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. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

One last rant for the road.

To my ten or so faithful readers and to those who have randomly stumbled upon this page. I am going on a indeterminate, possibly permanent hiatus. If nothing else I owe each of you a genuine Thank You for your time considering my view points.

Maybe I have been reading too much Hunter S. Thompson lately, but I really want to get a few things off my chest.

Capitalism in its current incarnation, dependent on growth, secured by debt, and contingent entirely on disenfranchisement is not sustainable. American capitalism, its roots fed on slave labor, has become unrestrained by borders or even morals. The single-minded avarice that by law must be central to the function of any publicly held company, is incapable of thinking long term. This blind avarice will lead to over consumption of resources, and eventually, the tainting of the few left behind.

Will the ball keep rolling through my entire lifetime? That is the gamble everyone working today is taking. Will the american economic system still be functionally solvent when I need the benefit of the retirement I've earned? With the social contract attacked on all sides by people who are actually beneficiaries, it is hard to be optimistic.

If everyone was a millionaire, what would be the point of being a millionaire. The rich need the poor to be poor, and the poorer the poor are, the richer the rich become, because the economic leverage they wield grows directly in proportion. The rich need the poor in other ways as well, from the aggregate taxes that provide the roads and bridges, to the labor that directly led to their last meal.

Even these fundamentals don't properly frame the the problem. For many years now, a lot of the burden of the efforts of man has been eased by oil. In a similar way slavery provided effort for a callous chosen few, we shifted to consuming plants and animals that died millions of years ago. Since the dinosaurs are in no position to complain, we feel no guilt. But there is no free lunch, and as this finite resource dwindles, the systems built upon it will fail us.

I have written about the numerous reasons to embrace austerity in our fossil fuel consumption, from the medical technology to agricultural systems that are dependent, but I have shied away from the out right environmental arguments hoping to appeal to a middle ground. But as the first waves of climate refugees are already being forced from their homes in places like the south pacific islands and soon Bangladesh, I would be remiss to withhold my real predictions.

I foresee our already corrupt and ineffective government continuing with "Business as usual" for as long as they can. Putting out small fires and focusing the nations attention to what ever deck chairs they can find on this Titanic failure of regulation. This will basically condemn future generations to a very uncertain future of food insecurity and tainted water. The political power base from both major parties has no impetus to help with more than staving off the inevitable for only their lifetimes.

Basically, the oil men don't care about the future of our nation, only the profits possible in their lifetime. The history of oil exploitation (very well documented in "The Prize" by Danial Yergin) is ripe with examples of oil companies working against national interests. They have no loyalty to anything other than profit, and they have invested some of that profit in political campaigns to further their own ends not ours. The basic truth is, the average american has simply been priced out of representation in our government.

But the burden of blame does not solely rest on the extractive industries or even the puppets they have installed in the government, but also on the shoulders of the consumers. Some of the blame to consumers is attenuated by the propaganda generated by industry, an argument can also be made that the watering down of the education system prevents rational actors in the market due to asymmetric information bases.

It is just sad that human suffering on a massive scale must be the trigger before change can happen. The heartlessness of capitalism will ultimately be its own downfall. Once people get a real taste of what unrestrained avarice is capable of, even if our society has to collapse for it to be fully understood, it will undoubtedly change the course of history permanently. How can we trust someone over the age of fifty to know whats best for our country, they will undoubtedly be long since buried when the full scope of this impending crisis is known.

 "History repeats its self, but each time the price goes up." (I don't know who said this, but I heard it recently and it stuck with me). We have to remember that we only think we are more advanced than Romans, Greeks and Egyptians, but in truth, our physiology has changed very little. We are still barely more than monkeys with shoes. The same pit falls that bedeviled our ancestors are still with us today. As much as we would love to believe we have conquered nature, soon we will be reminded of our place. We are no more immune to societal collapse than any of the other failed societies throughout our history.

Today, we are poisoning our selves in a myriad of ways everyday in the name of progress. VOC's from the goods we buy, Fumes from the transportation we took to get them, contamination of the water in the name of crude inefficient fuel in the first place. Even the labels on our food reads more like a chemistry lab assignment than nourishment. We have even convinced most of the population to hold a point source of microwave radiation next to their head several times a day.

"If you are not pessimistic you probably don't understand the data" -Dr. Hanson. Yes understanding climate change is hard, there is so much information out there and much of it is either written entirely in geek or faulty propaganda. So accepting the status quo is the fall back for most Americans. In reality, they are tying their own noose. We have become accustom to blind faith for several societal reasons. Religion has played its part, but so has the dizzying rise of technology. Politics also has become so burdened with minutia that the ten second attention span cultivated by televised media makes deciphering it a struggle.

The environmental movement has lost. We were out spent and the diminishing returns from what few battles we won will never equal the sea change we need. Now it is too late, atmospheric carbon levels are well past the estimated "safe" level, and in the decades to come, we will bear witness to our mistakes. Wish as we might, we will probably never be able to uncontaminate our water, or continue to grow food with the "tried and true" methods that in reality are barely a generation old.

It is time to stop thinking that there is anyone but ourselves look out for us. The government is no longer available to protect the interests of its citizens (unless you can afford it, I know I can't). You have to ask your self, "Where does my water come from?" and "How is it protected?". Because you can bet the capitalists are not interested in your needs. Ask "How is my food sourced?" and "How sustainable is that system?" Because the capitalists have no problem with tainting your food in the name of profit. Self reliance is the only answer looking forward that I can give you.

Thank you all once again for reading my work. I know I can sometimes be a downer, but thanks for sticking with me. "So long and thanks for all the fish!"

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Hey Chevrolet!

I am not going to lie. I miss auto racing. When I was a kid, I knew the names of every driver who placed on the pole from the previous weeks Indy Car race. I could talk for hours about the chances of Formula One drivers and teams in the next season. I spent the first decades of my adult life fixing cars for customers and examining the engineering of automakers from the inside out. When in my early twenties I found motorcycles, my passion for faster and intelligently controlled machines seemed to apex.

It was soon after that I began to learn about the effects of human technology on the environment. My enthusiasm struggled under my concern, and prudence won out. But today I became truly excited about something, like a deep longing being stirred. The idea that electric car technology has come far enough that competitive exciting racing is feasible, is one thing. That it exists, is another.

Right now, privateers and unofficially sponsored teams dominate the landscape. I think that will change soon. The EV market is growing, and visibility is increasing daily in many major markets. Front runners like Tesla are making obvious moves to lead the pack when EV racing hits prime time. The marketing opportunities of a sanctioned and televised circuit of EV races would provide manufacturers access to new markets as the "tree hugger" stigma is rapidly supplanted by simple thrift in the face of rising gas prices.

