Can geoengineering be eco-friendly?

At the 250th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in August, a research team from George Washington University presented a new carbon nanofiber production process that uses the atmosphere as the source of carbon to make the nanofibers. Used on a large enough scale, they say, this could potentially reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide to pre-industrial levels in just a decade. In August a team at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory also reported progress in capturing carbon dioxide using a catalytic molecular lattice, but they are being more modest about its potential. It was perhaps inevitable that sooner or later there would be a technology that could pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere on an industrial scale. At first sight this appears to be a miraculous solution to the problem of global warming. What could possibly go wrong?

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Global warlordism

In May, a book called Warlords, Inc. was published by North Atlantic Books. Edited by Noah Radford and Andrew Trabulsi, it brings together contributed chapters from more than a dozen authors, who discuss, as the book’s subtitle puts it, the rise of the warlord entrepreneur. As the complexities of modern geopolitical pressures mount, the world’s elaborate but fragile political systems are becoming increasingly vulnerable to breakdown and deliberate disruption by those who thrive when globalization breaks down. The book looks at this post-modern warlordism from the dark side, the bright side, and the shades of gray in between. Attempting an optimistic stance, I contributed Chapter 11 to the ‘bright side’ section, under the title Bringing the End of War to the Global Badlands. What follows is an abridged excerpt to whet your appetite for the book itself...

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Welcome to the Global Cyber Game

The Internet was once a beacon of freedom and hope, and it still could be. But now that governments are spending billions on Internet militarization there is a real risk that it could inadvertently become an instrument of global repression. What is needed is a way to make the Internet secure and at the same time preserve basic democratic freedoms.

In the 1990s there was a euphoric sense of Internet liberation. First the Internet radically democratised personal communications with an amazing new set of digital tools and then it revolutionized commerce, upending many traditional business models in a frenzy of disintermediation. Of course there was a dark side too, because where there is money and naive enthusiasm there are opportunities for crime. And where there are unprotected computers full of secret data there are easy pickings for spies...

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Think upside!

As 2012 begins, the world situation is building to a crescendo of turbulence and fluidity, with profound shifts underway on multiple fronts.

Two major historical tendencies, on a convergent path for years, are now reaching a historic crossing point. The established culture of modernity has been following a long path of decline, and the rising culture of transmodernity has been inexorably climbing to eclipse it.

The moment of crossover is like a mirror-fold in time, when the ascending upsides and descending downsides meet, converging in a fleeting moment of equal power, which pushes open the door of possibility to its widest extent...

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A car crash so slow we forget it's happening

In Thursday’s Financial Times, columnist Stephen King, chief economist at HSBC, expressed the view that we are living in a world "where the financial system appears to be slowly crumbling." And in a letter published the same day, Giles Conway-Gordon, of Cogo Wolf Asset Management in San Francisco, expressed a very similar idea: "for the first time in more than 300 years, there is no sound global reserve currency…[and]…it is difficult to see any return to the former global financial structure."

The idea that the existing financial system is doomed seemed to be present from the onset of the global financial crisis four years ago, but it was crowded out by more urgent calls to prevent immediate collapse and restore normal functioning...

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Can economics embrace unpredictability?

In yesterday’s Financial TimesGideon Rachman argued that the “soft” discipline of history should replace economics, which has failed as a hard science because it is unable to predict the future. While I agree with the view that mainstream economics has an excessive dominance over policy-making, the article relied a little too much on some widespread and surprisingly persistent misunderstandings about the nature of the future.

A central misconception is the belief that the “hard” sciences are predictive, while the “soft” sciences are not. Joseph Stiglitz was quoted on this point: “If science is defined by its ability to forecast the future, the failure of much of the economics profession to see the crisis coming should be a cause of great concern.” But a hard science such as physics can predict the future only in a very narrow sense...

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Floating upstream

I've been re-reading Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, the latest book by Stewart Brand, a former colleague from GBN days. Back in January I caught one of his promotional presentations at the ICA in London. He is an inveterate showman and iconoclast, resplendent that day in black and turquoise to match the cover of the American edition, and an absolute master of arresting aphorism. He once told me that in the part of the US mid-west where he grew up, people used to say of the Brands that if you threw one in the river, they would float upstream.

True to form, while insisting he is an unwavering environmentalist, he is now provocatively arguing that nuclear power, transgenic organisms and cities are all desirable for genuinely pragmatic environmentalists...

