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A Nobel Prize in Economics a Climate Change Denier Might Love

It has been a scary month in climate science. Hurricane Michael and a frightening report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underlined the potential costs of human-caused global warming. Then to add insult to injury, William Nordhaus won the economics Nobel Prize. Nordhaus wa...


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The Ragged Edge of the World
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endangered animals
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Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.

The Octopus and the Orangutan
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The Future In Plain Sight
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The Parrot's Lament
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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The Alms Race
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Apes, Men, & Language
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Thursday April 10, 2014


As our feeble recovery shambles on, the question arises as to whether the United States economy is being dragged down by forces, some decades in the making, beyond the power of central banks and policymakers to reverse. Workers, for instance, have found their bargaining power eroded by the twin threats of offshoring and automation with the result that real median household income is lower than it was in 1989, and the median American worker earns no more in 2013 than he or she did in 1979.  Most Americans simply do not have the spending power to drive a robust recovery.  An even longer-term, and more provocative, perspective comes from Northwestern University economist Robert Gordon. He argues that it is not so much that the recovery is weak, but that prior growth was an anomaly, a one-time hundred-year surge fueled by the Industrial Revolution, and which began to fade in the 1960s and will not be repeated.

Even if Gordon is right, there is still hope. There may yet be more tricks left in the Industrial Revolution. Take energy for instance. In the early 20th century, fossil fuels came to so utterly dominate the energy mix that innovation in alternative forms of energy, flourishing in the early years of the last century, went into a coma for 80 years from which it only began to emerge in recent decades. Energy innovation has the heft and breadth (the United States spends about $1.2 trillion on energy each year, 82% of which goes to fossil fuels) to power a whole new phase of economic growth. To see this opportunity, however, requires a shift in focus from the perspective Gordon offers.

Gordon presented his argument in an influential 2012 paper he wrote for the National Bureau of Economic Research (the institution that has the last word on when recessions start and end) titled, “Is US Economic Growth Over?” The paper produced a storm of comment, much critical, among economists in the blogosphere. It's easy to see why. Gordon notes that for most of the Christian Era there was little or no growth in the West. Then, from about 1870 to about 1970 came transformative innovations—running water, sanitation, the internal combustion engine—which drastically reduced infant mortality and the burden of disease, and accelerated transportation and communications by orders of magnitude. By the time the third phase of the Industrial Revolution, the Digital Age began around 1960, notes Gordon, the era had exhausted its capacity for transformative innovations.

Keeping in mind that there is no more precise definition of innovation than there is of other cherished human attributes such as intelligence or language, Gordon makes a spirited case. To illustrate his point, he offers a simple thought experiment. Ask anyone which they would give up if they had to choose: running water and toilets or their laptops and mobile phones? Standard of living increases from these later innovations are incremental, argues Gordon, not the doublings of the earlier breakthroughs. Indeed economic growth and productivity have slowed in the United States since the 1960s.

So let’s go back to get a better fix on a more positive future. Instead of thinking of the technologies of industrialization, consider the dominant energy source that drove them: fossil fuels.  As much as anything, commercialization of fossil fuels provided the great engine of growth in the early 20th century, so much so that it’s easy to imagine that in the future we might be referring to the Fossil Fuels Era as distinct from the Industrial Revolution.

The distinction is important because until fossil fuels came to dominate in the early and middle decades of 20th  century, scientists and engineers were exploring an enormous variety of sources of energy, some of which are still considered cutting edge today. Thomas Edison first proposed harnessing the Gulf Stream to run impellers and produce electricity in 1901. Today, up and running wave, tidal and river currant projects produce electricity from the North Sea to the Pacific. In Jay Leno’s car collection is an electric car built in 1907. The Stirling Engine, a simple heat pump invented in the 19th century provides the basic design for utility-scale electrical generating projects in the Southwest. But for the discovery of cheap fossil fuels, we might be vastly further along in the development of these alternatives.

Oil no longer cheap or easy to extract, and with the realization that fossil fuels carry heavy environmental costs, these alternatives have re-emerged from their 80-year hibernation. There is nothing more central to civilization than the energy that powers it. The migration to alternatives will ultimately mobilize trillions of dollars in capital spending as the move to alternative energy gathers momentum.

This transition will not be smooth. Wind, solar, and geothermal power have been on a roller coaster of boom, bust, boom since the late 1970s, but they are getting close to a tipping point.  Once these non-nuclear and non-hydro alternatives reach somewhere around 5% of global energy production the pace of adoption should take off, providing the economy, and America's beleaguered workers, with one more, long-delayed, shot of Vitamin C. Apart from anything else, the spread of these technologies would prove decisively that the great surge in standards of living in the West was truly based on innovation, and not merely the lucky discovery of cheap fossil fuels.

