Unsettling Science

by | May 23, 2012

I’m a big fan of scientific videos and visualisation generally. Here’s a wonderful recent example.

There is a hazard, here though, in taking such images at face value, as is described at length on this blog. What we see in the above video is not just the planet; we see it in timelapse, we see its colours adjusted. We see the result of many $billions of scientific research, and millions of human hours of work, without seeing the work. And the images invite us to bring all sorts of presuppositions to the image. Here’s an example:

A BBC article on the history of the ‘Earthrise’ image credits it with starting the environmental movement:

These images, along with hundreds of other still pictures taken of the whole Earth during Apollo’s nine flights to the Moon, helped to drive the momentum of a burgeoning green movement during the 1970s.

They fuelled an awareness of the vulnerability of the Earth which still resonates with us today and shapes our behaviour, as Fred Hoyle predicted it would.

Al Gore, […] also suggested that such live footage of the whole Earth broadcast continuously over the internet would provide a powerful modern reminder of the fragility of our home planet – in the way that those first hand snapped Apollo pictures had done all those decades earlier.

These claims are implausible for a number of reasons. Firstly, there never has been an ‘environmental movement’ in any meaningful sense. Environmental activists need to make big noises to make up for their small numbers. More fundamentally, environmentalism has always been a preoccupation of the establishment, and they had already had their imaginations captured by the environmental narrative. Nobody ever saw the Sun or Moon rise, and said, ‘my god, don’t they look fragile’. They don’t. So why would seeing the world ever make anyone believe that it looked ‘vulnerable’. Fragility, in this case, like beauty, is very much in the eye of the beholder. The environmentalist projects his beliefs onto the image. And he flatters himself that an image changed his consciousness, not realising he was staring at his own prejudices.

Here’s a more recent example.

The image comes from an article on Huffington Post today. Claims the Huffpo,

The image above, from the USGS, shows all the world’s water — from bodies of water, glaciers, soil, water vapor and even living things — in a sphere with a diameter of 860 miles. The volume of the sphere would equal 332.5 million cubic miles.

The USGS explains that the sphere only appears small in relation to the entire Earth — the diameter of the sphere is a bit larger than the distance between Salt Lake City and Topeka, Kansas.

So far, so good, then. It’s an interesting graphic. Who hasn’t wondered how much water there is in the world, and how big it would be, if it were all in once place. But then right behind the science comes the politics…

The research comes as experts warn that increasing water scarcity is likely to contribute to political instability in Africa and elsewhere. John Kufuor, a former president of Ghana and current head of the Sanitation and Water for All partnership, told Bloomberg, “People migrate to find water anywhere if there’s a scarcity situation. People have fought wars to access water.”

Even the U.S. is not immune from water shortages. According to the EPA, more than 36 states are expecting “local, regional, or statewide” water shortages by 2013, “even under non-drought conditions.”

Just as it’s not plausible that the Earthrise image began a movement, it’s not plausible that this image speaks to us about the shortage of water on Earth. It’s volume is 332,500,000 cubic miles; enough for 80,000 Olympic swimming pools of the stuff for each person on the planet. So, getting worked up about its immanent shortage is not unlike getting worked up about there being ‘not enough food in the world’, when you simply haven’t gone to the supermarket.

The problem is one of just getting water to where it is needed. But this fact is omitted from the ‘scientific’ presentation, either of the entire world’s supply of water, or in analyses that there is insufficient rainfall in some region, to meet the needs of people living there. This of course, chimes with the imperatives of the ‘sustainability’ agenda — that our demand for water shouldn’t exceed its supply. Wars will follow.

But the corollary of this argument is that nature herself causes war. That looks to me like a pretty good argument for piping the stuff wherever nature didn’t intend it to be. In fact, it is a robust argument for not relying on ‘nature’ to deliver water at all. But things such as water supply appear to us as something determined ‘naturally’. Rob Lyons of Spiked-Online pointed out the danger of this fallacy, following the wettest ‘drought’ the UK has ever experienced,

The UK is not an especially dry country overall. The problem is that many of the wettest areas have relatively few people while the driest areas (particularly around London) are often densely populated. It should not be beyond the wit of planners to devise means to get the water to the right parts of the country. For example, while a national water grid would be expensive and (probably) overkill, it would be relatively easy to link the Severn – often engorged with water from the Welsh mountains – with the Thames, which flows through London. There’s even an existing canal between the two, currently undergoing restoration. Alternatively, we should just go the whole hog and build the capacity to desalinate a much larger chunk of the capital’s water needs.

