Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Wendell Berry Year

"This is how we are celebrating the end of the world as we know it."

That you carry yourself forward and experience the myriad things is delusion. That the myriad things come forward and experience themselves is awakening. — Dogen Zenji (1200 - 1253)

Fencing the chicken coop
Recently Professor Guy McPherson told RT’s Thom Hartmann, “My advice is to be here now. To focus on the now, because this is what we have… Lets create those fantastic, joy-filled moments. Lets be here now with the ones we are with. Lets treat the living planet and other human beings with decency and respect and maybe treat ourselves with a little dignity.” 
It’s good advice. When confronted with a cataclysm of truly apocalyptic proportions, you can adopt the strategy of Harry Truman before the Mt. Saint Helens eruption, and spend the time you might otherwise use to escape to walk among your beloved pine trees one last time. 

Kazakhstan's Денис Тен
learns geodesic design
Or, you could go the path of say, Bill McKibben, and use a lifetime of finely honed talents to scream about impending catastrophe from the rooftops, get arrested, and get on the cover of The Rolling Stone. There is something cathartic about bailing water from a sinking ship, even if it doesn’t stop the ship from sinking.


Last year we took our little bailing tin to 11 countries, surfing available rooftops to scream from, penning stylish warnings, speaking through mass media, and hoping to get on the cover of the small town local version of Rolling Stone. This year we are doing a Harry Truman. Or, perhaps more approximately, a Wendell Berry.

New Pekings
Our neighbor in the Bluegrass to our North, the poet farmer behind the mule team, is a notoriously hard man to invite to anything. Not that he is shy, just that he is a serious farmer. He has animals to care for, crops to get in, harvests to sell or put by, and chores that simply must be done, every day.

So this year, a year that is in many ways a watershed and in other ways just more of the same, we are staying home and farming.

Our Indiegogo campaign over winter (still accepting donations)
was wonderfully successful and bought us straw, clay, sand and lime. We put out a call for apprentices, volunteers and WWOOFers, with the added perk that if they spend 2 months with us this summer we will teach them the full permaculture design curriculum and award them a certificate. As of today we have 23 confirmed and another 30 possibles. We have the first five on site and more en route.

Another swale day at The Farm
Each day we farm. Some days it means working on repairs to the chicken coop or duck ponds. Other days it means cutting bamboo and splitting it for construction. This is the season we inoculate the mushroom logs and we have plenty of shiitake spawn, wax and green logs all ready. Five or six of us can set out logs for the spawn run at a good clip when we get going. Then there are the starter trays of fresh vege to get going in the greenhouses, the raised beds to renew with over-wintered compost, and batches of biochar and EM tea to cook up.

Discovery Channel comes forward
to film our biochar stoves
Our piece de resistance this season will be the Great Hall of the Prancing Poet. Our master builder, Jon Hatcher, has been by to help train the new crew and everyone is itching for more time to make slip forms and tamp clay-straw into the walls, then lime plaster and trim them out.


This is how we are celebrating the end of the world as we know it. Neither a bang nor a wimper; just songs around the campfire, home-brewed ale and homegrown blueberry-apple crisp, and bluegrass picking under the full moon.

Y’all come by.  

PS: And if you still would like to catch us off The Farm this year, we'll be conducting a 2-week urban permaculture design course for the Chicagoland Permaculture Guild August 2-15, with an all-star cast.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Climate Activists / Nuclear Deniers

"There was a lot of prepared material Hansen did not get to, for which we all should be grateful, because the majority of that would have sounded like it was written by a Madison Avenue firm handling the Fukushima account."

 James Hansen is not the best public speaker. Neither was Jimmy Carter. Good public speakers on the topic of avoiding catastrophic climate change and petrocollapse seem to be in short supply. Instead, we are left with policy wonks and peanut farmers who find themselves in front of a national or world audience at a key historical moment with the right thing to say and a poor ability to express themselves.

Thankfully, they tend to get better with practice.

In that awkward period while they are still learning they can fall easy prey to PR shills, hucksters and polished politicians who want to undercut their message. Alternatively, they can say something they later come to regret, lose friends and help their enemies.

Victorian England has become a popular genre for US film and television drama, with a number of Masterpiece Theater series, some of them very popular — Downton Abbey, Sherlock, Upstairs Downstairs, etc. Audiences seem to find some comfort in an era of sharply divided class lines, created and maintained by privilege, education and other rationing systems, that puts the heredity back into hierarchy. Perhaps this fascination is rooted in a neoconservative nostalgia for a past that never really existed, a period when everyone had their assigned station, the pecking order was crystal clear, and the trains ran on time.

Were this lost begotten era to be returned to its former colonies today, it would, of course, be an unmitigated disaster. Aristocracies are notoriously tone deaf to the natural environment and the aspirations of the unwashed masses, and they are demonstrably incompetent to administer empire or anything else much more challenging than a white-tie dinner or a polo match.

As we’ve been recently reminded by University of Maryland mathematician Safa Motesharrei and his National Socio-Environmental Synthesis project,  expansion of an empire powered by waged or unwaged slaves, accompanied by unbalanced distribution of wealth and an unquenchable thirst for profit by the power elite, inevitably leads to civilization becoming unsustainable. Greeks, check. Romans, check. Vikings, check. Mayans, check. USAnians….




Which brings us to Jim Hansen’s Senate testimony on the Keystone XL pipeline last week.  We featured Hansen prominently in our 1990 classic, Climate in Crisis, and have long admired his courage and perspicacity. He is the first to acknowledge not being a great public speaker, but as long as he is a great climatologist, who cares? One great is enough. And, when he gets personal — such as when he mentions his grandchildren, or his voice quavers less from stage fright than from repressed anger — he can pluck your heartstrings. What we find annoying is when he kowtows to the neocons.

In the brief 6 minutes the Senate Foreign Relations Committee allocated Hansen on March 13, unable to read through his prepared statement, he succeeded in getting across these bullet points [bracketed material not his]:

  • there is no scientific debate about the fact that we cannot burn all of the known and estimated fossil fuel reserves without unacceptable consequences
  • overshoot of safe climate margins is now impossible to prevent but improved agricultural and forestry practices [read: biochar, carbon farming, step harvest, regrarianism] can draw down the excess atmospheric carbon and return us to a safe zone on practicable timelines
  • too great an overshoot — unconscionable delay — would render even these remedies ineffective
  • China’s emissions are continuing to increase rapidly — and will accelerate as coal burning and coal-to-liquids [enter the ghost of Jimmy Carter, a nuclear engineer trained by Admiral Hyman Rickover, who tossed billions at coal-liquid synfuels] projects exit the pipeline, auguring insurmountable overshoot
  • the United States has burned not only its share of the global carbon budget, but a large part of the budget owed to China, India and other countries, and so has a special moral duty of leadership now
  • renewables are a false solution
  • nuclear power is the best thing [since sliced bread?]
  • fossil fuels are popular only because they have neglected external costs that provide a fictitious cost advantage [ignoring this point with respect to nuclear]
  • the quickest fix would be to bring down energy intensity and carbon intensity, which are technically feasible but economically disincentivized [by Congress, thanks to the Koch brothers, Exxon, etc.]
  • the role of the federal government is to provide those correct incentives, and the best way to do that is with a fee and dividend system that returns 100% of collected fines to citizens and businesses who reduce the most [as we described two years ago], and
  • Republicans should take the lead on this to prevent Democrats from growing an even bigger, wasteful bureaucracy with those dividends.
Hansen gets credit for being more advanced in his presentation of carbon credits than was the former peanut farmer, who, in a national television appearance this past Monday inelegantly called for a carbon tax. Ouch! In Congress, framing is everything. You’d have thought Jimmy Carter might have learned that by now.

