Digifesto

Tag: ecology

notes about natural gas and energy policy

I’m interested in energy (in the sense of the economy and ecology of energy as it powers society) but know nothing about it.

I feel like the last time I really paid attention to energy, it was still a question of oil (and its industrial analog, Big Oil) and alternative, renewable energy.

But now energy production in the U.S. has given way from oil to natural gas. I asked a friend about why, and I’ve filled in a big gap in my understanding of What’s Going On. What I filled it in with might be wrong, but here’s what it is so far:

  • At some point natural gas became a viable alternative to oil because the energy companies discovered it was cheaper to collect natural gas than to drill for oil.
  • The use of natural gas for energy has less of a carbon footprint than oil does. That makes it environmentally friendly relative to the current regulatory environment.
  • The problem (there must be a problem) is that the natural gas collection process has lots of downsides. These downsides are mainly because the process is very messy, involving smashing into some pocket of natural gas under lots of rock and trying to collect the good stuff. Lots of weird gases go everywhere. That has downsides, including:
    • Making the areas where this is happening unlivable. Because it’s harder to breathe? Because the water can be set on fire? It’s terrible.
    • It releases a lot of methane into the environment, which may be as bad if not worse for climate change than carbon. Who knows how bad it really is? Unclear.
  • Here’s the point (totally unconfirmed): The shift from oil to natural gas as an energy source has been partly due to a public awareness and regulatory gap about the side effects. There’s now lots of political pressure and science around carbon. But methane? I thought that was an energy source (because of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome). I guess I was wrong.
  • Meanwhile, OPEC and non-OPEC have teamed up to restrict oil sales to hike up oil prices. Sucks for energy consumers, but that’s actually good for the environment.
  • Also, in response to the apparent reversal of U.S. federal interest in renewable energy, philanthropy-plus-market has stepped in with Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Since venture capital investors with technical backgrounds, unlike the U.S. government, tend to be long on science, this is just great.
  • So what: The critical focus for those interested in the environment now should be on the environmental and social impact of natural gas production, as oil has been taken care of and heavy hitters are backing sustainable energy in a way that will fix the problem if it can truly be fixed. We just have to not boil the oceans and poison all the children before they can get to it.
  • /

      If that doesn’t work, I guess at the end of the day, there’s always pigs.

Some research questions

Last week was so interesting. Some weeks you just get exposed to so many different ideas that it’s trouble to integrate them. I tried to articulate what’s been coming up as a result. It’s several difficult questions.

  • Assuming trust is necessary for effective context management, how does one organize sociotechnical systems to provide social equity in a sustainable way?
  • Assuming an ecology of scientific practices, what are appropriate selection mechanisms (or criteria)? Are they transcendent or immanent?
  • Given the contradictory character of emotional reality, how can psychic integration occur without rendering one dead or at least very boring?
  • Are there limitations of the computational paradigm imposed by data science as an emerging pan-constructivist practice coextensive with the limits of cognitive or phenomenological primitives?

Some notes:

  • I think that two or three of these questions above may be in essence the same question. In that they can be formalized into the same mathematical problem, and the solution is the same in each case.
  • I really do have to read Isabelle Stengers and Nancy Nersessian. Based on the signals I’m getting, they seem to be the people most on top of their game in terms of understanding how science happens.
  • I’ve been assuming that trust relations are interpersonal but I suppose they can be interorganizational as well, or between a person and an organization. This gets back to a problem I struggle with in a recurring way: how do you account for causal relationships between a macro-organism (like an organization or company) and a micro-organism? I think it’s when there are entanglements between these kinds of entities that we are inclined to call something an “ecosystem”, though I learned recently that this use of the term bothers actual ecologists (no surprise there). The only things I know about ecology are from reading Ulanowicz papers, but those have been so on point and beautiful that I feel I can proceed with confidence anyway.
  • I don’t think there’s any way to get around having at least a psychological model to work with when looking at these sorts of things. A recurring an promising angle is that of psychic integration. Carl Jung, who has inspired clinical practices that I can personally vouch for, and Gregory Bateson both understood the goal of personal growth to be integration of disparate elements. I’ve learned recently from Turner’s The Democratic Surround that Bateson was a more significant historical figure than I thought, unless Turner’s account of history is a glorification of intellectuals that appeal to him, which is entirely possible. Perhaps more importantly to me, Bateson inspired Ulanowicz, and so these theories are compatible; Bateson was also a cyberneticist following Wiener, who was prescient and either foundational to contemporary data science or a good articulator of its roots. But there is also a tie-in to constructivist epistemology. DiSessa’s epistemology, building on Piaget but embracing what he calls the computational metaphor, understands the learning of math and physics as the integration of phenomenological primitives.
  • The purpose of all this is ultimately protocol design.
  • This does not pertain directly to my dissertation, though I think it’s useful orienting context.

