Green labeling is just a waypoint

Alan Atkisson wonders, Can a Glass of Orange Juice in Sweden be “Climate Smart”? He concludes, Maybe consumer items like this could be labeled, “Relatively less climate-stupid.” I agree.

For green labeling to actually work, there must be a “green information” system parallel to the money economy, and people must pay attention to it. That’s a booming business right now.


Optimistically assuming that all end users have the insight and altruism needed to make the correct environment/money tradeoff, that creates tremendous evolutionary pressure on the production system to evade the intent of the labeling by using cheaper not-so-green alternatives in hidden upstream locations. To paraphrase Groucho, greenness is the key to business success – if you can fake it, you’ve got it made. The evasion need not be so cynical; it simply requires incomplete information, for example sourcing products from places where measurement systems are incomplete. I really rather doubt that we’ll ever have life cycle analysis for every product performed with the same stringency now enforced by money auditing systems.

The optimistic assumptions above are probably misplaced. Altruism is great, but I hate to rely on it, as it’s not clear to me that it’s an ESS. But insight is probably the real constraint. Life cycle analysis is good stuff, but even if it were practical to pass many attributes through the supply chain, with firm-level attribution, the result is complex information about tradeoffs that’s better suited for engineers than for consumers. Add to that the challenges people already face, like making good decisions about saving for retirement and educating children, and I think it’s hard to do much more than muddle minds.

Just as marketers associate cars with love, green labels foster the paradoxical conclusion that some consumption benefits the environment. That may be true for a few goods, but for the most part, it’s not. We should be using green information to examine our broad patterns of consumption, more than to choose what to put in the shopping cart. That might mean non-consumptive tradeoffs, like having more leisure time and less stuff.

Green labeling is great in many cases today, where prices and other incentives are blatantly misaligned with public goods, but ultimately fixing the incentives will get us a lot farther than labeling. That means pricing resources we value upstream, so that value percolates through supply chains as a price signal. In my ideal world, the price tag itself would be a green label.

For green labeling to actually work, there must be a “green information” system parallel to the money economy, and people must pay attention to it. Optimistically assuming that all end users have the insight and altruism needed to make the correct green-money tradeoff, that creates tremendous evolutionary pressure on the production system to evade the intent of the labeling by using cheaper not-so-green alternatives in hidden upstream locations. The evasive response need not be cynical, it simply requires incomplete information, i.e. sourcing products where measurement systems are incomplete. I really rather doubt that we’ll ever have life cycle analysis for every product performed with the same stringency now enforced by money auditing systems. Green labeling is great in many cases today, where prices and other incentives are blatantly misaligned with social goals, but ultimately fixing the incentives will get us a lot farther than labeling.

The model that ate Europe

arXiv covers modeling on an epic scale in Europe’s Plan to Simulate the Entire Earth: a billion dollar plan to build a huge infrastructure for global multiagent models. The core is a massive exaflop “Living Earth Simulator” – essentially the socioeconomic version of the Earth Simulator.


I admire the audacity of this proposal, and there are many good ideas captured in one place:

  • The goal is to take on emergent phenomena like financial crises (getting away from the paradigm of incremental optimization of stable systems).
  • It embraces uncertainty and robustness through scenario analysis and Monte Carlo simulation.
  • It mixes modeling with data mining and visualization.
  • The general emphasis is on networks and multiagent simulations.

I have no doubt that there might be many interesting spinoffs from such a project. However, I suspect that the core goal of creating a realistic global model will be an epic failure, for three reasons. Continue reading “The model that ate Europe”

John Sterman on solving our biggest problems

The key message is that climate, health, and other big messy problems don’t have purely technical fixes. Therefore Manhattan Project approaches to solving them won’t work. Creating and deploying solutions to these problems requires public involvement and widespread change with distributed leadership. The challenge is to get public understanding of climate to carry the same sense of urgency that drove the civil rights movement. From a series at the IBM Almaden Institute conference.

Faking fitness

Geoffrey Miller wonders why we haven’t met aliens. I think his proposed answer has a lot to do with the state of the world and why it’s hard to sell good modeling.

I don’t know why this 2006 Seed article bubbled to the top of my reader, but here’s an excerpt:

The story goes like this: Sometime in the 1940s, Enrico Fermi was talking about the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence with some other physicists. … Fermi listened patiently, then asked, simply, “So, where is everybody?” That is, if extraterrestrial intelligence is common, why haven’t we met any bright aliens yet? This conundrum became known as Fermi’s Paradox.