A small step GM could take to ensure market share, would be to discount the equipment related to the Volt that would be applicable to a "formula" type racing circuit. Small open wheel light body racing, might also bring about valuable R&D as individual competition leads to innovation. The EV could bring back a kind of Hot Rod renaissance, with guy talk of power controllers and miles per charge.

Toyota is working in the opposite direction, shoring up access to their technology by limiting who is trained to work on their Hybrid/EV fleet. I have not looked into Nissan yet, but they have a racing tradition that cannot be overlooked. I would not be surprised to find either of these companies with well developed EV racing programs somewhere behind the scenes.

In my imagination, I see pit stops where rapid battery changes compete with tires for the spectator's attention. Pit crew leaders fighting with designers on the radio over how high they can turn the juice and still make the finish line. Most importantly I still see the excitement of a talented driver pushing his machine to the limit of consequences.

Friday, August 30, 2013

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats, pt.2 In-building Resilience

One of the benefits of embracing ecological realities in business, are the opportunities presented by the new perspectives required. One such example is anaerobic digestion as a power generation strategy. I have toured two different facilities, with two different approaches, and utilize different waste streams. Capitalizing on waste is not a new concept, heap leach mining for example is used to reprocess discarded tailings in order to extract more gold ore.

Unlike extractive efforts, the processes involved with anaerobic digestion solves more problems than it creates. AD focuses on either food and other organic wastes (Dry) or house hold waste water (Wet). The Dry AD facility was located on a household waste management transfer site, where it generated ten percent of the facilities total power consumption needs while diverting less then 1% of available appropriate waste. (lots of room for expansion). The wet system I toured was located at a waste water treatment center, and wasn't generating at the time, but once repaired, could significantly reduce the facilities total power consumption.

Using a process not dissimilar to traditional organic composting, Dry AD harvests the gases produced through normal decomposition. Some technological solutions are used to create an air tight vessel and to distribute dairy farm waste over the top of the heap to facilitate more complete bacterial saturation. But for the most part, mother nature has already done billions of years worth of research and development to optimize the system. Best of all, after processing the spent raw stock is often safe enough to reintroduce to the agricultural industry as a soil amendment.

Wet AD systems require integration with municipal waste treatment systems, and as such might be better handled by local governments. But the concept is simple, basically cap a cistern with a floating lid, and harvest the gasses as the water is allowed to settle. While designing entire systems to optimize integration would produce the highest returns, the argument that undertakings of this kind would reduce the amount of other much more potent green house gasses that would ordinarily be vented by open topped settling ponds might make energy generation a happy byproduct of environmental protection.

From a larger perspective, AD (wet or dry) as a lot of potential in the future of the green grid. The raw material is produced in houses, commercial kitchens and grocery stores by the ton every day. This raw stock is currently incurring a second big slice on an industrial nations carbon budget as major cities consume tens of thousands of barrels of oil every day shipping household waste away from city centers. Much of the weight they are moving is ideal for Dry AD and with only a slight change in habit for the "producers" could be diverted using existing infrastructure.

Solar power's daily cycle of production and wind power's occasional unpredictability are ideally matched to the low but constant output available through AD. AD bio-gas could also compete directly for market with CNG the compressed natural gas produced through hydro-fracturing or fracking. Other benefits would include the local jobs that would be created, as bio-gas or co-gen plants pop up in neighborhoods. These system are easily replicated and can be scaled to meet the needs of growing or mature communities alike.

It is hard not to see a win here.,

Sunday, August 18, 2013

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats: pt1 "No Man is an Island".

The messaging streaming from the political right centers on the concept of the self made man. That in isolation some people have intrinsic capabilities that have allowed them to become the most financially successful in our society. This narrative implies that modern captains of industry would have inevitably achieved greatness regardless of what country they were born in or what advantages they garner through birthright. This also implies that those less advantaged in the world lack some innate drive or capability.

I like paying taxes. I like paying taxes because I like having roads and bridges, civil services and the myriad of other benefits that can only come from collective action. These very same accomplishments of previous generations, are often discounted in the conservative philosophy, yet without these shared resources the success of the wealthy would have been impossible.

To prove this point I ask, "why are there no Fortune 500 companies founded and based in central Africa?" There is no significant biological or cognitive differences between people in the developing world and industrialized nations. Entrepreneurial spirit, artistic ability, effort and drive are all equally distributed through-out humanity. So it must be a lack of resources and opportunity that accounts for the vastly different outcomes between those born in industrialized nations and the developing world.

So if life outcomes are determined more by having access to publicly funded systems and infrastructure, then a gaping hole is exposed in the very foundation of the "self made man" argument. This even has a parallel in American society. Access to higher education and other necessary ingredients for success are not evenly distributed domestically. While it is possible for anyone with the GPA and the drive to get an ivy league education, other social factors like showing up to elementary school with a empty stomach has proven to be the barrier for the less advantaged early on.

It is no secret that our collective social systems work better for some than others. Often trends upward or downward for a community are self perpetuating. Less education leads to less opportunities and people have to resort to activities that are again detrimental to the community as a whole. Today, a child born into a poverty level household is much more likely wind up incarcerated than attend college.

I contend that by focusing on increasing educational opportunities universally, the social benefits will be felt by all. For one thing, education leads to community investment on the part of the individual. If someone has developed a skill set that they can capitalize on, they are much less likely to engage in illegal activities (the financial sector excluded) to make ends meet. Reduced crime rates benefit us all, not only because we are less likely to be a victim of crime, but because less of our tax dollars have to be spent on the justice system.

This pattern is clearly defined by: housing prices, incarceration rates, health outcomes, and access to healthy foods. The deeply flawed philosophy at the core of conservative thinking often fails to account for this phenomena to the point where it must be either cognitive dissonance or sociopathy. My personal view is toward the later as the tendency to blame the victim of unequal opportunity distribution is often present in conservative argumentation.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Eastern Islanders of Today

I recently re-read Jared Diamond's Collapse, and a passage towards the end struck me. "[T]he apparently simple question that most puzzled my students was one whose actual complexity hadn't sunk into me before: how on earth could a society make such obviously disastrous decision as to cut down all the trees on which it depended?" Jared Diamond 'Collapse' pg. 419

At first I thought it would be similar to the modern attitude of "well if I don't buy it, someone else will" only adapted to cutting down trees. But this steeply discounts the influence of the isolated society over individual decision making. I am sure it was much more along the lines of, "we have been doing things this way for many generations and it must be the only way to appease the gods".

This last modality of thinking also has a strong parallel in modern day decision making. The often touted "economic consequences" of changing from a carbon based to a post-carbon economy are as hyperbolic as they are inconsequential compared to the potential economic costs of inaction. Yet like the Eastern Islanders we ignore the clearly defined trend towards collapse. We are simultaneously, exceeding and shrinking the carrying capacity of the ecosystem we depend on for food and water.

