Showing all posts tagged research:

Why Cities Keep on Growing, Corporations Always Die, and Life Gets Faster : Geoffrey B. West

January 2 02016

Jason's Notes:

The most important network in the city is the social network. This is defined by the 4 to 6 people closest to you. That then scales up to larger clusters and diversifies the quality of interactions in a city. As a city gets bigger, it benefits from sub-linear scaling (x<1), so they become more efficient and get economies of scale. Conversely, the value of the social/economic system is super-linear (x>1.15), and value is added to the system the larger it gets by virtue of an enriched network.

Networks allow for continuous cycles of innovation, which is what you need to overcome the hockey-stick graph that shows exponential growth. However, the dark side is that rebounds of innovation need to become quicker each time.

At their core, cities are fundamentally resistant to change. A cool city 39 years ago is likely to still be cool, and a dull place without innovation is likely to still be just as dull. Change isn't adopted quickly by the governing social networks. "Cities are physical manifestations of our social networks."

Corporations are sub-liniar: the bigger they get the less they own and they less they earn per employee. They don't benefit from economies of scale. They stagnate and follow the sigmoidal curve that a living creature does: they start of small and grow quickly until ripe then taper off and die.

Companies don't allow crazy people in, and innovation dies (or is de-funded) and the company is fragile  to major shocks. First there are engineers, then accountants, then lawyers, they the company dies.

Scaling and simplicity is evolved survival patterns in interrelations, sub-liniar scaling.

Geoffrey B. West

http://www.santafe.edu/about/people/profile/Geoffrey%20West

From the Long Now:
 
Superlinear Cities

"It's hard to kill a city," West began, "but easy to kill a company." The mean life of companies is 10 years. Cities routinely survive even nuclear bombs. And "cities are the crucible of civilization." They are the major source of innovation and wealth creation. Currently they are growing exponentially. "Every week from now until 2050, one million new people are being added to our cities."

"We need," West said, "a grand unified theory of sustainability--- a coarse-grained quantitative, predictive theory of cities."

Such a theory already exists in biology, and you can build on that. Working with macroecologist James Brown and others, West explored the fact that living systems such as individual organisms show a shocking consistency of scalability. (The theory they elucidated has long been known in biology as Kleiber's Law.) Animals, for example, range in size over ten orders of magnitude from a shrew to a blue whale. If you plot their metabolic rate against their mass on a log-log graph, you get an absolutely straight line. From mouse to human to elephant, each increase in size requires a proportional increase in energy to maintain it.

But the proportion is not linear. Quadrupling in size does not require a quadrupling in energy use. Only a tripling in energy use is needed. It's sublinear; the ratio is 3/4 instead of 4/4. Humans enjoy an economy of scale over mice, as elephants do over us.

With each increase in animal size there is a slowing of the pace of life. A shrew's heart beats 1,000 times a minute, a human's 70 times, and an elephant heart beats only 28 times a minute. The lifespans are proportional; shrew life is intense but brief, elephant life long and contemplative. Each animal, independent of size, gets about a billion heartbeats per life. (West added that human bodies run on 100 watts---2,000 calories of food a day. But our civilizational energy use adds up 11,000 watts per person. We're like blue whales walking around.)

Does such scalability apply to cities? If you plot, say, the number of gas stations against the size of population of metropolitan areas on a log-log scale, it turns out you get another straight line. Ditto with the length of electrical lines, carbon footprint, etc. Per capita, big city dwellers use less energy than small town dwellers. As with animals, there is greater efficiency with size, this time at a 9/10 ratio. Energy use is sublinear.

But unlike animals, cities do not slow down as they get bigger. They speed up with size! The bigger the city, the faster people walk and the faster they innovate. All the productivity-related numbers increase with size---wages, patents, colleges, crimes, AIDS cases---and their ratio is superlinear. It's 1.15/1. With each increase in size, cities get a value-added of 15 percent. Agglomerating people, evidently, increases their efficiency and productivity.

Does that go on forever? Cities create problems as they grow, but they create solutions to those problems even faster, so their growth and potential lifespan is in theory unbounded.

