Tuesday, July 29, 2014

If you knew...

If you knew that the future of the planet and the lives of billions of people and untold creatures depended upon your actions, how would you live your life?  What would you do or perhaps not do?

The fact of the matter is that the future of the world does depend upon each of our actions.   The way we eat, work, play, and raise our families is critical for all generations to follow.  As it is now, we're failing.  

The warming arctic ocean is releasing massive new quantities of methane (a "super" greenhouse gas) as clathrates on the seabed begin to melt.

Sailors transiting the Pacific now say that "The Ocean is Broken", as the abundance of marine life of only 10 years ago has all but disappeared.  

Our life support systems are failing.  If we love life, and want others to have the same chance, it's time to take responsibility and reshuffle our priorities.  Change is no longer optional.  

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Nuclear Nuttiness

Though I'm not sure he's fully learned the lesson yet, my 9 year old son Henry is certainly in the process of learning one of life's most important lessons:  Don't make a mess if you don't want to clean it up.

Unfortunately for all of us, a number of engineers and physicists over the last several decades never learned that lesson, and the mess they've created may well prove to be worst mess anyone will have to deal with.

Since its inception, nuclear power plants worldwide have operated on a "we'll figure it out later" principle when it comes to the nightmarish mess they've created with regards to waste disposal.  It should be quite clear to anyone who dares to look at the issue, that later is really never.  Aside from a new underground storage facility being constructed in Finland, I don't believe any country has successfully dealt with their waste problem.  This stuff remains dangerous for longer than human civilization has existed.

Post Fukushima, Germans decided once and for all to stop making the mess worse, and will have their plants shut down within the decade.  That's smart -- or perhaps just a sign of a functional democracy of the type that no longer exists in this country.

Being ahead of the curve as they are, the Germans are discovering that this is no small task. The costs are in the upper stratosphere, tens of billions of euros at the very least.  They do not plan to have their plants fully decommissioned until 2080, likely in an effort to stem the economic bleeding it will cause.

Incidentally, the IEA (optimistic as they've proven themselves to be) claims we have 50 years of recoverable global oil reserves. Apparently Germany plans to run the heavy equipment required for this decommissioning on fairy dust, at a time when their fuel starved industrial economy will (at the very best) be making its last whimpers.

The worst part of it is that Germany is still leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the world, whose 400+ reactors will most likely become Fukushima re-enactors as the world's industrial economies slowly blink out and take the electrical grid (which the reactors need for cooling) with them.

We've already proven to the world that we cannot handle nuclear power when things go badly, even when we're at the height of our industrial capability.   How will we fare as our economic and physical capabilities are now waning?


Our mainstream (i.e. corporately financed) media seems to be awash in propaganda these days.

This wonderful little clip on the New York Times talks about carbon capture and sequestration -- a technology -- just like "clean coal" -- which really doesn't exist on anything beyond an experimental scale for very good reasons, primarily because 1) It's enormously expensive from an energy consumption perspective (and thus from an economic perspective), 2) It's only feasible where underground rocks, wells, or mines allow the injection of CO2, and 3)  If we were to use about 25% more fuel to try and do this, it's likely to leak back out of the ground and render our efforts useless.

I don't need to link to any article about how evil Putin and his fellow Russians are these days. Flip on any TV news station or just listen to "impartial" NPR, or anyone featuring President Obama's recent speech and you'll hear the same thing. Dmitry Orlov has a somewhat different (and likely more fact based) perspective that's worth a read. Never mind the undisputed fact that the US has been jockeying for control of Ukraine and its oil fields for quite some time, as evidenced by the intercepted phone call of Victoria Nuland, or the IMF loan requirement that Ukraine's new (US supported) government regain control of Crimea and it's energy resources.

Another wonderful example of propaganda is that of my US Representative, Fred Upton. Though once reputed to be quite moderate and reasonable, he appears to have more recently seen the light. Unfortunately for the rest of us, that light shines down from corporate interests in serious conflict with the continuation of life on our planet. His latest writeup on energy policy would suggest that he (or his campaign donors, rather) feels the need to open up any environmental regulations to create an "Architecture of Abundance" with regards to US energy sources. I suspect more Americans would already be familiar with this sort of "architecture" if those of us who were already intimately familiar with it weren't subject to gag orders as a result of gas-drilling company settlements like this one, or the one imposed on Pennsylvania doctors who find themselves treating those who know more about Fred's Architecture of Abundance than they ever wanted to.

Orlov once noted that the difference between Americans and Russians is that Russian propaganda was so bad that everybody knew it was propaganda, whereas American propaganda is good enough that most of the US population falls for it.  As always, if you need to know whose views any media source represents, just look at the advertising.  I'm inclined to think that our mainstream media is really more of a "money-stream media".

Summer thoughts

I can imagine one of my pre-civil war ancestors from North Carolina, raving about the wonders of human slave labor on their farm.  Their fine home, their well maintained fields and outbuildings, or perhaps the extra cash from their slaves' labor allowing a little extra finery in their store bought clothing.

I hear similar claims of awe nowadays from people praising the wonders of modern technology. From my own perspective, these claims also ring hollow, because I've had difficulty ignoring their ultimate costs. I'm not claiming any sort of abstinence from their use (I'm typing this on a Chinese built laptop, afterall), but I do make significant efforts to avoid it, certainly when the benefits are minimal.

So exactly what are the costs?  I'm not sure people know what I'm talking about, as most people I know have done an excellent job of ignoring them.

