Wednesday, May 12, 2010

BP Strikes Rich Creamy Nougat Center of the Earth

BP, which used to stand for British Petroleum, and in their dreams “Beyond Petroleum,” now stands for  “Broken Planet.”

In 1955, astronomer Thomas Gold proposed that while many of the liquid hydrocarbons being pumped up and refined for energy and petrochemicals were of fossil origin, deeper down in the Earth there were vast reservoirs of hydrocarbons of abiogenic origin, compounds that have been there since our blue glob of molten star first coalesced and cooled.

Gold proposed that "biology is just a branch of thermodynamics" and that the history of life is just a "a gradual systematic development toward more efficient ways of degrading energy." Since petroleum and its component hydrocarbons are present across the entire universe, as evidenced by spectrographic signature, there was no reason to believe "that on Earth they must be biological in origin."

Gold pointed out that all the major oil fields occur along rift zones, where deep methane, finding a path to the surface, could explain at least in part how oil and gas deposits evolve. A helium signature in crude deposits from some of the world richest provinces seemed to bolster his theory.

In 1979, at the peak of the OPEC oil crisis, Gold proposed that the Earth may possess a virtually endless supply of hydrocarbons including "at least 500 million years' worth of gas." A decade later he succeeded in obtaining financing to sink a test well deep into a crater in Sweden formed by a meteorite impact about 370 million years ago. The drill ran into technical problems and was stopped at a depth of 6.8 kilometers  (4.2 mi) but recovered about 80 barrels of deep oil. The oil contained living microbes and so Gold’s proof remained elusive. According to Gold, who died in 2004, hydrocarbons are not biology reworked by geology (as traditional view would hold), but rather geology reworked by biology, and in particular, extreme thermophylic bacteria.

Flash forward another 20 years to the BP Deepwater Horizon. In the desperate hunt for the last drops of ancient sunlight, BP invested billions of dollars to develop the "Macondo Prospect" deep Gulf oil field, a.k.a. Mississippi Canyon Block 252, 41 miles from the Louisiana coast.  It leased the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig from Transocean Ltd., and took it out for a cruise of deep ocean prospecting. DH was a fifth generation, ultra-deepwater, dynamically positioned, column-stabilized, semi-submersible mobile offshore drilling unit (MODU) of South Korean (Hyundai) construction, flying a Marshall Islands flag to get away with the least regulation possible.

Drilling through the first 1500 meters (1 mile) was easy. Nothing but seawater. Then came the harder part, 18,000 feet (3 miles) of rock, which was overlain by suspicious, and energy rich, frozen methane clathrates, a kind of deep ocean permafrost of natural gas crystals. The oil vein was found, the pipe laid, and Halliburton contractors sealed the wellhead in cement. To get the cement to set, they heated it, and in heating the cement, they also heated the surrounding clathrates. 

The Deepwater Horizon exploded at 9:45 p.m. CST on April 20, 2010, killing 11 BP drillers and sinking the rig. Apparently, the blowout was triggered by a bubble of pressurized methane that escaped from the well and shot up the drill column, expanding quickly as it burst through several seals and barriers before reaching the air intake for DH's deck engines and causing them to surge, bursting light bulbs all over the platform. 

Venting gas under pressure through the casing was easy. At least one main seal on the blowout protector was destroyed some weeks earlier when it was penetrated by a drill bit while in its closed position. After that, BP had opted to test the pipe pressurization at no more than ambient ocean pressures (6500 psi) rather than the required test pressure (12000 psi), in order to prevent a test failure that would have shut them down until they replaced the damaged BOP. 

Once the deep cavern was tapped, with its enormous gas pressures, the "accident" became inevitable. After revving the engines, the methane found an ignition source and blew, with an explosion that killed some of the 11 workers instantly.

What came next has been of continuing concern to petroleum geologists, who always considered Thomas Gold a kook, but not by anyone who had studied Gold’s theories. DH had gone just slightly deeper than Gold’s borehole into the meteor crater in Sweden. Submersibles monitoring the escaping oil from the Gulf seabed displayed the eruption of oil from a deposit now estimated to be around the size of Mount Everest.

Trying to contain the story, the White House initially refused access to NASA images by the Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, the Coast Guard and other responders. However, National Geographic managed to obtain foreign satellite imagery of the extent of the disaster and posted it to their web site.

The numbers put forward by BP and parroted from the White House communications podium and by CNN, MSNBC and others began with 1000 barrels per day and climbed to 5000 barrels per day.
Coast Guard sources at first suggested 210,000 gallons per day (5000 barrels).  Once the live video feed from the ocean floor went public, those estimates were seen to be laughably disingenuous. Recent estimates have put the discharge at 12,000 to 19,000 bpd but a short-lived attempt to capture a portion of the flow through a smaller pipe inserted into the damaged BOP valve yielded 22,000 barrels in less than a day. There are 42 gallons per barrel, so 22,000 bpd would be more than 924,000 gallons discharging daily. Satellite and submarine imagery suggests 20,000 to 60,000 barrels per day might be the possible discharge rate.