There was a lot of prepared material Hansen did not get to, for which we all should be grateful, because the majority of that would have sounded like it was written by a Madison Avenue firm handling the Fukushima account — The US should help China build more reactors, faster; US regulators are doing a good job managing daily operations but need to cut the red tape on new construction permits; nuclear plants have never killed anyone; we need to do something about anti-nuke “greens” who aim to delay nuclear construction, etc.
 
While we greatly admire James Hansen and will read anything he writes, we have to sigh and shake our heads, as we do for James Lovelock, Mark Lynas, George Monbiot and others, who really should know better but simply haven’t done their homework on atomic facts and fictions.

Hansen’s blithe assurance, for instance, that no one died at Three Mile Island is easily questioned by epidemiology. A peer-reviewed research article by Dr. Steven Wing found a significant increase in cancers from 1979-1985 among people who lived within ten miles of TMI. [Wing S; Richardson D; Armstrong D; Crawford-Brown D (January 1997). "A reevaluation of cancer incidence near the Three Mile Island nuclear plant: the collision of evidence and assumptions". Environ Health Perspect. 105(1). pp. 52–7. "PMID 9074881"]  In 2009 Dr. Wing stated that radiation releases during the accident were probably "thousands of times greater" than the NRC's estimates.
$25 million was paid in insurance settlements to radiation victims who then were not allowed to discuss their injuries in ongoing litigation.

 
Personally, we find Wing’s correlation suspect because of what we know from the radium dial painters, the Hiroshima data, the Tristate Leukemia Study, the Hanford worker studies, and an extensive body of health physics that pinpoints latency durations by source, pathway and cancer type, with leukemia and related blood cancers appearing in 5 to 15 years, particularly in children and those exposed in utero, soft-tissue and bone sarcomas and carcinomas only many decades later. We would only begin to be getting higher incidences of breast and lung cancers downwind of TMI today, so Wing’s observations in 1985 likely reflect accelerated mortality among the already afflicted rather than new cases. Accelerated mortality among the already afflicted has expanded into its own branch of radiation epidemiology in recent years.


The former Soviet Union
awarded this medal
to some 300,000
“Heroes of Chernobyl,”
in many cases
posthumously.

A similar story can be told at Chernobyl and will eventually emerge from Fukushima. We also know from the fruit fly experiments of Muller in the 1930s that only one percent of lasting genetic damage from low-dose radiation exposure manifests in each generation. The lower the dose, the greater the likelihood for this type of damage (larger doses kill cells before they can reproduce, smaller doses merely rearrange DNA coding), which, embedded in the human gene pool as a multimillennial bequest, is also the most difficult to ameliorate. At Fukushima they are drawing upon the destitute, mentally handicapped and unskilled to become “jumpers;” hot-spot cleaners who, even after fudged dosimetry, exhaust their lifetime exposure allowance and then retire except, in some cases, with a little assistance, they might be be provided a false identity and thereby procure a repeat engagement.

What is needed to bury the Three Mile Island canard is large-scale funding for the sort of broad epidemiological data gathering and analysis that has already been underway for Chernobyl for more than 25 years, despite official reprisals. (In Belarus, Yury Bandazhevsky, a scientist who questioned the official estimates of Chernobyl's consequences and the relevancy of the official maximum limit of 1,000 Bq/kg, was imprisoned from 2001 to 2005.)
Yury Bandazhevsky
Within the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the “cut the red tape”rs have always had the upper hand over the scrupulous safety guys, as witnessed in the recent resignation of NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko. Jaczko sent his resignation to the President after complaining of lax NRC regulatory revisions following Fukushima, safe disposal of nuclear wastes, and other issues. Hansen is simply wrong on his evidence here, and when he goes on to rant about how the financial incentives for new coal plants are antithetical to safety while ignoring the hundreds-times-worse Faustian incentivising of nuclear energy, and even advocating for acceleration, he embarrasses himself.

Hansen, in his love affair with nuclear power, and his pandering to the sinophobia of Congressional Republicans yearning to return to a simpler Victorian era when the world was much more straightforward, feeds the beast with dangerous myths. No amount of polo ponies or space taxis will arrest our slide into petrocollapse. Nuclear power plants are weapons factories, pure and simple — ticking time bombs from the moment they first go critical, until the end of time when their wastes will have decayed to something approaching neutral, billions of years in the future. To advocate for nuclear expansion is to advocate for human extinction, or at least a whole lot of needless suffering. Which is odd when the subject you are addressing is the existential threat of climate change.

The only safe reactor is the one that comes ‘round each morning with deliveries of warmth, food and energy too cheap to meter. It is long past time we understood this.
 

We single out Hansen, but so-called “nuclear greens” are an emergent subset of the environmental movement. We are not speaking here of neoprene greens, whom have always been (and are paid to be) pro-nuclear, pro-fracking, pro-tar-sands (such as Patrick Moore and Bryony Worthington), but former anti-nukes who have been frightened so much by the changing climate that they now embrace a devil they know: writers Stewart Brand, Gwyneth Cravens, Chris Goodall, Mark Lynas, George Monbiot, Fred Pearce, Richard Rhodes, Ted Nordhaus; filmmaker Robert Stone; and scientists James Lovelock, Ken Caldeira and Kerry Emanuel.
 

Dan Becker, Director of Global Warming for the Sierra Club, said, "Switching from dirty coal plants to dangerous nuclear power is like giving up smoking cigarettes and taking up crack.”
 

Why insist we trade one evil for another? Hansen worries for the world his grandchildren will inherit, and describes poignantly how future generations will hate their ancestors for our transgenerational crimes. And yet, what crime could possibly be more heinous than that done to an innocent child in corrupting their genes to give them a reduced immune system, a heritable deformity, or some other lifelong torment for what? To turn on a light switch when entering a room? And to do this to millions and millions of our unseen children?
 

Jonathan Schell, who died Tuesday, in writing of nuclear weapons — nuclear energy’s Siamese twin — in The Fate of the Earth (1980), addressed this invisibility aspect:
 

"And if we find the subject strangely impersonal' it may be in part because the unborn, who are the ones directly imperiled by extinction, are not yet persons. What are they then? They lack the individuality that we often associate with the sacredness of life, and may at first thought seem to have only a shadowy, mass existence. Where are they? Are they to be pictured lined up in a sort of fore-life, waiting to get into life? Or should we regard them as nothing more than a pinch of chemicals in our reproductive organs, toward which we need feel no special obligations? What standing should they have among us? How much should their needs count in competition with ours? How far should the living go in trying to secure their advantage, their happiness, their existence?"

