A tale of two storms

Katrina, Sandy, now Harvey — we have stared at these storms that have ripped apart the life of communities every few years. Thousands of people’s home lost, in the case of Katrina nearly 2,000 people dead. 100 year storms, 500 year storms, 1,000 year storms — not anymore. We are transitioning to an era when the recent past is not an accurate predictor of the immediate future. But we’re now like the man who got on Interstate 80 in New Jersey to go to California — he knows it will be warmer when he gets there, but no idea what it will be like along the way.

Yet more than computer models and statistical analysis, what’s happening in the places without the economic resources of the United States tells us a lot about what the whole world might look like in the coming decades — be that the 30-60 years of Replay Earth or some time a bit further down the road.

Because while Harvey dominates the news here, The Guardian reports that India, Nepal and Bengladesh are being wracked by their own set of fierce rains, driven by one of the wettest monsoons on record. And the toll is horrific: 1,200 dead, as many as 40 million at risk of loosing their homes to the floods, with at least another day of rain in store.

It’s tempting to think, “Well, that’s India. We have better this or better that,” but that would be foolish. Could Houston survive a storm like this every few years? New Orleans can’t even turn on all its flood relief pumps 12 years after Katrina. And what about when there are 20 Houstons and New Orleans, hit by overlapping storms? Apart from the cold cash involved, do you see a society with the cohesion and will to put aside many competing priorities and spend billions, maybe trillions, on flood control and relief? India is just farther along the curve we’re on.

I don’t know much about India’s weather, but I know I’m seeing a lot of articles about whether Harvey is climate or weather. As a general concept, the distinction between the two is useful and helpful to unconfuse people who think — or want us to think — that global warming means no more cold days. But every day, the climate produces weather — they’re not happening on different planets. The weather we see now is produced by the climate we’ve created in the last 2,000 years, and of course, more so since the advent of universal electricity and the automobile.

That climate is better than the old one at heating up the ocean that is 75% of our planet and the air just above it. That means bigger, wetter storms in some places, just as it means hotter, drier climate in others. Specifically, places like Houston and Mumbai are going to be hammered much more with such storms. Whether there will be more of them, or they will just be longer or more intense, time will tell. But we’re seeing that happen before our very eyes.

This climate will take decades, maybe centuries, to unwind. It will get worse before it gets better, if it gets better. We can speed that up, we can limit some of the damage. But not all of it — we have lost that last moment of control, probably a while ago.

What we can control is how we react and how we learn from that. We are in the early days of a world where most of the time, somewhere, there will be millions — perhaps hundreds of millions or billions — of people homeless or without livelihood from climate change.  We have a lot of work to do.

What’s so funny about peace, love and empathy?

For a long time, empathy was thought of as an emotion, or a willful behavior — in the same category as kindness or compassion. As such, it was subject to whatever societal biases we have for “the softer things.” And while it may turn out that kindness and compassion also have a biological basis, it is crystal clear that empathy does.

It’s dangerous to be too certain about anything to do with the brain and human behavior, given our relatively primitive understanding of both and the link between them. Isaac Newton was quite certain about physics, but he was an alchemist and could not be very certain about chemistry, since too little was known about it at the time. That’s my stance on psychology in the broadest sense.

Still, we do know some things.

One idea that was gained some currency is the notion of mirror neurons. Here’s an excerpt from an article written for doctors that introduces the concept:

Research in the neurobiolgy of empathy has changed the perception of empathy from a soft skill to a neurobiologically based competency (). The theory of inner imitation of the actions of others in the observer has been supported by brain research. Functional magnetic resonance imaging now demonstrates the existence of a neural relay mechanism that allows empathic individuals to exhibit unconscious mimicry of the postures, mannerisms, and facial expressions of others to a greater degree than individuals who are unempathic (). Patients unconsciously mimic the actions and facial expressions of others through brain mechanisms that mirror the actions of others by stimulating the same motor and sensory areas in the observers’ brains as the person they are observing. This mirroring capacity has been demonstrated at the level of single muscle fibers. If a person’s hand muscle is pricked by a fine needle, for example, the same motor and sensory areas are activated in the brain of an observer ().

What that means is essentially that when you see your friend wave at you across the room, your brain imitates the wave motion in every respect except actually transmitting that “order” to your arm. Then it recalls the emotion that is usually associated with that set of motions and says “Aha, I was friendly when I waved. My friend must be doing something friendly toward me! Yeah” and you may choose to wave back, smile or whatever.

It helps to think of empathy in evolutionary terms. Imagine you are a sheep in a flock. We now know that sheep recognize many facial expressions from their fellow herd-members. How does Sheep 1 know that Sheep 2 is being friendly, and not aggressive, when it looks at it a certain way? Mirror neurons. As far as I’ve been able to read, all mammals have this mechanism. It doesn’t require extreme intelligence, speech, or even will to exercise it. We just do it.

