Sunday, January 28, 2018

Yarrow's Spiderweb

At the farmhouse kitchen sink, looking out a window at the front yard, I saw suspended, hanging in air, a long, thin twig and slender leaf. Slight, intermittent breezes moved the dangling tree debris about, made it obvious against the gray sky. It hung about head-height above the lawn, bobbed up and down and around a few inches.
I guessed the twig was attached to a very thin thread of spider or caterpillar silk. But with no tree branches at least 30, likely 40 feet above the twig, this was a very long thread. The length and strength of this nearly invisible, whisker-thin strand of spiral protein impressed me. To stretch so far, to remain whole, tugged by breezes, tiny coiled-coil protein fibers, with amazing strength and flexibility.
Next day, out the kitchen window, I saw the twig was still bobbing slightly at head-height. This strength and persistence further impressed me.
Feet planted, I started to take photos. Suddenly, the twig flew at me — swung directly at me, forced me to bend back. I almost fell, stumbled sideways, tried to set my feet, snap another photo. I had to wait for the twig to stop swinging, and hold position long enough to snap the shutter.
I managed to click the shutter twice, when a new breeze blew the twig at me again — this time more vigorously, and I had to step backward. The twig blew higher, for longer time while I tried snapping photos of an erratic moving object.
Eventually, wind relaxed, twig returned to hang over the bare patch, I tapped the shutter button again. In the vigorous wind, I thought the thread had stretched and lengthened. But surprise — its height hardly changed! Evermore impressed by the tenacious strength of almost-invisible spiral biostructure.
Suddenly, a third time, the twig twirled toward me. Forced to evade it, I stopped snapping photos. Three times wind blew this bobbling body straight at me, forcing me to hobble and stumble around to get my photos.
Astonished the almost invisible thread didn’t break, I assumed the force of the wind had stretched the slender strand of silk, lengthened its coiled proteins, by inches, even a foot. I expected the twig to swing back closer to the ground. But the wind passed, the twig sank, slightly low at first, then slowly rose back head-high, as if the thread stretched, then recoiled and tightened.
Is a spiritual intelligence embedded in this land? Is this ghostly trick or treat by a twig a Halloween gift from a poltergeist? A mystery message from an Earth Spirit? My respect deepened for spiders and caterpillars. Amazing a single strand of spider thread kept twig and leaf suspended head-high in two cool, moist, unsettled days.
— David Yarrow, November 2017 (edited with permission)

Spider silk arrives at the end of an unbroken 400 million year strand of continuous evolution. Some silks are for structural support, others protective enclosures. Some absorb energy, others transmit vibration.

Each spider and each type of silk, produced from different glands and spin techniques, has a set of mechanical properties optimized for its function. A dragline silk, the kind observed by David Yarrow, is produced in the Large Ampullate gland and has tensile strength greater than high-grade steel alloy. Draglines are for the web’s outer rim and spokes and also the lifeline by which spiders dangle.

Spiders make webs that can span rivers but the strands are so thin and light they could circle the earth and still weigh less than 500 grams (18 oz.). If while transecting the Earth the strand crossed the poles or the Sahara it would not weaken. Dragline silks can hold their strength below −40 °C (−40 °F) and up to 220 °C (428 °F) — more than twice the boiling point of water.

Silks are extremely ductile — able to stretch 5 times their relaxed length without breaking. They are adhesive — created by a two-compound pyriform secretion from the Flagelliform gland. They are spun into patterns that polymerise under ambient conditions, become functional immediately, and are usable indefinitely. They are waterproof but biodegradable, versatile and fungal resistant while remaining compatible with most other materials in the environment. At the end of their life, many webs are simply consumed again by the spider to reclaim the embodied metabolic energy.

A spider web preserved in amber, thought to be 110 million years old, shows evidence of a perfect “orb” web, the most famous, circular kind one thinks of when imagining spider webs. An examination of the drift of those genes thought to be used to produce the web-spinning behavior suggests that orb spinning was in an advanced state as long as 136 million years ago.  Wikipedia

Some wandering spiders will leave a largely continuous trail of silk impregnated with pheromones that the opposite sex can follow to find a mate. They may also produce sperm webs or egg webs. Some webs are impregnated with venom. Some water-borne spiders build a diving bell of silk. Some canopy spiders balloon or kite on airborne weaves.

All these miraculous feats are made possible by carbon. The silken strands are woven from amino acids, primarily glycine (C2H5NO2 ) and alanine (C3H7NO2). Credit must go to the spider for the way in which these are arranged. Silk production is a pultrusion, similar to extrusion, with the subtlety being that the force is induced by pulling from the glands rather than being squeezed out. As a thread is pulled away from the body of a spider, whether by the spider’s legs or by the spider falling under its own weight, shear stress and ion and pH changes induce the liquid silk to undergo a phase transition and condense into a solid protein fiber with specialized molecular organization. Depending on the gland that crafted the protein and controlled movements within the spinnerets, the silk can be for dragline, adhesion lines, temporary scaffolding, attachment points, the web frame, egg sacs, capture spiral, or prey cocoon.

Silks are often referred to as a block co-polymer. The short side chained alanine is mainly found in the crystalline domains — giving strength. Glycine is mostly found in the elastic semi-amorphous regions with their helical and beta turn structures. These two carbon chains interplay to give spider silk some of its extraordinary properties, but the carbon rings in pyrrolidine (CH2)4NH keep the silk moist and gluey while also warding off ants. Other enzymes protect the lines from fungi and bacteria that might otherwise digest the proteins.

New applications are being discovered for its mechanical, conducting, electrical, biocompatibility and immunologic properties. Spider silk has been experimentally used in garment weaves, electrical sensor and actuating devices, suture threads, biomimetic muscles, nerve regeneration, and ligament tissue repair.

