James Howard Kunstler’s New Novel: World Made by Hand

Orion magazine has a review by John Galvin of James Howard Kunstler’s new novel, World Made by Hand.  An excerpt:

Islamic Fundamentalists have blown up Los Angeles and DC. That puts
the global economy into a smoking tailspin. A flu pandemic has wiped
out a good third of the population, maybe more. Oil, or access to
what’s left of it anyway, is as good as gone. The Chinese have
reportedly landed a man on the moon, but that’s probably more legend
than fact in these paranoid times. The federal government has retreated
to Minnesota, of all places (because who would attack them up there?),
and with resources limited, race wars have erupted across the South.
The globe is no longer flat (sorry, Tom Friedman!). It’s as round and
as large as it’s ever been.

Such is the fictionalized world envisioned by James Howard Kunstler in his new book, World Made by Hand. This isn’t a sci-fi view into a future one hundred or fifty years away. It’s anti–sci-fi, set maybe ten to twenty years out.

Link: World Made by Hand.

Kunstler is best known for his non-fiction.  His most recent is The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century.

Presidential Candidates Invited to Science Quiz, er, Debate

The Science Debate 2008 campaign sent out invitations to the four major candidates recently for the debate, now set for April 18th if anyone shows up.  In the invitation they write:

This is a policy debate.  It is not intended to be a science quiz. Nor
are we interested in state-level battles such as the evolution versus
creationism/ID debate.  Our goal is to find out how aware candidates
are of America’s major science and technology problems and
opportunities, and how they propose to offer the kind of visionary
leadership and policy solutions that will tackle those challenges and
ensure America’s place as the most scientifically and technologically
advanced nation on earth.  This is your opportunity to demonstrate that
you are such a leader.

It’s telling that they needed to reassure candidates that it’s not a quiz, because when Science Debate first came on the scene it was clear that many of the people pushing for it wanted a quiz.  There was gloating in comment boards about the chance to make fun of candidates who don’t believe in evolution or don’t understand science.  (Not that those are excusable — thank the gods that Mike Huckabee doesn’t have a chance of winning.)

There are important science and tech policy issues to discuss, but I’m still skeptical of the need for a separate debate on this.  (Previous post: Do we need a presidential debate on science?)

There have been several recent articles on the story:

Our Paperless Future

The New York Times had an article yesterday on our glorious paperless future — which may already be here!  It’s a reasonably balanced piece, aside from some hyperbole from the experts they quote.  Most of this stuff makes sense, like using scanners to keep documents.  In fact that’s mostly what the article is about (scanning documents), whereas the graphic that accompanies it shows such wonders as the electronic bartender with built-in drink recipes and a perennial futurist favorite: the smart refrigerator with digital display.  (Mark Kuniavsky recently posted a nice gallery of these: Evolution of the Fridge Computer.)

An excerpt from the NYT article:

“Paper is no longer the master copy; the digital version is,” says
Brewster Kahle, the founder and director of the Internet Archive, a
nonprofit digital library. “Paper has been dealt a complete deathblow.
When was the last time you saw a telephone book?”

Some homes may
no longer have phone books, but many have scanners — and, increasingly,
more than one. Flatbed scanners, which most people use for photographs,
offer high resolution but are cumbersome for scanning large volumes of
paper. New, cheap document-feed scanners that can digitize a stack of
papers, receipts or business cards in seconds are becoming popular. Add
multiple computers, digital cameras and maybe an electronic book
reader, and suddenly paper seems to be on the endangered-species list.

rising steadily in the 1980s and ’90s, worldwide paper consumption per
capita has plateaued in recent years. In the richest countries,
consumption fell 6 percent from 2000 to 2005, from 531 to 502 pounds a
person. The data bolsters the view of experts like Mr. Kahle who say
paper is becoming passé. […]

A paperless world isn’t automatically a boon for the environment,
though. While these digital toys reduce dependence on one resource,
they increase it on another: energy. Some devices are always plugged
in, eating electricity even when not in use, and gobbling huge amounts
of power when they are. Others, like digital cameras and laptop
computers, use electricity while they are recharging.

And the
shift might not happen as fast as some technology gurus predict. The
paperless office, which some experts had said would be the norm by the
1990s, has so far failed to materialize. Employees are reckless about
printing long e-mail messages, reports and memos, largely because the
company picks up the bill for the laser printers, photocopiers, ink and

Link: Pushing paper out the door.

There are some good comments on the article at TreeHugger and LifeHacker.  Many are about phone books — in the US, phone companies keep delivering these, though hardly anybody wants one.

One thing that’s not often mentioned in stories like these is that you can make paper from things other than trees, which can be more eco-friendly, and also that it’s important to promote sustainable forestry and recycling.  Removing paper completely from our lives shouldn’t necessarily be our goal. 

