Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Great Pause Week One

"A pod of dolphins rose and dove, then in pairs leaped high in the air, or walked on water with tailfin, or leaped and rotated. We applauded and cheered."


It is all too easy to die. I want to survive.

That’s my goal, but I grok the hurdles. You see a neighbor and you think, well, if I have a moment with them, it will be okay. But you don’t know who they have been in contact with, or where they might have been. You have to hold that 2-meter distance. You have to if you really want to survive. Even if what you both most need, really need, is a hug and a moment together, and maybe to pass a joint.

Today the dolphins were putting on a show. I went for my daily swim at sunset and some friends also in their 70s were having chilled white wine on the beach. I sat with them after the swim. With appropriate social distancing and no greeting hugs we agreed we are going to be making this a regular thing.

I noticed a fin break the surface out about 100 yards and pointed. We were treated to a great display. It must have lasted 15 or 20 minutes. A pod of dolphins rose and dove, then in pairs leaped high in the air, or walked on water with tailfin, or leaped and rotated. We applauded and cheered.

Nearby, a man cast his net for fish. I told Sandra I thought the dolphins were driving the fish for him but she called bullshit on that. They were too far away to see him, she said, and probably just fishing for themselves.


Spring Breakers oblivious to social distancing
Last of the regular blogs posted today. It will be a while until I can bring myself to write in that style again. There is no doubt Trump is still worth bashing, and I may not be able to resist piling on, but the climate emergency and my biochar solution now seem all too remote.

Of course, the climate emergency continues grinding on in the background, even if humans have a different kind of crisis occupying their minds. The pandemic will make the world warmer by global brightening, but not by very much or very soon. Air travel was 10% of GDP and 8% of GHG. Climate scientist Paul Beckwith is reassuring that the pandemic dimming bump will be minimal — 0.03°C — but I would not take any prediction to the bank. 

Speaking of which, the ATM by the mayor’s office still works so I took out the limit — 8000 pesos, which will last me a month, maybe two if I spend carefully.


Learning to social distance
The real demon in the room is not the virus. You will get it or you won’t. You will die or you won’t. The real demon is your mind. Yesterday I smoked some reefer and it thrust me into the local telepathy bubble. There is a lot of fear there. The antidote is to radiate happiness and tranquility even if you feel the grip of another’s angst in the pit of your stomach.

At sunset today Sandra was right to chastise me for gallows humor. Also, I need to limit my news downloads. WHO has recommended only twice a day on the mass media for the sake of mental health. That is good advice. I have the Beatles channel on Sirius. And Elvis.

I put out a couple Instagram stories about making sauerkraut at home. They were well received, more because they were upbeat, I suspect, than because they were particularly useful as how-to videos. 



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Taking temp and BP daily now. I need to work more to bring my BP down. It seems good after workouts but elevates when I am reading. I checked the supply of prescriptions and will visit the pharmacy today or tomorrow to see if I can get a renewal of each for up to 2 months. Not sure that will be possible but worth the try. I don’t want to give up reading.

Yesterday I improved my spreadsheet on virus case projections for Mexico and Tennessee, which are both on a similar datapoint in the exponential curve, just past the bottom of the J. While global doubling time is approximately 5 days, both Mex and Tenn have established 2-day doublings for the past 10 days. My new spreadsheet projects that trend out a few months.

This produced an interesting discovery for me. While the public health professionals are all asking us to flatten the curve, the lax control attitude that places the economy over ecology will spike the curve in red states. South Korea, with active suppression, is the world model for a flat curve, Italy, with slow mitigation, is the model for a spike. What I saw in that data is that S. Korea will have the virus at a semi-epidemic stage for a very long time — likely until there is a vaccine. Italy, and by extension red states and countries like Mexico, will have more rapid and extensive deaths in their populations (in the red states denialist Republicans are more likely to die than Democrats), but it will saturate the entire population faster and be “over” quicker. How fast? My estimate is that Tennessee, for instance (and Mexico by extension), will peak their cases by the end of April and peak their deaths by May or June. They simply cannot keep doubling beyond the size of their population.

I am not saying the do-nothing approach is kind and compassionate, but that “strategy” (if it is one) does get survivors back to work sooner and gets the economy restarted, so there is a certain logic to it, even if the optics are horrendous and hence untouchable, even by Fox, although apparently not for the Lt. Governor of Texas.

Turns out this discovery was also made by Tomas Pueyo and reported in an essay for Medium called “The Hammer and the Dance” on March 19. That post has received more than 9 million views and been translated into 29 languages. Pueyo wrote:
Presented like these, the two options of Mitigation and Suppression, side by side, don’t look very appealing. Either a lot of people die soon and we don’t hurt the economy today, or we hurt the economy today, just to postpone the deaths.

This ignores the value of time…. Every day, every hour we waited to take measures, this exponential threat continued spreading. We saw how a single day could reduce the total cases by 40% and the death toll by even more.

But time is even more valuable than that.
We’re about to face the biggest wave of pressure on the healthcare system ever seen in history. We are completely unprepared, facing an enemy we don’t know. That is not a good position for war.
What if you were about to face your worst enemy, of which you knew very little, and you had two options: Either you run towards it, or you escape to buy yourself a bit of time to prepare. Which one would you choose?

