moot and fail to grasp the “big picture”: the Great Russian Heatwave of 2010 as a mere herald of things to come.

In summary: 1) There is nothing the Russian government could have done to contain a natural disaster of such magnitude, 2) many of the lectures about how Russia could have done better to prepare itself would have been counter-productive had they actually been implemented, 3) the hysteria about Moscow turning into a giant morgue from heat stress and smog or radioactive ash clouds is overblown, and 4) the real problem, or rather predicament, is global warming, the effects of which are expected to transform Russia’s heartlands into Central Asia within the next few decades.

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Book Review: Donella Meadows et al. – Limits to Growth

If I could recommend just one book to someone with a business-as-usual outlook, someone who believes human ingenuity and free markets will always bail us out of any resource scarcity or environmental problem, it would be Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (henceforth LTG). After reading it, you may never look at the world in quite the same way again. This post contains a summary, but I really do recommend you go and read it all. It is well argued, eminently readable, and pertains to issues central to our common future.

Meadows, Donella & J. Randers, D. MeadowsLimits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (2004). BUY THE BOOK!
Category: world systems, resource depletion, pollution; Rating: 5*/5
Summary: wiki; synopsis; WSJ story.

The first book was published in 1972, commissioned by a circle of statesmen, businesspeople, and scientists called the Club of Rome. The LTG models, using the latest advances in systems theory and computer modeling, suggested that business-as-usual economic growth on a finite planet would eventually lead to stagnating and then falling living standards, as ever more industrial capital has to be diverted towards mitigating the consequences of growth, e.g. soil degradation, resource depletion, and runaway pollution.

Cornucopians and establishment “experts” have tried to discredit LTG by claiming that its predictions of global apocalypse failed to materialize; instead, hasn’t the world seen remarkable economic growth since 1972? These criticisms are unfounded. First, the LTG modelers did not make any concrete forecasts, but merely a range of scenarios based on varying initial conditions (e.g. global resource endowments) and future political choices. Not all the scenarios led to collapse – a reasonable global standard of living is preserved under scenarios in which humanity makes a transition back below the limits towards sustainable development.  Second, none of those scenarios projected a collapse before 2015 at the earliest, so the claim is invalidated even if you treat the worst case scenario as a prediction. As such, we can only conclude that these critics are either liers or haven’t actually read the book.

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Book Review: Vaclav Smil – Global Catastrophes and Trends

Smil, Vaclav – Global Catastrophes and Trends (2008)
Category: futurism, climate change, geopolitics, catastrophes; Rating: 5/5
Summary: Google Books

Vaclav Smil, an energy theorist and language connoisseur, brings his talents to bear on this idiosyncratic, incisive and balanced book on the global future. From the outset, he outlines his skepticism in universal theories of history and attempts at quantifying current trends to make point forecasts (e.g. predictions that nuclear power would make energy too cheap to meter in the halcyon days of the industry). Instead, he emphasizes the role played by the sheer complexity of human systems and their discontinuities – for instance, who could have imagined that a generation after the death of Mao, China would be the workshop of the world helping underwrite US military dominance?

Having established “How (Not) to Look Ahead”, Smil introduces his method – analyzing key variables categorized by a) unpredictable events – “catastrophes”, b) powerful trends (the effects of globalization, global demography, the energy transition), and c) the shifting balance of power between the Great Power (the marginalization of Japan, an unstable Islam, Russia’s partial resurgence, the uncertain rise of China and an increasingly faltering United States). It is one a method I highly favor and I agree with most of the arguments he makes in his book, albeit there are a few major exceptions.

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Perils of Water

Three interesting stories, all tied with Russia and water.