Just one of millions. A depleted uranium baby of Falujah.
Schell always liked to ask hard questions to try to discomfort the comfortable. In energy economics, deaths and infirmities inflicted upon the unborn are “neglected externalities;” mere marginal accounting errors. In the cost-benefit calculations, penciled out by gnomes in the dungeons of corporate utilities or gnomes in regulatory sweatshops, deaths to innocents by radiation injury are balanced against the high price of solar cells or the climate effects of coal.
 

This is how callous we have become in defense of indefensible profligacy. Hansen was right about this: the quickest fix would be to bring down energy intensity and carbon intensity, which are technically feasible but economically disincentivized. What he neglects to realize is that we also need to measure future destructive capacity of the various energy options and cut the intensity there too. Running those numbers, the actuarial gnomes must report a somewhat uncomfortable conclusion. There is no way forward that does not require giving up what we have come to expect as God-given privilege — our Victorian lust after high class lifestyles — either for everyone (if you are liberally minded), or for the elite (if you are not), at any cost.
 

Here are Hansen’s  prepared remarks, and, thanks to CSPAN, his actual live testimony can now be viewed on You Tube. Climate and Energy: Fundamental Facts, Responsibilities and Opportunities
Testimony to the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
 13 March 2014.

James Hansen
Director of Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions Program in the Columbia University Earth Institute, 475 Riverside Drive, New York, NY 10115; former Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Thank you for the opportunity to discuss climate and energy.

Fundamental facts about climate and energy reveal a great responsibility that our government has not only to the American public today, but to future generations. The facts imply the need for specific actions to address this responsibility. The required policies would improve our economy and our security, while also dealing with current issues such as the advisability of the Keystone tar sands pipeline.

Science has exposed the fact that we cannot burn all fossil fuels without enormous growing costs that would be borne most heavily by young people. So far we have burned about 380 GtC (gigatons of carbon), the purple areas in Fig. 1.   

Preserving creation, a planet that continues to look like the one civilization developed on, requires that we limit total fossil fuel emissions to something close to 500 GtC.

The exact limit is debatable, but there is no scientific debate about the fact that we cannot burn all of the fossil fuels without unacceptable destruction of life and property. That means we must phase out coal emissions and leave most of the unconventional fossil fuels, including tar sands, in the ground.

Fossil fuel emissions need to be phased down as rapidly as practical. Appropriate policies will spur development of carbon-free energies until tipping points are reached and rapid energy transition occurs. Time required to replace existing energy infrastructure means that some overshoot of the 500 GtC emissions target is probably unavoidable, but prompt policy actions can keep the overshoot small. In that case, improved agricultural and forestry practices can help draw down the excess atmospheric carbon. The crucial requirement is that we not push the climate system so far into the danger zone that we leave young people with a planetary system spiraling out of their control.
Fig. 1. Fossil fuel CO2 emissions and carbon content.    Purple portions are fossil fuels already burned. Unconventional oil includes tar sands and tar shale. Unconventional gas includes hydraulic-fracturing. See reference 1 for further information, units and data sources.

Fig. 2. (a) Fossil fuel CO2 2012 emissions and (b) cumulative 1751-2012 emissions.
China’s fossil fuel emissions today far exceed those by the United States (see Fig. 2a) and China’s emissions are continuing to increase rapidly, mostly from coal burning. However, climate change is driven by the cumulative emissions (Fig. 2b)3, as the CO2 (carbon dioxide) from fossil fuels remains in the climate system of the order of 100,000 years. The United States is, by far, the nation most responsible for excess CO2 in the air today (Fig. 2b), a conclusion that is all the more true on a per capita basis.

The United States burned not only its share of the global carbon budget, but a large part of the budget belonging to China, India and other countries. While it can be argued that the United States has a right to burn its own resources, we have no right to unlimited use of the global atmosphere as a waste dump. The capacity of that dump is limited. We have filled much of that dump, leaving little room for other nations. If other nations follow our example, the consequences, without question, will be catastrophic for all.

This situation does not call for hand-wringing and despair. Other nations do not wish to fill the air with waste. However, they have the right to develop, to aspire to a better life. Thomas Jefferson posited “pursuit of happiness”, after life and liberty, as one of the most fundamental human rights, the human rights that Americans decided to fight for. That specific right implies a right to develop. Development requires energy. We used fossil fuel energy to develop our nation and raise our standard of living. If the rest of the world follows our example we will all be losers.

Let’s be clear. The task before us is not easy. Developing countries need energy to lift their people out of poverty, just as developed countries did. Affordable energy is important as a matter of justice, but also to bring global population under control. As countries develop and poverty declines, so do birth rates, which is important so that we leave room on the planet for all the other species whose eco-services we depend upon. Developed countries have a responsibility to work with the developing world, because we burned much of their share of the global carbon budget.

Developed nations, including the United States, also have a need for abundant clean, affordable energy. Clean energy is needed to phase out fossil fuels and to provide energy for producing liquid fuels, for desalinizing water, for recycling metals. Yes, we can be more efficient in our energy use, but energy needs are not going away. Obtaining an adequate continuing supply of clean energy is a great challenge.

The energy challenge is also a great opportunity. We have the potential to meet the challenge. We have the potential for innovations. Our free enterprise system, fed by the greatest university system in the world, creates the potential for rapid progress. However, we must have policies that provide the incentives required for this potential to be realized, not policies that hamstring it.
Fig. 3. World energy consumption for indicated fuels, excluding wood.

The needed policies are easier to define if we first examine two more charts. The fuels that provide global energy are shown in Fig. 3. Fossil fuels provide more than 85% of global energy. Coal use has surged in the past decade, surging in absolute terms even more than in the percentage shown in Fig. 3. Most of the growth is in developing countries, with 60% of the increased CO2 emissions from China.

Non-hydro renewable energies provide only about 3% of global energy and 3% of U.S. energy. Thus total installed renewables, installed over a period of a few decades, offset only one year’s growth of global energy use. Renewables are nowhere near covering the growth of energy requirements.

I am sorry that we scientists have not done an adequate job of communicating energy facts. A note and a draft op-ed discussing the energy situation in simple direct language is available4.

My final chart (Fig. 4) shows the energy intensity and carbon intensity for several nations and for the world. There are two ways we can reduce our carbon emissions while still having the global economic growth that is needed to phase out poverty. One way is to reduce our energy intensity, i.e., use less energy to produce our products. Energy intensity is declining slowly in most nations, and with appropriate policies we can make it decline faster.

The crucial urgent factor is the carbon intensity, the amount of carbon released to the atmosphere per unit energy. We must reduce carbon intensity to near zero to stabilize climate.

There is one nation that has come close: Sweden. Sweden decarbonized its electricity, mainly via the combination of hydropower and nuclear power. With one additional step Sweden can be at or near the low carbon intensity needed to stabilize climate. The main remaining need is to produce liquid fuels for transportation from electricity or perhaps a breakthrough in battery technology.