This is what we need to do today. The world has awakened. Every single day we delay the coronavirus, we can get better prepared.

For the countries where the coronavirus is already here, the options are clear.

On one side, countries can go the mitigation route: create a massive epidemic, overwhelm the healthcare system, drive the death of millions of people, and release new mutations of this virus in the wild.
On the other, countries can fight. They can lockdown for a few weeks to buy us time, create an educated action plan, and control this virus until we have a vaccine.
Governments around the world today, including some such as the US, the UK or Switzerland have so far chosen the mitigation path.

That means they’re giving up without a fight. They see other countries having successfully fought this, but they say: “We can’t do that!”
One irony of this pandemic’s history is that the heroes may wind up being doctors and geneticists from Cuba and China. That does not square with US propaganda casting those countries, along with Russia, into the role of Eastasia in Orwell’s 1984, always the enemy. This meme is taught rote to schoolchildren after they recite the Pledge of Allegiance. But as Orwell pointed out, it is easy to rewrite history. Once Germany, Italy, and Japan were our enemies and Russia, Cuba, and Mexico were our friends. Tomorrow Canada may have always been our enemy.

Why do socialist countries have an edge? Jem Bendell says:
…the impact of this pandemic is far greater on society than it needed to be, because of the nature of our economic system, which is dependent on financiers’ confidence of an increasing volume of trade, transactions and debts. In a world where disease and other disruptions are likely to increase, we need a different economic model which does not multiply and prolong the harm.
We have learned that smoking and alcohol both place you in a higher risk category for Covid. Word on the street was that alcohol would no longer be sold on the island after today. I went to the store and got a bottle each of good tequila and vodka and some Pinot Grigio to contribute to the Sunset support group. Then I saw the rotgut vodka (Sisi) selling for 85 pesos a liter ($4) so got some of that for homebrew hand sanitizer and surface sterilizer.


Listening to The Overstory on Audible while biking the empty beach in the cool morning hours.
“That’s when Adam realizes: humankind is deeply ill. The species won’t last long. It was an aberrant experiment. Soon the world will be returned to the healthy intelligences: the collective ones; colonies and hives.”
As I passed homes, old men sat in doorways mending old fishing nets. It has been a while since they fed themselves this way, but they still know how and can teach grandchildren eager for something to do. We are on an island in a constant current that directs fish from the Caribbean into the Gulf. It is the same blue current that Hemingway called his “stream.” Fish will always be plentiful and now, more than ever, as the restaurants in the hotels no longer need to be supplied.

When I waded out for my swim I surprised a sting ray no more than 12 feet from the shore. She turned and scurried away so I wouldn’t step on her. I saw schools of long silver fish. I had to dodge diving pelicans to get to deep water. Glinting bodies leapt into the air to eyeball me as I swam. They followed and nipped at my heels. “Better swim faster, friend, our time is returning.”


South of the small town on the mainland where tourist buses disgorge their cargos to ferry the last 8 miles, our islanders and their local allies decided to erect a barricade. Frustrated by the slow action of government, which has ignored our petitions, they turned out in numbers at 4 AM to put tires across the road.

Eventually the federal police — the military — were called out and they erected their own, more elaborate checkpoint. Tourist vehicles are turned back. Residents must show ID and have their temperature taken to proceed farther. Your papers must be in order.

There is a steady rain of requests for me to join online conversations of various ilk and I have to decide which and how many I want to join. I am quite productive just being a hermit and don’t really need to give advice when I don’t even know myself where all this is going.

That’s really the thing. Some people think that the pandemic will issue in the Age of Aquarius. Others think we will just go back to normal, probably before much longer. It is a Wizard and Prophet tribal divide, to borrow from Charles Mann. The wizards reckon there will be a cure, soon. The prophets, clad in Mr. Natural gowns and sandwich boards, say we have brought the wrath of the gods and a sacrifice is required, to wit, consumer culture hence and forthwith. As usual, they are both speaking past each other.

Our 3000 to 5000 new tourists per day are now gone.
I suspect it is neither. There will be some lessons learned in this, such as the importance of preparation for the unknown knowns. Eighteen percent of the US GDP is devoted to health care (previously thought “the best in the world,” an expectation soon to be revised downward). There were not enough N95 masks, gowns for personnel, or ventilators. There was nobody coordinating preparation and implementation at the national level. Wall Street had collateralized the sick and dying in order to issue corporate and municipal bonds for the rentiers, rather than prepare for what epidemiologists told them was coming. Central planning is communist, right? The market will fix everything.

Perhaps a few more people will have learned to garden and be exploring the possibility of joining an ecovillage. More likely, when this is over, they will have to go back to work in the same, familiar, coal mine economy to try to dig their way out of the collapse of their own personal finances, pay off student loans and buy health insurance.

Perhaps we can have a discussion about that when we get to those times. For now, just #stayhome.

You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed, especially at this time when I am quarantined far from home. You are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. My latest book, The Dark Side of the Ocean, is nearing that moment. Please help if you can.



Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Great Pause

"While we can never fully go back, with enough people trying, something approaching normalcy will return... until we summit the roller-coaster track and plummet again."

