Saturday, July 31, 2010

Something told the wild geese: Feeling winter in summer

Something told the wild geese

It was time to go,

Though the fields lay golden

Something whispered, "snow."

Leaves were green and stirring,

Berries, luster-glossed,

But beneath warm feathers

Something cautioned, "frost."

All the sagging orchards

Steamed with amber spice,

But each wild breast stiffened

At remembered ice.

Something told the wild geese

It was time to fly,

Summer sun was on their wings,

Winter in their cry. - Rachel Field

I'm trying to get back to normal - even though things aren't quite normal here. In the last three weeks my blogging home has melted down twice and my physical home is up for grabs and I admit, I'm a bit discombobulated. But I'm also laying down the question of whether we should move, and putting it in Eric's hands. My husband both loathes moving more than I do and also worries about money more than I do - so in the end, I think this is going to come down to Eric's gut feeling - does he fear and loathe moving less than he fears and loathes financial instability? Honestly, this is a question only he can answer.

For myself, I've actually sort of settled down on the subject and come to the conclusion that we can both make a go of it here and also make a good go of it there. That is, both options are ok with me - if I'm dissatisfied with the community here, I can work harder at it, and see if I can get more cool people out this way. We can rent out the in-law apartment to make the house more affordable. And while I worry about the tax burden and the costs, I've been poor enough in my life that we'd have to just be a lot more unstable for me to freak out. I'm content to make it work here, and I also think there are virtues to trying to make it work there - and I'll do either one. What *I* don't deal well with is uncertainty - but this isn't my decision in some way - I could push Eric one way or another, but I don't want to live with him when pushed ;-), so honestly, it is in my husband's hands.

So I'm starting to focus back on my daily life - and there's certainly plenty to do there. Bazillions of herbs to harvest and dry. Plenty of vegetables, gardens to weed, quarts of peach salsa to can. The shelves are filling up and I have to clean and reorganize the kitchen - and that kind fo work will matter whether we stay or go.

And like the wild geese in my oldest, Eli's favorite poem, I can feel the tang of winter coming. When you live on a farm, and when you eat with the seasons, winter is always coming in a way - I order my Thanksgiving turkey in February, order the seeds potatoes for my Chanukah latkes just a month or so after we finish eating them, thin our autumn's apples in June, plant the beets and kale we'll eat in December in July.

Round and round and round we go, and we we stop we always know. It isn't like things really stop in winter - there's plenty to do in the quiet times. But at some point the last of the brussels sprouts and winter greens will be done, the hens will take their annual sabbatical from laying, and the food we have will be the food we eat, with light and judicious purchasing from things far away. Because we want to keep this light and judicious, we are always looking at the abundant plenty now with ideas of how we can put more summer into our pantry for the short, cold days ahead.

There is a moment in summer, usually about halfway through - about now, really, when I begin to feel that tang of winter. It isn't caused by anything in particular - it is hot and humid right now, no change in the weather to shift my worldview. I've been canning and preserving since June, so the pickles and jams aren't the reason. The hay has been cut for a while now, and the animal's winter feed has been on our mind since June too. No, it is something intangible, faint, hard to identify, but real. Something is telling me to move my always-thinking-forward cyclical life into higher gear - perhaps an instinct, perhaps a habit born from a life of back to school planning - who knows. But it is time - not to go, but to recognize that steaming amber spice is a transient, passing thing, to be loved, held onto, preserved.

I don't have to do this, of course - I can buy my thanksgiving turkey at a store, buy apples weekly at the same place. I don't have to change my diet from season to season - although the tastes and nutritional value and price will change, I could just keep on eating and doing the same things day after day.

I don't want to, though. Besides the fact that my body craves what is coming, and gets frustrated with the good-looking, empty tasting aseasonal alternatives, those choices come with costs I don't want to bear. Every time I spend a dollar on food, I vote for what kind of food system I'm going to have - and I want to vote for what I want to see more of. My neighbors with farms can't provide me with strawberries and tomatoes in February - so if I'm going to vote for them, I'm going to eat those things sparingly - or not at all.

At the same time, the lush abundance of summer in the Northeast is so overwhelming that without a serious commitment, food would go to waste, which seems to me a loss and a sorrow, when I know I will want it so badly in the cold. I can't eat every zucchini, eat every berry on the bush - we give it away, we share with friends and neighbors and the food pantry, and still, there is more. This plenty, glorious organic excess, produced in tandem with nature would be lost in part if I didn't put some of it away for winter. And it simply isn't that hard to do - the returns are so vast, the meals that I've done the primary labor for in summer, the short winter evenings that can be made longer by a dinner half ready, and fresh from last summer's heat, are worth it.

This is what human beings have done for almost all the time in human history that we have abided in cold climates. I don't have any idea how much that history is bred into my bones - all I know is that like the squirrel who gathers more acorns and the bear that grows fat with berries, I can feel the whisper of frost. And there's something energizing and invigorating about that call, that sense of instinct taking over.

I'm not really sure where I will winter - what nest I will crawl into, what fire I will sit before. But I know enough about my cold and pleasant place to know that every taste of the abundance of summer will be welcome, every bit of heat in a jar will be beloved when the cold seeps in the cracks and the quiet time begins. Summer sun is on my back, but winter is in my dreams - and hands.

Japanese auto supplier to build Murfreesboro plant, hire 224Happy homestead happenstances

ODAC Newsletter - July 30

Welcome to the ODAC Newsletter, a weekly roundup from the Oil Depletion Analysis Centre, the UK registered charity dedicated to raising awareness of peak oil.

Another week on and there has been no further leak from the BP Macondo well. Officials are now "optimistic" about preparations for a new attempt at a permanent seal, with the initial step of pumping mud into the top of the well likely to begin as soon as Sunday. With the leak apparently under control, BP chose this week to announce the inevitable departure of its CEO Tony Hayward, whose replacement by the American Bob Dudley was vital for the company’s damage limitation efforts in the US.

Hayward's departure was announced on Wednesday along with BP's second quarter results which showed a loss of $17bn, the biggest quarterly loss in British Corporate history. BP set aside $32.2bn to cover losses associated with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, based on the company's claim that it was not grossly negligent. But that question will be decided in the American courts, and if BP is wrong, it may need to set aside another $10 billion for higher fines.