(West pointed out that there is a bit of variability between cities worth noticing. On the plot of crimes/population, Tokyo has slightly fewer crimes for its size, and Osaka has slightly more. In the U.S., the most patents per capita come from Corvalis, Oregon, and the least from Abiline, Texas. Such variations tend to remain constant over decades, despite everyone's efforts to adjust them. "Exciting cities stay exciting, and boring cities stay boring.")

Are corporations more like animals or more like cities? They want to be like cities, with ever increasing productivity as they grow and potentially unbounded lifespans. Unfortunately, West et al.'s research on 22,000 companies shows that as they increase in size from 100 to 1,000,000 employees, their net income and assets (and 23 other metrics) per person increase only at a 4/5 ratio. Like animals and cities they do grow more efficient with size, but unlike cities, their innovation cannot keep pace as their systems gradually decay, requiring ever more costly repair until a fluctuation sinks them. Like animals, companies are sublinear and doomed to die.

What is the actual mechanism of difference? Research on that continues. "Cities tolerate crazy people," West observed, "Companies don't."

       --Stewart Brand

http://longnow.org/seminars/02011/jul/25/why-cities-keep-growing-corporations-always-die-and-life-gets-faster/

Beyond Digital Thinking, Nicholas Negroponte

December 31 02015

Jason's Notes:

Critically speaking, a big non-profit is likely to be definitively inefficient. Large grants to large organizations are as good as small grants to small organizations. Too much overhead. non-profits don't have to be run inefficiently. You can run them business-like and achieve greater returns in a more sane manner.

Just because you are a non-profit with principles does not lend you the armor of Mother Teresa. Likely, your principles are screwing someone, and they will get you if they can.

Startups are a scourge on talented minds. Being obsessed with turning a profit, getting cash flow, these are poison for creativity. "FOCUS" is the death of creativity. In this manner, it isn't that the mind is blurred, but that putting all eggs in one basket kills cross pollination.

If the free market will/could do it on its own, stop doing it. The real innovations are those that are outside the mainstream, and thence comes significant changes to technology.

Innovative organizations can't be franchised. By their very nature they are rule-free zones. If you are asking if your crazy incubator is following the model, you've failed. There needs to be freedom of capitol, decentralization, and the older must listen to the younger.

In every way, it is play.

Nicholas Negroponte
http://web.media.mit.edu/~nicholas/

A world of convergence

In education, Negroponte explained, there’s a fundamental distinction between "instructionism" and "constructionism." "Constructionism is learning by discovery, by doing, by making. Instructionism is learning by being told." Negroponte’s lifelong friend Seymour Papert noted early on that debugging computer code is a form of "learning about learning" and taught it to young children.

Thus in 2000 when Negroponte left the Media Lab he had founded in 1985, he set out upon the ultimate constructionist project, called "One Laptop per Child." His target is the world’s 100 million kids who are not in school because no school is available. Three million of his laptops and tablets are now loose in the world. One experiment in an Ethiopian village showed that illiterate kids can take unexplained tablets, figure them out on their own, and begin to learn to read and even program.

In the "markets versus mission" perspective, Negroponte praised working through nonprofits because they are clearer and it is easier to partner widely with people and other organizations. He added that "start-up businesses are sucking people out of big thinking. So many minds that used to think big are now thinking small because their VCs tell them to ‘focus.’"

As the world goes digital, Negroponte noted, you see pathologies of left over "atoms thinking." Thus newspapers imagine that paper is part of their essence, telecoms imagine that distance should cost more, and nations imagine that their physical boundaries matter. "Nationalism is the biggest disease on the planet," Negroponte said. "Nations have the wrong granularity. They’re too small to be global and too big to be local, and all they can think about is competing." He predicted that the world is well on the way to having one language, English.

Negroponte reflected on a recent visit to a start-up called Modern Meadow, where they print meat. "You get just the steak---no hooves and ears involved, using one percent of the water and half a percent of the land needed to get the steak from a cow." In every field we obsess on the distinction between synthetic and natural, but in a hundred years "there will be no difference between them."

--Stewart Brand

Black Swans - Nassim Nicholas Talab

Jason's Notes

December 26 02015

The Future Has Always Been Crazier Than We Thought

Talab is tearing through the faculty of logic and theory to get at a simple truth: our minds can manufacturer endless fantasies. This is a benefit for creating and a endless pit for theorizing.