Nicola Maria Pugno at the University of Trento and a team of researchers in Italy and the UK found a way to incorporate carbon nanotubes and graphene into spider silk and increase its strength and toughness beyond anything that has been possible before. The resulting material has properties such as fracture strength and toughness higher than anything ever measured.

Pugno’s team collected 15 Pholcidae spiders from the Italian countryside, sprayed the spiders with water containing carbon nanotubes or flakes and then measured the mechanical properties of the silk the spiders produced.

Giving spiders water that is infused with carbon made them weave silk stronger than any known fiber. Could this lead to a new class of bionic materials? As yet, no one has been able to make this work commercially, but not for lack of trying. Kraig Biocraft Laboratories (Trading Symbol: KBLB) is focused on commercialization of genetically engineered spider silk.

The problem with commercializing spider silk has always been the ornery attitude of spiders. As the Italian researchers described it:
Unlike the case of the largely available silkworm silks, large-scale spider farming and synthetic production of spider silk still remain to be achieved, due to its complex structure and the territorial and cannibalistic nature of spiders. Moreover, naturally spun fibres, obtained by forcible spinning, harvesting or extracting spidroin from glands, have reduced mechanical characteristics with respect to naturally-spun ones, due to the CO2 anaesthesia of spiders and the consequent loss of active control of their silk spinning. Research to improve the mechanical, conductive or magnetic properties of spider silk has been limited. This is due to the difficulty of developing an adequate spinning methodology, balancing extrusion, drawing, yield and purity. … Attempts to improve or modify the mechanical, magnetic and electrical properties of spider silk have been reported, using techniques such as melt-spinning, templating, powder coating, atomic layer deposition and iodine doping, but they remain to be adequately perfected, especially at large scale, using naturally spun spider silk fibres.
The graphine doping test was proof of just how hard spider farming can be.
The best mechanical performances are observed for the samples after the first collection. The second collection does not show mechanical enhancement with respect to the first or to RS [control], probably due to a physiological spider weakening during segregation, since neither additional food nor water were available during the experimental period, except SWNTs and graphene dispersions. In the cases marked with an asterisk in Figs. 5b,c, the second collection was impossible since the corresponding spiders died. Note that spider 5 died after the first treated dragline silk collection, but was able to spin the silk with the maximum increment in mechanical performance, whereas spider 7 spun the silk with the highest absolute values and survived.
Kraig Labs was originally interested in competing with the Chinese raw silk market worth $3–5 billion per year. After inserting genes from the golden orb weaving spider into silkworm strains, the lab produced 20 separate caterpillar clones, each with unique properties, able to spin silk with the strength, flexibility and resiliency of spider silk. Now Kraig is looking at the much larger, $120 billion technical textiles market. A 3rd generation modified silkworm is expected to spin fibers exceeding the strength of spiders’ and may incorporate gene sequences that release an antibiotic and to develop sutures and bandages that help patients to heal faster and to reduce scarring.

For those concerned about the risks of genetically engineered spiderpillars being scaled into the trillions, the company’s choice of a trademark will not be reassuring — Monster Silk®.

This story, though, is not about genetic engineering. The story is about carbon. Life depends on carbon. What we term “organic chemistry” is shorthand for carbon chains and the molecular structure of living things. For a variety of reasons, life cannot arise from silicon or any similar element with covalent bonding. If can only come from carbon, formed only under the special conditions of the death of a star.

After a radiant life lasting billions of years, a star runs out of hydrogen. It begins to cool, change color, and expand into a red giant. At its core, helium is compressed until the forces are strong enough to begin fusing nuclei (proton-neutron pairs or “alpha particles”) to form larger atoms such as carbon. The red giant begins to collapse until the central temperature rises to 108 million °Kelvin, seven times hotter than the core of our Sun. This creates a situation called triple-alpha, by which nucleosynthesis of heavier elements begins. The power released by the birth of carbon is approximately proportional to the star’s core temperature taken to the 40th power and the density squared. As such extreme temperature spikes it causes the reaction rate of fusion to spike. This positive feedback cycle becomes a runaway until the fuel is exhausted.

This process — a “helium flash” — lasts only seconds but burns 60–80 percent of the helium in the star’s core. During the flash, the star’s energy production can reach approximately 100 billion solar luminosities, comparable to the luminosity of a whole galaxy. Compared to a birth of helium, the birth of carbon is as royalty.

Arriving on the solar wind some 4 billion years ago, carbon stardust lingered for a time in Earth’s atmosphere before hitching a ride on a raindrop and falling into the ancient oceans. There it bonded with hydrogen to form some of the earliest chain molecules we call “organic.” As these molecules formed nucleoproteins and began to reproduce themselves, the oceans came alive with a carbon food web. Carbon became a common denominator of all known life that followed.

Arachnids emerged at least 380 million years ago from crab-like chelicerate ancestors. They were among the first to leave the sea and move out onto land; the oldest known land arthropods. Indeed, they helped form the land by building the first soils.

We are, like spiders, carbon creations that have learned to use carbon as tools. We harvest it for food, we burn it for fuel, and lately, we have even relearned the lost skill of building soil with it.

We inhabit an era when the natural carbon cycle has been disrupted. We can take credit for that. Now we are compelled to learn to put it back the way it was. We won’t do that by breaking the rules. We just might if we can learn from David Yarrow, and spiders, and remember that carbon is our friend.

Thanks for reading! Please consider sharing it around. My open banjo case catching for your spare change is at Patreon or Paypal. A version of this essay may appear in my next book, Carbon Cascades: Redesigning Human Ecologies, due out from Chelsea Green Publishers later this year.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

A Hawaiian Missile Lullaby

"Q: What should one do to prepare for an incoming ICBM just minutes away?
A: Hug. Smile. Your short life was pretty good, wasn’t it? Reach for your ukelele.

