Thursday, August 4, 2011

44 Years of Slow Collapse

"You can go to the countryside, get yourself a farm, learn how to milk cows, sew your own clothes, put up canned goods at harvest, and midwife your own babies, but it won’t save you from the spread of the deserts, bubbling clathrates, or zombie hordes fleeing starving cities."

Watching the Tea Party make hostages of the other crime families is better than anything this season from Showtime, HBO or AMC.

With the collapse of the Murdoch Crime Family, other crime families are scrambling for position. The Bush Crime Family was feeling pretty good about skating away from its crime scene Scott-free, counting on the incoming Obama gang as a covert asset. The feel-good feelings that came in with Obama, primarily hope that the Bush-Cheney bungling and transparent evil would be gone, were entirely manufactured, something akin to the “Neo” program The Architect built into The Matrix. But there is a random element built into the program that can make it very interesting, or at least rife for sequels.

Hostage-taking as a political strategy caught the Bush-Obama family by surprise. Within a few months of getting their freshmen to Washington, the Tea family went straight for the jewels, like young Vito Corleone knocking off the biggest crime boss in Brooklyn. It used to be enough just to shut down the federal government for a few days. But with the debt ceiling drama, the global economy was kidnapped and held in a dark chamber for 4 months, and the ransom paid in the end reached straight into the breadbasket of the old order. The dons are not happy about that. Michelle Bachmann and Eric Cantor should avoid small private planes and room service.

Lets face it, it had to be paid, and the US had to come to the same kind of reckoning as Iceland, Spain or Greece. How a country gets there is less important, but in a fantasyland of mythical populism, created whole cloth from Murdoch’s media, a populist scam seems more plausible than, say, a report from Bush-Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors. We are in new territory now, and as the warring gangs fight blood feuds in the ruins of the crashing empire, the smart money is getting out while the airlines are still flying. Given the latest hostages – the FAA controllers – that window may not be open long.

In 1969, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross introduced a model called the five stages of grieving, based on her interviews with more than 500 terminally ill patients. Kübler-Ross was dealing with people who were experiencing profound, catastrophic loss — their own lives — and were trying to cope, somehow. She emphasized that while these 5 stages are not complete, exclusive or chronological, they seemed typical.

The five stages, sometimes known by the acronym DABDA, are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

In some consistent but amorphous way, shape or form, we have been writing of the looming collapse of planetary ecosystems and the human civilization they support since about 1967. Over the span of the last 44 years our emotional state has risen and fallen, sometimes resuscitated by good news, other times deflated by confirmation that, indeed, collapse and mass extinction is inevitable. We described one of these deflating moments a few years ago as our Houston Moment. Houston, because that is where we were when we realized just how close Earth is now to profound, catastrophic, irredeemable collapse.

In 44 years you get to see a lot of people arriving to this point of understanding and, like Kübler-Ross, we observe some patterns. Much has already been written comparing peak oil and climate change to the five stages of grief. The similarity may only be in the flexibility, because not everyone shows all the signs, and there is inconsistent order. Lately we’ve noticed we’re getting more buy-in to the notion of collapse from people in the financial sector. Many of these, Chris Martenson and Paul Gilding for example, have made major contributions to encapsulating the big picture.

Over the years we’ve also lost some beacons who saw the way we are headed and made herculean efforts to shine their beams towards realistic, alternative routes of escape. Here we are thinking of Bob Swann, Scott and Helen Nearing, R. Buckminster Fuller, Barry Commoner, and most recently, Peter Berg, who passed away this past week.

Peter Berg was a San Francisco beatnik who was fond of turtleneck sweaters and free public art. He became one of the architects of the cultural revolution of the 1960s and later coined the word, “bioregionalism” to describe the only possible non-catastrophic way forward.

One memorable Berg installation was a wooden yellow square he called the “Frame of Reference” that he, the Diggers, and the Mime Troupe erected at the corner of Haight and Masonic on October 31, 1966. After warming up the crowd with two 8-foot-tall puppets in “Any Fool on The Street,” an improv play about what is inside or outside reality, Berg invited the crowd to dance with the puppets inside and outside of the yellow Frame and to disregard their normal frames of reference, such as the sidewalk. As individuals and groups, led by Berg, formed geometrical shapes in the street, traffic came to a halt until 5 squad cars and a paddy wagon threaded their way to the corner to make arrests. Seeing the Frame and the puppets, an officer approached and told a puppet he was creating a disturbance. The conversation was recorded by the Berkeley Barb:

Cop: “We warn you that if you don't remove yourselves from the area you'll be arrested for blocking a public thoroughfare.”

Puppet: “Who is the public?”

Cop: “I couldn't care less; I'll take you in. Now get a move on.”

Puppet: “I declare myself public—I am a public. The streets are public. The streets are free.”
The police swarmed the Frame, grabbed the puppets and the operators within, and shoved them all into the paddy wagon. The crowd surrounded the wagon, chanting “Frame-up! Frame-up!” The prisoners responded with “Pub-lic! Pub-lic!

What strikes us as a newcomers’ pattern is that, arriving on this corner scene in 2011, and noticing the yellow Frame of Reference and people in the street, the newcomers aren’t quite ready to fully associate themselves. Having shattered their way through denial, anger, and depression, they are still bargaining.  We shouldn’t cast aspersions, really, because after 45 years we do it too. In climatespeak its called mitigation and adaptation. We do not go gentle into that good night. We quest for solutions. Without the quest there is no hope, and without the hope, life is a drag. Dark humor is no substitute for even the smallest glimmer of hope.

Recent converts include billionaire fund manager Jeremy Grantham, oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens, and HSBC chief economist Stephen King. What seems to fuel their realizations is not the financial meltdown but the recognition of game-changing resource constraints, something they should have absorbed by reading Limits to Growth in 1972. Is it possible to have been old enough to read in 1972 and missed that? Grantham calls the “new era” of resource constraint the Great Paradigm Shift, without reference to Korten’s Great Turning, Gilding's Great Disruption or our own Great Change. He says: “If we maintain our desperate focus on growth, we will run out of everything and crash.”

