Sunday, August 12, 2018

My Plastic Fantastic Love Affair

"Composers and decomposers co-evolved in an endless dance."

Her neon mouth with a bleeding talk smile
 Is nothing but electric sign
 You could say she has an individual style
 She’s a part of a colorful time

 Super-sealed lady, chrome-color clothes
 You wear ’cause you have no other
 But I suppose no one knows
 You’re my plastic fantastic lover

 Your rattlin’ cough never shuts off
 Is nothing but a used machine
 Your aluminum finish, slightly diminished
 Is the best I’ve ever seen

 Cosmetic baby, plug into me
 And never, ever find another
 And I realize no one’s wise
 To my plastic fantastic lover

 The electrical dust is starting to rust
 Her trapezoid thermometer taste
 All the red tape is mechanical rape
 Of the TV program waste

 Data control and I.B.M.
 Science is mankind’s brother
 But all I see is draining me
 On my plastic fantastic lover
— “Plastic Fantastic Lover” written by Marty Balin, Jefferson Airplane

I am addicted to plastic. How can I freak out about the sea mammals drowning in plastic nets and six-pack packaging, or the seagulls eating lighters and condoms off the beach, when I give no second thought to picking up a plastic comb in an airport shop, even if I decline the plastic bag? 
For most of history, combs were made of almost any material humans had at hand, including bone, tortoiseshell, ivory, rubber, iron, tin, gold, silver, lead, reeds, wood, glass, porcelain, papier-mâché. But in the late nineteenth century, that panoply of possibilities began to fall away with the arrival of a totally new kind of material — celluloid, the first man-made plastic. Combs were among the first and most popular objects made of celluloid. And having crossed that material Rubicon, comb makers never went back. Ever since, combs generally have been made of one kind of plastic or another.

The word plastic comes from the Greek verb plassein, which means “to mold or shape.” The flexibility derives from long, bouncey chains of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms arrayed in repeating patterns that behave like a snake’s skin. 

Snakeskin is a good example, because biology has been knitting these molecular daisy chains for hundreds of millions of years. The cellulose that makes up the cell walls in reptiles is a polymer. So are the DNA proteins that code the polymeric stems and flowers of daisies, and our muscles, skin and bones, and the long spiraling ladders that entwine the genetic destinies of daisies and bones, DNA. Take some of these protein chains, rearrange them slightly, and you get a dancing line of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen, their choreography dictating specific productions of polymers. 
“Bring chlorine into that molecular conga line, and you can get polyvinyl chloride, otherwise known as vinyl; tag on fluorine, and you can wind up with that slick nonstick material Teflon.” — Susan Freinkel, author of PLASTIC: A Toxic Love Story
Take just a moment and lets walk back a step. The dancing line of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen were no more than air and water, rearranged. But now we throw in chlorine and fluorine and what happens? Permanence. That substance has withdrawn from the contract with nature whereby all things must return full cycle, each with its own sunset clause. 

The first artificial plastics — celluloid combs developed in 1869 by a young inventor in upstate New York — arrived at a moment of cultural transition. The turn of the 20th Century marked the birth of the consumer culture, the global switch from growing and preparing your own food and making your own clothing (unless you were aristocracy) to consuming mass market simulacra from factories. As historian Jeffrey Meikle pointed out in American Plastic:
 “By replacing materials that were hard to find or expensive to process, celluloid democratized a host of goods for an expanding consumption-oriented middle class.” 

Or as Susan Freinkle put it, plastics “offered a means for Americans to buy their way into new stations in life.”

They also offered a way for air and water to shirk their stations in life.

Unintended Consequences

Cellulose was a gateway drug. In 1907, Leo Baekeland combined cancerous formaldehyde with phenol derived from foul-smelling and nasty coal tar, and voila! His Bakelite was a tough, slick polymer that could be precisely molded and machined into nearly anything.
Families gathered around Bakelite radios (to listen to programs sponsored by the Bakelite Corporation), drove Bakelite-accessorized cars, kept in touch with Bakelite phones, washed clothes in machines with Bakelite blades, pressed out wrinkles with Bakelite-encased irons — and, of course, styled their hair with Bakelite combs. “From the time that a man brushes his teeth in the morning with a Bakelite-handled brush until the moment when he removes his last cigarette from a Bakelite holder, extinguishes it in a Bakelite ashtray and falls back upon a Bakelite bed, all that he touches, sees, uses will be made of this material of a thousand purposes,” Time magazine enthused in 1924 in an issue that sported Baekeland on the cover. — Susan Feinkel
Bakelite inspired companies like DuPont, Dow and Eastman to get into the race. Discoveries followed and mass production of plastic products commenced. But Bakelite introduced something new to nature that was largely unappreciated at the time. Once those molecules were linked into a daisy chain, they couldn’t be unlinked. Microbes don’t care to spend the energy required to break those tough bonds if they can find food elsewhere more easily. 

You can break a piece of Bakelite, but you can’t make it into something else. It does not degrade. It never goes away. This is why you’ll still find vintage Bakelite phones, frames, radios and combs that look nearly brand-new, and why today plastic debris is piling up on land and in the open ocean, in the entrails of dead whales on shorelines and in living crustaceans on the deepest seabed of the Marianas Trench. 

