Sunday, March 22, 2020

Progress, innovation and risk management - planning and prediction

Chapter 2, Summary:
Ingenuity helps create critical situations from which humans are unable to emerge. Societies often become accustomed to hardship, unmotivated to prevent it. While learning is one of the human species' special skills, it sometimes fails. Innovation has unpredictable results that defy solutions unless humans are boldly creative. Science creates complex factors such as pollution related disease, or climate change. Subjugating nature is part of man's culture,* but while science has given us powers for dominating nature, it has created new forces that we cannot easily overcome.

Excerpts (Chapter 2, Escaping the progress trap)
    What happens when into this soup of innovation are poured ingredients which act as catalysts for results that we don't expect and cannot control? Stratospheric ozone loss is one instance where an unanticipated catalyst, in this case ultraviolet light, allows chlorine atoms to escape from chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and break down ozone in the upper atmosphere. This lack of ozone lets excessive amounts of ultraviolet light through to the earth, where it contributes to cancer and plant mutation. Closer home, the catalyst for the creation of toxic ground level ozone from exhaust fumes is something benign: sunlight. Car-makers are trying to control this with catalytic converters. But what about deforestation, which when combined with global warming or climate change produces flash floods that cannot be controlled? People die in large numbers and disease becomes rampant, while homes and livelihoods are washed away. Reforestation could reverse these trends but it often happens too late. 
     As the innovation cocktail becomes ever more complex, who is to say what the next great catalyst will be or how disastrous? We don't know what combination of ideas, compounds and organisms will bring forth some unprecedented future curse, or blessing. There is much evidence to suggest that we, in the industrialized world, are pursuing progress with a blindness that could lead to the creation of a problem that no one will be able to predict or plan for. With a constant stream1 of additional chemicals being introduced, there is no telling when the next catalytic mishap will occur.2 Yet there are also unprecedented opportunities to avoid this fate, with education reaching new peoples and intellectual cross-pollination taking place among cultures whose flowering has yet to happen.
    * Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, W. W. Norton, New York, 1989, p. 27.
     1. "Some 1,0002,000 new chemicals enter the commercial market every year, many without adequate prior testing or evaluation of effects" World Commission on Environment and development, Our Common Future, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1987, p. 224. 
     2. "The number of existing substances reported in 1981 was 100,106, the current number of existing substances marketed in volumes above 1 tonne is estimated at 30,000. Some 140 of these substances have been identified as priority substances and are subject to comprehensive risk assessment carried out by Member State authorities. There is a general lack of knowledge about the properties and the uses of existing substances. The risk assessment process is slow and resource-intensive and does not allow the system to work efficiently and effectively. The allocation of responsibilities is inappropriate because authorities are responsible for the assessment instead of enterprises which produce, import or use the substances. Furthermore, current legislation only requires the manufacturers and importers of substances to provide information, but not the downstream users (industrial users and formulators). Thus, information on uses of substances is difficult to obtain and information about the exposure arising from downstream uses is generally scarce. Decisions on further testing of substances can only be taken via a lengthy committee procedure and can only be requested from industry after authorities have proven that a substance may present a serious risk. Without test results, however, it is almost impossible to provide such proof. Final risk assessments have therefore only been completed for a small number of substances."  Commission Of The European Community, Brussels, 27.2.2001  COM(2001) 88 final WHITE PAPER Strategy for a future Chemicals Policy, p. 6.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Five key lessons other cities can learn from Cape Town’s water crisis

File 20180329 189824 uwlzk5.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The Berg River Dam on 7 March 2018 about 48% full.
Author supplied

Kevin Winter, University of Cape Town

Postponing Day Zero in Cape Town for 2018 comes as no surprise. There was no sense to it once the day had been pushed into the winter rainfall period. It also didn’t make sense for the Western Cape and Cape Town governments to continue drafting detailed logistical plans for points of water distribution in the event that taps were turned off across the city.

But Cape Town’s water supplies remain at high risk because the long-term predictions for rainfall in the south-western Cape remain uncertain. Dam levels continue to fall while people are struggling to achieve the city’s target of 450 million litres per day. And yields from new water schemes will only be known in the coming months and next year.

The general perception is that the onset of climate change would be slow and measured. This would afford authorities the time to intervene with considered plans. But climate change is a disrupter and takes no prisoners. Over the past three years, Cape Town and the surrounding regions has experienced successive years of well below average rainfall. The experience is changing the way people think about water and how it is managed.