Second quarter results from other oil majors showed increased profits reflecting higher oil prices. Peter Voser Chief Executive of Shell, announcing their results on Thursday, stressed the importance of deepwater drilling to future oil production — underlining our increasing dependence on risky, carbon intensive and expensive resources. The Obama administration's attempt to pass landmark legislation on greenhouse gas emissions was abandoned this week, and replaced which a much more limited energy bill focussing on measures around oil spills and energy efficiency.

In Britain, Energy Secretary Chris Huhne delivered the first of the coalition government's new Annual Energy Statements this week, along with a call for evidence on future energy scenarios to achieve an 80% cut in carbon emissions by 2050. The 2050 Pathways Analysis report specifically includes a re-examination of the oil outlook over the next 40 years, and an ODAC trustee has been invited to take part - a welcome sign the new government is open to a wider range of views than the last. We hope the coalition also distinguishes itself from New Labour by avoiding the trap of endless consultation becoming a substitute urgent reform of energy policy.

View our Reports and Resources page

OilOfficials optimistic amid preparations to seal Gulf oil wellBP makes record loss as Tony Hayward quitsShell defends deep-water drilling as profits soarExxon Mobil Second-Quarter Profit Climbs After Oil Prices Rise'BP squad' assembled for criminal investigationBP Spill Thwarts Shell, Statoil in Arctic Oil DelayUK steps up offshore rig inspections as US probe beginsCrude Oil Falls, Poised for Weekly Decline, on Slowing Economy Tullow to start $10bn Uganda developmentGasChina First-Half Gas Demand Rises 22% as Output GrowsBritish Gas warns of rising energy bills as profits doubleRenewablesHot offer: free solar panels and lower billsUS renewable energy industry in call for actionOffshore wind needs ВЈ10bn to avoid missing green targetsEngineers race to design world's biggest offshore wind turbinesBiofuelsDon't fall for jatropha plants, warns UN bodyUKGovernment energy plans unveiled by Chris HuhneUK energy scenarios: working with a flawed modelOfgem ovehauls UK energy regulationCouncils "key" to meeting 2020 targetsBritain pledges millions in electric car subsidiesCBI attacks plan to tighten emissions targetsBan on new coal-fired power plants without CCSClimateUS Senate drops bill to cap carbon emissionsModern cargo ships slow to the speed of the sailing clippers


Officials optimistic amid preparations to seal Gulf oil wellCNN Wire Staff, CNN, 29 Jul 2010View original article

One hundred days after an oil well operated by BP ruptured in the Gulf of Mexico, and 13 days after crews finished capping the well to contain the gushing crude, the man who is overseeing the federal response is optimistic that steps planned for the coming days will finally, permanently seal the well.

"The relief well, while it is deep, is something that has been done before," said retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen. "The technologies involved here are not novel, but obviously, the depth is a challenge here. But we are optimistic we will get this done."...

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BP makes record loss as Tony Hayward quitsRichard Wray, The Guardian, 27 Jul 2010View original article

BP has reported one of the largest losses in British corporate history because of the cost of the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and confirmed this morning that embattled chief executive Tony Hayward is leaving the company.

In its second-quarter results the company has set aside $32.2bn (ВЈ20.7bn) to meet the cost of the clean-up, far higher than the City had expected and plunging the company into a $17bn loss, compared with a profit last year of $3.1bn. The dramatic loss means that BP will be able to slash its tax bill by about $10bn, in a move likely to infuriate politicians on both sides of the Atlantic...

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Shell defends deep-water drilling as profits soarBen Perry, AFP, 29 Jul 2010View original article

Royal Dutch Shell posted soaring profits on Thursday and defended deep-water oil production, saying it has an "important role" to play despite the US Gulf of Mexico disaster that rocked rival BP.

The Anglo-Dutch oil giant reported a 15-percent jump in net profit to 4.39 billion dollars (3.38 billion euros) in the second quarter, as it slashed costs and raised output....

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Exxon Mobil Second-Quarter Profit Climbs After Oil Prices RiseEdward Klump, Bloomberg, 29 Jul 2010View original article

Exxon Mobil Corp. posted its biggest profit increase since 2003, exceeding analyst estimates, as rising production helped the largest U.S. oil company take advantage of gains in energy prices.

Second-quarter net income jumped 91 percent to $7.56 billion, or $1.60 a share, from $3.95 billion, or 81 cents, a year earlier, Irving, Texas-based Exxon said today in a statement. Per-share profit was 15 cents higher than the average of 17 analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg...

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'BP squad' assembled for criminal investigationJerry Markon - The Washington Post, Seattle Times, 27 Jul 2010View original article

A team of federal investigators known as the "BP squad" is assembling in New Orleans to conduct a wide-ranging criminal probe that will focus on at least three companies and examine whether their cozy relations with federal regulators contributed to the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, according to law-enforcement and other sources.

The squad at the FBI offices includes investigators from the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Coast Guard and other federal agencies, the sources said. In addition to BP, the firms at the center of the inquiry are Transocean, which leased the Deepwater Horizon rig to BP, and engineering giant Halliburton, which had finished cementing the well only 20 hours before the rig exploded April 20, sources said...

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BP Spill Thwarts Shell, Statoil in Arctic Oil DelayKari Lundgren,, 28 Jul 2010View original article

BP Plc's disaster in the Gulf of Mexico will keep the planet's biggest pot of untapped oil and gas under the Arctic ice for now as regulators toughen drilling rules and demand better ways to handle spills.

Royal Dutch Shell Plc has had plans to explore off Alaska halted by both U.S. authorities and a federal court ruling last week. Norway's Statoil ASA faces government restrictions on drilling in Arctic waters, while BP, responsible for the Gulf spill that prompted scrutiny of offshore drilling, has put off developing its Liberty prospect in the Beaufort Sea until 2011...

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UK steps up offshore rig inspections as US probe beginsJames Quinn in New York and Rowena Mason, Telegraph, 29 Jul 2010View original article

UK safety officials have begun a crackdown on elderly North Sea oil and gas rigs, at the same time as it emerged a clutch of US federal regulators are preparing to begin a formal investigation into whether BP and its partners drilling the ill-fated Macondo well contributed to the Gulf of Mexico spill.

The two separate moves — on either side of the Atlantic — highlight the seriousness with which regulators are treating the industry since the well's April 20 explosion, which killed 11 men and led to millions of barrels of oil leaking into the Gulf...

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Crude Oil Falls, Poised for Weekly Decline, on Slowing Economy Ben Sharples and Christian Schmollinger, Bloomberg, 30 Jul 2010View original article

Oil fell in New York, poised for its biggest weekly decline in four, on concern that faltering global economic growth will curtail a recovery in fuel demand.