Black Swan: Event that wasn't seen coming
  1. Hard to predict based on information before it occured, (computers, Harry Potter, neck ties, World War).
  2. Low predictability and high consequence.
  3. They have retrospective predictably, but unfathomable beforehand.

Silent evidence is highlighted by historians, who don't deal imperial evidence so they can't make predictions. They need to work with real data. Neal Ferguson is such a historian. He showed the UK war bond market didn't see WWI coming. Over-causation

This personal bias is fundamental to our mental construct. Hume's Problem: domain dependent philosophers are out of touch beyond the venue of their expertise. Not recognizing their own subject in the texture of real life.

Framing is a condition where once you see something on paper you start believing in it. All statistics work like this. Once you establish a perceived pattern it is very hard to un-see. In general, the use of statistics leads to mediocrity as it smooths out all anomalies against the background. In historic research we instead see the exceptional, items not supported by statisticians because of their framing.

"Never take advice from someone wearing a suit and tie."

The notion is that a "professional" is going to profess, as that is his or her job. "Never ask a barber if you need a haircut". They will have an opinion because they want to validate their position in society. There is a critical lack of the ability to say "I don't know."

(Trungpa Rimpoche identified this as the "realm of the professional". Their key phrase: "Trust me.")

The real risk are theorist leaving their home of infinite number of possibilities and applying such mindsets to practice. Better is to practice - then theorize. Then you are working with givens and constraints.

A discipline for the professional: don't tell people what they should do, tell them what they shouldn't. Your theories are nebulous and unproven. Your mistakes are concrete lessons learned from experience. There is a survival reason to keep elders around: they remember things that actually happened and therefore draw conclusions from givens.

Conversly, don't ask what should you do, ask what you should not do.

Lebanon-born, polyglot, Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a scholar of randomness and knowledge, a mathematical finance practitioner, and author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable and Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and the Markets.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Homepage

Skeptical empiricist Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, has bracing things to say about the future. It is inevitable that we will be massively blindsided by events, because our understanding is misled by an array of beguiling illusions about reality. Some lessons: Events are not predictable, but consequences are, so focus on preparedness. Pay attention to elders, because they've experienced more Black Swans. Check Wikipedia's bio of Taleb for more on the vividness of his ideas and exposition.

From the Long Now:

Dispatches from Extremistan

A “black swan,” Taleb explained, is an event which is 1) Hard to predict; 2) Highly consequential; 3) Wrongly retro-predicted. We pretend we know why the big event happened, and so entrench our inability to deal with the next world-changing improbable event.

Examples: Viagra, 9/11, Harry Potter, First World War, Beatles, the PC, Google, and the rise of any successful religion. History is dominated by sudden, lasting changes wrought by deeply unexpected events.

Part of the problem is that we ignore the “silent evidence” of the nonobserved and nonobservable. We compute probability from the success of survivors. No one writes or reads a book titled “How I Lost a Million Dollars.” Another problem is that we revise our own predictions and intentions unconsciously to match what actually happens. We disguise having been wrong by pretending we were right. This is “confirmation bias.”

There are TWO kinds of randomness, two realms in which events happen…

Mediocristan is dominated by the average— one new observation won’t change much. If you are measuring the weight of a large sample of humans, adding the heaviest person in the world won’t change the result, whereas measuring the average wealth of a large sample of humans would be transformed by adding the wealthiest person. Mediocristan is the realm of the Law of Large Numbers and of the Gaussian Bell Curve.

Extremistan is dominated by extremes. Every year 16,000 novels are published in English. A handful of best-sellers absolutely dominate. This is the realm of the power-law curve and the Long Tail. Extremistant defies prediction. You can say there will be a few monsters and lots of midgets and the world will be changed by the monsters, and that’s all you can say.

Benoit Mandelbrot convinced Taleb that the main dynamic of Mediocristan is energy, and the main dynamic of Extremistan is information. Anything social is Extremistan.

Thus there are two kinds of experts. A soufflé chef really is an expert and can be trusted. An economist is a pseudo-expert. “Never take advice from someone wearing a tie.” All you get from a Council of Economic Advisors is an illusion of control. Stock market analysts have proved to be worse than nothing.

