Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Wake

It has been less than a week since Donald Trump became president elect. The country is still deeply divided and along the west coast and several "liberal" areas, protests are being held. The internet is on fire with both supporters and detractors alike. But it is the supporters that I am intrigued by. Some expect to be excused for voting for Trump claiming it was some sort of protest vote against business as usual political parties full of career politicians.

Another common thread from what I've read is based on a backlash narrative. Claiming to be tired of being called racist or bigoted, working class white males voted for an outspoken and unafraid mans man. When the real truth is more like neither the republicans or the democrats managed to rally their base, and of the Americans who have actually registered to vote, a dismal 47% of them actually turned out.

Now I am basically a single issue voter. Progressive response to climate change is the single biggest issue we face. Sorry, but gender neutral bathrooms, gun control, tax revenue or employment, is not going to matter much if we fail to protect the natural systems that provide our food and drinking water. I can understand how a person well versed in the nuance of the business world with all of its complicated systems could be wholly ignorant of the equally if not more complex systems that make up our natural life support system.

There is only so much a single individual can really understand completely. In the sciences this is the specialization that makes so much of the most important research difficult for someone with out years of dedication to fully comprehend. Now, before I'm accused of being elitist, keep in mind that it is not isolated to sciences. Lawyers, mechanics, accountants, and many other professions seem to have a language all of their own.

Many Americans have found them selves in quite a bit of financial trouble after a tax audit, often times due to a mistake that could have been avoided if they consulted a professional. Not everyone knows how to tinker with the right parts or even where to look in the event of car trouble. The legal system is so complicated, we have mandated that anyone accused of a crime be provided with a lawyer. So when scientists who have been carefully collecting and analyzing data for decades of their lives deem it necessary to influence policy, giving equal voice to business interests, is akin to asking your doctor to replace the timing belt in your car, or having your mechanic attempt heart surgery.

We are at a critical junction collectively as a species, we have done amazing things throughout the world, mostly with the jump-start of fossil fuels. Now it is time to harness the core of the creativity that made that happen, and redirect it towards creating a sustainable future. Trump is 70 years old. He will not likely be around long enough to feel the most dramatic effects of the problems we face, but his influence at this pivotal time will be responsible for the severity and scope of them.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Last Frontier

On earth at least is the "New Arctic". It turns out, not only have oil companies been  publicly denying climate change, while they have been aware of it in their boardrooms, it looks like they have been planning on it. Shorter weaker ice building seasons, combined with warmer ocean temperatures maybe be bad news for life, but for oil exploitation its a boon.

Now, the economic forum in Davos is wrapping up, and among the topics being discussed by the worlds elite and the toothless political body they hoped to walk over, are the rules by which this prime slice of virgin territory to the north of everyone, is to be dressed up and whored out to the benefit of a fistful of multinational corporations. While the actual proven reserves haven't been determined, it is sure to be the largest massive discovery since the Persian Gulf.

I wonder if anyone there even considered the fact that this is the last hurrah for a resource that cannot be extracted at a sustainable rate. The implications that carries for much of our technology; especially in agriculture and medical science, that have become as petroleum dependent as they are important to our society, are disturbing. From drug synthesis in industrial chemistry, to the actual syringes used to administer said drug, almost everything is done with petroleum derived products. The chemical fertilizers, pesticides and the entire centralized distribution system that has replaced the family farm, are so completely integrated with plastics and petroleum products that the average person now consumes more petroleum per meal than the weight of the actual food.

Will we one day face a choice between rationing of petroleum resources? Undoubtedly. Will using a plastic bag today prevent someone from having kidney dialysis someday in the future? Quite possibly. Responsible consumption should be the first and most important consideration for this resources. I know this flies in the face of traditional petroleum distribution methods. Where the idea is to flood as much as the market will bear, and to make as much money as possible for the investors. By having rational conversations about priorities when it comes to how we invest our slice of this very valuable pie, we can maybe come up with a plan for allowing future generations access to some of this resource.

Lets not let this be an excuse for GM to put out a Cadillac version of the Humvee at 8900 lbs.GVW, because if we go down that route, we have truly become, the last, most selfish generation.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Not so subtle any longer.

