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Why I’ve Started a Blog

by Michael Levi
April 26, 2010

I got hooked on blogging last winter during the Copenhagen climate negotiations, when I contributed to a group blog at Politico. Pretty soon after that, I decided to make it a permanent thing. I started test-driving a new blog at the Council on Foreign Relations a few weeks ago. Now its time to take the training wheels off.

I’ve started the blog because I’m disturbed by the dearth of careful analysis of energy and climate issues out there. The United States and the world are investing enormous amounts of time and resources in addressing energy challenges, from the risks of climate change to the economic and geopolitical strains imposed by surging demand for oil, yet the quality of public debate on these issues is, to be frank, pretty pathetic. I’d like my blogging to be a (very small) part of changing that.

I used to spend most of my time thinking, writing, and speaking about nuclear security. (I still spend a good bit of time in that area, and I’ll dabble in it on the blog too.) The debates I’d engage in – how to deal with nuclear terrorism, what to do about Iraq, what a new arms treaty with Russia should look like – were dominated (though not exclusively) by independent analysts. Congressional hearings mostly featured experts and former U.S. government officials. Newspaper opinion pages often printed novel (and sometimes complex) ideas for moving forward.

I’ve found the world of climate and energy policy to be pretty different. Don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of smart and dedicated people working hard to find solutions to our energy and climate problems. But debates are dominated by interest group politics: when Congress held hearings on the Waxman-Markey climate legislation last year, most of the witnesses came from businesses and advocacy groups. (Can you imagine if hearings on Iran featured oil companies, weapons manufacturers, peace advocates, and Iranian-American pressure groups?) Opinion pages, for the most part, run three types of energy and climate articles: climate change is or is not a problem; cap-and-trade is good or bad; and China is eating our clean energy lunch or destroying the planet with dirty coal. The positions people take are, with too few exceptions, predictably partisan. The blogosphere mostly mirrors this divide.

I expect this blog to be different. I have the privilege of working at one of the few remaining institutions where scholars are encouraged to be relevant to pressing policy decisions yet still genuinely free to make up their own minds, and I’d like to make as much use of that here as possible.

I plan to use this blog for a few things. I’ll probably spend a lot of time shooting down bad ideas, or more precisely, sloppy arguments. I learn a lot when I try to pick apart ideas, and I hope my readers will too. (Removing clutter also helps the good ideas emerge.) I’ll go deep into analysis of breaking news and of major policy proposals, examining both the policy and the politics. I’ll share accessible explanations of academic work that I think deserves a broader audience. I’ll also test drive ideas that I’m working on for my research – and hope commenters and other bloggers are as merciless in dissecting them as I am with others’ work. (How else am I going to learn anything?) That means that I may be asking questions as often as I’ll be offering answers. And on those occasions where I do testify for Congress or write essays for newspapers or magazines, I’ll often use the blog to share thoughts that I’ve had to leave out.

But this is fundamentally an experiment. Is there a broad constituency out there for serious analysis of the policy and political questions at the heart of our energy and climate challenges? I don’t know, but I sure hope so.

Post a Comment 13 Comments

  • Posted by Joe Carson

    Hi Michael,

    Joe Carson at this end. 18 years of Carson v. Department of Energy has finally arrived at Supreme Court, see website above.

    Because my profession of engineering plays such a role in energy and climate (and nuclear weapons too), I hope you find my explorations in engineering ethics of interest. Engineering ethics could provide a framework to rise above the partisan divides, at least I keep hoping so.

  • Posted by Steven Earl Salmony

    Dear Michael Levi,

    Thanks for taking this step. Top-rank analysts could help a great deal by doing what you are doing now.

    Very specifically, my focus is riveted on the skyrocketing growth of absolute global human population and recent evidence from Hopfenberg and Pimentel that the size of the human population on Earth is a function of food availability. More food for human consumption equals more people; less food needed to sustain life equals less people; and no food, no people. This is to say, the population dynamics of the human species is essentially common to, not different from, the population dynamics of other living things.

    With this very brief introduction I hope you consider my perspective. As UN Secretary-General Mr. Kofi Annan noted in 1997, “The world has enough food. What it lacks is the political will to ensure that all people have access to this bounty, that all people enjoy food security.”

    Please examine the probability that humans are producing too much, not too little food. The problem we face is the way increasing the global food supply leads to increasing absolute global human population numbers. It is the super-abundant, large scale harvests that are making it possible for population numbers of the human species to explode beyond the limits imposed by the relatively small, evidently finite, noticeably frangible environment of a planet with the size, composition and ecology of Earth.

    The spectacular success of the Green Revolution over the past 40 years has “produced” an unintended and completely unanticipated global challenge, I suppose: the rapidly increasing supply of food for human consumption has given birth to a human population bomb, which is exploding worldwide before our eyes.