Crude pared yesterday's 1.8 percent gain as Japan's Nikkei 225 Stock Average slipped 1.6 percent following an unexpected drop in industrial production and an increase in the unemployment rate. Oil has retreated 1.1 percent this week, its largest loss since the five days ended July 2...

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Tullow to start $10bn Uganda developmentChristopher Thompson, Financial Times, 28 Jul 2010View original article

Tullow Oil will begin a $10bn development of Uganda's oil reserves after completing the $1.45bn cash acquisition of Heritage Oil's 50 per cent stake in the country's Lake Albert oil blocks.

The sale means Tullow is the owner of all but one of the landlocked east African nation's oil blocks with proved reserves, located deep in equatorial Lake Albert on the Congo border, that are estimated to hold up to 2.3bn barrels of crude.

Tullow will now finalise a sale of two-thirds of the project to be split equally between Total of France and the Chinese state oil company CNOOC...

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China First-Half Gas Demand Rises 22% as Output GrowsWinnie Zhu in Shanghai and Chua Baizhen in Beijing, Bloomberg, 27 Jul 2010View original article

China, the world's biggest energy user, consumed 22 percent more natural gas in the first half compared with a year earlier as the country boosted production and use of the cleaner-burning fuel to cut emissions.

Demand rose after China Petrochemical Corp.'s first-half gas output jumped more than 40 percent, China National Offshore Oil Corp.'s climbed more than 30 percent and China National Petroleum Corp. showed "stable growth," the National Development and Reform Commission said in a statement on its website today. It didn't specify how much gas China consumed...

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British Gas warns of rising energy bills as profits doubleTim Webb, The Guardian, 28 Jul 2010View original article

Utility bills could be on the way up, British Gas warned today despite almost doubling profits in the first half of the year.

Nick Luff, the finance director of parent company Centrica, said that energy costs for this winter and next year have risen significantly...

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Hot offer: free solar panels and lower billsBen Webster Environment Editor, The Guardian, 28 Jul 2010View original article

Thousands of homes are being offered the chance to rent their roofs to a solar power company in exchange for cheaper electricity bills.

The company, Isis Solar, will pay for solar panels to be installed without any costs being borne by the homeowner. Families will see their electricity bills fall by up to two thirds, with the average home saving about ВЈ340 a year. However, homeowners must agree to keep the panels for at least 25 years and allow access for maintenance. The scheme means that homeowners who cannot afford the typical ВЈ10,000 cost of installing panels will be able to take advantage of the Government's feed-in tariff scheme for small-scale renewable forms of electricity...

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US renewable energy industry in call for actionSheila McNulty in Houston, Financial Times, 28 Jul 2010View original article

In spite of the Obama Administration's pledge to create green jobs, the US renewable energy industry said on Tuesday it had stalled in the absence of strong federal policy, low power demand and bureaucratic funding.

Installations of wind power — the biggest growth engine of the US renewable industry - so far this year have dropped by 71 per cent from 2009 levels, according to the American Wind Energy Association, the industry trade group...

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Offshore wind needs ВЈ10bn to avoid missing green targetsSarah Arnott, The Independent, 26 Jul 2010View original article

Britain's offshore wind ambitions will face a ВЈ10bn funding gap within five years, energy experts will warn today, and the Government's legally-binding 2020 green targets will not be met unless the deficit can be closed.

This comes a day after Energy Minister Chris Huhne revealed plans for a huge expansion of the UK's wind turbines, saying wind power would be an "important part" of meeting the country's energy demands in the future...

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Engineers race to design world's biggest offshore wind turbinesJohn Vidal, The Guardian, 26 Jul 2010View original article

British, American and Norwegian engineers are in a race to design and build the holy grail of wind turbines — giant, 10MW offshore machines twice the size and power of anything seen before — that could transform the global energy market because of their economies of scale.

Today, a revolutionary British design that mimics a spinning sycamore leaf and which was inspired by floating oil platform technology, entered the race. Leading engineering firm Arup is to work with an academic consortium backed by blue-chip companies including Rolls Royce, Shell and BP to create detailed designs for the "Aerogenerator", a machine that rotates on its axis and would stretch nearly 275m from blade tip to tip. It is thought that the first machines will be built in 2013-14 following two years of testing...

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Don't fall for jatropha plants, warns UN bodyPrabha Jagannathan, Economic Times India, 26 Jul 2010View original article

In a significant implication for the country's biofuel policy, a specialised arm of the United Nations has warned that the developing countries should not buy blindly into the 'jatropha for biodiesel' argument. Warning against the hype and half-truths around jatropha curacas, an oil seed plant touted as a major potential source of biofuels, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation has warned in a special report that yields need to improve significantly for the crop to give an adequate return.

"Although there have been increasing investments and policy decisions concerning the use of jatropha as an oil crop, they have been based on little evidence-based information," the report said, adding that identifying the true potential of jatropha requires separating the evidence from the hyped claims and half-truths."...

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Government energy plans unveiled by Chris HuhneTelegraph, 29 Jul 2010View original article

Energy Secretary Chris Huhne today outlined a series of measures to improve energy efficiency, boost renewables and allow new nuclear projects to go ahead as he laid out the Government's energy policy.

In the first annual energy statement to the Commons, Mr Huhne set out plans to secure the UK energy supplies and cut carbon emissions while ''keeping the lights on''...

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UK energy scenarios: working with a flawed modelAkanksha Awal, Financial Times - Energy Source Blog, 28 Jul 2010View original article

In the UK's first ever annual energy statement, Chris Huhne, UK energy and climate change secretary, asked researchers, industry experts and members of the public a series of questions about the country's energy priorities. The answers to these questions, he announced, will help form the basis of Britain's pathway to energy security by the year 2050...

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Ofgem ovehauls UK energy regulationAngela Monaghan, Telegraph, 27 Jul 2010View original article

Ofgem has laid out proposals to make what it described as the biggest change to energy regulation in 20 years in order to facilitate ВЈ32bn of investment in low carbon networks.

The move came ahead of what is expected to be a major energy policy update from the Government on Tuesday, focused on the Green Deal loan scheme, an accelerated roll-out of smart meters, and Britain's need for security of supply, in which Ofgem will play a leading role...