In nature nothing is permanent. Everything is food for someone else. Composers and decomposers co-evolved in an endless dance —a harmony and rhythm that defines life. There is birth and there is death. But we could not accept that.

In the last half-century, there have been many drastic changes to the surface of our planet, but one of the most astonishing is the ubiquity and abundance of plastic. Even if we go extinct, that plastic will persist. We have only slowly moved from thinking of this as an aesthetic problem — litter and flotsam — to grokking that the choking and entanglement of wildlife threatens us. Dead reefs and red tides are sending warnings: destroy the marine food chain and you’ll choke your own. 

I find this addiction particularly difficult to break. And yet, break it we all must. There are ways. I will explore these in future installments, so please come back.

This is the first installment in what I expect to be a long, albeit perhaps intermittent, string of essays, with the goal of eventually producing a book. Donors at the Power Up! tier on my Patreon page receive an autographed copy off the first press run. Reader donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how I make this happen. Please help if you can.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Readying the mind

"We are not going to reprogram a neocortex that took millions of years to program as if it were BASIC."

Putting on my tasseled cap as the professor for a moment, I have a student who comes to me often, but is not ready to hear what I have to say. He is combative, contentious, disrespectful. He stops his ears to my advice. He thinks he knows better, but he keeps coming back, peppering me with more questions.

What should I do?

The old saw is, there are no such things as bad questions, only bad answers. I am beginning to think that, while humorous, that is wrong. I have been giving good answers but my student is unready to hear them. I think the student needs to evolve a bit more clarity of his own to be able to catch my meaning.

I am trying to think what might be some good homework. The student needs a challenge, an ordeal; something to instill receptivity. Short of recommending a shamanic conversation with some medicinal plants, I looked to my bookshelf to find some recent literature that might broaden his perspective.

The books I was about to recommend were The Diamond Cutter by Michael Roach, The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann and Tribe by Sebastian Junger. Then I picked up The New York Times Magazine for August 1, 2018 and read the book-length article by Nathaniel Rich, Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change. '

His assignment starts there.

Rich’s tale begins in Spring, 1979, but let’s first go back another 3 years, to when I was recovering from a fall off a roof that had punctured a lung. Confined to The Farm’s infirmary, I was living in a stuffed recliner and forced to make the best of that old wooden building’s limited supply of reading materials. I latched onto a college mathematics textbook and taught myself computer programing, or more specifically, Dartmouth BASIC. From here this story could have swerved into my new career as a blackbox hacker who decided to go to Cupertino and meet Steve Wozniak, or to Australia to tutor a young Julian Assange. Instead, I next lifted a dog-eared issue of High Times from the Clinic’s magazine rack and was drawn to a story about giant mutant sponges in San Francisco Bay — a real life story of radioactive chaos attributable to the Navy’s decision to dump its submarine waste into the ocean.

That led to my taking the Tennessee Bar Exam and going four times before the US Supreme Court in my Quixotic attempt to shut down global nuclear power. That is where I was at age 32 in the Spring of 1979, when I first encountered MITRE, or the shadowy figures Rich calls The Jasons.

While Rich’s protagonists, Rafe Pomerance, Gordon MacDonald, and James Hansen were starting to stir the pot about climate change, I was tilting at radioactive windmills. No doubt I crossed paths with those guys in the marbled halls of the Capitol. Standing in a white tablecloth buffet queue at the Sheraton one time, I remarked to Ralph Nader, just behind me in the queue, that he should seriously think about whether “consumer rights” was a good frame. In that small world, I sat in on Hansen’s famous tutorial to a Joint Congressional Committee. I later used it to open the story line in my 1989 book, Climate in Crisis: The Greenhouse Effect and What We Can Do.

I didn’t have this particular backstory before now and I am the first to acknowledge it is a finely told tale. Probably it is the best telling yet, and I say that after having recently gone back and re-read Bill McKibben’s classic, The End of Nature. But we all get better with practice.

Climate in Crisis holds up pretty well after 28 years. If I had it to do over, the only part that would change would be my obligatory what-to-do chapters at the end. Today, despite the fact you can read almost the same material in a current issue of Scientific American or The Atlantic, I am embarrassed by how lame my prescriptions were. Change your light bulbs to CF. Seriously? Buy an electric car (which really run on coal, if truth be told). Convert military spending. Well, okay, that one would still help.

Rich describes a three-day meeting assembled at a swank beach resort in Florida in 1980 that brought together some of DC’s top policy advisors.
“Do we have a problem?” asked Anthony Scoville, a congressional science consultant. “We do, but it is not the atmospheric problem. It is the political problem.” He doubted that any scientific report, no matter how ominous its predictions, would persuade politicians to act.
Pomerance glanced out at the beach, where the occasional tourist dawdled in the surf. Beyond the conference room, few Americans realized that the planet would soon cease to resemble itself.
What if the problem was that they were thinking of it as a problem? “What I am saying,” Scoville continued, “is that in a sense we are making a transition not only in energy but the economy as a whole.”
Peering back almost half a century it seems amazing how nuanced their understanding of the crisis we face was, but then that was the point Nathanial Rich was trying to make. We have known this for a very, very long time.

