A photograph of multiple explosions going off together, emitting red and orange sparks and lots of blue-grey smoke.

Christopher Nolan’s explosion

In May, Total Film reported that the production team of Tenet, led by director Christopher Nolan, found that using a second-hand Boeing 747 was better than recreating a scene involving an exploding plane with miniatures and CGI. I’m not clear how exactly it was better; Total Film only wrote:

“I planned to do it using miniatures and set-piece builds and a combination of visual effects and all the rest,” Nolan tells TF. However, while scouting for locations in Victorville, California, the team discovered a massive array of old planes. “We started to run the numbers… It became apparent that it would actually be more efficient to buy a real plane of the real size, and perform this sequence for real in camera, rather than build miniatures or go the CG route.”

I’m assuming that by ‘numbers’ Nolan means the finances. That is, buying and crashing a life-size airplane was more financially efficient than recreating the scene with other means. This is quite the disappointing prospect, as must be obvious, because this calculation limits itself to a narrow set of concerns, or just one as in this case – more bang for the buck – and consigns everything else to being negative externalities. Foremost on my mind is carbon emissions from transporting the vehicle, the explosion and the debris. If these costs were factored in, for example in terms of however much the carbon credits would be worth in the region where Nolan et al filmed the explosion, would the numbers have still been just as efficient? (I’m assuming, reasonably I think, that Nolan et al aren’t using carbon-capture technologies.)

However, CGI itself may not be so calorifically virtuous. I’m too lazy in this moment to cast about on the internet for estimates of how much of the American film industry’s emissions CGI accounts for. But I did find this tidbit from 2018 on Columbia University’s Earth Institute blog:

For example, movies with a budget of $50 million dollars—including such flicks as Zoolander 2, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and Ted—typically produce the equivalent of around 4,000 metric tons of CO2. That’s roughly the weight of a giant sequoia tree.

A ‘green production guide’ linked there leads to a page offering an emissions calculator that doesn’t seem to account for CGI specifically; only broadly “electricity, natural gas & fuel oil, vehicle & equipment fuel use, commercial flights, charter flights, hotels & housing”. In any case, I had a close call with bitcoin-mining many years ago that alerted me to how energy-intensive seemingly straightforward computational processes could get, followed by a reminder when I worked at The Hindu – where the two computers used to render videos were located in a small room fit with its own AC, fixed at 18º C, and when they were rendering videos without any special effects, the CPUs’ fans would scream.

Today, digital artists create most CGI and special effects using graphics processing units (GPUs) – a notable exception was the black hole in Nolan’s 2014 film Interstellar, created using CPUs – and Nvidia and AMD are two of the more ‘leading’ brands from what I know (I don’t know much). One set of tests whose results a site called ‘Tom’s Hardware’ reported in May this year found an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti FE GPU is among the bottom 10% of performers in terms of wattage for a given task – in this case 268.7 W to render fur – among the 42 options the author tested. An AMD Radeon RX 5700 XT GPU consumed nearly 80% as much for the same task, falling in the seventh decile. A bunch of users on this forum say a film like Transformers will need Nvidia Quadro and AMD Firepro GPUs; the former consumed 143 W in one fur-rendering test. (Comparability may be affected by differences in the hardware setup.) Then there’s the cooling cost.

Again, I don’t know if Nolan considered any of these issues – but I doubt that he did – when he ‘ran the numbers’ to determine what would be better: blowing up a real plane or a make-believe one. Intuition does suggest the former would be a lot more exergonic (although here, again, we’re forced to reckon with the environmental and social cost of obtaining specific metals, typically from middle-income nations, required to manufacture advanced electronics).

Cinema is a very important part of 21st century popular culture and popular culture is a very important part of how we as social, political people (as opposed to biological humans) locate ourselves in the world we’ve constructed – including being good citizens, conscientious protestors, sensitive neighbours. So constraining cinema’s remit or even imposing limits on filmmakers for the climate’s sake are ridiculous courses of action. This said, when there are options (and so many films have taught us there are always options), we have a responsibility to pick the more beneficial one while assuming the fewest externalities.

The last bit is important: the planet is a single unit and all of its objects occupants are wildly interconnected. So ‘negative externalities’ as such are more often than not trade practices crafted to simplify administrative and/or bureaucratic demands. In the broader ‘One Health’ sense, they vanish.

Time and the pandemic

There is this idea in physics that the fundamental laws of nature apply the same way for processes moving both forwards and backwards in time. So you can’t actually measure the passage of time by studying these processes. Where does our sense of time, rather the passage of time, come from then? How do we get to tell that the past and future are two different things, and that time flows from the former to the latter?

We sense time because things change. Clock time is commonly understood to be a way to keep track of when and how often things change but in physics, time is not the master: change doesn’t arise because of time but time arises because of change. So time manifests in the laws of nature through things that change in time. One of the simplest such things is entropy. Specifically, the second law of thermodynamics states that as time moves forward, the entropy of an isolated system cannot decrease. Entropy thus describes an arrow of time.

This is precisely what the pandemic is refusing to do, at least as seen through windows set at the very back of a newsroom. Many reporters writing about the coronavirus may have the luxury of discovering change, and therefore the forward march of time itself, but for someone who is somewhat zoomed out – watching the proceedings from a distance, as it were – the pandemic has only suffused the news cycle with more and more copies of itself, like the causative virus itself.

It seems to me as if time has stilled. I have become numb to news about the virus, which I suspect is a coping mechanism, like a layer of armour inserted between a world relentlessly pelting me with bad news and my psyche itself. But the flip side of this protection is an inability to sense the passage of time as well as I was able before.

