Sunday, June 24, 2018

Sargon and the Sea Peoples

"For hundreds of years, stories of marauding Sea Peoples were told to frightened children."

  Back in 4300 BCE, Sargon of Akkad found the grain farming good in the broad, flat alluvial valley between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Being an accomplished bully and not fond of toiling in the heat of the sun himself, he assembled a gang of thugs and enslaved weaker people to work for him. They built vast irrigation systems, knocked down forests and opened up much of the fertile Mesopotamian Plain to oxen and wooden plows. With good soil, good seed and adequate rain, his tribe prospered and applied their surplus to erect a number of market cities that were considered quite grand for the period.

You can’t just knock down forests and dig long irrigation ditches and expect Nature to let you off scott-free, however. The plowing opened the soil to the sun and killed the rich microbial life built by those erstwhile forests. Irrigation made the fields salted and addicted. Major lakes silted. Without the trees and their fungal network, the weather changed. It stopped raining.

After a mere 130 years of prosperity, the Akkadian empire collapsed abruptly in 4170 BCE. There was general abandonment of agriculture, dramatic influxes of refugees, and widespread famine. The same calamity befell much of the rest of the region. Poorer tribes flocked to wealthy Akkad seeking help.

Faced with the rising tide of hungry people, Sargon’s successor thought a good solution would be a 112-mile-long wall, roughly the distance by patrol car between Brownsville TX and Rio Grande City, which Akkadians dubbed the “Repeller of the Amorites.” They may even have claimed they were going to get the Amorites to build it, but those clay tablets haven’t been located yet.

Fast forward a few decades and we find Akkadian cities in ruins, the plains desertifying, and smaller sedentary populations farther north around the shores of Lake Van trying to eke out a frugal living eating grasshoppers and frogs. It was a rough come-down from former glory.

Of course, the Akkadians were not entirely to blame. Their changing climate was also influenced by 1 to 2 degree cooler sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic that changed rainfall in the higher elevations. In their haste to develop, they had not left themselves any safety margin.

A few thousand years later another serious drought struck that part of the world — much of it within what is now Syria and Palestine — and by this time the population was much larger than back in Sargon’s day. The first wave of these “Sea Peoples” washed over Egypt in the second year of Ramesses II, 1276 BCE, but rather than build tent cities to house them, the Pharaoh simply trapped and slaughtered some 6000 people arriving in boats with all their goods, and then sent his chariots to drive stragglers back into the sea. A bit of a blowhard, Ramesses claimed a great victory and had the story inscribed in stone and read on ceremonial days.

Ramesses II
The Syrian drought continued, however, and Ramesses son, Merenptah, writes how, in the fifth year of his reign (1209 BCE), Libyans allied with the Sea Peoples to invade Egypt and were repulsed with 6000 casualties. Six thousand seems to be a popular number when you are killing Sea Peoples.

Then Merenptah’s son, Ramesses III, in c. 1200 BCE was informed they were coming again. The populations fleeing drought-stricken Syria had already destroyed the Hittite state and Ramesses III wrote, “they were coming forward toward Egypt.” Ramesses also makes the first recorded mention of the Israelites as one of those groups trying to illegally migrate into Egypt.

“If they would just report to processing centers they could apply for asylum,” Ramesses III might have said. But secretly he set ambushes all along the border and made especially effective use of his archers, positioning them along the shoreline to rain down arrows on approaching ships. Once the ships’ passengers were dead or drowning the vessels were set on fire with flaming arrows so that not even children could escape. Then Ramesses III turned his archers toward any survivors who made it to land. Egyptian records again detail a glorious victory in which many of the Sea Peoples were slain and others taken captive or pressed into the Egyptian army and navy or sold as slaves. For hundreds of years, stories of marauding Sea Peoples were told to frightened children.

Ramesses’s border defenses were so expensive they drained the Royal Treasury. This led to the first labor strike in recorded history.

Century-long droughts can be found at many points in the historic record. California experienced a 240-year-long drought that started in 850 CE and, 50 years after the conclusion of that one, another that stretched at least 180 years. Mexico experienced an abrupt climate shift between 800 to 1000 CE that brought dry conditions to the central Yucatan for 200 years, curtailing the era of monumental Mayan architecture. Lowland population densities plunged from 200 persons/km2 at the peak of the Late Classic period to less than half that by 900 CE. City complexes of more than 50,000 people, like Tikal, were abandoned to the rats and weeds.

Houston and Miami take heed.

