Thursday, March 24, 2022

An Essay I Had Forgotten Writing

The Tolkien Puzzle: J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter, Inquiry, December 19, 1977, pp. 20-21[1]


The success of J.R.R. Tolkien is a puzzle, for it is difficult to  imagine a less contemporary writer. He was a Catholic, a conservative, and a scholar in a field-philology-that many of his readers had never heard of. The Lord of the Rings fitted no familiar category; its success virtually created the field of “adult fantasy.” Yet it sold millions of copies, and there are tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of readers who find Middle Earth a more important part of their internal landscape than any other creation of human art, and who know the pages of The Lord of the Rings the way some Christians know the Bible.

Humphrey Carpenter’s recent Tolkien: A Biography, published by Houghton Mifflin, is a careful study of Tolkien’s life, including such parts of his internal life as are accessible to the biographer. His admirers will find it well worth reading. We learn details, for instance, of Tolkien’s intense, even sensual love for language; by the time he entered Oxford, he knew not only French, German, Latin, and Greek, but Anglo-Saxon, Gothic and Old Norse. He began inventing languages for the sheer pleasure of it and when he found that a language requires a history and a people to speak it he began inventing them too. The language was Quenya, the people were the elves. And we learn, too, some of the sources of his intense pessimism, of his feeling that the struggle against evil is desperate and almost hopeless and all victories at best temporary.

Carpenter makes no attempt to explain his subject’s popularity but he provides a few clues, the most interesting of which is Tolkien’s statement of regret that the English had no mythology of their own and that at one time he had hoped to create one for them, a sort of English Kalevala. That attempt became The Silmarillion, which was finally published this fall, three years after the author’s death; its enormous sales confirm Tolkien’s continuing popularity. One of the offshoots of The Silmarillion was The Lord of the Rings.

What is the hunger that Tolkien satisfies? George Orwell described the loss of religious belief as the amputation of the soul and suggested that the operation, while necessary, had turned out to be more than a simple surgical job. That comes close to the point, yet the hunger is not precisely for religion, although it is for something religion can provide. It is the hunger for a moral universe, a universe where, whether or not God exists, whether or not good triumphs over evil, good and evil are categories that make sense, that mean something. To the fundamental moral question “why should I do (or not do) something,” two sorts of answers can be given. One answer is “the reason you feel you should do this thing is because your society has trained you (or your genes compel you) to feel that way.” But that answers the wrong question. I do not want to know why I feel that I should do something; I want to know why (and whether) I should do it. Without an answer to that second question all action is meaningless. The intellectual synthesis in which most of us have been reared — liberalism, humanism, whatever one may call it — answers only the first question. It may perhaps give the right answer but it is the wrong question.

The Lord Of The Rings is a work of art, not a philosophical treatise; it offers, not a moral argument, but a world in which good and evil have a place, a world whose pattern affirms the existence of answers to that second question, answers that readers, like the inhabitants of that world, understand and accept. It satisfies the hunger for a moral pattern so successfully that the created world seems to many more real, more right, than the world about them.

Does this mean, as Tolkien’s detractors have often said, that everything in his books is black and white? If so, then a great deal of literature, including all of Shakespeare, is black and white. Nobody in Hamlet doubts that poisoning your brother in order to steal his wife and throne is bad, not merely imprudent or antisocial. But the existence of black and white does not deny the existence of intermediate shades; gray can be created only if black and white exist to be mixed. Good and evil exist in Tolkien’s work, but his characters are no more purely good or purely evil than are Shakespeare’s.

One illustration of this, and one of the richnesses of The Lord of the Rings, is the variety of patterns of temptation and redemption woven through the book. The satanic enemy, Sauron, “was not always evil”; he is apparently, like Lucifer, a fallen angel. Gollum, a twisted being with a taste for anything (or anyone) he can sneak up behind, gradually develops into a character for whom the reader feels sympathy and even affection and comes within a hairbreadth of being redeemed. Boromir yields to the temptation of the ring, tries to take it by force, fails, repents, and dies bravely, fighting to protect his weaker companions. His father, Denethor, yields not to the desire for power but to despair, killing himself in the belief that the city over which he is Steward has lost its long struggle with Sauron, at the very instant when in fact the tide has turned. To balance him there is his ally Theoden, who rises from age and despair to fight and die, with honor and glory, outside the walls of the same city. Many more examples could be given; for all Tolkien’s characters, human or nonhuman, diabolic or semidivine, free will is a constant reality and the potential for both good and evil always present.