My senses are alert to mistakes of fact, as well as mostly of argument, that reporters make when reporting on the coronavirus, and of course to opportunities to improve sentence construction, structure, flow, etc. But otherwise, and thanks in fact to my limited engagement with this topic, it feels as if I wake up every morning, my fingers groaning at the prospect of typing the words “lockdown”, “coronavirus”, “COVID-19”, “herd immunity” and whatever else1. And since this is what I feel every morning, there is no sense of change. And without change, there is no time.

1. I mean no offence to those suffering the pandemic’s, and the lockdown’s, brutal health, economic, social, cultural and political consequences.

I would desperately like to lose my armour. The bad news will never stop coming but I would still like to get back to bad news that I got into journalism to cover, the bad news that I know what to do about… to how things were before, I suppose.

Oh, I’m aware of how illogical this line of introspection is, yet it persists! I believe one reason is that the pandemic is a passing cloud. It leapt out of the horizon and loomed suddenly over all of us, over the whole world; its pall is bleak but none of us doubts that it will also pass. The pandemic will end – everybody knows this, and this is perhaps also why the growing desperation for it to dissipate doesn’t feel misplaced, or unjustified. It is a cloud, and like all clouds, it must go away, and therefrom arises the frustration as well: if it can go away, why won’t it?

Is it true that everything that will last for a long time also build up over a long time? Climate change, for example, doesn’t – almost can’t – have a single onset event. It builds and builds all around us, its effects creeping up on us. With each passing day of inaction, there is even less that we can do than before to stop it; in fact, so many opportunities have been squandered or stolen by bad actors that all we have left to do is reduce consumption and lower carbon emissions. So with each passing day, the planet visits us with more reminders of how we have changed it, and in fact may never have it back to the way it once was.

Almost as if climate change happened so slowly, on the human scale at least, that it managed to weave itself into our sense of time, not casting a shadow on the clock as much as becoming a part of the clock itself. As humankind’s grandest challenge as yet, one that we may never fully surmount, climate change doesn’t arise because of time but time arises because of climate change. Perhaps speed and surprise is the sacrifice that time demands of that which aspires to longevity.

The pandemic, on the other hand, likely had a single onset… right? At least it seems so until you realise the pandemic is in fact the tip of the proverbial iceberg – the thing jutting above the waterline, better yet the tip of the volcano. There is a complicated mess brewing underground, and out of sight, to which we have all contributed. One day the volcano shoots up, plastering its surroundings with lava and shooting smoke and soot kilometres into the air. For a time, the skies are a nuclear-winter grey and the Sun is blotted out. To consider at this time that we could stave off all future eruptions by pouring tonnes of concrete into the smouldering caldera would be folly. The pandemic, like magma, like the truth itself, will out. So while the nimbuses of each pandemic may pass, all the storm’s ingredients will persist.

I really hope the world, and I do mean the world, will heed this lesson as the novel coronavirus’s most important, if only because our sense of time and our expectations of what the passage of time could bring need to encompass the things that cause pandemics as much as they have come to encompass the things that cause Earth’s climate to change. We’ve become used to thinking about this outbreak, and likely the ones before it, as transitory events that begin and end – but really, wrapped up in our unrelenting yearning for the pandemic to pass is a conviction that the virus is a short-lived, sublunary creature. But the virus is eternal, and so our response to it must also transform from the mortal to the immortal.

Then again, how I wish my mind submitted, that too just this once, to logic’s will sans resistance. No; it yearns still for the pandemic to end and for ‘normal’ to recommence, for time to flow as it once did, with the promise of bringing something new to the threshold of my consciousness every morning. I sense there is a line here between the long- and the short-term, between the individual and the collective, and ultimately between the decision to change myself and the decision to wait for others before I do.

I think, as usual, time will tell. Heh.

The potential energy of being entertained

Netflix just published a report drafted by its Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, estimating – among other things – its environmental footprint for operations during the year 2019. According to the report, as The Guardian columnist Arwa Mahdawi writes:

Binge-watching Netflix doesn’t just fry your brain; it may also be frying the planet. The streaming service’s global energy consumption increased by 84% in 2019 to a total of 451,000 megawatt hours – enough to power 40,000 average US homes for a year.

This is staggering but not surprising. Through history, the place at which energy is consumed to produce a product has been becoming less and less strongly associated with where the product is likely to be purchased. The invention of sails, the steam engine, the internal combustion engine and then satellites each rapidly transformed the speed at which goods could traverse Earth’s surface as well as the speed at which consumers could make more and more informed – therefore more and more rational – choices, assisted by economic reforms like globalisation and foreign direct investment.

The most recent disruption on this front was wrought, of course, by the internet and a little later the cloud. Now, with industries like movie-making, gaming, digital publishing and even large-scale computing, nothing short of a full-planet energy-accounting exercise makes sense. At the same time economic power, inequality and effective governance remain unevenly distributed, leading to knotty problems about determining how much each consumer of a company’s product is effectively responsible for the total energy required to make all products in that batch (since scale also matters).

Such accounting exercises have become increasingly popular, as they should be; private enterprises like Netflix as well as government organisations have started counting their calories – their carbon intake, output, emissions, trade, export, etc. – as a presumable first step towards limiting greenhouse gas emissions and helping keep Earth’s surface from warming any more than is already likely (2º C by 2100).

There is a catch, of course: it’s difficult to affect or even estimate the relative contribution of one’s operations to the effort to restrict global warming without also accounting for one’s wider economic setting. For example, Netflix likely displaced the DVD rental industry as well as stole users, and their respective carbon ‘demand’, from cable. So Mahdawi’s ringing the alarm bells based on Netflix’s report alone is only meaningful in a stand-alone scenario in which the status quo is ‘memoryless’.

However, even in this contextually limited aspiration to lower emissions and its attendant benefits for human wellbeing, joy, hope and optimism don’t seem to feature as much or, in many cases, at all.