Fifteen years ago, when I began blogging, I called my page “The Great Change.” My premise was that the world was at the cusp of a phase shift in civilization. The era of cheap oil had passed, and with it was gone the abundant energy that had created the growth-imperative economics everyone was so accustomed to. Homo sapiens was going to be graduating, after a rite of passage, from an adolescent species, ever-expanding its niche by out-competing all others, to a mature adult species engaged in complex relationships to build a more stable steady-state within which to gracefully inhabit Earth. What is coming will be wonderful, I said.

The manipulation of the price of energy — essentially issuing future government debt (to nature) to hide the real price of a commodity (shale, tar sands, or deep offshore crude oil, and fracked gas), using unbelievably expensive and wasteful corporate, military and clandestine means — fascism by definition — allowed our happy-go-lucky, motoring, consumerist society to keep on its merry way until dramatically catastrophic climate alteration began forcing us to notice what we were doing. By then, we had overdrafted accounts with the planet to such an extent that foreclosures were cascading — floods, hurricanes, droughts, climate refugees, biodiversity crashes, fracking Ponzi busts, reactionary governments, and Coronageddon, to name a few. 

The Great Change, over the course of all those years, gradually migrated from giving advice about prepping for the coming economic hardship (including recipes for tasty meals from your organic garden) to tracking changes in the weather, and then proposing solutions (biochar) that could increase the nutrient density of those homecooked meals while turning down the atmospheric thermostat over the course of the next century, employing a novel curative program we called the Cool Lab.

Enter Covid-19. Those who have been following our recommended steps and have full pantries of canned goods, know where their water and power comes from and their sewage and plastics go, tend gardens even in winter, and have stockpiled books, DVDs, and a good assortment of sharp and well-oiled tools, will have little difficulty now sheltering in place, homeschooling their children, and caring for elderly relatives. For sure, the pandemic will be an emotional roller coaster for the next few years, and then we will all be trying to return to some semblance of normalcy. And, while we can never fully go back, with enough people trying, something approaching normalcy will return. Until we summit the coaster track and it plummets again.

It will be a roller-coaster if for no other reason than that it is now evident that full-on lockdowns, envisioned by government emergency committees as lasting a few weeks, or maybe a month, cannot realistically be extended for a year and beyond. That strategy is neither socially nor economically viable, even if it may be pandemic-control-appropriate from a medical standpoint. What may happen instead is that regional lockdowns will open and close as Covid cases rise and fall. 

One bright spot: the discovery that smart thermometers build big datasets that allow rapid medical intervention, hotspot to hotspot, days or weeks before hospital admissions spike enough to advise CDC, WHO, or others attempting to monitor the outbreak. That technology is a real blessing. Smart thermometers should be distributed free-of-charge to every family and used daily. They can be uploading their data to number-crunching epidemiology centers that can dispatch health workers to the right places at just the right moments. Lockdowns, if needed, can follow in those discrete areas.

There is an assumption that immunity is conferred upon those who survive this disease. This has not been proven and nor has the notion that the disease cannot be spread by those who had the disease and then got well again. Because of this uncertainty, we don’t know whether Covid-19 is a passing virus or one that will be with us until such time as an effective vaccine can be developed and tested, and hopefully, also, safe and effective treatments emerge. That will be at least a year from now and possibly much longer.

Anthropogenic aerosols in the atmosphere — the products of our industry that we exhaust to the air— bounce sunlight back to space. It is generally thought by science that this effect contributes a net cooling of between two-tenths and one-and-a-half degrees centigrade to the world’s average surface temperature.

In this video, Paul Beckwith provides some calculations for the temperature impact of the coronavirus closures as aerosol pollution is reduced.

Beckwith explains that the most widely cited estimates for the global dimming effect are between 0.25 and 0.5°C. Because coronavirus closures do not completely remove dimming (air traffic is reduced but coal plants still run), the reduction might be something like 0.03°C. According to
There is also some question as to how long regional impacts might take to show up in the average global temperature (AGT) data. In any case, it is not likely that the temperature increase would be as much as 1.0°C. This is the number often given by those who exaggerate this effect. Paul Beckwith has called this a “completely absurd number.” further cautions against putting too much faith in the 9/11 effect:
A US study by Dr Gang Hong of Texas A&M University has found that daily temperature range (DTR) variations of 1.0°C during September aren’t all that unusual and that the change in 2001 was probably attributable to low cloud cover.
Whether the virus affects the temperature or not, we are due for more extreme weather, and we could well see new high temperatures this summer and more global weirding next winter.

After sending my latest book, The Dark Side of the Ocean, off to my publisher, I had gone to Belize at the beginning of March to run a 2-week permaculture design course and continue work on the Cool Lab prototype planned for a small Mayan village there. When borders started closing, particularly singling out USAnians in the case of Guatemala and Mexico, I became concerned and cut my intended stay short.

Masked and gloved, I crossed the border into Mexico and retreated to my winter office off the north coast of the Yucatan. From this location I had authored The Post Petroleum Survival Guide in 2005 and thus it has always been well stocked with my prepper supplies, medicines, books and DVDs, and is a relatively secure place to self-quarantine for the next little while. Who knows? I may even write another book now.

In Albert Camus’ The Plague, written in 1947, Camus describes life under quarantine in a small village. With a well-founded fabric of trust, life was manageable, even joyful. What we should not lose under any circumstances, he said, is the decency that binds us. Many unscrupulous officials will try to use this moment to stir passions against foreigners — Chinese and Europeans this month, USAnians next month, if you find yourself abroad like me. Camus said that after observing the misery, generosity, fear and nobility that people experience during quarantine, that “in the midst of so many afflictions” what one learns is that “in man there are more things worthy of admiration than of contempt.”

