Sunday, May 28, 2023

Superorganism Intelligence, Nuclear Power and the Metacrisis of Wisdom

"Are we at the Fermi Paradox filter moment?"

BWX Technologies, a company that builds power systems for submarines and aircraft carriers, is developing a mobile reactor for the US military that will fit into a standard shipping container and be delivered on a truck. It may not be long before you can order one for your RV on Amazon. The company expects installation should take about three days and the unit will run three years before it needs to be sent back to a service center for refueling. 

Artificial intelligence may accelerate BMX’s timetable and provide even more engineering marvels. Is that a good thing? This past week I took a deep dive into the three-and-a-half-hour podcasted conversation between Nate Hagens and Daniel Schmachtenberger, on how artificial intelligence accelerates climate disruption and pushes us well beyond the many planetary boundaries we have already breached. For the sake of those with less time to spare, let me extract some of the more salient parts of that discussion from The Great Simplification. I recognize these are long sets of quotations, but they extract some of the best parts of a much longer and far more intricate and nuanced conversation.

NH: So humans are a social species and in the modern world, we self-organize as family units, as small businesses, as corporations, as nation states, as an entire global economic system around profits. Profits are our goal and profits lead to GDP or GWP globally. And what we need for that GDP is three things. We need energy, we need materials, and we need technology or in your terms, information. And we have outsourced the wisdom and the decision-making of this entire system to the market. And the market is blind to the impacts of this growth. We represent this by money, and money is a claim on energy. And energy from fossil hydrocarbons is incredibly powerful, indistinguishable from magic, effectively, on human time scales. It’s also not infinite. And as a society we are drawing down the bank account of fossil carbon and non-renewable inputs like cobalt and copper and neodymium and water aquifers and forests, millions of times faster than they were sequestered. 

So there is a recognition that we’re impacting the environment and all of the risk associated with this. We label it the metacrisis or the polycrisis or the human predicament, but they’re all tied together. The system fits together, human behavior, energy, materials, money, climate, the environment, governance, the economic system, et cetera. So right now, our entire economic imperative as nations and as a world is to grow the economy partially because that’s what our institutions are set up to do, partially because when we create money primarily from commercial banks, increasingly from central banks, when governments deficit spend, there is no biophysical tether and the interest is not created. So if the interest is not created, it creates a growth imperative for the whole system and we require growth.

DS: GPT-3 getting a hundred million users in, forget exact exactly what it was now — six weeks or something, which was radically faster than TikTok’s adoption curve, Facebook’s, YouTube’s, cell phones, anything which were already radically faster than the adoption curve of oil or the plow or anything else. So world changing powerful technologies at a speed of deployment, which then led to other companies deploying similar things, which led to people building companies on top of them, which leads to irretractability. 

And so the speed of what started to happen between the corporate races, the adoption curves and the dependencies understandably changed the conversation and brought it into the center of mainstream conversation where it had been only in the domain of people paying attention to artificial intelligence or the risks or promises associated previously. 

There are clusters of cognitive biases that go together to define default worldviews. And they’re not a single cognitive bias, they’re a kind of bunch of them. … One of them that I think is really worth addressing when it comes to AI is a general orientation to techno-optimism or techno-pessimism, which is a subset of a general orientation to the progress narrative. … I would argue that there are naive versions of the progress narrative: Capitalism is making everything better and better. Democracy is, science is, technology is. Don’t we all like the world much better now that there’s novocaine and antibiotics and infant mortality’s down and so many more total people are fed and we can go to the stars and blah, blah, blah?

Obviously there are true parts in everything I just said, but there is a naive version of that that does not factor all the costs that were associated adequately. … One is the costs like climate change and the oceans and insects and the other is the one-time subsidy of non-renewable energy and inputs and the source capacity of the earth, and those are not finite. 


If you ask the many, many indigenous cultures who were genocided or extincted or who have just remnants of their culture left, or if you ask all of the extinct species or all of the endangered species or all of the highly oppressed people, their version of the progress narrative is different.

And just like the story of history, it’s written by winners or losers. But if you add all of those up, the totality of everything that was not the winner’s story is a critique of the progress narrative. And so one way of thinking about it is that the progress narrative is there are some things that we make better. Maybe we make things better for an in-group relative to an out-group. Maybe we make things better for a class relative to another class for a race relative to another race, or for our species relative to the biosphere and the rest of the species. … Or for our generation versus future generations. Short-term versus long-term. 


We’re not saying that nothing could progress, we’re saying ‘Are we calculating that well?’ And if we factor all of the stakeholders, meaning not just the ones in the in-group but all of the people, and not just all the people but all the people into the future, and not just all the people but all the other life forms and all of the definitions of what is worthwhile and what is a meaningful life, not just GDP, then are these things … actually creating progress across that whole scope?

Picking up on my critique of nuclear energy from last week, my primary complaint was directed precisely to this point. The boundaries we have set for measuring societal and ecological impacts are far too narrow. We are willing to take risks for our own safety, possibly to obtain the creature comforts offered, or to reduce our carbon footprint, by obtaining more expensive electricity, but we are externalizing the real risks. We are not pointing the figurative revolver in a game of Russian Roulette at our own heads. We have pointed it at the head of our yet-to-be-born child, or any number of endangered species, or the entire ecological matrix that makes life possible. We have narrowed the boundaries of our value set to merely what is convenient and easily grasped. And then, willy-nilly, we are pulling the trigger. Click. Click.