Fossil fuels are the dominant energy source globally because they are, or appear to be, the cheapest energy. They are not actually cheapest, but they appear cheapest to the consumer because they are not required to pay their costs to society. They do not pay for the human health effects of air pollution and water pollution. They do not pay for growing climate effects.

The policy that is needed is a gradually increasing across-the-board carbon fee collected on oil, gas and coal at the first domestic sale, at the domestic mine or port of entry. It is very simple to collect from a small number of sources. 100% of the funds should be distributed to the public, equal amounts to all legal residents, electronically to their bank account or debit card.



Fig. 4. (a) Energy intensity, defined as energy consumption (Gt of oil equivalent) divided by real gross domestic product (trillions of 2005 U.S. $), and (b) carbon intensity, defined as fossil fuel carbon emissions (GtC) divided by energy consumption (Gt of oil equivalent).

Thus the person who does better than average in limiting his fossil fuel use will make money. There will be an incentive for individuals to move to low-carbon and no-carbon energies, and an incentive for entrepreneurs to develop those products. Energy choices are left to the individual and the market place. Not one dime to the government. It’s a conservative plan that would work wonders. In 10 years, if the fee rises $10 per ton of CO2 per year, U.S. emissions will be reduced by 20-30% according to economic simulations by the Carbon Tax Center. (This fee is progressive. Sixty percent of the people, especially low income people who do not travel around the world a lot, will receive more in the dividend than they pay in increased prices. But to stay on the positive side of the balance sheet, they must pay attention to what they buy.)

The annual reduction of oil use alone, after 10 years, would be more than three times the volume of oil carried by the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, rendering the pipeline superfluous. By eliminating the need for the pipeline, the danger of oil spillage on American soil is also eliminated. With this approach we would move over a period of years to true energy independence, as the economic incentive from a rising carbon fee would spur our entrepreneurs to develop alternative energy carriers, including liquid fuels from abundant no-carbon electricity. The no-carbon electricity can be provided by renewables or nuclear power or some combination as the market decides or as the public chooses.


Carbon intensity over past 30 years
In addition to a carbon fee-and-dividend, we in the United States have a moral obligation and a great opportunity to work with China to help assure that their drive to develop energy does not release so much CO2 as to cause climate change out of humanity’s control. It is an obligation, because we burned much of their share of the global carbon budget. It is an opportunity, because it will provide us the chance to get back on top of the nuclear technology world. For the sake of the whole world, as well as for our own sake, it is important that the United States provide leadership to assure that nuclear technologies are as safe as possible and resistant to weapons proliferation.

The alternative is that we leave the field to Russia. Russia is more than happy to fill the void. Indeed, China has already agreed to purchase nuclear technology from Russia, including fast reactors with potential for recycling of nuclear material. The United States still has the best technology capabilities, but that lead is rapidly shrinking and will be gone in the near future if we continue to languish.

Before describing what we should do in such cooperation, I must say what we should not do. It is inappropriate and an insult to go to China and tell them to work harder on renewables and energy efficiency. China is already doing more in these regards than we are in the West. For example, where possible, codes for new buildings in China require use of geothermal heat and other renewables, and efficiency standards are ratcheted up as soon as improved technologies appear.

We also should not expect China to use renewable energy for base-load electricity. We just completed a solar power plant, Ivanpah, near the Nevada-California border on public land provided free. Ivanpah cost $2.2B and it covers five square miles (about 13 square kilometers). With a generous estimate of 0.25 for the plant’s capacity factor (the ratio of average power to peak power when the sun is highest and the sky is clear), Ivanpah will generate 0.82 TWhours of electricity per year. The power is intermittent because Ivanpah does not have energy storage, which would make the plant far more expensive.

In contrast, Westinghouse is nearing completion of two AP-1000 nuclear plants in China. These nuclear facilities each require about 0.5 square miles (about 1.3 square kilometers). With a capacity factor of 0.9, typical of nuclear power plants, the output of each plant will be 8.8 TWhours per year. It would require more than 10 Ivanpahs to yield as much electricity and an area of more than 50 square miles (128 square kilometers), area that China does not have to spare. The AP-1000 cost in China is about $3.5B per plant.


What the United States should do is cooperate with China and assist in its nuclear development. The AP-1000 is a fine nuclear power plant, incorporating several important safety improvements over existing plants in the United States, which already have an excellent safety record. There has been only one serious accident among 100 reactors, at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, and it did not kill anyone. However, further advances in nuclear plants beyond AP-1000 are possible and the large demand in China allows rapid progress and building at a scale that can drive down unit cost.

China has initiated nuclear R&D programs, including cooperation with U.S. universities and firms. Cooperation with our universities and the private sector could be expanded rapidly, and areas of relevant excellence persist in some Department of Energy Laboratories despite inadequate levels of support. Training of nuclear engineers and operators in the U.S. could help assure safe operations during a challenging period of rapid expansion. Benefits of cooperation in technology development can eventually circle back to United States industry and utility sectors as cost effective power plants are perfected.

In assessing the potential for the U.S to eventually benefit from a cooperative program of nuclear technology development, it is apparent that reforms are required in our Nuclear Regulatory Commission. There is widespread agreement that the NRC has done a good job of regulating. They have capable technical staff, and they do a good job as resident inspectors at nuclear plants, in incident reporting, and in keeping the nuclear plant operators on their toes.

It is a different matter, however, with regard to the nuclear reactor permitting process. The heavily lawyer-laden permitting process results in paper-work requirements and delays that stretch into years and billions of dollars of cost growth. Nuclear power proponents make a strong case that this situation is in part a consequence of pressure from anti-nuke “greens” who aim to delay nuclear construction and make nuclear power so expensive that it will fade away. Whatever the balance of causes, this problem needs to be fixed or the U.S. will suffer serious economic disadvantages and decline in comparison to rising economic powers such as China.

Summary. Issues such as the Keystone pipeline (and the reliability of Russian energy exports) should be viewed in a broader context of energy and climate. Basic facts include:

  • The carbon budget for the planet has been nearly used up, implying that the world as a whole needs to phase off fossil fuel energy as rapidly as practical.
  • Current skyrocketing of global emissions is primarily a consequence of rapidly developing countries, especially China.
  • The West, especially the U.S., has burned more than its fair share of the allowable global carbon budget, implying a responsibility to help developing countries find a low carbon pathway to development.
  • Non-hydro renewables provide only a tiny fraction of global energy and do not appear capable of satisfying the large energy requirements of developing nations such as China and India.

These facts suggest the following policy recommendations:

A carbon fee-and-dividend system that places a flat across-the-board rising fee on the carbon content of fuels with the funds distributed 100% to legal residents. This approach provides a strong incentive for energy efficiency as well as development of carbon-free energies. A flat across-the-board rising carbon fee provides the basis for an international agreement that could begin to phase down global carbon emissions. Such an approach would require initial agreement only among a few major nations such as the United States and China. Border duties would be placed on products from nations without an equivalent carbon fee to avoid handicapping domestic manufacturers, and the carbon fee on products exported to non-participating nations would be rebated to domestic manufacturers.