Knowing Earth is already headed for widespread devastation can certainly smother action and deflate resolve. But while journalists and researchers alike have been debating the pros and cons of using positive or negative messaging as the better way to spur climate action, their most popular examples are rooted in quantifiable tasks or objects: either “Earth is getting more screwed by the hour but you can help by segregating your trash, using public transport and quitting meat” or “Sea-levels are rising, the Arctic is melting and heat-waves are becoming more frequent and more intense”.

It seems as if happiness cannot fit into either paradigm without specifying the number of degrees by which it will move the climate action needle. So it also becomes easily excluded from conversations about climate-change adaptation and mitigation. As Mahdawi writes in her column,

Being a conscientious consumer does not mean you have to turn off your wifi or chill with the Netflix. But we should think more critically about our data consumption. Apple already delivers screen-time reports; perhaps tech services should start providing us with carbon counts. Or maybe Netflix should implement carbon warnings. Caution: this program contains nudity, graphic language and a hell of a lot of energy.

If Netflix did issue such a warning, it would no longer be a popular pastime.

One of the purposes of popular culture, beyond its ability to channel creative expression and empower artists, is entertainment. We consume the products of popular culture, nucleated as music, dance, theatre, films, TV shows, books, paintings, sculptures and other forms, among other reasons to understand and locate ourselves outside the systems of capitalist production, to identify ourselves as members of communities, groups, cities or whatever by engaging with knowledge, objects – whether a book or the commons – or experiences that we have created, to assert that we are much more than where we work or what we earn.

Without these spaces and unfettered access to them, we become less able to escape the side-effects of neoliberalism: consumerism, hyper-competitiveness, social isolation and depression. I’m not saying you are likelier to feel depressed without Netflix but that Netflix is one of many sources of cultural information, and is therefore an instrument with which people around the world gather in groups based on cultural preferences – forming, in turn, a part of the foundation on which people are inspired to have new ideas, are motivated to act, and upon which they even expand their hopes and ambitions.

Of course, Netflix is itself a product of 21st century capitalism plus the internet. Like iTunes, YouTube, Prime, Disney, etc. Netflix is a corporation that has eased access to many petabytes of entertainment data across the globe but by rendering artists and entertainers even less powerful than they were and reducing their profits (rather, limiting their profits’ growth). The oft-advanced excuse, that the company simply levies a fee in return for easing barriers to discover new audiences, doesn’t always square off properly with the always-increasing labour required to create something new. So simply asking Netflix to not display a warning about the amount of energy required to produce a show may seem like a half-measure designed to fight off all of capitalism’s monsters except one.

We have a responsibility to iteratively replace the most problematic ways in which we profit from labour and generate wealth with practices that improve economic equality, social dignity, and access to education, healthcare and good living conditions. However, how do we balance this responsibility with a million people being able to watch a cautionary documentary about the rise of fascism in 1930s’ Germany, a film about the ills of plastic use or an explainer about the ways in which trees do and don’t fight global warming?

Binge-watching is bad – in terms of consuming enough energy to “power 40,000 average US homes for a year” as well as in other ways – but book-keepers seem content to insulate the act of watching itself from what is being watched, perhaps in an effort to determine the absolute worst case scenario or because it is very hard to understand, leave alone discern or even predict, the causal relationships between how we feel, how we think and how we act. However, this is also what we need: to accommodate, but at the same time without being compelled to quantify, the potential energy that arises from being entertained.

Losing sight of the agricultural finish line

In The Guardian, Joanna Blythman pokes an important pin into the frustrating but unsurprisingly durable bubble of vegan cuisine and the low-hanging fruits of ethical eating:

These days it’s fashionable to eulogise plant foods as the secret for personal health and sound stewardship of our planet. But in the process of squaring up to the challenge of climate breakdown, we seem to have forgotten that plant foods too can be either badly or well produced. … As long as we demonise animal foods and eulogise plant foods, any prospect of a natural food supply is shattered. We are left to depend for sustenance on the tender mercies of the techno-food corporations that see a little green V and the word “plant” as a formula for spinning gold from straw through ultra-processing.

Hopefully – though I hope for far too much here! – her article will sufficiently puncture the global elite’s bloated righteousness over eating healthy, especially vegan and/or organic, in order to save the planet, when in fact it’s just another instance of doing the bare and suspiciously photogenic minimum to personally feel better.

My own grouse is directed at tech-driven agricultural targets that speak about the producer and the consumer as if there was nothing in between, such as R&D, processing, storage, supply, distribution and trade, all in turn resting on a wider substrate of political-economic issues. The defensive technologist and/or investor might say, “You have got to start somewhere,” but innovators frequently start by targeting a demographic for which the situation might never been too late, instead of the people for whom it already is. Even then, their rhetoric also quickly forgets how misguided and off-target their ambitions are, leave alone losing sight of the problemy problems in desperate need of resolution.

I do think vertical farms are an interesting idea but I also think their wealthy investors and wealthy publicists have made a habit of horribly overestimating the extent to which these contraptions are going to be part of the solution – which in turn has contributed to a widespread sense of complacency among the elite and blinded them to the need for more better and radical changes to the status quo.

Sure, pesticides suck; I am also familiar with accounts that describe how the world produces enough but wastes too much, the tactics of companies like Monsanto; and I recognise agriculture is arguably the oldest human activity contributing to global heating. However, most narratives that provide the counter-view, and some of which also offer supplementary alternatives, gloss over important features of modern agriculture like scale and cost-effectiveness, enabled in turn by the various -icides, as well as the ways in which it is enmeshed in the economies of the developing world.