On January first, just as the virus was enveloping Wuhan, I reached the end of my 73rd year and embarked upon year 74. They say it is not the years that get you but the miles, and in my case I have no shortage of scars and pains gathered from an active life, among them 3 of the 5 conditions that signal an elevated risk of mortality should a Covid cell lodge in one of my lungs. 

Because of that, my intention now is to #StayHome and self-quarantine as best I can. If the internet gods smile upon this small thatched palapa, I should be able to keep posting from here, otherwise the blog may go silent for a spell. In either event, I wish everyone good luck, safe shelter, and all the benefits of this pause for reflection and renewal.

You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

We Need a Manhattan Project for the Climate

"We could call the IPCC reports our modern Einstein letters. They are arriving to the Resolute Desk with greater frequency and urgency. Sadly, the occupant of the oval office is curled up with a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

Teller drives Szilard to see Einstein
With a viral plague descending on the world now, I am struck by how similar this century’s 20’s are to the last century’s. The plague then, following the Spanish flu pandemic, was political. In 1921, a piece of fake news caught the attention of a young house painter named Adolph Hitler. In its earliest editions, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion had nothing whatever to do with either Jews or anti-Semites. It was a literary parody propaganda written in the 1860s to rally popular opinion against Napoleon III. Around 1895, the pamphlet was modified by the czarist Russian secret police stationed in Paris to portray anti-monarchists as part of a global Zionist conspiracy. 

Alfred Rosenberg introduced Adolf Hitler to the Protocols with an edition printed by automobile magnate Henry Ford under the title The Jewish Peril. It came at a pivotal time when Hitler was still developing his worldview, pre-Mein Kampf. He referred to the Protocols frequently with approval in political speeches throughout his career, despite having been told that they were faked. So, too, did Joseph Goebbels. To them, the notion of Russian secret police fake news was hogwash. The Protocols were gospel. 

When Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933, people already knew how he felt about Jews. Black shirt fascists were publicly beating up Jews all over Germany, burning and looting shops, and arresting many on false charges. Most Germans realized it would get worse, but like all political tides, people assumed Hitler wouldn’t last beyond one term and that the Reichstadt’s old line politicians — the deep state — would shake off its lethargy and step up to control the damage. They were wrong.

By March, parliamentary vote was replaced by executive orders. An order for the reconstruction of the civil service issued on April 7. Reconstruction was a euphemism for dismissing Jews from state appointments, including university faculties. 

Germany fired 27 Jewish scientists who had won, or would later win, Nobel prizes. Among these were several important physicists who would geopolitically shape the remainder of the 20th century. Now they became concerned about whether they would even be able to leave Germany.

Fortunately for those scholars, brave men outside Germany saw what was going on and stepped into the fray, quickly, before travel barriers were erected. In April 1933, British economist William Beveridge founded the Academic Assistance Council, later renamed the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, that rescued more than 2500 scientists from Germany and occupied countries, including Hans Bethe, Felix Bloch, Max Born, Albert Einstein, James Franck, Otto Frisch, Fritz London, Lise Meitner, Erwin Schrödinger, Otto Stern, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Victor Weisskopf, and Eugene Wigner. 

Hitler’s anti-Jewish executive order disrupted theoretical physics at a key moment. The scientific frontier was just pushing into the realm of quantum mechanics, the description of the atom, and an understanding of the curve of binding energy derived from Einstein’s formula, E = mc2. So it was that the rescued Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard found himself crossing a London street when he suddenly grasped that atomic fission could be sustained in a chain reaction of energetic subatomic particles. 

Szilard, later soaking in his bath in the Strand Palace Hotel near Covent Garden, realized that these fission reactions could be chained together to release unfathomable energy to power, or destroy, whole cities with a mere teacup of isotopes. He also knew that this sort of physics was not unknown to the non-Jewish scientists still at work within the Third Reich, or to their counterparts in universities in Russia and Japan. So it came to be that Szilard, urged by Wigner, went to visit Einstein to implore him to author a letter to alert President Franklin Roosevelt to the danger. A young Edward Teller drove Szilard out from New York City to Long Island to take that meeting.

Szilard persuades Einstein to write Roosevelt
By the time Einstein’s letter reached Roosevelt, Germany had invaded Poland and the United States was moving, slowly, to war footing. Despite being very busy, the significance of atomic fission was instantly grasped by Roosevelt and within hours of receiving the letter, a committee had formed at the White House to bring key scientists into communication with the military echelon and civilian war planners. From that emerged the secretive Manhattan Project, jointly headed by Robert Oppenheimer for the scientists and General Leslie Groves for the Pentagon. Oppenheimer pulled together in one place the best minds of the world to solve this one problem. 