The Hagens-Schmactenberger discussion gets quite dense, but it is worth simplification, to borrow Hagens’ podcast’s title. Next week I may break it apart a little more, but let’s return to the discussion of AI, and how the world may be transforming rapidly before our eyes.

NH: In the short term, of course, I should advance the AI applied to genomics to solve cancer, without thinking through the fact that the fourth order effects might involve increasing bioweapons capability for everyone, and destruction of the world. So, even the cancer solutions don’t matter in the course of those people’s lives. Is there enough perspective to be able to see how the things that seem wise from a narrow perspective actually look stupid?


DS: So when we talk about problems in capitalism they were different expressions but many of those problems can be seen in terms of environmental harm from optimizing narrow goals.… There was never a person or a group of humans that said, ‘Hey let’s invent capitalism.’ It was always an emergent response to the challenges and the innovation and the coordination of intelligence towards problem-solving of the day, and it took on momentum and then institutions and everything built on top of it.


Rational actors will make a rational choice to utilize the resources that we have, intelligently, for the things that improve our lives the most, and that creates an incentive niche for people to innovate how to make goods and services. AI improves people’s lives more…. You get a benevolent god emerging from that decentralized collective intelligence, right?

The interview began with Daniel Schmachtenberger quoting the opening lines of Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching: “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.” Later, he returns to that verse.

DS: It is fair to say that the cause of the metacrisis and the growth imperative of the superorganism or the capacity that gives rise to it that intelligence has created all the technologies — the industrial tech, the agricultural tech, the digital tech, the nuclear weapons, the energy harvesting, the all of it that intelligence has created — all those things. It has made the system of capitalism. It made the system of communism.

Now that system of intelligence takes corporeal capacities — things that a body could do — and externalizes them the way that a fist can get extended through a hammer, or a grip can get extended through a plier, or an eye can get extended through a microscope or a telescope, or our own metabolism can get extended through an internal combustion engine. So it takes the corporeal capacity and extends out of it extracorporeally … in maximized recursion not bound by wisdom, driven by international multi-polar military traps, and markets, and narrow short-term goals, at the expense of long-term, wider values.

In the metacrisis there are many risks — synthetic biology can make bad pandemics and extreme weather events can drive human migration in local wars and this kind of weapon can do this and this kind of mining can cause this pollution and this kind of pesticide can kill these animals. Those are all risks within the metacrisis. AI is not a risk within the metacrisis, it is an accelerant to all of them. 


AI being used by all types of militaries, all types of governments, all types of corporations, for all types of purposes, achieving narrow goals, externalizing harm to wide goals. It’s an accelerant of the metacrisis on every dimension and so now as we take the intelligence that has driven these problems unbound by wisdom and we exponentialize that kind of intelligence, we get to see — whoa — superintelligence… with something that’s a trillion trillion times smarter and faster than humans. What goals are worth optimizing? It’s not Global GDP because I can increase GDP with war and addiction and all all kinds of things and destroy the environment.

And so I say [to the AI instruction set] ‘Okay it’s GDP plus GINI coefficient plus this other thing plus carbon removal plus whatever. 

Nope. there’s still lots of life that matters outside of those 10 metrics or 100 metrics that I can damage.

To improve [you’d need] a metric set that is definable. It’s like the Tao Te Ching — the Tao that is speakable in words is not the eternal Tao. The metric set that is definable is not the right metric set. So if I keep expanding the metric set to be GDP plus dot dot dot, I can still do a weighted optimization with an AI on this and destroy life. The unknown unknown means there will always be stuff that matters that has to be pulled in… the difference between the set of metrics you’ve identified as important and reality itself limits all your own models. That is not intelligence. That is wisdom.

To have portable nuclear power plants that can be plopped down into war zones today and homes tomorrow may seem intelligent. Lots of short-term gains. But is it wisdom?

In 1950 Enrico Fermi mused to his colleagues, the Milky Way is about 10 billion years old and 100,000 light-years across. If aliens had spaceships that could travel at 1 percent of the speed of light, the galaxy could have already been colonized 1,000 times. “So,” Fermi asked, “Where is everybody?” If there were civilizations scattered across the stars by the billions, why haven’t we heard from them?

Many explanations have been offered. According to the Drake equation, if a civilization could live at least a century after developing radio transmission technology, there could be 10 civilizations in our galaxy alone. But what if after developing technology advanced civilizations hit a biophysical wall and ceased to exist? Perhaps an advanced civilization cannot live for long after developing nuclear power, warming its climate, or otherwise soiling its nest. Is it such a stretch to say that we may be approaching the Fermi Paradox filter moment right now?

So, I asked ChatGPT. It replied: “As an AI language model, I don’t have real-time information or knowledge of specific events that have occurred after my last update in September 2021. At that time, humanity had not yet resolved the Fermi Paradox.”

Bard was more optimistic. “Only time will tell how close humanity is to crossing a threshold of the Fermi Paradox. However, the fact that we are even having this conversation is a sign that we are making progress. As our technology continues to advance, we will be able to search for extraterrestrial life more effectively. And who knows? Maybe one day we will finally find the answer to the Fermi Paradox.”

How very comforting.


Sunday, May 21, 2023

Dark Comedy in the Red Forest

"The best way to assure history will repeat is to make sure no one can learn from it."