There is a limit to the carrying capacity (the ultimate number of organisms that can be supported sustainability in an ecosystem) of the Earth. Food might not be a problem for most Americans (yet), but water is starting to grow traction as an issue. Desalination and other treatment systems will never be capable of providing the volume of clean water that we are currently provided by natural processes. As the Earth warms, this problem will be accentuated and compounded, as the interdependent systems that formed the aquifers we rely on will be effected.

If we as a species cannot learn to live within the carrying capacity of our ecosystem, and end activities that threaten our life support system, we will surely pay a much higher price than the short term economic disruptions that accompany change. Dime now or dollar later, we will end up paying for the mistakes of generations past. Like any failure the sooner it is addressed the less expensive it is likely to be.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Personal Responsibility

I was talking yesterday to a friend about the challenges facing our society in transitioning from a fossil fuel economy to a post carbon economy, and something they said struck me. They intimated that there was very little they could do and the contribution of an individual is so small as to not make much difference either way. There is a very fundamental flaw with this line of reasoning, and it steeply discounts intrinsic human characteristics. 

Nobody buys a Cadillac Esclade because it is a practical vehicle that meets the needs of the family. It is a status symbol. Unless you and four other members of your immediate family are morbidly obese, and have to commute together on a daily basis, you are kidding your self. I get the guy who drives a beat up pick-up truck to the job site everyday, he might have to haul a ladder or plywood on a weekly basis. But when I see a lifted V8 truck with chrome in the suspension and off road tires that have never seen a mud puddle, there is no justification for that decision besides ego.

There are social norms that become self perpetuating in a society. Often being influenced by marketing and other indirect corporate interests. Often some myth is associated with them like the myth that a larger car is somehow safer. (Anyone with an understanding of physics can explain how a 2500lb car is much safer than a 7500lb SUV). Furthermore, despite fossil fuel industry efforts at discrediting, more and more Americans are becoming aware of climate change and the contributions of the individual.

Buying a status symbol car that is inefficient not only inflates the individual's carbon footprint, but also contributes to the social norm that such a choice is still acceptable. For every single person that buys a gas guzzler this year, they are partly responsible for every gas guzzler bought in their neighborhood next year by sanctioning the social norm. People are social creatures and subject to non-rational drives to conform. If the community they belong to (or strive to belong) sanctions wanton consumption intrinsically, if not explicitly, then they will harbor a strong desire to consume at a level considered normal. 

In short, no man is an island. The decisions you make, especially for something as visible as your choice of transportation, has direct effects on the community around you. If you choose the path of wanton consumption over careful consumption of non-renewable resources, not only are you responsible for your own contributions to the global carbon budget, but also for influencing trends in your community. We can no longer afford to cling to the childish fantasy of insulation from our subtle; yet striking in aggregate, influence of our community and environment.

The "if I don't buy it someone else will" justification is a form of cognitive dissonance that is dangerous as a long term trend. If grossly wasteful products sit on the shelves un-purchased, the result will be a clear market trend that the manufacture has to listen to. This is a bottom up change that we collectively have complete control over. Careful resource consumption as a criteria for purchasing decisions is no longer the luxury of elite "environmentalists" but essential for all consumers if we are going to transition our economy to one with longer term goals. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Return on Investment pt.2

The invention of agricultural equipment powered by internal combustion engines sparked the Green Revolution and changed America's and the worlds relationship to food in a permanent way. Jared Diamond makes a powerful case for the invention of agriculture as the necessary element for a society to exist at all, in his book "Guns, Germs and Steel". It is time for another powerful force of change to come from agricultural systems.

Currently the American automotive market is starting the transition over to hybrid and full electric vehicles. Every year a larger and larger percentage of the market is being embraced by consumers who no longer want the ever climbing price of fossil fuels to dominate their lives. The price of fuel will likely never drop below its current elevated threshold. If the automotive industry can do it, why can't the producers of agricultural equipment?

The greener John Deere might be just around the corner. In markets like the wheat fields of Washington State, where plentiful and cheep renewable energy infrastructure already exists, there is a ripe market waiting to be realized. When a farmer is looking to phase out older equipment, it shouldn't be hard to make a strong case for electrification. The money saved on maintenance and fuel costs alone could potentially make an even more expensive machinery investment pay dividends in short order.

In places where access to existing power infrastructure is less available, a more costly investment in solar collection arrays would be ideal for the longer term thinking agricultural market, when the concept of free fuel from the sun is disseminated. Starting with small solar powered pumping stations for irrigation, the growth potential for this market is immense, once the systems have become familiar.

From the produce consumers standpoint, limiting petroleum inputs into for their broccoli might start out as a boutique market, eventually the reduced cost by limiting this expense will make sense for a much broader consumer base. The appeal to environmentally conscious consumers however should not be understated. This is not only a remarkable business opportunity, but someday, it may make your salad just a little bit greener.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Return on investment.

In my post carbon series I examined some of the non-environmental reasons to adopt technologies that limit fossil fuel consumption. Now I want to talk about some more practical reasons. Like simple efficiency. Lets start with the internal combustion engine (ICE). Like the one in the average car. The automotive industry has made significant additions that have dramatically improved the ICE, but the basic concept has not really changed much since the first design.

ICE motors now have fuel injection with computer controls but still relies on pistons and valves very similar to the very first designs. Surprisingly most of the fuel consumed by an ICE is spent just maintaining the reciprocal motion internally. Less than 20% of the energy stored in the fuel is actually converted to movement of the entire vehicle. That means every time you fuel up your car, more than 80% of that investment is wasted on just keeping the engine running.

The physics involved with the way the engine works makes this a hard limit that cannot be overcome with any amount of innovation without completely scrapping the design altogether and starting from scratch. A car also consumes petroleum through is maintenance systems, like engine and transmission oils. These other essential lubricants do not contribute to the actual transportation either. There is also the petroleum resources needed to manufacture the vehicle in the first place. The point is, most of the petroleum consumed by an ICE does little to actually contribute to the purpose of the mechanism.

From a return on investment viewpoint, the total volume of petroleum consumed for a 2 or less year old car is extremely poor per mile. Petroleum is an inherently limited resource as well. The time frame required for natural processes to form petroleum ensures that a sustainable rate of extraction is entirely unfeasible. This means that today the price of petroleum will never drop to the price it was ten years ago, and in ten years it will never drop to today's price.

Transitioning away from fossil fuel transportation by supporting EV plug in stations and public transportation is a clearly stronger investment strategy. Petroleum industry could play an important (and profitable) role in this transition by installing charging stations at their existing sites. Adding a charging station to even a small percentage of the gas stations they currently maintain, could become an important source of revenue in the future for an industry that needs to recognize its limited growth potential.

