Happy Holidays, my son! (14th letter)

Dear Daniel,

School is over now, and though the weather isn’t very favourable, it is now time to enjoy the summer. I hope you have great plans. We are headed to the beach soon, and I do so wish you could be coming with us.

Daphne said goodbye to all her friends and is looking forward to the beach (and eating ice creams!). Let’s just hope the weather improves.

I really miss you.

Love,

Dad

My review of John Buchan’s ‘The 39 Steps’

The 39 Steps (Richard Hannay, #1)The 39 Steps by John Buchan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What is the ultimate homage one can pay to an author?

Surely it is to say that his or her work, when viewed through the lens of time, has lost some of its impact on the modern audience because it has become a genre-defining cliche – done and redone by copycats, some very talented, until the novelty fades. This kind of ‘victimhood of one’s own success’ can be said of the great Alfred Hitchcock. It can be said of the classic hip hop group Public Enemy.

And it can be said of John Buchan’s ‘The 39 Steps’. For the contemporary reader whose appetite for vicarious thrills has been fattened on the fast food of Jack Reacher, Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer – not to mention James Bond, the antics of Richard Hannay come across as a little hammy.

For one thing, his protagonist (Richard Hannay) has a first name which doesn’t begin with J. And then, many of the plot devices – the just-in-time escapes, the ‘ordinary man antihero’, the ratcheting up of the stakes as the plot reveals – all seem rather tired. That is, until you remember that Buchan’s character was penned in 1915, at a time when writing of this kind was largely non-existant. Richard Hannay was escaping from exploding buildings long before John McClane was even Born Hard, never mind the ‘Die’ bit.

Regarding the plot of this book itself, I won’t say too much, except to note the extent to which it is pregnant with the zeitgeist of a powerful Britain, caught in the midst of the Great War. The villification of the Germans and the rabid jingoism of the Empire are anacharonisms, which, when viewed in the tail lights of the muddy, blood-soaked trenches and sour colonial legacy of racist Western powers, retain appeal only insofar as they provide us with historical context.

Buchan called his books ‘shockers’, which in itself sounds silly and antiquated, until you think a little on the word ‘thriller’ and realise it’s actually no less silly-sounding. As a politician and a well-known biographer, he considered his shockers among the least important of his accomplishments. And yet even in his own lifetime it was clear that this is what he would be remembered for.

I give ‘The 39 Steps’ three stars for the story in its own right, and an additional star in recognition of the many Johns, Jacks, James’ and Jasons who followed in Richard Hannay’s wake.

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Review of Philip K Dick’s “The Penultimate Truth”

The Penultimate TruthThe Penultimate Truth by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Philip K. Dick is above all a writer of ideas. To him we are indebted for some of the most innovative concepts to come out of 20th Century sci-fi. For me the debt is also personal. With the release of the movie Bladerunner, his ideas began to go mainstream at roughly the same time as I was gaining literary and creative consciousness, and so I will forever associate his work with that delicious awakening.

But ideas do not a great novel make. For that, you need other elements, such as literary craftsmanship, compelling characters and good plotting. Taking these three things in order, I have to say this book does not rise above a good C+. Most of the prose is pedestrian, relying on an overuse of adverbs and needless jargon (why robots have to be called ‘leadies’ is beyond me). Where Dick’s prose does accelerate, it becomes torturously overwrought. (Example: “Anything which might mitigate the quality striven for, that of free and easy authenticity; this simulacrum, out of all which they, the Yance-men, were involved in, required the greatest semblance of the actuality which it mimicked.”)

The characters never evolve beyond mere props; wooden actors through which the events are channelled. They are a means of telling the story. So much so that in one instance, Dick himself seems to forget whose point-of-view he is narrating, and attributes the wrong train of thought to the wrong character; an easy mistake to make when they are all essentially the same soulless person.

This leaves the plot. [Spoiler alert] In theory, plot should be the element of writing which Dick, as an ideas man, would master most easily. And indeed, in some of his best known works this is the case. But sadly, he does only half a job in The Penultimate Truth. Although the pacing is excellent and the premise is brilliant (most of humanity forced to toil away in subterranean ‘tanks’ under a false pretext), for some reason he sees fit, about halfway through the story, to introduce devices (both figuratively, as plot devices; and literally, as devices of war) which overcomplicate the story, un-suspend the reader’s disbelief and disobey the internal logic of the world he has created. The most obscene of these is time travel – a spice so pungent it can spoil the best sci-fi soup if not added with extreme caution. To top it all off, the story finishes too quickly, and without a clear resolution of the key conflict point. We (or at any rate I) don’t even understand what the meaning of the title was supposed to be, and are left with the suspicion that it was merely chosen because it would look snappy on a bookshelf.