Challenged by unprecedented environmental stresses, cultures can shift to lower subsistence levels by reducing social complexity, abandoning urban centers, and reorganizing systems of supply and production, as the Maya, Akkadians, Romans, Tiwanaku, Mochica, Athenians and many others have done, but more often — and even in those cases — they failed to recognize what was happening until it was too late to escape unscathed. They waved their arms, followed militant leaders, found convenient scapegoats, increased debt, took to the streets in protest, overtaxed their most vital resources, and kept trying to grow their way out as if growth was the only solution they could imagine.

It never works. Sometimes civilizations go the way of the Easter Islanders. Other times they are conquered and destroyed by an even more desperate and militant neighbor they foolishly made into an enemy.

George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but he was peddling his Harvard theory of cyclic history and really could have done a better job of thinking that through. His actual theory was that both those who do not learn history and those who do learn history are doomed to repeat it.

Samuel Clemens added greater depth to Santayana’s theory, fifty years earlier, when he said “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

Last week, speaking at Wells College, I concluded by saying, “As a global culture, we can create social norms that would permit us to sustain healthy economies and ecologies into the turbulent climate future we cannot now avoid. There are neither technological nor resource barriers to prevent that outcome.” There are, however, biological limits, including the psychology of sunk investments.

Sad to say, even if the 45th President of the United States had not cheated and bullied his way through his education and actually studied history, it would not have made any difference. We are just in that part of the cycle now where stupidity trumps the obvious. The queues of refugees may not be quite the same as the Sea Peoples, but they rhyme.

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Sunday, June 17, 2018

The people in range of secret frequencies

"Fossil fuels are reaching up to pull us into their grave.

Approaching the vernal equinox in the Fingerlakes region of upstate New York I am at the annual meeting of the International Society for Biophysical Economics. At the end of the first day we took a short pre-dinner tour to the other side of Cayuga Lake and Taughannock Falls, one of the highest east of the Rocky Mountains (66 meters). The site provided an interesting metaphor because the waterfall and gorge are an example of ahanging valley, formed where the stream-carved valley meets the deeper, glacially-carved Cayuga Lake drainage. As the gorge retreats westward it exposes more of the Devonian shale near the fall’s base.

The Late Devonian extinction was second of the six major extinction events including the one now in progress, and eliminated about 19% of all families, 50% of all genera and at least 70% of all species. While the shale is named for its discovery in Devonshire, England, that part of the world at that time was in the Southern Hemisphere, part of the supercontinent, Gondwana. The Caledonian mountains were growing across what is now the Scottish Highlands and Scandinavia, while the Appalachians rose over America, all on that supercontinent.

As the scientists gathering from China, Russia, England, Australia, Latin America, Africa and beyond peered from the overlook down into the gorge, they were staring back 400 million years to a time when there was widespread anoxia in oceanic bottom waters, corals died, the rate of carbon deposition shot up, benthic organisms were devastated, especially in the tropics, ice melted from the poles and sea levels rose. The Devonian shares much in common with our present extinction event.

Another effect of those changes was the deposition of fossil hydrocarbons, largely because the lack of oxygen in the ocean allowed them to be trapped without decay. We are looking down into the formation of the fossil fuels and they are reaching up to pull us into their grave.

“We have to make the momentous choice between brief but true greatness and longer, continued mediocrity.”
— William Stanley Jevons, The Coal Question (1866).

In his conference invocation, Neil Patterson opened with Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen, “Words Before All Else,” the Haudenosaunee liturgy with a spoken refrain after each statement of truth, “and now we are of one mind.” In the Tuscarora language he shared with us the gifts of each of our relations, and then reminded us that everything we need is provided for us and all we have to remember is to give thanks.

I am writing this from the back of the auditorium and the conference has only just begun but my guess is that nothing we will hear will be any wiser than that. My own 30 minute talk in the first session was a biophysical critique of negative emissions technologies and a reminder that the Paris Agreement’s targets will require a 11 to 20 percent annual decline slope for energy and consumables for the duration of this century. For those in this audience still struggling to imagine a future with the creature comforts of the late 20th century extended (or even enlarged) to a warming world of 10 to 12 billion humans, these concepts are incomprehensible. They would prefer to grasp at straws like nuclear power or clean coal to sustain the unsustainable.

“Dry heaves are just nature’s way of demonstrating negative marginal utility.”
— Kent Klitgaard, Wells College

“I don’t know how you would teach the dinosaurs to be optimistic about the asteroid.” 
— Charles A.S. Hall

I am reminded of Col. Creighton S. Abrams famous words from the Battle of the Bulge, “They’ve got us surrounded again, the poor bastards.” Some of us were trying to design some way for civilization to cope at a lower level of complexity, returning to nature’s all-wise fold, while others were trying to tweak the built environments and pedagogy of the colleges where they teach in hopes the problem will be solved by some kind of fairy dust invented by the next generation, or the one after that. Queue the economics lecture on discounting present value.