Ethics and Climate Change

Philosopher and writer Nigel Warburton interviewed James Garvey about his new book The Ethics of Climate Change: Right and Wrong in a Warming World.  An excerpt from the interview:

Nigel: Why did you write this book? What is its main message?

James: I wrote the book to help people into thinking about the
ethical dimension of reflection on climate change.  There’s a great
deal written concerning action on climate change, but often it’s from a
scientific or economic or political point of view.  All of that
matters, but climate change presents us with a host of moral problems.
Getting those in plain sight is part of the point of the book.  What we
do about our changing planet depends a lot on what we value, on what we
think is morally right.


Nigel: Despite the bleak factual picture you paint in your first
chapter, you end the book on an optimistic note. Isn’t this

James: There is a lot of unnecessary suffering ahead if we fail to take action
now.  I’m not sure that governments and businesses will do what’s
right, but I surprise myself sometimes with the thought that the rest
of us will.  According to a BBC World Service poll of 22,000 people in
21 countries, large majorities of people all over the world believe
that human activity causes climate change and that strong action must
be taken, sooner rather than later.  Human beings eventually do the
right thing, and that gives me a little hope.  There’s nothing
inconsistent in worrying about our future, all the while hoping that we
do the right thing in the time we still have.

Link: James Garvey Interviewed on the Ethics of Climate Change (virtualphilosopher.org, Nigel Warburton’s blog).

I really like that last sentence.

James Garvey writes at the Philosopher’s Magazine’s blog and has a short post about his book there: New Book: The Ethics of Climate Change.

Defending Incandescent Bulbs

Update: Brendan Koerner has written a pretty solid rebuttal of Rosenbaum’s article: The Case for CFLs (Slate).  I’m still not convinced about the light output, but maybe I just haven’t seen the right bulbs (or data) yet.

Ron Rosenbaum has an article in Slate about what we lose when we outlaw incandescent bulbs in favor of compact fluorescents.  He’s a bit too nostalgic for my taste, but he does raise some important points.  Excerpt:

the idiots in Congress, too torpid and ineffectual to pass a
health-care bill for children, have busy-bodied themselves in a
bumbling way with the way you light up your world. In December, they
passed legislation that will, in practice, outlaw incandescent bulbs
because they won’t be able to meet the new law’s strict
energy-efficiency standards. The result: Between 2012 and 2014,
incandescent bulbs will be driven from the market. Replaced by the ugly
plasticine Dairy Queen swirl of compact fluorescent lights.

a purely environmental perspective, this move is shortsighted. CFLs do
use less energy, which is good. But they also often contain mercury,
one of the most damaging—and lasting—environmental toxins. Not a ton of
mercury, but still: A whole new CFL recycling structure will be
required to prevent us from releasing deadly neurotoxins into the water
table. CFLs: coming soon to sushi near you.

Failing to properly
recycle your CFLs won’t be the same as putting an Evian bottle in the
wrong slot. It’ll be genuinely hazardous, particularly dangerous to
children. Way to go, congressional dimbulbs!

And God forbid you
break a bulb. If you do, you are advised by some experts to evacuate
the room for 15 minutes to escape the release of mercury vapor, then
scrub the area as though there’d been a plutonium spill, virtually
wearing a hazmat suit as you dispose of the glass shards. […]

Good luck. But the greater crime of the new bulbs is not
environmental but aesthetic. Think of the ugly glare of fluorescence,
the light of prisons, sterile cubicle farms, precinct stations,
emergency rooms, motor vehicle bureaus, tenement hallways—remember Tom
Wolfe’s phrase for the grim, flickering hallway lights in New York
tenements: "landlords’ haloes"?—and, of course, morgues. Fluorescents
seem specially designed to drain life and beauty from the world.  […]

Not fair!, say the CFL advocates. Our
new fluorescent technology is not your father’s fluorescence, it
doesn’t drain blood from complexions like a vampire, it doesn’t buzz
and flicker the way the old ones did

I’ve tried the new CFLs, and they are
a genuine improvement—they don’t flicker perceptibly, or buzz, or make
your skin look green. There is a difference, and I’d be in favor of
replacing all current fluorescent bulbs with CFLs. But even
CFLs glare and blare—they don’t have that inimitable incandescent glow.
So don’t let them take lamplight away. Don’t let them ban beauty.

Link: In defense of incandescent light.

I use CFLs, but still have some incandescents kicking around.  I couple of years ago I bought some full-spectrum incandescents, which I find much nicer for reading than regular incandescents, and they also last very long.  CFLs give worse light than either, and people seem to be ignoring the disposal/recycling problem.

Google tells me there are now bulbs marketed as "full-spectrum compact fluorescent" but I can’t tell if the light output is really comparable.  I suspect "full" is marketing-speak for "a little bit wider" spectrum, but I may be wrong.

The Greening of Nuclear Power

Karl Grossman has an article in Extra!, the magazine from FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), on the forces behind the new push for nuclear power.  He begins:

Nuclear advocates in government and the nuclear industry are engaged in
a massive, heavily financed drive to revive atomic power in the United
States—with most of the mainstream media either not questioning or
actually assisting in the promotion.