First, let's look at modern day slavery.   Own an Apple or HP product?   Guess who made it?   Still love it? Slavery doesn't have to be of the whips & chains variety to be slavery.   Modern day slavery maintains all of the benefits of human exploitation without the outward appearances of impropriety.

Not only are we exploiting these people directly, when we buy Chinese (or from India, or a dozen other countries with similar regulations), but we're trashing their environment. US companies don't love China just for the cheap labor, they love it for the complete lack of environmental regulations. Many Chinese with the cash (extracted no doubt through the exploitation of their countrymen) are now leaving the country, often opting for places like Vancouver or London. Their own country is trashed.   Eight year old girls get lung cancer there.  Much of their farmland is permanently contaminated, and the majority of their groundwater is no longer fit to drink. Yes, the Chinese economic miracle is a miracle alright. A society which flourished for millenia has trashed their country (and our planet) for millenia to come, and all this has been accomplished in a mere couple decades.

These costs aren't just born by the Chinese, of course. They were (and perhaps still are?) building new coal fired power plants to fuel their industrial revolution at the rate of one per week. That carbon is having some far reaching effects.

First of all, we all know the climate is changing.   Despite the seeming lull as a destabilized and mortally wounded Arctic bled cold air over the eastern US last winter, we're continually posting record global temperatures. We've just logged the hottest-ever May and June.

The carbon we're dumping into the atmosphere is mixing with our oceans, creating newly acidified environments which are already dissolving calcium shells. Oyster farms in Oregon and BC are seeing production fail as the pH of their seawater drops. While some farms have the ability to deal with this problem, we can be certain that wild stocks cannot.

With phytoplankton levels down 40% globally, this is not an isolated phenomenon. Like a child whacking a land-mine with a hammer, we're tinkering with the very base of the marine food chain, all so we can text our friends while speeding along the freeway in our Prius (or Escalade, as is quite popular here in Michigan) on our way to the air-conditioned office, or perhaps for something more important, like taking the kids to soccer practice. Then again, maybe our cars are more important than whales. Or fish. Or oxygen  (the oceans supply most of the oxygen we breathe).

Ditching the car is not an easy task. I understand, and I haven't yet done it myself. Participating in industrial society isn't just a matter of fun, but a matter of survival for most anyone with the means to read this blog. But with that said, there are some changes which are relatively harmless (such as avoiding vacations to far off destinations), and which would have huge benefits. Will we make them?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The tragedy of the commons that never was

Often used as a tool to explain the downfalls of communism (or socialism, or just about any system that Goldman Sachs executives feel threatened by), most of us have come across the story of the "Tragedy of the Commons" at one time or another.

As the story goes, the commons were a communal grazing land.   Say there are 10 villagers who graze their sheep on the commons.  Villager Joe (an early ancestor of Joe Six-Pack) comes to the crafty realization that he can make more money by grazing more sheep on the commons.  After sighting Joe cruising around the village in his shiny new Escalade, his fellow villagers quickly follow suit.  Before long, the commons are overgrazed to the point where they won't support any sheep at all.  Starvation and mayhem ensue.   Better to have left that commons in the caring hands of a private corporation, as it turns out.   Thank goodness we've dodged THAT bullet here in the good 'ol capitalist USA!

Told as it is to modern day Americans, this story seems quite logical and believable.  That's because modern day Americans have lost two important bits of knowledge that would've been common sense to Joe and his fellow villagers.

The first bit of knowledge is what it means to be part of a community.

The fact of the matter is that in a typical community where grazing of the commons was practiced (this was and is still quite common in many parts of the world), there was a real community.  People not only knew each other, they actually depended upon each other.  Nobody was anonymous.

If it became known that you were taking more than your fair share of the commons, you would likely discover that your neighbor was no longer interested in helping you put up your hay, or that the village shoemaker might have trouble fitting you into his schedule.   In a village where these people are your only options, that's a serious problem.   You don't have the option to just drive to the Wal-Mart in the next town.  Keeping your village relations in good standing wasn't just a matter of pride, but a matter of survival.

The second (though somewhat less important) bit of knowledge that most Americans lack is that of human labor capacity.  In our fleeting era of fossil fueled extravagance, the sky (or your cash reserve) is the limit to what one person might accomplish.   In the era of human powered everything that dominates the story of our existence, limits to human activity are much more pronounced.   The fact of the matter is that Villager Joe couldn't have cut any more hay (using a scythe and rake) to feed his sheep through the winter than anybody else could, thus ensuring that any thoughts on increasing his grazing herd would be fleeting at best.

So does this mean that I think socialism trumps capitalism?   The answer is yes.  But it's also no.  I think that most all societies, before the advent of the industrial era, functioned on a far more socialized basis, and functioned well, for hundreds or thousands of years.

With the advent of industrialization came the anonymity of life in large cities, easy transportation over long distances, and the collapse of real community.  Under these conditions, socialism fails spectacularly, but then again so does capitalism (checked the health of our planetary life support systems lately?).

The answer, as always, is de-industrialization.  The declining state of our fossil energy reserves ensure we're already headed in that direction, whether we like it or not.  If we arrive in denial, kicking and screaming, we're not likely to survive the landing.  If we acknowledge this and make preparations for a softer landing, we might survive the century.   Many are already convinced (and rightfully so, imho) that humans will be extinct by our own hands within a few decades.

The transition to a de-industrialized economy isn't made through some grand declaration by political leaders, or some "born again" event on the individual level.   It's made by each one of us a hundred times a day, in how we choose to spend our time and money.   How will you spend yours?