Picture this: a surreal scene straight out of a dark comedy.
The Red Army, armed with bulldozers and tanks, digs trenches and sets up shop in the infamous Red Forest near the Chernobyl nuclear site. Yes, you read that right. The very same place where trees turned red, frogs mutated, and feral dogs became wolves again. But here they were, Russian soldiers stationed in the most heavily irradiated site on Earth, apparently oblivious to the health risks they were facing. It’s like a twisted episode of a reality TV show where contestants vie for the title of “Most Clueless Commander.”

In early February 2022, the US Defense Intelligence Agency shared some satellite images with counterparts in Kyiv. The Red Army was building a pontoon bridge to ford a river running through the Pripyet marshes. Ukraine ignored the intel, saying Russia’s Eastern Military District was just conducting a military exercise called Allied Resolve with Belarussian forces. The Pentagon leaked the images to Twitter in an effort to force Kyiv to pay attention.

By the afternoon of the war’s first day, columns of the 36th Combined Arms Army had crossed that bridge and seized the Chernobyl nuclear site, accepting the surrender of the local National Guard detachment and taking roughly 210 civilian staff, as well as the guardsmen, hostage.

It’s mind-boggling how the Russian advance column, supposedly equipped to handle radiation hazards, was utterly ignorant of the dangers they were facing. Troops started experiencing symptoms like vomiting, hair loss and collapse shortly after their arrival. The commanders ordered them to “man up and tough it out” even as green military buses, windows covered, smuggled away the sick to a special rad-safety hospital built to handle the injured in 1986 when Chernobyl suffered a massive explosion with global fallout that contributed in no small way to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As 30,000 Russian troops drawn from all four armies of Russia’s Eastern Military District poured across that pontoon bridge, the P56 highway running from Chernobyl became a funnel onto one of the main invasion routes to Kyiv. The occupiers dug trenches, foxholes and even an underground bunker network in the very forest where much of the contaminated topsoil and debris from Chernobyl had been buried. Radiation had killed the trees, turned their bark red and spread grotesque mutations among the feral dog populations and frogs, rodents, possums, and birds. Now it did the same to the invading army.

Monitoring stations immediately registered a 20-fold increase in radiation. Reading from official press releases, the well-schooled BBC downplayed the danger, comparing the dose to 5 times what you would get on a transatlantic flight.

If that were not enough, Russia’s Chernobyl garrison was apparently hungry and went hunting and fishing around the Exclusion Zone. Notably, they reportedly fished for catfish-which had multiplied in the reactor’s water-cooling channel-and shot wild animals.

 — Popular Mechanics

Russian forces finally pulled out between March 20th and April 1st, trashing and looting the facilities.

After receiving a patient transferred from the Republican Research Center for Radiation Medicine and Human Ecology, Mikalai said that he had been curious about how the hospital was operating. So, late one night, he drove slowly past the complex. “I saw when it started getting dark, military medical buses coming to the hospital … green-colored ‘PAZ’ vehicles, with their windows covered with white cloth,” he said.


How could it be that the Red Army commanders were so ignorant of the danger? They seemed to have no notion of what they were dealing with. That, dear readers, is the subject of our ongoing series about the devaluation of truth in the age of social media and artificial intelligence.

In the 1940s and 50s, Colonel Stafford Warren had dubbed the military response to subatomic power “the hairy chested approach,” mocking marine officers who led men from trenches to within yards of Ground Zero during atomic tests in Nevada. Wishing nuclear energy were clean does not make it so.

A Legacy of Premeditated Murders

These recent events brought back memories of the dying radiation victims I’ve encountered throughout my life — the sailors, the lab techs, the miners, and the workers in nuclear facilities. It’s a grim reality that these were not accidents but premeditated murders. The anger I feel lingers, and I speak on behalf of those who have suffered and continue to suffer the consequences of engineered ignorance.

Having sat with grieving families by the bedside of dying radiation victims, I know full well that the Chernobyl encampment was no accident.e I speak for Seaman John whose dime-size burns on his calves at Operation Crossroads at Bikini Atoll in 1946 were only amputated with his legs in 1982 after the lymphosarcoma had progressed to all his extremities, eventually claiming his life, as his wife Rose wept on my shoulder.

I speak for Vern, USAF Captain, who could see the bones in his hands as if through a fluoroscope as he piloted his Tennessee Air National Guard sabre jet through a mushroom cloud rising over the Nevada Proving Ground in 1953. He died of leukemia, oozing pale pink blood from every orifice. Thanks to his sacrifice the FAA now instructs all pilots: “If possible, flying through radioactively contaminated air space should be avoided.”

I speak for the downwinders, the lab techs, the Oak Ridge and Hanford production line workers, the Navajo miners, the Marshall Islanders, and now, lately, the unsuspecting Russian infantry and armored divisions ordered to bivouac in the Red Forest, and potentially, everyone in Europe soon to be bathed in fallout if Zaporizhzhia melts down.

These are not accidents. They are premeditated murders.

Some years ago, when the National Association of Atomic Veterans was before the United States Supreme Court challenging a law that prevented veterans from being represented by lawyers in compensation claims, one of our paralegals stumbled upon a remarkable cache of declassified documents at the Bancroft Library at UC-Berkeley.