This story has made the rounds and most people by now have caught it. A tech worker in the emergency management office in Honolulu screwed up and sent this alert out on Twitter:

Hawaii is 20 minutes as the missiles fly from North Korea, but it was not until 38 minutes had passed that the State government issued a retraction. US Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard did not wait for that to tweet that it was a false alarm. In the meantime many people panicked, at least one fatal heart attack occurred, and children were being stuffed down storm drains.

Hawaii had already begun preparing for a nuclear attack before the President of the United States had taunted North Korea with that “my button is bigger than yours” tweet. 

How anyone prepares for an incoming ICBM frankly baffles us.

In a bygone era the government would make civil defense films and slide shows and require them to be shown in schools. They installed large sirens and urged people to buy bomb shelters.

People were advised to stay in their shelters until the extent of the impact is known. Some people might in theory be told to stay inside for up to two weeks to avoid the radioactive fallout. What they would do after 2 weeks was left to science fiction writers.

In the wake of recent US-Korean belligerence, Hawaii had begun its new Civil Defense campaign for the 21st Century. 
The campaign involves 30-second television advertisements, which will air on all local broadcast networks for six months, as well as educational brochures, which will be printed in six or seven languages and distributed to hotels for tourists. It will still take several months for the campaign to be rolled out, but the public service announcements are expected to start airing in September.
Hawaii schools will also begin practicing drills specifically for a missile attack — in addition to earthquake, fire, and active shooter training. The drills will be similar to an active shooter response, where schools go into lockdown and students shelter in place.

It is difficult to say whether this kind of campaign is designed to placate the calls for “something” to be done, to instill a sense of security, or to make people more afraid. Mostly, it accomplishes the last. 

And yet, people are not yet afraid enough to act.

We are reminded of the false dogmas of the air campaign strategists in World War II who imagined, with no supporting evidence, that London could be bombed into submission, or Berlin, Köln and Dresden, or, for that matter all the major cities of Japan. With horrific civilian carnage, the bombmasters chased this illusion to the end of the war, only to discover from postmortem studies that bombing instills quite opposite emotions in the bombed populations — camaraderie, perseverance and nationalism. But this guilty knowledge did not keep the US from missile bombing civilians again in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.

Whether you call it false dogma or fake news, there is a lot of disinformation flying around, some of it planted to gain advantage for less than noble causes. But then there is the South Korean Olympic Committee. They are very small in number and yet found a way to pull the US back from looking up launch codes. 

Vipin Narang is Associate Professor of political science at MIT,
focusing on nuclear proliferation and strategy
Many more thoughtful people need to get strategic and innovative in finding ways to quell tooth-and-claw battles between dinosaurs while taking care not to be crushed underfoot. Like Umair Haque, we should all be asking how far the decline of American Empire will go… transgression or annihilation?
M.I.T. Professor Emeritus Noam Chomsky, speaking last year in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was asked about the Korean situation by Democracy Now! news anchor Amy Goodman. Chomsky responded: 
… the real question is: Is there a way of dealing with the problem? There are a lot of proposals. Sanctions. A big new missile defense system — which is a major threat to China and will increase tensions there. Military threats of various kinds. Sending an aircraft carrier, the [USS Carl] Vinson to North Korea…. Those are the kind of proposals as to how to solve it.
Actually there’s one proposal that’s ignored. It’s a pretty simple proposal. Remember: the goal is to get North Korea to freeze its weapons and missiles systems.
So, one proposal is to accept their offer to do that. It sounds simple. They have made a proposal — China and North Korea — have proposed to freeze the North Korean missile and nuclear weapons sys­tems and the US instantly rejected it. And you can’t blame that on Trump. Obama did the same thing. A couple of years ago the same offer was presented, I think it was 2015, the Obama administration in­stantly rejected it.

And the reason is that it calls for a quid pro quo. It says in return the US should put an end to threaten­ing military maneuvers on North Korea’s borders, which happen to include, under Trump, sending of nuclear-capable B52s [and B1 and B2 bombers] fly­ing right near the border.
Maybe Americans don’t remember very well, but North Koreans have a memory of, not too long ago, when North Korea was absolutely flattened, liter­ally, by American bombing. There were literally no targets left.
I really urge people who haven’t done it to read the official American military histories, the Air Quarterly Review, the military histories describing this. They describe it very vividly and accurately. They say there just weren’t any targets left. So what could we do? Well, we decided to attack the dams, the huge dams — a major war crime. People were hanged for it at Nuremberg, but put that aside. And then comes an ecstatic, gleeful description of the bombing of the dams and the huge flow of water which was wiping out valleys and destroying the rice crop, “upon which Asians depend for surviv­al” — lots of racist comments — but all with exalta­tion and glee. You really have to read it to appreciate it. The North Koreans don’t have to bother reading it. They lived it.
So when nuclear-capable B52s [etc.] are flying on their border, along with other threatening military maneuvers, they’re kind of upset about it. Strange people. And they continue to develop what they see as a potential deterrent that might protect the regime, and the country in fact, from destruction. …
Honolulu Magazine ran what it called “worse case scenarios,” of what would happen if North Korea sent a missile to Hawaii. Oddly, the magazine’s editors kept to a small blast radius by calculating for a 200-pound warhead with a yield of 10 kt TNT, a third to half less powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 54 years before.

One is left wondering why anyone would downplay the power of modern atomic arsenals in this way. What possible good would it do? Would it reassure people with expensive homes in the outlying suburbs? Would it suggest that perhaps fallout shelters might actually work? Would it give someone the idea to stuff their kids down a storm drain in the event of a tweeted warning?

Ten kilotons is child‘s play. North Korea tested a 150 kt device last year — 15 times larger. The blast pattern would look like this:
Inner to outer: fireball, lethal x-ray radius, blast radius, 3d degree burn radius

Within the yellow area anyone hiding in a storm drain would be instantly vaporized. Between the airport and Waikiki Beach roughly 80 percent would be killed by blast pressure or burns. 

