Friday, April 30, 2010

Oil spills — there's no free lunch

Here we go again. The tragic explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig and subsequent oil spill has stirred up the usual offshore drilling debate in the United States. Apparently, the Halliburton people had just finished completing the well when something went terribly wrong. Such incidents are relatively rare, and it's not known what the (over) reaction will be yet.

A U.S. Interior Department official on Thursday would not rule out a pause in new deepwater oil drilling until oil companies can demonstrate they are able to control spills.

"Everything is on the table," Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes said at a White House briefing on what the government is doing to handle the widening oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico caused by an oil rig explosion last week.

It is impossible to demonstrate that oil spills can be controlled unless you can anticipate future events. In so far as only God and Warren Buffet can do that, new deepwater drilling should not be halted for this reason.

Oil spills — theres no free lunch

The oil slick moves toward the Louisiana/Mississippi coast. The spill has been sweeping across the gulf for nine days. At first, BP
estimated the flow from the snapped-off, mile-down well at 1,000 barrels a day; now, officials say the flow is more like 5,000 barrels (about 200,000 gallons) per day

There's little doubt in my mind that this oil spill will be a terrible environmental disaster. How are they going to cap a snapped-off mile-down well? Assuming this can be done, how long will it take? This oil is not coming from a tanker run aground as with the Exxon Valdez.

At times like this, the only thing I can tell you is that Americans have made their bed and now they've got to lie in it. The oil & gas industry has an excellent safety record in the United States, but shit happens. It is naive to believe that we don't need deepwater oil unless lots of us decide to drive a lot less. But we created an economy based on energy from fossil liquids, so we won't have much of an economy if Americans drive a lot less. Our dependence goes on and on and on. There's a price to pay for all this, and now we're paying it.

There's no free lunch, but some people prefer to think lunches are free. For example, Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defence Council says—

Offshore drilling is dangerous work, as this tragedy reminds us. It also puts our oceans at risk, as we’re now seeing to our horror. We have an oil slick the size of West Virginia smothering marine life across the Gulf of Mexico and threatening to poison the fertile Mississippi Delta and the ecologically rich coastline along four states. And the best solutions our officials have come up with is to set it on fire. We have to do better than that.

Not only are our coastal ecosystems at stake, but so is America’s ocean-based economy, which each year generates more than $230 billion and provides more jobs than the entire farm sector. Ocean-related tourism alone supplies 2 million jobs — jobs that depend on clean, healthy beaches and abundant fish, not oil slicks.

Yes, yes, this is a terrible tragedy, but here comes the nonsense—

We simply don’t have to jeopardize our oceans economy in the name of fuel production. If we want to boost our domestic oil supply, we should focus on enhanced oil recovery from existing fields, a process that can supply more than 10 times the amount of oil that could be produced by drilling in our oceans over the same period. The better use of existing oil fields — together with fuel efficient cars — can help transition us to the 21st century without harming marine life or marine jobs.

Yo, Frances! NO FREE LUNCH! I was writing about EOR long before somebody told you about it. Who the hell told you enhanced oil recovery (EOR) can supply more than 10 times the amount of oil we get from the offshore in the same period? Was it Vello Kuuskraa? Who makes a living writing bullshit, feel-good reports for the government? If not him, then who?

The oil problem in the United States has been 40 years in the making if we date it from the peak of domestic production in 1970. There are no easy answers, so we took the easy way out: we imported more and more of the stuff. Just more and more heroin to feed our habit, no methadone and no cold turkey.

And now we're paying the tragic consequences. Our civilization has been and continues to be built on fossil energy. As a consequence of that mindless development humans have trashed their environment.

Drill, baby…oops!Economy picks up with service sector growth, more home contracts

BP's Thunder Horse to underperform in the wake of the deepwater horizon blowout?

This is a guest post by Seismobob. His real name is Glenn Morton, and he works in oil exploration in the oil industry.

With BP’s Deepwater Horizon blowout in the news, the world’s interest is now focused on deepwater oil production. BP has another deepwater platform in the Gulf of Mexico—Thunder Horse—where it has been working some for some time. My analysis suggests production is not going well as planned at Thunder Horse.

Thunder Horse field created huge excitement when it was discovered in 1999 in Mississippi Canyon blocks 788 and 822. Partners BP and Exxon announced that the field had a billion barrels of reserves. After nearly two years of production history on the field, it is becoming obvious to most outside observers that Thunder Horse field is not performing as it was expected to perform, if one is to believe the press accounts and specifications of the production facilities. If the field is underperforming, as the data available from the Minerals Management Service seems to indicate, this should be of concern and interest to those in the Peak Oil community, and to the world.

BPs Thunder Horse to underperform in the wake of the deepwater horizon blowout?

Figure 1 - Thunder Horse Oil Production in Thousand Barrels per Day, based on data of Minerals Management Services

Thunder Horse was designed with an oil production capacity of 250,000 barrels a day. Clearly, it never hit that level, and seems to be already declining. If the field really had a billion barrel of producible oil reserves, it would take 11 years of production at 250,000 barrels a day to reach this amount—something that looks very unlikely to happen. There seems to be no production plateau, and it appears that production may be declining by as much as 25% per year.

Natural gas production capacity for Thunder Horse is 200 million cubic feet per day. Production for natural gas doesn’t look any better.

BPs Thunder Horse to underperform in the wake of the deepwater horizon blowout?

Figure 2 - Thunder Horse Natural Gas Production in Million Cubic Feet per Day, based on data of Minerals Management Services

While it was designed to hit 200 billion cubic feet of gas per day, it never really hit that level, and also seems to be declining at around 25% per year.


There are two parts to the Thunder Horse complex as shown on the map below. Each block is 3 miles on a side. An anticline/turtle structure located on MC 778 and MC 822.Then there is Thunder Horse North which lies along the salt wall to the north of Thunder Horse proper.

BPs Thunder Horse to underperform in the wake of the deepwater horizon blowout?

Figure 3 - Map of Thunder Horse Complex

The main field consists of four producing wells, TA-001, TA-003, TA-004, and TD-001. There is also a fifth field, TA-002, which has not been put on line yet.

There is also production from blocks to the north of the main field, called Thunder Horse North on blocks MC 775, 776 and 777. There are five wells on these blocks, which are producing from sands uplifted against the Thunder Horse salt. These are TC-001, TC-002 (both on MC776) and TB-001, TB-002, and TF-001 (all on MC777).

BPs Thunder Horse to underperform in the wake of the deepwater horizon blowout?

Figure 4 - Thunder Horse Main -Oil Production by Well, in Thousand Barrels per Day, based on data of Minerals Management Services

Production on all of the wells in the Main Field has been lower since June 2009.

BPs Thunder Horse to underperform in the wake of the deepwater horizon blowout?

Figure 5 - Thunder Horse North - Oil Production by Well, in Thousand Barrels per Day, based on data of Minerals Management Services

Production from Thunder Horse North started much more recently. So far, except for TC001, production from these wells seems to be holding up, but the length of drilling experience is at most a year.

One of the issues seems to be that BP is now finding that the fluids extracted in the main field include an increasing proportion of water.

BPs Thunder Horse to underperform in the wake of the deepwater horizon blowout?

Figure 6 - Thunder Horse Main – showing oil, natural gas, and water production separately, based on data of Minerals Management Services

As Figure 6 shows, Thunder Horse main field has rapidly rising water. Thunder Horse North field doesn't have rapidly rising water; indeed it has no water at all. Probably because of this, the wells at the main field have been choked back and the North has been allowed to produce all out.

BPs Thunder Horse to underperform in the wake of the deepwater horizon blowout?

Figure 7 - Thunder Horse North – showing oil, natural gas, and water production separately, based on data of Minerals Management Services

Figure 7 shows Thunder Horse North is behaving quite well—no water cuts so far.

BPs Thunder Horse to underperform in the wake of the deepwater horizon blowout?

Figure 8 - Thunder Horse Fluids Production, split between oil-main; oil-north, and water-main,, based on data of Minerals Management Services

Thunder Horse was built with a total of 390,000 barrels a day of fluid capacity—250,000 barrels of oil, and 140,000 barrels a day of water.

Neither the daily production of water nor gas have reached the limits of the facility handling capacity, so with that in mind, one can view the drop in total fluids as most likely due to the natural pressure decline reducing the flow. Thunder Horse has no injection wells (they initially thought they needed it but then changed their minds). The field is producing just above 200,000 bbl/day of fluids and that is a concern.

It is a concern because the facility was designed to produce 390,000 bbl/day of total liquids. They are not bringing that much to the surface. The fact that the total liquids is slowly declining says one of two things: either the pressure decline is not allowing those flow rates, or they are throttling back on the flow to avoid coning the water into the wells and thus further harming the reservoir. But either way, the field is not performing as it was probably expected.


What are the implications for the ultimate hydrocarbon recovery for this field? If one could maintain 250,000 bbl/day of oil production until a billion barrels were recovered (something that can't possibly be done), it would take about 11 years to recover the billion barrels. I only make this comparison to point out one thing--the whole complex is not producing 250,000 bbl/day of oil, as shown in Figure 1.