Col. Stafford Warren may be best known as the guy who invented the mammogram. When he died, his widow donated his papers to the university, not appreciating what all they contained. That collection is now available online in digital form, but soon after we found them, selected parts appeared in our federal court filings. Then FBI agents descended on the library and scrubbed the collection of those portions of greatest interest to history. Gone was a whole middle section of Warren’s illustrious career. He had known too much, and had kept journals.

After his post-doc work on X-rays at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, he answered the call and eventually was commissioned as a colonel and Chief of the Medical Section of the Manhattan Engineering District where he was responsible for the health and safety of the thousands of personnel involved in the Manhattan Project.

Warren worked with the big names: Oppenheimer, Teller, Fermi. He likely did the post-mortem on Louis Slotin who died, horribly, trying to understand the secrets of the Plutonium core. Warren was in charge of health safety at the very first bomb test in Alamogordo, New Mexico. He led the survey team to assess the effects of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1946 he was Chief of the Radiological Safety Section of the Joint Task Force for Operation Crossroads at Bikini Atoll. It was his mistake that sent Seaman John’s crew back aboard the USS Nevada to try to scrub the decks and restore power.

The ship can be seen in the often-shown film clip of the Baker test in the stem of the mushroom cloud as a black vertical splotch rising 200 meters into the sky. It then settled back into an upright position like a bathtub rubber ducky, its railings and superstructure melted, bent, and torn but its deck and hull intact.

Lest we forget, Nevada was the only ship to slip anchor and steam away from berth on Battleship Row during the Pearl Harbor attack. Her crackerjack crew engaged the airborne and underwater attackers before beaching near the harbor entrance.

If, having had her bow pointed to zenith by an atomic bomb and then settling back upright, she could be restarted, that would be an amazing recovery — the stuff of legends. It might mean that battleships could fight nuclear engagements and live to fight again.

The Hairy Chested Approach

It was not to be. The bare-chested swabbies fell sick and collapsed even as Warren’s team of moon-suited medics with Geiger counters read no appreciable reduction of the hazard after days of scrubbing. Warren’s journals reveal his heated arguments with Navy brass that far too late pulled the men back off Nevada and let her be scuttled in the lagoon. Some sailors died within weeks. Others suffered for years before passing. Because cancers have minimum latencies depending on site and type — 5 years for leukemia and cancers of the bone, 15 years for breast, decades longer for different kinds — victims have similarities but drawing causal associations is difficult to impossible. Lots of things cause cancer, after all.

Cancers are only the tip of a much larger iceberg. Below lurks a much larger cohort of genetic defects that we’ve known since the time of Müller’s experiments with fruit flies are 100 times greater in number and differentiation. The National Academies of Sciences periodic report on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR) lists more than 500 radiation-induced genetic diseases but because a number of those are immune suppressing, the entire panoply of human illness can be caused or aggravated by exposure to ionizing radiation, for generations.

The fetal thyroid begins to accumulate iodine at about 10 weeks of gestational age. Radioactive iodine, strontium, cesium, tritium, carbon and other isotopes easily cross the placental barrier. Even if a fetus survives to term it may be born horribly disfigured, as was seen in Hiroshima, Bikini, after Three Mile Island in livestock, and in the newborns of Fallujah.

The Lurking Danger

Electrons, neutrons and proton pairs thrown off by ionizing radiation break strands of DNA, which can reassemble. At a high enough dose, exposure merely kills the cells. Death is quick. The lurking danger comes from low-dose exposure, where cells survive to reproduce. The lower the dose, the greater the danger of latent effects decades or generations later. A former medical director of Lawrence Livermore Laboratory estimated the meltdown of Three Mile Island shortened the lives of at least one million people. Chernobyl likely killed many times that, as suppressed Russian epidemiological studies show. Susceptibility will vary by race, family histories, and income. The good news? If climate change causes near-term extinction of the human race, most of these deaths may never occur.

Hidden in the Warren papers were the examinations of jellyfish babies in the Marshall Islands following atoll nuclear tests. It is perhaps overly optimistic to imagine that had we all known about those that Fallujah might have been spared the jellyfish babies that followed the US invasion of Iraq when USMC armor went down streets placing Depleted Uranium rounds into each and every building, which turned the sunsets green.

Perhaps the Red Army tank corps would have known better than to entrench themselves in the Red Forest until troops began puking up blood. Such forbidden knowledge might have stopped TVA from dumping its uranium tailings on Edgemont, South Dakota until children who played in the sandpile started showing unexplained bruises, swelling of their extremities, and nosebleeds, followed by an epidemic of leukemia and bone cancers. Maybe Clara Harding would still have her husband Joe, whose plant at Paducah, Kentucky never checked the film badges that uranium process workers were told to wear, as if they magically shielded them from harm.

Nuclear energy supplied ∼11% of global electricity production in 2011. Three countries draw more than half their electricity from nuclear plants (France leads at 78%, followed by Slovakia and Belgium at 54% each), and ten additional countries, all but one in Europe, draw more than 25% from this source. In the United States, 19% of electricity comes from nuclear plants.
The largest available study of nuclear power workers (more than 400,000 workers in 15 countries, contributing more than 5 million person-years of observation) found increased risks of solid cancers and leukemia, consistent with prior studies of low-dose radiation health effects.
Emissions from reprocessing plants, which are found mostly in France and the United Kingdom, exceed those of power plants by several orders of magnitude.
A meta-analysis of 136 nuclear sites in Europe, North America, and Japan found a 5–24% elevation in childhood cancer mortality depending on proximity to nuclear facilities.
[A German study] found a 60% increase in solid cancer risk and a 120% increase in leukemia risk among young children living within 5 km of German nuclear reactors.
The Chernobyl accident resulted in the resettlement of 400,000 people from affected parts of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, with enormous social and economic consequences.
Cleanup workers demonstrated substantial increases in suicide, suicidal ideation, PTSD, and other psychiatric illnesses, which persisted two decades after the accident. Researchers found that general psychological distress was also common in nuclear plant workers in the months after the Fukushima disaster.
The potential for weaponization or terrorist attacks on nuclear fuel cycle facilities, however, pose the most difficult, yet perhaps the largest, risks to quantify and manage.