“Systemic overshoot can’t grow its way into sustainability.” 
— Kent Klitgaard

Gloria Steinem said, “The truth will set you free but first it will piss you off.” We can see in numerous ways how finite the biosphere is and how humans have been pushing beyond natural boundaries in what seems to be 100 years of miracles of engineering until we suddenly recognize we have been burning the 400 million-year-old furniture all this time and now the house has caught fire.

“What we are seeing is just the outer bands of a shitstorm we are not prepared for.” 
— James Howard Kunstler

By diminishing the capacity of nature we have been steadily been decreasing our own resilience, our margin for error, placing our own species in the queue for extinction. We can hope to build adaptive capacity but ultimately are limited by factors we are powerless to change, like the ability of mammals with sweat glands to cool their bodies after the world average temperature exceeds 7 degrees of change. Some millions of years from now we will be that dark layer at the bottom of the waterfall: the Anthropocene shale.

“Lest we forget,” Charles A.S. Hall said, “Cassandra was right.”

hieroglyphic stairway
it’s 3:23 in the morning
and I’m awake
because my great great grandchildren
won’t let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?
surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?
as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?
did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?
what did you do
I’m riding home on the Colma train
I’ve got the voice of the milky way in my dreams
I have teams of scientists
feeding me data daily
and pleading I immediately
turn it into poetry
I want just this consciousness reached
by people in range of secret frequencies
contained in my speech
I am the desirous earth
equidistant to the underworld
and the flesh of the stars
I am everything already lost
the moment the universe turns transparent
and all the light shoots through the cosmos
I use words to instigate silence
I’m a hieroglyphic stairway
in a buried Mayan city
suddenly exposed by a hurricane
a satellite circling earth
finding dinosaur bones
in the Gobi desert
I am telescopes that see back in time
I am the precession of the equinoxes,
the magnetism of the spiraling sea
I’m riding home on the Colma train
with the voice of the milky way in my dreams
I am myths where violets blossom from blood
like dying and rising gods
I’m the boundary of time
soul encountering soul
and tongues of fire
it’s 3:23 in the morning
and I can’t sleep
because my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the earth was unraveling?
I want just this consciousness reached
by people in range of secret frequencies
contained in my speech
— Drew Dellinger

© 2017"hieroglyphic stairway," from the book, Love Letter to the Milky Way, by Drew Dellinger

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Is it Hot Enough Yet?

"Fudging the dates to make it seem like we will cross the 2 degree threshold in 2018, however, is as egregious as any of the denialist claptrap funded by the Koch brothers or Scott Pruitt."

In January 1976, at a meeting at the Washington Sheraton, Ralph Nader introduced me to a spy who had come in from the cold. His name was David Dinsmore Comey and during the Second World War he had worked in OSS, trying to head fake the Third Reich about where the landings would come for the Allied invasion of France. He was a real life spook.

In 1975, the Atomic Industrial Forum had invited Comey to tell the nuclear industry how it could be more credible with the public. He was a high-priced consultant; not a lobbyist — a historian. Comey gave them his hard-won wisdom. To become credible you must tell the truth.

As Comey told us a few months later at this party Nader had thrown, the way the OSS deceived Hitler was by always being accurate in its leaked communications. Sometimes the Allies had to take painful losses in order to gain the Wehrmacht’s trust. But when the final invasion came, on June 6, 1944, it was not at Pas-de-Calais, where Hitler had positioned his SS Panzers, but at Normandy, where the battlements were manned by boy scouts (Hitlerjugend). Fake out.

Comey had told the nuclear industry’s spokesmen to become credible they must tell the truth: admit that low-level radiation causes cancer and long-term genetic effects; confess that important safety research has never been done, or done improperly; reveal all the hidden and external costs, both present and into the future; acknowledge there is no solution to the waste issue; and perhaps most importantly, “Talk about the ethics of consuming electricity from fission reactors for 50 years and saddling 20,000 future generations with social and environmental problems.”

On that day in 1976 at that swank hotel in the District, Comey flipped his speech over and gave the same advice to the anti-nuke stalwarts — ourself, Dana Meadows, Harvey Wasserman, Pat Birney, Kay Drey, Anna Gyorgy, Tony Roisman and others. He warned us that we didn’t need to embellish the truth. It was our strongest ally. Moreover, it was our ally alone, at that moment. He said he was perfectly confident that the nuclear industry would never follow his advice, would never tell the truth, and would never be credible.