A few years ago I was attending the International Permaculture Convergence at a summer camp south of Havana and we were having a breakout meeting about climate change led by Starhawk. I said something about the goal being to educate people and was brought up short by a young woman from England. “Everyone already knows,” she said. “There is no point in trying to teach anyone anything.”

That remark stayed with me afterwards. It lingers today. There is an ostrich quality to the debate, if a debate it is.

In Charles Mann’s Wizard book, he closes with an appendix on climate change in which he tries to offer a balanced perspective, which is to say, drums up some pretty absurd reasons for human exceptionalism uber alles. It is a bit of a let down, coming right after a real masterpiece, and I suspect it will be a source of embarrassment for him in the future. What he is really saying is that our capacity for self-deception knows no bounds. If we read Ajit Varki and Danny Brower’s excellent look at the evolutionary biology, Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind, we can understand why. We are hard wired that way.
In Denial, biologists Varki and Brower (Brower died in 2007) propose a novel explanation for why humans surpassed all other species in mental prowess. The authors argue that as humans contemplated the intentions of those around them, they began reflecting more deeply on the meaning of life itself, and this examination led to the frightening awareness of their mortality. To assuage such fears, humans evolved the unique ability to deny reality. The authors reason that religion and philosophy represent some of our best efforts to do so.

Scientific American goes on to opine that, “Although a gift for self-deception may have saved our ancestors from despair, it might also be our downfall. But recognizing this tendency in ourselves may push us to stop ignoring unpleasant truths, such as global warming and poverty, and start addressing them.”

To which I would have to say, uhh… no. We are not going to reprogram a neocortex that took millions of years to program as if it were BASIC. We may have to recognize, as Lynn Margulis tells Charles Mann in Wizard, each species, our own included, comes with an expiration date.
We just don’t quite know when that expiration date falls, and from that mystery springs all our hope, fear, despair, and joy in living the best possible life we can. There is no permanence. No promises. If my student can grasp this, then maybe we will get a chance to exchange some deeper thoughts.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Addicts and Gangsters

"The rial is now at an all-time low, with an inflation rate of 147 percent. Addicts are dropping like flies."

These past few weeks we have been talking about how hard it is to end our addiction to the fossil growth economy that is killing us all. Over many years we’ve been getting updates about the global petroleum picture but have to respectfully opine that the terms of discussion used by post-petroleumers are identical to those used by industries and governments. If we are ever to change, we need to change that frame. 

Suppose we translated the discussion into something with a little more bite:

Weekly Update: Emerging Conflicts

For July 2018, here is no sign of a letup in addict demand, which is expected to increase by 1.5 million b/d this year. Despite the decision taken at the mafia dons’ recent summit to increase oil production by an undefined amount, pushers’ prices for crude products closed above $79 on Friday. 

There is suspicion street prices in New York and London may be rising on fears the temporary truce is just a prelude to war and that there will be shortages and higher prices in the coming months. In Basra, the lack of steady work, electricity, and potable water have been compounded by 120 degrees Fahrenheit heat and the reduced quantity and quality of water flowing from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and tributaries. Increased salinization shut down the country’s largest operational refinery.

It seems unlikely that the Russian and Arab mobs, the only ones with actual capacity to increase production, will be able to offset demand and supply disruptions elsewhere. Some observers are even talking about a return to $100 next year. 

Boss Trump said in a tweet on Saturday that the Saudis agreed to boost their production by 2 million b/d. This assertion came as news to the Saudis. Nonetheless they are moving to increase production to a record high 11 million b/d in July.

Historically, the Saudis have been reluctant to increase production to their maximum for fear there would be too little a supply buffer should there be more unplanned outages. Both sober and dead addicts make bad customers.

According to the money laundering operation at Goldman Sachs, an outage at Canada’s facility may lead to a 360,000 b/d shortage for July and shrink stockpiles at Cushing, Oklahoma, the biggest warehouse for the American cartel.

The American cartel, led by Boss Trump, has been cudgeling the mobs to reduce Tehran’s take to zero in an effort to force the Iranian kingpin, Boss Rouhani, to kowtow. The American cartel’s move to eliminate Tehran comes on news the Saudis invited Russia to become an observer member of their mob. Russia and the Saudis have increased ties in recent years and a coalition between them could control more than half the global product. This worries bankers and brokers both inside and outside the cartels.

Boss Rouhani replied to Boss Trump’s tweeted ultimatum —demanding it remove Iranian oil from the global market by November — as “impossible.” The tone of Boss Rouhani’s reply suggests the pressure Trump is putting on addicts may be having unintended consequences, and that an all-out supply war may come sooner than either had planned.

There is an object lesson in the way the American cartel took down rival Venezuela, which had the temerity to undersell retail petroleum products on the Trump mob’s home turf. Venezuelan oil revenue was $22 billion last year, compared with about $70 billion in 2011. Mexico could be facing a similar outcome if its newly elected boss, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is slow to fall in line. The new Mexican boss has said he will seek to end the country’s massive refined imports, nearly all from the US, during the first three years of his term. How he would replace that capacity remains a mystery, as Mexico's biggest rackets, onshore and offshore, are in terminal decline.