Is The Lord of the Rings religious? Yes and no. There is a religious pattern but it is kept far in the background; there are no churches, no priests, no organized religion of any kind. So far as I can remember, the only direct reference to God is in the appendix. And while it is clear enough that certain characters are more than human, precisely what they are is left deliberately vague.

God, or the gods, cannot intervene often and openly in human affairs without being reduced, as in Homer, to being merely humans with supernatural powers or reducing the plot to a series of dei ex machinis. But there is a more fundamental reason why Tolkien does not clarify the “religious” background of his world. In “On Fairy Stories,” an extraordinary essay written some years before The Lord of the Rings was published, Tolkien discussed the enchanted realm of Faery. If we understood entirely how the magic of Faery worked it would no longer be Faery but only a peculiar, perhaps imaginary, corner of our cold world. Tolkien’s task is precisely the opposite. “Faery contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread.” By showing us the walking forest of Fangorn and the stars over Kirith Ungol, Tolkien seeks to give back to stars and trees some part of that beauty and mystery that is by right theirs.

Whatever its purpose for Tolkien, the remoteness of religion in The Lord of the Rings strengthens its effect for us. A story set in the Catholic world in which Tolkien undoubtedly believed would not have moved us so deeply, although that world is as much a moral universe as Middle Earth. We all know that the Pope is not infallible, that priests have no supernatural powers, that Catholicism is a superstition of uneducated or self-deceiving people. These things may or may not be true, but we know them. Catholicism, indeed Christianity, is part of our world, and a part that has been, for most of us, debunked. Tolkien’s friends and contemporaries, C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams, wrote stories set in the modern world as seen by a believing Christian; they seem more fantastic than Tolkien’s and less believable.

I have now given at least a partial answer to the puzzle of Tolkien’s success. We hunger for meaning, value, pattern, a universe that, morally speaking, makes sense. One of the functions of religion is to satisfy that hunger. For most of us, whatever church we do or do not attend, religion is dead and we are starving. We attempt to fill the void, often with patterns less sophisticated and less plausible than those we have abandoned — political crusades, environmental fanaticism, Hare Krishna. Tolkien gives us instead what we desperately want, in the form of an imaginative creation of great power and subtlety. Escape, as Tolkien has himself written, is not necessarily a bad thing; it depends on what you are escaping from. But he intended his work to be more than merely a fantasy within which one takes refuge from the real world. He intended it rather as a vehicle for what he called recovery, a way in which, through the imaginative creation, we could see the nature of the world in which we live, a world both beautiful and perilous. Tolkien did not, of course, believe that the accidents of the world he had created were literally true, despite the loving scholarship he lavished on them. Nor was he in any sense writing allegory. Rather he tried to create a world which was in its essence true, and through which we could see our own world, not as custom and stale familiarity taught us to see it, but as he believed it to be.

[1] This is a very old article of mine that I found on the Inquiry Archive of the Unz Review. I have edited it lightly, mostly by the removal of surplus commas.


Friday, March 18, 2022

Land Gained and Lost: A Fermi Estimate

Climate change affects the amount of land usable by humans in at least three different ways. Land is lost through sea level rise. Land is lost because it becomes too hot for human use. Land is gained because it becomes warm enough for human use. Exact calculations of the size of all three effects, if possible at all, would require much more expertise and effort than I am bringing to the problem so what I offer are Fermi estimates, numbers based on very crude approximations. For all three estimates I will be assuming warming of 3°C above current temperatures and sea level rise of .6 m above present sea level, roughly what the latest IPCC report projects for the end of the century under SSP3-7.0.

Land Lost to Sea-level Rise

The amount of land lost equals the length of coastline times the amount by which it shifts in. For the total length of the world’s coastline I found a figure of 356,000 km. The amount by which coastline shifts in with a given amount of sea level rise depends on the slope of the coastal land. I came across a figure of a hundred feet of shift for every foot of sea level rise in a book discussing the situation on the U.S. Atlantic coast; since I do not have figures for every coast in the world, I will use that.

60m coastline shift x 356,000 km of coastline = 21,436 km2

That is my very approximate estimate of land lost to sea level rise.

Land Lost to Rising Temperature

How much does temperature rise in hot parts of the world with 3° more of global warming? Figure SPM.5b of the latest IPCC report[1] shows a map of projected average temperature change due to a 4° increase relative to 1850-1900 in average global temperature, roughly 3° relative to current temperature. Parts of the Earth that are both hot and densely populated appear to warm by a little less than the global average. Table 11.SM.2 shows the effect of different levels of global warming on maximum temperatures. It looks from that as though 3° of global warming would raise the maximum temperature of the relevant regions[2] by about 3°. So if we knew at what temperature, average or maximum, the Earth’s surface becomes too hot for human habitation, we could conclude that any area currently within three degrees of that would, with our assumed level of global warming, become too hot for humans.

