The Imagination of our Ancestors

Source: One of Henrique Alvim Corrêa’s 1906 illustrations of War of the Worlds. HG Wells himself approved of these incredible drawings, praising them before their publication and saying, “Alvim Corrêa did more for my work with his brush than I with my pen.”

“We are living inside the imagination of our ancestors” said Gaia Vince in an article earlier this year. I was reminded of this more recently when Sandy Trust said something very similar in his excellent presentation on climate scenarios ahead of the publication of the The Emperor’s New Climate Scenarios, which highlights how most climate-change scenario modelling in financial services excludes the possibility of tipping points and secondary impacts of climate change, thereby substantially underplaying the risk of us ending up with a hothouse earth scenario.

So I decided to remind myself of the imagination of one of our more imaginative ancestors and read The War of the Worlds. Despite having recently watched both the 2005 Spielberg/Tom Cruise film and the BBC adaptation, I found the content of the book quite surprising – much more focused on how the society of 1895 dealt with the Martians than the aliens themselves.

Wells delights in revealing the imagined human response at each stage. From concern about Martians trapped in their spacecraft in a pit near Woking, to sending a deputation to negotiate with it, to satisfying ourselves that they cannot escape their landing crater after their “Heat-Ray” has massacred 40 people surrounding it. As he puts it:

So some respectable dodo in the Mauritius might have lorded it in his nest, and discussed the arrival of that shipful of pitiless sailors in want of animal food. “We will peck them to death tomorrow, my dear.”

That was on the Friday. By Saturday night there was still more interest in the breakdown of a train between Byfleet and Woking junction than in whether this had anything to do with Martians. The lack of response continues:

I have read, in another account of these events, that on Sunday morning “all London was electrified by the news from Woking”. As a matter of fact, there was nothing to justify that very extravagant phrase. Plenty of Londoners did not hear of the Martians until the panic of Monday morning. Those who did took some time to realize all that the hastily worded telegrams in the Sunday papers conveyed. The majority of people in London do not read Sunday papers.

Wells has a theory:

The habit of personal security, moreover, is so deeply fixed in the Londoner’s mind, and startling intelligence so much a matter of course in the papers, that they could read without any personal tremors: “About seven o’clock last night the Martians came out of the cylinder, and, moving about under an armour of metallic shields, have completely wrecked Woking station with the adjacent houses, and massacred an entire battalion of the Cardigan Regiment. No details are known. Maxims have been absolutely useless against their armour; the field-guns have been disabled by them. Flying hussars have been galloping into Chertsey. The Martians appear to be moving slowly towards Chertsey or Windsor. Great anxiety prevails in West Surrey, and earthworks are being thrown up to check the advance London-ward.”

By Monday morning London is being evacuated in the wake of death and destruction. Wells could not sound more contemporary if he were to give his views about Lockdown or responses to the climate emergency. And we can look at these Londoners from nearly 130 years ago and see ourselves, busily discounting the far greater saturation of 24 hour television news, radio and social media and reading, watching and listening to the dire warnings of our own time “without any personal tremors”.

But if our children are going to be living inside our imagination, then what are we offering them? Ursula K Le Guin, in a talk originally called “Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?” and then changed to “The Question I Get Asked Most Often”, said this:

“The imagination can transfigure the dark matter of life. And in many personal essays and autobiographies, that’s what I begin to miss, to crave: transfiguration. To recognise our shared, familiar misery is not enough. I want to recognize something I never saw before. I want the vision to leap out at me, terrible and blazing – the fire of the transfiguring imagination. I want the true dragons.”

And that transfiguration of our experience, to embrace things we never saw before but can imagine, must happen in our stories initially. But if the stories are good enough they can then spread – to our homes, our workplaces, other places we meet our friends and people who aren’t our friends, to our politics, our economics, our society.

Roman Kznaric’s asks in his book, The Good Ancestor, whether there is an antidote to political myopia. His response is that there is and it lies in attempting to establish what he calls “deep democracy”.

In 2009, The Observer newspaper reported that a letter had been sent to the Queen after she demanded, during a visit to the London School of Economics in November 2008, to know why nobody had anticipated the credit crunch. There was one particularly telling sentence which was picked up widely at the time:

In summary, your majesty, the failure to foresee the timing, extent and severity of the crisis and to head it off, while it had many causes, was principally a failure of the collective imagination of many bright people, both in this country and internationally, to understand the risks to the system as a whole.

To force our children to live inside our current imagination is to force them to live in a world stunted by the ever increasing influence and share of our head space which can be bought by the ever shrinking group of people we allocate our wealth to. But somewhere between the transfiguring imagination Le Guin talks about and the practical proposals of Kznaric and others, it seems to me that there is the first draft of an imagination which our children could live inside.

