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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Archive for date: 01-2011

Consensus about what?

We keep hearing that there is a consensus about climate change, but it includes a wide range of possibilities

Simon Singh and James Delingpole, both of whom I know, like and respect as fine writers, have been disagreeing about climate change.

Beneath Simon's latest blog on the subject there is a debate in which several very sensible and non-inflammatory things are said by Bishop Hill and Paul Dennis. Do read it.

An especially good comment came from Climate Resistance, who spoke for me and I suspect many others when he asked:

The personalities of the elements

Prospect magazine has published my review of Hugh-Aldersey-Williams's delightful chemistry book, Periodic Tales. Here is an extract in which I was struck by the parallels between finding specialised jobs for the metals and finding specialised roles for individuals in society:

The best science writing emulates fiction, creating plots, surprises and characters out of its esoteric material. The science writer's trick is to transmute the dull tinplate of fact and theory into the precious gold of truthful entertainment. Thus James Watson turned the discovery of the structure of DNA into a charming farce (The Double Helix, 1968); Richard Dawkins turned gene-based evolution into a gripping detective story (The Selfish Gene, 1976); and Simon Singh turned the history of mathematics into an epic (Fermat's Last Theorem, 1997).

Why nationalise trees?

Britain's Forestry Commission is a walking conflict of interest

Since its plans to sell off much of the Forestry Commission's land were leaked the press last October, the government has found itself subject to a sustained lobbying campaign. The commission has wheeled out its friends to tell the press what an irreplaceable paragon of environmental virtue it is, and specifically how much access to the countryside will be lost if its land is sold.

I have learned that when the government's proposals are put to public consultation next week, this particular charge will be found to be simply wrong. All sales of land will be subject to the same access provisions as now. So the hyperventilating lobbyists, from ramblers to baronesses, can calm down: the Forest of Dean will not suddenly be closed. It was the Labour government that was quietly selling Forestry Commission land in recent years with no such public-access requirement.

The access row is a smokescreen to cover old-fashioned bureaucratic self-preservation. The Forestry Commission is keen to remain a cosy nationalised monopoly. With more than two million acres (600,000 in England) and over 50% of timber production, plus 100% untrammelled power to set the rules of the industry it competes in and dominates, the Forestry Commission is a walking conflict of interest. It is like the Bank of England running a huge high-street bank, or the BBC owning Ofcom.

Advocating violence

Monbiotic logic: call for peaceful debate and for people to die

George Monbiot is advertising a speaking tour with a poster of himself as a boxer about to hit somebody.

And yet he says in the Guardian:

Why aliens are silent

From the Wall Street Journal, my latest Mind and Matter on stability, the moon and aliens

This month saw the discovery of the first small and "rocky" planet like ours outside the solar system, Kepler 10b, orbiting a star more than 500 light years away. This month also saw terrible floods in part of Australia. Here I intend to link these two news stories. But don't worry-I have not gone astrological on you. The link is not a causal one.

Shale gas changes everything

Some people think I am obsessed by the shale gas revolution and that I might be exaggerating its significance.

Well, if anything I'm underplaying it.

The International Energy Agency says so. Here's what it says (from UPI):

Collective intelligence on the edge

Clever people don't like to think that individual cleverness is not what counts

The Edge's Annual Question is a great compilation of brief effusions from science groupies like me. This year the question was

What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?

My answer was this:

Feeding of the nine billion

I had this article in the Times on 14 January:

The person who tips the world population over seven billion may be born this year. The world food price index hit a record high last month, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation. Bad harvests in Russia and Australia, combined with rising oil prices, have begun to cause shortages, export bans and even riots. Does starvation loom?

No. Never has the world looked less likely to starve, or our grandchildren more likely to feed well. Never has famine been less widespread. Never has the estimated future peak of world population been lower.

A fascination with parabolas

The trajectories of missiles must have interested our ancestors deeply

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about parabolas, the evolution of throwing and angry birds:

The spectacular trajectory of the Angry Birds computer game, from obscure Finnish iPhone app to global ubiquity-there are board games, maybe even movies in the works-is probably inexplicable. Of course it's cheap and charming, but such catapulting success must owe a lot to serendipitous, word-of-mouth luck. Yet, prompted by my friend Trey Ratcliff, who created the gaming-camera app 100 Cameras in 1, I've been musing on whether there's an evolutionary aspect to its allure.

To play Angry Birds, you must use a catapult to lob little birds at structures in the hope of knocking them down on pigs. It's the verb "lob" that intrigues me. There is something much more satisfactory about an object tracing a parabolic ballistic trajectory through space towards its target than either following a straight line or propelling itself.

Oceans on acid again

More evidence that ocean acidification is unlikely to do harm

David Middleton has an interesting essay on ocean pH here.

Like me he finds the literature replete with data suggesting that a realistic reduction in alkalinity caused by CO2 increases will do no net harm to marine ecosystems. For example:

A recent paper in Geology (Ries et al., 2009) found an unexpected relationship between CO2 and marine calcifers. 18 benthic species were selected to represent a wide variety of taxa: "crustacea, cnidaria, echinoidea, rhodophyta, chlorophyta, gastropoda, bivalvia, annelida." They were tested under four CO2/Ωaragonite scenarios...

Asymmetric planning for weather

Could the Brisbane flood have been moderated if officials were not obsessed with drought?

The always perceptive Brendan O'Neill raises an important point about the Brisbane floods, which just may have been exacerbated by a collective institutional obsession with preparing for droughts caused by global warming (hat tip Bishop Hill).

It is worth looking at a document called ClimateSmart 2050, which was published in 2007 by the Queensland government. It outlines Queensland's priorities for the next four decades (up to 2050) and promises to reduce the state's greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent during that timeframe. The most striking thing about the document is its assumption that the main problem facing this part of Australia, along with most of the rest of the world, is essentially dryness brought about by global warming. It argues that "the world is experiencing accelerating climate change as a result of human activities", which is giving rise to "worse droughts, hotter temperatures and rising sea levels". We are witnessing "a tendency for less rainfall with more droughts", the document confidently asserted.

As a consequence the government went on warning of water shortages even as the Wivenhoe dam got close to full, apparently forgetting that one of the dam's jobs was to act as a flood shock absorber. As with British snow, the concern seems to have asymmetric, suggesting that climate change is causing officials to forget that weather noise may still be far more important than climate signal even in a slowly warming world.

The new versus the new-new

Latest Mind and Matter column is on why there is nothing so old as the recently new:

Watching friends learn kite-surfing last week, equipped not only with new designs of inflatable kites shaped like pterodactyls but new kinds of harnesses shaped like medieval chastity belts and even new helmets shaped like Elizabethan sleeping caps, it occurred to me that nothing becomes obsolete so fast as something new. For it is pretty clear that the rise of kite-surfing, invented in the late 1990s, is slowly killing wind-surfing.

Carbon out, carbon in

What will happen to farm yields in a higher CO2 world?

Reputation, weather and climate

Dodgy long term forecasts spoil the reputations of good short-term forecasters

Punctured pessimists

England should no longer exist by now, according to Paul Ehrlich

Fox News has dug up some remarkable botched predictions about the environment. Most are familar but three were new to me:

Reasons to be cheerful

he outlooks is as good as it has ever been for people and their planet

Happy New Year.

I mean it. 2011 will see horrible things, no doubt, but it will also see a continuing incremental reduction in poverty, hunger, illness and suffering, plus a continuing incremental rise in most measures of human and planetary wellbeing.

Here's a fine blast of optimism from John Tierney in the New York Times. He took a bet with a peak-oiler and won hands down.