Last week India’s oil ministry told local refiners to get ready for a “drastic reduction or zero” of imports from Iran, a sign that India — Tehran’s second-largest customer — is bowing to pressure from Boss Trump.

Rouhani promised Iranians last Tuesday that the mob would be able to handle the losses from new US sanctions, but the rial is now at an all-time low, implying an inflation rate of 147 percent. Addicts are dropping like flies.

Rouhani has been touting $50bn worth of potential Russian investments. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei added that: “Rosneft and Gazprom have started talks with Iran’s oil ministry to sign contracts worth up to $10 billion.” Moscow is hard pressed for cash these days, and it seems unlikely that it would be investing large amounts of money in Iran unless the terms were very favorable.

Outside this conflict the Chinese gang appears prepared to wait things out and see who is left once the dust settles. When Boss Trump set out his list of US exports threatened with retaliatory tariffs, almost all petroleum products were covered. To avoid open war, Boss Xi Jinping decided not to impose additional tariffs on Trump’s plans to export increased volumes of liquefied natural gas from the US to China. China will become the world’s top natural gas importer by next year. 

Chinese demand for natural gas will rise by almost 60 percent between 2017 and 2023 to 376 billion cubic meters (bcm). This increase includes a rise in its LNG imports to 93 bcm by 2023 from 51 bcm in 2017. Global LNG imports will rise to 505 bcm by 2023 from 391 bcm in 2017, an increase of some 114 bcm.

So for now, China is biding its time, buying the product of its rivals, and keeping the peace. The tiger has decided to take a cat nap while the American and Iranian bosses duke it out and Czar Vladimir cozies up to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has announced plans to sell shares in the 2.5 trillion-dollar Saudi Aramco. Vlad knows that while Russia may be cash-strapped at the moment, higher prices caused by the Trump vendetta against the Rouhani mob should add $40.14 billion to Russian state revenues this year, enough to buy 1.6% of Aramco shares.

The voracious demand for fracking sand to prop open cracks in shale oil and gas wells have opened a new product line for the American cartel. In the last twelve months, 11 gangs that dig and supply fracking sand to Boss Trump have opened within sight of each other in West Texas, and another 10 or so are hustling to get started.

Together, these gangs will mine and ship some 22 million tons, equal to almost a quarter of the total US supply. Within a couple of years those digs could climb to over 50 million tons.
A Hollywood Ending

While this frame is a little more satisfying, it depicts a world in which there will be no happy ending. These are not bootleggers quarreling over the rot-gut whiskey trade, after all. Elevating Chinese demand for LNG by 376 billion cubic meters means that trillions of cubic meters of unburnt methane will find its way into the atmosphere from fracked fissures, wells and pipelines and hundreds of billions will be burnt to send sequelae greenhouse gases into the sky. The victims in this gang warfare are the “innocent” bystanders — the addicted consumers and their descendants in time who will never achieve existence because their parents’ habits rendered their only habitat uninhabitable.

Too bad. Some of the neverborn might have turned this into a pretty good movie script.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

You Can't Stop A Wave But You Can Surf-3

"The struggle with any addict is to produce permanent change."

Part Three

Just when things seem most dire, and there is no possible escape, we catch another faint flicker of hope. In my two previous installments I laid out the predicament. By now anyone who has followed this blog for a while (and a tip of the hat to our loyal supporters) knows this mantra by heart:

There is a finite supply of fossil fuels, and even if we could discover more and refine them at a reasonable price, we can’t burn them because the atmosphere is so polluted that climate change will kill us.

The energy embodied in traditional fuels — sunlight, wind, tides, currents, plants, animals and humans — is several orders of magnitude more diffuse and difficult to harness than light sweet crude or bituminous coal. The energy density of fossil fuels has made possible the high-level civilization that allows me to type this into your phone.

Nuclear power, apart from the facts that it poisons future generations(ughhh!), or is a gateway drug to WMD (yark!), is also running out of fuel. Nukes all over the world would be shutting down already had not the FSU honored the Megatons to Megawatts Program (killed by Obama) and hammered warheads into zirconium-clad U-235 plowshares to sell on the nukefuels market. There are a few more years of that stuff still out there, especially if the US and Israel join in, but after that, lights out for our friendly atom.

The climate change long predicted (for at least 150 years by our reckoning) is now upon us with delayed vengeance, as are Malthus’ ill tidings. Overcharged fecundity is paired to outsized footprint inversely to what is required, which is no-one’s fault, just bad design. We are an Edsel that sees a Mustang in the mirror. We need eyewash more than anything else.

There are cures for myopic addictions, but the struggle with any addict is to produce permanent change. As we’ve chanted, if we expect to get out of this without going extinct there is only one biophysically verifiable path. We have to go over the Seneca Cliff of industrial collapse and follow an 11 to 20 percent decline grade in carbon emissions for the next 80 or more years, not just to zero, but well beyond. We have to raft through the cascades into Negative Emissions territory — the land called Drawdown — by 2030 if we can, but mid-century at the latest. Getting there somewhat later is not an option. The party will be over. We would be the final progeny of a 100,000-generation run for one magnificent mammal. Then we’ll be no different than the Dodo.

Recently Alex Smith at Radio Ecoshock rebroadcast one of my favorite Australian podcasts, Beyond Zero, and its interview with Oxford researcher Tina Fawcett, author of the book Suicidal Planet, concerning her concept of personal carbon rations.