Sleaford-upon-Sea and the future none of us wants

https://coastal.climatecentral.org/map/9/0.0491/52.7048/?theme=warming&map_type=decadal_slr&basemap=roadmap&contiguous=true&elevation_model=best_available&esl_model=ipcc_2021&percentile=p50&refresh=true&slr_year=2100&temperature_rise=2.7&temperature_unit=C

The year is 2100. Earth is approaching a peak population of 9.5 billion people. Despite some notable progress in decarbonising our activities and more progress on carbon capture of various types than expected 80 years ago, overall we have not managed to shift much off the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) middle-of-the-road shared socioeconomic pathway (SSP2). Some countries have done much better than others, with income inequality a problem both within and between them. Carbon emissions stayed fairly level until 2050 before starting to fall, but net zero has still not been achieved.1

Temperatures have risen by 2.7 degrees compared to pre-industrial levels. Africa has split between a north which has seen a recovery of rainfall and a south which is no longer habitable for humans. The Indian monsoon rains have failed. The Himalayan glaciers providing the waters of the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra, the Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow rivers have reduced by 90% from their pre-industrial levels.

The Amazonian rain forest basin has dried out completely. In Brazil, Venezuela, Columbia, East Peru and Bolivia life has become increasingly difficult due to wild fires. Drought is now permanent in the sub-tropics and Central America. Australia has become the world’s driest nation.

In the US Gulf of Mexico high sea temperatures drive 180+ mph winds.2 Flooding is widespread with sea levels having risen by 0.6 metres on average compared to 2020.3 Many plant species have become extinct as they were unable to adapt to such a sudden change in climate.

Food prices continue to soar, with temperatures, droughts and the inundation of arable land adversely affecting many crops. Massive migrations have led to increasingly severe military and police responses from the most popular destination countries. There is fear that we have not yet seen the end of the terrible costs of climate change, with temperatures continuing to rise.

England has a new Eastern coastline, which became a certainty once the decision was taken that the cost benefit analysis did not justify the expense on the massive coastal defences which would have been required to prevent it. Sleaford is now a seaside town. Birmingham is the only major city which has not been significantly affected by sea level rise4 and there are calls for the capital to be moved there. However London hangs grimly on following the failure of the Thames Barrier in the 2040s. An Intertidal Property Pricing Index (IPPI) has sprung up, which sucks in money as investors bet on the development opportunities in the aftermath of the catastrophe.5

This, or something like it, is the future we are currently on track for but none of us wants. So let’s change the trajectory.

Notes:

  1. The IPCC’s SSP2 narrative description.
  2. Mark Lynas, Six Degrees: Our Future On A Hotter Planet, Harper Perennial, 2008 for the scientific consensus at the time on the consequences of 3 degrees warming
  3. https://sealevel.nasa.gov/ipcc-ar6-sea-level-projection-tool?type=global (accessed 5 July 2023)
  4. https://coastal.climatecentral.org/ (accessed 5 July 2023) for the maps of England following 2.7 degrees warming by 2100 following current trajectories
  5. IPPI borrowed from Kim Stanley Robinson’s depiction of a future New York after two pulses totalling 15 metres (50 feet) of sea level rise in New York 2140, Orbit, 2018

Chasms

I recently finished reading Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds, which I highly recommend. In it, sufficiently rich people have been able to buy a programme of treatments which make them immortal. Not that they can’t die, but they needn’t if they’re careful. Good science fiction, I thought.

Then I read Paul Kitson’s (the new UK Head of Pensions Consulting at EY) piece on LinkedIn where he wrote (bold mine):

Pension schemes, corporate sponsors, members – everyone, in fact – must now contend with a forward looking plan that (somehow!) considers on one side the possibility of future pandemic outbreaks shortening life expectancy, and on the other side the many £billions being spent on ‘regenerative medicine’ (AKA “the ending of ageing” or “escape velocity for death”!).

So perhaps not entirely, I thought.

In Chasm City, the immortals who live in “the Canopy” have two main problems:

  1. Hanging on to their wealth and, if possible, increasing it, as forever is a long time to finance.
  2. Boredom.

One particular group amuse themselves by hunting poor people in “the Mulch” (lower level where the poor live). Others indulge in increasingly dangerous pastimes to inject some urgency into the otherwise featureless expanse of their lives. No wealth moves from the Canopy to the Mulch, not even in a trickle.

I am just finishing Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K Dick (a classic, I know, but I hadn’t read it before, although I have seen Bladerunner). One of the features of the post-apocalyptic world of 1992 described are “mood organs” which allow you to dial up a given mood at any time, eg 481 is “awareness of the manifold possibilities open to me in the future” whereas 888 is the desire to watch TV, no matter what’s on it. Again, good science fiction, I thought.