Don’t focus on probability. Focus on consequences. Black Swans will come. Prepare against the negative ones; be ready to soar with the positive ones.

Pay attentive heed to tradition and old people— they have experienced more Black Swans.

PS… All of the SALT speakers perform for free. Taleb added the further generosity of insisting on paying for his travel and lodging. Extra thanks to him for that.

       --Stewart Brand

http://longnow.org/seminars/02008/feb/04/the-future-has-always-been-crazier-than-we-thought/

"The Power of Ideas, what ideas do we need for the future" Peter Schwartz


Jason's Notes:

December 25 02015

"How Long is Your Now? How Big is Your Here?"

Time frames in a few years: things look to be getting worse. Time frames over centuries: things are getting quite a bit better.

Every view of the future:
  1. Long term dynamics of how things happen
  2. How those play out
  3. See the consequences
  4. Use those insights to guide present choices

In the long run, Humanity is in a constant struggle to:
  1. Keep from killing each other too much
  2. Live within our means
  3. Live meaningful life
  4. Enable us to do great things

Powerful ideas are not always really good ones. Religion or Communism have tremendous power, and some have staying power because people continue to believe in them.

Cosmology really does matter: it defines the limits of your thinking. Ideas come from ideas, and they come from tools. Without givens ideas don't evolve.

Bib: Constant Battles

Peter Schwartz:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Schwartz_(futurist)

From the Long Now:

The art of the really long view

For such a weighty subject there was a lot of guffawing going on in the Seminar Thursday night.

The topic was "The Art of the Really Long View." Peter Schwartz chatted through his slides for tonight's lecture, then the discussion waded in. Present were Danny Hillis, Leighton Read, Angie Thieriot, Ryan Phelan, David Rumsey, Eric Greenberg, Kevin Kelly, Anders Hove, Schwartz, and me.

The event was very well audio and video taped, so we can link you to a fuller version later. For now, here's a few of my notes.

Much of discussion circled around Schwartz's assertion that the most durable and influential of human artifacts are IDEAS. And a distinction worth drawing is between POWERFUL ideas and GOOD ideas. Not all powerful ideas turn out to be good, in the long run. For example, Schwartz proposed that monotheism has been an extremely powerful idea, dominating all kinds of human activity for millennia, but its overall goodness is increasingly questionable.

Or take the powerful idea of Communism and the powerful idea of Capitalism. Looking at them when both were being touted as world solutions around, say, 1890, how would you distinguish which one was likelier to play out as good? Most of us, then, would probably have given the nod to Communism, particularly in light of robber-baron excesses in the US, etc.

Danny Hillis proposed that bad powerful ideas are essentially collective hallucinations which mask reality, whereas good powerful ideas have built into them all kinds of reality checks. So Capitalism---expressed as markets---has prevailed so far because it is an emergent, distributed, out-of-control feedback system.

Some notable quotes (among many):

    "The future is the ONLY thing we can do anything about." --Hillis

    "Denial is a special case of optimism." --Leighton Read.

Revisiting Long Now's frequent chant that multiplying options is the great good to do for future generations, we examined the idea of "toxic choice"---for instance the stupefying multiplicity of choices in a supermarket or department store that make you long for a good boutique. "But lots of boutiques," said Ryan Phelan. "I've got it! " said Read, "We'll have two big toxic choice emporiums, connected by a bunch of boutiques! I think we've just invented the mall."

Contemplating work to be done, Schwartz said: "We know it would be a good idea to have the rule of law extended to include ecological systems, but we haven't figured out how to make that a powerful idea yet."

       --Stewart Brand

http://longnow.org/seminars/02003/dec/12/the-art-of-the-really-long-view/

Welcome to the Anthropocene: we are small potatoes. - John Baez

Jason's Notes:

December 25 02015

Zooming Out on Time:

Our sense of time is laughably constrained to scale so small as to be perfectly inconsequential. When you zoom way out on history we see a much more varied climate. We should understand our petri dish bubble in history to be an incredible blessing and assume that our luck won't continue.