No kidding? As Richard Heinberg says in The End of Growth, with the global economy and ecosystem both burdened by unmanageable debt, effective global default is only a matter of time. It isn’t if, but when.

When we see bankers and stockbrokers moving out of the Hamptons or South Beach and buying farms up some remote country hollow, we know that’s why. Of course, they could do better than to try to go it alone or with paid servants (a risky proposition). They could discover the benefits of ecovillage. Who knows? In pursuit of happiness, they might even accidentally turn the trend around.

And that’s the summary of 44 years watching this slow-moving juggernaut. It isn’t if, but when. You can go to the countryside, get yourself a farm, learn how to milk cows, sew your own clothes, put up canned goods at harvest, and midwife your own babies, but it won’t save you from the spread of the deserts, bubbling clathrates, or zombie hordes fleeing starving cities. The realization, acceptance, in Kübler-Ross’s terms, is not that you can buy time or bargain, but that a change in your Frame of Reference is available.

You can have a reasonably good life for little longer, maybe long enough to play with your grandchildren, if you are lucky. Chances are pretty darn slim, however, that they will have the same luxury. The future is not what it once was. Whether the end comes slowly or quickly matters only slightly. The Tea family seems to favor making it quick and painful. Tony Soprano couldn’t have planned it any better.


Thursday, June 30, 2011

Fracking Culture

"We are right at that spaghetti junction where all the lines converge with population and resources, food supply, energy, water and the rest. We’re at that point right now, in exactly the decade The Club of Rome predicted we would arrive here. We have to somehow get through this collapsing passageway and into the next paradigm."

This past week, before leaving to attend the gathering of the Ecovillage Network of Canada at La Cité Écologique in Quebec, we were asked to speak at a forum hosted by Nashville Peace and Justice Center concerning hydrofracking, mountaintop removal, and nuclear power in Tennessee. This is a rough transcript of those remarks.
First I want to start with setting a context, because usually you begin with a problem statement. A lot of what we address at the Ecovillage Training Center and in our curricula for trainings and workshops are methodologies for a switch — a massive transition — from the past paradigm that is failing us now to something entirely new that has the potential for success — to make us successful as a species in partnership with all the other species on the planet. 
To do that, you have to understand the need for a realistic framework to get us from where we are to where we are going, and to, in some sense, reverse engineer it, seeing where we want to be and then backcasting to see what steps are necessary to get us where we want to be within a reasonable time frame.
Phasing out of emissions from coal, oil and natural gas — particularly methane — is an enormous challenge. To change over the entire fossil fuel paradigm to a post-petroleum paradigm is an enormous challenge. You have to think about how such a transition is even possible. The current administration’s plan — the Obama/Boehner/Bachmann drill baby drill menu — is all about Canadian tar sands, a pipeline from Canada, the Marcella Shale, the Bakkan and various other plays, offshore deep wells and ways to accelerate the fossil end game. If that succeeds, it is essentially game over. There is no way we are going to take all that carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere in the timeframe that we need to. We’re going to get runaway warming, the methane clathrates bubbling up from the bottom of the oceans, and various other nightmare scenarios.
Nuclear power has been held out as a carbon-free alternative source of energy, but that is the same PR bull we have been handed since Our Friend The Atom was foisted upon innocent schoolchildren, and was also given to the Japanese schoolchildren, by the way. If you look at the entire nuclear fuel cycle, nuclear is black carbon dirtier than natural gas and not quite as dirty as coal. Coal is more radioactive than natural gas but not as radioactive as nuclear. All of them kill people in order to do what? Boil water. They kill unborn children in future generations, and expose them to horrible birth defects and cancers in order to brew coffee and dry hair.
We are all the victims of TVA’s efforts to feather its own nest at our expense. This goes back a century to the battle between George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison for control of the electricity market in New York City. Westinghouse won, and what we got was energy that was ever more expensive every year, non-renewable, and unsafe at every turn. Those are the people who built the Fukushima nuclear plants, as well as the reactor that is getting flooded in Nebraska now. They are the mountaintop removal cabal.
The grid was created to suit itself, not the people it was supposed to serve. Edison wanted to charge people by the number of lights they had. Instead, George Westinghouse charged people by the kilowatt-hour and sold them the most inefficient lightbulbs he could make. And so it went for 100 years – they encouraged people to add more and more gadgets to their homes, and to buy appliances with planned obsolescence, and to then make you need a bigger house to store all that stuff. It was a sales campaign dressed up as labor saving, or civilized living. What we got was an unhappy, disastrously wasteful and soon-to-be-extinct culture. Coal, gas, and nuclear — they are part of that same paradigm. It is a huge conspiracy being foisted on us by the best government corporations could buy. It is all suicidally insane. TVA is clinically insane. What do you call someone who keeps doing the same thing over and over, never proving what they claim they are doing, getting the exact opposite result, but telling you this time the result will be different? I mean, other than a Republican? Clinically insane. That’s clinically insane.
And so, if you look at where are we now, we are right where Dennis and Dana Meadows said back in 1972 we would be in the Limits to Growth study. We are right at that spaghetti junction where all the lines converge with population and resources, food supply, energy, water and the rest. We’re at that point right now, in exactly the decade they predicted we would arrive here. 
We have to somehow get through this collapsing passageway and into the next paradigm. And so what we do at the Ecovillage Training Center — what ecovillages around the world are all trying to do — is to provide models, transition pathways, to get us to that next step, to get us to where we are going. And some of that is food supply, some of that is energy, some is building materials and how we get our buildings, some of that is microeconomics, like complimentary currencies. Some of that is new methods of social networking and alternative education and midwifery and alternative health care and doing things in ways that we have known for hundreds of thousands of years and we need to get back to.
Show of hands: how many people here either saw the sunrise this morning or were up at that time? (some laughter, about 20% raise their hands). That’s pretty good. Your average audience – none. But in point of fact, that’s when the light came on. And you could get up and do chores and it was still cool for several hours. And we’re going to be here until after that light goes out tonight. We’ll be here after dark, and we will spend coal energy getting home, feeding our family, putting ourselves to bed, whatever, which we could do without all that dirty power if we just got up earlier.
So ecovillages are about that. They are trying to find ways that are relatively painless, in comparison to the kind of pain that civilization is about to experience — to lead the way, so that people can jump into these new models and start doing it for themselves and avoid the shock that comes of collapse. Because that is where this previous paradigm is heading us, and taking along a lot of other species, too.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Tea Baggers Tickle the Dragon’s Tail