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Short Take

In Memorium: Koko the Gorilla

Koko the gorilla died on June 19. She and a female chimpanzee named Washoe (who died in 2007) played an outsized role in changing how we view animal intelligence. Their accomplishments inaugurated deep soul-searching among us humans about the moral basis of our relationship with nature. Koko and Washoe have made it much more difficult for us to treat animals as commodities, in any way we wish.

I knew the two great apes when I was young and they were young, and I”ve closely followed the scientific, philosophical and moral upheavals they precipitated over the last five decades. In the 1960s and ’70s, they learned to use American sign language, and they came to understand that words could be combined to convey new meanings. It threw the scientific world into a tizzy, implying that sentience and languagewere not ours alone, that there was a continuum in higher mental abilities that linked animals and humans.

The problem for science remains unresolved: 3,000 years into the investigation of signal human attributes and we still don’t have rigorous ways to define language and intelligence that are agreed on and can be empirically tested. There remain a number of scientists who don’t think Koko and Washoe accomplished anything at all. Even if a scientist accepts one of the definitions of language that do exist, it’s nearly impossible to test it in animals because what is being examined is inherently subjective, and science demands objective, verifiable results.

Consider how hard it is to prove a lie beyond a reasonable doubt in court. Then consider trying to prove lying in an animal in accord with the much stricter standards of science.

As difficult as proving it may be, examples of apes lying abound. When Koko was 5, I was playing a chase game with her. When I caught her, she gave me a small bite. Penny Patterson, Koko’s lifelong foster parent and teacher, was there, and, in sign language, demanded, “What did you do?”

Koko signed, “Not teeth.”

Penny wasn’t buying it: “Koko, you lied.”

“Bad again Koko bad again,” Koko admitted.

“Koko, you lied.” But what was Koko’s intent — a central issue when it comes to proving a lie. What was actually going on in her head when she made the gestures for “not teeth?” As if that weren’t inscrutable enough, one of the guiding principles of scientific investigations of animal intelligence is what’s known as Morgan’s Canon: Scientists must not impute a higher mental ability if a behavior can be explained by something more primitive, for example, simple error.

Analogously, about 50 years ago, on a pond in Oklahoma, Washoe saw a swan and made the signs for “water” and “bird.” Was she simply noting a bird and water, or was she combining two of the signs she knew to describe an animal for which she had no specific word? The debate continued for decades and was unresolved when she died.

Since Washoe made those signs, there have been many more instances of apes combining words to describe something, but these examples still don’t prove they can combine words to arrive at a novel term, even if it seems obvious that they can. Faced with these ambiguities, many scientists have moved to studying whether animals can accomplish specific cognitive tasks, and a welter of credible findings show sophisticated abilities in animals ranging from crows to elephants.

Although science struggles with questions of general intelligence, language and intent, the public is in the “it’s obvious” camp, readily accepting evidence of animal sentience. The latest objects of fascination are the octopus — a relative of the clam! — and fish. Stories of cephalopod escape and problem-solving regularly go viral, and to the consternation of sushi lovers , John Balcomb’s book, “What a Fish Knows,” provides copious evidence that fish know a lot.

We tend to see animals as either personalities or commodities, or sometimes, both. When I wrote about octopus intelligence, I was amused by one octopus-oriented website that divided its space between stories of smart octopuses and recipes for cooking them. Perhaps the most extraordinary example of our schizophrenic view of animals occurred some years back when a chimp colony that included sign-language-using apes was disbanded and many of these onetime celebrities were shipped to a medical research lab to be used in Hepatitis B and AIDS drug testing.

I knew these chimps too, and visited them in their new environment. They were desperate to communicate with their human captors, but the staff didn’t know sign language. So insistent were Booee and Bruno with their signing that one handler put up a poster outside the cages showing some basic signs to help the humans respond. When I was there, three days after Booee had arrived, he was signing agitatedly for food and drink. But what I think he really wanted was reassurance: If the humans would respond to “gimme drink,” things were going to be OK.

Teaching Koko, Washoe and other animals some level of human and invented languages promised experimenters insight into the animal mind. But the animals seemed to seize on these languages as a way to make their wishes — and thoughts — known to their strange, bipedal wardens, who had no ability or interest in learning the animals’ communication system. For Koko, I believe, sign language was a way to make the best of a truly unnatural situation, and so she signed.

Science doesn’t know if great apes can invent terms or if they tell lies. And the tension between whether we view and treat animals as personalities or as commodities lives on. The truth is, Koko, Washoe and many other animals who have had two-way conversations with the people around them shatter the moral justification for the latter.

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