The United States should cooperate with China to aid its transition to low-carbon and no-carbon energy sources, including the development and deployment of improved nuclear power technology. It is to everyone’s disadvantage if China continues down a path of heavy carbon emissions, including, for example, extensive development of coal gasification. There is a strong complementarity of the contributions that the two nations could bring to such cooperation and there could be enormous benefits, not only to the two nations, but to the world.

References
1 Hansen, J., P. Kharecha, M. Sato, V. Masson-Delmotte, F. Ackerman, D. Beerling, P.J. Hearty, O. Hoegh- Guldberg, S.-L. Hsu, C. Parmesan, J. Rockstrom, E.J. Rohling, J. Sachs, P. Smith, K. Steffen, L. Van Susteren, K. von Schuckmann, and J.C. Zachos, 2013: Assessing "dangerous climate change": Required reduction of carbon emissions to protect young people, future generations and nature. PLOS ONE, 8, e81648, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081648.
2 Boden, T.A., G. Marland, and R.J. Andres. 2013. Global, Regional, and National Fossil-Fuel CO2 Emissions. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge, Tenn., U.S.A. doi 10.3334/CDIAC/00001_V2013
3 Hansen, J., M. Sato, R. Ruedy, P. Kharecha, A. Lacis, R.L. Miller, L. Nazarenko, K. Lo, G.A. Schmidt, G. Russell, et al., 2007: Dangerous human-made interference with climate: A GISS modelE study. Atmos. Chem. Phys., 7, 2287-2312, doi:10.5194/acp-7-2287-2007.
4 Hansen, J. Sleepless in Ningbo and World’s Greatest Crime Against Humanity and Nature. 6
 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Springs Eternal

"The thing is, we actually know what must be done to save our planet, and it is not propping up consumer society. "


All the armies of the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come. —Victor Hugo  


These past weeks we have been immersed in the changing of the seasons. Today is a community blueberry workday at The Farm, coming at the Vernal Equinox, the midpoint of our planet’s tilt between colder months and warmer ones, as we continue our elliptic around the Sun. Here in Tennessee the robins and wrens have arrived, daffodils and cherries have blossomed, and frogs are singing noisily.

Amidst this natural glory, doomer crack whores wandering the meth lab corners of the internet begging an angry fix of news from heartless pushers in think tanks and chop shops that we are, we tighten our fist, find a vein, and are overwhelmed by an angelic chorus — or death rattle murmurings, we can’t quite decide — of civilization racing past snow-capped energy-, pollution- and population-peaks, averting our glaze, except by furtive peeks, at the brick wall that sits athwart the track immediately ahead.

In a break-out session to discuss strategies for combating climate change convened by Starhawk at the Permaculture Convergence in Mayabeque, Cuba, last November, we posited something to the effect that more education was key. We were brought up short by a Londoner who pithily replied, “Ignorance is so overrated.” By which she meant, people do know. Education is not the answer. She was an academic so we'd warrant she should know.

Our most exhilarating fix this week contains a study by the NASA Goddard Space Center’s National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, reported by Nafeez Ahmad in The Guardian, that in turn referenced a Swiss gnome study called Future State 2030  and a recent UK Science Office report terming what we are experiencing “the perfect storm.”
 

Then there is the Harvard report to the IMF predicting near-term crash, a MarketWatch report observing insiders massively dumping stocks, a March 15th poll, also by MarketWatch, showing 98% of securities gurus betting on imminent crash, and Euro Pacific Capital CEO Peter Schiff warning: “I am 100% confident the (2014) crisis that we’re going to get will be much worse than the one we had in 2008.”

In February Steve Kopits gave a spellbinding talk at Columbia University that is still making ripples on Wall Street. Our friend Gail Tverberg (Gail the Actuary), with whom we share a podium with at the Age of Limits Memorial Day weekend (if the world as we know it still exists by then), along with Dennis Meadows, Dmitry Orlov, Caroline Baker and others, summarized Kopits’ central point as:

“… the cost of oil extraction has been rising rapidly (10.9% per year) but oil prices have been flat. Major oil companies are finding their profits squeezed, and have recently announced plans to sell off part of their assets in order to have funds to pay their dividends. Such an approach is likely to lead to an eventual drop in oil production… it looks like lack of sufficient investment is poised to bring the system down. That is basically the expected limit under Limits to Growth.

The stock market already has jitters as it crests another all-time high. This week the Fed tried to shore up confidence by announcing that interest rates will presently be adjusting upwards. Any announcement by the Fed immediately clobbers gold prices, but the dollar index has been coming down for 7 weeks as international treasury-bond holders, like the EU and China, worry about how long the charade of solvency of the US empire can continue to extend and pretend. The Fed’s announcement seems to say, “not much longer.” Janet Yellen’s statement was less to reassure foreign markets than alert her bankster billionaire pirate buddies that the bonus treasure chests will soon be used up and its time to shift any remaining loot to their Cayman Islands accounts.

“We need better health, better education and more jobs” and “My sons work from 5 in the morning until 10 at night for only 400 euros per month” and “We were promised better!” said protesters interviewed by RT at yesterday’s March for Dignity, a road show en route to Brussels after converging on Madrid. Karl Marx is getting a surge in Amazon sales as capitalism catches the blame for the energy famine, a megatrend that none of the people in the street seem to grok. “We want our energy slaves!” might be a more apt protest, we submit, but we have never been very successful at launching memes.

Jeremy Rifkin, whose ability to churn out great books is exceeded only by John Michael Greer's, has a new one, The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, The Collaborative Economy and the Collapse of Capitalism that postulates a very Marxian withering away of the state, and vulture capital, owing to the rise of The Makers. All of that Maker World — 3D printers, neighborhood tinker camps, garage start-ups — relies on access to (cheap) electricity and the internet. Rifkin thinks distributed generation will supplant the central power station paradigm, but in our view, the timing is critical. Can extend-and-pretend conceivably stick around that long? While we are waiting, we could also wait for the Singularity, or Godot.


James Howard Kunstler, commenting on why no-one in the US wants to go to war with Russia anymore, says:
... our towns look infinitely worse than the street-views of Ukraine’s population centers. Ours were built of glue and vinyl, with most of the work completed thirty years ago so that it’s all delaminating under a yellow-gray patina of auto emissions. Inside these miserable structures, American citizens with no prospects and no hope huddle around electric space heaters. They have no idea how they’re going to pay the bill for that come April. They already spent the money on tattoos and heroin.

An anonymous blogger from Wisconsin that we’ve come to admire for his clarity lists 10 cracks in the consumerist infinite growth model (unemployment, inequality, poverty, surveillance state, EROEI, climate, etc.) that are worth taking time to ponder. His conclusion is that all these cracks emerge from a central fault line — our collective assumptions, or manufactured consent, as a society:
That the future will be like the past, only better. That economic growth will continue and solve all our problems. That a rising tide lifts all boats. That the best way to ensure prosperity is to cater to the needs of the wealthy so that the trickle-down effect will produce widespread prosperity. That unregulated "free trade" benefits everyone and is always a good idea. That we just need more technological innovation to get the economy moving again. That there will always be enough jobs to go around for everyone. That government interference in the economy is always a bad idea and that "free market solutions" are best. That anyone can be rich if only they work hard enough. That poverty is always simply the result of individual failure, and that government help encourages dependency and sloth. That our societies are on a path of never-ending progress.