Current research is discovering that empathy is more complex than just mirror neurons, that it involves other parts of the brain, and that it’s behavioral output is not always what we might think. There’s plenty of room for mushy thinking and junk science around empathy, but there’s also solid evidence. So we’ll have to stay tuned.

In addition, emerging fields like behavioral economics are helping us to understand the irrational side of our natures. Often, they complement the work around empathy by exposing the interesting ways we defy logic.

But the reason I made so much of empathy in Replay Earth is that I don’t think we as a society value our own ability to connect at a basic level. Empathy is neither about hate or love — it’s about the fact that we have ways to understand each other. And maybe we don’t currently give them much credence, but if we came to value them more highly and paid more attention to them, we might find that they can clarify social interactions. And that might, indeed, reduce our fear of The Other, whomever that happens to be this year.

More about empathy:

The neuroscience of empathy

Laughter and social bonding

Recent research

Of course, if you search for “the science of empathy” you’ll find many more articles.

Will large parts of Earth become uninhabitable?

One of the amazing aspects of human history has been our ability to live almost anywhere. In the last 100,000 years or more, humans have migrated to and settled in places as diverse as the Arctic Circle and the Kalahari desert. The last frontier of human settlement was not determined by temperature but by oxygen — few live in altitudes somewhere above 14,000 feet. Recent research suggests that the Sherpas, for example, are descended from people who arrived in that area sometime in the last 5,000 – 10,000 years and adapted slowly to the highest altitudes. They may even have had help from ancestral Neanderthal genes.

Today, we face a different problem. Our current popular view of potential climate disaster often centers around rising seas — think Hurricane Katrina or Superstorm Sandy on a vast scale. Should that come to pass, very large numbers of people would be forced to move inland.

But the damage we are currently doing risks a potentially far more devastating consequence — driving the temperature in large regions past the threshold of where people can work, and ultimately, just survive outdoors. A recent article in the Guardian describes a research study that uses computer models to project that certain areas in a large swath of Asia, from the Persian Gulf to China, will periodically become too hot to survive outdoors for more than a brief period by 2100. The article is a lay explanation of a scientific journal article by a team of researchers from MIT, Loyola Marymount and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. At least some of it was funded by the Singapore government, which apparently doesn’t agree with the current US government’s dismissal of climate change.

We often think of cold as a killer, but people can survive very cold temperatures surprisingly well with very basic technologies. Witness the Inuit and their relatives who are indigenous to the Arctic Circle around the globe. But our biology cannot tolerate temperatures above about 108F without ceasing to function. Really, we don’t do well above 100F as anyone who has had a fever knows.

We keep our bodies cool by sweating. As the research details, when the temperature and humidity combine to create a wet-bulb temperature  (WBT –that’s sort of like the temperature-humidity index, but not quite) of 35C or 95F we can no longer cool ourselves. Heat builds up rapidly and destructively in our bodies. At this point, we risk death within six hours.

What both articles highlight is that by 2100, large parts of India and Pakistan — notably the areas on the Indus and Ganges rivers — will suffer extreme heat and humidity prior to and during the monsoon season. Parts of Iran, China and Vietnam will also be affected. Wet-bulb temperatures will breach 31C or 88F some of the time, a limit considered dangerous to be outside and essentially impossible to work in.

After that, temperatures could breach the 95 deg wet-bulb limit a few days each year and these regions would simply become impossible in certain months and years. Would people leave and come back? Or would they just abandon the lands and migrate elsewhere? How will people who depend on manual labor to survive and live in rural conditions with no air conditioning live — or will they begin to pack up and leave? Just the very word “inhabitable” may take on new meanings.

The last time such dramatic and lethal climate changes occurred was at the start of the last glacial maximum around 26,000 years ago, when much of the Northern Hemisphere was covered with thick ice. But there were likely less than 1 million people in the entire world then. The regions we are talking about now are home to 1.7 billion people today. Many are farmers, and not farmers sitting in air-conditioned tractors, either. Consider the ramifications of people no longer being able to live and grow food in one of the most densely populated and farmed parts of the world. Places where only a few thousand years ago humanity began the great transition to permanent settlements built around agriculture.

Where will these people go? What will they eat? What will people in other regions who depended on their farming output eat? When we see what the carnage in Syria has wrought in terms of political tension around the world, it’s hard to imagine what societies around the world will do to absorb this. Even if temperatures fall a few degrees short of these projected levels, some people will not be able to tolerate them. People will get sick, people will die. We just don’t really know how bad it will get and how people will react.

If there is a silver lining to this, here it is (from The Guardian):

The analysis also showed that the dangerous 31C WBT level would be passed once every two years for 30% of the population – more than 500 million people – if climate change is unchecked, but for only 2% of the population if the Paris goals are met. “The problem is very alarming but the intensity of the heatwaves can be reduced considerably if global society takes action,” said [study author] Eltahir.