— Smith, et al, Energy and Human Health

In 1972, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission conceded in a filing published in the Federal Register that the routine operation of entire nuclear fuel cycle, barring accidents, will likely cause some 1.74 million cancer deaths in the civilian population. It justified the cost because it was fewer than die from the coal fuel cycle, the benefits in terms of electricity were great, and individual causality would be impossible to ascribe. The vast majority of those deaths will not be from clean, shiny, well-regulated power plants, but from the dirtier parts of the fuel cycle where Joe Harding worked and the Native American children of Edgemont played.

Warren’s papers remained a secret in plain sight from the time of his death in 1981 to when we discovered them. Once they were known, the cleaners arrived at the library to make them secret again or perhaps even to destroy them permanently.

The best way to assure history will repeat is to make sure no-one can learn from it.

With Cobblepot’s bravura performance at the CNN Town Hall and Ol' Joe’s rant on Truth! at his Press Corps roast, the popular media has been clucking all week about the sorry state of public discourse.

Lest we forget, playing with the truth is nothing new. See, for instance, Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli’s playbook for European sovereigns and their colonial progeny.

The modern-day equivalent of schooling the Viceroy in the proper management of truth is parameterizing the algorithms of artificial intelligence. The analog of a Redcoat midnight knock at the door is the de-platforming, discrediting, or erasure of inconvenient commentators.

A particularly poignant example — one that has already cost millions of innocent lives and is well on its way to many more, barring near-term human extinction — is the engineered illusion that nuclear power is safe.

When it comes to nuclear power, let’s not be fooled by the glossy brochures and fancy promises. The health risks are real, the accidents are catastrophic, and the long-term consequences are just too risky to ignore. It’s time to embrace a brighter, safer, and more naturally regenerative future. Let’s leave the nuclear power plants where they belong: in the realm of dark comedy, not in our backyards.


Baker PJ, Hoel DG. Meta-analysis of standardized incidence and mortality rates of childhood leukaemia in proximity to nuclear facilities. Eur. J. Cancer Care 16: 355–63 (2007)
Bates, Albert K. Shutdown: Nuclear Power on Trial (Summertown: Book Publ. Co 1979)
Bates, Albert K. The Karma of Kerma: Nuclear Wastes and Natural Rights. J. Envtl. L. & Litig. 3: 9 (1988)
Bertell, R. No immediate danger. The radioactive contamination of the earth. Keine akute Gefahr. Die radioaktive Verseuchung der Erde. (Summertown: Book Publ. Co 1987)
Gofman, John W. Radiation and human health, (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books 1981)
Gofman, John W. Radiation-induced cancer from low-dose exposure: an independent analysis. (San Francisco: Committee for Nuclear Responsibility, 1990)
Grosche B, et al. Lung cancer risk among German male uranium miners: a cohort study, 1946–1998. Br. J. Cancer 95:1280–87 (2006)
Kaatsch P, et al. Leukaemia in young children living in the vicinity of German nuclear power plants. Int. J. Cancer 122:721–26 (2008)
Natl. Res. Counc. Coal Waste Impoundments: Risks, Responses, and Alternatives. (Washington, DC: Natl. Acad. Press 2002)
Natl. Res. Counc. Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation: BEIR VII Phase 2. (Washington, DC: Natl. Acad. Press 2006)
Nussbaum R. The Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe: unacknowledged health detriment. Environ. Health Perspect. 115: A238–39 (2007)
Petryna A., Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press 2002)
Smith, Kirk R., et al. Energy and human health. Annual Review of public health 34: 159–188. (2013)
von Hippel F, Bunn M, Diakov A, Ding M, Goldston R, et al. Nuclear energy (2012)
Wakeford R. Radiation in the workplace — a review of studies of the risks of occupational exposure to ionizing radiation. J. Radiol. Prot. 29: A61–79, (2009)

Portions of this post were suggested by Chat GPT 4.0

Meanwhile, let’s end this war. Towns, villages, and cities in Ukraine are being bombed every day. Ecovillages and permaculture farms have organized something like an underground railroad to shelter families fleeing the cities, either on a long-term basis or temporarily, as people wait for the best moments to cross the border to a safer place, or to return to their homes if that becomes possible. There are 70 sites in Ukraine and 500 around the region. As you read this, we are sheltering some 2,000 adults and 450 children. We call our project “The Green Road.” With public donations from people like yourself,

  • 88 houses were restored
  • 33 wells were restored
  • 32 wood heating stoves in houses were restored
  • water was supplied to 34 houses
  • 5008 euros were spent on gardens, orchards, and animals
  • 17,448 euros were spent on food
  • 19,045.70 euros went to household and kitchen items
  • 12,558.80 euros provided schoolbooks, musical instruments and hand tools.