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Councils "key" to meeting 2020 targetsNew Energy Focus, 27 Jul 2010View original article

Local authorities are "key" to the UK meeting its 2020 renewable energy targets as they are best placed to deliver the community-scale schemes needed, according to a Friends of the Earth (FoE) report published today (July 27).

The report, written for the FoE by Dr Jim Watson, Dr Ivan Scrase and Dr Lee Stapleton of the Sussex Energy Group - based at Science and Technology Policy Research (SPRU) at the University of Sussex - is entitled 'Transforming the UK's energy system, policies for the 2020 renewables target and beyond'...

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Britain pledges millions in electric car subsidiesReuters, EurActiv, 29 Jul 2010View original article

Britain's coalition government will commit 43 million pounds (€51.6 million) over 18 months to subsidising the uptake of electric cars, the Department for Transport (DfT) said on Wednesday (28 July)..

British motorists will receive up to 5,000 pounds towards the purchase of a low-carbon car from January 2011 to March 2012, Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said...

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CBI attacks plan to tighten emissions targetsFiona Harvey, Environment Correspondent, Financial Times, 29 Jul 2010View original article

The backing by Chris Huhne, the energy secretary, for a toughening of European Union emissions targets has been attacked by the CBI, which has warned it will entail "huge costs", "huge repercussions" and will "jeopardise and potentially damage" businesses across the economy...

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Ban on new coal-fired power plants without CCSFiona Harvey, Environment Correspondent, Financial Times, 28 Jul 2010View original article

No new coal-fired power stations can be built in the UK without including carbon capture and storage technology, the government said on Tuesday.

A consultation on an "emissions performance standard", which would penalise power plants that operate below a certain level of efficiency, will be launched in November...

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US Senate drops bill to cap carbon emissionsHaroon Siddique and agencies, The Guardian, 23 Jul 2010View original article

A major climate change bill that would have capped carbon emissions has been abandoned by Democrats in the US Senate in the face of opposition from both sides of the house.

Under pressure from falling popularity ratings, Barack Obama had hoped the bill would add to the two biggest legislative successes of his presidency: the comprehensive health care bill and reform of the US banking and financial sector...

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Modern cargo ships slow to the speed of the sailing clippersJohn Vidal, The Observer, 25 Jul 2010View original article

The world's largest cargo ships are travelling at lower speeds today than sailing clippers such as the Cutty Sark did more than 130 years ago.

A combination of the recession and growing awareness in the shipping industry about climate change emissions encouraged many ship owners to adopt "slow steaming" to save fuel two years ago. This lowered speeds from the standard 25 knots to 20 knots, but many major companies have now taken this a stage further by adopting "super-slow steaming" at speeds of 12 knots (about 14mph)...

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The true value of energy is the net energyNashville families’ beach plans marred by Gulf oil spill

Nature stunner: Global warming blamed for 40% decline in the ocean's phytoplankton

Scientists may have found the most devastating impact yet of human-caused global warming — a 40% decline in phytoplankton since 1950 linked to the rise in ocean sea surface temperatures. If confirmed, it may represent the single most important finding of the year in climate science.

The headlines above are from an appropriately blunt article in The Independent about the new study in Nature, “Global phytoplankton decline over the past century” (subs. req’d). Even the Wall Street Journalwarned, “Vital Marine Plants in Steep Decline.” Seth Borenstein of the AP explains, “plant plankton found in the world’s oceans are crucial to much of life on Earth. They are the foundation of the bountiful marine food web, produce half the world’s oxygen and suck up harmful carbon dioxide.”

We’ve known for a while that we are poisoning the oceans and that human emissions of carbon dioxide, left unchecked, would likely have devastating consequences — see “2010 Nature Geoscience study: Oceans are acidifying 10 times faster today than 55 million years ago when a mass extinction of marine species occurred.” And we’ve known those impacts might last a long, long time — see 2009 Nature Geoscience study concludes ocean dead zones “devoid of fish and seafood” are poised to expand and “remain for thousands of years.”

But until now, conventional wisdom has been that the biggest impacts might not be until the second half of the century. This new research in Nature suggests we may have much less time to act than we thought if we want to save marine life — and ourselves. The study concludes:

In the oceans, ubiquitous microscopic phototrophs (phytoplankton) account for approximately half the production of organic matter on Earth. Analyses of satellite-derived phytoplankton concentration (available since 1979) have suggested decadal-scale fluctuations linked to climate forcing, but the length of this record is insufficient to resolve longer-term trends. Here we combine available ocean transparency measurements and in situ chlorophyll observations to estimate the time dependence of phytoplankton biomass at local, regional and global scales since 1899. We observe declines in eight out of ten ocean regions, and estimate a global rate of decline of ~1% of the global median per year. Our analyses further reveal interannual to decadal phytoplankton fluctuations superimposed on long-term trends. These fluctuations are strongly correlated with basin-scale climate indices, whereas long-term declining trends are related to increasing sea surface temperatures.

The WSJ explains, “The data are more reliable for recent decades, translating into a 40% decline since 1950.” It points out:

The team investigated several factors that could have caused the decline. “We found that temperature had the best power to explain the changes,” said Boris Worm, a marine biologist at Dalhousie and co-author of the study.

Marine algae live in the upper layers of the ocean but rely on nutrients that circulate up from lower layers. Rising temperatures mean the different layers mix less with each other, so fewer nutrients reach the algae. However, Dr. Worm noted that algal abundance can be affected by other factors, such as shifts in predator-prey populations.

Mike Behrenfeld, an expert on phytoplankton at Oregon State University, said the paper was similar to a 1992 study that used Secchi data to show a long-term decline in marine algae in the north Pacific. “But this paper covers the globe,” he said. “And the scientists also took the next step of relating the [algal decline] to sea temperatures.”

Yes, I know, the marine biologist is named Boris Worm. Readers may recall that last year, Worm was lead author on a major study on fisheries in Science, and the WashPost quoted him predicting that “if fishing continued at the same rate, all the world’s seafood stocks would collapse by 2048” (see “What’s in a name? For the slimehead and toothfish, the extreme makeover leads to rampant overfishing“). And people think I’m a pessimist!

The Independent also catches a quote from Worm:

“If this holds up, something really serious is underway and has been underway for decades. I’ve been trying to think of a biological change that’s bigger than this and I can’t think of one,” said marine biologist Boris Worm of Canada’s Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He said: “If real, it means that the marine ecosystem today looks very different to what it was a few decades ago and a lot of this change is happening way out in the open, blue ocean where we cannot see it. I’m concerned about this finding.”

