Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Methane Talk-Down: Partial

One of the true joys of learning about science – as opposed to, say, economics – is that eventually you can usually get to a scientific summary that clears up many of the distortions that popular reports create. In the midst of wading through yet another cherry-picked-evidence blog post (this one on methane) by Andrew Revkin of the NY Times, it suddenly occurred to me that I should check out Justin Gillis of the Times, whose posts have been praised iirc by Joe Romm of climateprogress fame. Gillis’ reporting still seemed a little superficial to me, but he had a link to a 2006 scientific summary of the research about methane and climate change, an oldie but goodie where I found the answers to many of my questions. My recent blog post on methane laid out the doomsday scenario that I fear; Chapter 6 of this summary, as Rachel Maddow would say, talked me down – but only partially.

Because the broad scenario that I laid out is not drastically affected by the information in the summary, it is easier to lay out the summary’s picture of methane and then, at the end, note how this may affect my scenario. I will focus on methane clathrates, since the changes to everything else are less substantial. And, of course, I am sure that more misconceptions remain – because a summary article of ongoing research can’t be expected to answer everything. Anyway, let’s begin.

Methane Clathrates, Water Methane

Last time, I presented a very summarized picture of natural-source methane as coming from three sources: methane clathrates under the sea, permafrost on land at high latitudes, and peat bogs next to the permafrost or in the tropics. It turns out that the picture is a bit more complicated, and the complications matter.

To start with, methane clathrates are formed and remain stable in sea-floor sediment in particular combinations of sea temperature and pressure from the sea above that limit them to the sea floor somewhere between 200 meters and 1000 meters below sea level. In other words, the water has to be near zero F, and the clathrate has to be lower than 200 meters below sea level and higher than 1000 meters below sea level. Between those two limits, the deeper the sea floor, the wider the zone in the sediment where it can exist. Guesstimates for a typical clathrate “stability zone depth” might be 250-300 meters. Btw, a confusing part of the scientific lingo apparently refers to Arctic clathrates as “subsea permafrost.”

What happens to melt the clathrates? The water next to the sea floor warms up, or warmer temps further up the sea slope cause the equivalent of a mudslide on the sea floor that basically slices through the clathrate, stirs up everything above the slice as a cloud of sediment, and melts all the clathrate above the new sea floor. That is what they think happened at Storegg, a place near Norway where there is a “crater” 30 km across that may have released a gigaton of carbon, all at once (methane is CH4).

Now here’s an odd part. We are used to thinking of gas coming up to the surface in bubbles and releasing itself into the atmosphere when the bubble pops. Not so with clathrate methane – most bubbles pop long before they rise the 200 meters or more to the surface, according to the models. Instead, one of several things happens: the methane rises to the surface but not as bubbles (it is “buoyant”) and then releases into the atmosphere, or it is eaten by methane-eating bacteria, or it converts (typically to carbon dioxide) en route. Initial indications are that a small percentage of melted clathrate should rise to the surface combined with water and is released into the atmosphere as methane, which happens effectively immediately; a large percentage should be eaten by bacteria, who convert it into carbon dioxide on the surface of the sea, and the carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere in order to equalize atmospheric and oceanic CO2; and a medium-sized percentage should convert to carbon dioxide without going through the bacteria, to be released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide in the same way.

The methane clathrates in the Arctic seas contain perhaps 50%-80% of all clathrates. They are also by far the most likely to be affected by global warming, since water temperature variation due to increased sunlight on the water and increased temps of sun-warmed currents from the south are widest there.

Other Methane Sources

The picture of land-based methane sources also needs amendment. It appears that much of the methane stored in permafrost is stored in peat within the permafrost – which can extend as far down as 200 meters or so. Meanwhile, wetlands at whatever latitude are generators of methane, the Amazon as much as Ireland. When the permafrost melts, the water plus peat turns into a bog that (under global warming) is maintained by increased precipitation: that’s what often drives increased methane production.

Here, the translation to the atmosphere is more clear. Melting of permafrost releases any methane locked in the ice (but not in clathrates), and also creates new constantly-emitting sources of methane. Likewise, wetlands inject methane directly into the atmosphere.

Now we come to the tricky part. We are accustomed to thinking of methane in the atmosphere as separate from carbon dioxide. Not so. What often happens to methane in the atmosphere is that it "oxidizes”, which typically means that one of the hydrogen atoms is broken off to help form H2O (water), while the rest forms a methyl group (CH3) which eventually breaks down to carbon dioxide. In other words, much of the methane tossed into the atmosphere actually winds up as the major greenhouse gas, and stays up there for 150-250 years.

What’s the Effect? Um …

OK, so now the scientist wants to figure out what the global-warming effect of unlocking all that methane is going to be. The problem is that we have two sources of comparison, and neither of them is great.

The first is to use what happens over 10-20,000 years immediately after a Milankovitch-cycle minimum (a “glaciation”) as a model. Using that model, scientists have pretty well determined that in such times of rising global temperatures, the amount of methane in the atmosphere probably doesn’t vary by a heck of a lot, and the effects on global temps compared to atmospheric carbon are pretty minimal. Methane melt in general might have a role in things like sea-ice melting near Greenland, which has been shown to have surprisingly wide effects on global climate, but most of the good candidates for that type of melt (subsea, permafrost, wetlands) just don’t make a strong case for themselves.

The problem with this type of analysis is that it looks only at periods when most of the ice remains – because that’s what happens at the peak temps of a Milankovitch cycle. We have almost certainly moved above those peak temps in the last couple of decades, and so we are in much less charted waters. For a period much more comparable, you have to go back to the PETM – 55 million years ago.

OK, in the PETM, temps were 5-10 degrees C warmer than now. Increases in carbon in the atmosphere just don’t seem to be enough to justify those warmer temps. So for a while, there were theories floating around that methane was the complete reason for that kind of warming – no carbon needed. That would have been nice, since figuring out why carbon suddenly spiked in the first place, not to mention why the time period of this rapid warming was around 20,000 years as the latest research suggests, has been a headache. Bad news: there simply doesn’t seem to be a natural source of methane that comes near to explaining the whole temperature rise, not to mention keeping going for 20,000 years. So it looks like we have a choice between carbon emissions plus “unknown”, and carbon plus methane. Tentatively, the scientists are voting for carbon plus methane.

