There is that thing about me: I am a strange combination of consistency and ADHD. If you have ever read one of Terry Pratchett’s novels from the ‘Discworld’ series, you probably know the imaginary character of golems: made of clay, with a logical structure – a ‘chem’ – put in their heads, they can work on something endlessly. In my head, there are chems, which just push me to do things over and over and over again. Writing and publishing on that research blog is very much in those lines. I can stop whenever I want, I just don’t want right now. Yet, when I do a lot about one chem, I start craving for another one, like nearby but not quite in the same intellectual location.
Right now, I am working on two big things. Firstly, I feel like drawing a provisional bottom line under those two years of science writing on my blog. Secondly, I want to put together an investment project that would help my city, my country and my continent, thus Krakow, Poland, and Europe, to face one of the big challenges resulting from climate change: water management. Interestingly, I started to work on the latter first, and only then I began to phrase out the former. I explain. As I work on that project of water management, which I provisionally named « Energy Ponds » (see, for example, « All hope is not lost: the countryside is still exposed »), I use the « Project Navigator », made available by the courtesy of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). The logic built into the « Project Navigator » makes me return, over and over again, to one central question: ‘You, Krzysztof Wasniewski, with your science and your personal energy, how are you aligned with that idea of yours? How can you convince other people to put their money and their personal energy into developing on your concept?’.
And so I am asking myself: ‘What’s your science, bro? What can you get people interested in, with rational grounds and intelligible evidence?’.
As I think about it, my first basic claim is that we can do it together in a smart way. We can act as a collective intelligence. This statement can be considered as a manifestation of the so-called “Bignetti model” in cognitive sciences (Bignetti 2014; Bignetti et al. 2017; Bignetti 2018): for the last two years, I have been progressively centering my work around the topic of collective intelligence, without even being quite aware of it. As I was working on another book of mine, entitled “Capitalism and Political Power”, I came by that puzzling quantitative fact: as a civilization, we have more and more money per unit of real output, and, as I reviewed some literature, we seem not to understand why is that happening. Some scholars complain about the allegedly excessive ‘financialization of the economy’ (Krippner 2005; Foster 2007; Stockhammer 2010), yet, besides easy generalizations about ‘greed’, or ‘unhinged race for profit’, no scientifically coherent explanation is offered regarding this phenomenon.
As I was trying to understand this phenomenon, shades of correlations came into my focus. I could see, for example, that growing an amount of money per unit of real output has been accompanied by growing an amount of energy consumed per person per year, in the global economy. Do we convert energy into money, or the other way around? How can it be happening? In 2008, the proportion between the global supply of broad money, and the global real output passed the magical threshold of 100%. Intriguingly, the same year, the share of urban population in the total human population passed the threshold of 50%, and the share of renewable energy in the total final consumption of energy, at the global scale, took off for the first time since 1999, and keeps growing since then. I started having that diffuse feeling that, as a civilization, we are really up to something, right now, and money is acting like a social hormone, facilitating change.
We change as we learn, and we learn as we experiment with the things we invent. How can I represent, in a logically coherent way, collective learning through experimentation? When an individual, or a clearly organized group learns through experimentation, the sequence is pretty straightforward: we phrase out an intelligible definition of the problem to solve, we invent various solutions, we test them, we sum up the results, we select seemingly the best solution among those tested, and we repeat the whole sequence. As I kept digging the topic of energy, technological change, and the velocity of money, I started formulating the outline of a complex hypothesis: what if we, humans, are collectively intelligent about building, purposefully, and semi – consciously, social structures supposed to serve as vessels for future collective experiments?
My second claim is that one of the smartest things we can do about climate change is, besides reducing our carbon footprint, to take proper care of our food and energy base. In Europe, climate change is mostly visible as a complex disruption to our water system, and we can observe it in our local rivers. That’s the thing about Europe: we have built our civilization, on this tiny, mountainous continent, in close connection with rivers. Right, I can call them scientifically ‘inland waterways’, but I think that when I say ‘river’, anybody who reads it understands intuitively. Anyway, what we call today ‘the European heritage’ has grown next to EVENLY FLOWING rivers. Once again: evenly flowing. It means that we, Europeans, are used to see the neighbouring river as a steady flow. Streams and creeks can overflow after heavy rains, and rivers can swell, but all that stuff had been happening, for centuries, very recurrently.