… “Phytoplankton are a critical part of our planetary life support system. They produce half of the oxygen we breathe, draw down surface CO2 and ultimately support all of our fishes.” he said.

Certainly, scientists are going to have to verify this finding in the coming years, but as AP reports:

Previous plankton research has mostly relied on satellite data that only goes back to 1978. But Worm and colleagues used a low-tech technology — disks devised by Vatican scientist Pietro Angelo Secchi, in the 19th century. These disks measure the murkiness of the ocean. The murkier the waters, the more plankton.

It’s a proxy the scientific community has long accepted as legitimate, said Paul Falkowski of Rutgers University, who has used Secchi disk data for his work.

He and other independent scientists said the methods and conclusions of the new study made sense.

Recognizing the importance of the article, Nature published a second piece by two leading ocean scientists, that discussed the methodology and findings, calling the work “an impressive synthesis of the relevant data”:

Taking great care, they created time series of phytoplankton biomass in the pelagic ocean, quantified as surface chlorophyll concentrations. They find a strong correspondence between this chlorophyll record and changes in both leading climate indices and ocean thermal conditions. They also show statistically significant long-term decreases in chlorophyll concentrations for eight of the ten ocean basins, and for the global aggregate.

We ignore these results at our gravest peril.

Can BP survive the Gulf spill? Can its CEO?Brunswick halts 2 lines, lays off 135 in Ashland City

In wreckage of climate bill, some clues for moving forward

Ample blame exists for the demise of climate legislation in the U.S. Senate, from President Obama’s lack of political courage, to the environmental community’s overly ambitious strategy, to Republican intransigence. A way forward exists, however, to build on the rubble of the Senate’s failure to cap carbon emissions.

Following the rocky path of climate legislation in the U.S. Congress these past years brought me back to the 1980s, and my time as a crime reporter in New York City. After a shooting in those days, a homicide detective named Marty Davin would go to the hospital and intercept the gunshot victim on a gurney outside the emergency room. If the victim was conscious, Davin would lean over and ask, “Who killed you?”

In wreckage of climate bill, some clues for moving forward

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), center, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), left, and Carol Browner, director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, speak to the media on July 22.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images That usually got the victim’s attention, along with an I’m-not-dead-yet protest. Davin would reply, “You are going to die. You might as well tell me who did it.”

As I interviewed the sponsor of whichever emissions-reduction bill had just been gunned down, I often thought of Davin. The politicians and climate campaigners would assure me that they were still alive — passage of a carbon cap was inevitable, they’d say — and I’d remind myself that they had survived countless near-death experiences.

But what happened last week, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced he would not even try to bring a compromise climate bill to the Senate floor, was not just another setback. Sometimes dead really is dead — and for this Congress, barring a miracle, climate action is finished. With an ugly election looming in November, it may be years before we get another chance to debate a bill that prices carbon. And the consensus approach to federal climate action — the idea that cap-and-trade was the most politically viable policy — may well be dead, too.

This is a time to take stock. The first question is whether this was a failure of policy; a failure of politics, message, and messenger; or both? Second, is there a Plan B around which the climate campaign should now unify? And third, what needs to be done to allow a better outcome when the next opportunity finally does appear?

No one who follows climate politics could have been very surprised by Reid’s move. The bigger shock was his decision to remove from the bill a mandate that utilities must generate 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources. (Proponents hope to offer it as a floor amendment.) It was if the Senate was saying: Anything remotely effective, we’re not going to do.

When Reid pulled the plug, I thought back to a snowy afternoon in Copenhagen last December. Sitting with Al Gore in an empty hotel café, I asked him to contemplate this very moment. “If the United States doesn’t act,” he replied, “if the Senate defeats the legislation or waters it down to a point where it is not even worth having a bill, that is an event horizon beyond which it is difficult to see.”

He parsed the same issues then that climate campaigners are parsing now: “It may mean there is a fundamental flaw in the international political approach, but I’m not sure there is a good alternative. The reality is so dire that a new plan would have to emerge — but just now I can’t imagine what it would be.”

It was as if the Senate was saying: Anything remotely effective, we’re not going to do.

Gore had a point. When the goal is emissions reduction, there aren’t many alternatives: You’ve got to reduce emissions. The Plan B options now being offered by various advocates should be vigorously debated, but all of them seem vulnerable to the same polluted politics that killed the cap. Advocates of the carbon tax are ready to take a run at their goal, and Godspeed — but it is hard to see how politicians who were terrified to support a cap (because opponents labeled it a tax) will suddenly become bold enough to support a carbon tax. Policy groups such as the Breakthrough Institute argue that instead of making dirty fuels more expensive, it’s time for intensive energy research and development to make clean fuels cheaper. That sounds reasonable, but without the revenue stream that a cap or tax would provide — and in an era of budget cutbacks — it is hard to see government supplying the massive, long-term funding their plan requires.

Is the cap so fundamentally flawed that it should be abandoned forever? I don’t think so. I believe it needs to be liberated from legislative bloat and rehabilitated as a modest first step: a tool for regulating power sector emissions, the job it performed so successfully in the 1990s, when America tamed acid rain. It’s worth remembering that while climate politics were bogging down, climate policy mechanisms were being improved. Clever wonks found ways to cushion consumers and high-carbon industries from the price impact of the cap, while preserving a price signal for generators. Trading restrictions were added to keep speculators out of the carbon game. Though the term cap-and-trade has been demonized, the cap itself isn’t broken.

Some will argue that this latest setback is proof that the U.S. will never cap carbon. I reject that view. All we can say for sure is that the U.S. will never cap or price carbon until the politics of the issue change — so the first order of business must be to begin improving the political atmosphere. During the three years I worked on The Climate War, a narrative of the campaign to pass a carbon cap, I came to realize I was writing a political thriller, a whodunit with multiple culprits. Let’s look for lessons by considering some of the culprits, starting with the most obvious.

1. The Professional Deniers. Gore and environmental leaders made a tactical error several years ago when they declared the science “settled” and refused to engage the forces of denial and delay. The basic science was indeed settled, but the resulting message vacuum was the perfect medium for those who sow doubt and confusion about global climate change. It shouldn’t be surprising that so many Americans remain skeptical about global warming. For 20 years, this loose network of PR pros, working for industry associations and anti-tax think tanks, has spread doubt about climate science and fear about climate economics, claiming that any attempt to cap CO2 would wreck the American economy. Their disinformation, amplified via the Internet, helped poison the debate. To counter the deniers’ campaign, President Obama needs to speak out forcefully, and champions of the clean energy economy must point to the new jobs that are already being created by the renewable energy economy and show Americans precisely where they fit into it.