Outside the Fukushima plant and for some distance at night, can be seen the intermittently sparkling blue glow of re-criticality, as the melted fuel from four reactors, moderated by fresh water pumped from fire trucks, puts on a light show of ionized air over the coast of Japan. This is a requiem display, a salute of fireworks, because Japan, mortally wounded, is dying the same way the Soviet Union did, killed by the nuclear dragon it thought it had tamed.

Louis Slotin's Los Alamos ID
This same light show was once observed in 1946, with fatal consequences, by physics students working in Los Alamos on advancements to the atomic bomb. Louis Slotin, their 35-year-old Canadian instructor, had been the criticality math whiz of the Manhattan Project and had personally assembled the core of the Trinity device. His method of establishing critical mass values was very bold, not to say reckless. Slotin would push fissile masses together slowly until they displayed early onset signs of criticality to clickity-clacking Geiger meters. On May 21, 1946, Sloton demonstrated his technique, which Richard Feynmann had by then coined “tickling the dragon’s tail,” to the six star-struck students in his lab.

Using his bare hands, Sloton slowly moved a screwdriver out from between two beryllium half-spheres lined with uranium reflecting neutrons back to a 3.5-inch-diameter (89 mm) plutonium core. At exactly 3:20 p.m., the screwdriver slipped and the upper beryllium hemisphere fell. The room flashed iridescent blue and Slotin, reacting heroically, used his other hand to knock the spheres apart. He died horribly, nine days later, from the exposure, but he saved the rest of the people in the room, not to mention everyone within a 5 mile radius of Los Alamos.

The Idiotcracy that staged a palace coup in the US Congress last fall is now tickling the dragon’s tail of the full faith and credit of the United States. Refusing to give up tax breaks for the rich and powerful, the Exxons, BPs and Haliburtons, the tea baggers and their millionaire Republican allies are demanding elimination of medicare, privatization of Social Security, and a blather of deep social welfare cuts that any impartial accountant (the Congressional Research Service, the General Accounting Office, or the Office of Management and Budget,for instance) recognize as not only ineffective (pushing the USA into far greater, and more expensive, problems down the road), but purely political gamesmanship. The goal of that game, for millionaire Republicans, is to get as close to the brink as possible, elicit as many concessions for the wealthy as possible by beggaring the poor, and then to pass a new debt ceiling and repeat the process.

The goal of the Tea Baggers, for whom nuance and strategy are not strong suits, is to play to the cheers of the Colosseum as they give thumbs down to federalism and separation of powers and toss the Moorish President to the lions.

The US is now officially without a fiscal budget, living on holdover spending, mere wax and string that runs out on August 2nd. The millionaire Republicans want to strike a deal on August 1st and ham it up for the cameras until then. The Tea Baggers want to strike a deal on August 3rd, if then, to give both the Democrats and Republicans a taste of the lash. Neither have any idea of what kind of dragon the tail they are tickling belongs to.

The US Treasury is limited by Congress to borrowing up to a debt limit, originally established in 1939. Since Congress originates all federal activities requiring funding, such as insanely expensive foreign war adventures or sending rockets up into space, Congress has to annually increase the debt limit to keep up. The last increase was in February, 2010, to $14.294 trillion. George W. Bush increased it 8 times, moving it from 57% of GDP to 84% of GDP. Under Obama, it has risen to 97% of GDP.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1935 that Congress does not have the power to void a government bond, so if any loans come due, it is obligated to pay them or default. Here is what happens if the Tea Baggers’ screwdriver slips:

There would be widespread banking collapse, not just in the US, but everywhere dollars are traded as the currency of choice for oil and other commodities. If economic transactions are halted, then trade and supply-chains break. The longer goods are stalled in the pipeline the more consumables and perishables decay in transit and storage or are consumed by present holders or returned to sender. Pipelines and machines rust, factories close, unemployment and starvation turns to riot.

The longer the down time and the wider the scale, the harder the re-boot once the idiots see what they have done. The dollar ceases once and forever to be the world’s reserve currency. Suddenly, instead of getting everything in the global economy at a discount, the US pays top dollar to buy, say, Swiss Francs, so it can pay for its addictions.

FEASTA’s David Korowicz, writing last month on large-scale risk management, said, “The wonder of our globalized economy is that in all this globalized integration and complexity there is no one in control…. So, while national economies may have an individual character, they have no autonomous existence in anything like their present form outside the globalized economy, just as an arm, lung or heart cannot declare independence from the human body.” Korowicz was underscoring the point that we are all coming to realize: the global economic body is delicately interconnected, and hungry, but there is no brain.

In the US, a Zombie Congress is dragging itself through the angry streets in search of fresh blood. It may, in the end, have to settle for consuming its own. This dragon does not like to be tickled.


Saturday, May 28, 2011

Spain’s Irish Spring

 Twenty-one and a half years ago we wrote:
“What will it be like when this world food crisis arrives? We can make some educated guesses. The decline in living standards will be felt everywhere. At the lowest level of poverty, the price of food will rise above the power to purchase. There will be food riots in major cities…. At the upper levels of wealth, the pain will be felt, but it will be less acute…. Inevitably, such stark differences in purchasing power will deepen animosities and elevate world tension.”
— Bates, Climate in Crisis: The Greenhouse Effect and What We Can Do (Book Publishing Co, 1990).

