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Living in the future

02 January 2020 07:39PM climate

It's January 2020, and it's starting to feel like the future - but probably not in the way we expected.

We Are The Ancestors

Over the past few years I've had these occasional moments of perspective, where I think to myself, "We are living in the before times. One day, I will tell my children about this, and they will stare at me in awe."

Sometimes it's everyday things, like seeing the city skyline from my backyard. Sometimes it's less everyday things, like watching the fireworks on New Years and thinking, at the back of my mind, about the energy and time they represent. Sometimes it's fun, like marvelling at the intricate logistics of some little widget I want being manufactured and flown across the ocean and delivered to my door. Sometime's it's vaguely sickening, like thinking about that same thing happening for the hideous fake plastic plant I got in the office gift swap.

It's a sense of decadence and opulence, at a scale that's simultaneously incredibly intricate and unfathomably enormous. It's like we're at the heart of a machine that's both too complex and too large to comprehend, and its energy is directed almost entirely to satisfying wants rather than needs. We can accomplish wondrous things with a word or a gesture, and we mostly use it to snark at each other and order food.

It feels like we're living out a sci-fi trope. It feels like we're the Ancient Civilisation, and that any minute we're about to Fall, and one day our Descendants will stumbly across our Artefacts in the Ruins and tell Tales of Those Who Came Before. In shape, at least, if not in scale.

And I think maybe the reason I'm starting to notice this feeling more and more is because things are already starting to change. Not a decline, necessarily, but definitely a change.

Pre-emptive Adaptation

Here are some things which, over the last few months, I've noticed people I talk to doing.

But what's more interesting, I think, is who is doing it, and how they're doing it. For the most part, these aren't activists or radicals. They were pretty regular people from parts of my life I'd assumed were pretty isolated from climate-related issues. And they weren't making a big deal out of what they were doing - in fact, quite often they were a little bit sheepish about it, or cited things like cost as pseudo-justifications.

They're small changes, and stringing them together into a pattern might be wishful thinking, or my peer group maturing, but I think it's possible that we're taking our first, tentative steps into climate-impacted lifestyles.

We're told, over and over again, that this is not an individual-scale problem. That compared to the gigatonnes of carbon and the billions of dollars swung around by governments and corporations, your decision to have a meat-free Monday just doesn't register.

I have some issues with where that places the responsibility for the problem - and power to fix it - but for the most part, it's true.

But I don't think that's what these people were doing. I think what we're seeing here is something else.

I think we're quietly, unconsciously preparing for the future we know is coming.

A smaller, quieter future

We're heading towards a future where parts of the way we live now just don't happen. We'll live in a future where we live closer together, out of necessity and convenience. We'll leave our neighbourhoods less, as car ownership becomes less viable*. We'll leave our cities less, as air travel becomes prohibitive**. Our food will look different and come from closer as the kinds of agriculture that make sense change. Our consumer goods will last longer, or become less necessary, as the same happens to manufacturing.

This is not a Scandanavian urbanist daydream. It's a necessary consequence of a lower-carbon economy. Yes, it might sound pleasant, but like any change, if you get stuck behind the curve, you'll be running very uncomfortably to catch up.

Imagine, for example, finding yourself trapped in an outer suburb in a 250m^2 house which relies on air conditioning to stay cool as the climate heats up and a car to access as fuel prices rise and a barbecue you can't afford to put steak on and a yard to water as restrictions get tighter and tighter but nobody will buy or rent your house and there's nowhere left to go. Maybe you're insulated from the fires and the floods by the privilege of living in a developed country, but you sure aren't protected from financial hardship and crushing despair. If anything, it's made worse, because you can't tell what's wrong - everything just gets a little bit harder every day and there's nothing you can do to stop it***.

Once you stop and think about it, our lifestyle is actually extremely fragile, and the sooner we put the brakes on, the more comfortable that speed change will be.

Nobody's forcing you to change - yet. But eventually they will, whether through legislation, taxation, social expectation or the inexorable price changes due to supply and demand. And when that happens, I think a lot of people are going to be in for a bit of a shock, because this is a smaller future, with smaller dreams. It won't be realistic to dream of owning a house in the suburbs and travelling around the world.

The future isn't going to be worse. Or at least, it doesn't have to be, if we get our shit together. But it is going to be different, which kind of brings me back to the conversation around lifestyle changes. Because if we don't start changing expectations about how our lifestyles "should" look now, then we're only making things harder for each other down the line.

If you're interested in precipitating this epiphany for yourself, I recommend reading Station Eleven and Lost Connections within 24 hours of each other in an ill-fated attempt to hit your Goodreads target.

* because I don't know that the maths works out on everyone having an electric vehicle - or at least, an electric car. Other kinds of rideables, maybe more so.