The simplest approach to doing this is to compare a map of global temperature (Figure1 ) to a map of population density (Figure 2) and see at what temperature population density goes to close to zero. Comparing the two maps we observe that while the coldest areas of the globe are essentially empty, the hottest are not; some, such as the Philippines, Senegal, and Malaysia, are densely populated. If there is a temperature at which the Earth’s surface becomes unliveable, these maps do not show it. Our estimate of the amount of land lost by the direct effect of heating, calculated in this way, is zero.

We may be able to do a little better by looking at data on cities. The hottest city, by average temperature, is Assab, Eritrea, at 30.5°C, with several others nearly that warm. Hence we can conclude that any city whose average temperature after climate change is less than 30.5° will not be unliveably hot while cities whose temperature is higher than that might be. There are 28 cities with an average temperature of 28°C or more. Their a combined population is about 33 million, which is roughly .7% of the urban population of the world. If we use urban population ratio as a very rough proxy for total population ratio and that as a very rough proxy for land ratio and calculate.7% of the non-arctic land area of Earth, we get 

149 million km2 (Land area) – 5.5 million (Antarctica) - .8 million (Greenland) = 143 million km2

143 million km2 x.007 = 1 million km2

That gives us a very approximate upper bound for the amount of land that becomes unlivable due to global temperature increasing by three degrees. It is only an upper bound because we do not know that a city would be unliveable at an average temperature of 31°, only that there are no cities that hot.

Both of these calculations are based on average temperature. Arguably what habitability depends on is be maximum temperature. If it gets unendurably hot during a summer day, the fact that winter nights are cold is little compensation.

Figure 3 is the equivalent of Figure 1 for maximum temperatures. The highest temperature regions it shows include densely populated parts of India as well as more sparsely populated parts of Africa and Arabia. Insofar as one can tell from that map, there are no places large enough to show on the map where maximum temperatures are too high for human habitation. It is possible that some would be that hot after an additional three degrees of warning but the combined evidence of Figures 2 and 3 suggests not, since some of the hottest regions are densely populated.

I have been defining usable land as land humans can live on. While there are parts of Earth that seem crowded, average land per person is about five acres, so human populations are not limited by the amount of space to put them in. They might, however, be limited by not enough land to feed them, so it might make more sense to define usable land as land suitable for growing crops.

Is there any significant amount of land that is too hot to grow crops? So far as I can tell, there is not. Maps showing yield of various crops can be found online; some regions with high average and maximum temperatures show substantial yields. The yields shown are averaged over countries, but a map of agriculture in India shows crops being grown across areas within India of both high average and high maximum temperature.

My conclusion from these calculations is that there is probably no substantial amount of land area that will become either uninhabitable or unable to grow crops solely because of temperature with global warming of 3°C.

This does not mean that there is no area that will become either uninhabitable or unable to grow crops as a result of global warming, only that there is no area where it will happen solely because of temperature. Looking at Figure 2, one observes a wide region of northern Africa with almost nobody living there — the Sahara. That area is less hot than some populated regions, so temperature is not the entire reason it is empty, but it can be, almost surely is, part of the reason, so increased temperature might expand it.

On the other hand, the latest IPCC report suggests the possibility that climate change might have the opposite effect:

Some climate model simulations suggest that under future high-emissions scenarios, CO2 radiative forcing causes rapid greening in the Sahel and Sahara regions via precipitation change (Claussen et al., 2003; Drijfhout et al., 2015). For example, in the BNU-ESM RCP8.5 simulation, the change is abrupt with the percentage of bare soil dropping from 45% to 15%, and percentage of tree cover rising from 50% to 75%, within 10 years (2050-2060) (Drijfhout et al., 2015). However, other modelling results suggest that this may  be a short-lived response to CO2 fertilization (Bathiany et al., 2014).

In summary, given outstanding uncertainties in how well the current generation of climate models capture land-surface feedbacks in the Sahel and Sahara, there is low confidence that an abrupt change to a greener state will occur in these regions before 2100 or 2300.

Figuring out all consequences of climate change for the amount of land available for human use is a much more complicated problem than I am trying to solve.