Ideas like indoor farming have become increasingly trendy of late: just two startups in the US raised $300 million as of last year but their products seem to cater only to upper-class westerners content with a salad-centric diet, seemingly mindless of the millions in third-world countries grossly underprepared to deal with climate change, water shortage, undernourishment and deepening economic inequality at the same time. (Not to mention: the more it costs to produce something, the more it is going to cost to buy without subsidies.)

For many – if not most – of India’s children, eggs are often the sole affordable source of protein. As an elite, upper-caste Indian, I have both privilege and responsibility to change my lifestyle to reduce my as well as others’ carbon footprints1; but in addition, to what extent could I be expected to fight against non-free-range egg production in the absence of guarantees about alternative sources – including lab-grown ones – when ultimately human welfare is our shared concern?

1. I can reduce others’ carbon footprints by reducing the amount of materials I consume to maintain my lifestyle.

The midday meal programme for instance feeds more than 100 million children, with the per-plate cooking cost ranging from Rs 4 to Rs 7; each plate in turn needs to have 12-20 grams of protein. We know pesticide-fed agriculture works because (together with government subsidies) it makes these costs possible, not when it does not damage the world in whatever other ways.

More broadly, there is a limit to which concerns for the climate have the leeway to supersede crop and cattle-meat production in India when the government will not sufficiently protect members of these sectors, often belonging to the more marginalised sections of society, from poverty, insolvency, suicide and death. Axiomatically, “breakthroughs in the development of food” will not move the climate-action needle until they provide alternate livelihoods, upgrade storage and distribution infrastructure, improve access to capital and insurance, and retool the public distribution system – a slew of upstream and downstream changes whose complexity towers over the technological options we currently have on offer.

Fighting climate change is, among other things, about replacing unsustainable practices with sustainable alternatives without sacrificing human development. However, the most popular media and business narratives have given this ambition a Malthusian twist to suggest it is about saving the planet at all costs – and not out of desperation but sheer ignorance, albeit with the same consequences. The dietary movements that promote organic farming, anti-meat diets and, quite terribly, genetically modified foods among the rich are part of this rhetoric. The technologies they bank on are frequently riddled with hypocrisies, most of all concerning external costs, and their strategies are restricted to regimens with their own well-established economies of profitability, such as keto, paleo, detox, etc., over anaemic, stunted, malnourished, etc.

The story here is quite similar to that of electric vehicles. If you are driving an electric scooter in India today, you are still far from helping cut emissions because coal is still the biggest source of power in the country. So without undertaking efforts to produce cleaner power (an endeavour fraught with its own problems), all you have done is translocated your share of the emissions away from the city where you are driving the scooter and to the faraway power plant where more coal is being burnt to provide the power you need. Your purchase may have been a step in the right direction but celebrating that would be as premature as getting to Kathmandu and tweeting you are on your way to the top of Mt Everest.

Claiming to be on the path to resolving the world’s food crisis by putting food on the plate of the already well-fed is similarly laughable.

Free speech at the outer limits

On January 12, Peter W. Wood, president of an American organisation called the National Association of Scholars (NAS), wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal against attempts by one individual to prevent NAS from organising a conference on science’s reproducibility crisis.

As it turns out, the individual – Leonid Teytelman – has been fighting to highlight the fact that the conference is an attempt to use “the issue of scientific reproducibility as a Trojan horse to undermine trust in climate change research” (source), and that Wood’s claim to “hold to a rigorous standard of open-mindedness on controversial issues” extends only so far as upholding his own views, using the rest of his diatribe on the WSJ to slap down Teytelman’s contentions as an unfortunate byproduct of “cancel culture”.

We’ve all heard of this trope and those of us on Twitter are likely to have been part of one at some point in our lives. The reason I bring this up now is that Wood’s argument and WSJ’s willingness to offer itself as a platform together recall an important but largely unacknowledged reason tropes like this one continue to play out in public debates.

A friend recently expressed the same problem in a different conversation – that of India’s Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules, 1964. These rules discourage government employees from commenting on government policies, schemes, etc. to the press without their supervisors’ okay or participating in political activities, and those who disobey them could be suspended from duty. However, public opposition to India’s new Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, has been so pronounced that there appears to be renewed public acknowledgment of the idea that the right to protest is a fundamental right, even if the Constitution doesn’t explicitly encode it as such.

So after the government sought to use the CCS Rules to prevent its staff from participating in protests against itself, the Tripura high court ruled that simply showing up at protests doesn’t constitute a ‘political activity’ nor does it cede sufficient ground for suspension, dismissal, arrest, etc. This was obviously heartening news – but there was a catch.

As my friend, who is also a government employee, said, “Civil servants becoming openly political is harmful for the country. Then one doesn’t even have to maintain a façade of neutrality, and the government can’t run if it is busy quelling open rebellion in offices.” That is, to maintain a democracy, its outermost borders must be organised in a non-democratic system – a loose, but not unrecognisable, analogue of the argument that free speech and the slice of freedom it stands for cannot be absolute.

To quote from Laurie Penny’s timeless essay published in 2018, “Civility” – and its logics – “will never defeat fascism” or, presumably, its precursors. Freedom has borders and they are arbitrary by design, erected to keep some actors out even if those on the inside may agitate for unlimited freedom for everyone, and aspire to change their opponents’ minds through reason and civil conduct alone. The borders prevent harm to others and keep people from instigating violence – as the first amendment to the Indian Constitution, under Article 19(2), reminds us – and they just as well entitle us to refuse to debate those who won’t play by the same rules we do.

The liberal democrat’s conceit in this regard is two-pronged: first, that all issues can be resolved through reason (not limited to or necessarily including science), debate and civil conduct alone; second (this one more of a self-imposed penance), that one is obligated to engage in debate, and more generally that to disengage – from debate or from public life – is to abdicate one’s duties as a citizen. So the option to refuse to engage in debate might offend the liberal democrat’s commitment to free speech – for herself as well as others – but this ignores the fact that free speech itself can be productive or liberating only within the borders of democracy and not beyond its outer limits, where the fascists lurk.