** in my ideal version of this future we replace jet planes with solar powered airships, but that's still a slower, more significant exercise.

*** and you will probably vote increasingly conservatively because of this, but that's... a much bigger problem and this post is already running long.

Physics and other lies

18 December 2019 11:30PM scicomm

So an article about how we need to stop lying to our kids about physics landed in my inbox this morning and I'd be lying if I said it didn't rub me the wrong way.

As someone who's worked in formal education, physics outreach, and science communication, there's a couple of points I found particularly frustrating, and I think the best way for me to get them off my chest is... well, to get them off my chest.

So here we go:

1. simplifications and approximations aren't lies.

We use simplified, approximate versions of things all the time. Framing these as lies is... ironically, a massive oversimplification of how people learn. We start with simpler, more familiar ideas, and build up to harder, stranger ones, and our understanding increases and develops as we go.

And the fact is, you probably still use some of these simplifications yourself without even realising it, because you've never needed anything more complex.

For example, we teach kids about the 'sounds that letters make'. We get them to 'sound out words' and tie pronunciation to orthography even though those two are totally separate. Should we teach every kid the international phonetic alphabet instead? maybe! is it more useful to teach them some approximate rules to roughly map written words to spoken ones? absolutely! and do most adults ever need to do anything else? nope!

(And my understanding of Einsteininan physics is that it at a human scale it does more or less approximate to Newtonian physics. Unlike English phonology, which... doesn't)

2. there is value in being able to do things.

Because here's the thing. Relativity works well to describe things that are very very big, and quantum physics works well to describe things that are very very small. But most classrooms don't have a radio telescope or a particle accelerator. And there is value in being able to get kids to 'do' science.

Formulating hypotheses, designing experiments, taking measurements, struggling through the maths and coming to a conclusion is a crucial part of science.

Trusting the data, not the wisdom you're imparted with by authority figures, is a crucial part of science

And learning to update, or replace, your models when they're no longer adequate, is a crucial part of science.

We can do that with Newtonian physics. Right now, that's a lot harder with Einstein's physics.

3. you're actually doing the right thing

But my real issue is that I actually agree with the substance of this argument. I think there's absolutely room to introduce these ideas earlier. You're right that they're interesting, exciting ideas to play with, and I think spending time with a working scientist who uses these ideas every day and intuitively 'gets' them' is the perfect way to do it.

On a more meta level, I think flagging the idea that a model is incomplete and there are things it can't explain would be awesome - the same way I think it would be awesome if we explicitly addressed the fact that letters don't map to sounds. I think exposing kids to more complete models and analogies - even if they can't observe the phenomena directly - is fantastic. And all of that is exactly what you're doing!

(And to facilitate that, maybe what we need is more explicit teaching of the philosophy of science, and of learning. We want people to treat ideas like tools they can use, not true facts they have to rote learn. It's a way of looking at the world that most of us stumble on to at some point, but we could perhaps do a better job at teaching it explicitly.)

It's just that... this framing is arrogant, unnecessarily aggressive, and comes off as attacking teachers, who get the short end of the stick an awful lot already. If you want people to accept your ideas, you don't immediately want to put them on the defensive. As a science educator (and not even a formal one), that's what this did. I felt attacked!

If you want me to use your ideas, you need to show me how they're better - not just chastise me for using the wrong ones. Sell me the opportunities that come with teaching the physics of lasers and black holes, don't lambast me for using 'old ideas'. Help me see the universe the way you do, don't pile on me because I can't yet. And acknowledge that there might be legitimate reasons to do things the way they're done now, and that there's people who devote their lives to teaching the same way you devote yours to physics.

You've clearly come up with some elegant, well thought-out ways of getting your physics ideas across. I just wish you'd put the same effort into getting your teaching ideas across too.

Can I be proud of this?

20 October 2019 08:45PM introspection

Genuine, non-rhetorical question here: how do you measure your own success? Or - what makes you confident that you are a worthwhile person? — Grace, 2019

This is a great question.

For me, I think it's being able to step back from a thing I made or did and think, "Yeah, that was cool." Almost a pride-in-your-work, job-well-done, I-did-my-best vibe.

That sort of applies at any scale - I have felt proud of everything from spending a year writing a thesis to dropping an especially awful pun.

So what makes something that I do or make something that I can be proud of? I mean, a lot of it is pretty dependent on context. That which makes a good thesis does not make a good pun*.

But while the external criteria are going to be different for everything, the things that make me proud of it are sort of the same every time. They're things like:

To take a step back, I think you can approximate this as "did I act in line with my values?" That is, the things I like and think are useful and important.

That necessitates a degree of reflection, both to have an idea of what your values are in the first place, and to determine if something you've done or made was in line with them. It can help to articulate them to yourself, but the closer it comes to being a gut feeling, probably the closer it is to being true. It's very hard to talk yourself into or out of feeling proud of something you've done, and that's one of the strengths of this.