John Baez:
http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/

From the Long Now:
 
Welcome to the Anthropocene

The graphs we see these days, John Baez began, all look vertical— carbon burning shooting up, CO2 in the air shooting up, global temperature shooting up, and population still shooting up. How can we understand what really going on? “It’s like trying to understand geology while you’re hanging by your fingernails on a cliff, scared to death. You think all geology is vertical.”

So, zoom out for some perspective. An Earth temperature graph for the last 18,000 years shows that we’ve built a false sense of security from 10,000 years of unusually stable climate. Even so, a “little dent” in the graph of a drop of only 1 degree Celsius put Europe in a what’s called “the little ice age” from 1555 to 1850. It ended just when industrial activity took off, which raises the question whether it was us that ended it.

Nobel laureate atmospheric scientist Paul Crutzen suggests that the current geological era should be called the “Anthropocene,” because it is increasingly dominated by human-caused effects. Baez noted that oil companies now can send their tankers through a Northwest Passage that they may have created, since it is fossil fuel burning that raised the CO2 that raised the summer temperatures in the Arctic that melts the polar ice away from the land.

Zoom out further still to the last 65 million years. The temperature graph shows several major features. One is the rapid (every 100,000 years) wide swings of major ice ages. When they began, 1.35 million years ago, is when humans mastered fire. But almost all of the period was much warmer than now, with ferns growing in Antarctica. “Now it’s cold. What’s wrong with a little warming?” Baez asked.

The problem is that the current warming is happening too fast.

Studies of 1,500 species in Europe show that their ranges are moving north at 6 kilometers a decade, but the climate zones are moving north at 40 kilometers a decade, faster than they can keep up. The global temperature is now the hottest it’s been in 120,000 years. One degree Celsius more and it will be the hottest since 1.35 million years ago, before the ice ages. Baez suggested that the Anthropocene may be characterized mainly by species such as cockroaches and raccoons that accommodate well to humans. Coyotes are now turning up in Manhattan and Los Angeles. There are expectations that we could lose one-third of all species by mid-century, from climate change and other human causes.

Okay, to think about major extinctions, zoom out again. Over the last 550 million years there have been over a dozen mass extinctions, the worst being the Permian-Triassic extinction 250 million years ago, when over half of all life disappeared. The cause is still uncertain, but one candidate is the methane clathrates (”methane ice”) on the ocean floor. Since methane is a far worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, massive “burps” of the gas could have led to sudden drastic global heating and thus the huge die-off of species. Naturally the methane clathrates are being studied as an industrial fuel for when the oil runs out in this century, “which could make our effect on global warming 10,000 times worse,” Baez noted.

“Zooming out in time is how I calm myself down after reading the newspapers,” Baez concluded. “A mass extinction is a sad thing, but life does bounce back, and it gets more interesting each time. We probably won’t kill off all life on Earth. But even if we do, there are a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, and ten billion galaxies in the observable universe.”

       --Stewart Brand

http://longnow.org/seminars/02006/oct/13/zooming-out-in-time/

Infrastructure: It's Everything We Use or Rely Upon - and it is hard work - Saul Griffith at the Long Now

Jason's Notes:
 
December 25, 02015
  1. Gardens have multiple benefits: lowering HVAC bills, food, education, stress reduction
  2. Bricks and mortar stores are a dying breed, and that's okay. The need to travel to shops is a ridiculous waste of resources (time, money, gas, road infrastructure, land, etc) The new distribution models make it much easier to browse online and centralize distribution. The miles driven by a delivery truck to many houses is vastly less than each of those house holds making their own trips.
  3. No one energy alternative is going to supplant hydro-carbons. Wave power in total can't meet current needs, solar could if we could tackle seasonal variations, dido wind. Geothermal is too costly (though a by-product of oil and gas drilling does help locate minor delta Ts that could be exploited on a local level). Biofuels need too much land and water.
  4. The real opportunity for improving how we utilize energy isn't just diversification of sources, but that we need to use it more efficiently. Oil's biggest sin isn't carbon or VOCs, but rather its waste heat ratio to watts.
  5. Examining transportation in particular, you want to get to a common unit like watt-miles. The power-dense batteries of today are making personal movers the most efficient option (electric skateboards) with electric bikes a close second. A Tesla roadster is way at the other end of the spectrum. Unlucky as we are, those much heavier options are heavily subsidized while much more efficient options are not.
  6. Looking at building energy efficiency, the big hurdle is latency. The typical comfort level is off the climatic offering to the tune of 40% in best case scenarios (PV on the roof, etc). There is surplus that goes to waste because we can't store it.