The decline is 2-3% per month and even adding one well per month from October 2009 to January 2009, the decline has continued resulting in the complex producing only around 180,000 bbl/day. The well added in January was MC775, which is not on the main field but against the salt on the northwest side of the basin. If adding new wells isn't stopping the decline, then the underlying decline is quite steep.

When BP drilled the first well and announced a billion barrels, they were announcing that for the main field. Were it not for the North field, it would be clear that this field is not going to produce the advertised barrels. I will not mention numbers that engineers, with whom I have spoken, have suggested as the total volumes that will be produced by the entire complex. Who knows how the North field will produce? But I will say that unless something significant happens to change the situation, the ultimate production from the Thunder Horse complex will fall significantly short of a billion barrels.

Can the North field make up for the deficit in the main field? In my opinion it won't. Almost every well along the salt flank appears to be in a separate fault block and some of the down dip wells drilled along the north salt wall have encountered water-saturated sands. That means that water is coming to the North wells, sometime in the future. Given that the North was the later development and has been producing a shorter time, the delay in the water is partly understandable. That being said, the North field has produced longer without water than did the main field. Let us hope that the wells to the north fill in the deficit that is showing up in Thunder Horse proper.

Deepshit Horizon: Earth Day began with a blow-out, will it end with one?First Horizon shareholders grill executives over pay

Arizona, Immigration, and the Demise of Manifest Destiny

By now, most of you have probably heard about Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070, just signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer this past Friday. Surely this is an unjust law, by any definition. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote, “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law” (“Letter from Birmingham Jail,” par. 16).

Although I believe this law is truly unjust and discriminatory, I do understand the frustrations of Arizonans at the failure of the US Congress to pass an immigration law that they and the rest of us can live with. But I’m not going to discuss this law, its implications, or the likely upcoming challenges to its constitutionality. Others have spoken more eloquently about the terrible wrongheadedness of this law, so I’ll let them speak (see here, here, and here for examples). Instead, I would rather dig deeper and discuss the topics of human migration, US history, and how our nation’s immigration policies might prepare for the future.

In a book I read recently, I came across a fascinating thought. Writer John Michael Greer writes about what he sees as the possible future of industrial society as fossil fuel energy becomes more costly. In writing about the probability of large-scale, worldwide human migration in the near future, he writes:

“The first ripples of the future flood can be seen by anyone who travels by bus through the rural United States anywhere west of the Mississippi River or south of the Mason-Dixon line. Stray from the freeways and tourist towns and culturally speaking, as often as not, you’re in Mexico instead of the United States: the billboards and window signs are in Spanish, advertising Mexican products, music and sports teams and people on the streets speak Spanish and wear Mexican fashions. It’s popular among Anglophone Americans to think of this as purely a Southwestern phenomenon, but it has become just as common in the Northwest, the mountain states and large sections of the deep South. There are some 30 million people of Mexican descent in the US legally and some very large number—no one agrees on what it is, but eight million is the lowest figure anyone mentions—who are here illegally. As the migration continues, much of what was once the United States is becoming something else.

“A great deal of angry rhetoric has flared from all sides of the current debates on immigration, but none of it deals with the driving force behind these changes— the failure of the American settlement of the West. The strategies that changed the eastern third of the country from frontier to the heartland of the United States failed to work west of the Mississippi. Today the cities and farm towns that once spread across the Great Plains are fading into memory as their economic basis vanishes and the last residents move away, while the mountain and basin regions further west survive on tourist dollars, retirement income or cash crops for distant markets—none of them viable once cheap energy becomes a thing of the past.

“Like the Mongol conquest of Russia or the Arab conquest of Spain, the American conquest of the West is proving to be temporary, and as the wave of American settlement recedes, the vacuum is being filled by the nearest society with the population and the cultural vitality to take its place. The same thing is happening in Siberia, where Chinese immigrants stream across a long and inadequately guarded border, making the Russian settlement of northern Asia look more and more like a passing historical phase. Such shifts are very common when the reach of a powerful nation turns out to exceed its grasp.” (Greer 44-45)

The American settlement of the West was a failure? This is certainly not a thought that ever came to my mind. I haven’t traveled extensively in the West, so I have no first-hand knowledge of what Greer is describing. And the deep South? Is it true that many of the good folks of Yoknapatawpha County will be celebrating Cinco de Mayo next week? I don’t know.

However, in the early 1990s, Kathleen Norris wrote about the ongoing depopulation of the high plains; for example:

“You will pass a few modest homes and farm buildings along the way, some in use, others in disrepair. The most recently abandoned, a classic two-story farmhouse, has boarded-up windows and an extensive but weed-choked corral. A house abandoned years ago is open to the elements, all its windows and most of its shingles gone. A large shelterbelt, planted in the 1930s, is now a thicket of dead trees. Once the trees are gone the house will lean with the wind until it collapses; but that will be a while.” (Norris 161)

Reports I have read and heard about this region indicate that depopulation has only increased in the eighteen or so years since Norris wrote these words. Lands in the western Great Plains given to families under the Homestead Act are proving unsuitable for sustained agriculture and are reverting to short grass prairie as the farms are abandoned.

While it’s doubtless too early to tell for sure whether Greer is right that Anglo occupation of the West is temporary (the “temporary” Arab occupation of Spain that Greer cites lasted 800 years, after all), it does make one ponder the fate of Anglo-American settlements that grew in the wake of US policies rooted in the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, that nineteenth century, quasi-religious notion that the USA was destined by divine right to spread across the North American continent. One of those policies is directly relevant to the immigrant question: Manifest Destiny was used to justify going to war against Mexico in the 1840s. The most significant result of that war was the US annexation of large parts of formerly Mexican territory: Colorado, Utah, California, and most of the desert southwest, including Arizona. Opponents of the Mexican War, most famously Abraham Lincoln and Henry David Thoreau, saw it as a land grab and an attempt to expand slavery into new territories; supporters used Manifest Destiny to justify it.

However we might feel today about US control of these formerly Mexican lands and how we acquired them, it’s important to note that the US/Mexico border is and always has been an arbitrary line drawn across the desert and never a complete cultural divide. It seems to me that much of the current acrimony over illegal immigration has tended to forget this. We want to believe that nation states (including the United States, while making allowances for its ethnic diversity) are neat packages of culturally if not ethnically distinct human beings living within well-defined, secure borders, and that’s the way it’s always been. Historically this has not been the case; the fact that it has been the case for as long as anyone alive can remember is due to some unusual historical circumstances that encouraged the rise of the nation state in late Renaissance Europe. The United States was born during this period of nation state ascendancy, so we tend to think of it as normal. Like all periods of history, though, this state of affairs is certain not to continue forever, though it’s anyone’s guess as to when this particular set of circumstances might end.

For most of human history, ever since our first ancestors began migrating out of Africa on their way to populating the remotest corners of the globe, migration has been a normal state of affairs. Most of us are familiar with migration stories from history and legend: the biblical Hebrews come immediately to mind; then there were the Anglo-Saxons, who left their homes in what is now northern Germany (called Saxony to this day) to settle in southern Britain, pushing the Celtic Britons west into Wales, Brittany, and Cornwall. The Aryans migrated from an uncertain location in the Eurasian steppes and established themselves in India over 3,700 years ago, and the Celts themselves probably migrated into the westernmost outposts of Europe from the central Danube basin sometime around 500 BCE. Ancestors of the Navajo nation of the Arizona desert lived in the northwestern portions of Canada near the Great Slave Lake; they have legends of a time when their people lived in the frozen north.

The reasons for migration can be many: overpopulation, lack of sufficient resources, war, drought or famine, social pressures, religious persecution. Greer believes, and I concur with him, that many of these pressures are going to increase in the future as world population continues to grow and as resource depletion, such as fossil fuels, water, and soil, forces people once again to make these kinds of choices. And I haven’t even mentioned the potential pressure that climate upheaval may bring to bear on human populations. Already we’ve seen climate change refugees in some parts of the world.

Most Americans view illegal immigration as little more than a trespassing and economics issue, but if migratory pressures are in play here, it’s a far bigger set of circumstances than that. Whether Greer proves correct about the temporary nature of Anglo settlement of the West, it seems that migratory pressures in Mexico and other parts of Latin America may be increasing. Some have pointed to US farm subsidy policy, coupled with “free trade” agreements that allow subsidized US corn to be sold in Mexico for much less than local growers can produce it, forcing Mexican campesinos off their land and giving them an incentive to try their luck in the USA. Others point to population pressure. In the future, climate change and population may play a far larger role than economics.

The bottom line is that Arizona’s new law will fail, one way or another. Securing the borders, to the extent that we will be able to, is a federal, not a state responsibility. Congress needs to rise to the challenge and pass a comprehensive immigration law that both provides for just enforcement and accommodates the realities we face in a changing world. The longer Congress displays lack of courage to tackle this tough issue, the more excuses their inaction will offer others to take matters into their own hands, like Arizona has done.