Fast forward 42 years and we see that Comey was absolutely right about one thing. The nuclear industry has never taken his advice.

Sad to say, neither have many in the social activist community. Until recently that was less true of climate change than of other movements, but it is human nature to embellish a good story, even when not required.

Below is a 2018 NASA chart of global surface temperature anomalies from the 1880 baseline. It appears to show a gradual ascent in year-to-year average temperature, approaching 1.5 degrees C in 2015 and then declining slightly.

If we were to plot two smoothing lines to forecast the direction, they might look like this:


Following out the second, steeper trend line, we can project that 2 degrees would be reached some time around 2040. 

Regrettably, many in the climate activist camp are re-posting this conceptualization of that same data by Sam Carana for Arctic-News:

Leaving aside the errors in the data points for 2003–2017 that appear to have been selected from the 1880–2017 data set and then dates changed, the “third order polynomial trend added” by Carana is fitting an exponential curve to the chart such that the upward tick beginning about 50 years ago is only the first stage of a bend towards vertical.

Carana could be right. 

At this point, however, he is only speculating, and the curve could as easily revert to norm as shoot skyward. Fudging the dates to make it seem like we will cross the 2 degree threshold in 2018, however, is as egregious as any of the denialist claptrap funded by the Koch brothers or Scott Pruitt.

Carana then extrapolates on his fudged data to confidently predict that between now and 2026 (8 years from now) average global surface temperature will rise 8.1°C (14.6°F) from an annual average temperature of 56°F in 1880 to an average of 74°F in 2026. Carana’s arithmetic then forms the basis for dire predictions by Professor Guy McPherson and others that humans will go extinct within 10 years.

Returning to David Comey’s advice, we have to ask why activists should bother to exaggerate. Isn’t the story scary enough without embellishment?

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Sunday, June 3, 2018

Waiting for Korowicz

"Notice how even greater fragility is being designed into the system."

The first named storm of the Atlantic Hurricane Season took out our power briefly, and while nothing we experienced can compare to the outage still being suffered in the Caribbean from the last hurricane season, this one, Alberto, was enough to remind us of the Korowicz Crunch.

We have a standalone PV system on the ecohostel, although we are considering dropping the expensive and toxic battery bank in favor of grid-tie. There are massive solar arrays by the horse barn that feed power from The Farm into TVA’s supply, and in a long-duration power drought the community could quickly and painlessly disengage from our neighbors (and the government) and use our collective 150 kW to power essential needs, assuming TVA did not call in the Tennessee National Guard to take the power back and secure the site.

In that way, I suppose, having large PV arrays is a little like having massive oil reserves or an emergent nuclear weapons program. You may think those things are going to do wonders for your security but actually they do quite the opposite; they could mean you have to parse White House tweets to see if it is going to be safe to send the kids out to play that day.

Because of our solar roof, we often have power when our neighbors in the county don’t, but we get internet from a tower at the county seat and when they lose power, we lose internet. This time we also lost cellular service — never very good out here to begin with.

It is great not being tethered to an office, until you lose connectivity and realize that there actually was a tether and being untethered is not all it’s cracked up to be.