    Perhaps the most formidable threat to future human wellbeing and environmental health appears to be caused by the unbridled, corporate overproduction of food on the one hand and the abject failure of the leaders of the human community to insist upon more fair and equitable redistribution of the world’s food supply so that “all people enjoy food security”.

    We need to share (not overconsume and hoard) as well as to build sustainable, human-scale farming practices (not patently unsustainable agribusiness leviathans).

    For a moment let us reflect upon words from the speech that Norman Bourlaug delivered, coincidentally in 1970, on the occasion of winning the Nobel Prize. He reported, ” Man also has acquired the means to reduce the rate of human reproduction effectively and humanely. He is using his powers for increasing the rate and amount of food production. But he is not yet using adequately his potential for decreasing the rate of human reproduction. The result is that the rate of population increase exceeds the rate of increase in food production in some areas.”

    Plainly, Norman Bourlaug states that humanity has the means to decrease the rate of human reproduction but is choosing not to adequately employ this capability to sensibly limit human population numbers. He also notes that the rate of human population growth surpasses the rate of increase in food production IN SOME AREAS {my caps}. Dr. Bourlaug is specifically not saying the growth of global human population numbers exceeds global production of food. According to recent research, population numbers of the human species could be a function of the global growth of the food supply for human consumption. This would mean that the global food supply is the independent variable and absolute global human population numbers is the dependent variable; that human population dynamics is most similar to the population dynamics of other species.

    Perhaps the human species is not being threatened in our time by a lack of food. To the contrary, humanity and life as we know it could be inadvertently put at risk by the determination to continue the dramatic, large-scale overproduction of food, such as we have seen occur in the past 40 years.

    Recall Dr. Bourlaug’s prize winning accomplishment. It gave rise to the “Green Revolution” and to the extraordinary increases in the world’s supply of food. Please consider that the sensational increases in humanity’s food supply occasioned by Dr. Bourlaug’s great work gave rise to an unintended and completely unanticipated effect: the recent skyrocketing growth of absolute global human population numbers. We have to examine what appear to be potentially disastrous effects of increasing, large-scale food production capabiliities (as opposed to sustainable farming practices) on human population numbers worldwide between now and 2050. If we keep doing the “big-business as usual” things we are doing now by maximally increasing the world’s food supply, and the human community keeps getting what we are getting now, then a colossal ecological wreckage of some unimaginable sort could be expected to occur in the future.

    It may be neither necessary nor sustainable to continue increasing food production to feed a growing population. As an alternative, we could carefully review ways for limiting increases in the corporate production of food; for providing broad support of sustainable farming practices; for redistributing more equitably the present superabundant world supply of food among the members of the human community; and for following Dr. Bourlaug’s recommendation to “reduce the rate of human reproduction effectively and humanely.”

    Thank you.

    Sincerely,

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001
    http://www.sustainabilityscience.org/content.html?contentid=1176

  • Posted by Sam Penrose

    “Is there a broad constituency out there for serious analysis of the policy and political questions at the heart of our energy and climate challenges? I don’t know, but I sure hope so.”

    I hope that every journalist who recognizes the need for such a constituency will work to create one however he best can.

  • Posted by Herb Gart

    I am happy and relieved that you will add some sanity and facts to the discourse. To the politicians and their public stance I can only say Don’t Mess Around With Mother Nature.

  • Posted by Gabe

    I, for one, look forward to the shooting down of bad ideas and sloppy work. Climate analysis seems to be dominated by absurdities like: “It’s better to drive short distances because it uses less energy than it takes to grow the food required to give you the energy to walk.”

    Also, you still need a name for the blog. “Refuel” is a good one, but you might get a better suggestion if you held a blog-naming contest, with the winner to get a carbon offset!

  • Posted by Geoff Dabelko

    Great to see it Michael. Pleased to see you will be sharing insights in this medium. And I hope you will also share insights from responses you and these topics receive from Council audiences. While Council membership is clearly elite and narrow by many definitions, the diversity of political, professional, and topical expertise often offers insight into how a broader set of practitioners see these issues.

    Best, Geoff

  • Posted by Stephen Rust

    Michael,
    As a scholar examining the articulation of energy, climate, and environmental issues in popular media I find your site a refreshing contribution to the blogosphere. Thank you for offering those of use who count on expert opinion but are not scientists a new source for reliable coverage and thoughtful insight on these very complex issues.

  • Posted by Alex Trembath

    Looking forward to it Michael. I just started an energy/climate blog of my own about a month ago, with similar motivations. It’s called Energetics (http://atrembath.blogspot.com/). Good luck!