But the main game in town right now is ‘demand management’, not ‘increasing supply’. We Brits, apparently, have the temerity to use more water than our European neighbours. We don’t tend to water our gardens using rainwater from a butt and we don’t flush our toilets using dishwater. (Though if Livingstone had his way, we wouldn’t flush very often at all. ‘If it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down’, he told a conference in 2005.) While Livingstone’s mayoral opponent, Boris Johnson has, for all his other faults, talked up the possibilities for improving infrastructure, Johnson’s Conservative colleagues in Whitehall seem to have adopted the make-do-and-mend mindset of greens.

The claims that water shortages will lead to ‘wars in Africa’ similarly misconceive the problem of not enough money as not enough water. And science turns up to show ‘look, not enough water’. Anyone who makes claims of that order is projecting onto the world.

‘Science’ and images that look ‘scientific’, then, often belie some deeply ideological preconceptions. Such a phenomenon can turn something as great in abundance as water into something scarce. Worse, it then turns that image into a motive force. It uses images of the ‘fragile’ Earth, or the volume of water to unsettle confidence in the future, which is usually only convincing to those who already believe in it. This anxiety is in turn used to then make an argument for a solution to the problem, not in which abundance, but more scarcity is created. In other words, the illusion of scarcity is a political weapon. It demands that you eschew your ambitions, desires, or interests for the promise of mere survival. Science should be about overcoming such limits, not defining them for political ends.


  1. geoffchambers

    The author of the BBC article seems to think the image must have changed us forever, because back in 1948 Fred Hoyle said it would. (Fred Hoyle is a bad choice as a prophet, since he continued to defend his “steady state” theory of the universe long after the consensus had settled on the Big Bang).
    After quoting Al Gore on the fragility of the planet, he goes on to reveal how “Goresat” – a mission “to stream a continuous live colour image of the Earth from a million miles out in space” was shelved under the Bush presidency because it “would not have helped the cause of an administration committed to a path of oil dependency”.
    Or maybe because streaming live images from a million miles away of something we can all see on GoogleEarth from closer up was a complete waste of time?
    My personal theory is that what “changed us forever” was the death of intelligent science fiction, when it was transformed from the cheap paperback to the multi-million dollar movie.

    There’s more intelligent discussion of biodiversity, sustainability, and climate catastrophe in a run-of-the-mill SF magazine of the forties or fifties than in all the UN reports ever pasted together.

  2. Alex Cull

    In Fred Hoyle’s 1957 science fiction novel “The Black Cloud”, catastrophic climate change strikes the Earth (it’s not caused by greenhouse gases, of course, but by the approach of a giant sentient cloud of interstellar particles). Periods of intense cold and intense heat alternate, killing one out of every two people in many tropical places, at one point! Floods and storms kill millions more people, then ice caps threaten to spread south, and there’s the possibility of the Gulf Stream stopping. A close-knit community of scientists are the heroes of the story, single-mindedly working against the odds to save the human race and communicate with the cloud.

    What struck me, on re-reading “The Black Cloud” recently, is that even though there’s climate catastrophe beyond the fevered dreams of Gore et al, I found the tone of the novel to be upbeat rather than gloomy. It’s about scientific curiosity about the wonders that might exist out beyond the solar system, and also about a can-do practicality in tackling whatever obstacles the boffins encounter (in the teeth of opposition from bellicose Cold War politicians). The human race and the Earth itself come across as battered but ultimately resilient.

    For me, in the light of this story, the Hoyle quote about an additional emotional dimension and the “sheer isolation of the Earth” takes on a slightly different sense to the one intended in the BBC article, and my feeling is that any suggested vulnerability would be to vast, impersonal cosmic forces, rather than to water shortages or something potentially benign like man-made CO2 (he was criticised by Rising Tide, in fact, for his idea that man-made CO2 might help to ward off the next ice age.)

  3. Vinny Burgoo

    Accessible African aquifers:


    What money can do:


    (So much desalinated water is pumped to the Saudi capital that there’s now standing water throughout the year in a wadi to the west of the city. Thanks to a massively expensive project, this standing water is no longer as stinky as its equivalent at Lake Misk to the east of Jeddah.)

  4. geoffchambers

    from Vinny’s link:

    “The spheres show how finite water and air supplies are.”

    Of course they’re finite, as opposed to infinite. The author is playing on the idea of finite = tiny. Which they’re not, except in the computer-assisted image which gives rise to this not-very-original thought.
    Cue for a history of civilisation in three sentences:
    We’ve been looking up to the starlit night sky, or down from mountain tops, or out over the ocean for thousands of years, and thinking “how insignificant we are” or how brave we are” or “how clever we are”, or whatever and transforming these thoughts into poetry, astronomy, boat-building, philosophy. Our whole civilisation is nothing but this
    Along comes a new technology, giving us virtual images, instant graphics, Google Earth, Powerpoint and it’s as if our entire culture has been wiped out by an invasion of barbarians who can’t read our sacred books. Whatever happened to “Upon a peak in fucking Darien” for fuck’s sake?
    I know I’m being an intellectual snob, but these people are just ignorant, before they’re ecological big girls’ blouses or politically motivated. They think the Earth was created by Google in seven days because they’ve never learned any better. It’s not only Keats and Herodotos they’re missing – a Flash Gordon comic would expand their intellectual horizons.