2. Senate Republicans. Most climate campaigners understand the folly of trying to remake the American energy system without bipartisan support. But it’s hard to forge centrist solutions when an entire party is denying there’s a problem and vilifying the solutions. A scaled-back approach, one that can be sold as a modest, incremental step and not a new industrial revolution, might fare better.

It’s hard to forge centrist solutions when an entire party is denying there’s a problem.

There was a time — 2007 and 2008, to be precise — when some Republicans were moving away from deny-and-delay tactics. (In 2007, briefly, Newt Gingrich supported the carbon cap.) More recently, opposition to climate action has become a litmus test in the GOP. Arizona Republican John McCain, who sponsored the Senate’s first serious climate bills but now faces a primary challenge from the right, recently called a successor bill “a farce.” His mantle of Republican climate courage passed to Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who took so much heat from his own party that he withdrew from the climate bill he helped write. Graham’s position has been incoherent since then, but he has signaled support for a cap on the power sector. That could be something to build on.

3. Senate Democrats. After Reid pulled the plug, Democrats were quick to blame Republicans for obstruction. But what about the obstructionists within the Democratic ranks? Harry Reid didn’t have the clout to force action on this issue because a dozen or more centrist Democrats — from states that either mine coal or produce much of their electricity from it — were dug in against it. It is impossible to tell if the senators were truly concerned about what the cap would do to their state economies — nonpartisan studies suggest its impact would be minimal — or just worried about what attack ads would do to them. Again, a more modest first step could change the dynamic. The crucial thing is to get started.

4. The Green Group. At a meeting in February 2007, the Green Group, an unofficial association of the leaders of the big U.S. environmental non-profits, told Harry Reid they supported a single legislative goal: An economy-wide cap. Their strategy was to assemble the broadest possible coalition to push the broadest possible bill. Given the magnitude of the crisis and the need to reduce emissions quickly, this made sense. Politically, though, it proved disastrous, because it led to bills of such cost, scope, and complexity that they scared the pants off timid legislators.

The Green Group held out for an economy-wide bill even after it became clear, in late 2009, that it was unachievable in the Senate. Only recently did environmental leaders try to negotiate a compromise cap on electric power plants, which account for 40 percent of U.S. emissions. Passing a utility cap would have been a great first step, but the talks got started too late. The Green Group wanted too much and ended up with nothing.

The Green Group wanted too much and ended up with nothing.

5. The Power Barons. When the eleventh-hour search for a compromise began, the utilities got too greedy. If they had to go it alone, they argued, they deserved virtually all of the carbon allowances in the program for free. This left too few for other crucial purposes, such as cushioning manufacturers from higher electricity prices. Worse, in exchange for supporting a carbon cap, some utilities demanded relief from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations governing conventional pollutants such as mercury. Like the greens, they asked for too much and got nothing. (The greens, however, were overreaching on behalf of the planet, not their own coffers.) Some utility bosses were relieved to see the bill die. Those feelings may prove short-lived as the battle to reduce emissions moves to the EPA and the courts.

Some advocates, such as Lee Wasserman of the Rockefeller Family Fund, regard the decision to negotiate with the power barons as the height of folly. Washington, they argue, should simply dictate the terms of surrender to the polluters. Such a stance ignores an important fact: It isn’t possible to remake the U.S. energy system without negotiating with the power barons. Punishing generators means punishing households that pay electricity bills. That doesn’t mean, however, that the politicians should give the barons everything they want. But there was only one player with the clout to cut a fair deal with them, and he was missing in action.

6. The President. Barack Obama chose not to lead on this issue. His decision to address health care reform before energy and climate change doomed the latter. With advisors Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod whispering that climate was a losing proposition (a self-fulfilling prophesy, to be sure), Obama never threw himself behind a particular climate bill. He left it to the Senate, the Green Group, and the power bosses — all of whom were sorely in need of adult supervision.

The real grownups in this tale were Rep. Henry Waxman and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who last year surprised the Obama Administration by taking a comprehensive climate bill to the House floor. The White House had no choice but to help whip the vote, and it passed. Then Obama stopped trying, and the Senate refused to take up the legislation. It was a colossal failure of nerve, and a decision that likely destroyed any chance of achieving climate action in Obama’s first term.

Since the president and his political advisers thought an economy-wide cap was too heavy a lift, Obama should have led a tactical retreat to what, in the past several months, became the last-ditch compromise position: the cap on the electric power sector. Had negotiations focused on this months ago instead of weeks ago, and had the president thrown his weight behind it then, we might today be celebrating a step forward instead of mourning another failure. Only Obama had the authority to call this audible early. The environmental NGOs and their allies were too invested in the economy-wide approach; they needed Obama to lead them.

Welcome to the вЂglorious mess’ — the tangle of regulation and litigation that follow when Congress fails to act.

He refused. To the bitter end, the White House pursued what his aides called a “stealth strategy” that deployed the president only sparingly. As a result, he failed to take advantage of the BP oil spill. When its terrible scope became apparent, in June, Obama began talking about the need to cap carbon and accelerate the transition to clean energy. But it was a fleeting moment. Many climate campaigners knew the climate bill was dead on June 15, when Obama gave his long-awaited Oval Office address on the oil spill. Instead of making an explicit connection to the climate bill — and explaining that by capping carbon the U.S. could speed its transition to clean energy and help break its addiction to fossil fuels — Obama whiffed. He had a road map but didn’t try to share it with the people. “We don’t yet know precisely how we’re going to get there,” he said. Today, with that map in shreds, we surely don’t.

As climate campaigners wait however long it takes to get another shot at legislation, there is important work to be done. Greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. have been dropping — and not just because of the recession. The task is to build on this trend during the economic recovery. Changes in our energy infrastructure are making this possible. In Texas, our highest-emitting state and a bastion of climate skepticism, carbon emissions have been declining since 2004 thanks in part to a renewable energy standard — signed into law by then-Gov. George W. Bush — that accelerated the installation of wind power and created thousands of jobs along the way.