Whatever the penultimate truth was supposed to have been, for me the ultimate truth is that this book is a disappointment to the good idea from which it was born.

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Review of Buddenbrooks

Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a FamilyBuddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is an unfortunate consequence of universal education that the way we are exposed to the greatest works of literature is through prescribed school curriculae. Because no novel, no matter how good it might otherwise be, can be truly enjoyed when one has to finish writing a 1,000 word summary of chapters 12, 13 and 14 on the bus ride into school on a rainy Monday morning in February.

This, I fear, has been the experience of all too many teenage readers of Thomas Mann’s spectacular opus, Buddenbrooks, a staple of German ‘Gymnasium’ literature courses for decades. In one sense, the book does itself no favours, extending across three generations of a family of Northern German grain merchants, most of the Nineteenth Century and 750 pages. Even I, a willing reader well past his teenage years, with no exams to prepare for and no essay to write, found myself struggling at times with its length and degree of detail.

Yet there is so much to be enjoyed in Thomas Mann’s greatest novel. From a purely technical point of view, it is wonderfully crafted prose. Mann possesses that rare ability of writing third-person point-of-view narration so intimately the reader becomes immersed in characters with whom he shares neither gender, century nor social class; but with whom the bond of essential human experience generates a kinship and empathy that moves him to tears. The best passages of writing, as is so often the case in great literature, are bare, sparse, almost haphazard fragments, whose richness lies in that which they do not contain as much as what they do.

From the perspective of a 21st Century humanist, the merchantilist feudalism of the Buddenbrook family, with its disdain for social democracy and elevated sense of capitalist, Protestant morality, is anathema to our modern sensibilities, once we abstract ourselves from the narrative. But that’s just the point: Mann manages to turn you into a Buddenbrook. You care about their destiny and you feel the pain of their inevitable decline; you feel passionately they deserve their seat in the Senate of Lübeck. And you are just as envious and resentful as they are themselves, of the rise of a new generation of more vital, less traditional competitors.

There is not really much to give away in the plot which the subtitle has not already spoiled. Buddenbrooks is about the decline of a family. And yet it is about so much more. Economists and students of business studies will no doubt remember from their textbooks the reference to the ‘Buddenbooks Effect’, in which it is postulated that family businesses (or dynasties more generally) will inevitably decline over the course of a few generations. How this plays out – whether in the person of the hypochondriac Christian and his penchant for the good life, the superciliousness of his sister Antonie, the physical weakness of their brother Thomas, or the latter’s dreamy, timid and unhealthy son Hanno – teaches us not just about economics, but about our own strengths and weaknesses; or own hopes and fears of death; or own hypocritical self-righteousness and sense of family purpose.

Buddenbrooks should not be dismissed as merely a great work of German literature. It is also a damn fine read.

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Overpopulation and Climate Catastrophe: An economist view

If you know me or have visited this blog before, you’ll know that my book, The Hydra, is about overpopulation. In it, a scientist decides the world is so full of humans, that he must save the planet by engineering and releasing an infertility virus. I won’t give away too much of the plot, but suffice it to say as a novel it doesn’t really do much hard number crunching. It begs -but perhaps never really comprehensively answers- the crucial question: Is the world so overpopulated that we’ll destroy the planet unless we change our policy direction?

Indeed, when you discuss the issue with most people, you get lots of uninformed opinions, which range from “I think we’re all doomed, unless there’s some major war or something” to “There are definitely not too many people in the world. It’s just a question of sharing out the world’s resources fairly and investing in technology instead of war” I always find it astounding just how convinced both sides can be of their opinions, without the faintest notion of what the hard numbers are saying.

So let’s see if we can do any better. First stop, the databank of the World Bank where, after some data cleaning, we can come up with a list of useful data for the world’s countries, grouped into categories depending on how rich they are. Basically we’re looking at four things: population, Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, GDP and birth/death rates, from 1960 to 2015.