But the PETM isn’t great as a model, either. The problem there is that things happened slowly compared to today. If we say that the carbon atmospheric-concentration rise then happened over the course of 20,000 years, well, our carbon rise appears to be happening over 350 years – and it may very well double the rise of the PETM over the course of those 350 years. In other words, this is happening at least a hundred times faster. And, as we’ve seen in the case of carbon, that can mean that the positive follow-on effects happen well before the negative “stabilizer” effects. So, for example, don’t necessarily expect the magical munching methane sea bacteria to appear in the Arctic and save the day.

OK, so the models we have aren’t great. Can we at least use them for some guesstimates?

Preliminary Guesses

Well, the scientists have done the guessing for me. The key sentences I find in Chapter 6 say, more or less (with the usual caveats about my understanding), that the amount of atmospheric methane from natural sources pre-Industrial Revolution equals the amount of methane added from human sources since then, which equals the likely amount of methane to be added at some point due to all natural sources except subsea methane, which equals the potential amount of methane from subsea methane. In other words, in a worst-case scenario with 2006 models, at some point in the next 300 years, we might expect atmospheric methane four times what it was in 1850.

How much added heating would that translate to? Again, reading between the lines, perhaps 1 degree C from the methane alone. However, if we take the PETM as a model, it might be more like 2 degrees C. And that’s the maximum, so we can all semi-relax, right?

Well, no. You see, there are two problems. First of all there’s the fact that much of that methane is going to convert to carbon dioxide when it’s up there. Second, there’s the fact that the more methane gets into the atmosphere from now on, the longer it sits there. The 2006 estimate was that methane hangs up in the atmosphere an average of 9 years. But at twice the concentration, I think we can count on it sitting up there for 12-18 years on average. So those two things should add another ½-1 degrees C to the “additive effect” of methane in the atmosphere.

And then, of course, there’s the question of methane that converts to carbon dioxide before it gets into the atmosphere. Here, the summary didn’t really have much to add in the long term. Even by their time-frame estimates, all that methane-to-carbon-dioxide, even if it doesn’t get there in the next 100 years, will almost certainly show up in the next 1000 years. So it’s a more extreme version of my “pay me now or pay me later” scenario – except that we can at least hope that by the time the methane-turned-carbon-dioxide shows up, we will have managed to cut down on our human-caused carbon emissions and the amount in the atmosphere will have begun to go downhill significantly.

All in all, not great, but not as bad as my full doomsday scenario. Instead of 6 degrees C from methane-turned-CO2, perhaps 2-3, although that increase will stick around for maybe twice as long; instead of 7-9 degrees C from methane-stayed-methane over the next 160 years, perhaps 1-2 degrees over the next 300-500 years. And it will happen more gradually, so it won’t be really noticeable, probably, for the next 30-40 years. Except …

I’m Not All the Way Down

Read carefully the interview with the head of the survey of methane releases in the Siberian Sea. He states, effectively, that the diameter of the “craters” I referred to earlier had increased by up to 100 times this year, and this methane was “bubbling to the surface.” If you look at the 2006 summary, neither is supposed to happen. Very little methane should arise to the surface in a bubble, as noted above, and the methane hydrates should not suddenly do a big jump in melting: and 5 degrees C increase in water temps (since 1984, a jump of 2.1 degrees C has been observed) should cause perhaps 1 meter’s worth or less of methane hydrates to melt over the next 40-80 years – and it can’t be explained as mudslides, since it has happened in quite a few places.

So why would scientists’ models be wrong? Well, in the first place, they assume that relative sea-water warming will only occur in a short space in the summer, when the ice is melted and the sun warms its top. However, the depth of the surface ice in winter is also less than before, and the water carried by currents from the south is warmer. Clearly, it’s very possible that scientists are underestimating the amount of melting going on the rest of the year. Add this to the known problems with the original model developed in 1995, and you have some, but maybe not all, of the increase in clathrate atmospheric methane release explained.

The second flaw may be the modeled prediction that very little methane melt will rise to the surface as bubbles. Why might this model be wrong? I don’t have a clear answer from the summary – it could be that the turbulence of the water keeps the bubble from popping, although that seems unlikely. One thing seems clear: the magical munching methane bacteria are nowhere to be seen.

And the third flaw, which also affects the land methane emissions rate, is a major underestimate in the models of the rate of global warming. The models implicitly assume that the Arctic sea ice won’t melt entirely in summer before somewhere between 2030 and 2100, and year-round perhaps never – that one seems clearly wrong. Therefore, they underestimate the speed of the follow-on effects, including much faster warming of water within 100 meters of the surface, which would inevitably mean much faster warming at the 200-500 meter level – sorry, that’s not “deep ocean.”

In other words, what the latest information is telling us is that the semi-comforting story I just gave you is almost certainly an underestimate. The “true” effect of methane is somewhere between my doomsday estimate and the one above – except that the roles of methane-stayed-methane and methane-turned-carbon-dioxide have switched, because we now know that much of that atmospheric methane is going to change to carbon dioxide while it’s up there.

I find the logic of the summary convincing as well as semi-comforting; so if I had to guess, I would say that the net effect is somewhere between 3-5 degrees C, mainly in carbon dioxide, and spiking over the next 40-150 years before leveling off. But that’s a complete guess. Until I understand just how the models went wrong, I’m only partially talked down from my panic. So here’s to the New Year: It will be a season of hope, it will be a season of despair, it will be a season of enormous impatience until the first scientific explanations come out.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Methane: The Final Shoe

Recently, Neven’s blog on Arctic sea ice ( featured a new post on recent scientific observations of methane – observations that Neven said made him “sick to my stomach.” I am not as easily panicked – I reserved my stomach sickness for a recent British report about how most life in the oceans, except jellyfish, will be dead within the century unless we do far more than we are doing. However, I do understand his reaction. Effectively, these reports indicate that the dreaded “final shoe” of global warming, the one reinforcing side-effect of global warming that we hoped against hope would not happen, appears to be partially beginning to drop. Moreover, it seems clear to me that most if not all folks, even those who are aware of methane’s role in climate, are underestimating its potential impact in causing additional and more rapid murder, disaster, and then catastrophe.