The Department of Energy now has 7,000 clean energy projects across the country — projects that save money, create jobs, and reduce emissions. According to an analysis by the World Resources Institute, by leveraging existing authority over the next ten years the U.S. could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent to 12 percent below 2005 levels. This is far short of the 17 percent reduction Obama promised in Copenhagen and nothing close to what needs to be done. But if we continue cutting emissions before asking voters to embrace a cap, we prove that cuts are both technologically feasible and economically sustainable. And we’ll be in a better position when the next legislative opportunity comes.

Until then, the climate war will be waged by cities, states, regional cap-and-trade programs, and, above all, the EPA, which early next year is set to begin regulating stationary sources of CO2 — power plants and large factories.


A Grim Outlook for Emissions
As Climate Talks Limp Forward

In wreckage of climate bill, some clues for moving forward

In the wake of the failed Copenhagen summit, prospects for cutting global CO2 emissions are worse than they’ve been in years, writes journalist Fred Pearce. With talk of mandated cuts now fading and with countries exploiting loopholes, the world appears headed toward a flawed agreement based not on science but on politics.

Welcome to the “glorious mess” — Michigan Rep. John Dingell’s phrase for the tangle of regulation and litigation that will follow when Congress fails to act. We are about to experience precisely the sort of costly, protracted, plant-by-plant trench warfare the cap was intended to avoid. Since the utilities and the manufacturers weren’t willing to cut a deal, this is what they get. The fragile period of compromise and cooperation between environmentalists and big business may now be coming to an end. Green groups that have invested time and money into the legislative process are now putting on their war paint and returning to the courts, with a renewed focus on stopping new coal-fired power plants and shutting down the oldest and dirtiest ones.

Tough new EPA rules for conventional pollutants will help, and so will new EPA carbon regulations. Perhaps these strict new regulations will refresh the power bosses’ appetite for a cap. But they have plenty of lawyers, and the long, ugly battles over implementation of EPA regulations could extend the current period of uncertainty by many years. Republicans (and some Democrats) will try to strip EPA of its authority over carbon, or at least delay implementation of its new rules.

In effect, the Senate will be saying that Congress alone should have the power to act — so that it can then not exercise that power. Obama’s aides say the president will be fully engaged in the battle to save EPA authority over carbon. It is a fight that he can’t possibly duck, because it is our last line of defense. As Gore reminded me in Copenhagen, “The fact that this is extremely hard doesn’t mean we should quit.”

Eric Pooley is deputy editor of Bloomberg BusinessWeek. He has also served as managing editor of Fortune, editor of Time Europe, and national editor, chief political correspondent and White House correspondent for Time. He is the author of the book The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth.

A grim outlook for emissions as climate talks limp forwardFinancial overhaul measures rile small banks

Friday, July 30, 2010

The cybernetics of black knights

Serendipity’s a funny thing. When I started planning out this post a couple of days ago, I knew that I was going to have to pull my battered copy of Gregory Bateson’s Mind and Nature off the bookshelf where I keep basic texts on systems philosophy, since it’s almost impossible to talk about information in any useful way without banking off Bateson’s ideas. I didn’t have any similar intention when I checked out science reporter Charles Seife’s Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking from the local library, much less when I took a break from writing the other evening to watch “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” for the first time since my teens.

Still, I’m not at all sure I could have chosen better, for both of these latter turned out to have plenty of relevance to the theme of this week’s post. Fifty years of failed research and a minor masterpiece of giddy British absurdity may not seem to have much to do with each other, much less with information, Gregory Bateson, or a “green wizardry” fitted to the hard limits and pressing needs of the end of the industrial age. Yet the connections are there, and the process of tracing them out will help more than a little to make sense of how information works – and also how it fails to work.

Let’s start with a few basics. Information is the third element of the triad of fundamental principles that flow through whole systems of every kind, and thus need to be understood to build viable appropriate tech systems. We have at least one huge advantage in understanding information that people a century ago didn’t have: a science of information flow in whole systems, variously called cybernetics and systems theory, that was one of the great intellectual adventures of the twentieth century and deserves much more attention than most people give it these days.

Unfortunately we also have at least one huge disadvantage in understanding information that people a century ago didn’t have, either. The practical achievements of cybernetics, especially but not only in the field of computer science, have given rise to attitudes toward information in popular culture that impose bizarre distortions on the way most people nowadays approach the subject. You can see these attitudes in an extreme form in the notion, common in some avant-garde circles, that since the amount of information available to industrial civilization is supposedly increasing at an exponential rate, and exponential curves approach infinity asymptotically in a finite time, then at some point not too far in the future, industrial humanity will know everything and achieve something like omnipotence.

I’ve pointed out several times in these essays that this faith in the so-called “singularity” is a rehash of Christian apocalyptic myth in the language of cheap science fiction, complete with a techno-Rapture into a heaven lightly redecorated to make it look like outer space. It might also make a good exhibit A in a discussion of the way that any exponential curve taken far enough results in absurdity. Still, there’s still another point here, which is that the entire notion of the singularity is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of what information is and what it does.

Bateson’s work is a good place to start clearing up the mess. He defines information as “a difference that makes a difference.” This is a subtle definition, and it implies much more than it states. Notice in particular that whether a difference “makes a difference” is not an objective quality; it depends on an observer, to whom the difference makes a difference. To make the same point in the language of philosophy, information can’t be separated from intentionality.

What is intentionality? The easiest way to understand this concept is to turn toward the nearest window. Notice that you can look through the window and see what’s beyond it, or you can look at the window and see the window itself. If you want to know what’s happening in the street outside, you look through the window; if you want to know how dirty the window glass is, you look at the window. The window presents you with the same collection of photons in either case; what turns that collection into information of one kind or another, and makes the difference between seeing the street and seeing the glass, is your intentionality.

The torrent of raw difference that deluges every human being during every waking second, in other words, is not information. That torrent is data – a Latin word that means “that which is given.” Only when we approach data with intentionality, looking for differences that make a difference, does data become information – another Latin word that means “that which puts form into something.” Data that isn’t relevant to a given intentionality, such as the dirt on a window when you’re trying to see what’s outside, has a different name, one that doesn’t come from Latin: noise.

Thus the mass production of data in which believers in the singularity place their hope of salvation can very easily have the opposite of the effect they claim for it. Information only comes into being when data is approached from within a given intentionality, so it’s nonsense to speak of it as increasing exponentially in some objective sense. Data can increase exponentially, to be sure, but this simply increases the amount of noise that has to be filtered before information can be made from it. This is particularly true in that a very large fraction of the data that’s exponentially increasing these days consists of such important material as, say, gossip about Kate Hudson’s breast implants.