Charging currently takes time, a waiting lounge with services represents massive opportunity for consumer interaction. I imagine charging station waiting lounge with retail options, wifi, and a host of other "truck stop" style services like showers or dining. Instead of waiting for the supply chain to collapse, smart petroleum industry leaders would begin to anticipate this market that can only grow in the coming decades.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Post carbon Economy pt.3

The Path forward.

Even if you are not an environmentalist, there are still plenty of reasons for austerity of petroleum consumption. None the least of which is the dependency our society has on this precious and limited resource. In simple terms, we cannot continue to blow our entire paycheck on payday. We have to start budgeting if we are going to be successful in the future.

The key to bringing intelligent consumption to the table on a national level will be a combination of campaign finance reform and personal accountability. Across the nation, people have already taken steps toward the second one. Higher efficacy systems are being employed to replace ageing ones everywhere. That is an important first step. Some are even starting to make the kind of personal sacrifices that are really needed.

The first one is starting to gain traction as well. Organizations like; RepresentUs, Public Citizen, and several more are working to tackle the problem head on with public campaigns designed to show who our elected leaders are really working for. This is the main cause that should unite the many disparate struggling for change in the political system.

Civil rights, environmentalism, social justice, and many other causes can only stand to gain from supporting the movement that would transition our political system away from representation for the highest bidder, back to representation for all constituents. I am entirely convinced that it is time to drop our many flags and unite under one banner to restore our democracy to the people. If we win this one, it will only be because we have fought together without letting our individual interests divide us.

Once this first step is completed, all of our causes will benefit provided they have enough popular support. It is imperative that the representative democratic ideals of the founding fathers are heeded once again. As long as we can be kept divided into smaller controllable factions, the seemingly monolithic corporate entities that currently sway the majority opinions of our politicians will stand firm on their deeply flawed convictions.

Anyone who desires meaningful change at a governmental level, regardless of the specific motivation, would be well served to get behind the movement to limit the influence of money over politics. As always, I encourage comments and criticisms and will not edit or omit anything.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Post Carbon Economy pt.2

The role of the petroleum industry.

As I have pointed out petroleum products have permeated our lives. They are essential for; almost all modern medical procedures, the harvesting, transportation and packaging of many agricultural products, the manufacturing processes for goods that keep our very society running. I know for a fact that anyone reading this (because it is only published on the internet and thus requires a computer) owes a debt of thanks to the petroleum industry for the computer and probably many other products in their lives.

Petroleum from refined crude oil or otherwise extracted from the ground, is sequestered carbon that is the result of more than 50 million years worth of biological and geological activity. If a process takes that kind of time to form, how do you harvest it in a sustainable way? The truth is you can't. So It is time for humanity to start prioritizing how we consume this incredibly valuable resource. Is it more important for you to drive five blocks to the store today or for a child to have access to the materials necessary for kidney dialysis in a hundred years?

The petroleum industry is not going to embrace the kind of austerity of consumption necessary to ensure this resource is managed intelligently. Asking an industry that is used to immense profits to self regulate for the betterment of long term goals is like asking a junkie in the throws of a binge to refrain from their drug of choice. We also cannot depend on the government to hand down regulation that will curtail excess consumption because of the mess that lobbying and the campaign finance economy has made of our democratic process.

From the standpoint of a petroleum producer, the faster the last barrel of oil is extracted the better, because that last barrel will be worth a fortune. They are not planning ways to make this resource last for the next ten generations. Maybe they assume some technocratic solution will alleviate the suffering of future generations when the systems that many depend on for their very lives can no longer be sustained. Like a run away freight train, even if people inside of these corporations want to change the rate at which oil is extracted, they are powerless to do so because of laws protecting shareholders.

So it is up to consumers. We must become aware of how and why we consume petroleum products and strive to limit our consumption. There is no one looking out for our best interests. Governmental entities have to weigh out many competing interests, economic, social, and environmental. In many cases the compromises they are forced to make, render inadequate results. Many small changes in peoples lives in aggregate could substantially prolong access to petroleum products for future generations.

Changes like ditching plastic bags and avoiding over packaged products. Changing commuting habits to include alternative forms of transportation. Reducing energy consumption both at home and at work. Simply being aware of personal consumption and placing efficiency higher on the criteria used when making new purchases can have a dramatic influence. One step further would be to eliminate unnecessary travel and purchases all together. Ask if a four day work week of ten hours shifts is possible, eliminating fifty or more round trip commutes a year. There are many different ways to take responsibility for personal petroleum consumption. It is not in the hands of the producer or the government, it truly is in the hands of the people.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Post-Carbon Economy pt.1

How does one explain climate change or the ecosystem services it threatens to the average person, or more importantly to political heavy hitters?

It has taken thousands of scientists dedicating decades of their lives to fully understand their respective fields. The IPCC only really looked at a small sliver of the available evidence forecasting problems for future generations. Furthermore, the time lag between cause and effect makes it impossible for those responsible for the damage to be held accountable.

It sounds like hyperbole to the layman. Sea level rise, crop failure, exacerbated weather events, droughts, ocean acidification and other potential risks don’t mean much to someone who lives in a climate controlled world never setting foot off a paved surface. Yet the most isolated in our society from nature seem to be the ones who carry the most clout.

Another problem with a generally scientifically illiterate body politic is they are subject to clouded judgment. To the layman it is hard to tell the difference between fossil fuel industry propaganda and journalism based on genuine peer reviewed science. How do you convince someone with a financial interest in the status quo that they must change to protect generations they will never live to meet.

The concept of the natural world as “immutable” or protected by a creator has been thoroughly discredited, yet it still persists. There is evidence of anthropogenic effects to ecosystems on every continent. It seems to be widely assumed that we will still reap the benefits these ecosystems provide us; like fresh water and air, regardless of our stewardship.

Yet the ecosystem that provides the majority of our oxygen is directly threatened by carbon emissions. Ocean acidification the result of rapidly increased carbon dioxide leads to fishery collapse and other problems as well. But again it is not the current cohort’s problem. They just have to live out their lives before the lag catches up and effects the lives of their grandchildren. 

The private sector has a pathetic record of environmental stewardship. The extractive industry, including coal, petroleum and natural gas, have left a trail of Superfund sites in their wake for centuries while going through great lengths to avoid being financially responsible. The private sector also lacks the attention span to see the economic benefits of transitioning away from fossil fuels or embrace austerity until we know for sure what the consequences are likely to be.

The self preservation instinct that keeps a person from lighting their house on fire or driving off a cliff is the same drive that the majority in the scientific community feel when they urge change to protect our natural resources. Economic arguments against change in this light seem like nothing more than base avarice and greed. From that starting point, where does one find common ground to build upon?