  • Posted by Peter Buckland

    We will be interested to see what you find. I’m not sure that your comparisons for Iran hearings would hold up to an extended critique beyond profitability potential but it’s a good starting analogy that gets us thinking a little differently. I’d really encourage you to think and look at the ways that ethical and moral arguments play out in this arena because I think that they are overlooked and the way that media attends to those arguments has been rather nil. Why? Who’s controlling or at least steering the dominant discourse(s) in these matters? These are important questions that blogs are not really dealing with in a cool-headed way (possibly me among them). A look at the way that cost-benefits are used to talk about climate change would be interesting. How is education and particular schooling by discipline shaping belief and partisanship?
    There’s no shortage for you to do. Best wishes.

  • Posted by Steven Earl Salmony

    Posted today on the DOT EARTH BLOG

    Dear Andy,

    Thanks for bringing attention to Michael Levi’s new blog. I posted there yesterday and have already exchanged email with another person who has also commented on the blog.

    Looking at Michael Levi’s blog and the comments therein leads me to be encouraged, just as I am encouraged by the Dot Earth Blog. To have open, intellectually honest discussions often does not occur in the “normal” mainstream media because it appears the mass media is ideologically driven. Whatsoever is politically convenient, economically expedient, socially correct and culturally prescibed gets widely report and discussed. By comparison, scientific evidence that does not conform to these standards is routinely disregarded.

    This conscious neglect of science is a tragedy in our time because scientific research appears to be providing humanity with vital scientific evidence which is being dismissed or else willfully denied. A case in point is the recent research I mentioned just above on human population dynamics.

    According to recent research, the human community could soon be confronted with the potentially calamitous effects of a non-recursive biological problem that is independent of ethical, social, legal, religious, and cultural considerations. This means human population dynamics are essentially like the population dynamics of other species. It also means that world human population growth is a rapidly cycling positive feedback loop, a relationship between food and population in which food availability drives population growth, and population growth fuels the mistaken impression that food production needs to be continuously increased. The research indicates that as we increase food production every year, the number of people goes up, too ( http://www.panearth.org/ ).

    With every passing year, as food production is increased, leading to a population increase, millions go hungry. Why are those hungry millions not getting fed year after year after year… and future generations of poor people may not ever be fed? Every year the human population grows. All segments of it grow. Every year there are more people growing up well fed and more people growing up hungry. The hungry segment of the global population goes up just like all the other segments of the population. We are not bringing hunger to an end by increasing food production; we are “growing” more hungry people. First compare the number of people on Earth 50 years ago with the number of people here now. Absolute global human population numbers have approximately doubled. Now let us compare the number of hungrey people on Earth fifty years ago with the number of hungry people in our planetary home. Voila, the number has more than doubled.

    Perhaps a new biological understanding is emerging with the research of Hopfenberg and Pimentel. It is simply this: population numbers of the human species, as is the case with other species, are primarily a function of food availability. Although the human population explosion can be seen as a daunting problem, we can take the measure of it and find a remedy that is consonant with universally shared humane values.

    Always,

    Steve

  • Posted by Steven Earl Salmony

    Dear Michael Levi,

    Perhaps we could “test drive” some ideas, hypotheses and evidence to which I am drawing attention. After all, the research could be fundamentally flawed and full of bad ideas to be shot down.

    Please be assured that it will be all right with me to learn that the research of Hopfenberg and Pimentel is dead wrong. That would be the best news. I would immediately rest easy again.

    At the moment the research of Hopfenberg and Pimentel is objectively examined and professional reports of its efficacy or lack thereof made by scientists, I will fulfill a promise made to my long-suffering spouse: end the AWAREness Campaign on the Human Population.

    Sincerely,

    Steve

    PS: Special thanks to Herb Gart for making contact about this research. I share your hope, Herb. In any case, it does seem to me that an unwillingness to acknowledge real problems threatening human wellbeing and environmental health in our time makes it impossible for those problems to be reasonably addressed and sensibly overcome. By failing to accept and confront real global challenges, we will be refusing to put science and the intelligence we possess in the service of humanity, the future of life as we know it, and the preservation of Earth as a fit place for human habitation.

    PPS: Michael and Herb, I would welcome opportunities to help test drive ideas as well as research from you and others.

  • Posted by Herb Gart

    What a dilemma! There are basic facts that make the population growth grow, including the fact that the more people, the more next generation there is. The more food, the larger the population explodes. To solve the problem means to starve out a large portion of the population – which often leads to population growth in the most impoverished areas as a survival response. Birth control is a small part of the answer; do studies show that birth control leads to smaller families and increases gluttony? There were studies many years ago (more than 50) that showed that crowded conditions lead to stress and violence; add in the use of chemicals in the food and you are on the way to destructive growth. Wars are most often fought over territorial need to expand (though ideas and beliefs, good and bad, are often the motivation). The desire for power is a human condition that relates to food supply as gluttony. Perhaps atomic weaponry has been developed as a solution – I know how horrible that sounds, but crowding must be solved somehow. Reducing the food supply will not work because it will not happen as long as people covet the extra rice on their plate. I am wandering about in this note, but it seems to me that the solution lies in the population growth creating an unsustainability that overtakes the food imperative. A natural explosion of some sort.