What can we see from the numbers?

The first thing to look at is Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. By 2012 we humans had pumped about 567 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2) into the atmosphere since the dawn of industrialisation (1870). In 2012 alone we added 52 GtCO2 to this stock, up from an annual total of 27 in 1970. While the data are jumpy, on average, the amount of carbon we release in the atmosphere annually is growing by about 1.3% a year. Even if this pace of annual emissions growth were to fall from 1.3% to 0% a year, that would still mean we would be adding the 2012 payload of 52 GtCO2 into the atmosphere every year. If that level of emissions were to continue until 2050, that would result in an atmosphere laden with 2,572 GtCO2 released by humans. That number is so big, it is literally off the charts, as far as the climate scientists are concerned. To illustrate, I’ve made a simplified version of “the chart”, i.e. the UN’s reckoning of how cumulative emissions will raise temperatures. You can find the full chart on page 54 of this document.

The UN shows what sort of temperature changes we'll get in 2100 for given levels of emissions up to 2050
The UN shows what sort of temperature changes we’ll get in 2100 for given levels of emissions

As you can see, they don’t even consider a scenario in which we keep emitting the level of GHG which we emitted in 2012. What this is telling us is pretty clear: if we continue with business as usual, we’re going to miss the current climate targets by more than a factor of 2, resulting in massive, truly massive, changes to our climate which may well spell disaster for the planet and for us all. Now of course, nobody believes business as usual is an option, which is why we had Kyoto and then Paris and soon Marrakesh.

Linking emissions to income

Money makes the world go round. And it also determines how much GHG we put into the atmosphere. Or more precisely, the things people like to spend money on: heat, bigger houses, clothes, high-protein food, transport. The precise link between income and emissions depends on where a person is on the income scale: For very rich countries, there is already evidence of ‘decoupling’, i.e. as rich people get richer, emissions don’t increase, they actually go down. But because rich countries only account for 15% of the world’s population, that doesn’t really matter. What matters are the middle income countries, places like China and Brazil, who make up 35% of the world’s population. The 2.6 billion people living in these countries have been getting richer since 1990, and whenever they’ve got their extra cash, they’ve burned it and pumped it into the atmosphere. Here’s the chart that shows it:

upper-middle-income
This chart shows growth in GHG emissions and growth in per capita income for “Upper Middle income” countries like China and Brazil

As these countries get to the sort of income levels the rich world has already achieved (and they are well on their way) there is every reason to assume that they too will ‘decouple’ emissions from growth, but for now, they are still hungering for more of the things that make the atmosphere hot: steak, cars, swimming pools and city breaks. And this is set to go on into the foreseeable future.

The real problem, though, is the next wave of countries, the so-called “Lower Middle Income” countries like India, which as a group are home to even more homo sapiens (2.8 billion or 40% of the world’s population). If these countries grow in the same way as China and Brazil have done, it will mean even more pressure to emit.

The power of econometrics can help us to estimate this relationship, which turns out to be very well approximated by the equation [kilograms of emissions / per person] = 1090 + (0.7093)*[GDP/person] – (0.0000047025)*[GDP/person]^2 – (0.00000000010531380)*[GDP/person]^3. If you want the nerdy details of where I got this, click here, but for everyone else I’ll just summarise what this means: If you have zero income, you will still emit about 1,000 kg of CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere every year. Emissions go up at about a rate of 700 grams a year for every dollar of extra income you get, but this slows down as your income approaches $35,000 a year. After that, extra income leads to lower carbon emissions per year. Here’s what the graph looks like:

The graph shows that when incomes grow beyond about $35,000, the link to emissions is broken, i.e. 'decoupling'
The graph shows that when incomes grow beyond about $35,000, the link to emissions is broken, i.e. ‘decoupling’

So what about population?

In 2015, there were 7.3 billion humans on Earth, more than ever before. This population increases about 1.2% a year, and while the rate of increase has been slowing since the late 1960s, it hasn’t been slowing by very much. If the pace of population increase we have observed since 1969 were to continue (i.e. let’s assume it continues slowing a bit every year, like it has been doing) there would be 9.75 billion of us by 2050. This, by the way, is the EXACT baseline estimate for the UN’s own population projects, but more about the UN’s numbers in a bit.