So here is my understanding of methane’s role in our tragedy – for yes, some small tragedy is unavoidable now, even without methane’s impact and even if we do everything we can from now on. I am sure that as an amateur I am missing or misrepresenting some points. I am also pretty sure that most amateur commentators are doing far worse. If I were you, I would not take comfort from any of this post’s stumbles or missteps.

How It Works

Methane is CH4, or a carbon atom with four hydrogen atoms. It is, imho, the second most important “greenhouse gas”, and to understand its effects it is best to compare it with carbon tossed into the atmosphere and combined with oxygen to form CO2, or carbon dioxide.

Here’s how carbon emissions that form carbon dioxide work (excess detail stripped away). As they ascend in the air they combine with the oxygen to form carbon dioxide. Most of that carbon dioxide sits in the atmosphere for perhaps 150 years, and most of the carbon has fallen to earth again within 250 years. While it is up there, doubling the amount of carbon (in CO2 form) in the atmosphere adds about 3 degrees C to global temperatures, and double that in the far north and south, especially in the winter. The “normal” rate of carbon in the atmosphere is 250-280 ppm (parts per million), and we are presently somewhere around 395 ppm.

Methane emissions work in a similar fashion, but with some important differences. In the first place, methane is typically stored in the earth and emitted as a gas – i.e., not as carbon but as CH4. Once it gets into the air, it can either split the carbon atom to form carbon dioxide – hence increasing that greenhouse gas – or remain as methane. If it stays methane, most of it stays in the atmosphere for 10 years, and most is gone after 15 years. So what’s the problem?

Well, the problem is that while methane is in the atmosphere it has up to 70 times the impact on global warming of comparable amounts of carbon dioxide. I find it useful here to imagine the old image of keeping a ping-pong ball in the air with jets blowing from beneath. If I toss a ball of carbon dioxide in the air, it stays up there for 200 years. With methane, I have to keep blowing like crazy – or, if you like, adding the same number of new balls of methane every 12 years. But if I keep an amount of methane in the atmosphere comparable to doubling carbon dioxide, then I drive up temps not by 3 degrees C, but by 100 degrees C. No, we haven’t gotten to the worrisome part yet.

In other words, the effects of increased amounts of atmospheric methane, piled on top of increasing carbon dioxide from other sources, fall somewhere in between two extremes. At one extreme, all the methane turns into carbon dioxide, and hangs there for 150-250 years. As we will see, that means that carbon dioxide may double or quadruple compared to global warming without intervention by methane, for an additional 3-6 degree C global warming. At the other extreme, all the methane stays methane. As we will see, a reasonable guess for its effects then is a 12-18 degree C additional increase starting somewhere around 20 years from now and going for 120 years, and then fading out. To put it bluntly: we roast more now (stays methane) or we fry more later (changes to carbon dioxide).

The Real Worry

So where are these new methane emissions coming from? Mainly, there are two potential types of source. The first is human-caused activity: just as we emit more carbon by burning fossil fuels as our population and industry grows, so emissions of methane for industry and personal tasks and by increasing populations of farm animals like cows increases accordingly. The second is methane frozen in the earth between periods of unusual global warming. That methane lies in three main places:

i. The shallow Arctic seas, especially the shallow Siberian sea north of Russia, where it is frozen not in ice but in a comparable substance known as a clathrate;

ii. The permafrost of Siberia and northern Canada/Alaska, where it is locked in frozen ground tens of meters deep on top of unfrozen earth;

iii. The peat bogs further south, where it is often mixed with water.

The methane emissions from our first type of source have caused methane in the atmosphere to shoot up fairly steadily over the last 100-odd years, so that methane is now a significant contributor to today’s global warming. It would be a really excellent idea to cut down on it. However, to some extent that increase has apparently leveled off. No, what really scares us over the next 200 years is the second set of sources.

The last time the globe apparently became (not when it was, when it became) this warm or warmer – maybe 55 million years ago, in what is called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM for short – it seems very likely that methane from the second source type was indeed emitted in quantity as methane, as that is a very good explanation for why temps actually went a little higher than the amount of carbon dioxide in the air would seem to dictate. However, that should not give us comfort. Ken Caldeira in Nature notes that methane of this type was stored in much smaller quantities then. That would mean that methane from sources i-iii emitted now would either (a) have similar effects over a much longer period of time or (b) would have much greater effects over the same period of time. So which is it, (a) or (b)?

Well, one obvious factor in deciding between (a) and (b) is how fast our global temps are going up already, before we start emitting i-iii. Once we start that faster rate of emissions, of course, that will speed up global warming even further, so we can bet that a faster initial rate of global-temp increase will keep methane emissions higher right throughout the process. And every available bit of evidence points to the fact that we are warming already much faster than in the PETM – because we humans are emitting carbon stored in the earth as “fossil fuels” (really, mostly decayed vegetable matter) much faster.

All right, so it’s faster. Is it fast enough to worry about? Here we have to consider sources i, ii, and iii separately. Methane clathrates are apparently a big honking source of methane, according to scientific estimates. No one is entirely sure about how fast these clathrates will “melt” and methane bubbles will rise to the surface, once they start melting. However, they are sitting in shallow seas and they start right at the surface of the sea-floor. We know what it takes: warming of the water above the clathrates. And that has been happening, as the Arctic sea ice in that area at the top of the water melts in the summer where it hasn’t before, the sun beats down on the newly-exposed water to heat it, and warmer water from the south moves in.