We may be able to secure the border with a just law. But it’s also possible that future migratory pressures may become a force we cannot stop. In that case, the best we might be able to hope for is to manage the influx of refugees and migrants. Whatever happens, one thing appears certain, though: Manifest Destiny seems at last to be dead.

Works Cited

Greer, John Michael. The Ecotechnic Future . Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society, 2009.

Norris, Kathleen. Dakota: A Spiritual Geography . Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

Economy blamed for U.S. birth rate decline in 2008The End Of Suburbia — Really!

Drill, baby...oops!

The news from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is not good. If the NOAA estimates are right about the size of the spill it could dwarf Exxon Valdez:

Over the last few days, estimates had held that the Gulf of Mexico oil spilling was leaking about 1,000 barrels, or 42,000 gallons, into the water each day--bad, but still not historically bad on a scale like the spill caused by the Exxon Valdez. Except now, after closer investigation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that oil company BP's estimate might in fact be five times too low.

Rear Adm. Mary Landry, the Coast Guard's point person, gave the new estimate yesterday as the Coast Guard began its planned controlled burn of some of the oil. While emphasizing that the estimates are rough given that the leak is at 5,000 feet below the surface, Admiral Landry said the new estimate came from observations made in flights over the slick, studying the trajectory of the spill and other variables [The New York Times]. Because the oil below the surface is so hard to measure or estimate, NOAA's numbers are still rough estimates, too. BP's chief operating officer told ABC News he thinks the number is probably somewhere between the two estimates.

But if NOAA's high-end number right, the oil spill caused by the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon just entered a new class of awful. Do the math: At the previous estimation--1,000 barrels (42,000 gallons) of oil per day--it would have taken this spill 261 days, or more than eight continuous months, to dump as much oil into the sea at the Exxon Valdez did near Alaska in 1989. But, if it's true that 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) are entering the Gulf each day, it would take just 53 days to top the Valdez' total of 11 million gallons. Already 9 days have passed since the explosion.

Moreover, as the Wall Street Journal Reports, the well doesn't have a particular sort of emergency automatic shut-off standard in Norway and Brazil - although there's some question of whether the shut off would have worked, the oil industry in the US apparently argued against the necessity of these devices:

The efficacy of the devices is unclear. Major offshore oil-well blowouts are rare, and it remained unclear Wednesday evening whether acoustic switches have ever been put to the test in a real-world accident. When wells do surge out of control, the primary shut-off systems almost always work. Remote control systems such as the acoustic switch, which have been tested in simulations, are intended as a last resort.

.Nevertheless, regulators in two major oil-producing countries, Norway and Brazil, in effect require them. Norway has had acoustic triggers on almost every offshore rig since 1993.

The U.S. considered requiring a remote-controlled shut-off mechanism several years ago, but drilling companies questioned its cost and effectiveness, according to the agency overseeing offshore drilling. The agency, the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, says it decided the remote device wasn't needed because rigs had other back-up plans to cut off a well.

The U.K., where BP is headquartered, doesn't require the use of acoustic triggers.

On all offshore oil rigs, there is one main switch for cutting off the flow of oil by closing a valve located on the ocean floor. Many rigs also have automatic systems, such as a "dead man" switch as a backup that is supposed to close the valve if it senses a catastrophic failure aboard the rig.

As a third line of defense, some rigs have the acoustic trigger: It's a football-sized remote control that uses sound waves to communicate with the valve on the seabed floor and close it.

Meanwhile, the potential effect on fisheries and associated livelihoods, thousands of unique species and residents are likely to be disastrous. Among the potential victims:

The Gulf region contains about five million acres of wetlands, which are an essential habitat for three quarters of all of the migrating waterfowl that cross the US.

There are more than 3,300 marine species in the Gulf, including six endangered species of whale. Its shores include the only known nesting beach of Kemp's Ridley, the world's most endangered sea turtle. There are also populations of protected Hawksbill, Loggerhead and Leatherback turtles, which are about to begin their nesting season and would be particularly vulnerable to oil washed up on beaches.

There are several shark species declared to be "of concern" because of declining populations. The Gulf is also home to one of the world's largest populations of bottlenose dolphins, with an estimated 45,000 in its waters.

It is interesting that this emerging situation is occurring at the same time as the final approval of Cape Wind, the controversial wind farm held up by NIMBYism and shortly following Obama's opening of offshore drilling. Our future as a society is going to involve a certain measure of raping the environment - we know this. We have been casual about the consequences we can see, and reluctant to make visible the full consequences of our extraction - we assume that our resources are clean if we don't have to live near the pollution they engender. This, of course is not true.

It is easy to cry "Drill, baby, drill" and harder to live with the real world consequences of our consumption - increasingly hard. And there aren't a lot of good answers - but one of the things I think is essential is that we understand what we are talking about. It is easy to march to close a coal plant - and it is necessary that we do close them. But unless we are prepared to bring our electrical generation home, to do with less and to find ways to live with less, that march is meaningless. We can't oppose offshore drilling and drive around as much as we like, nor can we support offshore drilling...except when it might affect our lives and livelihood.

Americans live in a world where there's so much "away" - we laud ourselves for reductions in pollutants that we have merely offshored, we laud ourselves for costs that we have merely deferred upon the next generation. We throw "away" so many things, and push "away" so much knowledge. I'm deeply grieved about this oil spill, and I hope from it may emerge a little more knowledge, a little more recognition that there is no such place as "away"

Deepshit Horizon: Earth Day began with a blow-out, will it end with one?Business briefs: Community Health’s profits increase

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Renewables & efficiency - Apr 29

Giant gravel batteries could make renewable energy more reliable
Alok Jha, The guardian
Newly designed giant gravel batteries could be the solution to the on-off nature of wind turbines and solar panels. By storing energy when the wind stops blowing or the sun stops shining, it is hoped the new technology will boost to renewable energy and blunt a persistent criticism of the technology - that the power from it is intermittent.

Electricity cannot be stored easily, but a new technique may hold the answer, so that energy from renewables doesn't switch off when nature stops playing ball. A team of engineers from Cambridge think they have a potential solution: a giant battery that can store energy using gravel.

"If you bolt this to a wind farm, you could store the intermittent and relatively erratic energy and give it back in a reliable and controlled manner," says Jonathan Howes, founder of Isentropic and previously an engineer at the Civil Aviation Authority.

The Labour government committed to cutting the country's carbon emissions by 34% by 2020 and 80% by 2050, both relative to 1990 levels. To achieve this, ministers outlined plans to build thousands of wind turbines by 2020. The only economically viable way of storing large amounts of energy is through pumped hydro – where excess electricity is used to pump water up a hill. The water is held back by a dam until the energy is needed, when it is released down the hill, turning turbines and generating electricity on the way.

Isentopic claims its gravel-based battery would be able to store equivalent amounts of energy but use less space and be cheaper to set up. Its system consists of two silos filled with a pulverised rock such as gravel. Electricity would be used to heat and pressurise argon gas that is then fed into one of the silos. By the time the gas leaves the chamber, it has cooled to ambient temperature but the gravel itself is heated to 500C...
(26 April 2010)

Regulators Approve First Offshore Wind Farm in U.S.
Katherine Q. Seelye, The New York Times
After nine years of regulatory review, the federal government gave the green light Wednesday to the nation’s first offshore wind farm, a highly contested project off the coast of Cape Cod.

The approval of the 130-turbine farm gives a significant boost to the nascent offshore wind industry in the United States, which has lagged far behind Europe and China in harnessing the strong and steady power of ocean breezes to provide electricity to homes and businesses.

With Gov. Deval Patrick standing beside him, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced at a news conference at the Massachusetts Statehouse that the government had approved a permit for Cape Wind Associates, a private venture, to build the farm.

“I am approving the Cape Wind project,” Mr. Salazar said. “This will be the first of many projects up and down the Atlantic coast.”

The Cape Wind turbines would lie in Nantucket Sound, about five miles from the nearest shoreline, and cover 24 square miles, roughly the size of Manhattan. The tip of the highest blade of each turbine would reach 440 feet above the water.

But the project is hardly shovel ready. Several regulatory hurdles remain, and opponents of the wind farm have vowed to go to court, potentially stalling Cape Wind for several more years...
(28 April 2010)

Colorado Shows How It's Done
Craig Severance, energy economy online
As the U.S. Senate now prepares to consider a new climate bill, Congress can consider how readiily climate action can take hold, through the example of Colorado. This politically diverse state has aggressively embraced climate action as a way to grow its economy.

Bipartisan Support. Colorado's action plan is noteworthy because key elements of the plan have received strong bi-partisan support, in a "purple" Swing State that is neither dependably Democratic nor Republican. As an example, the latest measure adopted -- a bill to encourage conversion of older coal-fired power plants to cleaner natural gas -- was co-sponsored by the Republican Senate Minority Leader Sen. Josh Penry and several other Republicans, along with most Democrats and Democratic Governor Bill Ritter.

This strong support for climate action is remarkable, considering Colorado is one of the nation's most heavily coal-dependent states.