“With a very few notable exceptions, such as the Los Angeles Times,
the U.S. media have turned the same sort of blind, uncritical eye on
the nuclear industry’s claims that led an earlier generation of
Americans to believe atomic energy would be too cheap to meter,”
comments Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear
Information and Resource Service. “The nuclear industry’s public
relations effort has improved over the past 50 years, while the natural
skepticism of reporters toward corporate claims seems to have

The New York Times continues to
be, as it was a half-century ago when nuclear technology was first
advanced, a media leader in pushing the technology, which collapsed in
the U.S. with the 1979 Three Mile Island and 1986 Chernobyl nuclear
plant accidents. The Times has showered readers with a variety of pieces advocating a nuclear revival, all marbled with omissions and untruths.

Link: Money is the Real Green Power.

I heard about this on FAIR’s radio show, CounterSpin.  I usually find CounterSpin pretty grating to listen to, despite the fact that I agree with their positions (usually quite far left).  To me the hosts sound awfully smug most of the time.

H2O by Mark Swartz

Mark Swartz’s 2002 novel Instant Karma was one of the most memorable new books I’ve read in recent years.  It takes the form of a journal, with footnotes, written by an obsessive young man who spends most of his time in the Chicago public library.  Thoughts of art and anarchy and a certain librarian lead him to plot to blow up the library he loves.  It’s strange and very funny.

I recently read Swartz’s newest novel, H2o, which is set in a not-so-unimaginable future beset by severe water shortages and corporate greed.  The main character, Hayden Shivers, is an engineer at water megacorporation Drixa who stumbles upon a method for synthesizing fake water.  Things get complicated: the technology has a flaw, an environmental protest group called ICE-9 turns up, there’s a patent battle, and somehow a mail order bride agency is involved.

A cover blurb compares H2O to Don DeLillo’s White Noise.  It made me think also of J.G. Ballard  and Kurt Vonnegut.  H2O seemed a bit less polished and focused than Instant Karma, but still an enjoyable read, and quite possibly the first novel to confront the problem of worldwide water shortage.

How to Discard Old Electronics

So you got a new iPod, TV, DVD player, stereo, etc. for Christmas.  We all know you can’t just dump the old ones in the trash — you need to take them to an e-waste recycling service instead.  But not all electronics recyclers are equal.  Some simply export your waste to developing countries where it is disassembled or burned in unsafe conditions.

Some things you can do:

Photo: Electronics waste in Lagos, Nigeria © Basel Action Network 2006.

Union of Concerned Scientists on Nuclear Power

The Union of Concerned Scientists recently released a report on the risks from new nuclear power plants.  From the press release:

An expansion of nuclear power capacity in the United States could
help reduce global warming pollution, but could also increase threats
to public safety and national security, according to a report released
today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Those risks include a
massive radiation release from a power plant meltdown or terrorist
attack, and the death of hundreds of thousands from the detonation of a
nuclear weapon made with materials obtained from civilian nuclear
facilities. (The report is available at www.ucsusa.org/nuclearandclimate.)

"Unless the industry, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the
federal government adopt the common-sense recommendations in our
report, building a new fleet of nuclear power plants will create
serious safety and security risks," said Dr. Lisbeth Gronlund,
co-director of UCS’s Global Security Program and a report co-author.

Link: Serious safety and security risks undercut nuclear power’s role in minimizing global warming, new report finds (December 11, 2007).

Do We Need a Presidential Debate on Science?

Many prominent bloggers and scientists have been lobbying for a presidential debate on science: Sciencedebate 2008.  From the site:

Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing
America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate
scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role
scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and
competitiveness, we call for a public debate in which the U.S.
presidential candidates share their views on the issues of The
Environment, Health and Medicine, and Science and Technology Policy.

Good luck with that.  It sounds eminently reasonable — there are many important policy issues related to science — but does anyone expect substantive discussion to happen in political debates any more?  Does anyone even watch them?  I caught a few minutes of one "town hall" CNN debate that was astoundingly idiotic.  People in the audience were actually asking good questions but CNN’s Wolf Blitzer turned most everything into a hot-button "hands up" question (e.g. "What are the attributes you look for in a supreme court justice?" becomes "Overturn Roe v. Wade?  Hands up everybody who wants to overturn Roe v. Wade!").  I can’t imagine a debate on science issues turning out any better.

Even if debates were useful, does science really deserve its own?  Why not just ensure that these questions get asked at other debates?  The Sciencedebate 2008 site tells us that Science and Technology "may be the most important social issue of our time."  Is that true for everyone or just a certain sci-tech elite?  Hasn’t this crowd already gotten their answers from the candidate days at Google and interviews in TechCrunch, Wired, etc.?

To sum up, I’m not really against a science debate, but this campaign bugs me a little.