With unprecedented flooding in Texas, tornado season starting up in the Midwest in places unaccustomed, and the west coast entering its fourth year of devastating drought, only those completely in denial or with financial interests see the system as it is as functional.

The time has come to reevaluate our priorities, in big meaningful ways. Our entire economy; since the industrial revolution made traditional slavery obsolete, is based on fossil fuels. As the name implies, there is no sustainable rate at which fossil fuels can be extracted from the ground. Furthermore, so much of our technological advancement is based on processes that require petroleum in one form or another, that we cannot afford to squander this precious resource any longer.

When I see a 7,000lb Cadillac Escalade driving down the street with one individual as the sole occupant, I don't see opulence or style, I see greed and insecurity. Greed that with reckless abandon steals from the future with out any concern because their insecurity commands their desire to be seen in a certain way. But surely this individual is nothing more than a product of their environment. So what is shaping our society in such a way that such unabashed waste is envied and eventually emulated?

Oil is profitable, less so now than when it was at its heyday, before the peak of American crude in the 70's. But because of nearly two and a half centuries of constant demand, the market has created some of the most powerful monsters humanity has ever generated, easily a threat to life equal with atomic weapons, yet different in that we are all complicit. Today there is no life on earth untouched, positively or negatively, by the consumption of fossil fuels. The changes in climate brought on by the increased concentration of byproducts resulting from petroleum, coal and "natural" gas extraction and use are being felt by every living thing on our planet.

Offshore drilling rig platforms can easily be made taller to accommodate rising seas, the loss of polar sea ice loss only means new areas for extraction, aquifer destruction leads to more land for hydraulic fracturing sites. This is a heartless monster well out of control of the people caught up in its mechanisms. It has protected its self from the human failings in its design and from regulation by its shear size and perceived importance. It is the great evil of our time.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Nobody reads this anyway...

Advice to the last generation.

It has become obvious that anyone of an age to witness the next thirty to fifty years will be the last generation of Americans to experience our society at its apex. Many of us have already been forced to watch as what a century ago would have been considered our birth right has been stripped from us, exchanged to the capitalists for medical care or even just liquidity in the face of other burdens.

Multi-generational farms, swallowed by big agricultural operations or parceled for development, fishing grounds depleted and boats lost to the shortfall, selfish bickering leading to spiteful fire sales, but mostly the greatest loss of bio-diversity in millions of years of earth’s history. We are being handed an unstable and untenable world. One where the obviously needed changes in human behavior are beyond the pale for the old guard and far too late once the new one takes over.

We get to bear witness to the multi-millions of tons of ice like methane hydrates, once safely sequestered on the sea floor, begin to sublime now that we have blown well past the 350ppm atmospheric carbon dioxide content deemed “safe” nearly a decade ago, triggering an all out run away climate disaster for humanity. There is no point to pointing fingers at the buffoons who have been in charge for the last forty years or so. I’ll bet not one of them even understand the problem, let alone has the character to own up to their role creating the situation we are facing.

So my advice is simply this, it is up to us. We the generation that faces the consequences can no longer sit idly by “waiting for our turn at the helm” while old white men dig our hole deeper and deeper. We have been backed into a corner with nothing left to lose. Our children have no future if we do not take a stand now. We must rise up and force change if there is to be any lasting security for us. Burning down your local gas station or wallmart, seems pointless in a few isolated cases, but once the "screwed generation" stands up as a whole and declares “Enough!” they will no longer be able to ignore us for the sake of convenience.

It is time we told them to take their unlivable ten dollar an hour jobs and shove them. It is time to shuck the system where an education has become prohibitively expensive. It is time to call out the black hearted thieves who will ransom your very health for a profit. It is time to pull our efforts from those who would strangle ingenuity because they can’t understand the importance. The system is only a monolith, incapable of change, as long as we acquiesce and take our doleful place in it. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Harnessing Ingenuity

The other day I was watching the Volvo Ocean Race series of videos posted on YouTube and the thought struck me, they are crossing oceans faster than modern cargo ships, without using any mechanical propulsion while on the race course. Granted they are doing it on stripped down 70' carbon fiber sleds. But still, averaging 15 knots and hitting peaks of 25+ knots is nothing to be scoffed at.