The main driver in the growth of populations is the crude birth rate, which measures how many children are born per 1,000 people. It turns out there’s a pretty stable relationship between birth rates and per capita GDP. Crude birth rates have been going down pretty much everywhere in the world, and it’s because of money. Basically, the richer a country, the fewer babies they make. In very poor countries, crude birth rates are around 35-40; as a country gets richer, the birth rate falls to just under 10. Figure X illustrates the relationship, which mathematically can be approximated by this formula: b = (45 * minY^a)/Y^a, where b = birth rate, Y is per capita GDP, and a is a “shape parameter” which is somewhere in the range of 0.2622 to 0.36487 Again, for the nerds out there, all the details are here.

The other thing that affects population is the death rate (deaths per 1,000 population). This too is ultimately a function of cash, but the relationship’s a little trickier because of demographic effects. (For example, Germany’s death rate is higher than Zimbabwe’s, not because Mugabe has better health policies than Merkel, but because, when you break it down, old age is the single worst thing for your health, no matter how rich you are. And Germany simply has a lot more old people than Zimbabwe.)

But here again, statistics can come to our aid. We can isolate the effect of the demographics and when we do, we get a pretty similar relationship as with per capita income. This is the equation that tells the story: d = (minY^a)/Y^a * (1/AGE^g), where d = the death rate, minY is a constant equal to 1,011, Y is per capita GDP, AGE is the percentage of the population aged over 65 and a and g are shape parameters equal to 1.0144 and -2.0097 respectively. In other words, the richer a country’s people are, the lower its death rate. The more oldies are in a country’s population, the higher the death rate.

So to recap, as people get richer, they have fewer babies, but they also tend to live longer, and we can use statistics to estimate by how much this is so for every extra dollar of income they get.

Putting it all together

Equipped with the three sets of estimations we have done above, we are ready to put the whole picture together. The first step is to make an assumption about how per capita GDP might evolve in the future. Of course we don’t know, but let’s imagine it continues to grow at the same annual rate it has been growing from 1990 to 2015, for the four classes of countries the World Bank identifies: high income (e.g. the US and Europe), upper middle income (e.g. Russia, China and Brazil), lower middle income (e.g. India and Indonesia) and low income (i.e. mostly sub-saharan Africa). This is what we would get:

projected-gdp-capita

The dashed green line illustrates the ‘decoupling’ threshold, i.e. the point beyond which getting richer no longer causes more per capita emissions. As you can see, while the ‘Upper Middle Income’ countries pass this threshold, the ‘Lower Middle Income’ countries – and remember in population terms these are the big guys – won’t even have got there.

Using our equations which we estimated above, let’s now link this assumed GDP/capita path to what we know about birth rates and death rates and see what that gives us for total population:

gdp-driven-population-estimates

Now, there’s an awful lot to say about these “GDP driven” estimates of total population on earth. The first thing is that it gives us an estimate of 11.4 billion for the 2050 population, which is a good 1.7 billion more than the UN’s estimates. When you compare the two sets of projections line by line, you see that the differences are in the two “Middle Income” categories. The UN’s estimates seem to assume that these countries population’s will grow more slowly, driven by a faster decrease in birth rates.

The next major difference is that unlike the UN’s demographic projections, these GDP driven projections show no sign of population levelling off any time soon. Indeed, it seems to imply that for the bulk of countries, there’s a good ways to go until death rates overtake birth rates. (I’m willing to put my hands up and say I’m not a demographer, so maybe there’s things I have missed. For one thing, my modelling takes no account of migration trends. I guess I’m kind of assuming that for the world as a whole, net migration is zero. But as people move from poor to rich countries, their birth rates also change, so it’s possible to argue with my numbers).

Now you might be tempted to say: hang on, you just assumed GDP would grow like that. What if growth levels off? Wouldn’t that solve the problem?

Not really. If we change the model so that there is zero growth in per capita GDP from now until 2050 for all four classes of countries, here’s what we get:

If you believe my model, zero growth means even more humans on the planet
If you believe my model, zero growth means even more humans on the planet

Now the 2050 population is projected at a whopping 13 billion! This is because the lower per capita GDP among the ‘middle income’ countries is driving higher crude birth rates.