Early into the accident, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, interviewed by CBS, when specifically asked how much oil was emanating from the ocean floor wellhead or the broken pipes or risers, stated that no oil was emanating from either. On another TV interview the same day, Landry stated, "The fact that there is no oil spilled other than that small amount we were able to work with, that's a good thing," and expressed "cautious optimism" of zero environmental impact. Later, when the full size of the flow could not be hid, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow asked if it was possible that it would not stop until the reservoir was drained, and was told that was a distinct possibility.

The thing is that a rich creamy nougat reservoir of abiogenic origins is infinite by fossil fuel standards. Nobody knows what is down there, or how deep it goes.
More than 400 species, including whales and dolphins, are threatened, along with Louisiana's barrier islands and marshlands. In the national refuges most at risk, about 34,000 birds have been counted, including gulls, pelicans, roseate spoonbills, egrets, shore birds, terns, and blue herons. By April 30, the Coast Guard received reports that oil had begun washing up to wildlife refuges and seafood grounds on the Louisiana Gulf Coast. The Gulf is a breeding ground for much of the North Atlantic's seafood, so the economic impact could well be felt in distant countries in months and years to come.

As the slick drifts to the east, the biggest immediate threat is to Florida's Everglades, which could be turned into a "dead zone." There are 2,276 miles of tidal shoreline in the state of Florida. From there the slick follows the Gulf stream loop current up the eastern seaboard of the United States, potentially fouling beaches and estuaries like Hilton Head and the Chesapeake Bay, maybe even wafting toxic gas inland over Washington, New York and Boston, and tarring swordfish in the Grand Banks off Newfoundland before moving across the Atlantic to Ireland and

We don’t know and we can’t predict how this will come out. Maybe some bright BP engineer will come up with an ingenious cap, or a phenomenally large relief well will stop the volcanic eruption, who can say?

BP has screwed the pooch. The pooch will not be unscrewed. All the rest is public relations disaster containment and finger pointing. Gold is in his grave, but his theory survives.


Friday, April 23, 2010

Cap and Refund

Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Wa) and Susan Collins (R-Me) have a brilliant way to capture imaginations and reclaim the public debate about cap-and-trade. Their bill on the floor of the House is called the CLEAR Act — Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal — just the kind of moniker to lift the fog of climate change deniers like Marsha Blackburn and James Inhofe. The bill makes an end-run around the pitfalls of cap-and-trade, summarized so well by Annie Leonard (Story of Stuff)’s short animation by the same name.

Cap and refund stands on the shoulders of deep thinking by David Fleming, Richard Douthwaite and the rest of the skunk works at FEASTA, the (Irish) Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability. Fleming correctly foresaw the boondoggle Ponzi scheme that cap-and-trade, the darling of the Kerry/Graham/Lieberman approach, would prove to be when it was actually implemented in Europe. His alternative was cap-and-share (called cap-and-dividend in the US), the idea that every citizen would go to the bank or post office and collect a monthly check from the international trading exchange in carbon credits. While gradually reducing atmospheric CO2 (the cap), the refund would ensure that the poorest people in the world are not priced out of the market for energy and everything made with energy as its price rises due to the tightening cap. Leiberman’s bill, and the dismal experiment with the European carbon market, would, if enacted, enrich the oil companies and big energy consumers, and mint a new generation of Wall Street billionaires while starving and freezing the poor.

We need a carbon credit exchange, despite rallying cries to the contrary coming from the climate summit in Cochibamba, because without it, there is no way to put a price on carbon. Without a price on carbon, big polluters like the US, Canada and China can keep building more coal plants and ignoring alternatives like wind, solar and biochar. Leiberman’s bill would give fat subsidies to nuclear reactor builders by ignoring uranium’s huge carbon footprint, in the same stroke starving wind energy (with a fraction of the carbon footprint) of needed investment.

As Elizabeth Kolbert reports in the April 21 issue of  Yale 360
“Under the [CLEAR] bill, the president would, beginning in 2012, set an overall cap on fossil-fuel emissions. That cap would remain in place until 2015, after which it would start declining by a quarter of a percent a year. So-called “upstream” emitters — mainly sellers or importers of coal, oil, and natural gas — would then have to buy permits from the federal government at a monthly auction. Three-quarters of the proceeds would be returned to U.S. citizens in the form of a monthly check. (Cantwell’s office has estimated that, for a family of four, the “refund” would be about $1,000 a year.) The other quarter would go into a Clean Energy Reinvestment Trust Fund to research and develop renewable sources of energy.”
Admittedly, reducing carbon emissions by half a percent per year will not pull the world’s fat out of the fire. At that rate, it would take until 2115 to bring US emissions down by half, which is not nearly quick enough. If the rate were raised to 1 percent, the US could bring emissions to half by mid-century, which is more in line with what is needed (although 80% reductions would be better, and some nations have pledged to be carbon neutral much sooner than that). By Cantwell’s calculus, raising the annual cap increase to 1% would line $2,000 in every USAnian’s pocket. Raising it to 2% would mean $4,000, and so forth. What is not to like about that? It is Lafferesque in its voodoo economics.