Q: What should one do to prepare for an incoming ICBM just minutes away?
A: Hug. Smile. Your short life was pretty good, wasn’t it? Reach for your ukelele.

The average warhead in the US arsenal has a 100kt yield and weighs 2 tons. A couple dozen of those little puppies might be packed into a single MIRV “delivery vehicle.” A more typical choice for a city killer ICBM would be a Minuteman III missile dropping a W-78 warhead with a yield of 350 kt. 

Assuming such a weapon were to be centered on Honolulu, the blast radius would extend past Diamond Head. Effects radii for 350 kiloton airburst (smallest to largest):
Fireball radius: 0.63 km (1.27 km²) 
Maximum size of the nuclear fireball; relevance to lived effects depends on height of detonation. If it touches the ground, the amount of radioactive fallout is significantly increased. Minimum burst height for negligible fallout: 0.57 km.
Air blast radius (5 psi): 4.95 km (77.1 km²) 
At 5 psi overpressure, most residential buildings collapse, injuries are universal, fatalities are widespread. Optimal height of burst to maximize this effect is 2.2 km.
Thermal radiation radius (3rd degree burns): 7.67 km (185 km²) 
Third degree burns extend throughout the layers of skin, and are often painless because they destroy the pain nerves. They can cause severe scarring or disablement, and can require amputation. 100% probability for 3rd degree burns at this yield is 10.7 cal/cm2.
For more information about the model, click here.

Okay, so the supreme GOP leader’s nukes really are larger. But wait, North Korea’s ICBMs can’t just hit Hawaii, they can reach the entire continental United States from Key West to Bangor.

Suppose instead of an incoming missile, an adversary, be it North Korea, a Colombian drug cartel, or a crazed BitCoin Billionaire were to pack plutonium into a drone midget submarine. Weight is no limit, so they could wrap a Tsar Bomba (the largest hydrogen bomb ever tested) in its U-238 iron-man suit to give it the maximum 100 Mt punch. In Honolulu, the 3d degree burn radius would extend 74 km, to Molokai. 984,000 people would be in the blast radius. Never mind the radiation effects.

Of course, if you have a drone midget submarine why limit your target to Hawaii? Any coastal city would do. If you sailed up San Francisco Bay you could reach 8.9 million people, not including fallout.

Now suppose North Korea, the cartels, or that wicked billionaire decide to build not just one such submarine but ten, or 100?

A five-bomb array from drone submarines
Yes, surely those duck and cover drills will be helpful then.

It seems to us what might be more helpful would be for the United States to once more participate in the UN disarmament talks and return to the path of dismantling and banning all nuclear weapons, forever. After all, you never know who might be elected President some day.

Thanks for reading! Please consider sharing it around. My open banjo case catching for your spare change is at Patreon or Paypal. My next book is Carbon Cascades: Redesigning Human Ecologies, due out from Chelsea Green Publishers later this year.


Sunday, January 14, 2018

Battling the Titans

"Just as the cold air that precedes the arrival of Nosferatu, a deep and foreboding chill is being felt at ever lower latitudes."

Daniel Avilés’ Poseidon
North America fell into a pocket in 2017 but it was not the pocket of banksters. It fell into that in 2008.

In 2017 it found itself niftily enveloped by the ingenious pincer movements of three generals. First, the Southern attack by General Poseidon, God of the Oceans, striking at Houston before making amphibious landings on the coasts of Florida after devastating aerial attacks on Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Next, the Western attack of General Hephaestus, God of Fire, reducing Santa Rosa and much of the Los Angeles foothills to ashes. Finally, the cyclone bombing invasion of the North by Moroz-Voevoda (General Winter).

Four decades of climate data now show that the jet stream — usually referred to as the polar vortex this time of year — is weakening. Normally a freight train circling the Arctic, it has slowed to more resemble a curious python, poking its nose below the Great Lakes more frequently and for longer looks. Just as the cold air that precedes the arrival of Nosferatu, a deep and foreboding chill is being felt at ever lower latitudes.
In a bomb cyclone, the temperature difference between the two air masses leads to a steep and rapid — meteorologists often use the term “explosive” — drop in atmospheric pressure. The air starts to move and, aided by the earth’s rotation, begins to rotate. The swirling air can bring high winds and a lot of precipitation, often in the form of snow.
— Henry Fountain, Why So Cold? Climate Change May Be Part of the Answer, The New York Times (January 3, 2018)

Do we imagine that we mere mortals are any match for these titans? Did Vitalian facing Proclus at Constantinople learn nothing from Marcus Claudius Marcellus whose fleet was incinerated by the Sun at Syracuse in 212 BC? How could Hitler fail to recall the folly of Napolean’s winter attack on Moscow? 

These generals we face today have been here before. They sank the Spanish Armada, gave us the 556 and 1816 years without summers, and raised the Tōhoku megatsunami to a height of 40 meters. They are secure in their invincibility.