Land Gained Due to Rising Temperature

Human land use at present is limited by cold, not heat, as shown on Figure 2 above — the equator is populated, the polar regions are not. It follows that global warming, by shifting temperature contours towards the poles, should increase the amount of land warm enough for human habitation. Making Antarctica habitable would require a lot more than three degrees of global warming and the southernmost land masses north of it are already inhabited, so any land gains from warming will be in the northern hemisphere.

Figure 11.SM.1 of the sixth IPCC report shows minimum temperature of areas such as North America and Northern Asa going up by between 2 and 3.4 degrees per degree of global warming. Since warming is greater in colder climates, I take 3 degrees per degree as a reasonable guess for the increase in temperature in the northern part of those zones. It follows that three degrees of global warming will increase the temperature in the colder parts of those zones by about nine degrees. To estimate how much land will shift from not quite habitable to at least barely habitable we need two numbers — what length of the contour dividing barely habitable from not quite habitable is over land and how far a nine degree increase in temperature will shift it.

It seems likely that habitability depends more on minimal temperature than on average temperature. Figure 4 shows temperatures in January, which should be close to the minimum, with contours every five degrees — much more precise information than Figure 1 provides for average temperatures. Combining the temperature information on Figure 4 with the population density information on Figure 2, the border of habitability appears to be at about -15°C. Nine degrees of warming will raise the January temperature of land currently at -24° to -15°, so shift the land between those two contours from not quite habitable to barely habitable. I estimate the distance between the -15° and -25° contours to average about 800 km, making the distance between -15° and -24° about 720 km, and the length over land of those contours to total about 15,000 km. Hence the area between them is about 10,800,000 km2.

This land is being warmed from not quite habitable to at least barely habitable, from a population density of less than two per square km to a population density of more than two but in some areas less than ten. At the same time, the land a little farther south is being warmed from barely habitable to more than barely habitable, and the land south of that …  . Combining those effects, 10.5 million square km is a rough estimate of the increase in fully usable land.

The analysis so far has used population density as the measure of habitability. As I suggested earlier, it may make more sense to use the ability to grow crops. Crop production maps for Canada and Russia show crops growing in about the same areas that appear habitable by population density, so I have not tried to redo the calculation on that basis.


On the basis of these calculations, I find, for the effect of climate change by the end of the century under SSP3-7.0:

Loss of usable land by flooding due to sea level rise: 21,436 km2

Loss of usable land due to the direct effect of warming: Probably close to zero, with one calculation giving an upper bound of one million km2.

Increase of usable land due to the direct effect of warming: 10.8 million km2.

All of these numbers are very approximate but they imply a large net increase, due to climate change, in the amount of land usable by humans — more than twice the area of the United States. They also imply that nearly five hundred times as much land is gained through warming as is lost through sea level rise, which makes it odd that only the latter is commonly included in discussions of the effects of climate change.

P.S. Two commenters on this in different places asked why I didn't discuss other work along these lines and one of them provided a link to “Climate change impacts on global agricultural land availability” by Xiao Zhang and Ximing Cai 2011 Environ. Res. Lett. 6. It is a more elaborate analysis than mine, focusing on the amount of arable land and trying to take account of a  wider range of constraints including soil quality and humidity. It finds increases in some regions, decreases in others, with the net effect, not including land not available because of population increase, ranging from -.8 million km2 to +1.2 million km2. Details of their analysis are difficult to extract from the article — I could not tell, for example, whether the effect of CO2 fertilization on the water requirement of plants is one of the effects they take into account. The analysis in this chapter is less sophisticated but much easier for the reader to audit, to figure out what I am doing and whether to trust the result.

A similar calculation is done in Ramankutty N et al 2002,  The global distribution of cultivable lands: current patterns and sensitivity to possible climate change,” Global Ecol. Biogeogr. 11 377–92. That article explicitly takes account of the reduction in water requirements due to CO2 fertilization. The authors conclude “In the GCM-simulated climate of 2070–99, we estimate an increase in suitable cropland area of 6.6 million km2.” Since I am estimating land warm enough for human use and they are estimating land suitable for cultivation, taking account of a variety of constraints, it is not surprising that their figure is lower than mine. The Sahara, for example, is warm enough for human use — there are densely populated regions that are warmer — but not suitable for cultivation.


This is a draft of a chapter for a book I am working on. I am looking for two sorts of comments:

1. Easy ways of doing my calculations better. There are obviously ways I could make my results more accurate by more complicated calculations but since I don't really care if the real number is twice mine or half it, that isn't worth doing. On the other hand, if there are ways just as easy but smarter, giving a more reliable result, I am interested.