What are the chances that CLEAR will supplant the Leiberman porkmonster? In the latest issue of The New Republic, Bill McKibben asks, 
“why is Bill One, the porky kludge, viewed as ‘serious’ and ‘realistic’ and the center of the action, while Bill Two barely gets a mention? One answer I heard from half a dozen people on both sides of the issue was surprising: ‘They’re women.’ One would hope, in Nancy Pelosi’s Washington, that this isn’t actually the cause. But what do I know? The even scarier, and probably even truer, answer is that Bill One, Kerry-Graham-Lieberman, is seen as serious precisely because it’s weighed down with a thousand compromises.”
Another question is, which bill will the White House support? From what we have seen of Obama on this and other issues in recent months, the answer seems apparent: Leiberman. But c’mon Barry, surprise us. 

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Nukes on the Loose

USAnians have always been fond of cloaking genocidal mass-murderers and war-criminals in garlands of laurel and erecting equestrian statues, or etching their faces on Federal Reserve Notes (Jackson, Grant), and putting their names on airports (Reagan), cities (Jackson, Columbus) and automobiles (DeSoto, Cadillac). The cult of Obama is no different, just a bit farther flung.

Before receiving the Nobel Prize, Obama spoke in these inspiring tones of how he wanted to eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth.
“One nuclear weapon exploded in one city -– be it New York or Moscow, Islamabad or Mumbai, Tokyo or Tel Aviv, Paris or Prague –- could kill hundreds of thousands of people. And no matter where it happens, there is no end to what the consequences might be -– for our global safety, our security, our society, our economy, to our ultimate survival.”
It is curious that we have to be reminded of precisely what an atomic weapon is capable of. For many years, that was a closely guarded state secret. Film of the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was seized by the Defense Department and embargoed for half a century. Estimates of transgenerational casualties, like those of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, were vastly understated.

Mr. Obama continued in Prague:
“Just as we stood for freedom in the 20th century, we must stand together for the right of people everywhere to live free from fear in the 21st century. (Applause.) And as nuclear power –- as a nuclear power, as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act.


To reduce our warheads and stockpiles, we will negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians this year. (Applause.) President Medvedev and I began this process in London, and will seek a new agreement by the end of this year that is legally binding and sufficiently bold. And this will set the stage for further cuts, and we will seek to include all nuclear weapons states in this endeavor.

To achieve a global ban on nuclear testing, my administration will immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. (Applause.) After more than five decades of talks, it is time for the testing of nuclear weapons to finally be banned.”
After the Prague speech, many observers expected the White House to propose CTBT ratification to the Senate. It was clear then that if the US ratified the treaty, China and Pakistan would do the same, and would line up with the US to oppose North Korea and Iran. India is a horse of a different color and offered no hints that it would follow peace overtures. For India, and for China and others, US ratification of the CTBT is a step to a higher goal – the goal of a nuclear free world. If the Senate ratification were premised on this higher goal, then India and the remaining Annex-2 states would likely join. However, since November, Obama has been backing away from the higher goal and CTBT will not be put to the Senate, if it ever is, as a step towards a global zero. Given that stance, it is very hard to envisage widespread adoption.

Obama continued:
“And to cut off the building blocks needed for a bomb, the United States will seek a new treaty that verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons. If we are serious about stopping the spread of these weapons, then we should put an end to the dedicated production of weapons-grade materials that create them. That's the first step.

Second, together we will strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a basis for cooperation.

The basic bargain is sound: Countries with nuclear weapons will move towards disarmament, countries without nuclear weapons will not acquire them, and all countries can access peaceful nuclear energy. To strengthen the treaty, we should embrace several principles. We need more resources and authority to strengthen international inspections. We need real and immediate consequences for countries caught breaking the rules or trying to leave the treaty without cause.


Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something. The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons. Now is the time for a strong international response.”
While the horrors he touched on — underscored by the announcement this week from the Department of Homeland Security that any city experiencing a nuclear attack can expect no immediate outside aid other than being cordoned off and left to die — are no longer unimagined, the hypocrisy of the Prague address was nearly eclipsed by the President’s speech this week:
“At the dawn of the nuclear age that he helped to unleash, Albert Einstein said:  ‘Now everything has changed…’  And he warned: ‘we are drifting towards a catastrophe beyond comparison.  We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.’

That truth endures today.  For the sake of our common security, for the sake of our survival, we cannot drift.  We need a new manner of thinking -- and action.  That is the challenge before us.”
Decrypting POTUS’s malaBushism, Einstein’s actual May 24, 1946 statement was: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

Reality check: mere hours earlier, Obama had refused to give in to Russian demands for limits on missile defense, Reagan’s “Star Wars.” Stephen G. Rademaker, a former official in the George W. Bush administration, is reported by The New York Times to have said: “For a president coming out of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, it’s remarkable how much he has pursued a great power strategy. It’s almost Kissingerian. It’s not very sentimental. Issues of human rights do not loom large in his foreign policy, and issues of democracy promotion, he’s been almost dismissive of.”