And unless we imbibe these limitations and accept the need to disengage or boycott when necessary, we will remain trapped in our ever-expanding but never-breaking circular arguments and argumentative circles.

In the present case, Teytelman tried to expose the NAS as a threat to public trust in climate science but failed, thanks in large part to the WSJ’s ill-founded decision to offer itself as a broadcast channel for Wood’s tantrum. Perhaps Teytelman has more fight left in him, perhaps others do too, but the time will come when the appeals to reason alone will have to cease, and more direct and pragmatic means, equipped especially to disrupt the theatre of fascistic behaviour – part of which is the conflation of ignorance and knowledge and often manifests in the press as ‘he said, she said’ – will have to assume centerstage. (I.e. The WSJ can’t solve the problem by next inviting Teytelman to write a one-sided piece.)

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop is a more pertinent example. Goop trades in specious ‘alternatives’ to treat made-up diseases. But in spite of what one professor of law and public health acknowledged to be “immediate and widespread … backlash by health-care professionals and science-advocates”, and what many science journalists celebrated as inspirational examples of good communication, the company is set to launch its own Netflix show (more of an infomercial) on January 24. Note that as of December 2019, Netflix had 158 million paying subscribers.

It’s time to stop playing nice, and to stop playing this as individuals. Instead, science communicators – especially those committed to beating back the tentacular arms of pseudoscience and organised disempowerment (à la organised religion) – should respond as a community. While one group continues to participate in debates if only to pull some of the more undecided people away from ‘evil in the guise of good’, another must demand that the video-streaming platform cancel its deal with Goop.

(We could also organise a large-scale boycott of Goop’s products and services but none of the buyers and sellers here seem to want to change their minds.)

Responding this way is of course much harder than simply calling for violence, and quite painful to acknowledge the grossly disproportionate amount of effort we need to dedicate relative to the amount of time Paltrow probably spent coming up with Goop’s products. And in the end, we may still not succeed, not to mention invite similar protests from members of the opposite faction to our doorsteps – but I believe this is the only way we can ever succeed at all, against Goop, NAS and anything else.

But most of all, to continue to engage in debates alone at this time would be as responsible a thing to do as playing fiddle while the world burns.

Colourful dresses hanging on successive hangers from a rod at a clothing store.

A why of how we wear what we wear

There are many major industries operating around the world commonly perceived to be big drivers of climate change. Plastic, steel and concrete manufacturing come immediately to mind – but fashion doesn’t, even though, materially speaking, its many inefficiencies represent something increasingly worse than an indulgence in times so fraught by economic inequality and the dividends of extractive capitalism.

And even then, details like ‘making one cotton t-shirt requires 3,900 litres of water’ (source) spring first into our consciousness before less apparent, and more subtle, issues like the label itself. Why is the fashion industry called so? I recently read somewhere – an article, or maybe a tweet (in any case the thought isn’t original) – that the term ‘fashion’ implies an endless seasonality, a habit of periodically discarding designs, and the clothes they inhabit, only to invent and manufacture new garments.

The persistence of fashion trends also presents social problems. Consider, for example, the following paragraph, copied from a press release issued by Princeton University:

People perceive a person’s competence partly based on subtle economic cues emanating from the person’s clothing, according to a study published in Nature Human Behaviour by Princeton University. These judgments are made in a matter of milliseconds, and are very hard to avoid. … Given that competence is often associated with social status, the findings suggest that low-income individuals may face hurdles in relation to how others perceive their abilities — simply from looking at their clothing.

Let’s assume that the study is robust as well as that the press release is faithful to the study’s conclusions (verifying which would require a lot more work than I am willing to spare for this post – but you’ve been warned!). Getting rid of fashion trends will do little, or even nothing, to render our societies more equitable. But it merits observing that they also participate in, possibly are even predicated on, maintaining ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups, demarcated by the awareness of dressing trends, ability to purchase the corresponding garments and familiarity with the prevailing ways to use them in order to incentivise certain outcomes over others on behalf of people who adhere to similar sartorial protocols.

(Aside: Such behaviour usually favours members of the elite but it’s not entirely absent outside the corresponding sociopolitical context. For example, and as a tangential case of enclothed cognition, the titular character in the 2016 Tamil film Kabali insists on wearing a blazer at all times simply because his upper-caste antagonists use their clothing to indicate their social status and, consequently, power.)

Obviously, the social and climatic facets of fashion design aren’t entirely separable. The ebb-and-flow of design trends drives consumer spending and, well, consumption whereas the stratification of individual competence – at least according to the study; certainly of likability based on status signals – sets up dressing choices as a socially acceptable proxy to substitute seemingly less prejudicial modes of evaluation. (And far from being a syllogism, many of our social ills actively promote the neoliberal consumer culture at the heart of the climate crisis.)

Then again, proxies in general are not always actively deployed. There are numerous examples from science administration as well as other walks of life. This is also one of the reasons I’m not too worried about not interrogating the study: it rings true (to the point of rendering the study itself moot if didn’t come to any other conclusions).

People considering a scientist for, say, career advancement often judge the quality of their work based on which journals they were published in, even though it’s quite well-known that this practice is flawed. But the use of proxies is justified for pragmatic reasons: when universities are understaffed and/or staff are underpaid, proxies accelerate decision-making, especially if they also have a low error-rate and the decision isn’t likely to have dire consequences for any candidate. If the resource-crunch is more pronounced, it’s quite possible that pragmatic considerations altogether originate the use of proxies instead of simply legitimising them.