It looks, then, as if we can answer Fermi in two ways. Perhaps our current science over-estimates the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligence evolving. Or, perhaps evolved technical intelligence has some deep tendency to be self-limiting, even self-exterminating. …

I suggest a different, even darker solution to the Paradox. Basically, I think the aliens don’t blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they’re too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. …

The fundamental problem is that an evolved mind must pay attention to indirect cues of biological fitness, rather than tracking fitness itself. This was a key insight of evolutionary psychology in the early 1990s; although evolution favors brains that tend to maximize fitness (as measured by numbers of great-grandkids), no brain has capacity enough to do so under every possible circumstance. … As a result, brains must evolve short-cuts: fitness-promoting tricks, cons, recipes and heuristics that work, on average, under ancestrally normal conditions.

The result is that we don’t seek reproductive success directly; we seek tasty foods that have tended to promote survival, and luscious mates who have tended to produce bright, healthy babies. … Technology is fairly good at controlling external reality to promote real biological fitness, but it’s even better at delivering fake fitness—subjective cues of survival and reproduction without the real-world effects.

Fitness-faking technology tends to evolve much faster than our psychological resistance to it.

… I suspect that a certain period of fitness-faking narcissism is inevitable after any intelligent life evolves. This is the Great Temptation for any technological species—to shape their subjective reality to provide the cues of survival and reproductive success without the substance. Most bright alien species probably go extinct gradually, allocating more time and resources to their pleasures, and less to their children. They eventually die out when the game behind all games—the Game of Life—says “Game Over; you are out of lives and you forgot to reproduce.”

I think the shorter version might be,

The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing… if you can fake that, you’ve got it made. – Attributed to Groucho Marx

The general problem for corporations and countries is that there’s a big problem attributing success to individuals. People rise in power, prestige and wealth by creating the impression of fitness, rather than creating any actual fitness, as long as there are large stocks that separate action and result in time and space and causality remains unclear. That means that there are two paths to oblivion. Miller’s descent into a self-referential virtual reality could be one. More likely, I think, is sinking into a self-deluded reality that erodes key resource stocks, until catastrophe follows – nukes optional.

The antidote for the attribution problem is good predictive modeling. The trouble is, the truth isn’t selling very well. I suspect that’s partly because we have less of it than we typically think. More importantly, though, leaders who succeeded on BS and propaganda are threatened by real predictive power. The ultimate challenge for humanity, then, is to figure out how to make insight about complex systems evolutionarily successful.

(Dry) Lake Mead

I’m just back from two weeks camping in the desert. Ironically, we had a lot of rain. Apart from the annoyance of cooking in the rain, water in the desert is a wonderful sight.

We spent one night in transit at Las Vegas Bay campground on Lake Mead. We were surprised to discover that it’s not a bay anymore – it’s a wash. The lake has been declining for a decade and is now 100 feet below its maximum.

Lake Mead water level

It turned out that this is not unprecedented – it happened in 1965, for example. After that relatively brief drought, it took a decade to claw back to “normal” levels.

The recent decline looks different to me, though – it’s not a surprising, abrupt decline, it’s a long, slow ramp, suggesting a persistent supply-demand imbalance. Bizarrely, it’s easy to get lake level data, but hard to find a coherent set of basin flow measurements. Would you invest in a company with a dwindling balance sheet, if they couldn’t provide you with an income statement?

It appears to me that the Colorado River system is simply overallocated, and their hasn’t been any feedback between reality (actual water availability) and policy (water use, governed by the Law of the River). It also appears that the problem is not with the inflow to Lake Mead. Here’s discharge past the Lees Ferry guage, which accounts for the bulk of the lake’s supply:

Lees Ferry flow

Notice that the post-2000 flows are low (probably reflecting mainly the statutory required discharge from Glenn Canyon dam upstream), but hardly unprecedented. My hypothesis is that the de facto policy for managing water levels is to wait for good years to restore the excess withdrawals of bad years, and that demand management measures in the interim are toothless. That worked back when river flows were not fully subscribed. The trouble is, supply isn’t stationary, and there’s no reason to assume that it will return to levels that prevailed in the early years of river compacts. At the same time, demand isn’t stationary either, as population growth in the west drives it up. To avoid Lake Mead drying up, the system is going to have to get a spine, i.e. there’s going to have to be some feedback between water availability and demand.