California and Florida provide black and white contrasts in the choice of responses. California leads the nation and the world in its proactive stance to climate adaptation and mitigation. With its cap-and-trade program, launched in 2012, and its regulations targeting carbon-intensive businesses, California has become a leading example of what it looks like for governments to lean in and accept climate change. Democratic Governor Jerry Brown stole the limelight from Donald Trump’s denialist Republican emissaries to the COP-23 talks in Bonn when he pledged the state’s trillion-dollar economy would decarbonize faster than any other.
Brown also said he intends to push for even tougher greenhouse gas emission reduction goals that will be far more difficult to meet by 2030. The current goal is to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases to 1990 levels by 2020. California’s carbon emissions law already has cost industrial polluters nearly $2.3 billion in permit fees. Starting next year, the law will include fuel distributors in the same cap-and-trade marketplace as utilities and major manufacturers.
— The Associated Press, November 14, 2014

Florida displays the opposite response. With 8,436 miles of coastline (compared to 3,427 mi for California and 3,359 mi for Texas), and 30 percent of its most popular beaches disappearing underwater by mid-century, Florida’s Republican governor Rick Scott placed a ban on uttering the words ‘climate change,’ ‘global warming’ or ‘sustainability,’ in any State publications or public remarks. According to the Miami Herald,
“The policy goes beyond semantics and has affected reports, educational efforts and public policy in a department with about 3,200 employees….”
The second-term governor has repeatedly said he is not convinced that climate change is caused by human activity, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. He has good reason to be in denial.
With just three feet of sea-level rise, more than a third of southern Florida will vanish; at six feet, more than half will be gone; if the seas rise 12 feet, South Florida will be little more than an isolated archipelago surrounded by abandoned buildings and crumbling overpasses.
— Jeff Goodell, Goodbye, Miami, The Rolling Stone

Goodell interviewed a 71-year-old climate researcher who told him, “If you live in South Florida and you’re not building a boat, you’re not facing reality.”

And yet, in 2017, the rain fell on the just and unjust alike. The fires came, the seas rose, and the ice descended.

Nature does not give a hoot for politics.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Malthus was Real

"Must we not go with either a bang or a whimper, but in an orgy of mutual self-gratification, and congratulations?"

What good is it to escape the climate gallows if, as we walk out the jail door into the sunlight, we are greeted in the courtyard by Malthus, bearing a scythe?

On the scythe is inscribed:
If the subsistence for man that the earth affords was to be increased every twenty-five years by a quantity equal to what the whole world at present produces, this would allow the power of production in the earth to be absolutely unlimited, and its ratio of increase much greater than we can conceive that any possible exertions of mankind could make it…. yet still the power of population being a power of a superior order, the increase of the human species can only be kept commensurate to the increase of the means of subsistence by the constant operation of the strong law of necessity acting as a check upon the greater power.
— Malthus T.R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population (Oxford World’s Classics reprint, Chapter 2, p. 8).

We have a friend that owns a house on a Mexican island and when, just as Ishmael’s irrepressible urge to take to the sea, we feel the need to write, we imprison our self there and look for inspiration. We become Old Testament Ishmael cast into the wilderness with his mother. We talk to the birds. God hears.

We have been doing that seasonally for more than ten years and it has produced a number of satisfying books, works of art, architectural and ecovillage designs, and even the occasional inspiration. We solved the climate crisis — discovered in a jar of dirt brought back from the Amazon.

Mysteriously, the village we visited those many years ago, whose principal products were fish, leisure and hammocks, has left. In its place stands Jakarta, Mexico City, and San Juan. Blame that fellow over there in the dark shroud, Señor Malthus. He arrived a few years ago and this place has never been the same.

He was preceded by kiteboarders, birders and wild side guides leading groups of bug-eyed backpackers practicing their Spanish while snorkel-toting seniors checked off their bucket lists. There came whale shark divers whose thousand peso 3 hour boat ride was the magic wand waved over leaky fishing skiffs changing them into glistening Whalers with fiberglass sunshades above tall scout nests and 1000+ hp arrays of Yamahas bumping along at 60 knots.

Simultaneously came splendiferous hotels and restaurants, drawing Michelin chefs from Italy, Argentina, Switzerland and France. An Expat Italian community formed, then Spanish, Brits, the Americans (North and South). Everyone had discovered paradise and were telling their friends to come and bring the dog.

Until this guy Malthus showed up.

Reckonings come like rain after the drought. The drought is what is happening now, as the weight of three-story buildings pushes into the mud foundations of this barrier island. Sidewalks trap storm surges that used to wash over and leave as quickly as they came.

The air smells of burning plastic and rubber from the mountains of trash piling up at the dump. The sewage plant, ever-full, overflows into the lagoon when it is not backing up drains in the streets. The diesel electric plant roars so loud as to now require a great enclosing wall, and yet still can’t keep pace with the need for more light.

The water may be backing up the drains or eroding the beach, but there is never enough in the pipes from the mainland pumping stations, so it comes by barge for sale in pricey bottles, the heavy delivery trucks leaving depressions in the sand that become first puddles, then lakes, when it rains. They are deep enough to swallow the unwary.

Where once only bare feet and bicycles wandered, now rush golf cart taxis and mopeds, only to be replaced by ATVs and scooters, then again by noisy motorcycles and open Humvee-like off-road monstrosities, replete with booming PA speakers and dancing light shows. The New York minute has captured time from the hammock-weavers.

The island, a tiny part of México’s largest nature reserve and once a sacred rendezvous for sea turtles, egrets and crocodiles, is sinking under the weight of the human cargo ferried across each day from the mainland.

Mangroves, its only hurricane hedge, are felled to make room for more beach. There are each day nearly as many men raking seaweed away from high-class resorts as going out to fish, which is just as well for the fish, devoured and decimated by AI fleets of sonars, GPS and radio chatter. Chilean sea bass and Alaskan salmon fill out the menus in the sky bars.

And yet, after the rain there are flowers. After the next hurricane there will be fish, and whale sharks, too. Given the ferocity of the sea, there may only be those. With no coral reef left to remake it, this speck of sand will be gone, likely within this century.

Have we no sense of limits, or are our hormones an ancient doomsday clock, tick-tock in our genetic code, programmed to end our line when we reach this moment?

Must we not go with either a bang or a whimper, but in an orgy of mutual self-gratification, and congratulations on the numbers of our grandchildren, though they be cursed by that same clock?

We can’t say we weren’t warned by the celebrated Mr. M, but given the choice between prudence and oblivion, we chose the latter. We have free will. We will jealously take that to our graves.