The Loose Nuke summit’s purported Great Accomplishment is a nonbinding communiqué that largely restates current policy, makes no meaningful progress in dealing with nuclear terrorism threats, and leaves the status quo of US saber-rattling towards Iran intact. The president’s policy towards nuclear non-proliferation is thus revealed to be as empty as his policy towards climate change. The summit was merely a reprise of the Obama performance in Copenhagen; same song, different lyrics. What matters inside the West Wing is not what actually happened, but what people think happened.

In 1969, Richard Nixon and Golda Meir made a not-so-secret backroom deal that as long as Israel would not announce it has (now 200+) nuclear weapons — don’t ask, don’t tell — the US would not trouble Israel about proliferation, and in fact, would finance advanced delivery systems in the form of submarines, missiles and bombers (although not iPads). Mordechai Vanunu is still imprisoned in Jerusalem and regularly tormented by Israeli police goons for having broken the code. In 1986 he was illegally rendered from Rome in a Reagan-era trial debut of the US frequent flyer program.

After a meeting with Vanunu in 2004, Issam Makhoul, a Member of Israel’s Knesset, told a press conference:
"Only those who struggle for total disarmament of the Middle East, including Israel, of all weapons of mass destruction — nuclear, biological and chemical — has the moral right to condemn Iran for its nuclear project. The countries that equip Israel with the means to launch nuclear warheads, that supply it with submarines and enable it to develop its missiles, do not have the moral right to condemn the Iranian nuclear project. Anyone who opposes the Iranian project must also oppose the Israeli nuclear arsenal.”
Or for that matter, oppose the United States policy of making hydrogen bombs from its commercial nuclear plants, such as tritium taken from the Sequoyah reactors in Tennessee, now up for re-licensing. Obama’s Snake Oil Doctor-in-Chief and Keeper of the WMDs is Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, who touts MOX (Mixed-OXide) nuclear fuel, reprocessed from civilian reactors, as a “solution” to nuclear proliferation. “Solution” is notably being used here in precisely the same context as Hitler’s inner circle used it. NRC’s study of the MOX fuel cycle, NUREG-0002, estimated it would cause 1.7 million deaths from cancers and birth defects, just from the US reactors operating in 1977. Chu would throw children into furnaces to generate electricity. That will be the "solution" to proliferation, we are told.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has reported 18 separate incidents of missing or stolen quantities of plutonium or highly enriched uranium. Stephen Chu wants us to build more of these facilities, and to export the technology all over the world.

These inconsistencies came up outside the Loose Nuke summit when former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans and former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large Robert Gallucci called for an end to the fuel-recycling practice. They were across town at conference of experts being held in parallel with the White House kabuki. Evans and Galluchi opined that (a) having more nukes and (b) recycling their wastes into MOX actually makes the problem worse because it makes plutonium and other bomb components more readily available. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission raised the same point in their 1977 study.

That drew a retort from the French utility Areva’s former Director of Non-Proliferation and International Institutions, who dutifully advanced the US Secretary’s stance that power and weapons are two separate issues. Translation: give us noisy hypocrisy instead of real change. Hans Kristensen, a nuclear arms expert observing the Australian-French exchange commented, “Given the renewed interest in nuclear power generation as a ‘clean’ energy source, does the prospect of scores of new reactors and perhaps many being built in countries with no previous nuclear experience create new proliferation problems?”

Wait for it. He'll answer his own question. “Yes, nuclear power industries create the materials, technologies, and expertise needed to make nuclear bombs. … Safeguards are often insufficient and no foolproof guarantee against proliferation. More nuclear power plants in more countries means more fissile material that could be lost, sold or stolen. Some countries with nuclear power or nuclear power aspirations are unstable or dictatorships where today's safeguards may be abandoned tomorrow leaving dangerous materials in the hands of dangerous people.”

Kristensen, the soul of common sense, accurately described what is happening today in Pakistan, with technology supplied by NATO, and in Iran, with bomb-making capability transferred by Nixon and his successors (Rumsfeld, Cheney) to the Shah. In spytalk this is called blowback. In this case, it is radioactively hot blowback. Obama, the terrorist President, is kneeling at the edge of the fire, fanning the flames, his backside protected by press releases portraying him in statesmanlike terms.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Horseradish Trees and Hummingbirds

Some of the species of life that share this planet really want to be our friends, and have gone to great evolutionary lengths to prove it.

The leaves of Moringa oleifera, or the horseradish tree, originated in the southern foothills of the Himalayas in India, near the source of the sacred Ganges. By the end of the Sumerian Empire it had spread to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. Today it is widely cultivated across Africa and Central and South America, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. It has more Vitamin A and beta-carotene than carrots, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach, more Vitamin C than oranges, and more potassium than bananas. The many uses for just this one species include alley cropping (biomass production), animal forage (leaves and treated seed-cake), biogas (from leaves), domestic cleaning agents (crushed leaves), blue dyes (wood), fencing (living trees), fertilizer (seed-cake), foliar nutrient (juice expressed from the leaves), green manure (from leaves), gum (from tree trunks), honey- and sugar cane juice-clarifier (powdered seeds), honey (flower nectar), medicine (all plant parts), ornamental plantings, bio-pesticide (soil incorporation of leaves to prevent seedling damping off), pulp (wood), rope (bark), tannin for tanning hides (bark and gum), and water purification (powdered seeds and charcoal). 