1. The explosion at the Sayano-Shushenskaya dam in Siberia. Though the official Russian version is that it was a blown transformer, the Chechen separatists / terrorists are claiming that it’s their work:

A decision was taken at the start of the year at a meeting of the council of the Mujahideen of the Emirate of the Caucasus, led by Caucasus Emir Doku Abu Usman, to activate an economic war against  Russia on its territory. To carry out these tasks, subversive groups were created and sent to a  host of Russian regions with the aim of carrying out industrial  sabotage. The priority targets laid out for them are gas pipelines, oil  pipelines, the destruction of electricity stations and high-voltage  power lines, and sabotage at factories.

In the name of Allah, through our efforts on Aug. 17 an act of sabotage, long in the making and thoroughly thought out, was carried  out at the Khakasia region’s Sayano-Shushenskaya hydro-electric power  plant, the largest in Russia. An anti-tank mine on a timer was planted in the turbine room, and its explosion caused enormous damage, greater than we anticipated. The result halted the hydro-power station completely, and caused losses to Russia worth many billions of dollars.

[…talks about their recent militant attacks in Ingushetia & threatens those who cooperate with the “apostates” with death]

Lay down your arms and return to your homes, work and earn money in the ways permitted under Sharia, and you will once again have a calm life.

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Reconsidering Parshev

In most Russian bookstores, there is a bookshelf or two dedicated to so-called “patriotic literature” – reappraisals of Stalin against “liberal revisionism”, overviews of Russia’s secret super-weapons, the exploits of its special forces and Russian theo-philosophy. Much of it is (apparent) nonsense, but the economic crisis has forced me to reconsider one particular “patriotic” thesis – Andrei Parshev’s Why Russia is not America.

His big idea, an elaboration and tying together of earlier work, is that Russia’s economy is structurally uncompetitive on the world stage, and that integrating with the global economy will lead to catastrophe. This is because of his counter-intuitive observation that Russia is overpopulated. Though its population density is low on paper, the cold climate, huge landmass and poor riverine connections means that the carrying capacity of north Eurasia is nowhere near as high as that of the world’s other centers of economic and political power – the US, China, and Europe. Because manufacturing is inherently loss-making on the Eurasian plains, it is much more economically “efficient” to just ship out Russia’s mineral resources to fuel manufacturing in warmer, coastal regions such as the Pearl River Delta or the Great Lakes. No more than 20mn Russians are needed to service the pipelines and grow fat from the proceeds; the other 120mn are free to eke out a subsistence living on Russia’s marginal lands, or die out (as indeed many did during the era of neo-liberal reforms). He recommended a return to sovereignty, autarky and sobornost as the solution to these woes.

I agreed with Parshev’s analysis upon my first reading of his book in 2002, a time when I still thought Putin was no more than a better-dressed, sober gangster in Yeltsin’s mold and the country showed little signs of real recovery. Yet as evidence mounted that Russia really was prospering by the mid-2000’s and I became influenced by Krugman’s criticisms of competitiveness, I increasingly came to reject his ideas (e.g. see this comment). However, since then increasing awareness of the vital role played by protectionism in “catch-up” industrial development, the reality of peak oil and above all the economic crisis forced me into reconsidering Parshev.

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Documentary Review: BBC Global Dimming

Not only is global warming a real and present threat that may yet in conjunction with impending energy shortages doom industrial civilization, it may have even been dangerously underestimated. “What have you been smoking!?,” you might say to me. Get off the doom train and enjoy the Sun. Unfortunately, we might not have much of it during the next decades – at least metaphorically speaking. To see why, I recommend you watch this video on global dimming or read its transcript.

So here’s the plot-line. After 9/11, the US air fleet was grounded for three days in the name of national security. Though presumably a major inconvenience for travelers, it was a boon for climatologist David Travis who was studying the effects of contrails, or vapor trails, left behind by high-flying aircraft on the world’s climate.

He predicted that removing contrails would have a significant impact on global temperatures, but was shocked to discover that the daily temperature range – the difference between the hottest and coldest temperature measures in a day – shifted up by an unprecedented 1.1C during those three days!

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