Tuesday 10 August, 2021

Clowns’ Day Out

Cover of this week’s Private Eye.

Quote of the Day

“I go to the pantomime only at Christmas.”

  • W.S. Gilbert, on being asked if he had seen Sir Henry Irving in Faust.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ennio Morricone | Cinema Paradiso | in concert | Venice | 2007)


Music from one of my favourite films, conducted by the composer in St Mark’s square. Magical.

Long Read of the Day

Vaclav Smil: We Must Leave Growth Behind

Transcript of an interview by David Wallace-Wells recorded two years ago after the publication of Smil’s magisterial book, Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities. The interview one the best expositions I’ve seen for my putative Theory of Incompetent Systems — ones that can’t fix themselves. Unfortunately, we humans belong to one of those.

DW-L: Let me start by asking you about the very end of the book. I know so much of this was written in a spirit of caution and care and wanting to avoid drawing long-term, large-scale conclusions from the material. But from my read, at least, it ends on a quite definitive note. “The long-term survival of our civilization cannot be assured without setting limits on the planetary scale.”

Smil: That has been always the case. There’s nothing new in this, except many people have been refusing to recognize it.

DW-L: Can you tell me a bit about how you came to that conclusion?

Smil: Speaking as an old-fashioned scientist, I think the message is kind of a primitive and, again, old-fashioned message. This is a finite planet. There is a finite amount of energy. There is finite efficiency of converting it by animals and crops. And there are certain sensitivities in terms of biogeochemical cycles, which will tolerate only that much. I mean, that should be obvious to anybody who’s ever taken some kind of kindergarten biology.

Unfortunately, this is a society where nobody’s taking kindergarten biology because everybody’s studying what’s communications, writing in code, economics, business administration, liaising the state office, and things like that. This is a new civilization we have. People are totally detached from reality. If you are attached, at least a bit, to reality, all of this is common sense.

Not a comfortable read, but a salutary one.

The IPCC Report

It’s out and it contains no surprises — at least for anyone who’s been paying attention. The TL;DR version is simple: climate science has advanced rapidly; climate action has not. Or, as Dave Pell put it in his newsletter:

The fight that pits humanity vs climate change isn’t over. But so far, humanity has been beaten up, knocked around the ring, and dropped to the canvas a few times. And even in this heat, climate change has barely broken a sweat, choosing to just sit back and watch as humanity punches itself in the gut. In short, the bad news is that the scientists we ignored when they accurately warned us about the risks of temperature hikes, sea rises, and deadly weather patterns are back to inform us that what they said would happen has happened and things are, inevitably, going to get worse in the coming years. BBC: Climate change: IPCC report is ‘code red for humanity.’ The good news is that all is not lost. We know what’s causing the changes and we know how to slow things down before the Earth turns into a rolling fireball. All we have to do is come together as humans, follow the science, and do what it takes to change course before it’s too late. You know, sort of how we handled Covid.


Paul Krugman on Albert Hirschman

Apropos yesterday’s Long Read about Albert Hirschman, Bill Janeway (Whom God Preserve) emailed asking if I’d read Jeremy Adelman’s great biography of Hirschman (I hadn’t) and also reminding me of an old essay by Paul Krugman that he (Bill) had quoted in the early pages of his book, Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy (which I have read). The particular excerpt that Bill had used was the passage about the emerging relationship between maps of Africa and the reality of that continent.

Needless to say, I dug out the Krugman essay and spent an enjoyable hour reading it. It’s an interesting and very perceptive piece on the role of models and metaphors in economics. In fact, if you’re busy, that section of the piece is worth it just for that.

Of course, for me it turned out to be a rabbit-hole — albeit an enjoyable and instructive one. But now the Adelman biography has been added to my reading list. Sigh.

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