When Nicole Foss and I were teaching permaculture in Ireland a few years ago we stayed in the Dublin home of David Korowicz, a mutual friend through the FEASTA network. Korowicz has devoted much time to parsing the coming years and the Seneca Effect that eventually overtakes our overstretched economy.
“It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.” 
— Lucius Annaeas Seneca (c. 4 BC — AD 65)
In the introduction to his 56-page white paper, “The Tipping Point” (2010), Korowicz laid out our predicament:
…a case is made that our civilisation is close to a critical transition, or collapse. A series of integrated collapse mechanisms are described and are argued to be necessary. The principal driving mechanisms are re-enforcing (positive) feedbacks:
A decline in energy flows will reduce global economic production; reduced global production will undermine our ability to produce, trade, and use energy; which will further decrease economic production.
Credit forms the basis of our monetary system, and is the unifying embedded structure of the global economy. In a growing economy debt and interest can be repaid, in a declining economy not even the principal can be paid back. In other words, reduced energy flows cannot maintain the economic production to service debt. Real debt outstanding in the world is not repayable, new credit will almost vanish.
Our localized needs and welfare have become ever-more dependent upon hyper- integrated globalised supply-chains. One pillar of their system-wide functioning is monetary confidence and bank intermediation. Money in our economies is backed by debt and holds no intrinsic value; deflation and hyper-inflation risks will make monetary stability impossible to maintain. In addition, the banking system as a whole must become insolvent as their assets (loans) cannot be realised, they are also at risk from failing infrastructure.
A failure of this pillar will collapse world trade. Our ‘local’ globalised economies will fracture for there is virtually nothing produced in developed countries that can be considered truly indigenous. The more complex the systems and inputs we rely upon, the more globalised they are, and the more we are at risk from a complete systemic collapse.
Another pillar is the operation of critical infrastructure (IT-telecoms/ electricity generation/ financial system/ transport/ water & sewage) which has become increasingly co-dependent where a systemic failure in one may cause cascading failure in the others. This infrastructure depends upon continual re-supply; embodies short lifetime components; complex highly resource intensive and specialized supply-chains; and large economies of scale. They also depend upon the operation of the monetary and financial system. These dependencies are likely to induce rapid growth in the risk of systemic failure.
The high dependence of food on fossil fuel inputs, the delocalisation of food sourcing, and lean just-in-time inventories could lead to quickly evolving food insecurity risks even in the most developed countries. At issue is not just food production, but the ability to link surpluses to deficits, collapsed purchasing power, and the ability to monetize transactions.
Among the alt-econ theorists, this Singularity-like scenario of cascading consequences has come to be called the Korowicz Crunch. Of course, the one thing neither Korowicz nor anyone else can predict is timing. We are at, or just barely past, the peak of a great arc of history, a golden epoch, and to ignore the benefits this moment has brought to freedom, medicine, science and the arts would be a pity. It would be equally remiss to ignore at whose expense most of those advances were purchased.

Still, as each year extends the untenable overreach of biophysical limits and the Ponzi scheme that is fracked methane underpinning the globalized economy, we notice how even greater fragility is being designed into the system, either by architects and economists unaware of Korowicz or by factors to which little attention is paid.

Not long ago — and still in many places in the world — homes would be only a short walk or bicycle ride from a market where groceries and other essential wares could be purchased. Then came the big box stores and these markets were consolidated, often to the peripheries of population centers, into shopping malls accessible by public transport if you are lucky, otherwise only by private automobile. Along comes Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods and the stage is set for online purchasing and same-day delivery of your groceries, and everything else.

So much for the Bishop’s Storehouse, in the Mormon tradition, where a seven-year supply of food for the entire community was scripturally ordained.

Not long ago every community had one or more theaters or opera houses and on weekends everyone would attend, like a church service, to socialize before (in line), during (noisy galleries) and after (the corner pub). Then came Blockbusters with rental VHS and DVD and theaters moved into living rooms. Then came Netflix, and once more, Amazon, with view-on-demand services as long as you have the bread and the bandwidth. Much the same can be said for music, although live performances will always be with us in some way.

Not long ago, the bank would give you a passbook that showed, in handwriting, how much money was in your account. Then they went digital, and now even your monthly statements are online. With banks adopting cryptocurrencies, your readily-exchangeable wealth will soon be entirely on the blockchain.

I am old enough to remember backing up my data to 400 kB diskettes. They were called floppies even though they were hard plastic because before Sony shrunk them to 3 1/2-inch squares they had been flexible Teflon-coated magnetic disks storing up to 80 kB on every 8-inch platter. Now you can misplace a terabyte thumb drive if you are not careful. No worries! Storage and backups are all moving to the Cloud.

That is a good name for it — the Cloud. Wispy. Ephemeral. At its essence, just vapor.

I still have a functioning computer that loads CP/M instructions from a 5 1/4-inch floppy every time it boots, but I don’t think those are coming back any time soon.

Even though the coming of the Korowicz singularity cannot be Post-It’d to a particular date on the calendar, it’s wise to keep a foot in the prepper camp. A wall calendar, for instance.

Know where your water comes from. Have an antifragile supply of food — like the shiitake mushrooms that come after a big storm. They are a complete protein. Have back-up power that does not involve fossil fuels. Be able to cook. Keep your tools sharp and well-oiled. And have a good idea what you will do with your time when the internet goes away suddenly and permanently.

In the meantime, we are at the pinnacle of a gilded age. Be sure to enjoy it while it lasts.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Crow Fritters

"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."

It is always painful to admit you were wrong, especially about something that has taken on a lot of significance in your life and you have been repeating for decades. I have that sense of contrition now as I look back on the past week and the realization that came from it.

Can one get an epiphany from YouTube? I guess so.