Saul Griffith:

http://www.saulgriffith.com/

Synopsis from the Long Now:

Green infrastructure

Griffith began with an eyeroll at the first round of responses in the US to reducing greenhouse gases, a program he calls “peak Al Gore.” Some activities feel virtuous —becoming vegetarian, installing LED lights, avoiding bottled water, reading news online, using cold water detergent, and “showering less in a smaller, colder house”—but they demand constant attention and they don’t really add up to what is needed.

Griffith’s view is that we deal best with greenhouse gases by arranging our infrastructure so we don’t have to think about climate and energy issues every minute. Huge energy savings can come from designing our buildings and cars better, and some would result from replacing a lot of air travel with “video conferencing that doesn’t suck.“ Clean energy will mostly come from solar, wind, biofuels (better ones than present), and nuclear. Solar could be on every roof. The most fuel-efficient travel is on bicycles, which can be encouraged far more. Electric cars are very efficient, and when most become self-driving they can be lighter and even more efficient because “autonomous vehicles don’t run into each other.” Sixty percent of our energy goes to waste heat; with improved design that can be reduced radically to 20 percent.

Taking the infrastructure approach, in a few decades the US could reduce its total energy use by 40 percent, while eliminating all coal and most oil and natural gas burning, with no need to shower less.

       --Stewart Brand

http://longnow.org/seminars/02015/sep/21/infrastructure-and-climate-change/

"Don't Forget the System - it won't Forget You" - Jesse Ausubel

Jason's Notes:
 
December 25, 02015:

When you pull the data of the last 40 years, there is a "global greening" going on with remarkable impacts. One of the follies of the mass Environmental Movement isn't a lack of worry, but a lack of measuring it's own success or unexpected innovations that reduced consumption.

Forest are rebounding, whales are proliferating, paper use is down, population is set to decline, US fresh water use has been flat since the 80s, and a slew of other metrics indicate a global greening largely from unlooked for innovations: better crop management has increased yields far more than pesticides and nitrates use, ebooks and email decimated the paper industry, etc.

Where we are still loosing ground is in the oceans, where the trend is still accelerating exploitation.

The key point is that looking at long-term data of the 70s indicated major problems. We reacted. Data gathered since then indicates flattening or declining curves against those same issues.

Side Notes:
  1. The ineffectiveness of legislation. As the last home of hope, laws attempt to criminalize behavior that should be recognized as inherently against both the common and personal good. If we have to make a law then we have failed on the Public Relations front.
  2. Mag-lev transport offers the best long-term future transportation mode. Above the speed (equal to air) it has low power inputs because it does not carry its own fuel.

Jesse Ausubel:

http://phe.rockefeller.edu/jesse/

From the Long Now synopsis:

Jesse Ausubel is Director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University in New York, co-founder of The Encyclopedia of Life, co-organizer of the first UN World Climate Conference in 01979, co-founder of The Barcode of Life, co-organizer of the Census of Marine Life, and former Vice President of Programs at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

In the field of environmental progress the conflict between anecdote and statistics is so flagrant that most public understanding on the subject is upside down. We worry about the wrong things, fail to worry about the right things, and fail to acknowledge and expand the things that are going well.

For decades at Rockefeller University Jesse Ausubel has assembled global data and trends showing that humanity may be entering an exceptionally Green century. The most important trend is “land-sparing”—freeing up ever more land for nature thanks to agricultural efficiency and urbanization. Ausubel notes that we are now probably at “peak farmland“ (so long as we don’t pursue the folly of biofuels). Forests are coming back everywhere in the temperate zones and in many tropical areas, helped by replacing wild logging with tree plantations. Human population is leveling rapidly and we are now probably at “peak children.” Our energy sources continue to “decarbonize,” and a long-term “dematerialization” trend is reducing the physical load of civilization’s metabolism.