  • Posted by Steven Earl Salmony

    Dear Michael Levi,

    Given the general mind-set, the one driven in our time by economic globalization and the global political economy, it is difficult to believe how change to whatsoever is sustainable could occur. The mantra of endless growth of unsustainable lifestyles and too-big-to succeed corporations appears pervasive and unassailable.

    Gigantic, multinational conglomerates are adamantly engaged in the production of goods (both needed and unnecessary), business and finance, the marvelous edifices housing the great religions, large-scale agriculture, the military complexes. These entities are the actual constructions that drive the process of economic globalization and give the global political economy its leviathan-like structure.

    What you are reporting appears correct. It seems to me that two things could happen. First, an internet-driven transformation of global human consciousness will somehow occur in order to bring about necessary changes in the self-serving, destructive behavior of the fossil fools among us. Second, something embodied in this shift in human consciousness will give rise to completely unexpected, somehow interlocking events like the one which occurred at the city of Jericho in ancient times when “the walls fell down”. Even the leviathans of human enterprise in our days could crumble.

    Recently we witnessed the near collapse of some of the giants of the automobile industry and the virtual implosion of investment houses and big banks on Wall Street. Are the titans of big business and finance not only “too-big-to-fail” but also “too-big-to-succeed” precisely because they are soon to become patently unsustainable on a planet with size, composition and ecology of Earth?

    We have also seen in the past several years the poisonous fruits to be derived from extolling as ‘virtues’ outrageous greed, obscene overconsumption and relentless hoarding of wealth by many too many leaders. Never in the course of human events have so few stolen so much from so many….with a sense of pride. That these people reward each other with medals and awards for their pernicious activities is shameful. I believe we can agree that the unbridled overgrowth activities of the masters of the universe now overspreading the surface of Earth can much longer stand neither the test of time nor the biophysical limitations of the planetary home we are to inhabit and not ruin, I suppose. Following self-proclaimed masters of the universe down a primrose path could be the wrong way to direct the children to go.

    The children deserve the chance of facing the prospect of a future that is good enough. I am no longer thinking of leaving the children a better world than the one that was given to their elders. That appears out of reach now. It remains my hope that the elder generation, with responsibilities to assume and duties to perform, will do better than we doing now by changing our ways for the sake of keeping Earth fit for habitation by children everywhere. As examples, we could pay our debts instead of mortgage the children’s future; we could clean up the ecological messes that have been made in the course of the past 65 years; we could eschew “bigger is better” and “the biggest is the best” in favor of “small is beautiful”, doing more with less, and embracing the spirit of living well by living more simply and sustainably.

    Perhaps changes toward sustainable lifestyles and right-sized enterprises are in the offing.

    And perhaps we have been travelling down a long road over hundreds upon hundreds of years, a road of growing production and distribution capabilities, of wanton overconsumption and reckless hoarding, and of unbridled overpopulation. These activities have been occurring for a long time on a small scale, but only recently exploded in seemingly uncontrollable ways, within the natural world we inhabit and without sufficient regard being given either to human limits or Earth’s limitations. An improbable combination of narcissism, arrogance, foolhardiness and greed blinded leadership to the practical requirements of living on Earth; to the “rules of the house” in our planetary home. Too many leaders decided to willfully behave like kids who were left alone and given the run of the house by their overseers. All the rules were ‘forgotten’ or simply ignored. Laissez faire, whatever will be will be, living without limits and all that ruled!

    The children tore everything up and made a big mess. When they realized what they were doing, they felt stuck as if between a rock and hard place. Do they stop their destructive activities or else choose to keep tearing up the house? This is a tough choice for kids at play. Who knows, perhaps they will not be caught red-handed at what they have been doing. And if they are caught, they could always blame the wreckage on other bad boys. How many times have we seen kids at play and men at work blaming their wrongdoing on others and not ever taking responsibility for their own dishonest, deceitful or destructive behavior?

    Either the choice to turn back and begin the clean-up or the choice to keep tearing things up is fraught with danger. From a kid’s (or fossil fool’s) perspective they could face more danger by trying to clean up the mess they made than they would be exposed to by continuing with their rampage. Either choice presents its own challenges and threats. After all, so much damage has already been done. There is no longer any easy way forward, that is for sure, even under the best circumstances.

    What to do here? Now what? These are the questions, I suppose.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czvxyDgqxmM

    Sincerely yours,

    Steve

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