From Tuesday to Thursday my astral body was 3000 miles away, in the auditorium of Chalmers University in Gotebörg, while my wetware remained motionless, jacked into my laptop; tractor-beamed to an ISP tower at my rural county seat, 40 miles away. The astral body wanted to occasionally cruise the hall to one of the four other seminar rooms where important papers were being delivered but the webcast confined it to the plenary hall. The lump of flesh mostly wanted bathroom breaks and sandwiches.

What had me so enthralled was the First International Conference on Negative CO2 Emissions with 11 keynote speakers, 150 powerpoint presentations, 231 abstracts and 30 poster presentations.

The plenary hall called RunAn (Run an’ what? Hide?) had been transformed into an Emergency Planetary Care ward and the patient was dying. More than 250 of the world’s leading scientists — flying or ferrying in from 30 countries — leaned forward in their seats in upper gallery of the operating theater and exchanged banter with the surgeons reading the beeping monitors and pacing around the gurney. There was even a machine that goes ping!

Some of these surgeons were the very same ones that had created the need for the emergency measures now being mustered. They had labored for decades on committees of the IPCC, trying to get across to politicians too busy with the minutiae of realpolitik the seriousness of setting hard decarbonization targets, first at Kyoto, then Copenhagen, then Paris, and had failed repeatedly. All that was left to do now was either (a) bend over and kiss your posterior goodbye; or (b) bend the curve.

The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report quantified budgets for the 1.5ºC and 2ºC Paris targets at about 200 and 800 billion tons (gigaton or Gt )of CO2. With unchanged present emissions at about 40 Gt CO2/year, the 1.5 target will be passed in 3 to 5 years and 2 degrees within 20 years.We must bend the curve away from adding carbon to the atmosphere each year — currently a concave curve pointing up — to subtracting carbon — a convex curve peaking out and trending down. 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 from 2037 (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. Phasing out the worst fossil fuels in favor of the less evil heritage fuels (sunlight, wind, firewood), will not bring carbon back into the safety zone fast enough.

The IPCC got weak knees just thinking about that so its Working Group 3 bent the curve back up a bit. The revised recommendation offered last December at COP-23 in Bonn gave more attractive narratives to policymakers — really just modest tweaks to business as usual.

The IPCC emission scenarios that meet the global two-degree target require overshooting the carbon budget at first and then removing the excess carbon with large “negative emissions,” capable of withdrawing on the order of 400‑800 GtCO2, or half-again more than humans emit.

So it came to be that delegates to UN climate conference have signed up for “negative emissions technologies” that will be sprinkled around the planet like fairy dust to reclaim over the long term the fossil emissions we are allowing ourselves in the short term (and indeed, that we, the taxpayers, are still subsidizing delivery of to the tune of 5 to 6 trillion dollars per year).

But there I go again. Calling NET “fairy dust” is what I have been doing since Copenhagen, even while extolling the virtues of biochar and carbon farming as The Great Sequestrators.

There was plenty of praise from the surgical gallery for biochar and carbon farming, for sure, but what knocked me back with a Spell of Contrition were presentations by experts on Direct Air Capture (DAC), Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) and Enhanced Weathering.

For years I have been calling BECCS snake oil because I imagined it just a rebranding of “clean coal” — an impossible plan to switch the world from fossil energy to biomass and continue business as usual. Carbon capture is not a heavy lift, scrubbers have been doing that for decades and the new technologies are vastly better at it. The bugaboo has always been storage because, placed in geological tombs like old coal-mines or fracked wells, carbon gas has a nasty habit of getting out — about 10 percent leakage per decade. Dumped into the ocean, which has been the main plan since the idea first appeared, it would become carbonic acid and worsen the acidification problem — now the worst it has been in a million years — destroying whatever remaining corals and crustaceans are not already dead from heat stroke.

The same kind of problem besets DAC, which scrubs the atmosphere of carbon the way a tree does, only with electric fans, stainless steel and aluminum instead of sunlight, cellulose and phloem. Also, unlike BECCS, DAC doesn’t produce its own power. To get the solvent to give up its CO2, you need copious heat. To capture a million tons of CO2 per year (one 40,000th of present net annual emissions) 300 to 500 MW are required — equal to a very large coal steam plant or several hundred wind turbines.