Moringa seedling at 4 months age.

Moringa seed oil (yield 30-40 percent by weight), also known as Ben oil, is a sweet non-sticking, non-drying oil that resists rancidity. It has been used in salads, for perfume and hair care products and as a sewing machine lubricant. The high protein seeds are eaten green, roasted, powdered, curried, or steeped for tea. Leaves, flowers, seeds, pods, roots, bark, gum, and oil have medicinal properties and have been used since the times of the Egyptians and Greeks variously as antiseptic, pain-reducer and birth control, and to treat arthritis, asthma, bronchitis, common colds, dental caries, dysentery, earaches, epilepsy, fever, headaches, herpes, hypertension, infections, joint pain, low back and kidney pain, lupus, parasites, prostate, rheumatism, scorpion-bites, skin disorders, snakebite, syphilis, thrush, toothaches, typhoid, ulcers, urinary tract infections, and vitamin or mineral deficiencies.

Moringa grows best in dry sandy soils and is especially well suited for drought areas because the tree is in full leaf at the end of the dry season when other foods are typically scarce. Propagated either from seed or by planting limb cuttings, the tree starts bearing edible pods in six to eight months.

Moringa at 1 year, now being plucked for pesto for the kitchens of the Maya Mountain Research Farm in Belize. It will grow to 30 feet in height in 7 years.

Because African villagers are familiar with it, Moringa will likely be among the quarter-million trees Trees and Life will start in each of the 90 villages in Casamance, Senegal over the next 3 years. Eventually Trees and Life will create six central tree nurseries to support the network of 60 village-managed nurseries. From each women-directed village cooperative, the organization will offer production and marketing support and micro-finance for local forestry enterprises (fruit products, bee-keeping, gum arabic, medicinal extracts, salves and decoctions, guinea fowl, etc.).

For Trees and Life the final phase will be monitoring and reporting the progress and integrating the data into the Total Cooling Project of the NASA Land Atmosphere and Resilience Initiative. As added incentive, a prize is being offered to the village whose rate of survival of the trees is strongest after 3 and 5 years, respectively. Nicolas Metro told a gathering at the Climate Summit in Copenhagen he hopes to determine the impact on temperature and hydrological cycle at the local, regional and global level. His home organization in France, Kinomé (Japanese for “the viewpoint of the tree”), is already planning the next greater scale for Trees and Life in the tropics, planting 15 billion trees over ten years.

The Kinomé plan is that eventually the villagers can be paid for the carbon sequestered by the trees and the “carbon avoided” by protection of the existing forests that would have been deforested. Ground readings taken in several forests near Casamance recorded carbon at 260 tons of CO2 per hectare, including 74 tons in above-ground biomass (30 percent) and 186 tons in the soil (70 percent). That survey provides a useful baseline from which to calculate family-managed carbon sequestration services in the future.

In 2004, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmental and political activist. In the early 1970s, it became evident to Maathai that the root of most of Kenya’s social problems was environmental degradation. She connected her ideas of environmental restoration to providing jobs for the unemployed by founding Envirocare, a company that employed people to plant trees. On June 5, 1977, marking World Environment Day, she led a march from downtown Nairobi to the outskirts of the city where she planted seven trees in honor of historical community leaders. This was the first “Green Belt” in what would become the Green Belt Movement. Maathai encouraged Kenyan women to start tree nurseries using heirloom native species. With money from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Women, she was able to pay a small stipend to the women who planted seedlings and to the husbands and sons who were literate and able to keep accurate records of success rates.

Wangari Maathai’s struggle, in which she was repeatedly arrested while planting trees, beaten by police and paramilitary groups, placed under house arrest, besieged in her home, and periodically forced into exile, was ultimately vindicated when, in 2002, her Rainbow Coalition defeated the ruling party of Kenya. Within her district, Maathai won 98 percent of the vote. She became Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources and founded the Mazingira Green Party of Kenya to support candidates who embodied the ideals of the Green Belt Movement.

In the 1990s, when the Green Belt movement planted 20 million trees, that seemed like a very large number. In 2006, the U.N. Environmental Program launched a “billion tree campaign” for world plantings by the end of 2007. That goal was surpassed in 2005 and had to be raised to 7 billion by the end of 2009 (one tree per person). Plantings of 6.3 billion trees were achieved, but no one knows how many of those trees actually survived. In Palestine, where Murad Al Khufash led an effort to plant olive trees under the sponsorship of a Global Village Institute trees-for-airmiles program,  two years of plantings were chain-sawed to make room for Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Such experiences are not uncommon in places where the value of forests is still of far lower priority than population and commercial demands.