There are five key lessons that have been learnt so far.

1. Adaptation to climate change

The big lesson is being better prepared to deal with a prolonged drought. Cape Town was, and continues to be, under prepared. Over 95% of the city’s water comes from surface water dams. After three years of below average rainfall, the lowest on record, the dams are now running on empty.

Sixty years ago the Australian city of Perth was in a similar position with most of its water supply from dams. The Australian Big Dry drought changed everything. Over 50% of their water supply comes from desalination plants and 40% from groundwater.

A water resilient city should be capable of reducing risk by diversifying water sources to include supplies from groundwater, storm water, reused water, treated effluent and desalination. Resilient, water sensitive cities also integrate the whole urban water cycle into its water resource management system. This means, for example, being smarter about capturing rainfall across the city, in storing storm water underground, and in reusing treated effluent for a variety of purposes not necessarily for drinking purposes.

Cities are the new catchments. There should be no reason to hesitate on implementing these actions. They won’t only climate proof the city, they’ll also make them healthier and more sustainable places to live.

2. Cities lead

National government can’t be expected to lead cities in dealing with water scarcity and drought. This is the experience of many cities dealing with water scarcity. Local governments are in a better position to take decisive action and act at a local scale where they can engage citizens, communities and businesses in averting the water crisis. National governments are slow to intervene, and when they do their actions are often not at the right scale or timely enough.

Cities need more autonomy to act decisively, although proactive, inter-governmental support and cooperation is both helpful and necessary.

3. Measure more, manage better

‘You can’t manage what you don’t measure’ should be the rallying cry for improving the quality of data and analysis needed to support and inform decisions. A city without reliable data will struggle to implement strategic plans and priorities. A good example is Melbourne, one of the first cities in the world to implement digital water metering throughout the city.

Measuring and monitoring is essential to understand water demand and flows. But not all data are useful and more data adds little value in the absence of robust analytical and reporting systems.

4. Mixed messages

Public responses to communication and messaging put out by local authorities is often unpredictable. And social media is rapid and unrelenting in its criticism of messages. Politicians and officials often don’t correct these perceptions which can result in misinformation being shared. The City of Cape Town’s public awareness website has been recognised worldwide– for example by the American Water Works Association – as one of the best. But hard evidence does little to change public opinion.

What citizens really want to know is what actions are being taken to alleviate the crisis and relieve the risk. In the case of Cape Town the city has been reporting on the state of the water by supplying information on dam levels, water demand, models and water quality. What it hasn’t done well enough is contain the level of misinformation shared in the public domain and media.

5. Public trust

Above all, public trust is key to encouraging water saving and helping to establish confidence in managing the crisis. Trust is strengthened by a combination of factors. These include honest, credible messaging when progress towards averting the crisis is demonstrated and understood, and when ordinary citizens, communities and businesses are engaged in making a meaningful contribution. Trust gains momentum when citizen voices are heard and when politicians and officials respond accordingly.

Large cities that have experienced ongoing water crises, such as Sao Paulo, are often criticised for failing to establish public-private agreements and robust partnerships

Planning for uncertainty

How cities anticipate and prepare to adapt to drought conditions depends on factors such as their financial, technical and human capital.

The ConversationBut if cities are going to become more resilient and responsive to climate change then a search for new water supplies will be necessary. It is also essential to establish new forms of governance. Innovative approaches need to be explored because we might not yet know what these should look like. The future is uncertain, but there is a lot that can be done right now and we need to learn some hard lessons.

Author: Kevin Winter, Senior Lecturer in Environmental & Geographical Science, University of Cape Town
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Corruption is directly involved in the inhibition of true progress

Corruption is directly involved in the inhibition of true progress, in keeping vested interests vested and in keeping the status quo static.

How many societies have not been mired in violence due to bribery and arms trading? How many refugees would be spared the resulting voyage of despair? How many alternative energy innovations have not been stifled by oil barons? How many societies have fallen to decay because special interest groups called the shots?

One society that made a determined effort to prevent corruption from plunging it into a cycle of crippling debt was Lesotho, a small African state. When an international construction consortium provided illicit incentives to public officials responsible for their Highlands Water Project – the largest construction project in Africa – the Lesotho administration decided to act. This was a precedent-setting move, in that the defendants were powerful foreign companies.