Later testifying before Congress, Oppenheimer recalled:
“I became convinced, as did others, that a major change was called for on the work of the bomb itself. We needed a central laboratory, devoted wholly to this purpose; where people could talk freely with each other; where theoretical ideas and experimental findings could affect each other; where the waste and frustration and error of the many compartmentalized studies could be eliminated; where we could begin to come to grips with chemical, metallurgical and ordinance problems that had so far received no consideration.”
“The Japanese assessment was essentially technological. Like Bohr’s assessment in 1939, it overestimated the difficulty of isotope separation and underestimated US industrial capacity. It also, as the Japanese government had before Pearl Harbor, underestimated American dedication. Collective dedication was a pattern of Japanese culture more than of American, but Americans could summon it when challenged and coven it with resources of talent and capital unmatched anywhere else in the world.” 
— Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb

The Germans had no paucity of resources and talent in 1940. Despite the purges of Jewish scientists, they still possessed some of the foremost nuclear physicists of the era. Pause here and take a moment to picture a world in which Adolph Hitler possessed the atomic bomb, long before any of his adversaries. 

From 1941 to 1944, after suffering a crushing defeat in the blitzkrieg along the Eastern Front, ultimately costing 48 to 49 million Soviet lives, Stalin stood up an industrialized war machine that expelled the Wehrmacht invaders, killing 4.3 million stormtroopers in battle, and then wheeled and defeated the 1-million-man Japanese army in Mongolia in just 8 days. 

Now, suppose instead of watching his battered army retreating across the Russian steppes to the fatherland, dogged all the way to Berlin by incomprehensibility vast legions of pursuing Red Army tanks, Hitler had turned to his attache holding the football and simply released launch codes. Imagine what this past 80 years would have then become. Imagine, as Hitler did, a one thousand year Reich.
“Hitler had some time spoken to me about the possibility of an atom bomb, but the idea quite obviously strained his intellectual capacity. He was also unable to grasp the revolutionary nature of nuclear physics.” — Albert Speer
Consider the existential threat we presently face. Our international conferences have failed us. The pledges and pacts — Stockholm, Rio, Kyoto, Paris — stand revealed as false promises, filled with wiggle room and prevarications. We could call the IPCC reports our modern Einstein letters. They are arriving to the Resolute Desk with greater frequency and urgency. Sadly, the occupant of the oval office is curled up with a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

There are, outside the USA, the modern equivalents of Manhattan projects underway. In 2016 Commonwealth Secretary General Patricia Scotland convened a brain trust to advise her on Regenerative Development to Reverse Climate Change, eventually forming an initiative called Common Earth. Next May, top climate-reversing scientists reconvene in Stockholm to examine Negative Emissions Technologies (NET) and compare progress. The Stockholm Resilience Centre has become this century’s Los Alamos, Johan Rockström and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber in the role of Oppenheimer and Groves, headhunting any who might make significant contribution to reversing climate change, and obtaining the needed funding.

Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Johan Rockström, Steffen Kallbekken, Kevin Anderson, and Joeri Rogelj in Paris, image by Peter Buchert

Unless we can lower atmospheric concentrations (and oceanic concentrations since they are in equilibrium) of heat-trapping carbon by hundreds of billions of tons within mere decades, the global thermometer will inexorably rise into territory uninhabitable by mammals and you and I will go extinct. At present rates of increase that event will likely occur before the end of this century. It is possible we could find ways to delay our death sentence — such as by relocating to undersea bubble cities — but in the end the oceans too will heat beyond human survivability. We need to remove 800 billion tons of CO2 from the existing global carbon cycle, extremely fast, or we perish.

By 1939, a few of the world’s brightest physicists had grasped that the way to make an atom bomb would not involve slow neutron bombardment of the heavy isotope Uranium-238, as generally assumed, but might be found in fast neutron bombardment of the rarer isotope Uranium-235 or a yet-to-be-discovered transuranic fission product. Relatively few physicists working on this problem had this insight in those years, and those in the dark outer circle included the atomic scientists laboring for the Third Reich and Japan. They imagined that with the right moderator, such as deuterium (heavy water), U-238 or Thorium could be made to sustain a chain reaction. Fortunately for the world’s Jews, Gypsies, and everyone else, they were wrong. They were still futilely pursuing heavy water atom bombs when the war ended.

By analogy, the NET Manhattan Project now seems fixated on a dead-end path called BECCS, or Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage. This is the Deuterium bomb of our time. BECCS won’t succeed because both parts of its formula are fatally flawed. It imagines biomass energy in the form of vast plantations of monocultured tree row crops, such as willow in temperate climates and eucalyptus in the tropics, feeding gargantuan centralized biomass steam plants to make district heating and air conditioning or generate electricity. This model of feedstock production and use is doomed to fail because it is non-ecological (the antithesis of a functioning ecosystem); capital intensive (perpetuating unstable wealth inequality); carbon-emitting (in its transportation profile); and vulnerable to market shifts for its products (such as we are now seeing in response to the coronavirus or to Saudi Arabia’s fire sale of crude oil). It fails a second time because it is carbon-releasing in its liquid-CO2 production and transportation pathway; capital intensive in its requirement for pipelines and deep-injection wells (perpetuating unstable wealth inequality); and unstable in its geological repositories (or, in the case of ocean disposal, because it is acidifying and de-oxygenating). 