Finally, let’s bring this all back to total GHG emissions. If we plug these population numbers into our estimate for per capita GHG emissions by income level, we should be in a good position to tally up the total GHG emissions that this implies, under the two scenarios (no growth and growth at the average).ghg-in-atmosphere-to-2050

As you can see, with zero economic growth, the level of emissions is lower, but still really high. (The reason why it stays so high is because, at zero growth, although lower middle income countries like India are not pumping more GHG into the atmosphere, the rich and upper middle income countries still are. Furthermore, while the per capita emissions of the poor stays low, their numbers are increasing at a faster rate.)

For both graphs, the red line indicates the UN’s uppermost threshold (2,310 Gt CO2) for their most extreme emissions scenario. Therefore, the current projections put us on a path of GHG emissions that would mean temperature increases to 2100 of more than 4 degrees Celsius. Once again, well off the charts!

Can technology save our bacon?

It’s entirely possible that sometime next year, “they” will discover cold fusion, a carbon-less, virtually free and infinitely renewable energy source that will allow us to rapidly decarbonise and merrily turn the planet into some kind of Coruscant. I have no clue whether this is a realistic prospect.

But sadly, neither do the people who seem to be depending on it as a solution. And my instincts tell me it is very bad policy to rely on a solution not yet invented in order to solve a problem so grave that it threatens our species’ very existence.

Maybe the way to save our bacon is simply to stop eating it? Lowering our consumption of meat and other carbon intensive goods will surely help. Yet when we look at the scale of the challenge as outlined above, it is clear to me this can only be a part of the solution.

Given that the underlying problem is that there are a lot of people in the world, birth rates are higher than death rates, and most of the world’s poor are getting richer, it seems to me that – absent Cold Fusion – there are really only two other choices:

1) Keep the poor as they are: poor. Stop them from developing economically, so they can’t burn the CO2 which we, the rich folks, have been torching for decades now. Don’t let them have decent houses, clean water or high protein diets, because these things cost carbon, and we haven’t got it to spare. This solution would likely work but it seems to me to be highly immoral. I would hate to live in squalor, be hungry, or to not have healthcare. So I don’t want to espouse policies that depend on others having to live in a way I would not.

2) Move to a Global Single-child policy: The one-woman, one-child policy is the best way there is of controlling these effects. Policies which shift the birth rate equation down at all income levels are the ones most likely to achieve our environmental aims without having to inflict misery and suffering on our own species, or on others. It would take a policy step-shift in thinking to address these problems, but as far as I am concerned, when I look at the numbers, I am certain that this is the only reasonable policy solution there is. We can start by asking religious leaders like Pope Francis to change their messaging around birth control.

And, of course, we can stop thinking of demographic change in the West as a ‘problem’. It isn’t a problem, it’s the start of the only real solution.

NOTE: I am including the full set of data which I used to do all calculations. I welcome any corrections or suggestions for improving the model.

Why is the world polarising? And what can we do about it?

In the aftermath of the First World War, at a time when massive social divisions were fuelling the rise of extremism both on the left and the right, and venerable empires in Britain, Austria and Russia were crumbling, Irish poet William Butler Yeats appeared to capture the Zeitgeist perfectly with his poem, The Second Coming, first published in 1919. It begins like this:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The thinking behind the verse was rooted in Yeats’ conviction that the world would turn in 2,000 year cycles (“turning and turning in a widening gyre”), and that we were due another significant crisis in his time, which was roughly 2,000 years since the birth of Christ.

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the publication of this poem, one might legitimately pose the question, was Yeats a century off? Are we now entering a period in which the centre cannot hold, the fateful time when the “ceremony of innocence” will be drowned?

The recent events in the UK and the rise of populism in the form of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and others suggests that if the centre is still holding, it’s only just holding. And it’s certainly straining under the weight of events. Meanwhile the tensions triggered by the apparently racially motivated shootings of black men in the US recall the image of a “blood-dimmed tide” being loosed.

Is this, as Yeats believed, part of an unstoppable cycle? A turn in the great wheel of time which we might observe, but are powerless to direct?

I for one refuse to believe that is so. I think we are the masters of our own destiny. And while there is a sick comfort in fatalism, in the abdication of responsibility to ‘Fate’, I believe we should resist this temptation and continue to fight for what we know is right: Compassion, justice and a fairer, better world.

If the wheel is “turning and turning in a widening gyre”, and if we can’t stop it, let’s at least direct it away from the cliff and onto safer pastures.