For most of the children refugees, this will be their first experience in ecovillage living. They will directly experience its wonders, skills, and safety. They may never want to go back. Those that do will carry the seeds within them of the better world they glimpsed through the eyes of a child.

Those wishing to make a tax-deductible gift can do so through Global Village Institute by going to or by directing donations to

There is more info on the Global Village Institute website at or read this recent article in Mother Jones. Thank you for your help.

The COVID-19 pandemic destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed climate change, a juggernaut threat to all life, humans included. We had a trial run at emergency problem-solving on a global scale with COVID — and we failed. 6.87 million people, and counting, have died. We ignored well-laid plans to isolate and contact trace early cases; overloaded our ICUs; parked morgue trucks on the streets; incinerated bodies until the smoke obscured our cities as much as the raging wildfires. The modern world took a masterclass in how abysmally, unbelievably, shockingly bad we could fail, despite our amazing science, vast wealth, and singular talents as a species.

Having failed so dramatically, so convincingly, with such breathtaking ineptitude, do we imagine we will now do better with climate? Having demonstrated such extreme disorientation in the face of a few simple strands of RNA, do we imagine we can call upon some magic power that will change all that for planetary-ecosystem-destroying climate change?

As the world emerges into pandemic recovery (maybe), there is growing recognition that we must learn to do better. We must chart a pathway to a new carbon economy that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backward — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience. We must lead by good examples; carrots, not sticks; ecovillages, not carbon indulgences. We must attract a broad swath of people to this work by honoring it, rewarding it, and making it fun. That is our challenge now.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger or Substack subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.


Thank you for reading The Great Change.

Originally published at

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Algorithmic News in Fits

"The Society of Professional Journalists must be rolling over in its digitally-dug grave."



Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

If you are building the AI database from all human knowledge and the average human is an idiot you are going to get more idiots.

— Tyler Crowley

With most people born after 2000 not even owning a TV, the old “speak with a single voice” meme is dead. News sources are as numerous as TikTok creators. Elon Musk recently announced that Twitter will allow media publishers to charge on a per-article basis with one click and no platform fees for the first year (10% thereafter). No more monthly subscriptions to read an occasional article, and anyone can be a content creator. Tucker Carlson immediately announced his blue checkmark. “Any jackass? Can I try?”

In the year 2020, Elias van Dorne (John Cusack), CEO of VA Industries, the world’s largest robotics company, introduces his most powerful invention — Kronos, a super-computer designed to end all wars. When Kronos goes online, it quickly determines that mankind, itself, is the biggest threat to world peace and launches a worldwide robot attack to rid the world of the “infection” of man.

— promo for Singularity (2017)

Sunday, May 7, 2023

Where is the Gray Champion?

"I see plenty of prophets, but nobody astride Shadowfax, rearing on a hilltop."

Daniel Schmachtenberger: I think there are very near term risks in AI, in bioweapons, in planetary boundaries, in supply chains and quite a few things. Meaning, there are certain problems that the existing NGOs and nation-states and corporations and IGOs collectively are not on course to solve in time. If some additional action doesn't take place, catastrophic problems will occur.

—"Modeling the Drivers of the Metacrisis,” The Great Simplification #42 at 1:55:16

Pattern observation is both a blessing and a curse. In one way, it endows us with a rare ability among animals to project our own future from past events. Less fortuitously, we rely on that pattern as though it were set in stone even as conditions change.

In 1997, William Strauss and Neil Howe published The Fourth Turning, introducing what has come to be known as the Strauss-Howe generational theory. Their Big Idea was that world history—and American history in particular—follows a circular pattern of four generational archetypes, each lasting about 20 to 22 years. The whole cycle is called by the authors a “saeculem.”

The authors describe the observation by Nathaniel Hawthorne that crises seem to summon the presence of a "Gray Champion.” Think The Twin Towers: Gandalf with a thousand riders about to relieve Helm’s Deep. According to the theory, the Gray Champion reappears at 80 to 90 year intervals, accompanied by a prophet. In the American Revolution, historians lean towards Washington and Franklin but what comes to my mind is the Chicamaugan Gray Champion Tsi'yu-gunsini (Dragging Canoe) who inspired Tecumseh and his prophet brother, Tenskwhatawa. The 19th century saeculem offered up combos like Frederick Douglas and Lincoln or maybe John Brown and Lincoln. Or maybe the great Ukrainian mystic Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Vladimir Lenin. In the 1930s, we had FDR, Father Charles Coughlin and Aimee Semple McPherson.

Set behind the Gray Champion, marking the three seasons that will follow, are the younger archetypes—middle-aged Nomads, coming-of-age Heroes, and youthful Artists. The arrival of the Gray Champion and prophet signal the advent of a crisis, after which there can be a re-establishment of order (by the Nomads and Heroes), a cultural flowering (by the Artists), and a rapid change to something new, potentially disruptive, precipitating a new crisis. This knowledge might be scary to the readers, the writers warn. Anyone, and any nation, would prefer to avoid a crisis. However, the rhyme that is history does not work by our druthers. The authors urge the readers to prepare for what comes next depending on where they find themselves in the pattern.

I am not going to tell you that Joe Biden is the Gray Champion and Boss Trump is the Prophet. That would be too simple, and anyway, who knows? The Gray Champion could be Noam Chomsky and the Prophet could be Paul Ehrlich, Greta Thunberg, or Leo DiCaprio.