I’m sure there’s a much deeper understanding of water dynamics among various managers of the Colorado basin than I’ve presented here. But if there is, they’re certainly not sharing it very effectively, because it’s hard for an informed tinkerer like me to get the big picture. Colorado basin managers should heed Krys Stave’s advice:

Water managers increasingly are faced with the challenge of building public or stakeholder support for resource management strategies. Building support requires raising stakeholder awareness of resource problems and understanding about the consequences of different policy options.

The side effects of parachuting cats

I ran across a nice factual account of the fantastic “cat drop” story of ecological side effects immortalized in Alan Atkisson’s song.

It reminded me of another great account of the complex side effects of ecosystem disturbance, from the NYT last year, supplemented with a bit of wikipedia:

  • In 1878, rabbits were introduced to Macquarie Island
  • Also in the 19th century, mice were inadvertently introduced
  • Cats were subsequently introduced, to reduce mouse depredation of supplies stored on the island
  • The rabbits multiplied, as they do
  • In 1968, myxoma virus was released to control rabbits, successfully decimating them
  • The now-hungry cats turned to the seabird population for food
  • A successful campaign eradicated the cats in 1985
  • The rabbits, now predator-free, rebounded explosively
  • Rabbit browsing drastically changed vegetation; vegetation changes caused soil instability, wiping out seabird nesting sites
  • Other rodents also rebounded, turning to seabird chicks for food

An expensive pan-rodent eradication plan is now underway.

But this time, administrators are prepared to make course corrections if things do not turn out according to plan.“This study clearly demonstrates that when you’re doing a removal effort, you don’t know exactly what the outcome will be,” said Barry Rice, an invasive species specialist at the Nature Conservancy. “You can’t just go in and make a single surgical strike. Every kind of management you do is going to cause some damage.”

California EPA's LEED platinum HQ

I’m usually quick to point out the limitations of technology for reducing environmental and other problems. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Yesterday I took a tour that hilighted how big the opportunities can be when technology and slight lifestyle changes team up. The tour was of CalEPA’s LEED platinum skyscraper – evidently the first of its kind, but now a few years old. Interestingly, it was initially designed as an ordinary building, and design changes were introduced late in the game, which gives hope that most of the same innovations could be implemented as retrofits on older buildings.

When you walk up to the building, there’s no indication that there’s anything unusual about it. If anything, it’s massive (salvaged) stone decorative features lead one to think it could easily be an extravagant energy hog. That impression continues on the inside, with elegant and tasteful lighting and finishes. No hairy unwashed treehuggers freezing in the dark here.

Yet, the building uses a third the energy (per sq ft) of its peers nearby, even with a big datacenter on one floor that consumes a third of the energy in the 25-story structure. The big heroes are an efficient skin, with low-e windows and detailing to reduce solar gain on the south and west sides, coupled with an advanced HVAC system. Climate control combines 10,000 sensors with three different sizes of chiller unit and variable-speed motor controls. That way, equipment always operates near its optimum load. Soon, a retrofit will use groundwater (which has to be pumped out anyway) to aid cooling. Heating and cooling costs are lower, yet comfort is improved by the advanced controls.

The occupants certainly contribute a lot to efficiency. Over 80% use bikes or transit to commute, aided by a beautiful bicycle parking garage in the basement (complete with air compressor and lockers). Most prefer motion-sensitive task lights, so area lighting stays off. They adopted double-side network printers to reduce paper waste, and recycle assiduously. Worm-bin composting is a popular office activity. As a result the building managers have to haul trash only twice a month instead of the typical twice a week. Because staff don’t have to spend as much time with regular garbage, they have more energy to figure out how to recycle used computers and other unusual materials.

Sometimes the benefits are unexpected. To reduce nighttime lighting loads, most of the leaning in the building happens during the day. Side effects include greatly reduced reports of theft and workers’ comp claims, better cooperation on cleaning and recycling (aided by the low waste flow), and greater occupant satisfaction. It turns out that it’s easier to like someone you see on a daily basis. Materials have side benefits too. Zero-VOC paints mean that occasional repairs don’t stink up the place and needn’t be confined to weekends. Low-volatile, recyclable carpet tiles turn out to be extremely durable and repairable, and permit creative design.