Now let’s consider ii. Joe Romm at has an extended post focusing on this source. The net of what he has to say is: Methane stored in permafrost is comparable in amount to methane stored in clathrates – big and honking. Permafrost melting is already underway at a brisk pace. Projections that are unrealistically conservative about how fast global warming will occur project that methane/carbon dioxide emissions from that permafrost will reach a high level about 20 years from now and continue at that level or somewhat higher for 120 years, at which point most of the permafrost will be gone. Make your own adjustments – however you adjust, it’s going to reach a higher level than that sooner, and stay there for a shorter period of time. Is that enough, by itself, to worry about? You betcha.

Then there’s iii – peat bogs and wetlands, even in the tropics. It’s not clear that there is as much methane there, or that it will be released as quickly. Remember, the further south (north, for the Southern Hemisphere) you go, the slower the rate of global warming. But it’s very clear that it’s happening. That was what the Russian summer fires were all about: global warming led to warmer temperatures that dried up the peat bogs and they went up in smoke, releasing methane. My totally random guesstimate is that peat bog methane emissions will follow much the same trajectory as those in i and ii, and will therefore have ½ to ¼ the impact at any one time or overall of either i or ii.

Now let’s reach ahead and note that things get drastically worse if all of these emissions increases happen over the same period of time – somewhere around 2-2.5 times worse. Luckily, so far emissions source i has not yet kicked in. Scientists report that as of 2010, there were no atmospheric signs of unusual methane or CO2 from Arctic sea sources. Be careful. There’s a trick in that statement.

Doing the Math

Before we hurry on to our conclusion, let’s pause and see if we can nail down a little better what those effects are likely to be if all three sources of the second type fire off fast at the same time. In particular, let’s assume a scenario like that predicted for source ii, only this time with all three sources emitting like crazy.

One estimate has the amount of stored methane, converted to carbon dioxide, at about 7 times the amount in the atmosphere right now. Let’s assume that, starting 20 years from now, this emits about 1/3 of itself at a fairly steady rate over the course of the following 160 years. So, 2.3 times 400 ppm or 920 ppm is the amount added to the atmosphere by 2170, on top of the existing amount (400 ppm) and the amount estimated to be added to the atmosphere by 2100 under “business as usual” (900 ppm). We’re up to about 7-9 degrees C global warming somewhere between 2100 and 2150. Even if we cut our emissions to zero today (totally unrealistic), we’re up to 5-7 degrees Celsius.

If you want to be gloomy, you can assume almost all the methane, turned to carbon dioxide, vents in the same time period. Add on another 1800 ppm, and then add on another 500 ppm for continuing “business as usual” between 2100 and 2170. Now we’re talking 12 degrees C.

OK, same thing, but it all stays methane. If you remember, this is over 160 years, but methane falls from the sky after about 12 years, so we’re talking about 12/160 = 1/12.33 of the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide on an ongoing basis over that 160 years. However, that methane has perhaps 33 times the effect on temps while it’s up there. So starting 20 years from now, there is an overall jump of about 8 degrees C on top of the effect from carbon dioxide noted above – and that effect lasts for 160-odd years. That baked-in non-methane carbon dioxide effect is going to be around 3 degrees C under the most optimistic of assumptions, and could go as high as 9 degrees C. And remember, if you want to be gloomy, tack on an additional 6 degrees C from emitting almost all the methane.

So here’s your two extremes. If you’re lucky, it’ll all go up as methane, and fall right down again. Now we’re talking 11-23 degrees C global warming between 2030 and 2190, and we fall down to a nice comfortable 6 degrees C after that. If you’re unlucky, it’ll all go up as carbon dioxide, in which case we’ll see maybe 8 degrees C of global warming from 2050 to about 2330. By the way, initial estimates are that more of it will rise as carbon dioxide.

The best part of this analysis is that I left out other “positive forcings.” In particular, I left out the fact that all this warming is going to turn part of the ocean (The Arctic and Antarctic) and part of the land (all those nasty glaciers) darker, from white (snow) and off-white (ice) to dark brown and green (land) and dark blue (ocean). Darker colors store heat. I’m not sure what how much warming effect that will have, but scientific estimates suggest indirectly (it’s included in some scientific estimates suggesting 3-6 degrees additional warming beyond that due to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) that it’s likely to be at least an additional 1 degree C. Icing on the cake. Or not icing.

The Best Part

Now back to that trick. You noticed, didn’t you, that I said “as of 2010.” Well, the recent article cited by Neven said that a Russian scientist reported that in their annual sample of Siberian Sea methane emissions, which they had been doing for 20 years, for the first time ever they were seeing, not “funnels” of tens of meters across from which methane was bubbling up, but lots of funnels “more than a thousand meters across”. Do the math: that’s between 1000 and 10,000 times the rate they had ever seen before. He was very confident that results across much of the Siberian Sea would be similar. Is that enough to signal the start of Arctic sea methane emissions on the scale we’ve been talking about? How can it not be enough?

Now let’s add the usual caveats: wide variance inherent in the estimates, lack of confirming evidence in some areas, uncertainties in data collection, blah, blah. The scientist’s reaction to these is to minimize the impact by stating the most likely impact of which he or she can be certain. The realistic reaction is to ask what is the impact of median likelihood, with equal likelihood of a lesser or greater impact – and, as far as I can tell, that’s what I’ve given you.

And, by the way, don’t bother to object that present projections don’t show this. Guess what – most models don’t consider the impact of even one natural methane source behaving this way, and the rest (only recently) of just one (permafrost).
Like I said, I don’t get sick to my stomach about this – because I did my own guesstimates more than a year ago and got my puking done then. I’m still hoping that the methane shoe will drop more slowly; and also that I’ll win the lottery. Right now, the latter seems more likely. Happy holidays, all.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Psychological Failure of Libertarianism

One of the theories of government that I have been considering lately is this: the long-term success or failure of a system of government is determined in many cases by how they treat their insane. Or, more precisely, how they avoid discarding people with psychological problems unnecessarily while dealing with people with psychological problems who potentially can gain power over other people.
Until the early 20th century, we did not even have the vocabulary to face this question. I remember one student of history who was quoted as saying that our reading of history before about the 12th century should be tempered by the fact that everyone, from Aristotle to Abelard, was absolutely nuts – that they led lives of trauma and were genetically predisposed to serious psychological illnesses. Yet no history before about 1920 that I can recall ever raised such a question.