Is there a way out? Sure. Birth control. Vasectomies are great sex without all the grandchildren. Will we use it? Not a chance. Apparently we’d prefer a Malthusian correction. Whether that will come in time to appease an angry climate god, well, that is the question, isn’t it?

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Peak México

"México is a poster child for the present schizophrenia."

The transformation of México in the second half of the 20th century reads like a fairy tale. The country went from being a tinhorn dictator puppet colony of the Great Powers — a lampoon backdrop in the films of Cantinflas — to a prosperous and trendy middle class democratic socialist country with less absolute poverty than the United States.

In recent years nearly as many USAnians have flocked to the medical centers, second home sites and loan-free universities of México as there are would-be gardeners and tradesmen slipping North. Not that long ago it appeared as though the two countries were in the process of exchanging populations.

In Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse, William R. Catton called our modern humans Homo colossus — those among our kind living in industrial countries and consuming massive amounts of fossil fuels to motivate and control machines that do orders of magnitude more work than humans or animals could do otherwise. Homo colossus is gradually replacing Homo sapiens as industrial development spreads like a cancer across the Earth.
Fossil fuels artificially boosted carrying capacity for human occupancy, at least to outward appearances. It could never last.

Contrary to what Elon Musk, Peter Diamandis or other technoutopians might tell you, there is zero likelihood that current solar income can replace concentrates of ancient sunlight gathered and stored over millions of years. Nuclear power, with its dwindling supply-chain, nation-killing meltdowns, and Easy-Bake bomb potential, is a death wish. Renewables simply will not scale to a consumer society trying to fulfill the desires of seven billion Homo colossus. A reorganization is coming. 

One thing is certain. While Homo sapiens, with a stable population under one billion, might have stood a reasonable chance of being around for another two or three million years, Homo colossus hasn’t a prayer.

In 2004, the Astronomer Royal in Britain, Sir Martin Rees, assigned humanity about a 50/50 chance of surviving through the 21st century. He was being generous. Earth has already passed tipping points in seven of ten essential life support systems for humans — biodiversity, climate change, nitrogen cycle, phosphorus cycle, ocean acidity, land fertility, and freshwater availability — and the other three — ozone, atmospheric aerosols and chemical/radioactive pollution — have yet to be fully quantified but may have already been exceeded as well.

In evolutionary biology a population bottleneck is where radical change to the environment causes a species to lose of all but the most hardy of its population; hardy, that is, in terms of the selection pressures arising from the change. If there are no sufficiently hardy individuals left, or the ones that manage to survive cannot reproduce sufficiently to repopulate, the species goes extinct. We are quickly approaching that reckoning but we have yet to understand what is happening, never mind change course.

México is a poster child for the present schizophrenia. On November 3rd the national oil company, Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), made headlines across the world: “Pemex makes México’s biggest onshore oil find in 15 years.” México’s President, Enrique Peña Nieto personally made that announcement, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his energy minister, Pemex’ chief executive, and a range of other government and union officials at the Tula refinery in Veracruz. He proudly announced that Pemex made its historic discovery by drilling its onshore Ixachi well near the municipality of Cosamaloapan, and that the overall field is believed to hold some 350 million barrels of proven, probable and possible reserves.

Pause for a second and consider that number. True, it is the biggest find in 15 years. Equally true it represents less than one year of the oil México produced at its peak, in 2003, and perhaps 18 months worth at present rates of production. In the United States, its largest trading partner, it would keep the lights on and the filling stations operating for all of 17 days, 18 hours and 20 minutes, unless it arrived at a holiday travel time.

But even the number 350 million is suspect. First, that number is “proven, probable and possible;” three very different categories. If it was all proven reserves, bankers would be lining up to lend capital to develop the find. Instead, México has had to go to Big Oil looking for venture partners, and dropped its expectations from a majority holding, to 49% and now 40% and still no takers.

México has a long history of remaining independent of the oil giants, going back to the 1930s, when Lázaro Cárdenas refused to be extorted by Franklin Roosevelt and built his own refineries. The Mexican miracle came in 1972, when fisherman Rudesindo Cantarell Jiménez complained to the authorities that his nets were clogged with black tar.
By 1981 the Cantarell complex was producing 1.16 million barrels per day (180,000 m3/d). However, the production rate dropped to 1 million barrels per day (160,000 m3/d) in 1995. The nitrogen injection project, including the largest nitrogen plant in the world, installed onshore at Atasta Campeche, started operating in 2000, and it increased the production rate to 1.6 million barrels per day (250,000 m3/d), to 1.9 million barrels per day (300,000 m3/d) in 2002 and to 2.1 million barrels per day (330,000 m3/d) of output in 2003, which ranked Cantarell the second fastest producing oil field in the world behind Ghawar Field in Saudi Arabia. However, Cantarell had much smaller oil reserves than Ghawar, so production began to decline rapidly in the second half of the decade. Unfortunately, the nitrogen has migrated into the gas, lowering its heating value and thus, economic value, and soon will require treatment to remove the nitrogen from the gas, to be able to use the gas as a fuel.

Pemex spent US$6 billion in 2017 to arrest Cantarell’s decline at around 325,000 nitrogen-contaminated barrels per day but nothing can prevent eventual collapse of the field. The shortfall is having a negative effect on México’s annual government budget, its sovereign-credit rating, and the exchange rate of the peso (it dropped 25% just this week against an also-weakening dollar). México’s trade balance was 10.7 billion dollars in the red after the first 11 months of 2017, 50.6 percent of that from imported petroleum, which explains why the small discovery in Veracruz was so important to Peña Nieto. Earlier in the year an attempted auction of offshore leases — a political football punted away by every president prior to Peña Nieto — failed when no buyers showed up for the plays being offered. Another auction is scheduled for January.