There is no argument against the concept that no one on earth would survive a day without the air or food that is provided to us through complex interactions of hundreds, if not thousands, of organisms. Yet those who have the most political clout today are completely disinterested in proper stewardship of these resources. Just one meal probably includes the efforts of hundreds of different species.

If someone were to say to you that their greatest fear in life is heights, how do you convince them that sky diving will change their life for the better. Confronting ones fears is one of the hardest parts of life. The only thing preventing our society from transitioning away from fossil fuels is fear. It is fear on the part of those invested in the oil industry of losing profits. That fear has permeated through our society via propaganda and political influence. That fear of loss has over ridden logic en mass.

For too long we have allowed that fear to control our political system. We fear terrorists from countries that didn’t even exist until after world war two and were created at the behest of oil interests in the first place. Oil is a central power in the cycle of political and social discourse. The only way to break this hegemony of control is to transition away from fossil fuels.

There is a logical reason for entrenched industry interests to fear transition to a post carbon economy, supply and demand. Solar, wind and hydro-electric are nearly infinite sources of power. All are driven by the sun, so as long as the sun burns in the sky, these power sources will continue to produce. Oil on the other hand is sun light that was sequestered long ago, between 400 and 60 million years ago. The rate at which we are extracting and consuming this resource is faster than the rate of replenishment by more than factors of hundreds.

In laymen’s terms it is the limited nature of oil that makes it valuable. The oil industry wants nothing more than to see the last barrel of oil come out of the ground because that last barrel will be worth a fortune. Furthermore it is prohibitively expensive to extract and refine, so home grown solutions or democratization is intrinsically prevented. Solar for example, once installed will continue to produce energy for more than a lifetime. How do you continue to exploit consumers if they already bought the product and it will last for the foreseeable future?

Designed obsolesce is the automakers answer to fossil fuels. Most modern cars are not built to last. They looked at the business model of petroleum extraction and figured a way to match it. But designed obsolesce might actually play into the transition. Hybrid cars are already makeup a significant percentage of market share. The next step is full electric transportation. As oil companies slit their own throats by hiking prices at the pump, the price per kilowatt hour continues to drop for renewable energy sources.

Consumer markets will become more comfortable with electric models through the transition of hybrids and plug-in hybrids. Soon enough the specter of fossil fuels will be relegated to a small backup generator in the car for when the battery is completely dead. This trend can be clearly seen in the market of today, further evidenced by state governments considering or passing extra taxes on HEVs to compensate for the loss in petroleum taxes at the pump.

The enemy or the choice.

Now if so far you agree with me, this is probably going to be the point where I piss you off. We absolutely fucking need petroleum and the extraction industry if we are going to survive the next few decades.

Part of the problem with the current mode of thinking on the other side of the fence is demonization of what is essentially an animal. Being the “Owner” of a company that has more than fifty employees is more like having a work animal than being some omnipotent evil. The more people that are involved in an organization, the more human error accrues. “All things created by man are subject to man’s own short comings”.

When managing the efforts of a dozen people, those efforts carry momentum, and that momentum can drive a company up or into bankruptcy. Sometimes something works, and it works so well that it becomes the dominate force (economically and in intellectual capital) in many people’s lives. The intersection of many large economies stabilize America, most of which were formed via these processes, are the very bed rock of the current standard of living for most Americans.

Today, the vast majority of Americans rely directly on fossil fuels for their food, and some even rely on it for their municipal water supply. We cannot completely blame and ostracize a fucking huge segment of the American economy. The efforts of a great many people for generations have gone into building our world to what it is today. We zip around the planet at hundreds of miles per hour. We take trips that a hundred years ago would have meant weeks at sail in less than twenty four hours on a plane.

Petroleum products are ubiquitous in daily life. I have never gone anywhere or lived in anything in my entire life without some petroleum product playing an important role in it. I doubt many other people can say any different.

It is time to start making intelligent choices in how we consume this important resource, because we will continue to consume it until better options are available. The transition over to less petroleum consumptive renewable energy as well as the absolutely necessary medical/chemical, food packaging and processing, existing infrastructure support, and the all important conventional agriculture petroleum consumption.

By controlling what is subsidized by the federal government within a private company that has become “Too big to fail”, targeting safer options to protect our nations security is easier. In the next few posts, I will make an argument for giving the government more control over how it subsidizes the petroleum. I want to strongly encourage comments on this, from all sides. My goal is genuine pragmatism. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Mother Frackers

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing is a big issue in California. Outside of California, people across the country rely in vegetables that compete directly for water resources with the extraction industry. Many in the political spectrum see it as the path away from middle eastern oil and the issues associated. But politicians are being offered a false choice. We do not need to continue exploiting this resource. We need to transition our economy away from fossil fuels entirely.

Once an aquifer is tainted it may never be a viable source for drinking or agricultural water ever again. The historical attitude of extractive industry towards environmental stewardship does nothing to inspire confidence that this vital resource will be properly protected. Considering the failure rate of well casings it is a very real possibility that "America's salad bowl" will end up as another Superfund site.

Generational shift plays an important part of the equation. I can understand the perspective of someone over fifty not being able to wrap their head around a post carbon economy. History is bursting at the seams with similar stories of resistance to change; denial of the heliocentric solar system, or the resistance to accepting evolution, but there is a difference between not accepting science for social reasons and the situation we are in now.

It is a dangerous combination of willful ignorance with industry propaganda that is currently preventing the changes necessary to transition our nation away from fossil fuels and a sustainable economic model. Fossil fuel consumption has created a sharply stratified society with many of the symbols of wealth inextricably tied to it. From private jets to fresh vegetables in the desert, the carbon economy has permeated all walks of life like a disease. Industry propagandists would have you believe the cure will kill the patient.

The resistance to accepting theory in science has acted to slow the march of progress. Here in America, the insistence of the religious right has regressed our public education standards back to the 1800's. While problematic, those who sought higher education could still work to rise above. Sadly, climate change does not parallel this pattern. There is no safe haven to strive for to attenuate the inevitable consequences.

As much as we would like to believe we are the masters of nature, anyone who has lived through severe weather or survived a natural disaster can tell you otherwise. Fossil fuels have profoundly influenced the zeitgeist. We can travel for our entire lives without ever stepping off a paved path or being more than five minutes away from a climate controlled bubble. In reality, we are much more dependent on the ecosystems we are destroying by consuming resources wantonly.

We cannot afford to wait for generational shift to allow us to make the changes. The economic arguments against transition steeply discount the reclamation efforts we face. There is no aspect of life that will not be changed dramatically, we can either get in front of it and make smart decisions now, or let entrenched interests and antiquated paradigm force much harder choices later. Waiting for previous generations who lack the impetus without "skin in the game" to bring about meaningful change is insufficient.