Nevertheless, we can guess at some of the ways certain systems of government approached the matter. On the one hand, Charles of France was treated as intermittently mad while Henry V of England invaded, and so was George III of England (although we now think it may have been an inherited medical condition); while the unclassifiable were confined to madhouses and Bedlam in unbelievable squalor that certainly did not improve their plight. On the other hand, people like Napoleon (one theory posits he had extreme ADHD or a Type A personality, since he was always hyperactive and slept little) and Alexander (at the very least, megalomania exacerbated by alcoholism) were rewarded with excessive power despite the destructive effects on society of over-accommodation of their insanity – so that not only military dictatorship but also hereditary kingship tended to choke on its own psychological excesses.

Democracy (or, more properly, until the early 1900s, republicanism) as practiced in Britain and the United States did offer some “checks and balances” on power which served to limit the power of the insane whose insanity was indetectible: a General Sherman gave every indication of occasionally going off the deep end, but was never in a position of political power where it could really ruin things in the long run – except for his power over Native Americans.

However, with the popularization of Freud’s theories, the veil was ripped away from many of the clearly problematic psychologies of power, and it has never been possible again to accept with equanimity addiction, sadism, psychopathy, narcissism, and other conditions that are deeply serious when allied with power to govern others. In this light, while non-democratic societies that hide and deny psychological problems are clearly inferior, just as clearly our democracies have far to go in facing up to the psychological problems of those in power, and in treating the psychologically disabled in ways that ensure we don’t waste those who can contribute, rather than typecasting them or stuffing them in jails to be forgotten.

Rejecting the Deeper World
The effect of our new understanding of psychology has been subtle but pervasive. I see it clearest in a sharp divide occurring about 1920 in literature. I remember picking up a stray “woman’s novel” once from around that time, and marveling at how its differences cast any novel from 1910 and before as flat, bland, and somehow shallow – the stick figure of the madwoman was revealed to have a past of tragedy that not only shaped itself into depression and alcoholism, but led with painful examination of all the “unmentionables” repressed for the sake of survival to a very nuanced hope. Contrast that with a Samuel Butler, a G.A. Henty, or even a Mark Twain!

At the same time, however, it has led Western society, at least, into an uncomfortable and apparently unending examination of the psychological characteristics of our leaders. We have learned, for example, that our habit of demanding fidelity to our wishes from our male legislators while subjecting them to incredible amounts of campaign contempt has led to amazing numbers of them seeking unconditional adoration from groupies, and frequenting whorehouses where they alternately dominate and are spanked. We have in some cases learned to accommodate leaders who have been treated for depression or who smoked pot when they were young, perhaps because we have begun to realize just how understandable and relatively unimportant such traits are in a leader.

The psychological viewpoint has also affected how we view major “new” theories of the government from the past. Communism – to be clearly distinguished from socialism, which seeks to balance a greater “insurance” role for government with continuing democracy – has fallen short in practice, we now assert, not only for its other sins, but also because its secrecy and na├»ve view of human psychology (“from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”, to misparaphrase Marx) leads more often to pathologically paranoid leaders and the depression and alcoholism of the command-and-control economy. So does Fascism. A capitalism-driven government – or, if you prefer, an oligarchy, not of the landed but of the moneyed rich – falters as a theory when we consider the narcissism and Type A obsessive-compulsive behavior of its leaders, the so-called “captains of industry and finance,” and its failure to face the highly irrational behavior of its participants that leads to “bubbles”, “imperfect markets”, “Ponzi schemes”, and above all to “doubling down on failure.”

And then there is libertarianism – the only theory, in my opinion, that can be said to have gained currency after the arrival of psychology on the scene. What is striking about libertarianism is that, superficially at least, it takes no notice of psychology’s insights; in fact, it acts as if they don’t exist. When previous theories were developed, ignoring the deeper world of psychology’s insights was understandable, since those insights had not yet been developed; in libertarianism, it amounts to a – unconscious! – rejection of those insights. What’s going on? What does it mean for libertarianism in practice?

Libertarianism in Theoretical Practice
I have been hearing about libertarianism since the early 1980s, when it was all the rage in the political discussion groups on the nascent Internet – in fact, the incessant posts about how “libertarianism solves this!” were early markers of today’s trolls who crowd out all other viewpoints. My question, then and now, was, OK, how does it really work in practice? Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, which I had picked up 15 years before, was of very little help. Even at 15, I could see that the climactic trial scene was utterly unrealistic (the prosecutor in any sane trial would, instead, be talking about law and order and how the protagonist should be locked up to prevent future acts that would kill people); and this was the case of an isolated libertarian in a non-libertarian society, not a fully-fledged functioning libertarian culture. Likewise, Robert Heinlein’s Moon is a Harsh Mistress seems to show a complete (prison) libertarian society; but proponents seem to keep forgetting that at the end, when supposedly the truly independent libertarian society is launched, it immediately breaks down in “political infighting”, and the protagonist leaves for hopefully more libertarian pastures.

In fact, the best portrayal of a libertarian society I have seen is in a gem of a science-fiction novel by a long-underappreciated author, Eric Frank Russell. It is really three essays in political theory, in which a benign military invasion seeks to restore three planetary societies to “normal” government, and fails miserably at each point. The first is a Mafia government, where the inhabitants reject return to “normalcy” by treating every military move as a mobster power play. The second is a government of narcissists, which simply regards everyone else as incredibly ugly and therefore to be exterminated or at least removed from sight immediately. The third is the most appealing to the protagonist – and to us.

In it, the whole society functions by a form of barter known as “obs” – short for obligations. If you want something from someone, you do something for that person (or someone else, in trade) in return – there is a very clear relationship between work and reward. Attempts at domination are met, confusingly, with “myob!” – short for “mind your own business.” The person who tries to get things for free is progressively blocked until, if he does not stop, he cannot get anything at all, and starves to death.