The billions of pesos México had been receiving for crude export revenue once contributed as much as 40 percent of its budget. It paved roads, built parks and schools, and allowed still more exploration for new reserves. Now that figure has dropped to under 20 percent and the pinch is being felt at every level of society. The public has lost confidence in police and only 7 out of 100 crimes are reported. Of those reported, only 4.46 percent are caught and convicted. Police are unable or unwilling to stem gang violence.

“The high levels of violence not seen in years and the impunity with which crimes are treated put investment at risk,” a spokesman for the Mexican wine industry told the Financial Times of London. The director of the National Association of Private Transportation, which includes the main users of road freight transport, told the newspaper that it is not only the robberies, but that criminals “are selling these products in illegal markets below the price of production and compete with our products.”

Gang violence hurts tourism, México’s second cash cow. Rising petroleum prices will kill tourism, and not just in México. As one big field after another goes into terminal decline, and the best technology in the world cannot find more, squeeze more, or make more at a price anyone can afford, the airline industry will be one of the first to feel the higher prices. Bargain flights from Paris to Cancun may be replaced by train trips to mountain castles in Bavaria.

It is hard not to notice that all of México’s most popular tourist destinations lie closer to the sea than New York City or Miami. The most intense Atlantic Basin storm ever measured, Hurricane Wilma, hit the Mayan Riviera in 2005, dropping beachfront high-rises like dominoes.

How is the Mexican government responding? Drill, baby, drill.

When Peña Nieto beat populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador by less than one percent in the election of 2006, he ended the long-running feud between national oil company champions and bankers by siding with the bankers. He introduced reforms to denationalize parts of Pemex and sell them off to the highest bidder. These reforms temporarily reinflated state revenues that had begun to falter after the 2003 peak and drove Peña Nieto’s popularity to a 6 percent lead over Lopez Obrador in the election of 2012.

In 2018, the two meet again in a grudge match with Obrador and his National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) now the favorite. Peña Nieto has become deeply unpopular for a series of conflict of interest scandals, the discredited investigation into the mass murder of 43 student protesters, a collapsing economy, a tepid response to major earthquakes, and general mistrust of police and other authorities’ abilities to keep people safe or provide even the most basic services. When the government stopped regulating retail oil prices in May, 2017, pump prices spiked 20 percent over the course of a weekend. Looting and riots followed.

Peña Nieto is betting the next election on scoring some big gains in the energy sector in 2018 and redeeming his bet to de-nationalize and de-regulate. But in 2013, a month before the Mexican Congress passed the constitutional changes that paved the way for the landmark opening of México’s reserves to foreign ownership, Lopez Obrador sent letters to chief executives at 10 international oil companies, ExxonMobil and Chevron among them, warning them against signing new contracts in México. If the recent failed auctions are any indication, oil company executives can read presidential polls as well as anyone. Why buy a former state asset that could be re-nationalized a few months later?

Peña Nieto’s Plan
Ultimately, the differences are a matter of degree, rather than direction. Peña Neto’s projected reforms would increase net output by soliciting investment in unconventional sources. Obrador would do the same, but without foreign ownership. Both candidates act as if they are ignorant of the Paris Agreement and the legal commitment México made to decarbonize its economy by 2050.

It is as if two thieves are standing outside a jewelry store. One says the best way to rob it is to break the window and stuff as much in your bag as you can before the police arrive. The other says the best way is to cut the alarm, sneak in the back and be quiet, then take your time filling your bag.
Obrador’s Plan

Either way, the robbery is still going down. And both thieves are wrong if they think they will get away with it.

Most Mexicans, like most USAnians, are unconcerned about climate change, and assume it affects someone else. Mexican mass media is as silent on the subject as CNN, Fox or MSNBC. That is because Mexican mass media is CNN, Fox and MSNBC.

Rather than do what must be done, close the wells and pipelines altogether and take advantage of its extraordinary solar resource, México has chosen to buck international scorn, keep pumping like there is no tomorrow and wait out the apocalypse. It won’t be pretty.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Big Bird takes the Prize

 In the fall of 2016 the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation made a bold move that had more than a few jaws hitting the floor.

“Some problems cannot be solved by grants of the size that foundations typically provide,” they said as they announced their 100&Change competition. They proposed to fund a single project with a one-time $100 million grant. The project, which would be chosen by a panel of judges after careful vetting, had to make real and measurable progress in solving some critical problem of our time.

On December 20, 2017, 16 months after its ground-shaking announcement, the competition was concluded. The winner was Elmo, Big Bird and the whole crew at Sesame Street. Their proposal was to massively scale up early childhood development programs for Syrian refugees.

When we learned of the competition we considered whether it would really be worth our time to compete. After mulling the idea for a few days, we decided it was. We did not seriously imagine we could win because we knew that the high stakes would draw in a lot of heavy hitters and the odds were with them. Indeed, the winner was someone whom MacArthur had already been contributing to regularly for decades. One of the requirements was to have some sort of track record showing you could count that many zeros and not lose any. This was not Afghanistan. They wanted a known quantity.

The team we assembled for our proposal were only small potatoes by comparison — a handful of educational non-profits with combined budgets of less than $3 million per year.

Our rationale for joining the race was because we knew it would force us to improve our thinking and fine-tune our approach. The critical problem of our time was for us, of course, climate change. We believed we could transform $100 million into not just “real and measurable progress” but potentially the whole enchilada — a complete and comprehensive solution.

The late Stephen Gaskin, borrowing from R. Buckminster Fuller, James Grier Miller and others, taught us early in the 70s that running energy through any system works to organize the system. “Attention equals energy,” he would say. This principle applies equally to pecking orders in birds or political parties, bureaucracies, commercial air travel, skill at poker, and disputes at the UN Security Council.