Then I read a piece in this months’ Actuary magazine called Apt apps, about doctors being recommended by NICE to offer patients with insomnia the Sleepio app as an effective and cost-saving alternative to sleeping pills. So perhaps not entirely, I thought.

The first book was written in 2001 and the second in 1968, so it would seem that lead times are variable.

Both books deal with the fragility of identity, whether via memory implants and religious viruses in Reynolds’ book or how we go about separating androids from people from “chickenheads” in Dick’s. The divisions between the life experiences of the different groups are so stark, but it is the characteristics of the people in them which takes up everyone’s time and attention in both books, rather than the structure of the societies which create such extreme winners and losers. Which suddenly doesn’t feel like science fiction at all.

Meanwhile what has happened to England’s life expectancies by decile of deprivation in the last 10 years?

Source: ONS https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/healthinequalities/bulletins/healthstatelifeexpectanciesbyindexofmultipledeprivationimd/2018to2020#health-state-life-expectancies-data

So not quite immortality yet at the top, but inequality is clearly worsening in life expectancy. The Government Actuary’s Department gave an upbeat view last year on what the impact of the recent Levelling Up White Paper might be. Others are upbeat too.

However the Government’s track record is not good on inequality. Sir Michael Marmot produced the Marmot Review on health inequalities in the UK in 2010 and then followed this up with a review of what progress had been made 10 years later. As he points out in his recent interview in The Actuary:

Health spending fell from around 42% to 35% during the 2010s. He notes that this reduction was carried out in a regressive way: “There has been a 16% reduction in health spending for the most affluent, but a 32% reduction for the most deprived groups.” In addition, he says, while unemployment fell over the course of the decade, the income of employed people also went down – so the proportion of people living in poverty rose, as did child poverty.

These are the kinds of interventions that matter for most people rather than sleep apps or regenerative medicine to achieve escape velocity from death. And they are definitely not science fiction.

The Parable of the Boiling Frog

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Green_frog_(Pelophylax_esculentus_complex)_Danube_delta.jpg by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It has been quite a year for reading great books and being inspired by them for me: from An Immense World by Ed Yong last April, to Regenesis by George Monbiot and The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin in October, to a great trio of reads in 2023 of The Capital Order by Clara Mattei, When The Lights Went Out by Andy Beckett and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin. And that is just the books I have blogged about.

However, my stand out book this year is none of these. I have often heard people say they wish they had written some book or other, and I have never understood it until now. This is the book I would hope that a better version of me might have written in a parallel universe. Fortunately for you, Simon Sharpe has written Five Times Faster in this universe, and I am so glad he has.

Five Times Faster is funny, constantly surprising and has reframed my entire attitude to the climate crisis and what can be done about it. Perhaps it had more intensity for me as I read most of it aboard the XR bus from Birmingham down to London last weekend, but it has given me more hope for what Kim Stanley Robinson calls “dodging the mass extinction event” than I have had for some time.

Amongst the many wonders of this book is to reframe the time-worn story of the frog sitting in water which is slowly coming to the boil as a series of conversations with its science adviser, its economics adviser and its diplomatic adviser. To do it full justice you will need to read the book, but the gist of it goes as follows:

First of all, the frog asks its science adviser to investigate whether the water really is getting warmer. The science adviser confirms that it is, and also predicts that, in 5 minutes’ time, it will be a further 2o warmer, plus or minus 1o. The frog says it didn’t want a prediction, it wanted a risk assessment. It takes a while to get the science adviser to understand what this is but then, when asked what’s the worst that could happen, the adviser blurts out “That’s easy. You could boil to death.” In response to the question of how likely that is to happen, the adviser says that it would be very unlikely after 5 minutes, more likely than not after 10 and after 15 a certainty. So the frog now realises it needs to jump out of the pot.

The frog now turns to its economics adviser to ask how it should go about it. The economics advisor does a cost benefit analysis by first calculating the energy cost per cm of moving up the pot away from the water, converting this first into food consumption and then money, and equating this with the frog’s willingness to pay for not being boiled, which is derived from its air conditioning bill. The most efficient solution turns out to be to climb 4.73 cm up the side of the pot. Worried that it would just be replacing the risk of being boiled with one of being steamed to death, the frog ignores its economics adviser and jumps out of the pot.

Finally the general problem of the frogs and the relentlessly boiling water is put to the negotiators for a diplomatic solution. The sides of the pot are too high by now for most of them to jump out. The negotiators tell them they just need to raise their ambition and that this is the only game in town. The consequences of not accepting that analysis and looking at alternative salientian strategies make up the final third of the book.