At this point, readers of the Laura and Mary books should begin to suspect what makes this society so appealing – it’s very like the frontier society described in those books. Pa and Ma are utterly self-reliant and function well in a society of other self-reliant types, where everyone feels an obligation to help others and expects others to help them in the same measure, where payment is as much by that kind of trade as by exchange of goods for money, where the children are brought up to behave in the same way, with fewer stereotypes about “helpless women”, and where outsiders are few.

And yet, the Laura and Mary books, written as they are from the viewpoint of a pre-psychology frontier society, cannot help but note things that call into question the long-term stability of such a society, and form a sharp contrast with Mr. Russell’s society. The violent, disturbed young student in Laura’s class is handled without regulations, yes, but by application of a whip that will in all likelihood lead to an adulthood in which the student will view the whip as the answer to everything – “might makes right.” The government that fails to get the trains through in the Long, Hard Winter is rightly viewed as incompetent by Pa; but, as technically dexterous as people are, there is no sign that the frontier society is anywhere near providing the same level of technology as the train and distribution system that keep folk alive and keep people from going stir-crazy. When Almanzo proves incompetent at farming and goes back to his expertise in running a country store, while Laura wrecks her health trying to pick up the slack at the farm while pregnant, Pa comes to the rescue, yes, but the result is that Laura moves back to a non-frontier, non-libertarian society, where there is a better social safety net. The drunks, the rowdy miners, the rancher-farmer friction of much of the rest of the American West and the attendant psychological problems, are mostly offstage, but we can still perceive that they are out there. The problems of class (the Olsens), of isolation (the Long, Hard Winter), of excess disease (Mary’s blindness) are all psychologically-related strains that this society can only handle up to a point, and whose solutions are far from ideal.

Libertarian Power Vulnerability
At this point, the libertarian will typically answer with a variant of “Here’s how libertarianism solves the problem!”, usually an assumption that today’s or tomorrow’s technology (computer or otherwise) will allow a very loosely coupled massive collection of frontier societies to function without the psychological stresses caused by hunger, disease, and so on. But that is not my point. Because we now come to the psychologically disturbed who seek excess power in such a society.

Note Mr. Russell’s way of solving the problem of the self-centered, amoral individual. Leave aside the fact that piling more “obs” on a person may face that person with reality, but may also create a burden greater than an individual who is partly but not wholly self-centered can bear. No, my objection is rather that such a solution still leaves the door wide open to exploitation by people with known and dangerous psychological conditions – in many ways, wider open than other forms of government.

Consider, for example, the psychopath. The psychopath has no objection to working hard – although for the life of him he cannot understand why other people care. Rather, the psychopath is often superb at counterfeiting the well-adjusted, hard-working individual, while behind the scenes he seeks control and immediate gratification of whims. Want to see how he behaves in his private life? Myob! He will happily undertake all sorts of obs for what he views as useless things in return for more and more power; and he is exceptionally good at convincing you that what he is doing is natural and normal and desirable.

In most societies, not the psychopath but at least the existence of abnormal power is recognized, and so at least psychopaths are kept under more control via laws, competition from other psychopaths, and, more recently, recognition of and monitoring for the condition. In libertarianism, by definition, psychopaths are supposed to be kept in check “automagically”, by the reality of the “ob” plus the perception of their saner fellows. But, as we have seen, the psychopath is not impeded by work to satisfy “obs” nor by inability to deceive those linked in the “ob” chain. On the contrary, the loosely-coupled nature of this society means that if the technology cannot pick it up (and why would a libertarian trust a computer Big Brother?) then the victims simply don’t compare notes – myob! And the psychopath has every incentive to reach out to other psychopaths in other communities to increase power without threat to himself. The result is a libertarian veneer over the worst of totalitarian societies – a kind of libertarian Animal Farm.

A closely allied problem is that of the narcissist. The narcissist in fact has a great incentive to work hard, and a superficial self-confidence that counterfeits sanity, but, like the psychopath, she has a total lack of empathy, and she also has a strong and violent reaction to criticism (btw, in case you wondered, both conditions affect both sexes). The object of the narcissist, therefore, is to avoid such criticism at all costs, by surrounding herself with sycophants controlled by massive obs. Narcissists also tend to reach armed truces with other narcissists in other communities leading to mutual admiration societies, with Mutually Assured Criticism replacing Mutually Assured Destruction as a deterrent to competition between them.

In most societies, the narcissist is more easy to detect than the psychopath, and criticism that cannot be held at bay is the ultimate control – which we can sometimes achieve in both democracies and autocracies by occasional but nonetheless somewhat effective random acts of criticism/punishment fueled by laws. But while Nelly Olsen may have been easy to counter in a frontier society, a massive collection of such societies allows the Nelly Olsens of the world a surprising power to combine to hold up “fashions” as a tool for power. Subtly, the freedom of the libertarian to think different thoughts is corrupted into the freedom to buy into the narcissist’s idea of fashion. Again, the libertarian idea that such things can be handled “automagically” simply enables a libertarian veneer over a world in which we respond as the narcissist wants, with useless obs traded for narcissist praise and control.

I pass over addiction here because, in fact, it can be argued that libertarianism has an equally effective method of dealing with it – which is, I believe, the method outlined by Mr. Russell, of refusal to be blinded by promises not backed up by fulfillment of obs, and of effective withdrawal of the addiction: kill or cure. However, I would note that this is adequately effective only if you believe that approaches that seek to end the addiction before starvation arrives are useless. I happen to believe that the carrot of psychological encouragement and the medical fix as well as the stick does better, and so libertarianism, which by its nature tends to reject the first two, would in the end prove less effective. In any case, the addict has a destructive effect on any scheme of government that is limited by his or her excesses to the relatively short run, hence the short reign of some of Rome’s Augustan emperors – so the point is moot.