Most of us sheeple are unable to break out of these assumptions because our conversation constantly reinforces them. At the core of that conversation, controlling it, is an electronic communications juggernaut that never had this kind of power in the past.

[T]he media does not exist to inform or further the debate. It exists to limit the terms of the debate, to enforce the existing status quo, to legitimize the existing social arrangements and institutions, and to provide a convenient distraction for the masses. It is designed to maximize profits and is dependent upon funds from advertisers, and the last thing advertisers want is people asking inconvenient questions (especially about the economy or consumerism).

The thing is, we actually know what must be done to save our planet, and it is not propping up a consumer society. Our Wisconsin blogger lists a few of the tools we already have — new economics; ecological restoration; degrowth with happiness indices; permaculture and carbon farming/regrarianism — and doubtless many more tools will emerge as we embrace the change. We need to garden the planet. We need to be nice to each other. It is that simple.

We have been re-reading and recommending David Korowicz’s classic FEASTA paper, Trade-Off, as one of the best pieces ever written to explain the market mechanics. The outshoot of all of this is that while it might be nice to imagine a re-run of the crisis of 2008, and to prepare for that, it is a bit like planning for the last war. 2008 cannot be repeated for the simple reason that by adopting “extend and pretend” instead of real economic reform, the Seneca Cliff was pushed much higher and the Olduvai gorge much deeper.

Case in point. The total world debt in 2008 was said at the time to be 67 trillion. That debt represented excess claims on underlying real wealth (nature, including human social capital). Some of the extant derivative instruments took hits in 2008, but it was short lived, and even greater derivative fraud has been the rule for the past 5 years. We just passed 100 trillion for current total debt, a growth rate of 50% in 5 years or a doubling time of slightly less than 10 years (approx. 7% annually). So world debt, on present trajectory, would be double that of 2008, or 134 trillion, by 2018. If that could actually happen, by 2018 we will have added more debt in 10 years than all the debt previously run up in the history of economics. But it is all fraud. There is nothing to back that debt. It exists solely on the illusion that it represents reality. Reality: it is ones and zeros in the cybersphere. It is literally a confidence game.

Second case in point. In 2008 there were things that the Fed, the Treasury and the White House could do to boost liquidity and stimulate the global economy. They passed out billion-dollar checks to billionaires. Where did that money come from? Treasury Bill auctions. Who bought those T-bills? China, Japan, the Caribbean tax-free banks, the Saudis, even the Russians. So what is happening now? T-bill auctions are hard sells. Russia moved its T-bills out of NY banks as Crimea began to escalate and may well liquidate them, soon, flooding the market. China continues to unload 100 billion of its 1.2 trillion in T-bill holdings every few months. Where would the US get cash for a second great bail-out? More Imagineering?

If the escalation over Crimea, or the next big market crash, were to crash T-bills, it could bring about a sovereign default of the United States. That seems isolated until you look at how many things are indexed to the dollar. So people stop taking dollars for things of value, but they also have to stop taking most other currencies, too. Commerce grinds to a quick halt. No one can pay their bills.
The ramifications and ripple effects — troops stationed overseas with no contractors to supply them; vacationers stranded at DisneyWorld, Vail or Acapulco; millions ravaged by freezing weather, famine and epidemic disease — become, in a matter of days and weeks, scenes of zombies, living on the flesh of the recent dead and whatever edible grasses and roots might be gnawed to stave off incessant hunger.Note: the scenes are not of Okie camps in the Dust Bowl, or breadlines in the Depression. There are simply no remaining pockets of wealth, no green shoots from which to revive an economy, and, absent electricity, fuel and currency, no convening government authorities to coordinate relief.

Complimentary currencies could continue functioning to augment barter, but they are only miniscule in the big picture. If money suddenly becomes worthless most places, the economy “locks up,” meaning that government offices close and utilities that are privately owned shut down. This is what is termed in doomer circles, the Korowicz Crunch.

 Milk will be dumped in ditches because it can’t be transported from the dairies because there is no petrol because the filling stations have closed from a lack of electricity. In the US, the only two federally owned electric utilities would (hopefully) be tasked with providing enough emergency power to bring the 100 US nuclear plants to cold shutdown (a many-years' long process of water circulation using enormous electric-powered pumps), averting 100 Fukushimas, and perhaps supply some spare power to the emergency meetings in various state capitals, or hospitals and National Guard bases. We mention the National Guard, because it would be needed to transport coal to those two federal utilities, BPA and TVA, assuming they were nimble enough to recognize the peril at Indian Point and the other 99 ticking atomic time-bombs.

BPA’s 31 hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River and a nuclear plant located at the Hanford weapons lab in eastern Washington can be pooled with TVA’s 29 power-producing dams and 6 reactors to generate enough wheeling power to supply emergency needs in 48 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. But make no mistake. That ration is not enough for homes and businesses, which takes down the food supply chain, gas stations, television, commercial air, bus and rail travel, the internet, wireless telephone service, any ATMs not already empty, and anything resembling normal life for 300 million people. It merely prevents a glow-in-the-dark outcome for New York City and the 8% of the US population within the evacuation zone of Indian Point, which would be happier than the alternative.


As of this month, March 2014, there are 435 operating nuclear power reactors, in 31 countries, and in 15 countries there are 72 more under construction.


If agribusiness shuts down (no fuel, no money), there will be no industrial-scale spring plantings of wheat, beans and corn. Herds of cows, sheep and other domestic animals that lack pasture or stored feed will be slaughtered and their meat either traded for spare parts, whiskey or bullets, or composted. People who hope to turn lawns into gardens may discover it difficult to obtain seed.

The rural ecovillagers and communitarians who have been pursuing a “lifeboat” strategy with permaculture designs and transition towns may fare somewhat better. They have better food and water security than most and for a while they could lend a helping hand to those less fortunate. Amongst ourselves, we might even begin to re-establish a homebrewed internet using ham modems on shortwave powered by solar energy.

Every time we get caught up in a wave of hope that things will soon change — or despair that they won’t — we strap on the rubber tube and get yet another fix from doomersphere and are reminded that it can get much worse. John Michael Greer, another of our Age of Limits conferees who writes so prolifically we imagine him having an entire druidic colony laboring in candlelight to churn out essays and books under his name, reminds us that history is not linear but cyclical and what we are seeing has all been seen before, and likely will be seen again, many times over. 


In logic syllogistics this is known as the post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc (as before so forever) fallacy.