I cannot recommend it highly enough. If enough people read it and act upon it, perhaps we can avoid this:

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2012_Froschschenkel_anagoria.JPG Anagoria, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This actuary and science fiction

I was looking through my old blog posts the other day and came across something I wasn’t looking for. Actuaries and Science Fiction told the story of a one-off visit I made to the Birmingham Science Fiction Group (BSFG), when the guest speaker had been the late great Brian Aldiss, who told the story of a time Kingsley Amis had had dinner with Margaret Thatcher. He told her what his book Russian Hide and Seek was about, to which she had responded that he needed to get himself another crystal ball.

By coincidence, I have just joined the BSFG nearly 10 years later (well I needed to think about it!), attending my first meeting online (Anna Stephens – really good about writing for Warhammer and Marvel in particular) and now very much looking forward to seeing Alastair Reynolds at my first in person meeting next month. I now have a bit more context for the Kingsley Amis story, as Andy Beckett has an account of a dinner Amis had at Thatcher’s Flood Street house in the late 70s (before she became Prime Minister). He wrote at the time:

I was rather overcome with the occasion and the fairly close propinquity of Mrs T…very much a new face to me as to most people, too much so to take in a lot about the fare except that it was properly unimaginative, and, as regards drink, ample enough. The hostess wore one of those outfits that seem to have more detail in them than is common, with, I particularly remember, finely embroidered gold-and-scarlet collar and cuffs to her blouse…[she was] one of the best-looking women I had ever met and for her age…remarkable.

And he also attributed the following quote to Thatcher herself:

People have always said that the next election is going to be crucial. But this one really will be, and if it doesn’t go the way Denis and I want then we’ll stay [in Britain], because we’ll always stay, but we’ll work very hard with the children to set them up with careers in Canada.

Anyway, back to Aldiss. He had told the story as he felt it showed how Thatcher (and he was not just picking on her as he felt this was a view held by many) misunderstood science fiction. It was not about prediction of the future, but for people who “liked the disorientation” of portraying an unfamiliar landscape.

Ursula K. Le Guin goes further in her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness (just finished it and, if by any chance you haven’t read it already, it is an amazing piece of immersive world building which will leave you never feeling the same way about gender again). As she says:

Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.

Predictions are offered by prophets (free of charge), by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honoured in their day than prophets, and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.

The weather bureau will tell you what next Tuesday will be like, and the Rand Corporation will tell you what the twenty-first century will be like. I don’t recommend that you turn to the writers of fiction for such information. It’s none of their business…All they can tell you is what they have seen and heard, in their time in this world, a third of it spent in sleep and dreaming, another third of it spent telling lies.

And, my favourite bit:

In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we’re done with it, we may find – if it’s a good novel – that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it’s very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed.

The artist deals with what cannot be said in words.

The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.

Who wouldn’t want to do that? It struck me while I was reading those words how the pandemic was something which changed all us survivors a little (and some a lot of course) and in ways that are often hard to put in words. But we are changed and there is work to do to try and understand how, even if that cannot be completely put in words.

The other thing from the introduction which has stayed with me is Le Guin’s contention that, while we read a novel, we are bonkers: believing in people who have never existed, hearing voices, perhaps even becoming other people. As she says:

Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.

But what about when you can’t close the book? Are we, to a greater extent, condemned to some level of future insanity? As William Faulkner said:

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

In 2013 I tried to suggest that actuaries might also be about portraying an unfamiliar landscape and trying to work out what would hold true under different circumstances, and that they should therefore put themselves about a bit more, even if they sometimes made themselves look a bit foolish in the process. As William Hynes reminded me at yesterday’s excellent An introduction to alternative economic thinking event (recording available soon from the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries), the group of economists responding to the Queen’s question as to why noone saw the 2008 crisis coming, concluded:

In summary, Your Majesty, the failure to foresee the timing, extent and severity of the crisis and to head it off, while it had many causes, was principally a failure of the collective imagination of many bright people, both in this country and internationally, to understand the risks to the system as a whole.

If a failure of imagination is the main problem, I would suggest that science fiction must be at least a part of the solution. Looking a bit foolish at times is a bit of a speciality for me, so you probably won’t be surprised to hear that I am devoting most of my time from here on in to an almost certainly doomed attempt to write what Le Guin might regard as a good novel. I have been here before, way back in my pre-actuarial past, and have a nice back catalogue of unpublishable books and rejection letters to look at whenever I forget that I have no idea what I am doing. But if I find myself shouting to noone in particular that what I am trying to say cannot be said in words, I might dare to believe that I am on the right track.