A documentary on this campaign, called Pipedream,  is in the works. You can sample this documentary at

Ref: Prosecuting Bribery in Lesotho (11th International Anti-Corruption Conference, Seoul, Republic of Korea)

Sunday, November 05, 2017

USA Government: Most of the warming of the past half-century is due to human activities

First published at
According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program*, "it is extremely likely that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. For the warming over the last century, there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence."

Excerpt from 2017 report, Executive Summary:
    The magnitude of climate change beyond the next few decades will depend primarily on the amount of greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide) emitted globally. Without major reductions in emissions, the increase in annual average global temperature relative to preindustrial times could reach 9°F (5°C) or more by the end of this century. With significant reductions in emissions, the increase in annual average global temperature could be limited to 3.6°F (2°C) or less. The global atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration has now passed 400 parts per million (ppm), a level that last occurred about 3 million years ago, when both global average temperature and sea level were significantly higher than today. Continued growth in CO2 emissions over this century and beyond would lead to an atmospheric concentration not experienced in tens to hundreds of millions of years. There is broad consensus that the further and the faster the Earth system is pushed towards warming, the greater the risk of unanticipated changes and impacts, some of which are potentially large and irreversible.(Source)
Excerpt from 2014 report:
Multiple System Failures During Extreme Events
    Impacts are particularly severe when critical systems simultaneously fail. We have already seen multiple system failures during an extreme weather event in the United States, as when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. Infrastructure and evacuation failures and collapse of critical response services during a storm is one example of multiple system failures. Another example is a loss of electrical power during heat waves or wildfires, which can reduce food and water safety. Air conditioning has helped reduce illness and death due to extreme heat, but if power is lost, everyone is vulnerable. By their nature, such events can exceed our capacity to respond. In succession, these events severely deplete resources needed to respond, from the individual to the national scale, but disproportionately affect the most vulnerable populations. (Source)
(The National Climate Assessment summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States, now and in the future. A team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee produced the report, which was extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.)

* 2014 National Climate Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program
1800 G Street, NW, Suite 9100, Washington, D.C. 20006 USA


Monday, June 05, 2017

Make the world a better place (there is no planet B)

On Earth day 2017, a march was organized by scientists, skeptical of the agenda of the Trump administration and critical of Trump administration policies widely viewed as hostile to science. The organizers state that an "American government that ignores science to pursue ideological agendas endangers the world." More than a million people participated worldwide.
The Photo album (of the Montreal March) is on Facebook
See also: Something to celebrate

Friday, January 20, 2017

Virtual Politics - Faking Democracy (book review)

Anyone who witnessed the 2016 election in the United States can be forgiven for asking, "what just happened?!" There is a consensus that what happened was surreal - the word became Merriam-Webster's word of the year. But more specifically, with the hyperbole, the bluster, grandstanding, reality TV and yellow press influence, internet fakery, leaks, relentless below-the-belt tactics and much, much more, virtual politics may be a better description. The real politics were/are going on elsewhere, one assumes.

Bloggers do well to check whether their topic du jour has already been covered. So it was with 'virtual politics' - and not only did I find that it has been covered, I found that it was studied extensively by Andrew Wilson in 2005. Mr. Wilson is Professor of Ukrainian Studies at the University College London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies. His book is titled Virtual Politics, Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World. So while America sleeps, Russia adapts KGB-style maneuvers to sustain artificially the central authoritarianism that was the real, militaristic foundation of Kremlin rule in the Soviet, Bolshevik and even Tsarist empires.

As Wilson puts it, "Welcome to a paradise for the most brazen liars, where the most staid and respectable political technology agency in Moscow calls itself Nikkolo-M after Machiavelli, and uses his face on its business cards...Virtual politics is the way that elites seek to manage, manipulate, and contain democracy." Political technology is what consultants like Nikkolo-M engage in, engineering political 'reality' contests in which no hold is barred, and no trick too dirty. Wilson goes to considerable detail regarding the players and their often brutal methods. Indeed the book is highly specific regarding state interference measures that are now familiar in the west.

A list of some chapters will give an idea:
  • 1. 'Active measures': a Russian Tradition
  • 2.  Politics as Virtuality in the Post-Soviet World
  • 3. The 'Political Technologist': Machiavelli as Corporate Adviser
  • 5. Politics as Theatre, Disguising the State Holding Company
  • 7. Dishing the Opposition
  • 8. Inventing the Opposition  etc.
Whether or not Russia directly influenced the 2016 American election as alleged, is not the point. What is new is that US politics reached a new low of surreal dirty stunts, possibly inspired by post-KGB methods. The parallels between Wilson's post-soviet 'paradise' and the  so-called populist 2016 campaign can not be ignored.