Could similar decision-making pathways have interfered with the study? I hope not, or they would have strongly confounded the study’s findings. In this scenario, where scientists presented a group of decision-makers with visual information based on which the latter had to make some specific decisions without worrying about any lack of resources, we’re once again faced with yet another prompt to change the way we behave, and that’s a tall order.

A windier world

A new paper in Nature Climate Change reports a reversal in “terrestrial stilling” since 2010 – i.e. global wind speeds, thought to be in decline thanks to deforestation and real estate development, actually stopped slowing around 2010 and have been climbing since.

The paper’s authors, a group of researchers from China, France, Singapore, Spain, the UK and the US, argue that the result can be explained by “decadal ocean-atmosphere oscillations” and conclude with further analysis that the increase “has increased potential wind energy by 17 ± 2% for 2010 to 2017, boosting the US wind power capacity factor by ~2.5% and explains half the increase in the US wind capacity factor since 2010.”

Now that we have some data to support the theory that both terrestrial and oceanic processes affect wind speeds and to what extent, the authors propose building models to predict wind speeds in advance and engineer wind turbines accordingly to maximise power generation.

This seems like a silver lining but it isn’t.

Global heating does seem to be influencing wind speeds. To quote from the paper again: “The ocean-atmosphere oscillations, characterised as the decadal variations in [mainly three climate indices] can therefore explain the decadal variation in wind speed (that is, the long-term stilling and the recent reversal).” This in turn empowers wind turbines to produce more energy and correspondingly lowers demand from non-renewable sources.

DOI: 10.1038/s41558-019-0622-6

However, three of the major sources of greenhouse gas emissions are concrete, plastics and steel manufacturing – and all three materials are required in not insubstantial quantities to build a wind turbine. So far from being a happy outcome of global heating, the increase in average regional wind speed – which the authors say could last for up to a decade – could drive the construction of more or, significantly, different turbines which in turn causes more greenhouses gases to be released into the atmosphere.

Finally, while the authors estimate the “global mean annual wind speed” increased from 3.13 m/s in 2010 to 3.3 m/s in 2017, the increase in the amount of energy entering a wind turbine is distributed unevenly by location: “22 ± 2% for North America, 22 ± 4% for Europe and 11 ± 4% for Asia”. Assuming these calculations are reliable, the figures suggest industrialised nations have a stronger incentive to capitalise on the newfound stilling reversal (from the same paper: “We find that the capacity factor for wind generation in the US is highly and significantly correlated with the variation in the cube of regional-average wind speed”).

On the other hand Asia, which still has a weaker incentive, will continue to bear a disproportionate brunt of the climate crisis. To quote from an article published in The Wire Science today,

… as it happens, the idea that ‘green technology’ can help save the environment is dangerous because it glosses over the alternatives’ ills. In a bid to reduce the extraction of hydrocarbons for fuel as well as to manufacture components for more efficient electronic and mechanical systems, industrialists around the world have been extracting a wide array of minerals and metals, destroying entire ecosystems and displacing hundreds of thousands of people. It’s as if one injustice has replaced another.

Godwin Vasanth Bosco, The Wire Science, December 2, 2019

The climate and the A.I.

A few days ago, the New York Times and other major international publications sounded the alarm over a new study that claimed various coastal cities around the world would be underwater to different degrees by 2050. However, something seemed off; it couldn’t have been straightforward for the authors of the study to plot how much the sea-level rise would affect India’s coastal settlements. Specifically, the numbers required to calculate how many people in a city would be underwater aren’t readily available in India, if at all they do exist. Without this bit of information, it’s easy to disproportionately over- or underestimate certain outcomes for India on the basis of simulations and models. And earlier this evening, as if on cue, this thread appeared:

This post isn’t a declaration of smugness (although it is tempting) but to turn your attention to one of Palanichamy’s tweets in the thread:

One of the biggest differences between the developed and the developing worlds is clean, reliable, accessible data. There’s a reason USAfacts.org exists whereas in India, data discovery is as painstaking a part of the journalistic process as is reporting on it and getting the report published. Government records are fairly recent. They’re not always available at the same location on the web (data.gov.in has been remedying this to some extent). They’re often incomplete or not machine-readable. Every so often, the government doesn’t even publish the data – or changes how it’s obtained, rendering the latest dataset incompatible with previous versions.

This is why attempts to model Indian situations and similar situations in significantly different parts of the world (i.e. developed and developing, not India and, say, Mexico) in the same study are likely to deviate from reality: the authors might have extrapolated the data for the Indian situation using methods derived from non-native datasets. According to Palanichamy, the sea-level rise study took AI’s help for this – and herein lies the rub. With this study itself as an example, there are only going to be more – and potentially more sensational – efforts to determine the effects of continued global heating on coastal assets, whether cities or factories, paralleling greater investments to deal with the consequences.

In this scenario, AI, and algorithms in general, will only play a more prominent part in determining how, when and where our attention and money should be spent, and controlling the extent to which people think scientists’ predictions and reality are in agreement. Obviously the deeper problem here lies with the entities responsible for collecting and publishing the data – and aren’t doing so – but given how the climate crisis is forcing the world’s governments to rapidly globalise their action plans, the developing world needs to inculcate the courage and clarity to slow down, and scrutinise the AI and other tools scientists use to offer their recommendations.

It’s not a straightforward road from having the data to knowing what it implies for a city in India, a city in Australia and a city in Canada.

The virtues of local travel

Here’s something I wish I’d read before overtourism and flygskam removed the pristine gloss of desirability from the selfies, 360º panoramas and videos the second-generation elites posted every summer on the social media:

It’s ok to prioritize friendships, community, and your mental health over travelling.

Amir Salihefendic, the head of a tech company, writes this after having moved from Denmark to Taiwan for a year, and reflects on the elements of working remotely, the toll it inevitably takes, and how the companies (and the people) that champion this mode of work often neglect to mention its unglamorous side.

