Monday, December 06, 2010

Climate change needs a Wilberforce

I've recently read Kwame Anthony Appiah's book 'The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen' as research for my own forthcoming book on reputation, which I expect/hope will be out in the autumn of next year. Appiah looks at a number of social changes — the abandoning of duelling and the abolition of slavery in Britain, the end of foot binding in China — and asks why and how things changed. It wasn't, he says, because of moral or legal change. The arguments against them were already well known — and had been around for millennia, in the case of footbinding — and duelling was illegal in Britain when it was most popular among the upper orders.

Rather, says Appiah, people stop doing something when it becomes disreputable. What he hints at, but doesn't fully explore, is that this change happens because social networks change. China in the nineteenth century was exposed to and influenced by western ideas, religions and so on. In Britain, the abolition movement, and the end of duelling, were brought about in different ways by a rising middle and working class, and a less isolated aristocracy. Changing connections also reflect changes in power. China's opening up to the west was the consequence of humiliating military defeats, and economic change in Britain undermined the aristocracy's political hegemony.

Likewise, I've been thinking a bit about reputation's ability (or lack of it) to solve collective action problems, particularly on carbon emissions, because that's the toughest and most serious such problem we face.

The abolition of slavery, I think, provides the best historical parallels for what we need to accomplish on climate change. In both cases, some people in the west need to make their lives a little less convenient and profitable for the benefit of people elsewhere.

Probably abolitionists were told by men of the world that ending slavery would beggar us, and that we should instead look to gradually reduce the number of slaves traded over the course of several decades, and make slave ships more comfortable. But Britain got out of slavery, not as the result of some international treaty, not because it no longer suited the nation's economic interest, and not because of some visionary prime minister, but because its people said: this is wrong. The movement had leaders, of course, but something meant they were pushing at an open door. Appiah suggests that an increasingly confident working class felt that the existence of slavery dishonoured their labour, although I suspect that the sheer vileness of the slave trade was a more important factor, and that many British people felt more solidarity with slaves than with their slave-trading compatriots.

Once one country had provided some moral leadership, it made it harder for others to carry on business as usual.

So I'd suggest that we'll see no action on climate change until someone says: it's wrong to carry on like this, regardless of what everyone else is doing. We can't wait around for a mass conversion to a low-carbon global economy. (This Nature Reports Climate Change article gives a good guide as to why not.) Any country serious about climate change needs to go it alone.

Is such moral leadership purely altruistic, or are there any self-interested benefits? Wearing my evo-goggles, I'd be inclined to see abolition as some kind of national costly signal — a display of virtue that reveals both underlying trustworthiness and the strength to do without the benefits of vice. Experiments with individuals show that people who act this way are preferred social partners, and are rewarded in private business (it's sometimes called competitive altruism). I don't know whether anything similar happened in Britain when slavery was abolished (I doubt it), and I suspect it'd be a hard idea to test.

Unfortunately, climate change is a tougher problem to frame in a moral way than slavery, because the benefits of altruism are les immediate, less obvious and less certain, and because the links between the behaviours that need changing and the harm that they do is less direct. William Wilberforce and co also had religious arguments, and a religious audience, which are less effective these days. And most countries seem to have little grassroots demand for government action on climate change.

Are there any candidates? Not really - either for nations likely to take a lead, or for the changes in power and connections between people that bring about social change. Brazil and India are large emitters, likely to be badly hit by global warming, and are big enough players that any action would send a powerful message. But what I know about the forces that drive people to make sacrifices and to treat each other well makes me pessimistic. I think that change will come eventually, once the consequences start to become obvious, but that by then we'll be committed to 4 deg plus of warming.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Chainsaw science

I have a review in this week's new-look Nature of Thomas Seeley's book Honeybee Democracy. (I wanted to call the piece 'The politics of dancing') It's a good read, and I think the last chapter on applying bee-rules to human decision making (one of the book's virtues is that Seeley doesn't over-claim in this regard) is worth anyone's time.

One thing I didn't mention in the review is that one of Seeley's early experiments involved roaming the woods with a chainsaw, looking for trees with bees, then chopping them down to measure the size of the cavity.

This made me think of Daniel Simberloff's work testing the predictions of island biogeography by manipulating the area of small Florida Mangrove islands with a chainsaw. E. O. Wilson describes the work in his memoir 'Naturalist'. (Clearly, the late 60s/early 70s were the golden age for chainsaws in ecology, as well as in Texan massacres.)