Other options, like DACCS (Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage) or Enhanced Weathering, show considerable promise from a technological standpoint but fail by any economic analysis because they are very costly with only meager financial returns, if any. Of course, in a global emergency, profitability does not matter. The electricity produced in 1943 by Portsmouth, Oak Ridge and Hanford engineers drawing from coal plants and dams on the Ohio, Tennessee and Columbia rivers in order to refine plutonium and U-235 for the first atomic bombs was more than the entire electric capacity of Australia at the time. All that power went to make the two bombs that were used on Japan. 
“At one point in the negotiations,” said Groves, “Nichols said they would need between five and ten thousand tons of silver.” This led to the icey reply, ”Colonel, in the Treasury we do not speak of tons of silver, our unit is the Troy ounce.” Eventually 395 million Troy ounces of silver, 13540 short tons, went off from the West Point Depository to be cast into cylindrical billets, rolled into 40-foot strips, and wound onto iron cores at Allis-Chalmers in Milwaukee. Solid silver bus bars a square foot in cross-section crowned each racetrack’s oval. The silver was worth more than $300 million dollars.” 
— Richard Rhodes
As Roosevelt well understood, cost is no consideration when our very existence is at stake. 
Agroforestry and carbon farming have excellent returns on investment and also work well to pull carbon, but are difficult to scale to the level of the present threat. They also reach a saturation point for carbon beyond which they are only C-neutral, not C-negative. Had we slowed our emissions at the time of the first warnings, more than 30 years ago, we might have been able to withdraw carbon just by planting trees and switching to conservation grazing methods and that might have been adequate. We didn’t, so now we need reach for stronger medicine. 

The aunt in the attic is an option that just a few clever physicists are exploring while all the others are consumed by shiny DACCS toys or equations for land-use conversions to feed BECCS behemoths. Its caretakers at the Ithaka Institut in Switzerland, Cornell University, and elsewhere call it PyCCS, for Pyrolysis with Carbon Capture and Storage, and hopefully they will in the end be shown to have demonstrated the correct way forward, and we will all realize that and commit to it before it is too late to matter. 

When the Allies finally had the capacity to drop the bomb, after Germany had surrendered, Szilard, Einstein and most of other the scientists who had contributed to the Manhattan Project were horrified. Knowing game theory well, understanding the power of deterrence and the impotence of targeting civilians to end hostilities, and also grasping by their knowledge of physics and biology the devastating inhumanity of nuclear radiation, they tried to exert their influence. They had long labored under the expectation that Franklin Roosevelt would stand by his moral rhetoric and never inflict such an atrocity on non-combatant civilians. 

But by then Roosevelt was dead. Szilard tried to reach President Harry Truman to persuade him not to use the bomb. He was intercepted by General Groves, who had Szilard tailed by the FBI and wanted him imprisoned. In the end, Groves did keep Szilard and the others from communicating with Truman, the bomb was used, and eventually its production fell into the hands of many, including, today, some very unstable personalities.

The race to save the climate need not end this way. The Cool Lab PyCCS system we have described often in these pages can change our otherwise certain fate, and along the way could birth a far more democratic, egalitarian, secure, and anti-fragile future for humanity and all our relations — a circular economy in harmony with our mother’s needs. The only lurking horror is in a failure to comprehend the real danger, and to act.

You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Sorry, climate change is not about water

"What can be effective is producing real-world changes in the short time remaining."

We are gathered here this week in Belize for the 15th annual permaculture design course at the Maya Mountain Research Farm. I have blogged in past years from this place, set upon an ancient city ruin from the Classic Maya Era, surrounded today by a multi-strata agroforestry example of the human potential for antifragile, harmonious living with élan in the uncertain and ominous Anthropocene. I’ll not do that again just now. Instead I want to mention something I delved into during our first day of class — a bit of climate science confusion that needs to be corrected and nipped in the bud.

The ecologist Walter Jehne is particularly guilty of spreading this particular point of misinformation, and while I like Jehne and his work in general, he does the world a disservice when he tries to opine on atmospheric science. 

Jehne correctly reports that humans — primarily by land use change — have altered Earth’s water cycle in some very profound ways. He also correctly observes that the single largest greenhouse gas, by a sizeable margin, is water vapor. He then draws the conclusion that by restoring hydrological health to the land surface of the planet we will rapidly restore the natural climate that existed before the industrial age. This is a logical error in which coincidence is confused with causality, something we humans have a neurological propensity towards and that leads us to all manner of ills. 

Yes, the water cycle is out of kilter. As are the nitrogen cycle, the carbon cycle, the potassium cycle, and much more. We humans are great disruptors. You could say, and I do in this permaculture class, that disturbance is our ecological niche, and we do our damage on the same scale as super-volcanoes or asteroid impacts, using mere biological means.

Searching for a metaphor to explain Jehne’s error, I have taken to comparing Earth’s atmosphere to mega rock concerts. If you look at that towering rack of amplifiers bathing an acre of audience in decibels of sound, you could call that water vapor in the atmosphere. Jehne, in my analogy, would tell us confidently that we can repair Earth’s climate by starting to remove some of those amplifiers from the tower. He is right, as far as he goes, but there are a lot of amplifiers up there, they are pretty heavy, and it is a very high tower.

Instead, we could look more closely at the electric guitar of the lead musician. Just below that jewel-studded ring on his pinky finger there is this little round knob. It is known as “gain” and maybe it has some markings on it like the numbers 1 to 5 or 1 to 10. Or 1 to 11 if the band is Spinal Tap. When the musician reaches down and gives that knob a tiny twist, the decibels in the entire amphitheater elevate (or diminish) exponentially. Gain is a control knob for volume.