And now we can revert to the problem of how a government handles the psychologically powerless who are disturbed. I would repeat, again, that the reasons I view libertarianism as not as good a societal solution as many of the others cited above – the unusual power they give to certain types of psychological disturbance by their inability to recognize those types – do not apply to the case of the psychologically ill who are powerless. Here, I rely only on my own experience of having a hand in the care of the autistic. The help of others that was like that of a frontier community helping with each others’ burdens; it was well-meant but in almost all cases – whether it involved the autistic person taking responsibility for his or her entirely automatic destructive actions, or volunteering the helper’s own creative thought based on irrelevant experience about what it was and what to do – was almost invariably counterproductive. The help of businesses was entirely focused on what made money for the purveyor, with as little regard as possible for the needs of a particular as opposed to the “average” autistic person. The help of government was bumbling, bureaucratic, intrusive, and in most cases the most effective of all, because it bore some vague relation to both the common good and solid science – particularly as regards psychology. We can argue endlessly about whether “libertarianism can solve that problem!” The fact is, the libertarian communities I hear about out there don’t have psychological smarts, aren’t set up to inhale or accept scientific knowledge about Tourette’s or ADHD, and tend to be misogynistic and indiscriminate in their enthusiasms; so even if the nature of libertarianism does not preclude decent handling of the psychological illness of the powerless, I see absolutely no sign of real-world libertarianism coming up with such a solution in the foreseeable future.

A Better Way
And yet, as I have noted, we perceive some merit in the ideas that libertarianism promotes. This merit, I would say, lies entirely in two aspects of their criticism of present-day societies and governments. Firstly, yes, there should be a much better line between actions and consequences. We respond positively, rightly, to the notion that we have to earn as much as, but not more than, we get in return, and we have to pay the right price for doing wrong things – because it tells us that our irrepressible self-esteem is truly earned. Secondly, it is indeed reasonable to be concerned about increasing powerlessness and threat of blackmail in one’s life as governments intrude, even to try to make things better. It is this kind of merit, I believe, that leads a scientist like James Hansen to protest that he is a bit of a libertarian himself, even as he is being viciously attacked by climate deniers in the guise of libertarians.

And yet, libertarianism, like anarchism, is effectively defined by its negatives. Rather than accommodating a theory of human psychology that requires consideration of structures to contain the harmful societal effects of mental illness, while preserving the potential of those temporarily ill for later contributions, libertarianism “solves” the problems of skewed action/reward pairs and powerlessness by abolishing such structures entirely. The result, by libertarianism’s own definition, is a much greater inability to cope with society-destabilizing and destructive psychological conditions such as psychopathy and narcissism.

And so, sadly, we must return to trying to improve the systems we already have in these areas. These, at least, have made some effort to accommodate psychology’s insights; and therefore their structures are to some extent pre-adapted to the task. However, our development of these structures has up to now been almost entirely reactive, involving after-the-fact regulations and sanctions, leaving the powerful but disturbed always one step ahead in adapting to the new rules of the game.

A better answer to the action/reward problem, I believe, is to embed a deliberate integration of psychology and action/reward fine-tuning into the workings of the government. Yes, like everything else, it can be diverted by the powerful. But introducing the notion of psychopathology into the fabric of normally-functioning society and power structures makes the notion a fundamental part of life that the powerful cannot quite argue away. Too blatant a violation, and only sweeping aside other powerful people to alter the government will do; and that’s a solution that even a psychopath will usually find difficult. The action/reward fine-tuning can then be undertaken as limited by psychology concerns, rather than used to justify deregulation leading to libertarian dystopias.

In the powerlessness area, we are faced with the dilemma that societal success and growth increases distorting power bases that affect us. Our technological might and numbers allow us to create better monitoring technologies for threats like al Qaeda, technologies which in turn are very hard to point away from us, much less prevent the powerful in government and outside it from using these technologies to keep us in line, whatever that means. As our numbers and tasks increase, the power of our vote decreases. The answer here, I believe, is less in the checks and balances and regulations that are harder and harder to preserve and extend, and more in the extension of fundamental limits on any powerful person to throw sand in the gears, by the constitutional elevation of scientific fact as a limit on all government. It is now time to refuse to permit laws that define pi as 3.00, as the Indiana legislature is once reported to have done. And that job should not be the sole duty of the courts, but also of scientists whose independence and peer-review process is preserved constitutionally as a necessary part of a free society. The best way to prevent burgeoning power from ever being used against us unjustly is to require that its users never distort the truth beyond recognition in their efforts to do so; because the powerful will view changing these rules are not worth the bother, while this kind of rule places a better limit on the powerful, no matter what their tactics.

And finally, the better way would ensure that we continue to improve our handling of the powerless and psychologically ill, as we have been doing, free of interference from those who would wipe out such efforts in the name of libertarianism and the like. I am no automatic fan of today’s efforts in this area. I am, I think, fully aware of their misuse, not least by some psychologists. I simply assert that we are much, much better off than in the days when Bedlam was the proper place for the autistic – and further improvements lie along much the same path.

Viewed in terms of human psychological excesses, it seems clear to me that libertarianism is by its nature a cure that is worse than the disease. Within our present frustrating systems, there lie the seeds of a way at least marginally better than today’s governmental mess. One way to grow those seeds is to do a better job of facing the realities of human psychology when allied with power, leading to alterations within the general framework of those systems. Libertarianism offers good criticisms but also a poor solution that rejects psychology. We should incorporate those criticisms into a government that handles human psychology better and therefore rejects libertarianism.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Energy Usage and IT: Is the Name Not a Clue?

At the IBM Systems and Technology Group analyst briefing two days ago, IBM displayed three notable statistics:

1. The global amount of information stored has been growing at 70-100% per year the last 5 years, with the result that the amount of storage has been growing by 20-40% per year;

2. The amount of enterprise expenditures for datacenter power/cooling has grown by more than 10-fold over the last 15 years, with the result that these expenditures are now around 16% of system TCO – equal to the cost of the hardware, although well below the also-rising costs of administration;

3. Datacenter energy usage has doubled over the last five years.

These statistics almost certainly underestimate the growth in computing’s energy usage, inside and outside IT. They focus on infrastructure in place 5 years ago, ignoring a highly likely shift to new or existing data centers in developing countries that are highly likely to be more energy-inefficient. Also, they ignore the tendency to shift computing usage outside of the data center and into the small-form-factor devices ranging from the PC to the iPhone that are proliferating in the rest of the enterprise and outside its virtual walls. Even without those increases, it is clear that computing has moved from an estimated 2 % of global energy usage 5 years ago to somewhere between 3 and 4%. Nor has more energy usage in computing led to a decrease in other energy usage – if anything, it has had minimal or no effect at all. In other words, computing has not been effectively used to increase energy efficiency or decrease energy use by more than marginal amounts – not because the tools are not beginning to arrive, but rather because they are not yet being used by enterprises and governments to monitor and improve energy usage in an effective enough way.