Still, tree planting has been gaining momentum, and a friendly rivalry has begun. Pakistan has apparently set a record for aquatic tree plantings, with volunteers wading through chest high water and knee-deep mud to plant an average of 1,800 mangroves per day, each. In a single day and without any mechanical equipment, volunteers planted 541,176 young mangroves in the Indus River Delta to best the previous Guinness World Record of 447,874 trees in a day, held by India.

Richard Garstang, head of the program, said, “We hope that tree planting competitions will become as popular as cricket matches.” 

Little by little, the treeplanters are growing forests. The forests are halting desertification and preserving shorelines. They are sequestering carbon in their trunks, leaves and roots, rather than the atmosphere. They are feeding a hungry population and saving wildlife at the same time. They are restoring the rain cycles and feeding springs and rivers. When we feel overwhelmed by the collapse all around us — the death song of Gaia — we would do well to remember the story of the hummingbird Wangari Mattaai tells to children:

“The story of the hummingbird is about this huge forest being consumed by a fire. All the animals in the forest come out and they are transfixed as they watch the forest burning and they feel very overwhelmed, very powerless, except this little hummingbird. It says, ‘I’m going to do something about the fire!’ So it flies to the nearest stream and takes a drop of water. It puts it on the fire, and goes up and down, up and down, up and down, as fast as it can. In the meantime all the other animals, much bigger animals like the elephant with a big trunk [that] could bring much more water, they are standing there helpless. And they are saying to the hummingbird, ‘What do you think you can do? You are too little. This fire is too big. Your wings are too little and your beak is so small that you can only bring a small drop of water at a time.’ But as they continue to discourage it, it turns to them without wasting any time and it tells them ‘I am doing the best I can.’”

Monday, March 15, 2010

Ecosystem Modeling

We're in Day Three of the permaculture course in Belize and today our assignment was ecological systems. This lesson also seems relevant to The Great Change so lets recap.

One favored source from which to purloin instructional material is the Centre for Alternate Technology’s MSc program in Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies in London and Machynlleth, Wales. CAT has developed a series of modules that should, in the society to come, replace a very high percentage of the courseware now being peddled in most tertiary schools. We are particularly fond of Damien Randle’s lecture on world resources, which comes towards the end of the first AEES module.

An ecosystem is no more nor less than the sum of individual responses of diverse cooperating or competing organisms to stimuli from events in their environment. Diversity is a sign that there is a high number of stimuli and that the system has become dynamic in response. A great many small parts, making separate and nimble adjustments, solve problems better than a few large parts responding ponderously.

Randle, referencing Limits to Growth, Vital Signs and State of the World studies, describes four possible scenarios for coming to grips with carrying capacity. The first is no discontinuity — the resource or resources are able to expand and grow, so use can grow; population and carrying capacity expand together. An example of this might be late 19th century transportation that was becoming constrained by horse manure and coal smoke in cities and barge canal, sail or rail capacities across greater distances. Gasoline and diesel fuels rendered those old limits obsolete (for the time being).

The second is a sigmoid response. There is a good signal that the resource is constant (seasonal daily sunlight, for instance) and a responsive organizational or systemic structure aware of that limit and diligently proactive. The population demand or economic growth self-limits as it approaches the ceiling. An example in gardening would be the size of one’s yard. One can still squeeze additional yield by layering in understory and going vertical with trellises and “living walls,” but the prospect of spilling over into a neighbor’s yard imposes an unmistakable psychological boundary.

The third type is an oscillating overshoot, where the signals are delayed, time-lapsed or masked but the systemic erosion caused by temporary overshoot is not permanently damaging. As the signals vascillate between positive and negative, there is uncertainty, and shifting response — on again, off again. The organizational structures are not nimble enough to quickly recognize the pattern and anticipate the volatility, but respond well enough to allow the resource to recover without suffering permanent damage. An insecure and disruptive economic oscillation, rather than a steady-state, is sustained.

The fourth type is more serious. The signals are not recognized. Perhaps they are too obscure or too rapid for the sophistication of the dependent organization. No adjustments are made as carrying capacity is reached and exceeded until it is too late to avert lasting damage to the resource. There is a permanent erosion in the resource’s capacity to support production even after the system recognizes its condition of overshoot and adjusts demand downward. This is what has happened to many fisheries, forests and agricultural landscapes. It appears inevitable now for a great many non-renewable resources, whether they be oil, coal, uranium, or many of the rarer elements that go into hybrid cars, wind generators and photovoltaic cells.

After reading John Michael Greer’s The Long Descent, we added a fifth type to the CAT scenarios — catabolic collapse. Once more, the signals are not recognized because the reality of the problem challenges the core beliefs of the dependent organization, such as a classical economics that admits of no limit in supply as long as there is demand. Greer postulates that overshoot may not follow a straight linear decline but rather may vacillate between plunges and temporary states of repose, using up “banked” resources that are retasked and recycled. The descent curve resembles a stair-step, arguably the experience of the global economy since peak production of liquid fossil fuels and their substitutes was reached in the 2006 to 2008 period.