Coal Was King. As recently as 2005, Colorado relied upon coal to supply over two thirds of its electricity, making Colorado far more dependent on pollution-spewing coal than the nation as a whole, which averages around half of total electricity from coal. Coal has been cheap yet produces massive carbon dioxide emissions which cause global warming. The idea of a major coal-dependent state such as Colorado becoming a climate change leader was thus a daunting challenge.

Colorado is nevertheless now leading the way to achieve one of the highest reductions in carbon emissions anywhere in the world. Colorado is on track to achieve a total 30% reduction by 2020 in CO2 emissions from its electric power industry. This is far ahead of 17% reduction by 2020 greenhouse gas reduction goals set in Congressional climate legislation -- showing that even a "coal state" can far exceed those goals.

As the nation's 8th largest coal-producing state, Colorado could have chosen to resist climate change action like many other states with strong coal lobbies. However, led by Colorado's own citizens through a 2004 renewable power initiative, strong leadership by Governor Bill Ritter and bipartisan action by the Colorado legislature, Colorado is instead showing "how it's done" to the rest of the country and the world...
(24 April 2010)

Windmill Boom Curbs Electric Power Prices for RWE
Jeremy van Loon, Bloomberg
On windy nights in northern Germany, consumers are paid to keep the lights on.

Twice this year, the nation’s 21,000 wind turbines pumped out so much power that utilities reduced customer bills for using the surplus electricity. Since the first rebate came with little fanfare at 5 a.m. one October day in 2008, payments have risen as high as 500.02 euros ($665) a megawatt-hour, about as much as a small factory or 1,000 homes use in 60 minutes.

The wind-energy boom in Europe and parts of Texas has begun to reduce bills for consumers. Electricity-network managers have even ordered windmills offline at times to trim supplies. That hurts profit for wind-farm operators, said Christian Kjaer, head of the European Wind Energy Association, which represents RWE AG of Germany, Spain’s Iberdrola SA and Dong Energy A/S of Denmark.

“We’re seeing that wind energy lowers prices, which is great for the consumers,” Kjaer said at his group’s conference in Warsaw this week. “We as producers have to acknowledge that this means operating the existing plant fewer hours a year, and this has an effect on investors” and profit.

After years of getting government incentives to install windmills, operators in Europe may have become their own worst enemy, reducing the total price paid for electricity in Germany, Europe’s biggest power market, by as much as 5 billion euros some years, according to a study this week by Poeyry, a Helsinki-based industry consultant.
(23 April 2010)

Insurer charges Toyota for claimsRenewables out of the bottle

The Costs of Complexity

It’s a bit ironic, given the events now in the headlines, that I started last week’s post by commenting that it had been an interesting week for connoisseurs of decline and fall; it might have been better to say “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” About the time the volcanic ash from Iceland began settling out of Europe’s airspace, to begin with, another black cloud began to rise from the lava vents of Wall Street, caused by the spontaneous combustion of whatever might have been left of Goldman Sachs’ reputation for fiscal probity.

It’s a fascinating turn of events, not least because Goldman Sachs has been remarkably cozy with the last two presidential administrations here in the US. Still, that didn’t keep the SEC from filing fraud charges against the firm, and it didn’t prevent the publication of a flurry of highly damaging emails in which Goldman Sachs executives boasted about selling made-to-fail securities to widows and orphans – yes, that last phrase actually got used – and then taking out short contracts on those same securities, so that Goldman Sachs profited when the securities did what they were designed to do, and lost money. For all the world like Casablanca ’s Captain Renault, Congress is shocked, shocked to find that Goldman Sachs is making money at its customers’ expense; the interesting question is whether this fine imitation of outrate is simply the sort of ritual theater governments use so often these days as a substitute for constructive action, or whether serious power shifts are under way.

My guess, for what it’s worth, is the latter. Despite cheerleading and doctored statistics from within the Beltway, the US economy is in deep and deepening trouble; foreclosures continue to climb, commercial real estate and second mortgages are shaping up to be the next big shocks, and the rolling collapse of state and local government finances shows no sign of slowing down. The Goldman Sachs flacks who moved into power with the Obama administration promised to fix things; they have pretty clearly failed; and as the neoconservatives learned not long ago, intolerance for failure is very nearly the only thing on which the squabbling factions of the American political class can agree.

Meanwhile, another plume of smoke has been rising from Europe. Greece has had its credit rating cut to junk-bond levels; Portugal and Spain have suffered downgrades, and even rock-solid Germany has had trouble selling its bonds, as investors price in the economic burdens of bailing out countries that lack the political will to keep their expenditures in line with their national income. If the response to this crisis is bungled badly enough, it’s not impossible that the survival of the Euro may be at risk; it’s still open to question whether a single currency will work without a single government to back and manage it, and the handwaving and bickering that has been the order of business in European capitals as the crisis has unfolded does not particularly inspire confidence.

Speaking of plumes of smoke, of course, calls to mind the third unfolding disaster of the last week, the wreck of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which according to an announcement today is currently spewing around five thousand barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico. The US Coast Guard has announced that it plans to light the spreading oil slick on fire, in the hope that enough of it will burn up to save the $2 billion a year Louisiana seafood industry from disaster. Partisans of the “drill, baby, drill” approach to energy security take note: there are good practical and economic reasons why most of the US coast has long been off limits to oil drilling, and getting oil out of deposits nearly a mile underwater, and a good deal further than that under sea-bottom sediments, is not as foolproof a procedure as politicians and talk show hosts would like you to think.

These three smoke plumes, interestingly enough, have a factor in common, and it’s the theme I want to discuss in this week’s post – not least because a great many of the crises we’re likely to face as the age of cheap abundant energy comes to an end also share that factor. All three of them resulted when people in a situation of high complexity tried to solve the problems of that situation by adding on an additional layer of complexity.

Goldman Sachs, to begin with, has been in the business of making complex problems more complex for a very long time. One of the chapters of John Kenneth Galbraith’s excellent The Great Crash 1929 , a book which ought to be required reading for all those people who think they understand the stock market, is titled “In Goldman, Sachs We Trust”; it’s an account of the preposterous investment vehicles – it does violence to the English language to call them “securities” – that Goldman Sachs floated in the 1929 stock market bubble. Very little has changed since then, either. In 1929, Goldman Sachs sold shares of investment trusts that speculated in shares of other investment trusts; in 2009, they sold tranches of CDOs composed of tranches of other CDOs, and in both cases they served mostly as a means by which a lot of people lost a lot of money while Goldman Sachs did quite well.

You may be wondering why anybody would put their hard-earned money into an investment vehicle that consisted of a collection of bets that other investment vehicles would make money off yet a third set of investment vehicles. In 1929, the answer was raw greed, whipped up to monumental intensity by a very widespread attack of the delusion that brokers want to make you rich. In 2009, the answer was more complex. For more than twenty years, beginning in the wake of the 1987 Wall Street crash, the financial agencies of the US government had been struggling to keep what was left of the American economy from imploding. One of the main tools used in this struggle was rock-bottom interest rates, which were brought into play whenever one speculative bubble popped and which then, with clockwork regularity, fed the new speculative bubble that followed.

One of the many problems set in motion by this strategy was that all the ordinary sources of investment income were reduced to paying chump change. Gone were the halcyon days when every bank in the United States paid 5.25% per annum on savings accounts by federal law. (It somehow seems to have escaped the attention of most economic historians that the end of that era coincided very precisely with the point at which most Americans stopped putting their money into savings accounts.) As the Fed repeatedly bounced interest rates off the floor to jumpstart an increasingly reluctant economy, every person and institution dependent on investment income found themselves facing a sharp decrease in income. The simple solution would have been to accept the austerity that this entailed, but for obvious reasons this was not popular; it’s worth remembering that “simple” is rarely the same thing as “easy.”

The alternative was to respond to this complex set of circumstances by adding another layer of complexity, and Goldman Sachs was ready to help them do so. Complicated, risky investment strategies that promised high returns became the order of the day. In their eagerness to make more than chump change, a great many people thus became chumps.

The situation in Greece, and a great many other southern European countries, was similar. The same habits of economic manipulation that made the US economy so complex over the last two decades were just as popular in Europe, with the added complexity of a single currency far too rigidly structured to deal with the economic vagaries of more than a dozen fractious nation-states with different economic policies. Add in the speculative boom in real estate that went bust in 2008, which flooded southern Europe with money and then took it all back with interest, and you have a very complex situation, one in which all the usual options were foreclosed by EU economic policy. There were several simple solutions, such as ditching the Euro and allowing a new Greek currency to find its market value, but once again, “simple” is not the same thing as “easy.”

The government of Greece responded to these complexities instead by adding another layer of complexity. It hired Goldman Sachs – no, I’m not making this up – to create a set of complicated investment vehicles that made the Greek national debt look smaller than it was, in order to get by the more onerous limits of EU economic policy. These vehicles proceeded to crash and burn in the grand style, and took the Greek economy with them. Similar vehicles were sold by quite a number of brokerages – Goldman Sachs was far from the only player here – to national, provincial, and municipal governments all over Europe, and to state and local governments in the US as well, and yes, they’ve been blowing up right and left; I don’t think vehicles so flammable have been seen in such numbers since the Ford Pinto was recalled.