Democratising the Lathe

I have been thinking a lot about Ursula K Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven over the last few weeks, a book I would highly recommend at any time but particularly at the moment. It is the story of a man, George Orr, who can change reality by dreaming. An ability that terrifies him. He is caught taking unprescribed drugs to try and prevent himself dreaming and as a result is sent for a “voluntary therapeutic treatment” with Dr William Haber, a dream specialist. Haber has built a machine called the Augmentor to make it easier for his patients to have dreams directed by him. He starts to work with Orr, becoming increasingly impatient with Orr’s version of the directions Haber is giving to his dreaming in the machine, until eventually Haber dispenses with Orr and connects himself to the machine instead.

Every time reality is changed it is as if it has always been changed. The changes become increasingly dramatic and disruptive until a peak of general insanity now referred to by all as The Break:

All over the world the various gods were being requested, more or less politely, for an explanation of what had occurred between 6.25 and 7.08 pm Pacific Standard Time.

But what the book really focuses on are George’s desperate attempts to live in this increasingly unhinged reality, as the only person (apart from Haber) aware of the abrupt changes swinging it around, and to hang onto the one person, Heather Lelache (or Andrews in the final version of reality they arrive at), he has ever loved.

One of the sentences on the last page (when he finds out that she has married) has stayed with me in particular:

He stood and endured reality.

However hilarious some of the moments of the last few days have been (and let us not forget some of the highlights here, here and here), we are all going to have to endure some significantly altered reality over the coming years as a result, from the moron risk premium to the cost of living crisis slowly rippling through all aspects of life, at a time when we already have a climate emergency and other planet-wide issues we need to be dealing with. There are many arguments to be had about the best way to tackle all of these problems, and I intend to throw myself fully into those arguments.

However, I would propose that we have to prioritise ensuring that, as a society, we never ever again let the lone mad scientist or economist or politician or former talk show host or indeed anyone else, whoever or however charismatic they are, take over sole control of the machine.

I think we need to do three things to achieve this, before we start to argue over policy:

Adopt proportional representation in parliamentary elections. We have got to broaden the support for whoever is in power, rather than stick with the current system which focuses on a tiny number of people in marginal constituencies and ignores pretty much everyone else. Make Votes Matter have agreed a cross-party document (which I have signed) called the Good Systems Agreement. This sets out the options on voting systems to replace first past the post and the best way of getting there. More about what is wrong with our current system (from the Electoral Reform Society) can be found here. Never again should there be a small cabal of people (like this weekend) deciding on who runs the country – with a steadily shrinking selectorate as their ability to achieve consensus on anything dwindles with every successive decision. We no longer have a system in the UK that can make important decisions and the answer is not more technocracy (leaving it to the so-called clever people, however foolish they may be) or plutocracy (leaving it to the rich), it is more democracy, ie including all of us in the decisions we will have to live with.

Reform media ownership and promote plurality in support of a more democratic and accountable media system. The Media Reform Coalition has produced a manifesto for a people’s media which I support: it includes proposals for an Independent Media Commons – with participatory newsrooms, community radio stations, digital innovators and cultural producers, supported by democratically-controlled public resources to tell the stories of all the UK’s communities. This will allow a much greater range of ideas to be presented to the public and discussed than the current Overton window (see below) and greatly improve our national debate about the things that matter.

Source: 99% Organisation

Reform election finance. Recommendations for doing this were provided in the July 2021 report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, with 47 recommendations following a comparison of political and electoral finance regulation in 12 countries (Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the USA), the majority of which are around reforms to campaign practices, meeting emerging threats around the source of donations, delivering greater transparency and enhancing compliance with election finance law.

We have big problems to solve in the UK and we need everyone to be able to contribute if we are going to solve them. However currently:

  • Our votes are counted in a way which effectively wastes most of them;
  • The information we receive about politics is fed to us through a very partial sieve controlled by a small unrepresentative group of people whose vested interests effectively define our Overton Window; and
  • Influence and access to power often appear to go to the highest bidder rather than the best ideas.

All of this needs to change whoever is Prime Minister in the coming weeks, months and years.

Terraforming in reverse

Side by side images en:User:Ittiz created to show what Mars might look like at various stages while being terraformed in vertical alignment. The horizontal alignment is here: en:Image:MarsTransition.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=Image:MarsTransitionV.jpg&oldid=11571800. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Terraforming was a concept I first remember coming across in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan in 1982 when “The Genesis Device”, and its effect on a dead planet, was described as “matter is reorganised with life-generating results”. The astronomer Carl Sagan had previously proposed the planetary engineering of Venus in 1961 and Mars in 1973. Martyn J. Fogg subsequently started publishing articles on terraforming in 1985 before publishing Terraforming: Engineering Planetary Environments in 1995. Fogg defined planetary engineering as using technology to change the global properties of a planet (he called this geoengineering if Earth was the planet in question). Terraforming he defined as planetary engineering which was specifically directed at enhancing the capacity of a planet to support life as we know it.