As Richard Heinberg recently observed, the catabolic model was explained in the seminal Peak Oil article in Scientific American that petroleum geologists Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrère wrote in 1998. Heinberg recapitulates that prediction:
Sometime around the year 2010, they theorized, stagnant or falling oil supplies would lead to soaring and more volatile petroleum prices, which would precipitate a global economic crash. This rapid economic contraction would in turn lead to sharply curtailed energy demand, so oil prices would then fall; but as soon as the economy regained strength, demand for oil would recover, prices would again soar, and the economy would relapse. This cycle would continue, with each recovery phase being shorter and weaker, and each crash deeper and harder, until the economy was in ruins. Meanwhile, volatile oil prices would frustrate investments in energy alternatives: one year, oil would be so expensive that almost any other energy source would look cheap by comparison; the next year, the price of oil would have fallen so far that energy users would be flocking back to it, with investments in other energy sources looking foolish. Investment capital would be in short supply in any case because the banks would be insolvent due to the crash, and governments would be broke due to declining tax revenues. Meanwhile, international competition for dwindling oil supplies might lead to wars between petroleum importing nations, between importers and exporters, and between rival factions within exporting nations.

Looking at ecosystems, we can say that they respond to stress by shifting quickly and altering their biological makeup. Most changes in the natural world occur as sudden bumps rather  than gradual evolutions: earthquakes raising the Andes; oceans claiming coastlines in the wake of hurricanes; wildfires shifting forest to plain. An ecosystem is the result of the sum of individual responses to catastrophe, or any stimuli that forces a change upon the status quo. Biological diversity, indicative of a high level of stimuli, provides insurance for the system. Global extinction of an entire species is very rare (or was before the Anthrocene), but local extinction and replacements are common. Ecosystems clean house, recruit, re-diversify and recharge.

The antidote for the solastalgia that comes of recognizing the now undeniable human overshoot and collapse trajectory is very simple. Permaculture. Earth care. We can cultivate our human ecosystems the same way forests, coral reefs and mountains restore an optimal balance of habitats and food webs in response strong external stimuli. We can reskill and retask our children, grow diversity around ourselves like a cocoon, line up redundant sources of support for each and every need, and learn to swim within, not against, the prevailing current.

It is good to bear in mind that Gaia will be doing this, too, with or without us. 

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Designing for Catastrophe

We are back in the Mayan Mountain watershed in Southern Belize in what the locals call “the forgotten district.” It is so ignored by the goverment in Belize City that a few years ago a local politician was successfully re-elected after going to the UN and asking if his district could be taken away from Belize and given to Guatemala. In political terms, that would be like the governor of Texas appealing to the UN to give his state back to Mexico. The campaign button could be “Forget the Alamo.”

We are a dory-pole up river at the Maya Mountain Reseach Center teaching a permaculture design course. Half the class is a collection of nationals from other countries and the remainder are Belizians, mostly local Mopan Mayan villagers. Hector Reyes did an interesting session today on “Designing for Catastrophe,” and a part of that bears repeating here.

The U.S. Geological Survey puts last month’s Haitian quake at  7 on the Richter scale. The scale is logrithmic, meaning that each whole number represents ten times the size of the next lower number on the scale. Chile’s disaster was 8.8, 501 times larger than Haiti’s. 

The difference in casualties was very different, however. Haiti's government estimates some 220,000 people died. Chile's death toll is put in the hundreds.

Here is the diagram we drew on the chalkboard:

Many recent natural disasters reflect an essential component of our modern world, namely our addiction to growth. With global population in fecundity overdrive, even normal cycles of earth movement are producing casualties in exponential excess.

In the permaculture class we called this a design failure. Many Haitians grabbed cement pillars only to watch them crumble in their hands. Chileans, whose earthquakes have been the basis for architectural design since the mid-19th century, have cities and villages built to ride out quakes by rolling and flexing (which, granted, provides no protection from middle-of-the-night tsunamis). Haitians, like those in population centers on the New Madrid fault running through the US heartland, have no similar preparations.

Design for catastrophe is something oddly missing from the Obama domestic program, as it is from the domestic policies of most nations. Few yet acknowledge peak oil, climate chaos, or the collapse of our globalized consumer civilization as threats, and so only the most cursory of preparations are being made.

So, most of us are Haitians, waiting for the next Big One, rather than Chileans, making plans to weather the inevitable shake-up that we can be certain is coming.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Various Bubblings

— Icelander Eiríkur Bergmann, to The Irish Times

Two bubblings have been pounding at our attention this week. The first is the bubbling of anger and resentment, primarily from masses of people being disenfranchised from their acquired entitlements. They resent having spent lifetimes, whether those be long and arduous or still fresh and relatively easy, under the expectation that all this stuff around them was more or less permanent and just the way things are.

They resent it when they get a bill for their utilities that doubled from what it was last year (or last month). They resent being washed over in the real estate tsunami and being told their underwater house is now worth less than their mortgage. They resent health insurance premiums rising faster than the cost of medical treatment. They resent being sold a glowing promise on hybrid cars that have to have batteries changed out at a third the cost of the new car, or whose acceleration won’t stop even when you turn off the key and stand on the brake. They don’t like losing their job, or getting out of college and discovering no one is hiring, or trying to get a loan to start a business and being turned down. They are angry. They want to blame someone.