As far as I know, Goldman Sachs had nothing to do with the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform. Still, the entire strategy of pursuing petroleum production in deep waters is an attempt to solve a hideously complex problem – the problem of peak oil – by adding on another layer of complexity. There’s a simple response to peak oil, of course; it consists of using less petroleum, making do with less energy per capita, and learning to live within our means. Once again, though, “simple” doesn’t mean “easy,” any more than it means “enjoyable” or “politically acceptable.”

The result is that we’re pursuing oil wherever we can find it, no matter how complex or risky the prospect might be. Deepwater drilling is one example. It’s complicated stuff, far more expensive and demanding than the methods used to extract oil that happens to be conveniently located under dry land, and when the standard problems faced by oilmen everywhere crop up, responding to those problems involves a whole new world of complexity and risk. One of those standard problems is the risk of a blowout: a sudden surge of crude oil and natural gas that can come bursting up through a well at any point between the moment it’s first drilled and the moment the relatively sturdy structure that handles production is in place.

That’s almost certainly what happened to Deepwater Horizon. It’s a common enough event in drilling for oil, and it’s dangerous even when it happens on dry land and there’s someplace for the drilling crew to run. When the well begins almost a mile underwater, though, there’s the additional problem that nobody has the tools to handle a deepwater blowout if the underwater valves meant to shut it off at the wellhead should fail. That’s also happened to Deepwater Horizon, and if the current efforts to trigger the valves via robot submersibles don’t succeed – and they’ve shown no sign of succeeding so far – the only option left to the BP response crews is to jerry-rig techniques designed for shallow waters and hope they can be made to work 5000 feet under the sea. In the meantime, five thousand barrels a day of crude oil fountain out into the Gulf from the crumpled pipe.

In all three of these cases, the decision to add an additional layer of complexity to an already complex problem was an attempt to maintain business as usual, while the simpler option that was refused would have required the decision makers to abandon business as usual and accept a degree of austerity and limitation very few people find congenial these days. That’s not inherent in the relationship between complexity and simplicity, but it does tend to be a very common feature of the way that relationship works out in practice just now. We have an extraordinarily complex society; for some three centuries, attempts to manage problems by increasing complexity have paid off more often than not, which is why we have such a complex society; and this has led to the kind of superstition discussed in last week’s post – the unthinking assumption that what worked in the past will continue to work in the present and the future.

As Joseph Tainter has pointed out in his useful book The Collapse of Complex Societies , though, increases in complexity are subject to the same law of diminishing returns as anything else, and sooner or later a society that responds to every challenge by adding a new layer of complexity will reach the point that adding more complexity causes more problems than it solves. Several observations concerning Tainter’s insight are worth making here.

First, the diminishing returns of complexity apply to specifics as well as generalities, and for statistical reasons, the specifics will usually show up first. A society that has overloaded itself with complexity will tend to heap up more complexity in some areas of life than others, and one or more of these areas may well tip over into dysfunction sooner than others. Thus a society that is hammered by repeated crises of the same kind, and tries to solve them with layers of additional complexity that consistently seem to make the problem worse, may be at risk of tipping over into a wider dysfunction of which the visible crises are merely symptomatic.

Second, if a society has driven itself past the point of negative returns on complexity, and continues to try to add complexity to solve the resulting problems, it risks establishing a disastrous feedback loop in which its attempts to solve its problems become the major source of its problems. This can also apply to specifics as well as generalities, and show up first in particular aspects of a society’s collective life.

Third, one of the ironies faced by a society that has reached the point of negative returns on complexity as a means of problem-solving is that thereafter, the only way it can solve its problems is by not solving its problems. Any attempt to impose additional complexity will simply make matters worse, while allowing some particularly problematic heap of complexity to crash and burn may just reduce the complexity of the whole system to a point at which something constructive can actually be done. In the extreme case, where an entire society has pushed itself past the point of negative returns on complexity, collapse can be an adaptive response to a rising spiral of crisis that can be ended in no other way.

Finally, all these considerations apply just as much to the level of the individual, family, and community as they do to civilizations as whole systems, and it’s possible to use simplification on the level of the individual, family, and community to counter at least some of the consequences of complexity run amok. We’ll talk more about how that might work next week.

When does surplus = resilience?SEC fraud probe leads to Goldman Sachs

Permablitz in Action

Got an area of your landscape you need to transform from pointless to productive? Have you considered a Permablitz? This weekend, we held a Permablitz hands-on permaculture workshop at our house in Oklahoma City. Working together, in one day we transformed a 300 square foot Bermuda / mud / weed strip between driveways into a front-yard edible landscape with three fruit trees, culinary and medicinal herbs, edible perennial flowers, and "crop circles" (miniature raised beds made of old bricks) that will hold annual vegetables like watermelons and winter squash.

The idea for the project came from three problems I was encountering: no more space for fruit trees, no more space for rambling squash / melon vines, and a weedy, muddy area that served no purpose in our front yard. That strip between driveways required mowing and edging, but we got no enjoyment from it. It was also difficult to deal with (and presented some design challenges) since it was not near an outlet or a faucet, but was near a narrow strip where we keep our trashcans on the way to our only backyard gate. I think of the site as embodying the permaculture principle "Value the marginal" - because it borders two properties and is quite narrow, and previously, got no love at all.

Although I'm by no means a permaculture designer, and don't have a permaculture design certificate, I tried to design the area using permaculture techniques and principles from Gaia's Garden, by Toby Hemenway, and then consulted with Randy Marks of Land+Form sustainable land design for feedback. I selected mostly perennial plants with multiple functions and designed the area to serve many purposes. Eventually, the landscape will yield over 100 pounds of fruit, shade our driveway, channel runoff from our roof into an irrigation stream, provide beautiful flowers, and serve as a showcase for front-yard gardening/edible landscaping.

On Saturday, thirteen motivated people came to learn, share food and ideas, and work on the 'Blitz, which was led by Randy and benefited Transition Town OKC and Sustainable OKC. The group really put a lot of effort and care into the project. Our efforts were rewarded at the end - as we sat in the garage and shared apricot beer brewed by my husband, a downpour began and we got to watch the swale-stream in action. Thanks to everyone who worked so hard!

Nashville People in BusinessThree Spring Edibles

Out of our Ego Houses, into the Collective Intelligence

Communal life - our tribal past - valued the group over the individual. We left our communal past to put the individual's benefit (and especially material benefit) before the common good, in the process losing much of our memory of community.

In this time of rapidly approaching limits we need the gifts of both community and individuality to deal with what we're facing. There's a taboo against experiencing this, one that consciousness rapidly surmounts.

An artist friend of mine was telling me today about the struggles he'd had over the long winter to finish a major work. He lives alone in the bush. Some things weren't going well and what should have taken a few months was hard and took too many months to complete. He felt alone.

I know the feeling well, and I know the hunger, the sometimes hour-by-hour trek to the north pole of human connection. I'm sure you know it too!

We humans didn't evolve and become who we are alone. The solitary individual was an anomaly, often one on the way to becoming a fatality. We evolved in groups for our survival and betterment. The vast periods of our collective history spent in kinship and tribal groups created what we might call an architecture of "groupness" in our psyches. We feel whole and good when connected to a group in which we belong. We feel complete that way. There's a part of our soul that needs company for us to feel alive and well. (My friend Michael O'Connor coined the "groupness" word years ago, referring to the mysterious sense of being in a group. Dumb as it sounds, no other word since has said it quite so well.)

Many animals are communitarians as well. The lone wolf is a human metaphor for something that doesn't actually exist in nature. Wolves like to be in packs, and dog behaviour, including dog's behavior with humans, is the behavior of the pack. "You can take the creature out of the pack but you can't take the pack out of the creature."

Like dogs, humans have spent overwhelmingly most of our time in "packs", in communities with strong shared values. We moved across the land, made our decisions, and formed our identities and our place in the world within that group. For untold millennia we lived close to nature - right in it in what we now call "outside". We moved about and were continually seeing and being seen by our tribe or kinship group. Our common ancient past was an eternal camping trip in which everyone tracked where everyone else was and what they were doing, all the time. We lived and breathed in that communal web for hundreds of thousands of years. We did it long before we were recognizably human and almost all the time since. It's there!

But we've forgotten. We forget that we know about being part of a community, a tribe, in a deep and visceral, all-the-time way. Even though it's part of who we are and even though it resides deep in our experience, it moves with us invisibly, like a ghost. It's not noticed. Yet whatever else we are, we still are that.

There's a reason we left the tribe though, those of us who did. Tribal community had a serious downside: it emphasized group survival and health at the expense of the individual. We can make a pretty sure bet that within the tribe individuals felt a pressure to leave the group and strike out on their own - to individuate - but that this was suppressed for long periods. We can guess this because when the group's material and survival needs finally were well met, when the opening was unequivocally there, the movement toward individuality emerged quickly and strongly. The power of its emergence indicates that it was deeply wanted and ready.