If I had billions at my disposal, I would offer a prize for the boat that could complete the fastest trans-pac or transatlantic carrying two or three containers under wind power. That would change the game in several ways.

First of all, shipping could transition from fossil fuel dependent monstrosities to independent or family owned boats of 300' to 400' competing for labor costs instead of fuel overhead. Fleet flexibility means cargo can be routed to many different ports of call instead of being centralized in "major ports" minimizing overland transport fuel consumption. Sailing is a skilled trade, and reliance on sailors once again ultimately could revive a once vibrant diverse economic market that today is in the choke hold of a handful of major players.

While the global economic system has to face up to its non-sustainable fuel addiction sooner or later, this might be a fun and productive way to help ensure methods for easing that transition are actually researched and developed when that time comes.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Tempest in a Teapot.

Imagine if you will that the world is a teapot. Everything outside the teapot is outer space and everything inside the teapot is the earth. The teapot its self is our atmosphere. Inside there is water and maybe a rock for us to stand on along with all the worlds plants and animals. A teapot hurtling through space would quickly freeze solid with out some sort of heat. The sun is like the burner under our teapot.

So like a burner under the teapot, all energy systems (geothermal and nuclear exempted) on earth originate from solar energy. Coal for example was sunlight that was used to grow plants and animals millions of years ago, hence the term "fossil fuel". Hydroelectric power also comes from sunlight that vaporizes water at low altitudes that then precipitates at high altitudes where we capture the energy difference as gravity pulls it to the lowest energy state possible.

Given the premise that almost all of our energy comes from the sun, what happens to it after it warms our teapot? Some of it is lost to space, there is a steady rate where heat and light energy bleeds off. This is more or less a fixed rate, though the greenhouse effect is slowing the rate, it is important that much of it is trapped or else our teapot would get very cold very fast. Imagine the whistling hole as this energy loss, (though only energy is lost not steam).

Now the real differences between the energy sources we consume is a factor of time. When we rely on solar energy directly for energy, like agricultural products or solar voltaic harvesting, the energy is near real time, meaning we are consuming solar energy that entered our teapot very recently. Wind power is also near real time, as air currents are a product of solar heated air. Hydroelectric takes slightly longer to convert the original solar energy into useful energy sources, but the range is probably between one and ten years.

Fossil fuels on the other hand take millions of years to form. So in essence we are taking million year old sunlight and adding its energy to our teapot right now. We are not bleeding off more heat, so this extra energy is lingering in the system unless we find a way to enlarge the whistle. This extra energy translates to amplified weather patterns and a generally warmer planet. The old notion that the earth was simply too large for us to effect it has been proven catastrophically naive in the face of the massive scale of human industry.

While this description is simplistic, it captures in essence the problem we face with climate change. It is impossible to add energy to a more or less closed system without consequences. We have added a tremendous amount of energy that for better or worse was removed from the system millions of years ago and stored as potential energy. Worse yet, other byproducts of the consumption of this energy is actually acting to trap more energy by changing the way the atmosphere behaves.

The arguments against acting to change energy consumption habits on a global scale all boil down to economics. I find these terribly short sighted, as the economic consequences of not acting are far worse. Threats to property alone, for example, the result of amplified weather patterns far exceed the cost of transitioning away from fossil fuels. We will face economic consequences one way or the other, the question is actually a dime now or a dollar later.

Monday, November 11, 2013

In the dark.

I am working on a change in writing style, moving towards accessibility and narrative. This is a little taste of my new project. As always comments and critique are welcome. 

In the still darkness that can only be found hundreds of miles from the nearest city light, a landscape softened by the season’s first snowfall slowly becomes visible as my eyes dark adapt from the bright spark of the cigarette lighter.  I sit in muffled silence, allowing the cold to nip at whatever exposed skin can be found under the layers of clothing that I hung from my tired frame for this midnight escape. The only light that can be found is either far off in the distance emanating from one of the far flung neighbors, or from the ceaseless blinking of the technology inescapable on our own farm.