This past week we were sitting in a sidewalk restaurant with the leftist candidate for mayor of a city in Spain on the night before the election. As he got up to leave, we wished him well.

“Suerte,” we said (“good luck!”). He turned and looked at us with cow’s eyes. “Graçias,” he said, but he had a tone of sorrow, more than hope.

On May 15, a few activists had gathered in Puerta del Sol, a large public plaza in the center of Madrid, to protest the coming election and to register their general dissatisfaction with the situation in their country. Last year unemployment rose from 20.5% in August to 20.8% in September, the highest rate in the European Union, and probably in the developed world. Food and fuel prices had crossed a tipping point for many, where it was no longer other things that were being given up to pay for food, it was now food that was being given up.

Spain is a microcosm of the collapse phase Global Civilization finds itself in and the protest camps in many cities are an example of the bankruptcy of political ideology — it is adrift and uncomprehending. Neither the right nor the left are remotely proposing the degree of change that is needed (essentially, an end to oil addiction and a epoch of ecosystemic healing). The street protests have nothing further to offer — they are reactionary, but not revolutionary.

Spain elected a socialist government led by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in 2004 (and last month he announced he will not stand for re-election in 2012). Zapatero instituted liberal reforms, such as the withdrawal of Spanish troops from the Bush wars; legalization of both same-sex marriage and abortion; numerous gender equality laws; peace negotiation with the rebel ETA; unpopular tobacco restrictions; recognition of regional autonomy, particularly for the Statute of Catalonia; and the idea of an Alliance of Civilizations, co-sponsored by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. What was not anticipated by Zapatero, however, was the housing meltdown; the financial crash of 2008; euro deflation along with food and energy price escalation; and all of it against a background of Spain slowly obtaining the climate (and some of the population) of Northern Africa.

For many years, Zapatero’s government ran a current accounts deficit of 10% GDP, forcing Spain to borrow 7 to 8 billion euros every month, until, by 2010, the value of Spanish government paper debt had sunk so low that lenders simply stopped lending. Zapatero had inherited the same banking crisis Obama had, and it came to a head in the burst bubble of the housing sector. The Spanish economy had been hooked on household and corporate debt steroids with not just sub-prime but negative interest rates from early 2002 until mid-2006, causing "massive overheating" in the Spanish economy, which sucked 5 million immigrant workers from Africa in 8 years. But, just as in Iceland, Ireland and the USA, chickens invariably do come home to roost.

As the EU, IMF and Spain’s lenders started to pick up the pieces of their shredded balloon, severe austerity imposed by the Banksters put 5 million young Spaniards out of work and on the streets. As in Ireland, Spain responded by moderating its social programs (entitlements), cutting welfare spending, raising the age of retirement, and chipping public pension benefits by 20%. And, as in Ireland, discontent swelled.

The medicine had some effect because the ‘Bikini Graph’ that Zapatero’s emergency measures produced ran deeper and somewhat ahead of Obama’s.

Spain's 'Bikini Graph' showing its rebound in GDP (before IMF austerity controls take effect).

The problem is that both Ireland and Spain are trying to make major corrections to their economies while participating in a monetary union. Neither has a currency to devalue, or a central bank with capacity to print money and issue or recall bonds. Instead, both must achieve “internal devaluation” by cutting wages and prices until its accounts are back in line with its Eurozone partners.

On May 16, people wandered into Puerta del Sol to see what was going on with the protestors of the preceding day and were arrested for “illegal protest.” In response, the protests grew, and extended to rallies in central plazas of other Spanish cities. People came and camped. The police stopped evicting. It became Spain’s Tunisian Spring. Thousands are now camped out in central Madrid along with 60 other sites nationwide, creating temporary cities of the dispossessed. The mainstream media in Britain and the West have chosen to largely ignore this phenomenon,

On May 22, Spain held its regional and local elections and our acquaintence, the mayor, lost, as he may have expected to. Even though the Socialists had made real progress in setting Spain back on track, half the population stayed away from the polls and over a million ballots were turned in blank. The elections were a landslide victory for the conservative People's Party (PP) which took control of all of Spain's largest cities, including Barcelona, a Socialist base since 1979.

Interest rates on Spanish Debt
This is what had already happened in Ireland, with a left-leaning, green coalition alienated its base with austerity measures while being unable to control the on-barreling peak oil and climate change freight trains, so whomever was in office caught the blame for everything that was wrong — both the disease and the medicine.

While the young, unemployed protesters camped out in Puerta del Sol demanded “Democracy Real Ya” (“real democracy now”), right-wingers, some of them previously under indictment for corruption, swept the democratic vote. 

Spain is now as forked as Ireland. It not only has all the problems of a crumbling paradigm — the religion of endless growth — but it has elevated the high priests of that paradigm to its seats of power.

Will the protests grow? Yes. Will they spread to other countries? Probably. Do the protesters have an achievable goal, some realistic strategy to get their countries out of this huge bind? No.

So, good luck with all that.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Pour Evian on Your Radishes

Evian is making a killing in Japan. With bottled water in scarce supply (rationed to 2 liters per person when it is available at all), it's seller's market. And yet, one of the best uses of Evian in northeast Japan might be pouring it into the dirt.

When we were contacted by the Permaculture Institute of Japan about what they should do regarding Fukushima radioactivity, we had a number of immediate suggestions, and over the weeks more have trickled in from our extended permaculture family. GE's Japanese Nuclear Disaster still has the attention of the world. It is like the BP Gulf Oil Spill of 2010, a slow-moving monster, chewing up rich, diverse, biological ecosystems and leaving a toxic cancer on the landscape that will fester for decades, if not centuries.