Maintaining the momentum of the status quo will only drive us father past the tipping point towards environmental collapse after they are gone.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013


I am starting to dislike the term potential. When ever I hear someone refer to my "potential" as some sort of tangible future that I've purposefully waylaid, it makes me cringe. Like the economic system we have is some great Ponzi scheme, and my potential is to join the next tier being created at the bottom so lift those who already have time invested.

In a nut shell, "live up to your potential" sounds to me like "willingly disenfranchise yourself to support our corrupt system". I have found my self questioning many of the bed rock assumptions of modern society. Assumptions like the necessity of a phone, or the consumption of goods besides food and water, and the stressful pace of life in the modern age.

I can remember a time when one household would share a phone. Maybe it had an answering machine. Before my time, a letter could take weeks or months to travel from the writer to the recipient, yet progress marched on just fine to introduce humanity to the industrial age. I challenge the assumption that we are more productive in the era of instant communication. I feel as though we talk more than we accomplish tasks. Having instant communication lends its self to a lack of accountability because we can always pass the buck off on some distant consultant, instead of facing the consequences of our errors when we failed to figure something out for our selves.

Recently someone said to me "I knew we were screwed as nation when they started referring to us as consumers instead of as citizens". In political terms, the most powerful demographic the vast majority of us fit into is the 'consumer base'. Yet we cheat on boycotts, or consume regardless of the environmental costs, in essence we condone vile business practices every day by consuming needlessly. Other than food and water, all other "needs" are manufactured artificially by social norms or homogenized influence from media. There is not a single person who will actually die from not having a new TV, laptop computer, phone, car, etc. But there are creatures that will have to die in order for these products to be manufactured.

All this manufactured need and the debt encumbered slavery that is intrinsically tied to it has another effect. Stress kills. When you are stressed out at work, you body doesn't not know that the stress you are experiencing is different from the stress of being chased by a tiger through the woods. Your boss may be dangling your next raise on the completion of a paperwork cycle, but the chemicals that are flooding your blood stream are geared not for grinding hours at a desk, but to help you run faster and fight harder. Without actually getting out and making use of these chemicals, they just linger causing damage to your heart muscles and other systems.

Your standard of living will increase with your budget. The mirage of "enough" is only realized by a select few, and even they rarely see it and will continue racing break neck for their grave seeking more. We are much better off learning to be happy with what we have. Limiting personal consumption has a great many benefits. Maybe my potential is to live a streamlined life, free of the stresses of ownership and responsibility for the environmental costs tied to my consumption.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

What is really at stake.

When it comes to generating the political will to convert our economy from one dependent on limited fossil fuels over to a post carbon sustainable energy source, there seems to be a severe lack of backbone in Washington DC. Detractors cite the possible economic damage that might be done by taxing carbon and other efforts to reduce fossil fuel dependency.

But who would actually face the brunt of that economic damage? "Everybody" is the commonly held belief. Fossil fuel dependent agriculture will drive food prices sky high. Fossil fuel dependent consumer lifestyles will curtail growth in almost all sectors of the economy. This answer overlooks the fact that fossil fuel scarcity is a universal problem we will have to face eventually no matter what. Right now, while this resource exists, instead of squandering it for immediate profit, we could use it to convert as many systems as possible over to a sustainable model.

The truth is, in the current paradigm those who have the most to lose from eliminating the fossil fuel subsidy and encouraging the nation to reduce consumption are the moguls currently at the top of the energy sector. It is antithetical to the purpose of private sector companies to self regulate profits in order to encourage a healthy future for subsequent generations.

Right now, those capable of generating the strongest political will via campaign finance, are acting against long term national security. Traitors with convictions to act not in the interest of the American people, but solely for the short term profit of one corporation or another have taken control of the political system.

There is a clear first step towards removing this undue influence in government. Campaign finance reform will act as a separation of business and state. The coup that has stolen the voice of the average american and replaced it with a narrow folio of talking points quietly approved in backroom deals with financially interested parties must be stopped. If we as a nation are to once again have equal rights and equal representation, the for sale to the highest bidder style of political influence peddling has to be treated as though a cancer has spread and no malignant cell can be left to fester in the political body.

This is not to say that business interests do not deserve a voice in the political spectrum, just that they don't deserve to be the loudest and strongest voice. Politicians need to be free to weigh environmental and long term national security costs equally with the interests of business. It is in our best interest to have a strong economy after all, but not at the expense of everything else.

The future will be fraught with hard decisions as the effects of climate change gradually ramp up pressures. Even business will undoubtedly face hardships as infrastructure investments are threatened and livelihoods are swallowed up as familiar natural patterns are pushed to extremes. Business lacks the knowledge or even the self discipline to act in its own interest when it comes to massive scale changes that are going to be needed one way or another.

If we act soon and put profit motive behind us for awhile until we have secured a sustainable future for our nation, the cost associated (both in financial terms and human life) will with out a doubt be much less than if we wait until we are forced to face reality. The fantasy of an immutable earth capable of absorbing the damage done with out consequence to the human race cannot be the underpinning of the political narrative any longer. We need leadership grounded in reality and not self delusion cultured to excuse treason.

As always I encourage comment and critique, and will not edit or omit any posting.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Earth's Life Support System

If you have the unfortunate experience of being put on life support in a hospital, the price you (or your insurance company) pays is over a $1000 dollars a day. Using this as a starting figure, what should we value mother natures life support system? Think about it, the air you breath on a daily basis comes from plants all over the world. Sea algae contributes the bulk of it and the rest comes from trees, plants and mosses.

There is a good chance that at one time you ate a plant that once produced a little bit of the oxygen you breathed while eating it. The chances are much better if you harvested it from your own garden. But more than just a curiosity, or a relic of biology, plants are currently the only source of fresh oxygen necessary for every person and animal on earth.

The kingdom Plantae is as important; if not more, to human life as any part of modern day civilization. If a disastrous virus were to target chloroplasts, the organelle that plants use to generate energy from sun light, human life would be relegated to months at most. When biodiversity is lost the ability to fight off disease by having the genetic variability to find unique solutions to the problems nature and man creates is stifled.

What we are approaching today is the cusp of a radical change (by human standards) in biodiversity. It is easy to think that the loss of one species is not a big deal, after all, 99% of all species that have ever existed are long gone. Life has survived several mass extinctions in the past; the Permian, the Cretaceous/Tertiary for example. But that view is dangerously myopic.

It ignores the fact that these major collapses did not happen simply because of one major catastrophe. It is much more probable that the loss of a handful of species lead to the decline of the rest. Today we are witness to changes in biodiversity, that in the context of geological time, would be indistinguishable from the changes that lead to previous mass extinction events.

We are not extinguishing nature's resilience for the expense of man kind, but at the ultimate expense of man kind. We are not making a world inhospitable for nature, but most certainly inhospitable for human life. I know in the past I have written about the species that would benefit from a rapidly warming climate, giant insects and cold blooded reptiles, but mammals do not have such a rosy outlook. We are mammals.