Remote work works only if the company’s management culture is cognisant of it. It doesn’t work if one employee of a company that ‘extracts’ work by seating its people in physical proximity, such as in offices or even co-working spaces, chooses to work from another location. This is because, setting aside the traditional reasons for which people work in the presence of other people,  offices are also designed to institute conditions that maximise productivity and, ideally, minimise stress or mental turbulence.

But what Salihefendic wrote is also true for travelling, which he undertook by going from Denmark to Taiwan. Travelling here is an act that – in the form practiced by those who sustain the distinction between a place to work, or experience pain, and a place in which to experience pleasure – renders long-distance travel a class aspiration, and the ‘opposing’ short-distance travel a ‘lesser’ thing for not maintaining the same social isolation that our masculine cities do.

This is practically the Protestant ethic that Max Weber described in his analysis of the origins of capitalism, and which Silicon Valley dudebros dichotomised as ‘word hard, party harder’. And for once, it’s a good thing that this kind of living is out of reach of nearly 99% of humankind.

Exploring neighbourhood sites is more socio-economically and socio-culturally (and not just economically and just culturally) productive. Instead of creating distinct centres of pain and pleasure, of value creation and value dispensation, local travel can reduce the extent and perception of urban sprawl, contribute to hyperlocal economic development, birth social knowledge networks that enhance civilian engagement, and generally defend against the toll of extractive capitalism.

For example, in Bengaluru, I would like to travel from Malleshwaram to Yelahanka, or – in Chennai – from T Nagar to Kottivakkam, or – in Delhi – from Jor Bagh to Vasant Kunj, for a week or two at a time, and in each case exploring a different part of the city that might as well be a different city, characterised by a unique demographic distribution, public spaces, cuisine and civic issues. And when I do, I will still have my friends and access to my community and to the social support I need to maintain my mental health.

Prestige journals and their prestigious mistakes

On June 24, the journal Nature Scientific Reports published a paper claiming that Earth’s surface was warming by more than what non-anthropogenic sources could account for because it was simply moving closer to the Sun. I.e. global warming was the result of changes in the Earth-Sun distance. Excerpt:

The oscillations of the baseline of solar magnetic field are likely to be caused by the solar inertial motion about the barycentre of the solar system caused by large planets. This, in turn, is closely linked to an increase of solar irradiance caused by the positions of the Sun either closer to aphelion and autumn equinox or perihelion and spring equinox. Therefore, the oscillations of the baseline define the global trend of solar magnetic field and solar irradiance over a period of about 2100 years. In the current millennium since Maunder minimum we have the increase of the baseline magnetic field and solar irradiance for another 580 years. This increase leads to the terrestrial temperature increase as noted by Akasofu [26] during the past two hundred years.

The New Scientist reported on July 16 that Nature has since kickstarted an “established process” to investigate how a paper with “egregious errors” cleared peer-review and was published. One of the scientists it quotes says the journal should retract the paper if it wants to “retain any credibility”, but the fact that it cleared peer-review in the first place is to me the most notable part of this story. It is a reminder that peer-review has a failure rate as well as that ‘prestige’ titles like Nature can publish crap; for instance, look at the retraction index chart here).

That said, I am a little concerned because Scientific Reports is an open-access title. I hope it didn’t simply publish the paper in exchange for a fee like its less credible counterparts.

Almost as if it timed it to the day, the journal ScienceNature‘s big rival across the ocean – published a paper that did make legitimate claims but which brooks disagreement on a different tack. It describes a way to keep sea levels from rising due to the melting of Antarctic ice. Excerpt:

… we show that the [West Antarctic Ice Sheet] may be stabilized through mass deposition in coastal regions around Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers. In our numerical simulations, a minimum of 7400 [billion tonnes] of additional snowfall stabilizes the flow if applied over a short period of 10 years onto the region (~2 mm/year sea level equivalent). Mass deposition at a lower rate increases the intervention time and the required total amount of snow.

While I’m all for curiosity-driven research, climate change is rapidly becoming a climate emergency in many parts of the world, not least where the poorer live, without a corresponding set of protocols, resources and schemes to deal with it. In this situation, papers like this – and journals like Science that publish them – only make solutions like the one proposed above seem credible when in fact they should be trashed for implying that it’s okay to keep emitting more carbon into the atmosphere because we can apply a band-aid of snow over the ice sheet and postpone the consequences. Of course, the paper’s authors acknowledge the following:

Operations such as the one discussed pose the risk of moral hazard. We therefore stress that these projects are not an alternative to strengthening the efforts of climate mitigation. The ambitious reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is and will be the main lever to mitigate the impacts of sea level rise. The simulations of the current study do not consider a warming ocean and atmosphere as can be expected from the increase in anthropogenic CO2. The computed mass deposition scenarios are therefore valid only under a simultaneous drastic reduction of global CO2 emissions.

… but these words belong in the last few lines of the paper (before the ‘materials and methods’ section), as if they were a token addition to what reads, overall, like a dispassionate analysis. This is also borne out by the study not having modelled the deposition idea together with falling CO2 emissions.

I’m a big fan of curiosity-driven science as a matter of principle. While it seemed hard at first to reconcile my emotions on the Science paper with that position, I realised that I believe both curiosity- and application-driven research should still be conscientious. Setting aside the endless questions about how we ought to spend the taxpayers’ dollars – if only because interfering with research on the basis of public interest is a terrible idea – it is my personal, non-prescriptive opinion that research should still endeavour to be non-destructive (at least to the best of the researchers’ knowledge) when advancing new solutions to known problems.