Ascendency and overhead in networked ecosystems

Ulanowicz (2000) proposes in information-theoretic terms several metrics for ecosystem health, where one models an ecosystem as a for example a trophic network. Principal among them ascendancy , which is a measure of the extent to which energy flows in the system are predictably structured weighted by the total energy of the system. He believes that systems tend towards greater ascendancy in expectation, and that this is predictive of ecological ‘succession’ (and to some extent ecological fitness). On the other hand, overhead, which is unpredictability (perhaps, inefficiency) in energy flows (“free energy”?), are important for the system’s resiliency towards external shocks.
ascendency
At least in the papers I’ve read so far, Ulanowicz is not mathematically specific about the mechanism that leads to greater ascendancy, though he sketches some explanations. Autocatalytic cycles within the network reinforce their own positive perturbations and mutations, drawing in resources from external sources, crowding out and competing with them. These cycles become agents in themselves, exerting what Ulanwicz suggests is Aristotelian final or formal causal power on the lower level components. In this way, freely floating energy is drawn into structures of increasing magnificence and complexity.

I’m reminded on Bataille’s The Accursed Share, in which he attempts to account for societal differences and the arc of human history through the use of its excess energy. “The sexual act is in time what the tiger is in space,” he says, insightfully. The tiger, as an apex predator, is flame that clings brilliantly to the less glamorous ecosystem that supports it. That is why we adore them. And yet, their existence is fragile, as it depends on both the efficiency and stability of the rest of its network. When its environment is disturbed, it is the first to suffer.
space tiger
Ulanowicz cites himself suggesting that a similar framework could be used to analyze computer networks. I have not read his account yet, though I anticipate several difficulties. He suggests that data flows in a computer network are analogous to energy flows within an ecosystem. That has intuitive appeal, but obscures the fact that some data is more valuable than others. A better analogy might be money as a substitute for energy. Or maybe there is a way to reduce both to a common currency, at least for modeling purposes.

Econophysics has been gaining steam, albeit controversially. Without knowing anything about it but based just on statistical hunches, I suspect that this comes down to using more complex models on the super duper complex phenomenon of the economy, and demonstrating their success there. In other words, I’m just guessing that the success of econophysics modeling is due to the greater degrees of freedom in the physics models compared to non-dynamic, structural equilibrium models. However, since ecology models the evolutionary dynamics of multiple competing agents (and systems of those agents), its possible that those models could capture quite a bit of what’s really going on and even be a source of strategic insight.

Indeed, economics already has a sense of stable versus unstable equilibria that resonate with the idea of stability of ecological succession. These ideas translate into game theoretic analysis as well. As we do more work with Strategic Bayesian Networks or other constructs to model equilibrium strategies in a networked, multi-agent system, I wonder if we can reproduce Ulanowicz’s results and use his ideas about ascendancy (which, I’ve got to say, are extraordinary and profound) to provide insight into the information economy.

I think that will require translating the ecosystem modeling into Judea Pearl’s framework for causal reasoning. Having been indoctrinated in Pearl’s framework in much of my training, I believe that it is general enough to subsume Ulanowicz’s results. But I have some doubt. In some of his later writings Ulanowicz refers explicitly to a “Hegelian dialectic” between order and disorder as a consequence of some of his theories, and between that and his insistence on his departure from mechanistic thinking over the course of his long career, I am worried that he may have transcended what it’s possible to do even with the modeling power of Bayesian networks. The question is: what then? It may be that once one’s work sublimates beyond our ability to model explicitly and intervene strategically, it becomes irrelevant. (I get the sense that in academia, Ulanwicz’s scientific philosophizing is a privilege reserved for someone tenured who late in their career is free to make his peace with the world in their own way) But reading his papers is so exhilarating to me. I’ve had no prior exposure to ecology before this, so his papers are packed with fresh ideas. So while I don’t know how to justify it to any of my mentors or colleagues, I think I just have to keep diving into it when I can, on the side.