A century from now our numbers and hubris will have declined, and none of us will likely be around to see it, so, for most of us as individuals, half a century or more out is equivalent to near-term extinction. As a species, regrettably not so. Greer’s most recent post dissects the Guy-McPherson-near-term-extinction (NTE) thesis (and American Exceptionalism - a term coined by Joseph Stalin) and raises a respectful eyebrow. Greer, or his stable of druids, writes:

It’s not exactly easy to run controlled double-blind experiments on entire societies, but historical comparison offers the same sort of counterweight to confirmation bias.
Clonal Spiderwort, Tradescantia nonukes, blooming at The Farm

Ebenezer Scrooge said, “Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point, answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only? Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead, but if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!”

At this precious moment, our future is not engraved in stone. We may yet sponge away the writing. Still, a couple years’ supply of food, fertile seed, ham modem equipment and more solar cells is probably not a bad idea. The next crash will look nothing at all like 2008, but the Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook: Recipes for Changing Times  still holds its value.

We are comforted by the arrival of longer, warmer days and our migratory friends, the birds and butterflies. This history, this season of change, is a pattern that abides. It always renews hope that maybe now, this year, things may begin to get a little better, or at least begin to sort out the truth from the fiction.
 

Friday, March 7, 2014

Sunblock

"We continue to be amazed at how many commentators, otherwise very thoughtful and well-informed, seem to think that humans will find technological solutions, such as super-efficient appliances and mag-lev light rail, to cure the impending energy shortfall. That won’t happen, and our Ponzi money system is why."

Ted Glick, in “Making a Renewable Energy Revolution,” Future Hope, March 2, 2014, writes:
A climate revolutionary is someone who works for a rapid and just transition away from oil, coal, gas and nukes to an economy powered primarily by wind, solar and geothermal energy, with energy sources increasingly decentralized and community-based, with society-wide energy conservation and energy efficiency, and with a conscious plan to ensure that this transition is done in a way which creates living wage jobs both for the currently unemployed and for workers in the fossil fuel industry who lose their jobs because of the shift to renewables. There are tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of activists in the United States who I believe are in general agreement with this perspective. They are part of the numerous local, state, regional and national groups which prioritize the climate issue in some way.
Don’t get us wrong. We admire Ted Glick.

We have been bullish on transitioning the world back to solar energy since the late 1960s, when we bought our first solar cells and started tinkering with wind generators. By the early 70s, when we started Global Village Institute as ‘Global Village Technology,’ we were constructing concentrating arrays using Fresnel lenses and exotic gallium arsenide silicon chips and bending our own windmill blades on self-made presses, as our copies of Soft Energy Paths and The Mother Earth News grew dog-eared. In the 80s we enjoyed a steady diet of encouragement from Barry Commoner, Bill Mollison and Denis Hayes and hoped fervently that the world would beat the last remaining blades of fossil sunlight into solar plowshares.


A half-century later, we are likely seeing the end of that dream, not for want of desire, but from simple arithmetic. Industrial scale renewable energy will inevitably decline. Don’t mistake this prediction as saying we are at peak renewables. Quite the contrary. Perhaps even the nascent industry has a good ways to go, borne on the wings of capital flight from fossil and nuclear, and much good can yet be accomplished. But as a share of overall energy production, renewables are still in the trough that they slid into at mid-Nineteenth Century. On a straight-line chart, they could climb out of that slump by mid- to late-Twenty-First Century. What we won’t have, though, is the technological civilization Ted Glick takes for granted. The renewable energy source with the biggest market share will be firewood.

How long the solar and wind farm phenomena persist will depend on how long our current ‘extend and pretend’ debt-based global economic paradigm can be sustained. Maybe another month. Maybe half a century. But when that is done, we will be back once more to something approaching fully solar. You can take that to the bank.

Lets run a few numbers to demonstrate.

Energy keeps our economy running.  Energy is also what we use to obtain more energy.  The more energy we use to obtain more energy, the less we have for anything else. That dilemma was most recently explained in superlative detail by Steve Kopits in a talk at Columbia University in February.

The trend is already clear: the energy of the future will have lower energy return on energy invested — EROEI — than the energy of the past. Apart from some rare abiogenic sources, all fossil fuels are biofuels — from plants and animals that grew and harvested sunlight over millions of years. All renewables derive from the current energy flux (sunlight, wind, tides, plant growth, or heat from the earth) in real time. Renewables have low EROEI compared to high-carbon fuels such as coal and oil. In some cases — the Alberta Tar Sands, many shale oil plays, new nuclear — the EROEI may even be net minus. What is being purchased with greater nature-debt is time.

Jeff Vail, in a 2009 post, offered these two examples:

Basic data: 1.2 MW array installed 2009 in Los Angeles, cost $16.5 million up front (ignoring rebates/tax credits/incentives), projected financial return of $550,000 per year. At the rough California rate of $.15 per KWh, that's about 4 GWh per year (conservative).


Price-Estimated-EROEI Calculation: The $16.5 million up-front is, at $0.09/KWh (here using national average, as there's no reason to think that manufacturers would use primarily California peaking power to build this system), an input of 183 GWh through installation (I'm ignoring the relatively small maintenance costs here, which will also make the figure more conservative). If we assume a life-span of 40 years, then the energy output of this system is 160 GWh. That's a price-estimated EROEI of 0.87:1. 


Wind Example: I've had a more difficult time finding a recent wind project where good data (on both cost and actual, as opposed to nameplate, output) is available. As a result, I've chosen a 2000 Danish offshore wind project at Middelgrunden. While up-front expenses may be higher off-shore (making the resulting EROEI more accurate for offshore projects than on-shore), I think this is a relatively modern installation (2MW turbines).


Basic data: Cost of $60 million, annual energy output 85 GWh.

Price-Estimated-EROEI Calculation: At the US national average rate for electricity ($0.09/KWh), the $60 million up-front energy investment works out to 666 GWh. Using a life-span of 25 years (and assuming zero maintenance, grid, or storage investment, making the result artificially high), the energy output comes to 2125 GWH. That's a price-estimated-EROEI of 3.2:1.

While it might have been possible to build a Maya-type or Roman-type civilization on an EROEI of 3:1, it is not possible to sustain modern technological complexity on anything much below 5:1. Remember, we put men on the moon and laid internet fiber cables under the oceans when EROEI was 100:1, so even 5:1 is pretty speculative, and would likely require some significant technological leaps that have not occurred despite vast capital being thrown at them, and now seem unlikely (i.e.: “fairy dust”).

One bellweather is air travel. Since Peak Oil was hit globally in 2005, airlines have been operating on the edge of bankruptcy, cutting amenities to allocate more cash to purchasing fuel. It has been reported that without the quick and dirty impact of US shale oil in 2012, some airlines would have already gone into receivership.
We continue to be amazed at how many commentators, otherwise very thoughtful and well-informed, seem to think that humans will find technological solutions, such as super-efficient appliances and mag-lev light rail, to cure the impending energy shortfall. That won’t happen, and the Ponzi money/debt system is why, but frankly, we find it difficult to imagine a civilization approaching ours in complexity being able to subsist on daily solar income in much the same style it had on that 500-million year fossil energy trust fund, even if money were magically reformed.