There are still advocates of terraforming as a project that humans should be actively working towards. Others suggest, that unless Earth is going to be unavoidably uninhabitable, it is likely to be our best bet as a future home for all but a relatively tiny number (Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Aurora is the most memorable advocate for this position in my view, which takes us on a gruelling exploration of a terraforming expedition over several generations which then allows us to view Earth afresh with alien eyes).

What is clear is that we are not currently terraforming Earth in Fogg’s sense, as most of our planetary engineering (what we call the global economy) appears to be specifically directed at reducing the capacity of Earth to support life as we know it. We are terraforming in reverse.

Terraforming is an example of an idea you might get to as a result of very long-term thinking (there is a nice article about this in Vox, with views from Roman Kznaric, Nick Beckstead, Hilary Greaves and William MacAskill included) – I tend towards the Kznaric view that we cannot predict the knock-on effects of technological shifts in 200 or 300 years, but we know we’ll still need to breathe air and drink water, so working to prevent climate change and pandemics is very likely to be really good for us today, the near future and the long-run future too.

The danger of discussion of the very long-term is that it can create the idea that nothing we do over the next few years matters. However as we have pushed up to and beyond planetary capacity in so many areas now and have developed a global economy with planetary engineering capabilities of unprecedented power, this is no longer true if it ever was. What seems obvious to me is that we mustn’t make decisions now which lock in damage to planetary life-supporting capacity for generations to come, such as the “carbon bombs” described by George Monbiot here.

Terraforming in reverse is not the direction to choose, whichever generation we belong to.

What Stuart Kirk was not criticised for and what this tells us about financial markets

For those of you totally immersed in the daily to and fro of the finance industry, this post about Stuart Kirk will probably seem a little late in the day. For those of you who are not, let me explain briefly what I am talking about today!

Stuart Kirk was Global Head of Responsible Investments at HSBC Asset Management. On 19 May 2022 he gave a talk at the FT Live Moral Money Summit Europe conference with the provocative title of Why investors need not worry about climate risk. Stuart’s talk was a real crowd splitter. Many called for his dismissal (HSBC subsequently suspended him), others regarded his talk as a missed opportunity and full of things which were not true, while others have regarded his stance as speaking truth to power.

However what interests me most about all of the column inches devoted to the affair is what he has not been criticised for and what this tells us about financial markets.

What Stuart said was structured around the following 12 statements:

  1. Unsubstantiated, shrill, partisan, self-serving, apocalyptic warnings are ALWAYS wrong.
  2. As the warnings became ever graver, the more asset prices INCREASED in value.
  3. One of only three explanations can explain the impending end of the world and higher risk asset prices:
    1. Climate risk is negligible.
    2. Climate risk is already in the price.
    3. All investors are wrong.
  4. Even by the UN IPCC own numbers, climate change will have a negligible effect on the world economy – A (large) temperature rise of 3.6 degrees by 2100 means a loss of 2.6 per cent o global GDP. Let’s assume 5%.
  5. Adaption is cheap and effective: climate related costs relative to GDP and mortality rates are down.
  6. Perhaps the biggest error of thinking with climate risk is confusing volumes and values – Plenty of things happen between a volume disruption and a move in asset values.
  7. Climate “winners” and losers” can create value. Climate “winners” and “losers” can destroy value.
  8. The difference between volumes and value is regularly made clear in markets.
  9. Even if climate risk isn’t negligible, it’s too far into the future to matter for most companies.
  10. To make climate change appear like a significant threat, scaremongers are torturing their models.
  11. It’s easy to show that climate change is an investment risk if you engineer a bond market collapse.
  12. Climate change isn’t a long-run risk just like wars, energy crises, pandemics, financial crises and so on (with the graphs shown above to supposedly prove this point).

Can you spot the pattern here? All of these statements are about the map that Stuart is standing in (think of Joey standing in his map to orientate himself in Friends). It is a complicated map of asset prices and charts and reports written by lots of other people standing in the map with Stuart, but it is still just a map. And the map is the territory as far as Stuart is concerned. If something does not appear in his map, it is not worth worrying about. And climate risk is struggling to make it into his map. In Stuart’s view, this is a problem for climate risk, and the people “torturing” their models to make climate risk appear significant and piling him up with regulatory reporting responsibilities are very annoying.

