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Crackpot Cummings

Economist John Maynard Keynes argued that it was better to pay an unemployed person to dig a hole and then fill it in again than it was to leave them idle and needing public and charitable support.  On the one hand, the “work” – albeit unnecessary to the wider economy – would keep the otherwise unemployed person fit and able to move back into employment as soon as the economy recovered.  More importantly, the additional demand created across the economy by the widespread use of such a scheme would replace the demand that was lost as a result of risk-averse private investors.  That is to say, it is better to invest in something entirely useless than not to invest at all.

It is in this light, perhaps, that we should judge Britain’s modern day Rasputin’s decision to plough £100 million into an entirely bogus green technology scam which claims to be able to remove carbon dioxide from the air.  The technology itself is a non-starter for reasons I set out in a November 2018 article:

“As with a raft of other faux-green technologies that were hawked around social media, like solar roadways, waterseers and hyperloops, the machine that can suck carbon dioxide out of the air will never fulfill its promise.

“To understand why, consider that the atmosphere is very big – roughly 5.5 quadrillion tons of gas.  But the carbon dioxide content is very small – just over 405 parts per million.  And humans release around 40 billion tons of the stuff every year.  So any machine that is going to attempt the task – even assuming 100 percent efficiency – would need to hoover up 2,470 tons of atmosphere to capture just 1 ton of carbon dioxide; and it would have to do this roughly a thousand times a second to keep up with our ongoing emissions.

“Even when fitted to chimneys – where the carbon dioxide is at least concentrated – carbon capture technologies have proved excessively expensive in both financial and energy terms.”

Cummings – a historian and political strategist – appears to have swallowed the mythology that surrounds characters like Apple’s Steve Jobs and Tesla’s Elon Musk, who are purported to have been able to achieve miraculous technological breakthroughs which defy the laws of physics through a combination of personal charisma and lavish funding.  In reality, Steve Jobs merely fronted up an operation which employed highly able technologists and engineers to take already proven technologies and miniaturise them so that they fit inside a smartphone; something that only applies to electronics – not to be sniffed at but not a miracle either.  Musk, by contrast is a mediocre CEO of a battery and car making enterprise who pays engineers and technologists sufficient salaries to prevent them from telling him to his face just how dumb most of his ideas are.

Given Cummings grip on power within the UK government machinery – even a barrage of establishment media hostility coupled to the usual Tory backstabbing failed to remove him after he blatantly broke the lockdown laws applied to everyone else – the “Whitehall scepticism” about his carbon capture technology may be evidence of the “crackpot realism” observed by John Michael Greer:

“Crackpot realism is one of the downsides of the division of labor. It emerges reliably whenever two conditions are in effect. The first condition is that the task of choosing goals for an activity is assigned to one group of people and the task of finding means to achieve those goals is left to a different group of people. The second condition is that the first group needs to be enough higher in social status than the second group that members of the first group need pay no attention to the concerns of the second group.

“Consider, as an example, the plight of a team of engineers tasked with designing a flying car.  People have been trying to do this for more than a century now, and the results are in: it’s a really dumb idea. It so happens that a great many of the engineering features that make a good car make a bad aircraft, and vice versa; for instance, an auto engine needs to be optimized for torque rather than speed, while an aircraft engine needs to be optimized for speed rather than torque. Thus every flying car ever built—and there have been plenty of them—performed just as poorly as a car as it did as a plane, and cost so much that for the same price you could buy a good car, a good airplane, and enough fuel to keep both of them running for a good long time.

“Engineers know this. Still, if you’re an engineer and you’ve been hired by some clueless tech-industry godzillionaire who wants a flying car, you probably don’t have the option of telling your employer the truth about his pet project—that is, that no matter how much of his money he plows into the project, he’s going to get a clunker of a vehicle that won’t be any good at either of its two incompatible roles—because he’ll simply fire you and hire someone who will tell him what he wants to hear. Nor do you have the option of sitting him down and getting him to face what’s behind his own unexamined desires and expectations, so that he might notice that his fixation on having a flying car is an emotionally charged hangover from age eight, when he daydreamed about having one to help him cope with the miserable, bully-ridden public school system in which he was trapped for so many wretched years. So you devote your working hours to finding the most rational, scientific, and utilitarian means to accomplish a pointless, useless, and self-defeating end. That’s crackpot realism.”

In this case, Cummings intends spending public money rather than his own, but other than that, his carbon sucking equivalent of a flying car is a perfect example of crackpot realism in action… and nobody in Whitehall who values his or her job is going to mention it, even though there are currently thousands of more useful ways to spend £100 million as we face the biggest recession in living memory.

At least, though, when Cumming’s machine is finally built, it will stand as a memorial which is far less likely to be thrown into the Thames as a statue of Cummings would be in the current political environment.  While it will achieve absolutely nothing in the battle against global warming, it will stand as a monument to hubris and elitist stupidity…  Perhaps we should build it on the banks of the river in Barnard Castle.

As you made it to the end…

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