If we do not take the changes needed seriously, limiting every individual's carbon footprint, stopping deforestation, ending the contamination of ecosystems with chemicals, and developing long term sustainable solutions to our needs, then the price paid by future generations will cost a lot more than $1000 per person per day.

As always I welcome comments and critiques and will not edit or omit anything.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Democratization of Energy.

Considering the amount of evidence that continuing fossil fuel exploitation will have negative consequences for the human race, it is hard for some of us to understand why there is so much resistance to change. The truth is it all comes down to disenfranchisement. The only reason solar, wind and other renewable energy sources haven't been unanimously adopted, is because it levels the playing field for too many Americans.

Our economy is built on winners and losers. The unspoken yet essential component to capitalism is the control of access to goods and services by a centralized private organization. Oil is the perfect medium for this sort of bully capitalism. How many people do you know that have the ability to drill, extract, refine and store all of their own petroleum? Because it requires sophisticated infrastructure; and its ultimately limited nature, exploitation of the consumer is safe guarded intrinsically.

Once democratized forms of energy production; like solar, become ubiquitous, centralized distribution becomes less and less necessary. How do you block access to the sun? Because there is no intrinsic method for controlling access to this type energy, how do you disenfranchise the consumer based in order to extract a revenue stream? This is the exact nature of the fight fossil fuel companies are putting up. They feel entitled to a percentage of your paycheck every month, and they are willing to pour billions into the election economy alone to maintain the leverage to get it.

I believe this puts them squarely at odds with the founding principals of our nation. What happened to the preservation of "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"? Life is being directly threatened as the carbon emissions have been unequivocally linked to drought, floods and other extreme weather events. What part of liberty is direct financial disenfranchisement? And I for one and not at all happy with with our elected representatives being solely beholden to the highest campaign contributor.

Today, the price of solar is competitive with fossil fuel energy distribution in all but a small handful of markets. The limited nature of fossil fuels means its price can only go up. The technology behind solar is more than eight decades old and the price is coming down. That means it will, sooner rather than later, eclipse the market for fossil fuel. The solar industry today; at 5% market saturation, already employs 3/4 of the Americans fossil fuels including coal, conventional oil and shale does combined.

There is a clear incentive to transition our nation over to a renewable energy portfolio for the vast majority of Americans. The only real change to anyone's way of life will be those who lose the control from the top.

As always, I encourage comments and critiques, and will not edit or omit anything.

Thursday, March 14, 2013


Biologists are currently living in unrepresented times. More species transitioned from threatened to endangered on the endangered species list in recent years than ever before. I for one believe we are entering a new epoch in geological time. I am on the side of those who propose we have left the Holocene Epoch and are at the cusp of the Anthropocene extinction event.

Much like the previous key holes life on earth squeezed through at the end of the Permian and the Cretaceous periods, it is clear that the shifting climate will cause ecosystem collapse. As scientists we have a rare opportunity to study this collapse and see how tipping points in ecology actually work. We know that mass extinctions have happened, we have closely studied the fossil record to glean as much data as possible, but all this still has left the picture a little grainy and out of focus.

I propose a new field of study, Extinction Biology. This discipline will combine the ecosystem and biodiversity mapping of an ecologist with repeated intervals of surveys in places most likely to experience dramatic changes to environmental conditions. The goal will be to find not only the minimum viable population for individual species, but nail down the effects of specific species on the carrying capacity of the ecosystem as a whole.

What makes an ecosystem resilient? Does having multiple keystone species in competition lead to resilience? Or does it depend more on interactions on trophic levels that might have less diversity? For instance there are usually many different representatives from Plantae in proportion to only a few cordata species from Animalia.

Conservationists aghast at loss of biodiversity are really clinging to an anthropocentric view. The truth is we are not capable of exterminating life from planet earth. In the past we have lost nearly 90% of species (Permian extinction) extant at one time. Granted it took about 10 million years to recover, but it was not impossible. In truth, we should conserve current biodiversity in order to protect human life.

Since we as a species don't seem all that interested in continuing much longer, we should take advantage of a rare opportunity to gather and preserve as much data as possible so what ever life manages to struggle through this key hole of our own creation, if it should become sentient, can learn from our mistakes and make better choices.

As always, I encourage comments and critiques, and will not edit or omit any posts.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Failing Carbon Economy

Right now the Keystone XL pipeline is at he heart of a nationwide debate. Protests are taking place to halt the importation of Alberta Tar Sands development. On another front, fracking is being targeted for protest as well. The single biggest argument for both of these carbon based fuel sources is economic. Petroleum companies warn that stopping development of these resources would have dire consequences for many industries. About that much they are probably right.

But lets step back for a second and look at the economy as a whole. Currently the income distribution in the united states is more disparate than it has been since the age of slavery. The regressive tax structure embraced by Reagan and expanded further by subsequent administrations has; according to Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, allowed the top 1% to see an increase of wealth of over 150% and the top 0.1% to see over 300%. Meanwhile the entire bottom 90% owns less wealth combined that that of just the top 1%.

What does this have to do with tar sands and fracking? Basically, they took our skin out of the game. We no longer economically benefit from the system as it functions today. Why would we preserve a failed system? Wages have stagnated and the standard of living has decreased to the point where living in debt for an entire lifetime is not unusual for the vast majority of Americans. Yet as long as the power is on and the cable bill is paid, the disenfranchised masses are still docile.

The tipping point is not far off however. As more and more Americans become personally affected by climate change related disasters, the credibility of the modern day robber barons will erode. People already stretched to the limit will not be able to bear the extortion of the petroleum industry as it scrambles to control the dregs of an ultimately finite resource. A resource that is directly linked to the growing problems with food insecurity and water scarcity.

Once the decision becomes whether to fill up a tank of gas or buy groceries becomes a constant and inescapable reality, it will not be long before even the most hard headed come to realize they are forging the shackles that bind them. Personal debt will reach a limit where it is no longer sustainable to put off payment until better times roll around. A geology professor once said to me "No one really cares about clean drinking water until green sludge comes out of their tap".

Well, the green sludge is not far off.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Simple Math

There is one concept in biology that everyone should be aware of, the concept of Ecosystem Carrying Capacity. ECC is the ultimate limit of resources that are theoretically available within a closed system. Lets start with something manageable to understand this. Think of an isolated island in the ocean. There is only so much land area on this island for plants to grow and for water to be naturally filtered through geological processes.

Any population of animals will naturally fluctuate; in relation to individual species as well as in total, until the upper limit of resources it reached. Now in practice, most islands are capable of supporting a larger population than can be supported purely based on terrestrial vegetation due to the ocean's natural resource abundance. This can be seen as even tiny rocks can hold amazing numbers of birds nesting in colonies. Magnitudes larger in fact than the ECC of the land alone.