It was with a sad shake of our head that we read George Monbiot's  and David Strahan's  recent posts in defense of nuclear electricity. They have so imbibed the British atomic KoolAid that they actually seem to believe that burning the genes of future children to power PlayStations today is a better idea than, say, teaching our children how to build windmills. They have been duped even on the underlying premise, that nuclear power is carbon-free.


Studies in 2005 and 2007 by J.W. Storm van Leeuwen's group in the Netherlands still provide the best look at the carbon cost of the nuke lifecycle. Storm van Leeuwen looked at every single subcomponent of the fuel cycle from uranium mine to waste disposal and estimated 112-166 gCO2/kWh. (Storm van Leeuwen, J.W., Smith, P., 2007. Nuclear Power: The Energy Balance). In 2008, Benjamin Sovacool screened 103 lifecycle studies of greenhouse gas-equivalent emissions for nuclear facilities to identify a subset of the most current, original, and transparent studies (see: Sovacool, B.K., 2008. Valuing the greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power: A critical survey, Energy Policy 36:2940-2953). Not surprisingly, most of the studies had to be discarded.  Thirty-nine percent of lifecycle studies reviewed were more than 10 years old. Nine percent, while cited in the literature, were inaccessible. Thirty-four percent did not explain their research methodology, relied completely on secondary sources, or were not explicit about the distribution of carbon-equivalent emissions over the different stages of the fuel cycle. All in all, 81% of studies had methodological shortcomings. Storm van Leeuwen's group's studies stood up to Sovacool's rigor.

What Sovacool found was that estimates of nuclear's carbon footprint varied widely, from 1.4 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kWh (gCO2e/kWh) to 288 gCO2e/kWh, but that the high estimates took the most into account. The low estimates were a product of reducing the scope of the footprint to be studied.

Obviously, there are problems in estimating lifecycle impacts, especially using data limited to a single reactor or component, or historical data that may or may not represent future trends. So, for instance, every time uranium ore grade declines by a factor of ten, energy inputs to mining and milling must increase by at least a factor of ten. Storm van Leeuwen pointed out that this can greatly skew estimates, as uranium of 10% U3O8 has emissions for mining and milling at just 0.04 g CO2/kWh, whereas uranium at 0.013% grade has associated CO2 emissions more than 1500 times greater. The same trend is true for the emissions associated with uranium mine land reclamation. As Amory Lovins said in reference to estimating nuclear fuel cycle emissions in 1974, an error by a factor of 2 (half or double) at each stage of a 20-stage process can produce a million-fold error.

That said, rigorous lifecycle analyses for 15 separate distributed generation and renewable energy technologies found that all emitted less CO2 than the mean reported for nuclear plants.

While nuclear power may produce less CO2e than fossil fuels, it produces considerably more than most renewables, and at a considerably higher price per either kWh or installed Watt. Why Monbiot and Strahan, both skilled reporters, fail to grasp this is puzzling.
Now, in light of the ongoing events in Japan, I want to just take a minute to talk about nuclear power.  Right now, America gets about one-fifth of our electricity from nuclear energy.  And it's important to recognize that nuclear energy doesn't emit carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  So those of us who are concerned about climate change, we've got to recognize that nuclear power, if it's safe, can make a significant contribution to the climate change question.
- President Barack Obama, Georgetown Univ., March 30, 2011.

The Fukushima complex is now exceeding allowable limits for effluent discharge by millions of times. The “accident” is far from over, and the worst parts of it continue to worsen. Fukushima may be for Japan what Chernobyl was for Russia - a complete economic game-changer and a transgenerational gigadeath event - but awareness of that is only slowly dawning. “The earthquake, tsunami and the ensuing nuclear accident may be Japan's largest-ever crisis,” the Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, told his Parliament last week. Viewed centuries hence, that will be regarded as a cruel understatement.

We predicted this, going back more than 40 years, but it is small consolation. Is there a remedy? No, there is not. When speaking of man-made elements like plutonium, the damage is essentially forever. We are diminished. The world of our children will always be less safe and more sad than it was for our parents. That is on us.

It is also slowly dawning on the Japanese that radioactivity is not something that can be scrubbed away with soapy water. It has a Midas touch. Everything it contacts becomes fiendishly toxic. So every drop of water, concrete, foam, rubber glove, fire hose, or anything else that comes into Fukushima's arc becomes a lethal assassin.

With water gushing into the sea and steam droplets and soot dropping for hundreds of miles around, Fukushima's hot touch is spreading. Already, more than 50 municipalities are contaminated. Shoppers are being told to peel the outer layers off of cabbage and celery.

After the cores decay to just one percent of their original temperature, they will still be giving off enough heat to evaporate 200 tons of water a day. Everything contaminated transforms into an agent of contamination, and so the virus spreads. This will go on for nonconsensual generations.
Blame Steven Chu, then, because when it comes to America's energy predicament, the President has been woefully misinformed. Mr. Obama pawned off a roster of notions and proposals already product-tested in the public meme-o-sphere. Almost every one of these ideas is inconsistent with reality, based on faulty premises, or represents some kind of magical thinking. What they have in common is that they're ideas the public wants to hear, whether they are truthful or not, because we don't want to change the way we live. 

Making lemonade out of sour lemons is no easy trick, but we try. We recommended to PIJ, which is close to Tokyo but outside the immediate danger zone, that they build hoophouses, bring in safe soil, and monitor everything that goes in an out of their food production space for radioactivity - including water and people. That is how they will make food. It is not sustainable to rely on canned goods. We recommend using bottled water to help the plants grow if local tap water is found to be radioactive. Hence the Evian on the dirt, or for rinsing jars of sprouts. Forget eating local fish. That's done, unless they are grown in tanks of Evian.