Let me start by saying that I don’t like the framing of the word “rations.” It might sell well in a culture of stiff upper lips or shared social burdens, but would never get anyone elected in the USA. If you doubt that, go to Plains, Georgia and ask Jimmy Carter.

Fawcett agrees. She has switched to using “carbon allowances.” I still think that is too weak to get broad social buy-in. “Dividend,” after the style of the Alaska Permanent Fund, would be better, had it not already been devalued by deniers and put in the same dung bucket as carbon tax or cap and trade. My personal favorite would be “award” but perhaps readers have suggestions.

Fawcett explains:
“So you would have an annual amount of carbon credits, whatever they get called, in your account, and when you pay for your petrol or diesel at the petrol station or when you pay your electricity bill you’d have to have carbon credits deducted from your account, as well as the money. If you didn’t have a lot of carbon credits left, you know, if you’d already bought a lot of energy that year or had an overseas flight or two, you’d be able to buy additional carbon credits on the market from people who sell them who didn’t need all of them.
“Its not really a parallel currency but it’s a little like that, in that you have to think about both the money and whether you’ve got any carbon allowances left to spend that year. And if not, are you prepared to pay the price to get more?”
I can see some issues with this. For one thing, even if the award distribution is equal for every person in the world, your average Goldman Sachs bankster is not going to care what balance is in her account, because she knows she can just go to the open market and buy more credit before she fills up the tanks on her yacht. There might even be a megaton credit in her Christmas bonus. Meanwhile, granny eating catfood and cutting her prescriptions in half can’t just borrow her grandson’s iPhone and order more from Amazon because she might live in a rural area and just the energy expense of Amazon’s drone delivery, not to mention their server banks, would eat up half her purchase.

Still, what is appealing to me about this ration coupon — sorry! “award” — system is something not discussed by either Smith or Fawcett. They mention, by implication, the Bangladeshi rice farmer who can sell his ration and buy fertilizer. They neglect the savvy BitCoin miners — potentially millions of them between 18 and 30 — who might trade in their Antminers for Kon Tikis and go for the easier gold — putting carbon underground.

Now, that would be a real wave.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

You Can't Stop A Wave But You Can Surf-2

"A more prosperous way down would be to work at community scale"

Part Two

According to both Jimmy Carter and Kris De Decker, whom we quoted in Part One, we can only solve energy poverty and energy decadence if we manage to decouple human need satisfaction from energy intensive ‘need satisfiers.’

“By equating what is ‘required’ with what is ‘normal,’” write UK energy poverty researchers, 
“…we actively support escalating expectations of need, which runs counter to objectives like those of reducing energy demand… To achieve demand reduction entails challenging embedded norms rather than following them.”

Cuban family by Peter Menzel, Material World, a Global Family Portrait

"Energy services could be reduced (smaller TVs or lighter and slower cars, or less TV watching and car driving) or replaced by less energy-intensive ones (using a bicycle instead of a car, buying more fresh instead of frozen food, playing board games instead of watching television)."

Icelandic family by Peter Menzel, Material World, a Global Family Portrait

Combining sufficiency with efficiency measures, German researchers calculated that the typical electricity use of a two-person household could be lowered by 75%, without reverting to drastic lifestyle changes such as washing clothes by hand or generating power with exercise machines. 
Although this only concerns a part of total energy demand, reducing electricity use in the household also leads to reductions in energy use for manufacturing and transportation.

A more prosperous way down would be to work at community scale: public transport, public bathing houses, community kitchens, bicycle kitchens, laundrettes, libraries, internet cafés, public telephone boxes, and food cooperative home delivery services.

This R2B2 kitchen unit by German designer Christoph Thetard (not for sale) combines three kitchen appliances with a central driving spindle. The heart of the unit is a treadle powered flywheel that works as short-term energy storage, capable of delivering up to 350 watts mechanical power to the appliances. Similar to late 19th century machines, and contrary to today’s kitchen devices, it is built to last.

If you need electricity for some important thing (such as torque to haul an Easter Island statue up from the quarry), throw a party. This is a beer powered 2 kW array.

The pedal power that can be delivered by the average person over a sustained period of time was clocked in 1984 at 75 watts or 1 “hup” (human power). An average person can sustain one hup all day, 2 hups (150 watts) for roughly two hours, 3 hups (225 watts) for about 30 minutes and 4 hups (300 watts) only momentarily. Elite athletes have been known to hit 2000 hups in short bursts.

The average North American family (you too, Canada!) would need 14 of these running 24/7. It is no wonder the voters rejected Jimmy Carter’s message. If they followed the voluntary reduction path pledged by Obama in Paris they would still need 6 or 7 of them. The average Greek family (of 5) would need 1.4 of these running 24/7, or 3 running 12 hr per day. A family of 10 would need twice as many because the number is calculated on kWh per capita per country.

At present rates of emissions by 2020 there will only be 1000 gigatonnes left of the atmospheric parking space provided for carbon dioxide emissions for the remainder of the century. At 40 GtCO2 per year (present rate), that will be gone by 2045. If the world could cut emissions by half — an amazing feat — it would get us to 2070 before we lose the IPCC’s 66% bet of staying within an imagined non-catastrophic guardrail. 