Now, with the advent of climate change, we can observe three water-related phenomena. Firstly, as the English saying goes, it never rains but it pours. The steady rhythm and predictable volume of precipitations we are used to, in Europe (mostly in the Northern part), progressively gives ground to sudden downpours, interspersed with periods of drought, hardly predictable in their length. First moral of the fairy tale: if we have less and less of the kind of water that falls from the sky slowly and predictably, we need to learn how to capture and retain the kind of water that falls abruptly, unscheduled. Secondly, just as we have adapted somehow to the new kind of sudden floods, we have a big challenge ahead: droughts are already impacting, directly and indirectly, the food market in Europe, but we don’t have enough science yet to predict accurately neither their occurrence nor their local impact. Yet, there is already one emerging pattern: whatever happens, i.e. floods or droughts, rural populations in Europe suffer more than the urban ones (see my review of literature in « All hope is not lost: the countryside is still exposed »). Second moral of the fairy tale: whatever we do about water management in these new conditions, in Europe, we need to take care of agriculture first, and thus to create new infrastructures so as to shield farms against floods and droughts, cities coming next in line.
Thirdly, the most obviously observable manifestation of floods and droughts is variation in the flow of local rivers. By the way, that variation is already impacting the energy sector: when we have too little flow in European rivers, we need to scale down the output of power plants, as they have not enough water to cool themselves. Rivers are drainpipes of the neighbouring land. Steady flow in a river is closely correlated with steady a level of water in the ground, both in the soil, and in the mineral layers underneath. Third moral of the fairy tale: if we figure out workable ways of retaining as much rainfall in the ground as possible, we can prevent all the three disasters in the same time, i.e. local floods, droughts, and economically adverse variations in the flow of local rivers.
I keep thinking about that ownership-of-the-project thing I need to cope with when using the « Project Navigator » by IRENA. How to make local communities own, as much as possible, both the resources needed for the project, and its outcomes? Here, precisely, I need to use my science, whatever it is. People at IRENA have experience in such project, which I haven’t. I need to squeeze my brain and extract thereof any useful piece of coherent understanding, to replace experience. I am advancing step by step. I intuitively associate ownership with property rights, i.e. with a set of claims on something – things or rights – together with a set of liberties of action regarding the same things or rights. Ownership from the part of a local community means that claims and liberties should be sort of pooled, and the best idea that comes to my mind is an investment fund. Here, a word of explanation is due: an investment fund is a general concept, whose actual, institutional embodiment can take the shape of a strictly speaking investment fund, for one, and yet other legal forms are possible, such as a trust, a joint stock company, a crowdfunding platform, or even a cryptocurrency operating in a controlled network. The general concept of an investment fund consists in taking a population of investors and making them pool their capital resources over a set of entrepreneurial projects, via the general legal construct of participatory titles: equity-based securities, debt-based ones, insurance, futures contracts, and combinations thereof. Mind you, governments are investment funds too, as regards their capacity to move capital around. They somehow express the interest of their respective populations in a handful of investment projects, they take those populations’ tax money and spread it among said projects. That general concept of investment fund is a good expression of collective intelligence. That thing about social structure for collective experimentation, which I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, an investment fund is an excellent example. It allows spreading resources over a number of ventures considered as local experiments.
Now, I am dicing a few ideas for a financial scheme, based on the general concept of an investment fund, as collectively intelligent as possible, in order to face the new challenges of climate change, through new infrastructures for water management. I start with reformulating the basic technological concept. Water powered water pumps are immersed in the stream of a river. They use the kinetic energy of that stream to pump water up and further away, more specifically into elevated water towers, from which that water falls back to the ground level, as it flows down it powers relatively small hydroelectric turbines, and ends up in a network of ponds, vegetal complexes and channel-like ditches, all that made with a purpose of retaining as much water as possible. Those structures can be connected to others, destined directly to capture rainwater. I was thinking about two setups, respectively for rural environments and for the urban ones. In the rural landscape, those ponds and channels can be profiled so as to collect rainwater from the surface of the ground and conduct it into its deeper layers, through some system of inverted draining. I think it would be possible, under proper geological conditions, to reverse-drain rainwater into deep aquifers, which the neighbouring artesian wells can tap into. In the urban context, I would like to know more about those Chinese technologies used in their Sponge Cities programme (see Jiang et al. 2018).