In the ocean, however, market hunting for fish remains highly destructive, even though aquaculture and mariculture are taking off some of the pressure. In this area, as in the others, rigorous science and inventive technology are leading the way to the mutual flourishing of humanity and nature.
Why nature is rebounding

Over the last 40 years, in nearly every field, human productivity has decoupled from resource use, Ausubel began. Even though our prosperity and population continue to increase, the trends show decreasing use of energy, water, land, material resources, and impact on natural systems (except the ocean). As a result we are seeing the beginnings of a global restoration of nature.

America tends to be the leader in such trends, and the “American use of almost everything except information seems to be peaking, not because the resources are exhausted but because consumers changed consumption and producers changed production.“

Start with agriculture, which “has always been the greatest raper of nature.” Since 01940 yield has decoupled from acreage, and yet the rising yields have not required increasing inputs such as fertilizer, pesticides, or water. The yield from corn has become spectacular, and it is overwhelmingly our leading crop, but most of it is fed to cars and livestock rather than people. Corn acreage the size of Iowa is wasted on biofuels. An even greater proportion goes to cows and pigs for conversion to meat.

The animals vary hugely in their efficiency at producing meat. If they were vehicles, we would say that “a steer gets about 12 miles per gallon, a pig 40, and a chicken 60.“ (In that scale a farmed fish gets 80 miles per gallon.) Since 01975 beef and pork consumption have leveled off while chicken consumption has soared. “The USA and the world are at peak farmland, “ Ausubel declared, “not because of exhaustion of arable land, but because farmers are wildly successful in producing protein and calories.” Much more can be done. Ausubel pointed out that just reducing the one-third of the world’s food that is wasted, rolling out the highest-yield techniques worldwide, and abandoning biofuels would free up an area the size of India (1.2 million square miles) to return to nature.

As for forests, nation after nation is going through the “forest transition” from decreasing forest area to increasing. France was the first in 01830. Since then their forests have doubled while their population also doubled. The US transitioned around 01950. A great boon is tree plantations, which have a yield five to ten times greater than logging wild forest. “In recent times,” Ausubel said, “about a third of wood production comes from plantations. If that were to increase to 75 percent, the logged area of natural forests could drop in half.” Meanwhile the consumption of all wood has leveled off---for fuel, buildings, and, finally, paper. We are at peak timber.

One byproduct of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the longer temperate-zone growing seasons accompanying global warming is greater plant growth. “Global Greening,“ Ausubel said, “is the most important ecological trend on Earth today. The biosphere on land is getting bigger, year by year, by two billion tons or even more.”

Other trendlines show that world population is at peak children, and in the US we are peak car travel and may even be at peak car. The most efficient form of travel, which Ausubel promotes, is maglev trains such as the “Hyperloop“ proposed by Elon Musk. Statistically, horses, trains, cars, and jets all require about one ton of vehicle per passenger. A maglev system would require only one-third of that.

In the ocean, though, trends remain troubling. Unlike on land, we have not yet replaced hunting wild animals with farming. Once refrigeration came along, “the democratization of sushi changed everything for sea life. Fish biomass in intensively exploited fisheries appears to be about one‐tenth the level of the fish in those seas a few decades or hundred years ago.“ One fifth of the meat we eat comes from fish, and about 40 percent of that fifth is now grown in fish farms, but too many of the farmed fish are fed with small fish caught at sea. Ausubel recommends vegetarian fish such as tilapia and “persuading salmon and other carnivores to eat tofu,” which has already been done with the Caribbean kingfish. “With smart aquaculture,“ Ausubel said, “life in the oceans can rebound while feeding humanity.”

When nature rebounds, the wild animals return. Traversing through abandoned farmlands in Europe, wolves, lynx, and brown bears are repopulating lands that haven’t seen them for centuries, and they are being welcomed. Ten thousand foxes roam London. Salmon are back in the Thames, the Seine, and the Rhine. Whales have recovered and returned even to the waters off New York. Ausubel concluded with a photo showing a humpback whale breaching, right in line with the Empire State Building in the background.

       --Stewart Brand

http://longnow.org/seminars/02015/jan/13/nature-rebounding-land-and-ocean-sparing-through-concentrating-human-activities/