2. Major mistakes. My conclusions are pretty dramatic and I want to know if they are, for some reason, wildly wrong.

[1] This and other references to IPCC figures in this chapter are to IPCC AR6 WGI Full Report.

[2] SAS, EAS, SEA, and CAF in the table.


Sunday, March 13, 2022

Thoughts on Ukraine

My comment at the beginning of the invasion was that, in order for the Russians to lose, their military would have to be substantially worse than believed, the Ukrainian military substantially better. At this point both conditions have been met. While Russia might still be able to win the military conflict, it looks to me as though their strategy now depends on besieging Ukrainian cities in order to threaten to starve the population in the hope that that will force the Ukrainian government to make substantial concessions. 

If my interpretation of the situation is correct, Putin now knows that the invasion was a mistake. The problem is that saying so and withdrawing make him look very bad, possibly resulting in his fall from power. At the same time, if it becomes clear that Russia cannot win, that the most it can do is to destroy a lot more Ukrainian property and kill a lot more Ukrainians, Zelinsky will be reluctant to agree to any terms that make it look as though Russia had gained something by the invasion. That raises the question of whether there is any agreement that would let both sides claim to their own people to have won. 

Hence my suggested terms, conditional on its being reasonably clear that Russia cannot win a military victory:

Both sides agree to referenda in the Crimea and the Donbass region, conducted by a neutral party. If a majority in the Crimea vote to join Russia, Ukraine — and, presumably, other countries supporting it — agree to accept Russian annexation of Crimea. If a majority in Donbass vote for independence, Ukraine agrees to accept it. If, on the other hand, a majority in either region votes to be part of Ukraine, Russia agrees to accept that.

When the agreement is made, Putin can claim that of course Russia will win both referenda, hence getting the result it wants. Zelinsky can claim that he is agreeing not because of the Russian military threat but because Ukraine believes in democracy. The actual referendum happens after the Russian military has withdrawn from Ukraine, so if things don't go the way Putin wants he can complain that the referendum wasn't done properly but stop short of repeating the failed invasion. In fact, I expect Russia will win in Crimea, thus actually getting something it wants — international recognition of its seizure. 

What happens in Donbass partly depends on whether the referendum is for the whole province or only the parts that have been under Russian and secessionist control. That is a high stakes gamble for both sides. A referendum in the whole province might result in Ukraine losing territory it has been controlling — but also might result in Russia losing territory it has been controlling, since the rest of the province may not be enthusiastically pro-Russian, especially after being invaded. Whichever way the referendum goes happens after the Russian army has left Ukraine, unlikely to return any time soon.

Two further points on the general issue. 

1. I think the Ukrainian charges of genocide are pretty clearly wrong. The Russian military is obviously willing to kill Ukrainian civilians but if killing as many Ukrainian civilians as possible were its objective I expect a lot more would be dead by now. As I interpret their strategy, what they want are not corpses but hostages, people in cities whom they can threaten to starve if Ukraine does not agree to their terms. That doesn't work if the people are already dead.

2. I cannot make sense of Biden's claim that we cannot deliver Polish fighter jets to Ukraine because that would be a dangerous escalation. It would be an escalation if fighter jets piloted by NATO pilots entered the war. It would be an escalation if Ukrainian jets were engaged in military operations from NATO bases. But fighter jets are military equipment and we have been delivering military equipment to Ukraine throughout the war. If we turn a fighter jet, possibly unarmed (no missiles attached), over to a Ukrainian pilot at a U.S. air base and he flies it to a Ukrainian air base, how is that any different from our sending a truck full of anti-tank missiles or Turkish drones across the Polish border? How is it different if an American pilot, or perhaps a Polish pilot, with strict orders not to engage Russian targets, flies it to a Ukrainian air base to turn over to a Ukrainian pilot?

Friday, March 04, 2022

More on my European Speaking Trip

My present plans are to speak at Libertycon in Prague on April 23rd, in Bratislava on the 26th, in Durham on May 2nd and at the IEA (lunch) and ASI (dinner) in London on May 4th. Since I try to keep such trips down to about two weeks I plan to fly to Prague about the 21st, giving me a day to recover from jet lag, and  fly home about May 5th. 

I have a possible but not yet definite talk in Sweden about April 30th. So if anyone in Europe (not, at the moment, including Russia, Belorussia, or Ukraine, unfortunately) wants a talk that can be squeezed into that schedule, let me know.