The point is, a strict accounting is still taking place. Resources can be tracked back to their sources definitively.

Now imagine the earth as an island. We humans have found all sorts of inventive ways to extract resources from what is ultimately a limited system with a single energy source. But unlike our tiny island, we are not solely limited by surface area with the ocean making up the debt for us. We have no such extra capacity to draw on. We are limited to the confines of our hunk of rock orbiting our star and the thin smear of habitable area clinging to it.

According to William Rees the simple math of global arable land suitable for food production in relation to population, paints a rather striking image. If for example we all lived at the resource consumption level of a sub-Saharan African, the ECC of our earth is around 15 billion people. At the other end of scale, the level of consumption of the average American places the ECC of the entire earth at about 1.5 billion people.

So where does that leave us today? With the world population recently crossing seven billion people, we have to find a resource consumption level that is sustainable for over seven billion people. Currently we rely on disproportionate resource distribution to maintain the luxurious American lifestyle. But that implies that we will have to increase the number of people we disenfranchise in order to maintain the standard of living for our growing population.

This inherent inequality isn't just exported either. At home we are becoming an increasingly stratified society, with resources being hoarded at the top and wages stagnating at the bottom (with the effect of lowering the standard of living for millions of Americans). True the agricultural revolution did have the effect of greatly increasing our ECC, but assuming another technocratic solution will expand our resources; to cover the quickly growing gap as other countries strive to reach western standards of living, ignores basic principals of physics and biology. Agricultural productivity does not advance like Moore's Law for farmers.

Water resource consumption is another important part of the equation as well. Again technocratic solutions, like desalination, are resource consumptive them selves and are realistically only stop-gaps and band-aids to and ever growing problem.

The only real path forward is to personally limit resource consumption. This needs to be a comprehensive process, with top down policy measures as well as bottom up personal accountability. The attitude of many Americans who feel completely entitled to an unsustainable standard of living is a luxury the human race can no longer afford. In effect that attitude is committing genocide on a large segment of the future population of earth.

We can soften the blow right now, by being proactive and working towards finding the balance or we can wait and hope that resource competition doesn't become violent in our lifetimes.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Forget the bum on the rail, fear the bum on the plush!

I find it remarkable that we (American's) still haven't made the changes needed to recover from our economic woes. We have a model that worked in the past, brilliantly in fact. The model I refer to was the New Deal. When we invested from the bottom up, not only did we strengthen communities, but the lasting legacy of infrastructure investment is still playing an important part of peoples lives generations later. The WPA for example has left behind bridges, roads and buildings all across our nation that are still in regular use.

Despite the successes of the past, the current orthodoxy in our government has been pulled so far to one side that it has simply abandoned the majority of us. Since the 1980's, where Reagan introduced the concept of "trickle down economics", our government has drifted farther and farther from being functionally competent for anyone who cannot afford to sway political interests financially. We all know, that those who are wealthy are perfectly capable of developing systems for protecting and growing their wealth without depending on the government to aid them.

I have also argued that business disproportionately benefits from systems that are publicly funded. I have used examples; ranging local roads and civil services to international politics and military protection, to illustrate exactly how businesses get large returns for their ever shrinking tax contribution. Even more shocking is the nature of direct subsidy. If you take into account the subsidies being distributed directly to the petroleum industry for example, we probably pay more than $10 per gallon every time we fill our gas tank.

Yet talk about a progressive tax system; the likes of which kept our nation strong through world war II after pulling us out of The Great Depression, and politicians wither in fear and huddle under a blanket of rhetoric. If Washington DC was a plane, it has clearly been hijacked and is being flown directly into financial catastrophe, the controls in the hands of single-minded economic terrorists. The goal of these terrorists is to completely entrench social stratification and create a disenfranchised working class.

The evidence is clear, wages have stagnated, social programs are maligned as entitlements, and political will is bought and sold as a commodity. If the founding fathers could see the complete corruption of their accomplishments, I am sure they would be heartsick. We have to take our nation back, one person, one vote at a time. The oppression felt by the majority of Americans as our homes and livelihoods are stripped from us by what amounts to robber-barons in the financial sector, petroleum industry and other entrenched private interests will only be alleviated by clear referendum.

Going forward, commit to voting at every election, even the local dog catcher if necessary. The voter apathy in america is not a cultural relic but a carefully crafted workaround of our rights. Don't let your opinions be swayed by pundits and media personalities, they only seek to coerce you into buying what they are selling. Rationally analyze your needs and interests and vote (or write in!) for the best choice, not for some lesser of two evils. We are all in this together, and we are counting on you!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Education and environmentalism.

Life starts today. Go! I have been on hiatus for the last few weeks and a lot has changed for me. It is time to kick off the struggles of the past and start a new chapter. 

I am not currently enrolled in school. I am not far away from obtaining a degree in biology from the California State University system. But for purely economic reasons I am having to pull out and reenter the workforce in the private sector. The administration governing the system I was apart of used a thick tangle of bureaucracy to exploit money from the stream of students passing through their hands. Instead of seeking the best route to educate people, the administrators of the system were forced to work in manner antithetical to the purpose of the system because they were tied to a financially focused model.

Lets look at another example of where this focus has failed us. Environmental protection requires regulation, yet more often than not, the regulators who write and enforce the rules come from the industry in question. It is not hard to understand that when profit is prized over all else, self regulation is about as realistic as any other form of collective will power. If we can't as a society completely eliminate baser activities such as rape and murder from our collective, then what chance do we have against lesser crimes such as incremental environmental degradation.

You can't just ask a company that is used to drinking from a fire-hose of profit to settle for one glass at a time. Today embracing austerity would represent the highest percentage of net positive change the private sector could make towards proper environmental stewardship. While environmental protection waxes and wanes in regulatory power and oversight through the mechanism of the political body, the purpose often is lost. The notion of cap and trade for example is abhorrent from an environmental best practices view point. Putting a price on the right to pump deadly pollution into our collective air, implies that it is a right someone should even be able to obtain.Yet the profit motivated and the power hungry would lead us to believe even this meager compromise would be unbearable.

We as a society cannot afford any longer to let this way of thinking continue to metastasize unchecked though our political leadership. So much of the progress we take for granted has come with an environmental price tag that has not been paid and the account due is accruing interest. The notion of earth as an eternal immutable provider is as antiquated as it is dangerous. We know that climate change is being influenced by human activity. We are taking carbon that was safely sequestered underground millions of years ago and dumping it into the atmosphere of today at an alarming rate. 

History will record the greed and avarice of mankind as the main factor of our own demise if we don't respect that we are only apart of the biosphere and not the masters of it.