Helping poisoned soil regain its health will be a very long process. Mycologist Paul Stamets recommends creation of a Nuclear Forest Recovery Zone. There have been some studies on forest processes in controlled exposure areas at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, Los Alamos in New Mexico and a mixed oak-pine forest near Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, but they are more cautionary than encouraging. At Oak Ridge, for instance, pine needles still contain radioactive elements in significant quantities 40 years after exposure.
That is actually the good news. By collecting and deep burying radioactive pine needles and fallen trees, we can gradually cleanse the contaminated soil a Nuclear Forest is rooted in. We have to handle byproducts carefully, and also bury our gloves and tools along with the wood products, but this is the technique.

Radioactivity doesn't go away except by the process of radioactive decay. For each element there is a particular rate of decay, or half-life, and there is nothing that can hasten that process. By bombarding radioactive material with neutrons (such as in a reactor) we can change one radioactive element into different fission products or isotopes of itself, and some of those will have shorter half-lives, but some will not. That process is expensive and also like sending King Midas back into the lab to do the cleanup.

Stamets recommends planting native deciduous and conifer trees, along with hyper-accumulating mycorrhizal mushrooms, particularly Gomphidius glutinosus, Craterellus tubaeformis, and Laccaria amethystina (all native to pines). G. glutinosus has been reported to absorb - via the mycelium - and concentrate radioactive Cesium 137 more than 10,000-fold over ambient background levels. Many other mycorrhizal mushroom species also hyper-accumulate. That speeds up the accumulation by radioactive pine cones and other forest materials and when the mushrooms form you can also harvest those under radioactive HAZMAT protocols.

At Oak Ridge they have also demonstrated ways to reduce waste volume by using a closed venturi incinerator with HEPA filters to dispose of flammable radioactive waste (i.e.: pine needles, Hazmat suits, used HEPA filters). We can only hope the Japanese government will be more scrupulous in regulating their incinerators than US and Tennessee regulators have been. The Oak Ridge incinerator, today the site of annual protest marches that you will never see on television, has contaminated a wide area around itself that is a long-neglected SuperFund site, championed and then abandoned by successive administrations. Also neglected is the facility that vitrifies the ash into glass and ceramic forms for long-term disposal. And so will be most of Oak Ridge, eventually.

Paul Stamets asks, “How long would this remediation effort take? I have no clear idea but suggest this may require decades. However, a forested national park could emerge -The Nuclear Forest Recovery Zone - and eventually benefit future generations with its many ecological and cultural attributes.”

That may be a bit optimistic. While tourism is now being permitted in Chernobyl, the long-term damage to animals there, the soil food web, and especially the fungi has yet to be fully assayed. What has been observed - listless woodchucks, punch-drunk badgers - is disturbing.
And in the end they traded their tired wings
For the resignation that living brings
And exchanged love`s bright and fragile glow
For the glitter and the rouge
And in a moment they were swept before the deluge
- Jackson Browne, Before the Deluge

Cleaning contaminated bodies of water can be done in much the same manner, by building artificial wetlands, harvesting grasses, reeds and hyacinths, and deep-burying the biomass, either before or after secure incineration. Wetlands are the fastest growing media for aquatic and semi-aquatic plants, and those plants have rapid life cycles so the throughput times are dramatic.

However, there is no free lunch when it comes to radioactivity. After gathering and burying reeds and hyacinths, you still have to bury your Hazmat suit and scrub.

It is possible, though untested to our knowledge, that vermiculture could accelerate bioremedation of damaged soils and might be a way to work at a smaller scale, such as in hoophouses or with indoor container plants. Worms plow through soil and run everything through their bacterially-rich gut, depositing castings in their wake. It might be worth examining how much radioactivity bioaccumulates in the worms, as opposed to their castings. If it is significant, a worm farmer can continuously harvest, destroy, and geosequester his herd.
Some of them were angry
At the way the earth was abused
By the men who learned how to forge her beauty into power
And they struggled to protect her from them
Only to be confused
By the magnitude of the fury in the final hour.
- Jackson Browne, Before the Deluge

If this entire discussion gives you a queasy feeling, that's good. You are still human. It is now worth saying again that none of this kind of thing happens with wind, solar, or tidal energy, and there is, and has been, more of those kinds of energy sources available to Japan, and everyone else, at a cheaper price, since the beginning of the nuclear age. What we are witnessing is the (partial) meltdown of a massive public relations lie that began right after Hiroshima and serves solely the economic interests of companies like Westinghouse, General Electric, Halliburton and Bechtel.

It bears repeating. We are diminished.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Itsy Bitsy Spiderwort

"Permaculturists are the emergency planetary technicians, and bioremediation is our bailiwick."

Since the reactor meltdown in Japan we have been in communication with the Permaculture Institute there, offering advice, equipment and public health-related resources. They were quick to inform us that the shelves in stores were becoming barren of canned goods and water, that fresh produce and tap water was no longer reliable, and that people were afraid to garden because the possibility of soil contamination. While there is no quick and easy solution to these problems, there are things that dedicated permaculturists can do. We are the emergency planetary technicians, and bioremediation is our bailiwick.

Firstly, lets have a look at the problem. Like most developed countries, Japan has gone from a nation of people who walked and used animals for transport, to one that depends on cars, trucks, trains, and high tech. Using first coal and oil, and then nuclear power, they have been able to hire versatile energy slaves for every purpose, and have become utterly dependent on many technological prosthetics. With high speed rail and fast highways carrying food from country to city, Japan has urbanized its population to more than 15,000 people per square mile in its cities.

So, when a collapse of the nuclear house of cards finally came — and it is inevitable everywhere they have been built, it is just a matter of time — it affected a great many people. Lets briefly recap where the Japanese ‘accident’ stands at this writing.