So they poke sticks at government. They poke sticks at bankers. They poke at the media. They poke at scientists, liberals, right wingers, Al Gore, Halliburton, the Federal Reserve, Congress, election finance, the drug lobby, Israel, the hippies, Jimmy Carter, or talk radio.

They point at schoolteachers. Anyone they can blame for feeding them a pack of lies — material wealth will make you happy; hard work will make you materially wealthy; everyone can find a job if they look; any child can become a president or an astronaut; save more than you spend and you will become rich; and our system is the best on earth.

This past week thousands of Greeks stoned their parliament after being handed a 25% sales tax, stripped of pensions and vacation time and taking a drop in wages in the public sector. The trade unions called for public works stoppages, strikes and daily marches

Across the United States the clash is over the school system, with nearly every State raising tuitions, canceling scholarships, freezing hiring and cutting programs. Net result: students with no place to left to go and plenty of time to protest. In Mexico they have begun charging children to attend public school, even down to the kindergarten level. As in the US, parents will find they now have the children staying home (like their parents) and eventually that will dumb down the population so that they understand even less about who is to blame, and so waste even more time pointing fingers and protesting (although it is at least arguable that they were getting dumbed down faster in school or at work).

In Iceland citizens are protesting having to pay back the investors in the UK and Europe who sank billions into Icelandic Ponzi bank schemes. This makes good sense. Caveat emptor, investors! It is such a good idea that Congressman Barney Frank was heard to effuse that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac should deliver similar haircuts to their bondholders.  Nobody seems to have mentioned to the Congressman that the bondholders in the main are the Chinese government, which holds about 1 trillion in US sovereign debt, followed by Japan at 750 billion.

Japan would not have much it could say if given a haircut by the US home mortgage market, but China would probably have quite a bit to say, and one thing would be to say nothing, just stay away from the next T-bill market, and the next, and the next.

More interesting, really, is who stands third in line at that barber shop — the oil exporting countries. If you insist on giving them a haircut, they can just sell their oil elsewhere, to China and Japan, for instance. What does one imagine would happen to schoolteachers, salaries, vacation time, pensions and sales taxes then? Can you throw a brick through the window of Kuwait?

Our second ominous bubbling is occurring in the Arctic, and it was something we predicted in our 1990 book, Climate in Crisis, although we have to say we did not expect to see it this soon.

Last summer we reported observing the bubbles coming up in methane “chimneys” off the coast of northern Norway. Now we are noting chimneys off Alaska on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.

The bubbles are from the frozen clathrates on the ocean floor. They were formed by the decomposition of organic matter in those sediments over millennia, and perhaps from abiogenic sources bubbling from farther down, but until now the oceans have been cold enough to keep the methane trapped in submarine permafrost. Davy Jones’ hold is an Ice Locker.

The permafrost chimney effect only works in shallow seas. Elsewhere the bubbles dissolve before they reach the surface. We’ve been observing ocean acidity rising at least 10 times faster than was previously thought, and the negative effects that is having on shellfish species, coral reefs and the entire marine food chain. We’ve been warned by the Secretariat of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity that the ocean acidity could increase 150 percent just by mid-century.

"This dramatic increase is 100 times faster than any change in acidity experienced in the marine environment over the last 20 million years, giving little time for evolutionary adaptation within biological systems," the UN committee said.

One explanation of the acidity is how much CO2 is being rained out as industrial emissions fill up the atmosphere. Ocean acidity is now higher than it has been in 65 million years.

A more ominous explanation is that the acidity is caused in part by the methane being produced from deep clathrates.

A fifth of world coral reefs are dead and the rest may be lost in 20–40 years because of rising water temperatures and ocean acidification. Last year the world ocean surface temperature was the warmest on record for any June–August season since 1880. If we burn all the fossil fuels — the gases released by fracturing, the oil shales and tar sands, all the deepest deposits, many gigatons of carbon — where do we get to? There’s some chance of getting above Cretaceous levels, where the seas could reach 38 degrees Celsius, or 100 degrees Fahrenheit — hotter than the human body. Today sea surface temperature is 16.4 degrees C, or 61.5 degrees F. We have quite a way to go to get to the Cretaceous, but the speed at which we are moving is breathtaking.

Of course, as we have noted here before, warmer oceans, methane from permafrost and clathrate bubblings are all tipping points that accelerate climate change and are multiplicative — 2 or 3 orders of magnitude times anthropogenic emissions, once their threshold is crossed. Earth, meet Venus. The toxic gas fireballs rolling across Kansas, destroying and poisoning everything in their path, are described in Peter Ward's book, Under a Green Sky. As Wallace Broecker says, "The climate is an angry beast, and we are poking it with sticks."

Somehow the four principal drivers of our civilizational collapse in progress — overpopulation, resource depletion, climate change, and military adventurism — while they are getting the notice of some scholars and military think tanks have yet to come to the notice of schoolteachers.

Maybe they should be fired.




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