In Replay Earth, I explore some of the actions the people displaced by climate change might take. I hope that the people of 2100 don’t actually get to find out, but that will depend on what we do in the next decade or two.

Meet Replay Earth’s co-creator

Although I wrote Replay Earth, the original idea came from my friend Effie Weisstein, or E.B. Weisstein as he prefers to be known officially. We’ve been friends forever. In addition to having come up with the original concept, Effie and I talked about the book about every for six weeks for the two-plus years that I wrote it. I know you’re not supposed to do that, but it actually was fun and very productive. We brainstormed about characters, plot and concepts. In the end, I had to make all that work, throw some of it out, and invent new things, but this was a book of ideas, and ideas benefit from discussion.

Effie 2

E.B. Weisstein, co-creator of Replay Earth

Effie is a life-long educator, free thinker and New York sports addict. But he’s still a great guy.

You called me sometime around the end of 2014 or early 2015, and we had coffee at that ridiculous place in Arlington. You told me about this idea you had for a book and it really captured my imagination. Do you remember what your original idea was – what was the heart of it?

The idea for the plot came from two of my main fascinations—“what’s it (life) all about?” and politics. While I’m sure everyone thinks about the first, I am particularly obsessed with the idea that of the roughly 3 billion humans who are alive at any given moment, not one can claim to really know the true order of things.  Is there really a supreme being(s)?  What’s up with the universe and how can it be infinite?  Those kind of unanswerable questions.

In terms of politics, I tend to think of it rightly or wrongly as an existential struggle between right and wrong. And while I believe in the ultimate goodness of people, I am also somewhat jaded by my  belief that many people are selfish and ready to sell out others to save their own hides.  So the idea for the book is an attempt to better understand both the nature of the universe and the existential political battle between good and evil.   

When did you first start putting this idea together? What was driving you, other than the possibility that the Knicks might never reach the playoffs again in your lifetime?

I was in a NYC hotel room with my wife Ellen when the broad story line just popped into my head. Initially I thought of it as a possible movie screenplay for my good friend Stanley Weiser who has written many Hollywood scripts including “W” and “Nixon.”  While I knew his genre was politics and not SciFi, I pitched it to him as I have done with other ideas or books that I thought he might want to adapt into movies.  Unsurprisingly, he told me “great idea but it’s not my thing. Plus, it’s too complicated for a movie but  it would make for a great book and you should write it.”

So there we were, in what so many people now see as the calm of the Obama years, waiting at least 10 minutes while some obsessed hipster poured water drop by drop into a coffee filter perched on a cup sitting on a scale, while we itched to drink the stuff and get on with talking about the future. And we did that, like 10 meetings, although I think we ditched the coffee place at some point. And for me, it wasn’t the first time I’d thought about these things, but the first time I’d found someone who wanted to talk about how things could be really different if we were really different. Not necessarily a practical guide to avoiding extinction, but more “let’s stretch our minds, let’s see what could be.” And how could me make that an engaging story. Did you have that feeling? Or did you just think we were nattering on?

Well, I had taken up Stanley’s challenge and had begun pouring out lots of pages of narrative.  But I knew that I wasn’t a “real” writer, rather I was a man with an idea. So I was looking for a partner to help me flesh it out and to also do a lot (most) of the actual writing. And I had the sense through our many years of friendship that you might be the ideal partner.

What ideas and concepts do you think are the value in what we’ve created? 

Ultimately I believe that the book is “political” in that it highlights what I believe to be the existential battle between right and wrong that we are engaged in today and have been for as long as I can remember. So for me the SciFi book is really a statement on the world wide political struggle that we are engaged in—possibly for our survival.

And now a question for you: Why did you want to work on this book?  What did you hope to get out of the experience?

I’ll answer that on two levels. Mostly, your ideas caught fire with me as a way to both make a statement about where we are headed. I was always more attuned to  social injustice than “environmental justice.” But how can you not see that the greatest threat to people today is what we are doing to the environment? I don’t know how we are going to change this, but I wanted to be part of trying to, at least adding to the chorus of people shouting about it.

Beyond that, I had reached a point personally where I wanted to shift from writing professionally about technology to writing personally about things that matter deeply to me. Some of that is going to be traditional literary fiction and poetry. But some of it is also going to be speculative, or sci-fi, however you want to think about it.

I’d played around with a few ideas of sci-fi plots, but you had this concept that was well underway and that I pretty quickly connected with. For me, your ideas boiled down to the notion of second chances. Our culture has a Puritanical streak that tends to look askance at giving second chances. I think second chances are the most important thing in life, because who gets anything important right on the first try?

And then I could also see how empathy could be woven into the story. Empathy is an idea I’ve been interested in for a long time.