In the modern era what we notice and value and explore is our individuality. We live inside our individual ego-identities and see the world from there. This is true for me and for my friends. There's a maturation and deepening that's come to us as we've become individuated. It's a step up from submergence in group mind. But there's a non-trivial downside to our individuality too. It's that our individual good, especially our material good, is valued over the needs of the group to the extent that we're oblivious to our group nature.

When individuated individuals move back consciously into a group they can become aware of a group mind, a collective intelligence. The traditional tribe doesn't commonly experience this, I don't think. They are in the group mind but they aren't noticing it because the individuated consciousness that can step outside as witness is needed to do so. The individuated consciousness can interact with the collective intelligence, can nurture and feed it, be fed by it. But the tribal person is submerged in the group mind and identified with it. The collective intelligence is implicit with the tribal person but not explicit.

Why we need the competencies of both the individual and the group
But here's the thing: we need the competencies of both the individual and the group to respond to the converging crises we're facing.

Peak oil, climate change, competition for other resources and food are the realities that challenge and will challenge us mightily; for much of the world, that challenge is well under way. The certainty of more worse is - more or less - certain. But collectively we're not seeing the coming storm except in a dreamy intellectual way, entirely out of sync with its immediacy. We're isolated in an individuated trance.

Not only individuals are stuck. Tribal thinking is powerless before this challenge too because it can't step outside it to get a better view; it's limited to past experience. Both the tribal and the individual perspectives are automatic and conditioned; what's needed is an integrated consciousness made up of both. This isn't given by evolution but by a conscious choice.

I've noticed that this integrated consciousness is able to see the problem in a powerful way.

Not just me. People who come together in groups in which they can suspend the exclusivity of their individual focus routinely see the looming problem of our future matter-of-factly as part of what's around them. They tend to see it as a self-evident feature of our common life. It's directly evident, obvious. It's our common existential problem, all around us but not always directly evident. As individuals we overlook it. It's part of the cost of becoming an individual that we screen it out.

However literate we are about the crisis facing the planet, we can't really get it it when we're isolated and individual-only.

Why is this?
But why can't we see the problem in a powerful way when we're on our own?

One reason is that the crisis we're facing is a crisis in identity and relationship. It's an aspect of the the way we're together socially and as part of a greater family than ourselves alone. We don't remember it when apart.

It takes the community to grasp its plight. Individuals operating as individuals think it's about them or their families. And while that's true as far as it goes, there's no power there. Both the threat and the solution present themselves to the collective, not just to individuals. There's no strategy at the level of the individual that can alter our fate; recycling only makes sense when we all do it. It's not about us or our families . . . or rather, it is but that's not enough. It's up to us individually AND collectively, and neither one of these alone will be enough.

What's needed is the mutual conscious recognition of our common situation - our collective intelligence.

We need others we can communicate with fully because that's part of how we deeply know things we need to know. We need them because it's with them we approach our full strength and clarity. In just the same way that we're not quite all there yet without a family to back us up, we're not quite all there without a depth family-like connection to a group of others who know our insides as well as our out. We're richer in all the human ways with this in place, and poorer without.

Much poorer! A physician friend tells me that fully 3/4 or his patients are on psychoactive medication for depression, anxiety, or inability to sleep. I suspect our collective unease about what's happening is part of what these individuals are feeling and responding too, part of what we're "out of touch" with. The more vulnerable canaries, those more in touch with being out of touch, aren't feeling well.

There's no way back to the tribe which submerges individuality. Groupness, if it's to be, now needs to offer the individual an opportunity to better grow his or her self within a group setting. The group needs to make room for the diversity and uniqueness of the individuals at every turn. It can do this splendidly but we don't usually give it a chance.

The taboo
That's because there's a small but definite taboo against reacquainting ourselves with this part of our nature. We defend our own individuality and we respect the individuality of others, with the same deference and discretion we display toward each other in pubic washrooms. Raising the possibility of groupness, or moving toward it seems to violate a taboo that protects our identity as individuals-alone. This taboo doesn't serve us.

Once an individual is invited into the group or is exposed to it for a short time, if the group has some inner coherence and energy, he or she recognizes what's happening right away and relaxes. The social veneer is quick to be stripped away.

The threat that we're up against is a threat to the common good. It threatens us all. Of course it threatens us as individuals too, but we can't address it inside ourselves when we think it's just us. We think it's impolite or it can't be true since no one else is talking about it. Everything seems normal.

We can't understand and validate our response on our own, or hardly. We need to witness someone else's struggle with it to validate our own. It's like when someone says something that you never knew you knew til they said it. It's like that. Groupness is something that you don't notice changes everything untill you experience it deeply. Then you realize that you always knew that. Somehow knowing it again now makes it different.

It's like forgetting how much you love your partner (perhaps she's been mad at you) and then remembering again as you look in her eyes.

It's like forgetting what was important till you realize you have cancer and now this moment with this person counts.

What it's like when people sense a group mind around them
Groupness has a sensuous quality. Things soften and get warmer. We become less watchful and more seeing. Bodies relax. There may be a sense of presence that we suddenly realize others are noticing too. We have no way of checking this but it appears self-evident. We directly apprehend it. There's an impression that ideas or impressions are coming more rapidly and coming out of the group, not just from this or that individual. Things emerge within the one and the many of the group.

The group is broadcaster and receiver both. Something like presence is unmistakeable though the word may not be there. The groupness can crumple and fall in a moment and flutter fully back to life in a rising instant. Nothing you can do makes it come or stay a bit longer though lots you can do can make it go. It's mysterious and it's mysteriousness is an essential part of what it is. It's more than just not-known-yet. It can be lived but not understood.

Feeling it we're happy and satisfied. It's all we want then and we are content. We know there will be other times that are not like this but right now, it's good.

When an individual speaks it's as if they speak for all since part of the context is that we're participating in a common story we're curious to know more about. We might notice that story is central to how things are and at the same time, that the content of the story doesn't matter. The story is beautiful and meaningful but mostly because it's shared. Untold, it fades into the past, like a forgotten teddy bear. It's a story that needs telling to come alive. It needs the resonance of the group. We emerge as individuals, together, each of us, stepping into this undreamt of arena, realizing as we do that many more like this must await.

The new politics of community actionBUSINESS BRIEFS: Ingram Content Group works with Apple on iPad

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The humble battery: 210 years later, the breakthrough we still await

The battery could be a shoo-in for the most confounding of all technologies. Invented in 1799 by Alessandro Volta, it not only has yet to be perfected, but has operated all along on essentially the same chemical principles. Were that it were different: If engineers could figure out how to store sufficient electricity in a sufficiently small, light, safe container, there would be a cascading revolution -- in super-utilities, electric cars, laptops and mobile phones. With the possibility of a trillion-dollar industry at stake -- if consumers en mass decide that they want plug-in hybrids, for instance -- engineers and scientists from the Silicon Valley to Japan, China and Korea are manically working on the technological challenge.

210 years later, the breakthrough we still await

Henry Schlesinger, a New York-based science journalist, sets out to right a gaping authorial wrong in his new book, The Battery: How Portable Power Sparked a Technological Revolution. In the introduction, Schlesinger notes rightly that an omnibus account of the this exceedingly fascinating technology -- from Volta to today -- simply doesn't exist.

It still doesn't. This is less a history of the battery than a romp through some of the biggest names in the most exciting periods of invention in the last two centuries -- Davy, Faraday, Edison and Marconi. It reads like an extended Google search of such personalities, with a special focus on electric-powered devices. Schlesinger hints as to why the book turned out this way: "If there are detours," he writes, "it is only because the facts uncovered were either too interesting or too much fun to leave out."

Point made. The missing history of the battery is still missing. Yet the result is still fun. Schlesinger's zest for those detours is infectious.

A bit of advice: Skip the first 18 pages, in which Schlesinger orphans far-afield basic science history. From there, he plunges in to his broad tale.

There is Joseph Henry, for instance, who in the 1830s dabbled with batteries and motors in Albany, N.Y., but met obstacles that a reader of current news would find familiar: Though his inventions worked, “coal was still more economical and the technology more or less perfected. Batteries were expensive and their expense, along with their size, increased with the amount of power desired.” At around the same time, a German scientist named Moritz Herman Jacobi invented a battery-powered boat, but “the batteries were simply too heavy and kept the boat from attaining anything near reasonable speed.”

Schlesinger writes that Samuel Morse's invention of the telegraph in 1843 was the commercial turning point for both the battery and electric-devices. It spawned enormous telegraph companies that by 1850 had strung some 12,000 miles of cable in a criss-crossing pattern across the country.

In the end, this book is for a pop audience. Schlesinger's seeds the text with asides such as this one: “Romeo and Juliet would have been a much different play if the star-crossed teens had had access to text messaging or cell phones.” Still, more footnotes would have been welcome. For instance, while introducing Pieter van Musschenbroek’s hilarious discovery of the Leyden jar, the first known condenser, Schlesinger finds fault with some of the stories in circulation at the time, and weighs in with what he thinks happened. But we get no sourcing, so one wonders what authority to give Schlesinger’s version. In addition, unfortunate editing leaves Schlesinger stating that transatlantic telegraphy “met with failure” just two pages after he correctly notes that it in fact succeeded.