But of course this take is completely upside down. This is not a problem for climate risk. Rather climate risk is a problem for us and the fact that it does not appear in our models unless we torture them (which I am sure is true) means that we have the wrong models. Because the scientific consensus about the consequences of climate change on our current trajectory of between 3 and 4 degrees warming are (amongst others from Mark Lynas’ Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet):

Africa […] split between the north which will see a recovery of rainfall and the south which becomes drier […] beyond human adaptation.
Indian monsoon rains will fail. The Himalayan glaciers providing the waters of the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra, the Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow rivers [will decrease] by up to 90%.
The Amazonian rain forest basin will dry out completely. In Brazil, Venezuela, Columbia, East Peru and Bolivia life will become increasingly difficult due to wild fires which will cause intense air pollution and searing heat. The smoke will blot out the sun. Drought will be permanent in the sub-tropics and Central America.
Australia will become the world’s driest nation.
In the US Gulf of Mexico high sea temperatures will drive 180+ mph winds. Houston will be vulnerable to flooding by 2045. Galveston will be inundated. Many plant species will become extinct as they will be unable to adapt to such a sudden change in climate.
The [IPCC] in its 2007 report concluded that all major planetary granaries will require adaptive measures at 2.5° temperature rise regardless of precipitation rates.[and] food prices [will] soar. Population transfers will be bigger than anything ever seen in the history of mankind. [The feedback effects from the] Amazon rain forests dry[ing] out and wild fires develop[ing] [will lead] to those fires [releasing] more CO2, global warming [intensifying] as a result, vegetation and soil begin[ning] to release CO2 rather than absorb[ing] it, all of which could push the 3° scenario to a 4°-5.5° [one].

Much of the discussion about the talk was that Stuart was speaking out bravely and that HSBC had only suspended him to silence inconvenient truths, that he had been silenced by “extreme environmental ideology“. I have no idea about all of the reasons why HSBC suspended Stuart other than their official statements, but it seems clear to me that many people in the finance industry agree with what he said. This suggests to me an extreme ideology of its own of resolutely refusing to look out of the window.

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s excellent New York 2140, global sea levels have risen by 50 feet. Everyone lives in tower blocks connected by sky bridges which occasionally topple into the canals which were once streets. I used to think that money markets would not survive events like this, but Robinson posits what I believe is a more likely future scenario. The Intertidal Property Pricing Index is developed instead, carefully constructed to be reasonably stable despite the instability of the actual real estate being valued, and people bet on it. And soon everyone is fixated on what this index is saying daily rather than the buildings collapsing around them.

This is exactly what our finance sector will do of course, there will be money to be made out of such activities after all. And so expectations that they will, in any way, be a leader out of the climate emergency are, in my view, unrealistic.

We will however need the finance industry to facilitate aspects of how we transform our economies over the next 10 to 20 years. And this will involve much more of the regulation which annoys Stuart and others so much.

A success made of failures

Source: Wikimedia Commons: Shattered right-hand side mirror on a 5-series BMW in Durham, North Carolina by Ildar Sagdejev. Cropped by Nick Foster

It starts in 2025 with a description of a horrific heatwave in India which will stay with me for a very long time. As well it should as, in the book, it kills 20 million people. In response, India send thousands of aircraft up to 60,000 feet to spray aerosol particulates of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere, in defiance of the international conventions banning such activities, to deflect some of the solar radiation with the aim of reducing the probability of future heatwaves for a period. By how much or for how long or with what other consequences is unknown.

As we build up to COP26 in Glasgow in November this year, in the book we start with the results of COP29 in Bogota, where the organisation which would come to be known as The Ministry for the Future (and the title of the book by Kim Stanley Robinson) was set up “to advocate for the world’s future generations of citizens, whose rights, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are as valid as our own. This new Subsidiary Body is furthermore charged with defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves, by promoting their legal standing and physical protection.”

The Indian crisis happens a few months later. The new head of this body, Mary Murphy, is briefly held captive by, Frank, one of the survivors of the heatwave in her own flat in Zurich (the book also feels like a love letter to Zurich) and challenged to do more:

It’s not enough. Your efforts aren’t slowing the damage fast enough. They aren’t creating fixes fast enough. You can see that, because everyone can see it. Things don’t change, we’re still on track for a mass extinction event, we’re in the extinctions already. That’s what I mean by not enough. So why don’t you do something more?

This has a profound impact on Mary, who keeps in touch with Frank and his troubled suffering life throughout the book. It also leans her towards effectively endorsing the involvement of her No 2 in “black” operations to ensure certain people are “scared away from burning carbon”.

Indeed the book is suffused with eco-terrorism. Technological progress has partly displaced the state monopoly of violence, with drone technology in particular meaning that no aircraft or ship or surface navy is safe from a well-enough organised group by the end of the book. People stop flying when aircraft start being shot down regularly, and those that still do fly use carbon-negative airships, where solar panels generate more power than the ships use. Davos attendees get taken hostage and given a compulsory seminar at one point. Tax havens become obsolete when all money becomes digital and tracked.