In his 1968 opus, The Population Bomb, Ehrlich proposed the now well-established formula, I=PAT. Impact (climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean plastic, radioactivity, pandemics, and ubiquitous war) equals Population times Affluence times Technology. Which of those three sources would you care to reduce in order to avoid Impact?

If we go back to the last saeculum at the crisis moment of the Dust Bowl/Depression/World War II, the first archetypes to emerge, the children of 1908, were a Nomad generation fleeing the chaos, followed by a Hero generation that sacrificed itself to restore order. The Nomads blamed the catastrophic Depression and War on their parents, a generation of Millennial Missionaries.

The return to order—or regimentation—was kind to Boomers—youthful Artists (b. 1946-68) who came of age in an epoch characterized by improvements to social and economic well-being, a sense of optimism, especially towards technology, and Sesame Street. Strauss and Howe posit that the racism, sexism, and groupthink of the 1950s were negative from the contemporary standpoint but were progressive when compared to the thinking of 1888 Missionaries. When the artistic Boomers graduated into the workforce, they created new technology, liberalized and equalized working conditions, and brought to fruition the changes of civil rights, gender rights, and recognition of indigenous peoples. They empowered the multiculturalism of the United Nations. They bequeathed a golden age of art and music to their children.

When their children, the New Millennials, entered the workforce in the 90s to 2008, all that rapid change had been a bit too much. They felt insecure. They valued simplicity and survival over reforms. They were abruptly buffeted by economic recession, inflation, and proxy wars. They embraced libertarian conservatism. Many actually hoped for Y2K to stop the train. They were criticized by their elders for being selfish and destroying the legacy of the preceding artistic generation, but they saw simple jobs, retirement plans, real estate investments, and creature comforts as a return to family values, evangelical religion, and normalcy. In short, they were Missionaries destined to recreate the conditions of another 1928.

This brings us to where we are in 2023, nearing a fin de siecle of the saeculum that began with the crises of the 1930s. Our blissed-out, Bible- or Koran-thumping forebears have laid a banquet of existential threats. If we are able to avoid atomic war, the world is heading to perhaps 3.5 degrees warmer, and maybe more, during the lives of the present generation.

“There are fair and reasonable concerns that focusing on worst-case scenarios will cause public despair and paralysis,” writes David Spratt in the April 19th Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. “But when risks are existential, it is precisely those high-end possibilities of system collapse, rather than the middle-of-the-road linear probabilities, that must be the focus of concern and should spur the world to action.”

I’m looking out my window and scanning the horizon for a Gray Champion. I see plenty of prophets, but nobody astride Shadowfax, rearing on a hilltop. This may be the point where we put the Strauss-Howe generational theory to a real test.

I’m waiting.

Sunday, April 30, 2023


"Is it not a dangerous idea to give hairless apes unlimited energy?"

Four months ago I posted Foggy Forecasts for Clean Energy Futures that peered down the dark well of climate change diagnoses and concluded:

Most of the predictions push us up to somewhere between two and three degrees of warming where it would no longer be possible to maintain global civilization as we know it today, and the worst take us above 5 degrees and human extinction by the end of the century. Ninety-five percent of humanity is completely unaware of this … if you mention climate change to the average person on the street in China, India, Thailand, Latin America, or Africa, it is likely you will just get a blank stare.

What most people do see is all of the windmills and solar electric arrays popping up across the landscape like California mountain poppies after rain. Having been indoctrinated for decades that solar cells are too expensive and windmills kill birds, people are suddenly finding themselves bereft of Tucker Carlson. In the urgency wrought of wildfire, floods and superstorms, expensive and lethal coal and nuclear plants, the darlings of the Right, are giving way to safe, green energy.

Also in that Foggy Forecasts essay, and in the one that followed, I asked the musical question, “Can we build out renewable energy fast enough to avoid some nasty tipping points?” An ancillary question is whether renewables can scale to the point where they can achieve the development goals for 8 billion people, or whether some contraction of consumer civilization is inevitable.

As we watch aghast the sudden conflict between warlords in Sudan—a nation larger in size than France, Spain, Sweden, and Germany combined—it is difficult to imagine daily temperatures of 43C or 109F did not play a role in “rapid unexpected disassembly,” to borrow a term from SpaceX.

These events should be focusing attention. It is difficult to explain why denialism still holds sway in so many chambers of government. In the US Congress, Republicans plus Joe Manchin are proposing to repeal the Biden Administration’s billion-dollar IRA climate bill and are holding up the billion-dollar 2023-4 farm bill with climate change funding at its core. Their polls show that running against climate change is a winning path to public office, so why not just criminalize climate change the same as we do with addiction or mental illness and be done with it? Why spend money to treat it?

In these posts, I often try to shine a light on the downsides of technological solutions to climate change. They are too expensive, wealth-disequilibriating, and energy-and-nonrenewables intensive. I’ve offered instead simpler, less costly, natural solutions like tree-planting, agroforestry, soil and reef regeneration, or coastal kelp forests—literally the low-hanging fruit. Still, energy is important if the challenge is to sustain some modicum of civilization as we transition from “sustaining” a consumer economy to an ecosystem-regenerative paradigm.