It made me think - how many other researchers have wielded a chainsaw in the name of science? I tried putting 'chainsaw' and 'chainsaw ecology' into google scholar, but most of the results pertain to studies of the effect of logging, which doesn't really count. There was one paper looking at the effect of chainsaw noise on spotted owls. I'm glad to see they seem to have used a real chainsaw, and not a recording, but again this is a study into the effects of logging. It'd be nice to put together a top ten of experiments that harnessed a chainsaw for scientific good, rather than looked at its evil effects.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

How to clean an oily beach

Back in 2003, Nature sent me to northwest Spain to visit some of the sites polluted by the Prestige oil spill, and speak to some of the people affected, including fish farmers, local academics, and people working on the cleanup. Then I wrote a feature looking at the operation, and looking at what we'd learned, sometimes from mistakes, about past efforts to clean up oil spills, such as the Torrey Canyon, Amoco Cadiz, Exxon Valdez and Sea Empress.

The spill in the Gulf of Mexico is no doubt rather different to a tanker wreck, because it's happening offshore and deep underwater. But I think the piece still gives an idea of the issues that'll decide the spill's environmental impact and what kind of clean-up is used, if and when the oil reaches shore. Like - what kind of oil is it? (Lighter better) What kind of shore? (Rockier easier to clean) How warm is it? (Dictates speed at which bacteria break down oil.) What are the other interests - tourism, fishing etc. (Dictates how interventionist cleanup is likely to be).

Later that year, I also visited Prince William Sound, courtesy of the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources. It's very beautiful, and lousy with sea otters and bald eagles. Even so, we had Stanley 'Jeep' Rice with us, and he knew beaches where you could dig down a foot a have the whiff of petroleum rise up to meet you.

On that trip, we also heard about the work of Steven Picou, a sociologist who studies the effect of disasters on communities. I think I summarize correctly when I say that he's found that man-made disasters put more pressure on communities than natural disasters, because the issues around blame, compensation and litigation become much more divisive. This article shows that Alaskans are still feeling the effects, and his 2004 paper 'Disaster, Litigation, and the Corrosive Community' gives a more scholarly take.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Oh dear

This is the juiciest literary-backstabbing story since the whole Oxford poetry professorship doo-dah.

April 15: the LRB Blog quotes a TLS diary story on an Amazon reviewer variously nicknamed 'Historian' and 'orlando-birkbeck'. This reviewer has written a spate of glowing reviews of Orlando Figes' books about Russian history, and has rubbished similar books by other authors, plus one that beat a book of Figes' to a prize.

April 17: It was Figes' missus!

April 23: Figes 'fesses!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Bursts and Brsts

Albert Laszlo Barabasi, one of the leading lights of network theory and research, has a new popular book out soon. It's called 'Bursts'. One of the blurb quotes on the webpage says that it looks at networks in time, in contrast to his earlier 'Linked', which looked at them in space. Sounds a bit like the Tipping Point, or possibly Phil Ball's Critical Mass. (I've read none of the books mentioned in this paragraph.)

To promote the book/allow readers to 'be part of a unique experiment', Barabasi has set up a game type thing at (Anyone else more inclined to read that as 'breasts' than 'bursts'? Oh.)

After registering, you can adopt a word of the text. You do this by perusing an online copy of the book where words that are taken are in orange and words that aren't are in green. You pick a green word, and then that word, along with every other word that's taken thus far, is revealed to you. I went to the chapter titled 'Deadly Quarrels and Power Laws', as the title reflects my current and past interests, and clicked on 'Technica'. Lucky old me.

You can get points by inviting your friends to sign up, or by guessing concealed words. This last is staggeringly easy, at least for words where some other known words are nearby, as the game gives you an anagram of the word in question.

If you get lots of points, you might get a free book. The current leader has 50,000 points, 40,000 more than second place, and has guessed early 8,000 words. I have 318, and am unlikely to rack up many more, so I guess I'll either be buying a copy, or trying to blag a review copy from somewhere.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Margaret Atwood writes about Twitter

This lovely blog post at the NYRB is well worth a read.

P.s. I've only read a couple of Atwood's books, most recently Oryx and Crake. I thought her dystopia reflected the skills of someone sharp on culture and politics - life reduced to junk food, shopping malls and porn - but less so on the science. An engineered turbo-Ebola that wipes out humanity? Yawn. Not only a yawn, but an evolutionarily implausible yawn, because how virulent a bug is, and how easy it is spread, change and interact in complex ways. There are reasons that Ebola is rare and colds are common.