Mary’s interactions with central bankers are probably the closest this book ever comes to comedy. In the first, she tries to argue for a “carbon coin”, a digital currency which would be paid out to organisations and people who could prove they had removed carbon from the environment. This would be the incentive to work alongside the carbon taxes. The contemptuous response from the Federal Reserve and others at first is “not our purview”, however by the end they are on board with this and many of the other ideas developed along the way.

There are so many ideas in this book, far too many to cover them all here: some of them familiar to me from economics (carbon quantitative easing, Jevons’ Paradox, Modern Monetary Theory, Gini Coefficient – these each get a short chapter among many other ideas and interspersed with riddles) and others not so. The Indian techno fix is the first of many: some successful, like sucking out the meltwater under glaciers to slow them sliding into the ocean and others not so, like the billionaire wanting to refreeze the oceans. Russia dyes parts of the Arctic yellow to reflect more sunlight back. Huge areas of land are rewilded.

What strikes me most is that the arguments we tend to have here and now about which course to take (Freud’s phrase is quoted here in the book – “the narcissism of small differences”) seem largely moot in this one imagined near-future: all of them are tried there – it’s not techno-fixes or de-carbonisation of transport and heating, it’s both. It’s not carbon QE or re-wilding, it’s both. If something doesn’t work, it’s abandoned. By far the most important determinant of which of the IPCC future scenarios we end up on seems to be how quickly we start. Economists come in for particular ridicule there – whatever course of action is planned, they can find one group who thinks it will have one effect, one who think it will have the opposite effect and one which thinks it will make no difference at all. The difference is that the economists are no longer guiding policy there, but facilitating and post hoc rationalising it.

There is a wartime feel to the book throughout, with people doing what they feel needs to be done in desperate circumstances. The choices are all different levels of bad, but bad is almost incalculably better than worst. And the overall impression is of a world changing rapidly, with one of its herd animals belatedly getting into better balance with the others. Even at 560 odd pages the impressions are inevitably just that – one chapter is just a list of different organisations working on aspects of the climate emergency in different countries, described as about 1% of the total number active. It is like the shards of a smashed wing mirror picking out details from the vanishing world behind. I have never wanted to apply the word polymesmeric (which I first saw on the cover of Catch 22 by Joseph Heller) to a book as much as I have to this one.

The hoped-for outcome of all of this? In one conversation this is described as a “success made of failures” or a “cobbling-together from less-than-satisfactory parts”, which I think sums it up nicely.

And I definitely want to visit Zurich one day. Probably by airship.

 

Actuaries and Science Fiction

Brian Aldiss told me a story the other week (at the Birmingham Science Fiction Group, where he is an honorary president) about Margaret Thatcher and her attitude towards science fiction. Kingsley Amis had been invited to a party at Downing Street and had decided to take along an inscribed copy of his latest book Russian Hide and Seek. Mrs Thatcher, a little suspicious about what she was being handed, had apparently asked what it was about.

Amis had explained that it was set in the future when the UK had been under Russian occupation for 50 years.

“Can’t you do any better than that?” the Prime Minister is reported to have said. “Get yourself another crystal ball.”

Aldiss recounted this story as he felt it illustrated how Mrs Thatcher totally misunderstood what science fiction was about. It was not about prediction of the future, but for people who “liked the disorientation” (the essence of science fiction in Aldiss’s view) of portraying an unfamiliar landscape and trying to work out what would hold true under different circumstances.

It seems to me that this is also what being an actuary is about. Actuaries are not about prediction either, but they are prepared to embrace the disorientation of asking what ifs and exploring maybes, and, by so doing, try to quantify what different currently unfamiliar landscapes might look like.

Science fiction has many forms but two main camps politically: the camp which believes a more enlightened form of society is possible (although what that means might vary considerably between different campers); and the camp which doesn’t but instead believes that all we can hope to do is survive a remorseless universe governed by nothing more than the laws of physics and evolutionary biology.

I think actuaries may have leaned more towards the second of these world views, particularly in fulfilling their statutory roles in recent years. We have worked within the remorseless universe of regulators and assumed that increasingly complex systems will make us safer in a Darwinian financial world. However the group think this has inevitably promoted has made us all less safe. As a result, we have heard many voices in the discussions about the financial crisis, including many what ifs and maybes, but few of these voices have been actuaries’. To quote Bob Godfrey (admittedly he was talking about animation at the time), the professionals are in a rut and the amateurs aren’t good enough.

Actuaries need to put themselves about as much as the amateurs do. Sometimes that will be uncomfortable. Sometimes we may look a little foolish for a while. But in my view it is the only way we are going to contribute meaningfully to the construction of a better society. And we might even produce some decent science fiction in the process.