Since 2008 it has become clear that the timing of the crash of our oil-dependent civilization comes around to the fate of a single indicator. It comes down to James Carville’s famous imperative for the Clinton Campaign: “It’s The Economy Stupid!” We can count ourselves lucky, from a climate standpoint, that globalization was still relatively young when the party ran out of ice and had to break up.

All political systems exist to concentrate wealth at the center at the expense of the periphery. So to maintain their complex central operating systems and lavish gifts upon their extremely wealthy and wasteful bazillionaires, London, New York, Stockholm, Moscow and Beijing sucked wealth out of very large moneysheds — Africa, South America, Eastern Europe, Asia and Australia. When they can't do that anymore — because the EROEI crisis has become a financial crisis — the sell orders will start to cascade. Distant trading relationships have a hard time remaining stable. Empire centers have to start maintaining their unsustainably high standards of living by sucking up marginal wealth from smaller, closer areas. This is what happened in ancient Rome and is now happening on the European periphery. That strategy only gets you so far before the local wealth is completely exhausted and there is nothing left to drain.

This is the soft underbelly of industrial scale renewable energy. It is not shortages of rare earths or energy inputs to make solar cells and windmills. It is the ability to finance production when your economic system is in free fall.
 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Ukrainian Iceberg







Ethnic Division in Ukraine - Red is Russian
We had only just returned from one of the more remote places we go to teach permaculture, the Maya Mountains on the Belize side of Guatemala’s southern border. Passing through airports, we started hearing the media drumbeat and listened to what the rhythms were saying. There were three competing beats — Ukraine, Bridgegate, and the winter weather, including California’s drought. 


It is nice to see climate getting more column inches, even if the analysis is pretty lame. Political corruption in New Jersey, while cinematic, hardly qualifies as news. The Ukraine, however, is an iceberg drifting towards shipping lanes that seemed worth looking at more closely.

CNN-International’s headlines this morning read: Kerry: 'All option are on the table' ; Graham: Obama 'weak, indecisive' ; How Putin carries out power grab; Obama: Russia, stay out.

So, the first thing one must to do is learn what to ignore. Ignore CNN, and Fox, and MSNBC.

Coming to the situation completely cold, within a few minutes of surfing we learned that:

Victoria Nuland
·      Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, wife of prominent neocon Robert Kagan, made clear in a speech last December and in the leaked recording of her January 28 telephone conversation with the US ambassador in Kiev that Washington spent $5 billion of US taxpayer dollars engineering the coup in Ukraine. We don’t know how much of that was devoted to planning the post-coup golden toilet PR exhibition at the Yanukovych palace.

·      On February 23, moderates in Kiev ceded power, under duress, to neo-nazis who captured Parliament and introduced legislation banning any official use of the Russian language. One of the coup leaders announced that, “Ukraine will not be ruled by Negroes, Jews or Russians.” Gangs of thugs have been roaming the streets painting “Jews live here” on Jewish homes, and a prominent Rabbi has advised Jews to leave Kiev.

·      In the Russian-speaking provinces to the east, citizens took over local governments and appealed to Russia for help, which Russia was quick to offer, moving troops into the historically Russian Crimean peninsula, current site of three Russian military bases, and handing out Russian passports to anyone who wanted one.

Any qualifying Ukrainian would be well advised to take that offer. As Dmitry Orlov points out, both Washington and Brussels, and the media, ignored Putin's suggestion last fall of a bail-out to avoid Ukrainian bankruptcy, and that is now all but assured. Left holding the bag are the EU and Russia, since the US 911’d its assets by shorting Ukraine well before February, and China, which probably reads the State Department wire traffic before Susan Rice does, also cut its exposure in a timely fashion.

“Financial reserves are down to a few days, federal structures are being dismantled throughout the country, regional governors are fleeing, and a default on some €60 billion of Ukrainian bonds, many held by Russian banks, seems likely. Could this be just the kind of financial contagion needed to finally pop the ridiculous US equities bubble?” Orlov asks.

Also at risk are five nuclear power plants — we are interested to see how skinheads will run those — and the winter natural gas supply that crosses Ukraine on its way to Europe.

Andrey Tymofeiuk, a Kiev resident posted to his Facebook page, quoted by Orlov, “The passive population of Kiev is still quietly drinking beer and poking around with social networking apps. They don't understand what's happening yet. But if the unofficial state of emergency (including limitations on access to the city) last a few more days — and food and drink running out — then they will end up in a state of shock more serious than anything they have ever experienced.”

Russian special forces dropped into Sevastopol this weekend to bolster the military bases, especially the Black Sea Fleet’s Crimean base. The Red Army is massing on the border, ready if necessary to defend ethnic Russians and threatened military assets. This move prompted President Obama to make a sudden appearance in the White House press room, rattle his sabre, and warn Putin that the US would not stand for interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs. The irony appeared to go unnoticed.

Division of candidate votes cast in the last presidential election
Another unremarked irony was President Obama’s reference to Ukraine’s “territorial integrity.” US and its NATO allies gave little credence to that when creating an independent Kosovo or by supporting the separation of South Sudan from Sudan, Eritrea from Ethiopia, East Timor from Indonesia, and North and South Vietnam. If you care to go back pre-NATO, the seizure of northern Mexico, the Kingdom of Hawaii, the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the partition of Palestine and the creation of Israel are lingering lessons in the kind of blowback that comes from dividing territory united by history and heritage.

For the past couple of days the US and UK news cycles have been swept up in the Obama talking points being parroted by administration hacks, further obscuring the facts on the ground.

Putin need not rise to NATO’s bait. His options include cutting Ukrainian economic assistance ($15 billion last December, not counting heating fuel discounts); embargoing Ukrainian goods at Russian customs; imposing travel visas; reopening Catherine the Great’s prior claim on Crimea; or mounting his own PR black op to encourage Russian reunification in the eastern and southern provinces.

“Obama’s ‘warning’ to Putin was ill-advised. Whatever slim hope that Moscow might avoid overt military intervention in Ukraine disappeared when Obama in effect threw down a gauntlet and challenged him. This was not just a mistake of political judgment—it was a failure to understand human psychology — unless, of course, he actually wanted a Russian intervention, which is hard for me to believe.”

Robert Gates described the US foreign policy in his new memoir, Duty, tracing a line from Ukraine back to Dick Cheney: “When the Soviet Union was collapsing in late 1991, Dick wanted to see the dismantlement not only of the Soviet Union and the Russian empire but of Russia itself, so it could never again be a threat to the rest of the world.

I want to stay out of another war for very practical reasons:
·       War is horrible for our economy
·       “Humanitarian war” is a scam
This isn’t our fight … and the downside of getting involved are gigantic.

It is left to Vladimir Putin now to be the statesman here. There is a void of leadership everywhere else.

That the US and Russia will get into a shooting war in Ukraine seems unlikely, but you can bet that Republicans will challenge Democrats to a sabre-rattling contest nonetheless.

The drift of the iceberg is towards the economy of Europe — another €60 billion default and/or German bailout, assuming the Germans will want anything at all to do with Ukraine’s new leaders.

 

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