Some Americans are already wising up; Rubio's questioning of Tillerson mentioned 'active measures' without being too specific, but the reference could only have been to the Russian practice. The FBI investigation of Paul Manafort and his work for Viktor Yanukovych may be a healthy sign.1 Yanukovych features prominently in Wilson's book.

What does this have to do with progress, or progress traps? One of this project's critiques of progress is that societies can become overly technocratic, fall into a progress trap and undo progress. Clinton's campaign had a staff of no less than 60 mathematicians and statistical analysts. One can become blind to the obvious when immersed in too much analysis. As they say at the Pentagon, "analysis paralysis". Another progress trap critique is that mental paralysis can then be swamped by crude passion,2 the kind that includes racism, intolerance and bigotry. As the world knows, these vices often don't end until they have played themselves out.

For a sense of where the United States may be heading, Andrew Wilson's book, Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World is recommended reading.

2. Goleman, Daniel, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, 2005 Bantam Books

Friday, December 02, 2016

"This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive" - Stephen Hawking

Hawking at NASA, 1980s
On December 1, 2016, Stephen Hawking wrote in The Guardian: "The concerns underlying these votes about the economic consequences of globalisation and accelerating technological change are absolutely understandable. The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.
    This in turn will accelerate the already widening economic inequality around the world. The internet and the platforms that it makes possible allow very small groups of individuals to make enormous profits while employing very few people. This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive."

Hawking could have been discussing progress traps. He is on record as saying “Most of the threats we face come from the progress we’ve made in science and technology. We are not going to stop making progress, or reverse it, so we must recognize the dangers and control them."

Few other scientists have criticized science and technology in such uncertain terms, and one wonders why. Hawking has stature and knowledge on his side, and few would risk embarrassment by disagreeing with so fearless a contender with ALS, a disease that is usually fatal. But it is puzzling that he does not receive the resounding support of scientists and academics in general, in his questioning of progress.

Regarding the environment, Hawking writes in the Guardian article: "We face awesome environmental challenges: climate change, food production, overpopulation, the decimation of other species, epidemic disease, acidification of the oceans. Together, they are a reminder that we are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity. We now have the technology to destroy the planet on which we live, but have not yet developed the ability to escape it."

It has always been the belief of this writer that if we understand progress traps, we can solve them. Whether we call them 'unintended consequences', 'ideological pathology', 'collapse' or 'escalation of commitment', these inversions of progress have recurred throughout history. So much so that the progress /collapse syndrome can be studied rigorously, its causes identified, and remedies designed.

It takes a suspension of belief in the sanctity of science and technology to take them apart, however. Or great courage, as with Stephen Hawking.

Joseph A Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press, 1988

Joseph A Tainter, Problem Solving: Complexity, History, Sustainability, Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, Volume 22, Number 1, September 2000

Jared Diamond, Collapse, Viking Penguin, New York, 2005. 

McGilchrist, Iain The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, USA: Yale University Press. 2009

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

New York's Mount Sinai hospital schooled by South Africa's Mamelani Projects

The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York is one of the largest and most advanced hospitals in the world. And yet, it is being tutored in patient care by Mamelani Projects, a community patient support system in Cape Town, South Africa.

The PBS video shown here explains the challenge of having community health workers reach patients where professionals are not available: "Mamelani’s health coaches say that, just as in New York City, those realities are often best confronted outside the walls of medical clinics by bringing health education to areas that need it most. The women who’ve attended these classes are making lasting changes to their own health and in the wider community."

In Cape Town, the "health coach" has been effective in reaching patients who need help in managing their health issues such as diabetes, blood pressure, medication problems and chronic conditions. For New York's Harlem, with the city's highest rate of diet related diseases, the Mameloni model has inspired Mount Sinai Heath Systems to find out if the African methods can be incorporated in to U.S. health practices.

At a time when some students at the University of Cape Town have called for science to be decolonized, with the moniker #ScienceMustFall, it may be useful for them to learn that the dedicated health coaches of the Mameloni Project are doing just that, constructively, in helping New York scientists learn from South Africa's most challenged communities.

The full transcript of the PBS feature can be seen at

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Something to celebrate, even in these dark times.