I love this feeling, absolute quiet besides the dripping of melt water from the roof, absolute darkness or as close as it comes today. I sit and revel at the day’s work, reflect on the work of my life in general, and without any sense of urgency or dread ponder my future. In the stillness of this moment so enshrouded by complete darkness any effort would be fruitless; it is just to be enjoyed.

Then the shadow of a ghost flits past, I freeze unsure if my poor hearing actually made out footsteps muffled by the snow and by my own stocking cap. I make a mental note to check the snow in the morning and set back about my myriad of thoughts. Then as if from the barnyard cat across the valley I hear the slightest mewing. Thinking I might get a visit from this forlorn tom, chilled by the progression of the season, I sit motionless and quiet. The neighbor’s cats are not particular to people, they prefer to find their own sustenance most days, stalking the ever abundant rodents that plague both farmhouse and field.

Despite my muffled hearing, I detect a change in direction in the sound, now far too fast to be the result of even the most athletic feline. The mewing, its rhythm and note unchanged, adjusts in volume, quiet for a moment, then louder once again. I realize that the first glimmer that went by was a mother doe, and the mewing was her calf in tow, but several minutes behind. Both went by the tips of my boots no more than three feet in front of me, neither seemingly aware of my presence. 

I am reminded of the true nature of the world. In which predator and prey are truly one, secretly aware of their interdependence. I ponder my own place in such a world. Humans waste so much time convincing ourselves that we are different somehow, that we have risen above the base carnal instincts that allowed our ancestors to survive and flourish. But in truth, by negating our rightful place in nature, we are only negating ourselves.

Like the deer across the yard the thought crosses my mind “am I predator or prey?” From the standpoint of evolutionary biology, we are both. From the standpoint of society there are most certainly people who have chosen to allow their predatory instincts to manifest themselves, and those who have become victims of the predatory instincts of mankind.

The deer clearly know what side they are on, it is apparent in the haste of their steps and in the urgency of the calf’s muted call. And in the quiet dark I get a sudden quiver of fear. What if their urgency is warranted as one of the cougars that also inhabit these parts is tracking them to my porch in the complete stealth that can only come with a true predator’s instinct.

But this simplistic “mother nature red in tooth and claw” interpretation of the actions of people ignores the single adaption we have developed that truly does set us apart. Humans cooperate. All of the complexities of modern life are built entirely on cooperation. The advent of agriculture is a cooperative agreement between the farmer and those fed by his surplus. Without this simple agreement, we would still be scavenging the landscape as hunter-gatherer groups of limited number.

Today this agreement is silent, implied, taken for granted. The same abused agreement ripples throughout society. Money for instance, is only worth anything at all, because we all agree it is. The moment a dollar bill cannot be exchanged for a carrot or a slice of bread its entire value is lost.

Suddenly I envy the deer. Its existence is simple; don’t become food, find food, have offspring, help them until they can find food. While people find millions of ways to create self important tasks, the deer simply has four states. The deer even has it better than the cougar, despite winter scarcity, grass doesn't run and hide. The cougar patrols on a relentlessly empty stomach, constantly in search of its next meal.

Humans who have completely abandoned the agreement with the farmer, feel this emptiness. There is never “enough” because tomorrow when they wake up, they will be hungry again. We all wake up hungry, it is an inescapable fact of biology. Some chew their breakfast and wash it down with no more fulfillment that the sterile anthropogenic packaging it came in provides. They discard these remnants as easily as they discard the very agreement with the farmer that gave them the power to do so in the first place.

I would rather sate my morning hunger with the eggs our flock provides, with the vegetables brought down from the only true source of “more” the sun. And in turn I will step out into the morning light and feed the chickens and maybe sow a few more seeds. Every day is a new bargain with nature, a new agreement between the sun and what few organisms are kind enough to play by human rules and are willing to work with me.

To the human contemplating the tag-board box their preassembled “breakfast sandwich” came in, I can offer nothing to assuage the emptiness of that meal. I only ask that you not attempt to fill it with “more” if you assume that “more” can come from anthropogenic sources. No matter how much value is arbitrarily assigned to a suit of clothes or a new car, it will not cure the primal empty felt deep inside. Another million dollars profit today is worthless tomorrow if it doesn't come with a meal.