  5. Alex Cull

    Mind you, these types also existed in the overdeveloped and overpopulated nightmare that was the 3rd century AD:

    What most frequently meets our view (and occasions complaint), is our teeming population: our numbers are burdensome to the world, which can hardly supply us from its natural elements; our wants grow more and more keen, and our complaints more bitter in all mouths, whilst Nature fails in affording us her usual sustenance. In very deed, pestilence, and famine, and wars, and earthquakes have to be regarded as a remedy for nations, as the means of pruning the luxuriance of the human race…

    Tertullian: “De Anima”.

    Presumably the Earth’s “carrying capacity” had been surpassed at some point, back when the Roman Empire was at its height. It was downhill from then onwards. :)

  6. Peter S

    Fred Hoyle’s words – spoken three years after the end of the second world war (in a BBC lecture) – only predict that the “sheer isolation” associated with an “outside” photo of the earth would “have the effect of exposing the futility of nationalist strife”. This has hardly been the case.

    There is an undeniable emotional sense of sheer isolation in the Earthrise photograph. But it is the sheer isolation – and vulnerability – of the photographer… ‘floating in a tin can, far above the world’, as David Bowie’s eerie song picked up on at the time. Anyone mis-locating these emotions back onto a left object would only be exposing the futility of his own project to avoid separating from it (isolation and separation being the same thing). The claim of a ‘fragile earth’ – like that of a ‘fragile mother’ – could be a cover story for refusing to ever grow up.

    The HuffPo picture is surprising. It’s a pity the image doesn’t include a third globe showing the entire human population huddled together… perhaps it does – it would be so small as the be invisible in a picture of this size.

  7. David C

    It would be intriguing to see a similar visualisation of an apartment block big enough to hold the entire world’s population in comfort. My back-of-an-envelope calculation says that if everyone had a 75m3 living space, which is approximately what we manage with in my semi, the block would be about an 8km cube, and so completely invisible at this scale, and a good piece of anti-Malthusian propaganda.

  8. geoffchambers

    Tertullian was an old misery guts wasn’t he? Was it being a Christian which made him so pessimistic, or did he convert to Christianity because of his pessimism? And was there a Ben Pilus around to point out the importance of the difference?

  9. Alex Cull

    @ Geoff, wasn’t he just! I think his negativity was innate – may be wrong, but I believe he was one of the earliest proponents of hellfire. “How I shall admire, how I shall laugh, how exult to see the torments of the wicked”, he writes elsewhere. Its the sort of sentiment reserved nowadays for wicked climate deniers, at the prospect of us languishing in a future overheated world and facing the wrath of the righteous.

    @ Peter S, @ David C, I’m reminded of John Brunner’s 1968 SF novel (and Hugo winner) Stand on Zanzibar, the premise being that in 2010 (which is when the novel is set) the human race would occupy an area equivalent to that of Zanzibar if we all stood next to one another. Re the human race living in an 8 km cube, this degree of high-density living might even be possible in future – there are actually projects being planned at the moment (much smaller in scale!) which could be described as prototype hyperstructures or arcologies, and who knows what advances in materials technology could bring in the next few centuries? Fellow fans of Warhammer 40K will recognise these, of course, as “hive cities”. :)

  10. Mooloo

    Alex, your assumption for living space has no room for work, transport, or services.

    However if we were to inhabit a sphere the size of that ball of water shown in the article we would have a population density of 1,700 people per sq.km, which is that of Bahrain, and far under that of Hong Kong or Singapore.

    If they wanted to scare us properly, they could just show the amount of fresh water in the world. Which is surprisingly little. However it does have this annoying habit of falling out of the sky for free.

  11. Alex Cull

    @ Mooloo, the 8 km cube calculation was by David C, but you’re quite right, there would need to be more than just living space, like an ocean liner (similarly self-contained) is more than just the passenger quarters. Re rainfall, with human life concentrated in cities and with efficient agriculture, could more of the Earth’s surface be used for reservoirs, I wonder?