It's worth noting that this is an entirely self-referenced judgement. You're not looking at how others percieve you, comparing yourself to them, or against some arbitrary external criteria. That stuff might form a part of what you're measuring - but the yardstick you're measuring it against is yours and yours alone.

I think that assuming the negative is a pretty good test case here. If you do something and you're actively not proud of it, or regret it - you act against your values - that probably wasn't a thing you should've done. If you're doing something and you just feel the absence of pride, that's probably a sign that you need to change what you're doing**. And if you're not doing anything at all, you're pretty unlikely to feel anything at all. And to me, at least, that looks like a pretty set of measurements of 'success'.

It's shifting the value off the way you are (or are seen) and on to the way you act. I think that's powerful because while you can't always control the way you look or the way you're percieved, you can (often) control the way you act. It doesn't try to force you to change yourself, but it can help you to do the things that you want to do or think are important - if you want it to.

I don't think this is the only valid way to measure your self worth, but it's the one that I find myself doing, and I think it has its advantages. As to how you start to cultivate it, I'm not sure I can offer much - I feel like I do this pretty instinctively (or at least automatically) at this point, but perhaps taking time to reflect on what you value and how you feel about the things you do is a good place to start. I'm biased, but I think writing a journal (or perhaps some kind of "blog") is a great way to do this. ;)

That's perhaps more in-depth an answer than you really needed, but as I said - it's a good question.

* Although that's perhaps debatable.

* This is also a pretty neat summary of why I haven't been feeling great about my job for the last few months.*

Follow The Money

23 May 2019 06:06PM climate

If you can make it rational, easy and normal for people to do something for the planet, they'll do it. So let's put that into practice!

Our case study for today? Banking.


I think it's pretty fascinating to look at consumer banking technology in different parts of the world. It's almost like looking into alternate histories, in an aspect of our lives that mostly tends to fade into the background and get taken for granted.

Like... if you lived in the US, you'd apparently either still be slinging cheques (checks?) around, or be sending money in some kind of publically accessible feed.

But I guess we can apply the same kind of thinking to the actual past as well. The criteria I used to pick my first bank were something like:

I can't remember the last time visited a branch, and the idea that I once chose a service provider based on how many metal boxes they have scattered across the landscape seems insane. But we tend to stick with banks, even when our criteria change, because there's this perception that switching is much harder than it really is - but more on that in a second.

By comparison, here's what I'd look for today:

This is a pretty huge shift. We've gone from physical infrastructure and having the cash to sign on with credit card providers, to an almost entirely digital landscape. These are services that much smaller players can provide just as well as larger ones - often better. In terms of "can I get shit done," larger banks used to have a clear advantage. Now, that's pretty much gone.

But it's that last one that really gets me, because tying someone's payment details to their phone number or email address suddenly opens up a world of possibility.


One of the neat things about owning a domain name (and you'll have to excuse me as I dive from banking minutiae to email minutiae) is that you can separate your contact details from your service provider. If your primary online identity is, then you're pretty much tied to Gmail forever. If it's, you've suddenly got a whole range of options. You can swap out the back-end service provider without having to update your contact details.

(I guess the less geeky version of this, and perhaps the comparison I should have picked to start with, is being able to take your mobile number with you when you change providers)

And that's what we're just seeing the beginnings of in banking. If your payment details are tied to something you control, like a phone number, and not something your bank controls like an account number, it suddenly gets much easier to change the underlying service provider. You can change banks like you'd change mobile providers, and your money can still reach you.

On top of that, the payment platform it's built on top of makes it way easier to run accounts with multiple banks in parallel.


So we're reaching a point, thanks to technology, where:

  1. Smaller players can actually give you the service you need - maybe even better, and;
  2. The friction of switching is starting to drop, which means;
  3. Changing banks is probably actually viable for a lot more people.

Which is pretty neat! Because it turns out banks are one of the best places to get money to fund fossil fuel projects. If you're reading this, there's a good chance that you don't want your money to be a part of that - and it's never been easier to switch.

Now, there's two ways of framing this. We could see it as a largely symbolic (depending on your finances) attempt to get yourself out of some awful guilt. Or, we could see it as a prudent strategy to get yourself out of an awful investment.

Not just because these investments are bad for the planet (and that's increasingly going to be a financial step rather than a moral one) but because they're expensive and unreliable and risky, where renewables are cheap and reliable and safe. We're not going to have to wait long before supporting fossil fuels is totally untenable anyway - why not avoid the crash?

The best thing you can do to sell that change is to do it. And then, if it does come up, you can say with confidence that you've done it yourself. That it took you an afternoon, and that it's no big deal. Act like it's the most sensible, obviousl thing in the world, because it is. Make it normal.