With each succeeding UN meeting it has become apparent that the only way we will stabilize climate and have a chance of returning to the comfortable Holocene where mammals with sweat glands are possible would be by deliberate removal of CO2 from the atmosphere by human intervention. 

Because of how long CO2 naturally remains in the atmosphere, there is only a limited time, if any, to bend the curve before self-reinforcing tipping points take the situation beyond our control. Assuming we have not already passed that threshold, the longer we delay, the steeper the pitch must be on the descent.

From where we stand now, in 2018, to have a realistic chance of averting disaster, we need to reach an 11 percent decline rate per annum from 2036 (preventing catastrophic climate change above 2 degrees) or better, a 20 percent decline slope (limiting ourselves to dangerous climate change at around 1.5 degrees).

This type of curve will not be easily achieved. An 11 percent decline slope is the inverse of doubling your fossil economy every 7 years — so, halving every 7 years. Try to imagine half the numbers of commercial passenger flights in 2025 as today, or half the numbers of gas-powered engines. Half the numbers of WalMart SuperStores bringing full cargo ships from Shenzhen to Houston. Then halve that by 2032 and again by 2039. You get the picture.

If you imagine that renewables will surge to fill the gap, you really have a vivid imagination and should consider a career writing childrens’ stories.

Hansen, 2018

Avoided emissions will not be adequate. Even replacing fossil fuels with sunlight, wind, and firewood will not bring carbon back into the safety zone fast enough. In most scenarios renewables will only help to fill a growth gap in overall supply increases.

An international team of climate scientists, economists and energy systems modelers have built a range of new “Shared Socioeconomic Pathways” (SSPs) that examine how global society, demographics and economics might change over the next century.

These SSPs are now being used as scenarios for the latest climate models, feeding into the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) due to be published in 2020–21. They are also being used to explore how societal choices will affect greenhouse gas emissions and, therefore, how the social inertia impeding the climate goals of the Paris Agreement could be overcome.

The SSPs are based on five narratives describing broad socioeconomic trends that could shape future society. These include one green economy approach and four variants of business as usual. 
Here is how they predict the energy mix will play out through the remainder of this century. Each chart takes 2010 as the starting point, lining up nicely with that last image we used — of global energy consumption.

SSP1 takes the “Green Road.” Consumption is oriented toward low material growth and lower resource and energy intensity. This would be where everyone begins to live more like that family in the yurt. SSP2 is business as usual. The world follows a path in which social, economic, and technological trends do not shift markedly from historical patterns. 

SSP3 is regional rivalry, where reaction to peak oil causes a reflexive turn towards violent tribalism and hoarding. Population growth is low in industrialized and high in developing countries, which creates migration pressures worldwide. Low international priority for addressing environmental concerns, coupled with rapid climate change, leads to strong environmental degradation in some regions. 

SSP4 is exploitation of the poor by the rich. Over time, a gap widens between an internationally-connected society that contributes to knowledge- and capital-intensive sectors of the global economy, and a fragmented collection of lower-income, poorly educated societies that work in a labor intensive, low-tech economy. Investments in both carbon-intensive fuels like coal and unconventional oil, and also in low-carbon energy sources, keep wealth inequality growing. 

SSP5 is Burning Man. There is a push for economic and social growth coupled with exploitation of abundant fossil fuel resources opened by new technologies and the adoption of resource and energy intensive lifestyles around the world. Bill Gates and Elon Musk invest in geoengineering.

It is difficult to find earthly biophysical support for these projections. In the green pathway (SSP1), emissions peak between 2040 and 2060 — even in the absence of specific climate policies, declining to around 22 to 48 gigatonnes of CO2 (GtCO2) per year by 2100. This results in 3–3.5°C of warming by 2100. All 5 pathways end in climate change that should be deemed unacceptable, and some would end higher order civilization. SSP5, the high-growth energy-intensive pathway, shows the most overall emissions of any SSP, ranging from 104 to 126 GtCO2 per year in 2100, resulting in warming of 4.7–5.1°C.

So those are your choices, friends. You can follow the path being laid out by IPCC and the United Nations and it marches you to the Gates of Hell. You can shortcut that process if you follow the path being laid out by the current administration of the United States or its right wing clones soon to follow in goosestep across Europe.

Or you could follow the path mapped by Jimmy Carter on April 18, 1977 and learn to surf. Ride the wave to the beach. Learn to live on less and do it with style and panache. One way or the other, living on less is in our common future.

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Sunday, July 8, 2018

You Can't Stop A Wave But You Can Surf-1

"Will common sense conservation be enough? Probably not."


Part One

Below is a kite sailboat outracing a 1000 HP speed-boat. Three years ago a lone kiteboarder out-sprinted a 50-meter racing yacht in San Francisco Bay. Team Oracle was in practice sessions for the America’s Cup when they got their clock cleaned.
Whether you come at this from peak oil, financial collapse or climate change, we are about to have a radical shift in global energy.