If that is not possible, then researchers should acknowledge that their work could have real consequences and, setting aside all pretence of being quantitative, objective, etc., clarify the moral qualities of their work. This the authors of the Science paper have done but there are no brownie points for low-hanging fruits. Or maybe there should be considering there has been other work where the authors of a paper have written that they “make no judgment on the desirability” of their proposal (also about climate geo-engineering).

Most of all, let us not forget that being Nature or Science doesn’t automatically make what they put out better for having been published by them.

The Meerut mahayagya

Did some back-of-the-envelope calculations about the Meerut mahayagya, where a bunch of Hindu priests are burning 50 tonnes of mango wood and approx. 10 million tablespoons of ghee in a mega-ritual to “purify the air”, over nine days. Can’t make this stuff up.

So 50 tonnes of hardwood releases 8.25 x 1011 joules and 10 million tablespoons of ghee releases 4.6 x 1012 joules of heat.

The slow and fast pyrolysis of hard wood also releases carbon monoxide/dioxide, methane, aldehydes, ketenes, epoxides and other fatty acids and hydrocarbons.

The priests believe that “holy ghee” produces large quantities of oxygen when it burns. Not sure where this claim originated by we all know this isn’t possible: as a triglyceride, ghee can’t do that when it burns, let alone “10 grams producing one tonne”.

There’s another “yagya” of greater magnitude happening in Delhi, where priests are coming together for seven days for the ritual to enhance “national security”.

There’s been a bit of literature – scientific and journalistic – in the recent past about whether or not climate change may be driving, rather encouraging, human conflicts by endangering quantities of and access to shared resources (chiefly water).

Now, without getting into silly lines of thought like “which religion has the cleanest rituals” (unanswerable for numerous reasons), it might be wise for believers to acknowledge that whatever their religion is, their rituals need to become more conscious of climatic needs.

The wise men and women who instituted rituals eons ago may not have seen the end of the world creep upon us in the form of a warming Earth but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

As someone brought up in an orthodox Hindu household, and someone living in a country whose ruling party wants to transform the whole place into one orthodox Hindu household, I can safely say that the way we acknowledge the pride of place we accord to fire in our worldview needs an overhaul.

I’m sure various other rituals outside of Hinduism will need to be questioned as well.

Burning 50 tonnes of mango wood to “purify the air” is moronic. The wood was cut down and transported to Delhi from some other place. The carbon footprint of such deforestation and transportation takes the damage far beyond the 825 GJ mentioned above, and makes it more multifarious, too.

Public assertions of religious privilege and caste hegemony already sow dark seeds of conflict. But uprooting trees from one place is a form of violence perpetrated against that place; as the world warms further, the brutality of it will only be perceived more strongly.

To take the wood to another place to be burnt… that’s some very distended sense of entitlement.

Featured image credit: hschmider/pixabay.

Veblen cars and useless concerns for the climate

Lexus has an ad on the jacket of today’s The Hindu for its new premium hybrid electric vehicle, the LS 500h. The product description states that the car “extends relentless innovation to environmentally conscious engineering with a performance-centric Multi Stage Hybrid System. Crafted with luxury in mind and engineered with the environment at heart” (emphasis added).

This is first-class crap.

Obviously, as a Veblen good (priced at Rs 1.77 crore), the LS 500h is pandering to the self-indulgence of India’s upper class. The car allows the highfalutin to be able to claim that they’re riding around in a vehicle that’s environmentally friendly. It’s not. Aside from the specifics of how it combusts its fuel, the LS 500h measures, in metres, 5.2 × 1.9 × 1.4 (l, b, h). That’s a lot for a carrying capacity of five persons. So the car’s design is quite effectively symptomatic of a belief that pro-environmental engineering is only about rethinking or retooling the car’s central source of power as opposed to redesigning it to take up less space on the roads as well.

We all know the public transport system in urban India is far from ideal. Buses are ill-maintained and don’t ply well-optimised routes. Auto-rickshaw fares are regulated but rarely, if ever, enforced. Trains always run at full capacity, are subject to frequent breakdowns and the associated infrastructure is unclean and, in many cases, unsafe. Overall, public transport options are always in high demand and the commute experience they provide is often stressful. So those who can afford private transportation exercise the option (esp. in the form of two-wheelers). Ultimately, given that most parts of India’s tier I and II cities are unplanned formations, roads are often overcrowded, jammed and/or unnavigable.

So improving this situation needs policymakers and citizens alike to assume an interdisciplinary approach, particularly since transport emissions also have to be mitigated to meet both climatic and health targets. In this multivariate context, one of the variables to be optimised for, among accessibility, affordability, etc., is space. Specifically, it becomes desirable for more people to occupy less space while commuting so that time spent traveling and fuel use efficiency are reduced and increased, respectively.

For five people to occupy a ground area of 10 sq. metres in the LS 500h is ridiculous in the specific context of Lexus claiming that the car was “engineered with the environment at heart”. Let’s be honest: this is a fancy car that’s like any other fancy car. Even the greenness of the electric power it consumes – using electric and V6 engines plus a Li-ion battery – is limited to lower emissions; the power itself, in India, is predominantly generated in thermal power plants. So the car in effect aspires to mitigate its own emissions but does nothing else that’s environmentally friendly. This may be cutting-edge innovation but it is not environmentally productive in the least.

Whether this singular contribution will make a difference is also doubtful. For the upper class to be able to claim they’re being ‘green’ requires them to implement those claims at scale – particularly since possessing the car itself would require capital accumulation to the tune of a few tens of crores. Such wealth can be better redistributed to help those who can’t yet afford to live green but aspire to; in the long-term, sustainable living has the potential to be cheaper, but in the short-term, it is bound to be quite costly. Without redistribution, affirmative pro-climate action through the production and utilisation of Veblen goods will remain an oxymoron.