A scientific paradigm shift in the making: climate change - beyond a reasonable doubt.

On September 20, 2016, three hundred and seventy five members of the National Academy of Sciences, including 30 Nobel laureates, made history. They published  "An Open Letter Regarding Climate Change From Concerned Members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences".

Their main concern was that in "the Presidential primary campaign, claims were made that the Earth is not warming, or that warming is due to purely natural causes outside of human control." Or, as some climate-change skeptics would have it regarding excess CO2: They call it pollution, we call it Life.

What was historic was their agreement that absolute certainty is not a prerequisite for environmental policy: "Absolute certainty is unattainable. We are certain beyond a reasonable doubt, however, that the problem of human-caused climate change is real."

In science, certainty has long been a requirement. In brief terms, a scientific theory can be considered proven or disproven if the scientific method has been followed. The theory must be clearly stated, it must be supported by careful experiment or observation that provides precise data enabling a conclusion to be made with certainty. The conclusion will show proof that the theory is correct, or not. Moreover, the process must be capable of independent verification through a repeat of the steps, with results that confirm the conclusion.

This line of thinking has inspired modern society since the Scientific revolution in the 16th century, when the power of empirical and evidence-based data replaced the classical approach in which reason and argument would prevail. Objective data became the ideal, and subjectivity was to be avoided.

So powerful was the scientific approach that it became the foundation of policy and social practice generally, where the elements were quantifiable, technical and later industrial. Married to technology and industry, the whole of society became subject to the scientific paradigm and thus in danger of falling into a global progress trap. Even Stephen Hawking conceded in January 2016 that  “Most of the threats we face come from the progress we’ve made in science and technology." **

However in the legal field, the adversarial process remained standard, allowing each side in the argument to present their case. The conclusion would be a matter of judgement, by a jury, a judge, or sometimes a panel of experts. In criminal cases this judgement would be beyond a reasonable doubt.

Eventually it became obvious that the Achilles heel of Science was its insistence on absolute certainty. This can be seen in climate change policies, where skeptics and national leaders have been able to claim, successfully, that anthropogenic climate change had not been conclusively proven, and did not conform to "sound science". Countless products have been released into the global ecosystem unchecked because of the difficulty in proving with certainty that they are harmful. A few that were shown later to be harmful, after incalculable damage, were leaded gasoline, CFCs, PCBs and thalidomide. With the emphasis of 'absolute certainty', science inadvertently provided tools for stagnating true progress, especially in the gravely important areas of global warming and climate instability.

With the acceptance of the principle of "beyond a reasonable doubt" the wise members of the Union of Concerned Scientists and the National Academy of sciences, who wrote and signed the open letter, have provided a historic moment, perhaps even a scientific revolution*. The paradigm shift from obstinate objectivity to reasonable judgement is something to celebrate, even in these dark times.

Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed, The University of Chicago Press, Chicacgo, 1970
** Most threats come from progress in science and technology (article January 2016)

Note: previous articles in this collection have argued for the application of the principle of "beyond a reasonable doubt" in the context of climate change:

Monday, September 19, 2016

An uncomfortable truth about bigotry and the media

In a satirical article, the Onion has Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg saying contritely: "To those who were forced to read a headline they did not agree with when they visited Facebook yesterday, we are deeply sorry. It’s an inexcusable failing on our part if your viewpoints were not reinforced by what you saw onscreen. I want all Facebook users to know that you’ll never again encounter any ideas on our site that are in any way novel or ideologically challenging to you."

The satire was in response to Facebook's about-face on censoring the Napalm victim article, and Zuckerberg's actual claim that the company is a tech company, not a media or news company. The fact is that Facebook does tailor its newsfeeds and trending topics according to the individual client's disposition. It acts as editor, and shapes opinion.

But was the Onion article, however snide, a reflection of reality? The answer to that was provided, oddly enough, by Bill Clinton on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah. The former president, now 70, was Noah's guest a few days after the Facebook About-Face. In an eloquent reply to Noah's dismay at the ugliness of the campaign, Clinton noted “We’re getting siloed by the TV we watch and the web sites we scan...We’re less racist, less sexist, less homophobic and anti specific religions than we used to be. We have one remaining bigotry: we don’t want to be around anyone who disagrees with us.”

With that insight, Bill Clinton warned against the kind of technical progress that provides information while reinforcing intolerance.This is what the world is witnessing with the resurgence of crude bigotry in today's most connected, informed arenas.