Energy from Spin

Three promising large-scale “natural” energy sources can help. All of these employ aikido—redirecting a force coming at you to your advantage rather than opposing it with equal force. These newer techs bend gigantic, cosmic forces—Earth’s spin, Earth’s heat, and subtle differences in temperature or gravity.

Many years ago at a conference in México, I met a Guatemalan engineer who wanted to raise 80 million quetzals to lay pipe from mountains down and into the ocean over a distance of 364,000 feet (69 miles) and a drop of 7,280 feet (1:50 slope). He had noticed that the waters on the planet have different speeds over distance depending on how far they are from Earth’s central axis. His idea was to channel water into a large pipe at 45°N and exit it at 46°N. Using only the rotational energy of the Earth, the same that powers cyclones and hurricanes, and deducting losses from friction and pump energy (9.6 GWe), he estimated he could produce the equivalent of 48 large nuclear plants—48 GWe—from any pipe having an internal diameter of 25 meters. 


In a simplified way, it can be said that if we pass a mass of water from a geographical point of higher speed to a geographical point of lower speed through a pipeline with turbine-generators, we can produce abundant and unlimited electrical energy.

— Fradique Lee Duarte, Energia Geo Rotational

I doubt he got funded or we likely would be hearing racy stories about the exploits of the Guatemalan superrich.

Ubiquitous Geothermal

A second new tech employs the heat that Earth has been exhausting to space ever since it was a molten blob of star magma, then hardening into an iron rock orbiting its mother star. The temperature in the inner core remains about 5,200° Celsius (9,392° Fahrenheit)—about the surface of the Sun. Just the decay of the radioactive stardust in the core produces a continuous 30 terawatts of energy. You only have to go down a few miles to reach 1000°C.

Four years after graduating college, Christopher Cheng appeared on the Canadian reality TV show Dragons' Den and pitched Holiday Rejects Apparel, winning over three dragon investors and making his first fortune. Six years later, in 2018, he married his newer Full Circle Energy to Canuc Resources Corporation (TSX-V: CDA), where he is currently a member of the latter oil giant’s board. While working in their tar sands, he tested conductive heating from a reservoir in Northeast Alberta and stumbled onto something Nicola Tesla had predicted but never proved.

Conventional geothermal is usually beset by several impediments. Normally, massive amounts of water are pumped deep, brought to a boil underground, and the steam comes up, off-gassing everything in it, including some nasty pollutants. While it is abundant in Iceland, in the USA, geothermal electricity is mostly located in California, Nevada, Hawaii, and Alaska, where tectonic plates are grinding beneath the surface. Those plants rely on high-quality hydrothermal resources that are difficult to standardize and scale. Most of the big, well-explored, well-characterized fields have been tapped out, and as the resource gets deeper the rock becomes hotter and less porous, and the engineering difficulty rises.

Since all Eavor needs to work is hot rock, which is pretty reliably located beneath almost any site in the world, it avoids the need for expensive exploration and modeling.


Advanced geothermal systems (AGS) refers to a new generation of “closed loop” systems, in which no fluids are introduced to or extracted from the Earth and there’s no fracking. Cheng’s system, called an Eavor-Loop, uses two vertical wells around 1.5 miles apart connected by a horizontally arrayed series of lateral tunnels, in a kind of radiator design, to maximize surface area and soak up as much heat as possible. Because the loop is closed, cool water on one side sinks while hot water on the other side rises, creating a “thermosiphon” effect that circulates the water naturally, with no need for a pump. Without the parasitic load of a pump, Eavor can make profitable use of relatively low heat, around 150°C, available almost anywhere about a mile and a half down.

An Icelandic Ecovillage

Twenty years ago, on a trip to Iceland, I visited the world’s oldest continuously operating ecovillage, Sólheimar (place of the sun), founded by Sesselja Sigmondsdottir in 1933. They had some lovely old Jacobs wood-bladed wind generators but most of their power was geothermal. Just inside the entrance to their community center, I saw a metal box on the wall not much larger than a shoe box. It powered the whole building on the temperature difference between the warmth of their hot spring and the cold outdoors, using an array of bimetallic strips that expanded or contracted in response to temperature, generating an electrical current on that differential. In the Icelandic winter, Sólheimar has so much excess energy that they conduct steam under the sidewalks so they don’t have to shovel snow.


In this image, we can see the constant temperature of the Earth at a depth of 10 km. There is nowhere in the continental USA without sufficient geothermal energy to power all human industry above ground. The question not asked as often as it should be is whether that is a good thing.

The Paradox

Is it not a dangerous idea to give hairless apes who have demonstrated little regard for, or any duties or responsibilities towards, the web of life, now with a gradually shrinking brain size atrophied by comforts gained at the expense of all other lifeforms, unlimited energy? Can we even imagine the ever-greater harm such a boon might bring?

Larger questions loom. Are there in fact limits to this unlimited energy? In Iceland, a number of geothermal power stations have been phased out after decades of use because they lowered the temperature of the deep rock enough to make pumping more water into the formation impractical.

If enough of my Guatemalan friend’s pipes were laid across lines of latitude worldwide, might that not slow the spin of the planet? While New Yorkers or Londoners might appreciate a longer minute, it is not necessarily a benefit to alter the speed of deep ocean currents or the diurnal cycles of birds and insects. We aren’t there yet, but we need to ask ourselves whether megascale projects are really aikido, or whether they are just more hubris disguised as green energy.

The problem, in the final analysis, is not a deficit of energy. It is a deficit of wisdom.





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