Among the many takeaways from the conference however, was that science never sleeps. BECCS and DAC are making major improvements. Our friend Hans-Peter Schmidt of the Ithaka Institute was there to talk about PyCCS; a tweak to BECCS where the carbon would be stored as pyrolysates, either biochar in the soil or replacements for plastics composites and aggregates in cement and asphalt. Construction aggregates alone were 53 gigatonnes in 2017, up from 37 in 2010. That’s enough to build a sidewalk around the equator 5000 times. Replacing any amount over 70% of that sand and gravel with biochar (say, from municipal biosolids or landfill carbon) would more than offset current anthropogenic emissions and take us into drawdown territory. Every additional square foot of pavement or building poured at that point would be drawing legacy emissions out of the atmosphere. You could take a century’s worth out every decade if you could just bring yourself to stop adding more.

At the current stage of commercial development, many DAC operators, such as those in Sweden, plan to sell the harvested CO2 instead of storing it. It could go into carbonated beverages, for instance. To my jaundiced eye, this is catch-and-release to the atmosphere, rather than drawdown. Until the storage problem has a commercially viable, antifragile way of sequestering carbon, DAC cannot be considered a solution.

The solution to the power hunger and high price of DAC, keynoter Jennifer Wilcox told us, was to stop trying to get CO2 to 95% purity. Just take a moment to consider how much energy it takes to concentrate CO2 from 400 parts per million (the air) to 950,000 parts per million. She pointed to the idea of Klaus Lackner at Arizona State University’s Center for Negative Carbon Emissions to take CO2 at low concentrations and feed algae, thereby producing biomass (energy feedstocks and superfoods) and hydrogen (for portable fuels).

The final keynote, by Phil Renforth at the Carbonate Systems Engineering Group at Cardiff University, looked at the ways rocks take carbon out of the atmosphere by weathering. For a third the cost of a ton of biochar he showed how we could not only build better soil fertility and improve success rates for reforestation, but avoid acidifying the oceans. In fact, we could be reversing ocean acidification by creating soluble bicarbonate biological fertilizers.

Sure, there were a number of talks that were really just desperate attempts to return a poorly designed, rapacious consumer economy to its perceived former glory, future generations be damned. I’d list Columbia professor James Hansen’s opening keynote in that category, and watched with sorrow and pity as he made his too-familiar impassioned plea to give nukes a chance.

Hansen sounded like an old lefty reciting the mantra, “The Workers, United, Will Never Be Defeated!” I will happily admit I may have been wrong about DAC but I am not wrong about nukes.

So there it is. I went from being skeptical about geoengineering technologies like BECCS and DAC to seeing how they might actually work to restore health to coral reefs and forests beset by rapid climate change. Moreover, they could perform those miracles in ways that take account of humanity’s need to switch from overpopulated consumerist economies to something more attuned to Gaian rhythms and flows. And they could bring those in at scale, at low cost, or even negative cost, meaning government programs to force them onto the market would be irrelevant and unnecessary. Sounds too good to be true. 

Yet there are college kids signing up for courses, nerdy tinkers in dimly-lit garages, and lab-rat inventors cashing in their savings bonds to pursue these dreams. The one thing we have going for us, we naked apes, is we are clever little buggers.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Russians Aren't Coming

"What exactly is our strategy for the Malthusian predicament?"

In his autobiography, Hollywood director, Norman Jewison describes meeting John Wayne at a party.
“Have you met Norman Jewison? The film director?” I looked down the long flight of stairs, shirtless and clutching my pants. John Wayne stared back, swaying slightly and holding a large glass of whiskey. Before I could say anything, David said, “Norman has just directed The Russians Are Coming. He and Dixie are our guests for the weekend.”
Wayne continued to stare at me, his face expressionless. I managed to murmur, “It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. Wayne.”
“What are ya?” he suddenly shouted. “One of those goddamn pinkos?”
Speechless, I smiled weakly and scampered into the bedroom to finish changing. I could hear him bellowing about commies taking over Hollywood. When I slunk downstairs to join the party, I realized I was the only guy with a beard. This was foreign territory, politically speaking. Every time I saw the six-foot-four Mr. Wayne headed my way, I managed to hide. Remember True Grit? That’s what he looked like that night, and I’d heard that the drunker he got, the meaner he was.
He scared the hell out of me.
This week marks the third week I’m patiently waiting for my passport to return from the Russian Embassy, stamped with a fresh entry visa. No doubt the recent kerfuffle over false flags, spying and gassings have slowed such things down. I plan to go in July so hopefully there is enough time to get my papers in order.

Some of the questions on the form were impossible for me to answer, like “give the dates of every previous visit.” My memories of travel there extend more than a quarter century back, when I went to St. Petersburg as part of a citizen diplomacy program organized by Diane Gilman at the Context Institute. I have watched in the intervening years as the country went through its dramatic changes from communism to gangster-ism to consumerist multiculturalism. “Cosmopolitan” is a word that aptly describes a country spanning 11 time zones.