Yet we do end up understanding that batteries are important. In the last few pages, Schlesinger casts his gaze on current efforts to realize the battery's potential, hop-scotching through carbon nanotubes, genetically altered virus batteries, and bio-batteries using vodka, sugar or urine. The book ends on a hopeful note. Schlesinger writes, "Battery development is, at long last, catching up to related fields."

Steve LeVine covers foreign affairs and energy from Washington, D.C. He was chief foreign affairs writer for BusinessWeek. He previously was correspondent for Central Asia and the Caucasus for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times for 11 years. His first book, The Oil and the Glory, a history of the former Soviet Union through the lens of oil, was published in October 2007. Putin’s Labyrinth, his new book, profiles Russia through the lives and deaths of six Russians. The updated paperback was released in April 2009.

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The consumption conundrum: driving the destruction abroad

Our high-tech products increasingly make use of rare metals, and mining those resources can have devastating environmental consequences.  But if we block projects like the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska, are we simply forcing mining activity to other parts of the world where protections may be far weaker?

Every time someone pushes the on-button on an electronic device, there is an expectation that the unit will power up quickly and display images in vibrant color. There is the further expectation, especially when using electronic devices for communications such as email access, web downloading, and texting that the response time will be immediate. We live in an age of technological arms races in which manufacturers gain market edge by creating products that are faster, have more applications, have a broader network reach, and generally do more.

The processing capacity of digital electronic devices doubles about every two years (Moore’s Law), and this capacity increase is enabled by an expanded use of elements. For example, computer chips made use of 11 major elements in the 1980s but now use about 60 (two-thirds of the periodic table!). And the electronics sector isn’t alone. Engine turbine blades for aircraft are made of alloys of a dozen or so metals; motors and batteries of green-technology hybrid vehicles depend on several of the rare earths; advances in medical imaging have come about by the unique band gaps of elements such as gadolinium. It seems that there are no limits to what the imagination can create except for the fact that many of the metals
We need to understand how our technological demands are linked to the consequences of global extraction.

are globally rare and, given the nature of current technology, non-substitutable.

As we clamor for the latest gadgets and products, our increasing dependency on rare metals to support modern technology carries certain responsibilities and ethical obligations. More than ever, we need to understand how our technological demand for elements from the entire periodic table is linked to the environmental consequences of global extraction. This issue is often overlooked in policy decisions because we fail to appreciate the inextricable connectedness between global locations where technology is manufactured and used and the locations that physically provide the key elements.

A case in point is the “mother lode” deposit of gold, copper and molybdenum in Bristol Bay, Alaska, known as the Pebble Mine, which a consortium of mining companies is seeking to develop. The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated the current U.S. and global “reserve base” for these metals. This is the quantity of metal in ore deposits that might someday be mineable, even if not economically promising at present. There are various estimates for the mineable contents of the Pebble Mine, but all are very large (as shown in this chart).

The Pebble Mine deposit would dramatically increase the domestic reserves of copper and gold and would vault the United States into the position of being the world’s largest repository of mineable molybdenum. Gold is an investment vehicle and jewelry metal, of course; but it also is close to irreplaceable as an interlayer constituent in printed wiring boards in electronics. Copper is the principal metal used for conducting electricity in power-grid distribution systems, residential wiring, and computers, and in motors that do everything from raise automobile windows to rotate machinery. Molybdenum is an irreplaceable constituent of the stainless steels used in surgical instruments, a variety of other medical equipment, and chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing.

In most of these applications there are no suitable substitute materials, especially if loss of performance is to be avoided. Reserves such as the Pebble Mine have certain strategic implications for the United States as well, as there is a tendency for countries to hoard their own reserves of rare metals.

The confounding situation for the Pebble Mine is that it is situated in the headwaters of Bristol Bay, and the Bristol Bay region is home to five species of salmon that are among the last unthreatened stocks in the Pacific Northwest. Salmon are known for their mass migrations from the ocean to natal streams where they breed and subsequently die. In this region of the Pacific Northwest, salmon comprise 92 percent of the diet of
Where else will the mining be done, and what damages will be passed on to other parts of the world?

the 300 to 400 resident killer whales, and salmon carcasses are also important food resources for terrestrial species such as grizzly bears and eagles. A large run of 20 million sockeye in the Bristol Bay region can yield as much as 5.4 x 107 kilograms of body tissue to the natal streams and surrounding riparian zones after the fish spawn and die, thus providing 2.4 x105 kilograms of phosphorus, 18 x 106 kilograms of nitrogen, 2.7 x 106 kilograms of calcium, and other elements that are important nutrients in sustaining the health and functioning of whole watersheds. For comparison, this nutrient input is equivalent to the amount of fertilizer used to support 140,000 acres of intensive corn production in the U.S. Midwest.

It is small wonder then that local and international environmental groups have initiated efforts to halt the development of the mine based on the need to preserve one of the last relatively untouched wilderness areas on the planet. Such efforts have long been regarded as an ethical position of high merit. Yet, geological reserves like those in Bristol Bay are equally rare globally. So if the ethical environmental position forces mining activity elsewhere, then the rationale for wilderness protection in Bristol Bay becomes murkier, especially if the mining occurs in places where the standards of environmental protection are weaker.

For example, unchecked acid drainage from waste rock and mine tailings at the Bougainville copper mine in Papua New Guinea have seriously compromised the Kawerong-Jaba river system there, and governments in northwest Pakistan have pursued a policy of harassment and coercion of the local populace with the intention of developing a very large gold-copper deposit. Beyond the social and ethical implications of these situations, the use of cyanide for gold extraction is a common environmental challenge in regions where mining is not well regulated.

The potential for displaced environmental damages means that a policy favoring ecosystem protection at the expense of mining in Bristol Bay should be obligated to consider the global implications of that decision by
Anyone who relies on modern electronic technology has a shared link to the environmental damages from mining.

answering the question: Where else in the world will the mining be done, and what environmental damages will be passed to other parts of the world? Alternatively, any policy that favors mining must explain how fishing pressure on other, already declining salmon stocks globally will be affected if the Bristol Bay stocks decline, and even whether declining stocks encourage alternative production systems such as salmon aquaculture that could inflict additional and widespread damage to marine ecosystems.

Local political tugs-of-war between wilderness preservation and mining such as those seen in Bristol Bay address the issue at the wrong scale. The consequence is that the true root causes of these problems are not identified. Anyone who relies on modern electronic technology and favors the development of green technology — environmentalists and technocrats alike — has a shared link to environmental damages ensuing from mining. An appropriate ethical stance then would be to question whether it is appropriate to protect nature and force resource extraction to other parts of the world where standards of environmental protection may be considerably weaker. Alternatively, if we do not wish to inflict damages elsewhere in the world, are we willing to forego the benefits of modern technology? And ultimately, of course, the livelihoods of local residents who rely on employment in the resource extraction industries — whether fisheries or mining — lie in the balance.

The Pebble Mine project is merely the latest example, but a particularly clear one, of the global linkages that create ethical and social conundrums. If modern society is to achieve sustainability in a resource-limited world, these are issues that must be explicitly addressed and overcome.

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

How Bjørn Lomborg deceives the public

BjГёrn Lomborg is articulate, attractive, youthful-looking and the supposed voice of reason in the debate over environmental policy. So, it is no surprise that he is making the rounds in the media this Earth Day season. In a piece in USA Today he recycles claims from previous work that "many key environmental measures" are getting better.

As you sift through the piece, you will see that his "key environmental measures" relate almost exclusively to the health and well-being of humans. And, this is what he uses to build a three-fold strategy to deceive the public. First, he equates human well-being with the well-being of the planet as a whole largely ignoring declines in the functioning of the very ecosystems that support human life. Second, he knows that humans are particularly eager to hear good news about themselves, especially when it is wrapped in rhetoric that makes it appear that we are not undermining our environmental support systems. Third, he accuses those who call for blanket curtailment of practices such as the burning of fossil fuels of having no concern for the poor.

Let's take each strategy in turn.

Human well-being is the same as planetary well-being. It is easy for people to think that general conditions on Earth are getting better if those people are well-fed and have access to adequate housing, education, economic opportunity, and recreation. If a person has been alive long enough, he or she will probably notice that many waterways are cleaner than they were a generation ago and that the air in many cities is now clearer than it used to be. Lomborg is playing on the tendency of humans to judge conditions on the planet based on their own personal experience and to assume that this experience is the best indicator of those conditions. Of course, major planetary systems such as the oceans, the forests, the soil and the climate are moving in dramatic and measurable ways that are hostile not only to human survival, but also to the survival of virtually every other living thing. But these changes are not readily apparent to the average urban dweller who neither experiences them directly nor has the apparatus or training to measure changes in such systems.