In Earth’s climate system the gain knob is carbon.

In 1957, during the International Geophysical Year, the First Russian Antarctic Expedition founded Vostok Station, literally, “Station East” at the southern Pole of Cold, on the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, with the lowest reliably measured natural temperature on Earth of −89.2 °C (−128.6 °F; 184.0 K). It is also one of the driest places on earth with only 26 days of precipitation, on average. In the summer season of 1983–1984, a building was constructed by Professor Boris Kudryashov and ancient ice core samples were obtained.

I reprinted his core data chart in my 1990 book, Climate in Crisis. At that time, the chart looked back 800,000 years, and Kudryashov was able to reliably extract CO2 bubbles and to correlate the carbon content of the atmosphere across the ages to known temperatures, globally averaged, taken from various other data sources. 

It’s true that water vapor is the largest contributor to the Earth’s greenhouse effect. On average, it probably accounts for about 60% of warming. However, water vapor does not control the Earth’s temperature, but is instead controlled by the temperature. Warmer temperatures evaporate more water.

From 2002 to 2009, an infrared sounder aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite measured the atmospheric concentration of water vapor. Combined with a radiative transfer model, Gordon et al. used these observations to determine the strength of the water vapor feedback. According to their calculations, atmospheric water vapor amplifies warming by 2.2 plus or minus 0.4 watts per square meter per degree short-term and 1.9 to 2.8 watts per square meter per degree long-term. 

However, we have seen from these kinds of measurements that atmospheric water vapor concentration is not correlated to temperature rise the way carbon dioxide is.

What rightfully concerns climate scientists is what that Vostok ice core is telling us about our immediate future.

We are now at 414 parts per million CO2 by volume in the atmosphere and adding 2–3 more ppm each year. We know from the geological record that at 325 ppm, which is about where we were when I wrote Climate in Crisis, the equilibrium temperature should be 5 degrees above normal (“normal” being the average across the comfortable Holocene epoch in which mammals evolved into us). And yet, when that book came out, we were only 0.9 degrees above normal. How could that be?

Slowing that 5 degree temperature increase is a huge heat sink that covers 70% of the surface of Earth — the ocean. Deeper in places than Everest is tall, most of it far out of the reach of sunlight, the ocean warms or cools only very slowly, taking thousands of years to catch up to the rest of the biosphere. 

We should all be very thankful for that, because all that water buys us a little time. 

Whether humans will go extinct at 3 degrees, 5 degrees, or warmer is an open scientific question. We will not be able to function well out-of-doors once ambient temperatures go above the capacity of our sweat glands to maintain evaporative cooling for our bodies. This effect is already being observed in places that have never experienced the kinds of heat extremes they are now seeing.

Even if the US rejoins the Paris Agreement and nations accelerate their ambitions to curb the threat, it seems unlikely we will arrest the growth of CO2 before we reach 450 to 500 ppm, and that would imply, from the Vostok record, global atmosphere and oceanic temperature equilibrium will rise well into the double digits above normal, and with that rise will come certain extinction of most terrestrial lifeforms, ourselves included. 

No amount of afforestation or changed grazing patterns would produce a water vapor change rapidly enough to succeed with Walter Jehne’s prescriptive pathway.

However, thanks to the time lag afforded by the oceans, if negative emissions technology can ramp up quickly enough in the next few decades, it is yet possible to turn the gain knob back to 350, 300, 250 and below and perhaps avoid our otherwise certain fate. That is my hope, and I am clinging to it.

Here in Belize we are training people to do exactly what will be needed, and what can be effective, in producing real-world changes in the short time remaining. I love this place, these people, and the great adventure upon which we have embarked.

 You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Bernie Goes to Cuba: Regenerative Media

"I am less disappointed in the news media these days than I am angry at it."
after Raúl Corrales Forno, “La Caballería” (The Cavalry) — Museo de la Revolución, La HabanaAdd caption

I grew up on the morning papers. “Papers” is plural because my dad was a newspaperman and took multiple daily or weekly editions that he read over breakfast or on the train from Southern Connecticut to the city. One time when I was maybe 13 we were in Newport Beach, California and he sent me out to get the Times. I dutifully brought back a day old edition of The New York Times which was what I had assumed he meant and that was a big laugh because in California it means the LA Times, or what Harry Shearer refers to as the LA dog trainer.

Nowadays I can’t read either of those. I just find them boring. Same for all the TV and political websites. Just too predicable. Even a recent expose in the LA Times on the Marshall Islanders and atomic veterans was such old news one wonders how it is news to anyone.

I know before passing by CNN, Fox or MSNBC in an airport or restaurant that today’s talking points will be something to do with stopping Sanders. Maybe it will be a story about the price tag on Medicare-for-All or the Green New Deal, neither of which will ask the obvious question about the exorbitant price we are currently paying for the insane, stupid, unscientific, and soon-to-be-suicidal status quo.

Serious peer-reviewed and published research has determined that under Medicare-for-All, health expenditures would fall in the first year, while providing high-quality health coverage to all US residents. Replacing private insurers with a public system would achieve lower net healthcare costs over the long-term, versus obscene mortality rates, cascading personal bankruptcies, and an inevitable public health system melt-down over the long-term. Is any of this ever spoken of in the mainstream corporate media? No. Nothing. Crickets.