I know all of this because I actually did it myself a couple of months ago, and it didn't only take an afternoon, and it wasn't a big deal, and I've been waiting for the chance to write about it ever since.

In the desolate, hand-wringing wasteland of election shock, this is something you can actually do, a conversation you can actually have, and an change you can actually convince someone to make.

Because it's rational. It's easy. And all the cool kids are doing it.

Have I convinced you yet?

Weaponised Self-Interest

22 May 2019 08:29PM climatescicomm

We might not agree on the problem - but we maybe we can agree on the solution.

It's tempting to froth about the majority of voters this election by claiming that they're stupid or irrational for ignoring the climate and voting based on, for example, tax policies instead.

The truth is that they're perfectly rational and intelligent humans. They've very rationally voted on the things that matter to them - their own well-being, and the opinions of people close to them.

They can know that climate change is real, understand what the global effects are, and still make the perfectly rational decision that their, and their children, and their community's immediate wellbeing is more important, because it is. Humans are hard-wired to care about this sort of stuff, because deep down we're just upright monkeys. We need food and shelter, and we need our tribe to accept us, and caring about those is the most rational thing in the world.

Fast Cars And Free Power

So shouting that the planet is dying is not going to work. Everyone that was going to be convinced by that message has been. Shouting it louder isn't going to help. It's time for a different approach.

We need to change the way we talk about climate change - and more importantly, about climate solutions, and the way we do that is by framing the conversation differently.

There's a couple of ways we might approach this. Some of them have even been tested. In particular, we know that it's more effective to talk about climate change in terms of what we can save, not what we're losing, and in terms of local and familiar things rather than abstract and distant things.

We could talk about it in economic terms - it's going to be cheaper to do mitigation now than it will be to build flood barriers in ten years. That it's already costing us, in water trucking and desalination and fish kills and crop failures.

But even here we're still talking about the problem. What if we - hear me out - we started talking up the solutions instead? Becuase here's the thing - the transition to a clean economy isn't just necessary, it's really exciting.. The problems are bad, yes - but the solutions are very, very good. The solutions are independence from unreliable grids, and adding value to your house. They're fast cars you can charge at home, and power that's too cheap to even think about. They're cargo ships with carbon-fiber sails, and electric blimps dotting the sky. And they're the chance to get filthy Elon Musk-level rich by investing in those solutions. The renewable future is awesome, fossil fuels are a dying industry, and anyone who says otherwise is a wowser.

Yes, writing that felt bit gross, but that's the point - these messages aren't for us. They're for the people we've failed to convince. This is hard! It means you have to put yourself in your audience's head, and that's a skill that takes time and practise to master.

The goal here is that in three years' time it is normal and socially acceptable to say "I don't give a shit about the climate, but don't you dare touch my electricity and transport prices or do anything to negatively impact my investment portfolio"

This is how you change behaviour. Not by changing people's values, but by showing how what you want them to do aligns with what they want anyway. You have to make it rational, and then they'll do it.

Elections Are A Trailing Indicator

For the person up the back who's had their hand up for the last paragraph to say that individual actions aren't going to cut it, I see you. Don't worry, we're getting to that. We've got a couple of tricks up our sleeve.

First, we'll be creating more demand for renewable energy, and reducing the market for non-renewables. If we shift demand, shift sales, and start to shift investment, we're starting to speak a language that the big players - governments, corporations, and so on, understand - at least more than they do platitudes about the planet. One of the reasons climate change has gotten this far is that there's no financial penalty for polluting, but as clean energy gets cheaper and supply and demand starts to shift, that will start to change.

They've made this fight about jobs and money, and that will be their undoing, because ultimately this is where the jobs and the money are. Because pretty soon nobody will be buying from or working in coal mines.

Second, in the long run, this is how we change values. We like to think that we make choices based on what we believe, but in reality it's the other way round - we shape our values based on the actions we take. Make it cheap and easy to do, make it obvious that it's what everyone is doing, and you can change people's behaviour. Change people's behaviour, and cognitive dissonance will do the rest

Show people a 5c refund, and they'll become passionate recyclers. Show them free power, and they'll become passionate advocates for renewable energy.

And that's how we change the government next time - whether that comes through changing policy or changing party is irrelevant. We shift the conversation, we shift the behaviour, we shift the market, we shift the values, and then, only then, once voters are clamouring for renewable incentives the same way they clamour for negative gearing, do we get to change the policy. Democracies are reactive, not proactive - they give people what they want, not what they don't. So if you want to change climate policy, you have to make them want it.

This climate election, the people didn't want it. But we can make sure that next time, they do.

Nothing that I've written here is new. It's also not guaranteed to work. But if, like me, you're looking for something to do that isn't just despair and shouting into the void, maybe it's worth a shot.

< The world's most cautious optimism