And yet, there have been voices – mine among them – pointing out that this was a significant problem, and that there were ways to move much more aggressively, since the very beginning. I remember giving a speech in 2008 to IT folks, in the teeth of the recession, stressing that the problem would only get worse if ignored, that doing something about it would in fact have a short payback period, and that tools for making a major impact were already there. Here we are, and the reaction of the presenters and audience at the STG conference is that the rise in energy usage is no big deal, that datacenters are handling it just fine with a few tweaks, and that IT should focus almost exclusively on cutting administrative costs.

All this reminds me of a Robin Williams comedy routine after the Wall Street implosion. Noting the number of people blindly investing with Bernard Madoff, pronounced “made off” as in “made off with your money”, Robin simply asked, “Was the name not a clue?” So, I have to ask, “energy usage”: is the name not a clue? What does it take to realize that this is a serious and escalating problem?

The Real Danger

Right now, it is all too easy to play the game of “out of sight, out of time, out of mind.” Datacenter energy usage seems as if it is easily handled over the next few years. Related energy usage is out of the sight of corporate. Costs in a volatile global economy that stubbornly refuses to lift off (except in “developing markets” with lower costs to begin with), not to mention innovations to attract increasingly assertive consumers, seem far more urgent than energy issues.

However, the metrics we use to determine this are out of whack. Not only do they, as noted above, ignore the movement of energy usage to areas of lower efficiency, but they also ignore the impact of the Global 10,000 moving in lockstep to build on instead of replacing existing solutions.

Let’s see how it has worked up to now. Corporate demands that IT increase capabilities while not increasing costs. The tightness of the constraints and the existence of less-efficient infrastructure causes IT to increase wasteful scale-out computing almost as much as fast-improving scale-up computing, and also to move some computing outside the data center – e.g., Bring Your Own Device – or overseas – e.g., to an available facility in Manila that is cheaper to provision if it is not comparably energy-optimized at the outset. Next year, the same scenario plays out, only with even greater costs from rebuilding from scratch a larger amount of existing inefficient physical and hardware infrastructure. And on it goes.

But all this would mean little – just another little cost passed on to the consumer, since everyone’s doing it – were it not for two things; two Real Dangers. First, the same process impelling too-slow dealing with energy inefficiency is also impelling a decreasing ability of the enterprise to monitor and control energy usage in an effective way, once it gets around to it. More of the energy usage that should be under the company’s eye is moving to developing countries and to employees/consumers using their own private energy sources inside the walls, so that the barriers to monitoring are greater and the costs of implementing monitoring are higher.

Second – and this is more long-term but far more serious – shifts to carbon-neutral economies are taking far too long, so that every government and economy faces an indefinite future of increasing expenditures to cope with natural disasters, decreasing food availability, steadily increasing human and therefore plant/office/market migration, and increasing energy inefficiency as heating/cooling systems designed for one balance of winter and summer are increasingly inappropriate for a new balance. While all estimates are speculative, the ones I think most realistic indicate that over the next ten years, assuming nothing effective is done, the global economy will reach underperformance by up to 1% per year due to these things, and up to double that by 2035. That, in turn, translates into narrower profit margins due primarily both to consumer demand underperformance and rising energy and infrastructure maintenance costs, hitting the least efficient first, but hitting everyone eventually.

The Blame and the Task

While it’s easy to blame the vendors or corporate blindness for this likely outcome, in this case I believe that IT should take its share of the blame – and of the responsibility for turning things around. IT was told that this was a problem, five years ago. Even had corporate been unwilling to worry about the future that far ahead, IT should at least have considered the likely effects of five years of inattention and pointed them out to corporate.

That, in turn, means that IT bears an outsized responsibility for doing so now. As I noted, I see no signs that the vendors are unwilling to provide solutions for those willing to be proactive. In the last five years, carbon accounting, monitoring within and outside the data center, and “smart buildings” have taken giant leaps, while solar technologies at whatever cost are far more easily implemented and accessed if one doesn’t double down on the existing utility grid. Even within the datacenter, new technologies were introduced 4 years ago by IBM among others that should have reduced energy usage by around 80% out of the box – more than enough to deliver a decrease instead of a doubling of energy usage. The solutions are there. They should be implemented comprehensively and immediately, as, by and large, has not been done.

Alternate IT Futures

I am usually very reluctant to criticize IT. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I laid the weight of the blame on them. In this case, there are many traditional reasons to lay the primary blame elsewhere, and simply suggest that IT look to neat new vendor solutions to handle urgent but misdirected corporate demands. But that begs the question: who will change the dysfunctional process? Who will change a dynamic in which IT claims cost constraints prevent it from “nice to have” energy tools, while corporate’s efforts to respond to consumer “green” preferences only brush the surface of a sea of energy-usage embedded practices in the organization?

Suppose IT does not take the extra time to note the problem, identify solutions, and push for moderate-cost efforts even when strict short-term cost considerations seem to indicate otherwise. The history of the past five years suggests that, fundamentally, nothing will change in the next five years, just as in the past five, and the enterprise will be deeper in the soup than ever.

Now suppose IT is indeed proactive. Maybe nothing will happen; or maybe the foundation will be laid for a much quicker response when corporate does indeed see the problem. In which case, in five years, the enterprise as a whole is likely to be on a “virtuous cycle” of increasing margin advantages over the passive-IT laggards.

Energy usage. Is the name not a clue? What will IT do? Get the clue or sing the blues?