The amazing thing is that most of the features paid for themselves in under two years, with correspondingly huge ROIs. None takes a radical change in workstyle, but there’s lots of synergy among them. It wasn’t easy to pull this off, in the sense that it took a lot of thinking, but if you think thinking is fun, then you wouldn’t call it hard either.

Hope is not a method

My dad pointed me to this interesting Paul Romer interview on BBC Global Business. The BBC describes Romer as an optimist in a dismal science. I think of Paul Romer as one of the economists who founded the endogenous growth movement, though he’s probably done lots of other interesting things. I personally find the models typically employed in the endogenous growth literature to be silly, because they retain assumptions like perfect foresight (we all know that hard optimal control math is the essence of a theory of behavior, right?).  In spite of their faults, those models are a huge leap over earlier work (exogenous technology) and subsequent probing around the edges has sparked a very productive train of thought.

About 20 minutes in, Romer succumbs to the urge to bash the Club of Rome (economists lose their union card if they don’t do this once in a while). His reasoning is part spurious, and part interesting. The spurious part is is blanket condemnation, that simply everything about it was wrong. That’s hard to accept or refute, because it’s not clear if he means Limits to Growth, or the general tenor of the discussion at the time. If he means Limits, he’s making the usual straw man mistake. To be fair, the interviewer does prime him by (incorrectly) summarizing the Club of Rome argument as “running out of raw materials.” But Romer takes the bait, and adds, “… they were saying the problem is we wouldn’t have enough carbon resources, … the problem is we have way too much carbon resources and are going to burn too much of it and damage the environment….” If you read Limits, this was actually one of the central points – you may not know which limit is binding first, but if you dodge one limit, exponential growth will quickly carry you to the next.

Interestingly, Romer’s solution to sustainability challenges arises from a more micro, evolutionary perspective rather than the macro single-agent perspective in most of the growth  literature. He argues against top-down control and for structures (like his charter cities) that promote greater diversity and experimentation, in order to facilitate the discovery of new ways of doing things. He also talks a lot about rules as a moderator for technology – for example, that it’s bad to invent a technology that permit greater harvest of a resource, unless you also invent rules that ensure the harvest remains sustainable. I think he and I and the authors of Limits would actually agree on many real-world policy prescriptions.

However, I think Romer’s bottom-up search for solutions to human problems through evolutionary innovation is important but will, in the end, fail in one important way. Evolutionary pressures within cities, countries, or firms will tend to solve short-term, local problems. However, it’s not clear how they’re going to solve problems larger in scale than those entities, or longer in tenure than the agents running them. Consider resource depletion: if you imagine for a moment that there is some optimal depletion path, a country can consume its resources faster or slower than that. Too fast, and they get-rich-quick but have a crisis later. Too slow, and they’re self-deprived now. But there are other options: a country can consume its resources quickly now, build weapons, and seize the resources of the slow countries. Also, rapid extraction in some regions drives down prices, creating an impression of abundance, and discouraging other regions from managing the resource more cautiously. The result may be a race for the bottom, rather than evolution of creative long term solutions. Consider also climate: even large emitters have little incentive to reduce, if only their own damages matter. To align self-interest with mitigation, there has to be some kind of external incentive, either imposed top-down or emerging from some mix of bottom-up cooperation and coercion.

If you propose to solve long term global problems only through diversity, evolution, and innovation, you are in effect hoping that those measures will unleash a torrent of innovation that will solve the big problems coincidentally, or that we’ll stay perpetually ahead in the race between growth and side-effects. That could happen, but as the Dartmouth clinic used to say about contraception, “hope is not a method.”

The Acid Bathtub

I noticed a few news items on the SO2 allowance market today, following up on the latest auction. Here’s the auction history:

SO2 allowance auction prices

The spot permit price has collapsed, from a high of $860/ton in the 2006 compliance stampede, to $62. That’s not surprising, given the economic situation. What is a little surprising is that the forward price (allowances for use starting in seven years) fell to $6.63 – a tenth of the previous low, spot or forward. What’s going on there? Do plants expect a seven-year recession? Are utilities hoarding cash? Do they expect the whole market to unravel, or to become irrelevant as climate policy imposes a more tightly-binding constraint?

Continue reading “The Acid Bathtub”