From this principle, we knew that the mere act of preparing a MacArthur submission would help tease out the strengths and weaknesses of our solution to climate change and if, in that process, we could fix any weaknesses or flaws, we would increase the odds of survival for all of us.

So it was that in early September 2016, we opened a Slack discussion and recruited our team. Brazilian May East (Gaia Education, Scotland) was the first on board. Architect Greg Ramsey (Village Habitat Design, USA), whose father coined the word “ecovillage” in 1975 followed, then forester Gloria Flora (US Biochar Initiative), developer Santiago Obarrio and “Biochar Bob” Cirino (CO2OL Design, Dominican Republic) and Emiliano Maletta (Bioenergy Crops, Spain). As Malcolm Gladwell says, it takes mavens, connectors, and marketers working together to make a project successful, and so we combined our own experience with the expertise, vision and dedication of this core group and with an added circle of advisors, including Frank Michael (Global Village), Liora Adler (Gaia University), Joe Brewer (Evolution Institute,, and Smart Ecologies ), Thomas Christoffersen (BIG Design Group), Tim Clarke and Robert Hall (ECOLISE), Kathleen Draper (International Biochar Initiative), Jan Lundberg (Culture Change), Bernd Neugebauer (Chak Ka Vergel), Virginia Thomson (independent financial advisor), Bryan Welsh (B the Change), and Rob Wheeler and Marian Zeitlin (Global Ecovillage Network).

Hyperwicked problems, which are inherently cross-cutting, cannot be solved by traditional Cartesian methods of breaking them into small bits. They have be to be tackled as wholes. A key decision we made from the start was to not “silo” our approach but to come at climate change holistically.

Solving for climate change involves addressing human population, food, water, the built environment, energy and economics — and the inertia of human behavior. We needed to work at planetary scale and see multidisciplinary, interconnected wholes within larger wholes. We need to “walk through walls” with a new genre of quantum solutioneering.

As Joe Brewer advises:
Few change practitioners treat social change with methodological rigor. They don’t study past behaviors to develop theoretical models about future change.
This means we need to transition every social institution on Earth from deterioration to regeneration — taking guidance and inspiration from nature by using the principles of biomimicry. Simply stated, it will take at least three to four decades to fully transition the infrastructure for transportation, urban buildings, supply chains, and business models for revenue that provide the financial life blood of transformation.
We could rely neither on strictly top-down government approaches nor on bottom-up grassroots approaches, but rather — and this was a conceptual breakthrough that came from engaging in this exercise — must come to rely upon microenterprise hubs as our primary delivery vehicle. We needed Capitalism 2.0, or more specifically, networked B-corporations whose first allegiance is to ecological benefits, then participant and shareholder profit.

We knew that while a $100 million grant might provide design, engineering, education, demonstrations, and viral marketing, to reach our goal would mean a program much bigger than $100 million. We would have to design something to be self-sustaining as it scaled. And because the times we live in are inherently fragile, coming at the end of the fossil fuel era to a world swamped with Ponzi’ed debt and in the early throes of climate Armageddon, whatever we did had to be designed to be inherently anti-fragile — it must thrive as systems all around it collapse.

We had one month in which to pull all that together and submit it, along with a short video, financial statements, IRS letters, authorizations by partners, memoranda of understanding, and much more.
What we proposed for our solution was both technical — biorefineries, climate ecoforestry, educational products and business structures — and ephemeral — a high degree of community cohesion, conscientiously constructed. That second piece was the glue that would hold everything together and make it grow, long after the seed was planted, in good times and bad.

Our proposal was perhaps too ambitious or outré for MacArthur’s judges. The finalists were all projects with simpler, less politically controversial subjects. To MacArthur’s lasting credit, all the proposals have now been gathered together and published to the web as an open library. We confess that although we have not yet read them all, many of the other proposals were just as good as ours, and a few were even better. We hope this library is closely perused by those searching for real solutions to many of the world’s seemingly most intractable problems.

We salute the Sesame Street Muppets and their partners, the International Rescue Committee’s Syrian Refugee program, and wish them success in fulfilling their appointed mission. Y’all are doing Jim Henson proud. The plan is to launch a new, regional version of Sesame Street that will be available to Syrian refugees and local kids across Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. It will be distributed over traditional television channels, the internet and mobile phones. It will also serve as an educational curriculum for childcare centers, health clinics and outreach workers visiting the shelters where refugees live. The workers will deliver books to kids and caregivers.

Our proposal for a Cool Lab is still floating in the contemplation-sphere. If you know someone with $100 million, we can still do this.


Note to our regular readers: we have been receiving many requests for recommendations of worthy projects, particularly involving biochar and climate change, that would be good to support this holiday giving season. We recommend three: Global Village Institute, International Biochar Initiative, and the #LetsRestore Campaign.




The Great Change is published whenever the spirit moves me. Writings on this site are purely the opinion of Albert Bates and are subject to a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike 3.0 "unported" copyright. People are free to share (i.e, to copy, distribute and transmit this work) and to build upon and adapt this work – under the following conditions of attribution, n on-commercial use, and share alike: Attribution (BY): You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). Non-Commercial (NC): You may not use this work for commercial purposes. Share Alike (SA): If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one. Nothing in this license is intended to reduce, limit, or restrict any rights arising from fair use or other limitations on the exclusive rights of the copyright owner under copyright law or other applicable laws. Therefore, the content of
this publication may be quoted or cited as per fair use rights. Any of the conditions of this license can be waived if you get permission from the copyright holder (i.e., the Author). Where the work or any of its elements is in the public domain under applicable law, that status is in no way affected by the license. For the complete Creative Commons legal code affecting this publication, see here. Writings on this site do not constitute legal or financial advice, and do not reflect the views of any other firm, employer, or organization. Information on this site is not classified and is not otherwise subject to confidentiality or non-disclosure.