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Peak oil now

It is interesting to speculate that the horrendous BP oil mega-spill in the Gulf of Mexico may come to be viewed as the defining moment when Peak (Easy) Oil arrived. Up to now the advent of Peak Oil has been difficult to pinpoint in time because it was a function of many variables in constant dynamic interplay. For instance, as the financial crisis depressed demand, it pushed the peak further away in time. However, in the case of physical phenomena, failures often depend on a small triggering factor. When a sheet of glass under bending stress finally breaks, the failure propagates from a tiny existing crack. By analogy, this may also be true of developments in time. The oil mega-spill has suddenly dramatised the stark difference between the technology and economics of easy oil and the much higher risks and costs of oil from difficult environments. This unpredictable time-specific event may well set off a cascade of responses that "fix" the moment of Peak Oil and precipitate it into reality. Future historians take note!

Buckminster Fuller and a slight case of the not-really-invented-here syndrome

A couple of weeks ago I took part in the BBC Radio 4 show Great Lives, in which I talked about the life of Buckminster Fuller. A listener, Ron Bird, wrote in afterwards to say that contrary to general belief and our claims on air, Bucky had not invented the geodesic dome. Here is what he said:

'While I appreciate the energy Buckminster Fuller gave to design, the one thing he is not responsible for is the invention of the geodesic dome, though he did perfect it, popularise it, patent it, and invent the name! The honour of being the first to design a geodesic structure goes to...

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'Fallout from Icelandic disaster destroys world economy'

That hypothetical headline, which almost seemed possible in 2008, could yet lie in the future for reasons that have nothing to do with the financial crisis. An erupting volcano in Iceland has caused the total closure of UK airspace for three days so far, along with other European countries, which is apparently unprecedented since World War II. Here in London today the skies are blissfully clear - both of aircraft, clouds and any visible sign of volcanic dust. But things were dramatically worse in 1783, when an Icelandic volcanic eruption blanketed Europe in a ‘dry fog’ for months...

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Toyota and the invocation of doom

It is interesting to trace the connection between Toyota’s recent troubles and faulty strategic self-perception. As a Prius owner myself, I had already discovered the slight electronic glitches on ice and over potholes, but they seemed relatively insignificant and I had shrugged them off (although admittedly my car is the earlier version).

A bigger part of the problem in my estimation is that Toyota does not know what to do after ultimate success. Having become the world’s biggest carmaker in 2008, by October 2009 president Akio Toyoda said in a speech that the company was one step away from ‘capitulation to irrelevance or death.’ He was quoting the final stage of Jim Collins’ five step framework in How the Mighty Fall...

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Happy New Decade 2010–2019

Looking into the future often seems like watching a shifting reflection in a distorting mirror. In the last year, we have moved from the prospect of worsening global financial meltdown to a recovery that is presenting at least the appearance of normality. 

Under the surface things are not so reassuring. It feels uncomfortably as if this part of the world has shot itself resoundingly in both feet, and its power is ebbing away. This applies to both the US and the UK, but the UK in particular seems to have nowhere to go in conventional economic terms. For the moment it is living on borrowed time, waiting for the full consequences to play out...

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Economic recovery, oil price, and carbon

Earlier this week there were two signals that the oil price is threatening to return to dangerous levels as economic growth begins to pick up. On Monday, the FT reported that forward oil prices are now $20 higher than two years ago, even though spot prices are much lower. And on Tuesday, the Guardian reported allegations by a whistleblower at the International Energy Agency in Paris that the agency has been underplaying the rate of oilfield decline, while overplaying the chance of finding new oil – suggesting that the peaking of global oil production is much closer than they previously maintained.

This news is exactly what would be expected if the world actually is entering the zone of the global oil production peak...

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The invisible hand has finally vanished

Yesterday evening I took part in a wide-ranging discussion in London that included a number of senior civil servants. Although I need to respect the anonymity of the participants, I do have permission to mention one fairly abstract point that caught my interest.


A view was expressed that rising complexity in an instantaneously interconnected and interdependent world has reached the point where governments can no longer exert control. Now, without debating the point about whether governments were ever really in control, I would agree that the complexity of what they deal with is certainly increasing...

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Derren Brown predicts lottery!

The UK’s celebrated TV illusionist Derren Brown appeared to get the future right on Wednesday this week when he predicted the outcome of the National Lottery on live TV. As this blog is concerned with the future it seems appropriate to comment. Setting aside the temporarily beguiling explanation offered on his Friday night TV show, on this occasion he was given away by a slight error. If you look very carefully at this clip of the prediction and step between 6:05 and 6:07 you will see that the ball on the extreme left jumps up very slightly. This is almost certainly the telltale for a split-screen illusion which allowed the balls to be changed by assistants, who unfortunately failed to pack all the new balls down flat. The constant camera movement could preclude split-screen, but if you look carefully you can see there is no parallax displacement of the background behind the balls, suggesting that this was not camera movement but a video effect. This is a curiously elaborate way of doing things, as radio receivers inside the balls and e-paper on the outside ought to have been easier. Sad really, as it would have been much more fun if he really had predicted the future.