The 9.0 Tōhoku earthquake of Friday, March 11, 2011, has been long expected. Japan is located near the boundary of three plates (the Boso Triple Junction) that have been relatively quiet since a 8.3 magnitude quake in 1923 that killed 142,000 people. While Japan has engineered its buildings to withstand such events and prevent great loss of life, the 2011 quake produced maximum ground accelerations that exceeded the design specifications for 4 of the 6 reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant (as well as for all of the nuclear plants in the United States). Although Fukushima was protected by a seawall that was designed to withstand a tsunami of 5.7 metres (19 ft), the wave that struck the plant, which is on the coast, was estimated to be more than twice that height at 14 metres (46 ft). At least three nuclear reactors suffered explosions due to hydrogen gas that built up within their containment buildings after cooling system failure.

At the Fukushima complex, roughly 70 percent of the core of reactor No.1 suffered severe damage, but is now being hosed down, so that the oxidizing fuel in the core is no longer melting. Still, a witches’ brew of long-lived radionuclides are being carried away in steam and ocean runoff. The melted rods have been encrusted with salt from seawater, which will make them a continuing health hazard until they have cooled and are encased in concrete.

Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) said it has found a crack in the pit at its No.2 reactor, generating readings of 1,000 millisieverts of radiation per hour in the air inside the pit. For those old enough to remember the rads and rem nomenclature, that would be 10 rem per hour. Actually, they probably meant to say 10 grays per hour, but they got it wrong.

The nuclear industry switched from rads and rem a decade or more ago to grays and sieverts because that made the worst cases seem much more minor. A sievert is 100 rem so a rem is 10 mSv. A millisievert is 100 millirem (0.1 rem). Rem (for “radiation equivalent for man”) is a health physics term that attempts to calculate what portion of a rad (rate of disintegration in dry air) is biologically absorbed. Grays are the new rads, sieverts the new rem. Decimals have been shifted to confuse us.

While no amount of radiation is safe — the tiniest fraction has the potential to either kill you or leave you undisturbed, much like taking a stroll through a mine field — the industry allows its workers to receive an annual dose of 17 rem or 170 mSv in the US and 20 mSv in Japan. The limit for workers during Fukushima emergency has now been elevated to 250 mSv/year. Therefore the observed dose in Reactor No. 2 exceeds the annual allowable dose in about fifteen minutes. To work inside that space, TEPCO would need to replace every employee every fifteen minutes, and the retiring employees would need to go somewhere far enough away to be uncontaminated for a year before they could return to work.

Workers at Reactor #2 are attempting to plug the crack with concrete, presumedly working in 15 minute shifts.

Over at Reactor #3, which violently exploded on YouTube on March 14— some days before TEPCO and the Japanese government admitted it had a serious problem there — a long vertical crack is running down the side of the reactor vessel itself. Since the surrounding containment building has been blown away, it is easy to view the reactor from Google Earth. According to TEPCO, the crack runs down below the water level in the reactor and has been leaking fluids and gases since the explosion. “It’s up and down and it’s large,” TEPCO said. “The problem with cracks is they do not get smaller.” Number 3 is where they were using MOX fuel, or a mixture of plutonium and uranium. When you blend in plutonium in that volume, the public health threat is cubed.

Reactor #4 was out for service and the core was being stored in a swimming pool when the earthquake and tsunami took out offsite power. The heat from the fresh fuel quickly evaporated the coolant and once exposed to air the zirconium cladding oxidized (burned away) allowing the uranium and transuranic elements in the fuel pellets to collect at the bottom of the pool and melt together like radioactive lava. The hot mass has now cracked the concrete bottom of the pool but water is being poured in at a faster rate than it is going out, so for now the fuel is being cooled. Nonetheless, because of the random configuration, the potential for recriticality of the pile cannot be excluded, and in such an event a rekindled chain reaction could produce considerably more heat than fire hoses can cope with, meaning the core would once more uncover and burn.

As of last Friday, the fuel in the #4 pool was once more uncovered and burning. Observed “blue flashes” above the plant at night suggest that a rekindled chain reaction is indeed taking place.

High levels of radiation have been measured 40 km from the complex, well outside the evacuation zone. Low airborne levels, and contamination of fresh food and tap water have been measured in Tokyo, 140 km to the South. Some operating problems have also been reported at other nuclear reactor complexes in Japan that are attempting to go to cold shutdown status but have not succeeded.

With that situation in mind, we were asked by people in Japan what they should do with respect to food. Our reply has been three-fold. Firstly, people should eat only foods packaged prior to the March 11 earthquake, or imported from well outside the zone of potential contamination.

While we initially thought it a wives’ tale, we discovered some scientific support for miso soup and presumedly other fermented foods as well (natto, ontjom, tempeh, kim chi, sauerkraut, etc.). According to a group of Japanese researchers at the Department of Environment and Mutation, Research Institute for Radiation Biology and Medicine, Hiroshima University, miso (a fermentation product from soybeans) has a radioprotective effect on mice. Miso at three different fermentation stages (early-, medium- and long-term fermented miso) was mixed into biscuits at 10% and administered from 1 week before irradiation. Animal survival in the long-term fermented miso group was significantly prolonged as compared with the short-term and medium-term fermented miso. Delay in mortality was evident in all three miso groups, with significantly increased survival. At high doses (10 and 12 Gy X-irradiation at 4 Gy/min), the treatment with long-term fermented miso significantly increased survival. Thus, eating foods with prolonged fermentation appears to be very important for protection against radiation effects.

See: Ohara M,  et al, (2001) Radioprotective effects of miso (fermented soy bean paste) against radiation in B6C3F1 mice: increased small intestinal crypt survival, crypt lengths and prolongation of average time to death, Hiroshima Journal of Medical Sciences 50:4;83-86.

Secondly, food producers who are threatened with contamination should either evacuate the area, or if the contamination is slight or indirect, they should move growing operations indoors, erecting glass houses and polytunnels as needed. We recommended to the Permaculture Institute of Japan that they build a bioshelter and monitor anything going into the enclosed growing area as it came in — soil, water, seed, tools, people, etc. — to maintain radioactive sterility. Of course, there is no way of knowing if a single hot particle of plutonium carries in on someone’s clothes, but you do what you can. We are supplying Geiger counters from SE International here on The Farm.