    OT, slightly, but on the subject of neo-Malthusians and the Earth’s carrying capacity, has anyone read about this person? Scary:

  12. geoffchambers

    Thanks Alex. That’s quite ruined my Sunday.
    None of the links from the penttilinkola site worked, (probably fortunately) but I found anus.com, which turned out to be the American Nihilist Underground Society. (latest post: The First Lecture in Hebrew Thanks to our Israeli team). They list their heroes as Ludwig van Beethoven, Theodor Herzl, Ted Kaczynski, Pentti Linkola and Friedrich Nietzsche.
    The interesting point about these graphics is not the message of any particular one, but the fact that anyone can now express ideas graphically that used to require the imagination of a science fiction writer. The naive idea has taken hold that an sf writer is to be judged by whether his predictions come true or not (as if we valued Raphael as a painter because his angels are the most true to life). This is plain silly. Arthur Clarke predicted satellite television transmission in a story in which the inventor used it to blackmail the world’s governments – with the threat to beam pornographic images to their citizens. Some threat, some prediction.
    The force of an image is a function of the civilisation in which it is created. This is why Hoyle was so wrong in his prediction of the effect of the image of the earth from space. He knew a lot about cosmology, but less about marketing, art history and graphic design. I found the image of the globe in my 1950s geography book more interesting than the space photo, since it had something called the ecliptic marked on it – something I only understood a few years ago.
    If people get nervous when shown a picture of the amount of water on the globe, or a bar chart showing trillion tons of CO2 or something, it’s a function of the poverty of their general knowledge of the world, as much as of the power of the image. People think spending hours watching David Attenborough documentaries is a substitute for thinking. It’s not. If I’d thought hard and really taken in everything on that image in my geography book when I was eleven, I’d have been a different person now – maybe even a climate scientist.

  13. Ben Pile

    Geoff – We’ve been looking up to the starlit night sky, or down from mountain tops, or out over the ocean for thousands of years, and thinking “how insignificant we are” or how brave we are” or “how clever we are”, or whatever and transforming these thoughts into poetry, astronomy, boat-building, philosophy. Our whole civilisation is nothing but this. Along comes a new technology, giving us virtual images, instant graphics, Google Earth, Powerpoint and it’s as if our entire culture has been wiped out by an invasion of barbarians who can’t read our sacred books. Whatever happened to “Upon a peak in fucking Darien” for fuck’s sake?

    This was a point I forgot to make in the post. Even if the Earthrise image does make one feel wobbly about the precariousness of life, the perspective achieved ought to inspire confidence that we are at last able to make our footing more secure. We’ve escaped ‘Spaceship Earth’ in our own spaceship, creating new rules. But the entire enterprise which culminated in the spaceship is now regarded as dangerous, where it should be a comforting story of our increasing self-dependence. We don’t need to wait for the rain to fall, we can pipe it into the desert. We don’t need to wait for organisms to grow or their decomposing bodies to accumulate under the ground for energy, we can take it out of metals.

    I wonder if what ultimately terrifies the greens and malthusians is the change of rules that is implied by self-dependence. On the green view, scarcity seems to serve as a force for discipline – if you don’t do what we say, your food will disappear. Linkola says it best: ‘A fundamental, devastating error is to set up a political system based on desire’, as though all of humanity were about no more than simply consuming. There’s clearly no point to human life on that view. The idea that it is humans — and only humans — that can reflect on purpose beyond sleeping, eating and excreting, and to arrive at one seems to escape him. So it may not be the precariousness of life that bothers environmentalists at all, but the precariousness of authority. This would explain why environmentalism is a preoccupation of the establishment.

  14. geoffchambers

    .. the entire enterprise which culminated in the spaceship is now regarded as dangerous, where it should be a comforting story of our increasing self-dependence.

    I’ve never seen a convincing account of how and why the US cut back its space programme. One commonplace argument is that everything man can do in space can be done better by robots. Another part of the conventional wisdom is that it was stingy Republicans opposed to big government. But one thing we’ve learned from the climate caper is that social causation is more complicated than we think. Certainly the Kennedy administration was shocked into action by the Russian sputnik. But now we’re looking at a Chinese colony on the moon, maybe Mars, and no-one’s bothered.
    Space exploration, like watering the deserts or eliminating malaria, is expensive, and therefore political, which means there are two opposing sides on every question, at every point of decision. Climate change and sustainability are being developed as one-sided questions, subjects on which no debate is possible. As you say, “it may not be the precariousness of life that bothers environmentalists at all, but the precariousness of authority.” This is a point that can be made politically (as a symptom of the decline in democratic debate) but is also very close to the psychoanalytic ideas put forward here by PeterS.
    I noticed that both you and PeterS had comments at BishopHill on the Myles Alllen thread – comments which were largely ignored in that very science-orientated milieu.

  15. Mooloo

    I’ve never seen a convincing account of how and why the US cut back its space programme.

    The US hasn’t cut back its space program. Only its manned space program. For the simple reason that it is very, very expensive with no financial payback and precious little non-financial reason.

    There have been similar trajectories with other explorations. For a while bathyspheres were all the rage, but once the Marianas Trench had been reached there was little need to continue to do very dangerous things merely for prestige. Sending men up in high altitude balloons was big — and then wasn’t.

    There simply is no need to send people into space.


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