What humans have actually been doing is overtaxing the Earth's ecosystems and that makes them feel, well, great--at least for a while. Humans have had such spectacular success at increasing their numbers, longevity, health and overall material wealth that it is hard for them to surmise that something is wrong. But our trajectory as a species is the very picture of overshoot. And, we have become ever more confident in our path even as the carrying capacity deficit builds. Ecologically speaking, what characterizes population trajectories such as ours is a steep and seemingly unstoppable rise followed by a rapid crash as the carrying capacity deficit exceeds critical levels. In other words, everything is all right until it isn't! That's why measures of human well-being are not very useful in judging the health of ecosystems.

Humans are particularly eager to hear good news about themselves. Think back to when you were a child and received praise from your parents or from teachers about your grades; your performance in a school concert or play; your prowess on the football, basketball, soccer, or other field of play; or just about anything that you did well and in accordance with the wishes of your parents and teachers. Who doesn't want to be praised? Well, Lomborg is full of praise for what we've supposedly already done to "improve" the environment. He doesn't claim there is no work yet to be done. But in a week filled with dire warnings about environmental catastrophe, Lomborg's message is designed to stand out. It's an excellent public relations ploy.

Those insisting on drastic policy shifts have no concern for the poor. This is an especially pernicious claim by Lomborg. It makes people who advocate swift and thoroughgoing changes in environmental policy out to be monsters. What Lomborg doesn't want readers to think about is how the existing system is responsible for creating the huge disparities in income and therefore the degraded and perilous conditions of the world's poor. He acts as if the very system that enslaved the world's poor will be the one that somehow alleviates their condition.

It is all too easy for privileged Westerners to convince themselves that they have done a great service for the world's formerly preindustrial cultures by colonizing them and then forcing them into the industrial model. That said, Lomborg is correct on one point. It is hypocritical for those living in wealthy countries to insist that the world's poor forego the benefits of a Western lifestyle in order to "save the planet" if these same wealthy countries are unwilling to make drastic changes themselves. But that doesn't mean that drastic and rapid changes aren't necessary across the board to prevent the collapse alluded to above. Essentially, Lomborg's argument is that the world's poor need to be lifted out of poverty by continuing business-as-usual, only more equitably practiced. This argument allows those of us in wealthy countries an excuse for continuing on our current trajectory even if we are supposed to do it using green technology.

Whether Lomborg is cynical or merely blind to his own subterfuges, I cannot know. But his clever rhetoric has kept him in the spotlight year after year. Maybe that's all it was intended to do.

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Unschooled Future?

In my previous post, I observed that I didn’t really have a dog in the hunt of unschooling vs. other homeschooling techniques. I’m starting to feel like I do, however, mostly because I find the language of unschooling advocates to be so troubling. I have no doubts that unschooling is a great technique for many children and their parents. I have no desire to persuade people against unschooling, if that’s the choice they want to make. Moreover, I’ll happily acknowledge that some kids will probably do best unschooled – maybe even many of them.

On the other hand, I find myself quite honestly pissed off by the language of unschoolers – anyone who needs to describe all other methods of parenting and educating with the language of violence using words like “force” and “coercion” to describe loving parenting relations that are different from your own choices deserves some real scrutiny – why is it necessary to then demean all other kinds of parenting or education? I am deeply suspicious of one true ways, and when people tell me that all children would benefit from one technique, but not all parents are smart enough to pull it off – implicitly impugning the intelligence of anyone who doesn’t make your same choices, I’m turned off.

I am trying really hard to have some sympathy – I understand that people are often hostile to unschoolers, and perhaps these rhetorical techniques are the ones they’ve found work best as a defense – I’m not sure. But The Light The Truth and The Way in teaching do not appeal to me – not from those who claim that Montessori or Waldorf or whatever is the one true way, and not from the same variety of evangelical (small e) homeschoolers who want to convince us that they too have found the right way to tend children.

That said, I do derive a good bit of my thought from unschooling – we are not really formalized in many areas, and I trust my children to lead us in large degree. I admire Ivan Ilych and John Holt and other major figures that underly the philosophy of unschooling. My children spend less than an hour most days in formal “schooling” and much of it is self-driven. Many of the unschoolers I know pretty much do the same things we do, and indeed, given the ubiquity of public education’s single model, I can understand why almost anyone who doesn’t “do school” looks like an unschooler. My beef here is not with all unschoolers, but with those who seem intent on describe all other parenting as fundamentally destructive.

But besides that, I have of a couple of other problems with what I’m learning about the ideology of radical unschooling. Part of it is that while I didn’t like a lot of my education, mostly because I found it very boring, the parts that I did like tended to be the ones where the most was expected of me, where I was pushed intellectually beyond the places I would have gone on my own. Intellectual rigor and discipline in the cause of learning appealed to me – I didn’t find them a turn-off then, and I don’t find it a turn off now. And while later in my life I could seek out those kinds of teachers, without some experience of that kind of discipline offered to me from an outer source, honestly, I wouldn’t have known where to look for it.

But perhaps the biggest objection I have is this – every unschooler observes to me that “Oh, if my child wants to become a rocket scientist and has never studied higher maths, they can just study hard and learn them, or find teachers and do them quickly.” And that’s true for some students, in some subjects. But as someone who has been an autodidact on a number of subjects, it is also true that there is a degree of fluency that often comes from early contact with ideas, a fluency that isn’t always replicable.

I think of it as a crack in the wall – on the other side is an astonishing and glorious wide view that you would not have had before. But before you get there, you have to do the work of widening the crack enough to see the prospect beyond. Some children, spotting a crack in the wall, will widen it purely for the fun of seeing what’s on the other side. Others, however, will only know what’s there if someone encourages – or even requires them to set to the task of widening the view, because without that work and that other perspective, that voice of the person who has seen, there’s no way to fully understand what is there. I know that many unschoolers have found that their children get to the same place mine will without the price of what they call “coercion.” But I find myself wondering how big a price the kind of requirements we have “ok, now it is time to” really cost – vs, the risk of never seeing the wide view at all, or waiting until hollowing out the space to see becomes a true burden, more difficult than it ever would have been for a few minutes a day of effort.

I know this can be true – my husband may not have enjoyed Hebrew school every moment during his childhood, but I can see the difference between his fluency with a siddur and my own, and the difference between my childrens’ relationship to their faith and mine. Now I know that I could become more fluent with a greater degree of commitment and study, perhaps enough that only I would ever know that it didn’t come easily. But even that knowledge is sufficient – and why condemn my kids to that little hesitation, that limitation, when I can give them life without limits with 15 minutes a day of study – study they enjoy? I’m not clear on what the case would be for this. Why demand my teenager give up all the other things he loves to study only maths frantically to meet requirements, when those same things could come to him and he spend his time studying math and reading poetry and working outside?

Time is not infinite for any of us, and every choice has its cost. I am open to persuasion that the cost of requiring my children to do things is greater than what they might miss – but I haven’t seen this persuasion made, except in terms I find false – that attempt to equate the coercion one exercises on a prisoner, a colony, a dissident (because this is the language of coercion) with the requirements made by parents who love and teach their children.

Moreover, while the research on how well unschoolers turn out in their skill sets and employability may not be clear, research on some things is very clear. We know, for example, that Jewish children raised to make up their own minds, without any of the equipment to do so, without the training in prayer and language, history and culture mostly don’t become Jewish. Plenty of those raised with that training also choose not to be Jews, of course, but the numbers are radically different. I do not care little enough about my faith to leave to chance whether my children will perceive the benefits of knowing these things before they make a choice – and make it difficult for themselves to acquire this knowledge. I see no reason to believe that the rules are different for any profession, faith or culture that requires a background skill set that takes a long time to acquire – of course people *can* do it as adults and do. But I know few people who have done it as an adult who think that they were happier or better off for not having the knowledge in the first place.

And while we do not know whether this is true of everything else, I would suspect it is true of more things than not – indeed, in at least one area, I now it it to be true. Many of us, for example, grew up spending time with grandparents watching them do subsistence activities that are now largely abandoned, that most of us now have to relearn. Grandma was there, offering us a useful model of how to can, knit, garden and use herbs. Grandpa could have taught us to milk the cow and bank a fire in a woodstove and chop wood smoothly and sharpen tools. Some of us did, in fact, take advantage of that knowledge, and have it to pass on. But most of us lived unschooling for a while, at the feet of our grandparents – and we didn’t learn enough, and now we are scrambling to catch up. I hear daily from people who know that they can teach themselves these things – but for whom there are not enough hours in the day, and for whom those lost opportunities are a sharp and real sorrow.

I live in a world where so many people are mourning the lost opportunity to learn – the chance was there, the opportunity, the willing teacher. And in many cases, what was lacking seems to have been some externally imposed discipline – because no one said “what Grandma is doing is really important, so you need to help her with the gardening” two generations lost their knowledge. I know some people who complain that they were required to go out in the garden with Grandpa, and then didn’t want to do it for the next forty years too – but not nearly so many as those who mourn the chance and wish someone had given them guidance and some gentle discipline, imposed by someone who has enough experience to see what’s on the other side of the crack in the wall if you just do the work of expanding the view..

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