Thirdly, obtain KU-9 Tradescantia cuttings from Dr. Sadeo Ichikawa at the University of Saitama, Uruwa, and clonally propagate those. Distribute them widely. For those unfamiliar with Tradescantia, our illustrated 1978 book, Honicker v. Hendrie: A Lawsuit to End Atomic Power, describes them in detail. Professor Ichikawa, while doing genetic research at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, NY in the early 1970s, studied the effects of gamma radiation on reproductive integrity of stamen hairs in polyploid Tradescantia. After studying effects on chromosomes of various Tradescantia species (commonly known as spiderwort), Ichikawa was able to select and clonally propagate a number of cultivars in a species he named Tradescantia nonukes.

Tradescantia nonukes has two genes for color in the cells of the stamen hairs and petals. The dominant gene codes cells to display blue. The recessive gene codes cells to display pink. Spiderwort produces its flowers daily, so a change from blue to pink, or blue with purple splotches, would instantly signal the presence of an environmental mutagen. Well, “instantly” may be a stretch. Since mutagens can reach the sites of cell division by air, water and soil mineral uptake, the display may lag the exposure by some days.

Nonetheless, this is a very low cost and accurate biological Geiger counter. How accurate? By taking daily cell counts for color change along the single-cell strands of stamen hairs under a low-power optical microscope, Ichikawa and his SUNY-Brookhaven students were able to chart subtle changes in background radiation from day to day. In field trials outside a nuclear plant in Japan, Ichikawa accurately correlated known emissions data to responses by his plants.

The clones are highly sensitive, and moreover, they are not measuring ionizing radiation by static charge in dry air the way a Geiger tube does, using a mathematical model to extrapolate biological dose from studies of mice and dogs to humans. The plants are measuring biological uptake in the first instance and therefore monitoring all possible exposure pathways.

See C. H. Nauman, A. G. Underbrink and A. H. Sparrow (1975) Influence of Radiation Dose Rate on Somatic Mutation Induction in Tradescantia Stamen Hairs. Radiation Research 62:1; 79-96; Ichikawa, S. (1981), In Situ Monitoring with Tradescantia around Nuclear Power Plants, Environmental Health Perspectives 57:145-164, The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS); and Ichikawa, S., et. al., (1995), Flower production, stamen-hair growth, and spontaneous and induced somatic mutation frequencies in Tradescantia cuttings and shoots with roots cultivated with nutrient solutions, Japanese Journal of Genetics 70:5;585-600.

To those in Japan, and others, we urge that it is important to obtain genuine Tradescantia nonukes and not some common garden variety that does not have genetically dipolar coloration. The KU-9 clone is a perennial that can overwinter from Texas and Florida into Southern Canada, going back to its roots while dormant and re-emerging again in the Spring after last frost. In a greenhouse it can bloom all year. Every temperate climate permaculturist should have a supply.

We met Dr. Ichikawa in Louisville, Kentucky in 1976 and returned to Tennessee with samples of clonal Tradescantia nonukes that we have propagated since that time. Because of genetic variation, it should never be grown from seed, and any Spiderwort you get from a seed packet will not be a reliable radiation detector.

To clone Tradescantia is very easy. Select a long strand with at least three nodes between root and flower. Cut the strand near the root zone and then trim it back so that there are two extant nodes on the cut stem. Remove flowers and trim the leaves to one-half or one-third size (this reduces stress, since the plant cannot supply leaves and flowers until it has re-established roots). The cutting can remain dry for a few days, but the root end should be wrapped in moistened bathroom tissue to keep it from drying out. As soon as feasible, place the root end into a small vase or water glass. This will allow it to retain moisture and begin to grow new root hairs. Within a few days of cutting, or even immediately, the clone can be placed into moistened soil. It should establish there within a few weeks and in a month or so be making new flowers. The original stem will likely die back before flowering, but then re-emerge from its roots with fresh growth.

Reconditioning damaged soil is the next challenge, and we will discuss that here next post.

And by the way, smoking 1.5 packs/day gives you a radiation dose of 13-60 mSv/year. Tobacco is grown using superphosphate fertilizers that contain thorium, which decays to radium and its radioactive daughters (lead, bismuth and polonium). These particles are deposited on the sticky hairs of the tobacco leaf and then burned into the smoke you inhale, lodging in your lungs for decades, or being carried by your bloodstream to various long-term residences in your body. Just because you don’t work in a nuclear plant or live in Japan doesn’t mean you are free of risk from inhaled radioactive particles.

Try blowing smoke on a spiderwort plant and watch what happens.

(serves 2)

3 ounces dried soba noodles
2-4 tablespoons white miso paste
2-3 ounces firm tofu, chopped into 1/3-inch cubes
Handful of spinach, washed and trimmed
2 green onion, tops removed, thinly sliced
3 small shiitake caps, preferably hanadonko grade (white with black cracks)
Small handful cilantro, optional
Pinch of red pepper flakes

Cook soba noodles in salted water according to package directions. Drain and run cold water over the noodles to stop them from cooking. Set aside.

Stem, clean and slice the shiitake caps. If dried, rehydrate for some hours. In an iron skillet brown them lightly in olive oil and shoyu. This brings out the mushroom flavor. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan bring 4 cups water to boil. Reduce heat to gentle simmer and remove from heat. Pour a bit of the hot water into a small bowl and whisk in the miso paste…this allows the paste to thin out and prevents clumping. Stir the paste back into the pot. Add the tofu and shiitake, remove from the heat and let sit for a minute. Split the noodles between 2-3 bowls and pour the miso broth, shiitake and tofu over them. Add some spinach, green onion, cilantro, and (if desired) red pepper flakes to each bowl and serve.




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