Peak Oil began its tour of the memesphere more than 70 years ago when Shell Oil geologist Marion King Hubbert started drawing waves on a chalkboard.
A chart of discoveries and production of crude oil published in Scientific American in 1998 lent renewed urgency to Hubbert’s forecast. Oil geologists were predicting global oil production would plateau soon and start a gradual decline.
The actual peak for conventional crude came in 2005, but by then the oil companies had a card up their sleeve — hydrofracturing — that opened up previously inaccessible reserves. Just look at what happened to fossil production in the United States, the first to frack.
Hall and Laherrere, 2018
There is just one hitch. Well, actually a couple. Fracking involves cracking rock as far as a mile deep in the Earth, and stimulating gases or fluids trapped there to rise through the fissures and be gathered in wells, then directed to the surface.

The first hitch is that it is expensive. Even the most profitable companies in the world have been feeling the pinch at present oil prices. The second hitch is that it is only ambulatory care, not a cure. You can see the problem in the upper right corner of the chart above. Fracked formations give up their gas in a burst and then production falls off rapidly. Because of this companies are forced to blast more fractures just to keep pace. The sweet spots are quickly exhausted and what are left are the more expensive, less productive dregs.
Hall and Laherrere, 2018
The third hitch is really the most serious, although its been economically externalized by the oil companies. Only some of the fracked gas makes its way to the wells. A lot of it finds fissures not connected to wells and goes straight to the atmosphere. Also, wells leak. All of them. Anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of the reserve goes to the atmosphere through casing cracks, brittle seals, and shifts in the earth, often caused by other nearby drilling.
Methane is 20 to 100 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than Carbon Dioxide
Strapped for cash to keep feeding insatiable consumer demand for petro-utopia, oil companies and governments do what they had always done. They print money. And print. And print. Oh, and sometimes they flip real estate.
That dark cloud you might have noticed on the horizon is the simply gargantuan sovereign debt of $217 trillion. The US leads the pack, with over $20 trillion in debt, but the EU is not far behind with $18 trillion. Japan has racked up $11.5 trillion and Britain has $7.5 trillion. Global debt is more than three times the size of the global economy, the highest it has ever been. The debt is made up of three groups: non-financial corporates, governments and households. The only ones who are doing well are those in the financial sector, and they are now buying private islands and stocking up on canned goods and ammunition.

Then we have Paris. We’ll always have Paris, won’t we? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change told the 195 assembled heads of state, essentially, their goose is cooked. Smell that fine odor wafting from the kitchen? It is starting to smell a little burnt. It might be time to take it out of the oven.
VanVuuren 2018
In fact, it is already too late. We will pass the 1.5 degree “aspirational goal” for arresting climate change in a few years, and 2 degrees in another decade or two. We are on a path for nearly 4 degrees by the end of the century, and that assumes everyone meets their pledges to reduce, not a very safe assumption. One of the biggest emitters has already announced it is reneging and is pulling its rusting coal plants out of mothballs. 5 degrees by 2100 is more likely.
Delegates gathered in Marrakech and Bonn to try to find a way back from the cliff and made very slow progress. What is required, beginning about 2020, is a gradually steepening decline in fossil emissions, followed by a half century of negative emissions, or drawdown. There is nothing technologically or economically standing in the way of drawdown now, the impediments are all social and cultural.

Probably the largest impediment is an epidemic addiction to growth. It is still a political mantra most places. 

Consider what happens if you propose degrowth. In 1977, Jimmy Carter was briefed on Hubbert’s curve and rushed to tell the public that serious cutbacks would be required. Carter explained that exponential functions have doubling times, and in each successive doubling more is produced than in all the previous doublings combined. Unsustainable on a finite planet, he said.
"The world now uses about 60 million barrels of oil a day and demand increases each year about 5 percent. This means that just to stay even we need the production of a new Texas every year, an Alaskan North Slope every nine months, or a new Saudi Arabia every three years. Obviously, this cannot continue.
"The world has not prepared for the future. During the 1950s, people used twice as much oil as during the 1940s. During the 1960s, we used twice as much as during the 1950s. And in each of those decades, more oil was consumed than in all of mankind’s previous history.
Hansen 2018
"World consumption of oil is still going up. If it were possible to keep it rising during the 1970s and 1980s by 5 percent a year as it has in the past, we could use up all the proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end of the next decade"
Carter then laid out ten principles, among them “we must start now to develop the new, unconventional sources of energy we will rely on in the next century,” the country had to reduce gasoline consumption by ten percent below its current level, and by the end of his first term there should be solar energy powering more than two and one-half million houses.

Carter urged that prices should generally reflect the true replacement costs of energy. “We are only cheating ourselves if we make energy artificially cheap and use more than we can really afford,” he said.
Peter Menzel, Material World, a Global Family Portrait
“We must ask equal sacrifices from every region, every class of people, every interest group. Industry will have to do its part to conserve, just as the consumers will. The energy producers deserve fair treatment, but we will not let the oil companies profiteer.”
Carter called the challenge the country faced “The Moral Equivalent of War.” We all know what happened next. A deep state cabal, working with the country’s enemies, engineered an October surprise that replaced Carter with a bumbling, affable, senile Hollywood actor who resolutely kept the nation out of that war. It was morning in America. Oil man Dick Cheney ran for Congress.

Bill Clinton opined: “You can’t get elected by promising people less.”