Or perhaps the story of the day will be about a ballyhoo’d 60 Minutes soundbite of Bernie’s praise for Castro’s literacy program 40 years ago, something I have written my own praise for here

The Fox network is tenderizing Sanders’ meat for the Trump campaign roast. MSNBC is trying to keep him off that menu by a pre-emptive strike in favor of a yet-to-be-named “moderate” but presumptively Joe Biden. All too predictable.

In his now out-of-print autobiography, Travels in Dreams, Bill Mollison wrote,
The sort of anger I have is banked, like a great heap of coals under a skin of sawdust. If I get more fuel, more anger, I stoke it; I know that violence breeds violence, injury, injury. Feuds never end. Outright anger and terror stupid and ineffective, whether from the streets or the government agencies.
The anger is against the stupid way people in power handle problems, like spoilt children, like idiots. I have frequently called governments knaves and fools and I mean it. There are good, current, de-bugged solutions to every modern problem. It needs only slight research to find at least 3 or 4 solutions to any social concern (drugs, homelessness, smog, pollution generally, employment, etc., etc.)
Yet these are not researched, not adopted, not even known. Our leaders do not act as though they want to help solve any problem but that of manipulating society so that they can stay in power, even if that means starting up a civil or external war to do so; to divide our society with ‘votes.’
We can all see it; we should all be angry, all in action with all our bodies out there. I am also angry that I have had to put down the work I love to do — watching natural systems — to do work to prevent the loss of these systems. In other terms, I can’t spend time with my family, because I have to fight, to give them a chance of survival. I am furious, and will stay angry while I am alive and I will work at real solutions until I die with sidelong glances at my beloved natural world. And I hope all our kids are angry too; their world is laid waste by fools, for greed or power. Fools.
Angry too that we have failed ourselves, have not used our wits, refuse to believe that we are heavily engaged in the last war of humankind; the battle to stop ourselves killing the world. To take on the guilt and go for the the job.
First feel fear 
Then get angry 
Then go, with your life, into the fight. 
Scared, but more angry than scared. That’s it.
 — Travels in Dreams, pp 16–17.

The irony of the Democratic party attacking Bernie Sanders for finding something nice to say about Cuba is that it shows that for all of Fidel’s control of state-run media, hour-long harangues, and crushing dissenters, the USA has achieved mind-control of its population on a scale Castro could only dream of. Of course, he didn’t have Anderson Cooper, Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow or a finely-tuned, psychomemetic, lightspeed cyberwar, public media filtration system working for him.
My Gaia University colleague, Shaktari Belew writes:
We are all suffering from our own Perceptual Filters (our unique experiences, thoughts, and beliefs that determine what we allow ourselves to perceive). And all humans like to feel as if they were correct regarding any topic. So the determination of how the electorate will feel about this topic seems, to me, to have more to do with our individual and cultural Perceptual Filters — and our awareness that they even exist.
Once one is aware of Perceptual Filters, you are at choice about exploring your own and those of others. But until that moment, we are all convinced that our perception is the one and only “correct” one.
I was raised during the Communist scare, and so most my age still carry that absolute fear of anything that could even slightly be called “Communist or Socialist.” Both are “boogyman” terms. And the media is only all too willing to present [Bernie Sanders] as a “communist or socialist” instead of the Democratic Socialist that he actually is. (Think Scandinavian countries.)
And while Sanders is asking us to look upon historical leaders (and all leaders) with a nuanced understanding of the context of the times and our own perceptual filters — which he demonstrates in this instance — many are not yet there.
Does that make them wrong or merely subject to their own perceptual filters?
So what do we do about this?
1. Consider exploring Perceptual Filters.
2. Consider stepping beyond simplicity and instead embracing context and nuance.
3. Seek out verifiable facts.
4. Perhaps most importantly, ask questions and listen to each other for understanding. What is the core of the concern expressed? What solutions would you suggest? Do you have evidence that those solutions have worked? If so, where, when, and under what conditions?
5. Finally, value each person’s genius more than trying to make anyone wrong.
An internal analysis leaked this week from within J.P. Morgan Bank (Economic Research Report: J.P.Morgan, Jan 14, 2020, “Risky Business: the climate and the macroeconomy”) concluded that “…it is clear that the Earth is on an unsustainable trajectory. Something will have to change at some point if the human race is going to survive.” Otherwise, climate change will kill us all. It then goes into the various charts — ice cores, Keeling curve, growth rates — similar to those I have been publishing since 1985. This report comes from a bank that provided $75 billion of the $1.9 trillion global bankers have loaned to fossil fuel companies since the Paris Agreement was signed. The others in the top tier of lenders are Citigroup, Bank of America, Scotiabank, and Wells Fargo. So one would be entitled to ask: seriously?

This is not a source of hope. It should be a source of more smoldering anger, in every sense that Bill Mollison uses that word. I am less disappointed in the news media these days than I am angry at it. Those are the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix. They serve us not at all. They’re only making us dumber.

When you find someone whose compass is true, bookmark them. Friend them on social media. Come back and read them again. Find more like them. Give those ones your time and energy, feed them, and nurture them. 

When you have an assembly of those, call that regenerative media. This is how we seed the future.

You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.




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