The parasite in David Cronenberg's Shivers, that makes it's carriers super-horny is probably closer to real life - think of all the crazy effects that parasites have on behaviour, like making an ant climb a blade of grass so it'll get eaten by a sheep. See Carl Zimmer's Parasite Rex.

Oryx and Crake also contains what must be the dullest computer game ever imagined, Extinctathon, which involves naming extinct species, if I remember correctly. The idea that teenage boys would get into this seemed highly implausible.

Anyway, all that was just to flesh out the link to the blog post. O&C is also well worth a read, as is Atwood's review of E. O. Wilson's Anthill, also in the NYRB.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Some much-needed good publicity...

...for my alma mater, the University of East Anglia. OK, there's all that climate email stuff, but check out this Levi's promo. (Of interest only to UEA alums and lovers of brutalist architecture.)

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

E. O. Wilson's 'Trailhead'

In the 25 January edition of the New Yorker, there's a short story by the great entomologist and evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson. Written in limpid, crystalline prose, it tells of a young man's erotic awakening at the hands of his French-horn teacher.

Just kidding. It's about ants.

First impressions weren't promising. This is from the very first paragraph.

While humans and other vertebrates have an internal skeleton surrounded by soft tissue that quickly rots away, ants are encased in an external skeleton; their soft tissues shrivel into dry threads and lumps, but their exoskeletons remain, a knight’s armor fully intact long after the knight is gone.

and it made me think I was in for a piece of science-writing-by-any-other-name, groaning under the weight of exposition, with the odd clunky attempt at a literary flourish (that 'knight's armour' metaphor). And adverbs ('fully'?). I hate adverbs.

But I was wrong. It's actually rather good. It does feel under-edited (perhaps because the humanities types at the New Yorker lose their nerve when confronted with biology) and over-pedagogical, as Wilson tries to cram in every ant fact and concept he can (and as he probably knows more about ants than any person that's ever lived, that's quite a lot of information).

But as the story, of the fall of a doomed and besieged ant colony, gathers pace, it's gripping.

What I liked best was that I at first thought my emotional reaction was anthropomorphic, in that I was empathizing with the ants (in an accompanying Q&A the interviewer says the story is "the Iliad told from the point of view of ants").

But then I thought the effect was actually anti-anthropomorphic, and that the powerful thing is that the ants' blindness, both literally and to any sense of meaning and destiny in their lives, brings home nature/evolution/the universe's massive indifference about whether any living thing survives or flourishes.

It was also cute to see Wilson slip in a quick ride on his current hobby-horse, which is that we should take a more group-centric view of insect sociality than many of his colleagues allow. There are a few strategic mentions of the 'superorganism'.

The interview reveals that the story is an extract from Wilson's forthcoming novel Anthill, which mixes the ant's-eye view with a human narrative (involving a French-horn teacher, for all I know).

That'll be interesting to see - although the description on the website isn't doing the book any favours ('Astonishing, inspirational, even magical: a naturalist’s novel about an Alabama boy who heroically tries to save a sacred forest').

But what I really want, in my ideal world, is for someone to make a movie of the book's ant sections. Showing always beats out telling in depictions of the living world.

On the evidence of 'Trailhead', this movie would barely be fiction, so the brilliant folk at the BBC Natural History Unit could do it. Or they'd be ideal for Guillermo del Toro. How about this for an example of something that's all too rare in science and nature writing - the perverse.

Within a week, the constant licking of the royal corpse in the Trailhead Colony began to break it into pieces.

Get to it, Guillermo.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Climate-neutral ecology conferences

There's a piece in the latest TREE on how to have a carbon-neutral conference. The reference list also shows that emissions caused by conferences are an issue that several people have thought about. Sample title: Are international medical conferences an outdated luxury the planet can’t afford? Yes.

None of this is exactly new. And while local food, paper plates and so on are all better than nothing, I still think the answer is fewer meetings, not offsetting. "Most importantly," write Oliver Bossdorf and co, "[meetings] provide ample opportunities for networking." Well, so does the web, and you can do that at home.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Rod Page's predictions for 2010

Rod Page at Glasgow is one of the most interesting and provocative thinkers/workers on biodiversity informatics - that is, how biological information is used online.

His many efforts include iSpecies, a zero-budget alternative to the over-budget, behind-schedule (according to this Science article, which is behind a paywall) Encyclopedia of Life.

His predictions for 2010 are worth a ponder.