Emissions and energy use are usually framed in terms of national and international percentage reductions, but the energy use per head of the human population varies enormously between and within countries, no matter how it is calculated.
Peter Menzel, Material World, a Global Family Portrait
If we were to divide total primary energy use by regional population, we’d see that the average North American uses more than twice the energy of the average European (6,881 kgoe versus 3,207 kgoe, meaning kg of oil equivalent). Within Europe, the average Norwegian (5,818 kgoe) uses almost three times more energy than the average Greek (2,182 kgoe). The latter uses three to five times more energy than the average Angolan (545 kgoe), Cambodian (417 kgoe) or Nicaraguan (609 kgoe), who uses two to three times the energy of the average Bangladeshi (222 kgoe). 
Peter Menzel, Material World, a Global Family Portrait
According to Kris De Decker writing for The DEMAND Centre:
The highest energy users worldwide can contribute 1,000 times as much carbon emissions as the lowest energy users. Inequality not only concerns the quantity of energy, but also its quality. People in industrialized countries have access to a reliable, clean and (seemingly) endless supply of electricity and gas. On the other hand, two in every five people worldwide (3 billion people) rely on wood, charcoal or animal waste to cook their food, and 1.5 billion of them don’t have electric lighting. These fuels cause indoor air pollution [8 million child mortalities per year — more than malaria], and can be time- and labor-intensive to obtain. If modern fuels are available in these countries, they’re often expensive and/or less reliable. 
And if provided at that scale, they would wreck the climate even faster, which would seem to be the conflicting agenda of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Decker, Low Tech Magazine 2018.
Decker suggests that:
Focusing on energy services or basic needs can help to specify maximum levels of energy use. Instead of defining minimum energy service levels (such as 300 lumens of light per household), we could define maximum energy services levels (say 2,000 lumens of light per household). These energy service levels could then be combined to calculate maximum energy use levels per capita or household. However, these would be valid only in specific geographical and cultural contexts, such as countries, cities, or neighborhoods — and not universally applicable. Likewise, we could define basic needs and then calculate the energy that is required to meet them in a specific context. For example, central heating and daily hot showers are only a few decades old, but these technologies are now considered to be an essential need by a majority of people in industrialized countries.
Sadly, these days in the industrial world, even the energy poor are living above the carrying capacity of the planet. For example, if the entire UK population were to live according to the minimum energy budget that has been determined in workshops with members of the public, then (consumption-based) emissions per capita would only decrease from 11.8 to 7.3 tonnes per person. The UN Development Program’s Paris-based target is less than 2 long tons C per person per year. The ‘floor’ is 3–6 times higher than the ‘ceiling.’ We need to get to 2 metric tons per capita.

Will common sense conservation be enough? Probably not. And just how much is 2 tonnes per year?

164 to 227 hamburgers

one fifth of an automobile

1.9 m2 of concrete floor or swimming pool


one-eighth of a single BitCoin transaction

We’ll get to some more difficult choices in the next installment.

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Sunday, July 1, 2018

Kahului Underwater

"Such as slippage has not occurred for 100,000 years, but it has happened some 15 times in the geological record of Hawaii."
Imagine just for a moment an event that may or may not happen in human history. Imagine it happening today.

There are at least 15 giant landslides toppling into the Pacific from the Hawaiian Islands in the past 4 million years, with the most recent happening 100,000 years ago, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. One block of rock that slid off Oahu was the size of Manhattan.

The South Coast of the Big Island where Kilauea Volcano is active has a brittle lava shelf perched above the ocean, but not the size of Manhattan. More like Santa Catalina, California, or Cortes Island, British Columbia. Still, big enough to ricochet a 1000-foot wall of water around the Hawaiian islands. If the tumble causes large offshore earthquakes there could be trailing waves. The shadows of the islands themselves and its sheltering bays would likely spare Honolulu, but the Big Island and nearby Maui could be devastated.

What are the chances? The ongoing 2018 eruption began along a knife-like surface fault from Leilani Estates to Kapoho on the ocean. That knife’s edge is where lava from deep down reaches the surface in scores of outcrops, some now forming cinder cones. Between that edge and the sea is the older shelf at risk of slipping— about 75 square miles of heavy basalt. 

Such a slippage has not occurred for 100,000 years, but it has happened some 15 times in the geological record of Hawaii.
Sitting about 30 feet (10 m) away from today’s Ka Le (South Point) seashore are boulders the size of cars. Some 250,000 years ago, a tsunami tossed the enormous rocks 820 feet (250 m) up the island’s slopes, said Fernando Marques, a professor at the University of Lisbon in Portugal.

The good news is that Hawaii doesn’t have to fret about a Fukushima-like disaster. Hawaii, along with Rhode Island and Vermont, passed laws that say no nuclear plant shall be constructed nor radioactive material accepted without the prior approval by a two-thirds vote in each house of the legislature. Hawaii has no nukes, including university research reactors.

Another piece of good news is that while landslide tsunamis may have a devastating local effect, they lose their power in the open ocean and don’t destroy distant coastlines like earthquake tsunamis. San Diego, Long Beach and Santa Monica can now exhale. That said, it might be a good idea to postpone that Hawaiian cruise ship excursion you were planning until after Kilauea’s eruption subsides.

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