Why would Adolf Hitler make such a bonehead strategic blunder as to attack the Soviet Union? In Chapter four of Mein Kampf he explained:
The annual increase of population in Germany amounts to almost 900,000 souls. The difficulties of providing for this army of new citizens must grow from year to year and must finally lead to a catastrophe, unless ways and means are found which will forestall the danger of misery and hunger.
Hitler considered birth control, but says it would never work, and besides,
vengeance will follow sooner or later. A stronger race will oust that which has grown weak….
Then he considered the Wizards’ argument — that science will find the means to supply exponential growth —  but rejected it on Malthusian grounds.
It would, therefore, be a mistaken view that every increase in the productive powers of the soil will supply the requisite conditions for an increase in the population.
Hitler said that boosting farm output while increasing exports of industrial goods to buy food were temporary solutions at best. He called that strategy “pacifist nonsense.”

Acknowledging that it was too late and too expensive to acquire colonies outside Europe, he concluded that the only solution to the imbalance between people and land would be to acquire new territory inside Europe (and, along the way, exterminate as many other races as could be easily arranged).

We can look back on this now and heap scorn on the insanity and ruthlessness of Lebensraum but it was no more insane and ruthless than Europe’s genocidal march to the sea across North America or Israel’s march to the sea through Gaza.

Jewison’s book also tells the story of his Moscow premier screening of The Russians Are Coming:
The theater was bigger than Radio City Music Hall in New York. To sit in that enormous theater, jammed with over two thousand Russians, and watch their reaction to my movie was an amazing experience.
As the film ran, a Russian interpreter gave a simultaneous translation over the sound system. I had been told that if a Russian audience didn’t like something, they would make a “chuh-chuh-chuh” sound, so throughout the screening, I prayed I wouldn’t hear it. They laughed at the jokes in Russian that the Americans didn’t get, and everything was fine until Theo Bikel, the Russian sub captain, threatens to blow up the town. You could feel the tension in the theater, then the “chuh-chuhing” began. I thought, “Oh God, they think they’re going to be made to look like the villains again.” But when the stand-off is broken by the little boy falling from the church belfry and the Russians help save him, the audience began a rhythmic clapping and many burst into tears. Directors Sergei Bondarchuk and Grigory Chukhrai were on their feet clapping and crying.
I was sitting next to Vladimir Posner, the Brooklyn-born editor of Soviet Life. “Why are they crying?” I asked.
“Because they didn’t make it first,” he replied.
I realized then that the film, although made primarily for an American audience, expressed the hopes and fears felt by people in both countries at that period in the Cold War. What the Russians of course couldn’t believe, and were blown away by, was the fact that I had been allowed to make the film at all.
My dad was the John Wayne of my family. He built a career bashing reds, even during the years our countries were allied fighting Hitler. When I foresook everything he stood for to join a Tennessee hippy commune (I am there still), he could barely purse his lips to spit. He came to visit, all the way from California, but refused to get out of the rental car. He never understood that it was neither him nor capitalism I was rejecting. It was the whole Orwellian mind control bit.

I get that we tribe from genetic imperative. We adopted that social animal chunk of our DNA millions of years ago as a defensive strategy against predators, the same as zebras banding together to cross a river full of crocodiles. We have to deal with extreme football rivalries, religious intolerance, political dynasties and Ford owners as a consequence.

But, please. Why can’t I watch RT without my ISP slowing down the feed? Why can’t I link to a Caitlin Johnstone or George Galloway story without Facebook trolls ridiculing me as a Russian pawn? How is it that so many otherwise intelligent journals like the Washington Post or The New York Times un-inquisitively parrot Cold War rhetoric coming from K-street think tanks and party apparatchiks?

Does National Security Advisor Bolton imagine that we will have an atomic showdown with Russia that will settle the matter once and for all? And if Bolton and the other neo-cons think climate change is a hoax, does that mean they think nuclear winter is, too?

A better question would be, what exactly is our strategy for the Malthusian predicament? Is it the UN Sustainable Development Goals? Famine? The Border Wall? Glyphosate? Colonies on Mars? What exactly is the agenda here?

In the end those whose systems of economics and governance are best equipped to confront the biophysical limits of the real world will be those best prepared to make it through the death-defying rollercoaster ride now just cresting for launch. The track is out ahead and I frankly don't see anyone seriously planning to repair it.

Tick tock.




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