The research I have done so far suggests that relatively small, local projects work better, for implementing this type of technologies, than big, like national scale endeavours. Of course, national investment programmes will be welcome as indirect support, but at the end of the day, we need a local community owning a project, possibly through an investment-fund-like institutional arrangement. The economic value conveyed by any kind of participatory title in such a capital structure sums up to the Net Present Value of three cash flows: net proceeds from selling hydroelectricity produced in small water turbines, reduction of the aggregate flood-related risk, as well as of the drought-related risk. I separate risks connected to floods from those associated with droughts, as they are different in nature. In economic and financial terms, floods are mostly a menace to property, whilst droughts materialize as more volatile prices of food and basic agricultural products.
In order to apprehend accurately the Net Present Value of any cash flow, we need to set a horizon in time. Very tentatively, by interpreting data from 2012, presented in a report published by IRENA (the same IRENA), I assume that relatively demanding investors in Europe expect to have a full return on their investment within 6,5 years, which I make 7 years, for the sake of simplicity. Now, I go a bit off the beaten tracks, at least those I have beaten so far. I am going to take the total atmospheric precipitations falling on various European countries, which means rainfall + snowfall, and then try to simulate what amount of ‘NPV = hydroelectricity + reduction of risk from floods and droughts’(7 years) could the retention of that water represent.
Let’s walse. I take data from FAOSTAT regarding precipitations and water retention. As a matter of fact, I made a query of that data regarding a handful of European countries. You can have a look at the corresponding Excel file UNDER THIS LINK. I rearranged bit the data from this Excel file so as to have a better idea of what could happen, if those European countries I have on my list, my native Poland included, built infrastructures able to retain 2% of the annual rainfall. The coefficient of 2% is vaguely based on what Shao et al. (2018) give as the target retention coefficient for the city of Xiamen, China, and their Sponge-City-type investment. I used the formulas I had already phrased out in « Sponge Cities », and in « La marge opérationnelle de $1 539,60 par an par 1 kilowatt », to estimate the amount of electricity possible to produce out of those 2% of annual rainfall elevated, according to my idea, into 10-metres-high water towers. On the top of all that, I added, for each country, data regarding the already existing capacity to retain water. All those rearranged numbers, you can see them in the Excel file UNDER THIS OTHER LINK (a table would be too big for inserting into this update).
The first provisional conclusion I have to make is that I need to revise completely my provisional conclusion from « Sponge Cities », where I claimed that hydroelectricity would have no chance to pay for any significant investment in sponge-like structures for retaining water. The calculations I have just run show just the opposite: as soon as we consider whole countries as rain-retaining basins, the hydroelectric power, and the cash flow dormant in that water is just mind-blowing. I think I will need to get a night of sleep just to check on the accuracy of my calculations.
Deranging as they are, my calculations bear another facet. I compare the postulated 2% of retention in annual precipitations with the already existing capacity of these national basins to retain water. That capacity is measured, in that second Excel file, by the ‘Coefficient of retention’, which denominates the ‘Total internal renewable water resources (IRWR)’ over the annual precipitation, both in 10^9 m3/year. My basic observation is that European countries have a capacity to retain water very similar in disparity to the intensity of precipitations, measured in mm per year. Both coefficients vary in a similar proportion, i.e. their respective standard deviations make around 0,4 of their respective means, across the sample of 37 European countries. When I measure it with the Pearson coefficient of correlation between the intensity of rainfall and the capacity to retain it , it yields r = 0,63. In general, the more water falls from the sky per 1 m2, the greater percentage of that water is retained, as it seems. Another provisional conclusion I make is that the capacity to retain water, in a given country, is some kind of response, possibly both natural and man-engineered, to a relatively big amount of water falling from the sky. It looks as if our hydrological structures, in Europe, had been built to do something with water we have momentarily plenty of, possibly even too much of, and which we should save for later.
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 Bignetti, E. (2018). New Insights into “The Bignetti Model” from Classic and Quantum Mechanics Perspectives. Perspective, 4(1), 24.
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 Krippner, G. R. (2005). The financialization of the American economy. Socio-economic review, 3(2), 173-208.
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 Jiang, Y., Zevenbergen, C., & Ma, Y. (2018). Urban pluvial flooding and stormwater management: A contemporary review of China’s challenges and “sponge cities” strategy. Environmental science & policy, 80, 132-143.
 Shao, W., Liu, J., Yang, Z., Yang, Z., Yu, Y., & Li, W. (2018). Carbon Reduction Effects of Sponge City Construction: A Case Study of the City of Xiamen. Energy Procedia, 152, 1145-1151.