The need to keep data within bounds to make getting information from it easier explains why the sense organs of living things have been shaped by evolution to restrict, often very sharply, the data they accept. Every species of animal has different information needs, and thus limits its intake of data in a different way. You’re descended from mammals that spent a long time living in trees, for example, which is why your visual system is very good at depth perception and seeing the colors that differentiate ripe from unripe fruit, and very poor at a lot of other things.

A honeybee has different needs for information, and so its senses select different data. It sees colors well up into the ultraviolet, which you can’t, because many flowers use reflectivity in the ultraviolet to signal where the nectar is, and it also sees the polarization angle of light, which you don’t, since this helps it navigate to and from the hive. You don’t “see” heat with a special organ on your face, the way a rattlesnake does, or sense electrical currents the way many fish do; around you at every moment is a world of data that you will never perceive, because your ancestors over millions of generations survived better by excluding that data, so they could extract information from the remainder, than they would have done by including it.

Human social evolution parallels biological evolution, and so it’s not surprising that much of the data processing in human societies consists of excluding most data so that useful information can emerge from the little that’s left over. This is necessary but it’s also problematic, for a set of filters that limit data to what’s useful in one historical or ecological context can screen out exactly the data that might be most useful in a different context, and the filters don’t necessarily change as fast as the context.

The history of fusion power research provides a superb example. For more than half a century now, leading scientists in the world’s industrial nations have insisted repeatedly, and inaccurately, that they were on the brink of opening the door to commercially viable fusion power. Trillions of dollars have gone down what might best be described as a collection of high-tech ratholes as the same handful of devices get rebuilt in bigger and fancier models, and result in bigger and costlier flops. They’re still at it; the money the US government alone is paying to fund the two fusion megaprojects du jour, the National Ignition Facility and the ITER, would very likely buy a solar hot water system for every residence in the United States and thus cut the country’s household energy use by around 10% at a single stroke. Instead, it’s being spent on projects that even their most enthusiastic proponents admit will only be one more inconclusive step toward fusion power.

The information that is being missed here is that fusion power isn’t a viable option. Even if sustained fusion can be done at all outside the heart of a star, and the odds of that don’t look good just now, it’s been shown beyond a doubt that the cost of building enough fusion power plants to make a difference will be so high that no nation on Earth can afford them. There are plenty of reasons why that information is being missed, but an important one is that industrial society learned a long time ago to filter out data that suggested that any given technology wasn’t going to be viable. During the last three centuries, as fossil fuel extraction sent energy per capita soaring to unparalleled heights, that was an adaptive choice; the inevitable failures – and there have been wowsers – were more than outweighed by the long shots that came off, and the steady expansion of economic wealth powered by fossil fuels made covering the costs of failures and long shots alike a minor matter.

We don’t live in that kind of world any longer. With the peak of world conventional petroleum production receding in the rear view mirror, energy per capita is contracting, not expanding. At the same time, most of the low hanging fruit in science and engineering has long since been harvested, and most of what’s left – fusion power here again is a good example – demands investment on a gargantuan scale with no certainty of payback. The assumption that innovation always pays off, and that data contradicting that belief is to be excluded, has become hopelessly maladaptive, but it remains welded in place; consider the number of people who insist that the proper response to peak oil is some massive program that would gamble the future on some technology that hasn’t yet left the drawing boards.

It’s at this point that the sound of clattering coconut hulls can be heard in the distance, for the attempt to create information out of data that won’t fit it is the essence of the absurd, and absurdity was the stock in trade of the crew of British comics who performed under the banner of Monty Python. What makes “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” so funny is the head-on collisions between intentionalities and data deliberately chosen to conflict with them; any given collision may involve the intentionality the audience has been lured into accepting, or the intentionality one of the characters is pursuing, or both at once, but in every scene, cybernetically speaking, that’s what’s happening.

Consider King Arthur’s encounter with the Black Knight. The audience and Arthur both approach the scene with an intentionality borrowed from chivalric romance, in which knightly combat determines a winner and a loser out of the background data. The Black Knight, by contrast, approaches the fight with an intentionality that excludes any data that would signal his defeat. No matter how many of the Black Knight’s limbs get chopped off – and by the end of the scene, he’s got four bloody stumps – he insists on his invincibility and accuses Arthur of cowardice for refusing to continue the fight. There’s some resemblance here to the community of fusion researchers, whose unchanging response to half a century of utter failure is to keep repeating that fusion power is just twenty (more) years in the future.

Doubtless believers in the singularity will be saying much the same thing fifty years from now, if there are still any believers in the singularity around then. The simple logical mistake they’re making is the same one that fusion researchers have been making for half a century; they’ve forgotten that the words “this can’t be done” also convey information, and a very important kind of information at that. Just as it’s very likely at this point that fusion research will end up discovering that fusion power won’t work on any scale smaller than a star, it’s entirely plausible that even if we did achieve infinite knowledge about the nature of the universe, what we would learn from it is that the science fiction fantasies retailed by believers in the singularity are permanently out of reach, and we simply have to grit our teeth and accept the realities of human existence after all.

All these points, even those involving Black Knights, have to be kept in mind in making sense of the flow of information through whole systems. Every system has its own intentionality, and every functional system filters the data given to it so that it can create the information it needs. Even so simple a system as a thermostat connected to a furnace has an intentionality – it “looks” at the air temperature around the thermostat, and “sees” if that temperature is low enough to justify turning the furnace on, or high enough to justify turning it off. The better the thermostat, the more completely it ignores any data that has no bearing on its intentionality; conversely, most of the faults thermostats can suffer can be understood as ways that other bits of data (for example, the insulating value of the layer of dust on the thermostat) insert themselves where they’re not wanted.

The function of the thermostat-furnace system in the larger system to which it belongs – the system of the house that it’s supposed to keep at a more or less stable temperature – is another matter, and requires a subtly different intentionality. The homeowner, whose job it is to make information out of the available data, monitors the behavior of the thermostat-furnace system and, if something goes wrong, has to figure out where the trouble is and fix it. The thermostat-furnace system’s intentionality is to turn certain ranges of air temperature, as perceived by the thermostat, into certain actions performed by the furnace; the homeowner’s intentionality is to make sure that this intentionality produces the effect that it’s supposed to produce.

One way or another, this same two-level system plays a role in every part of the green wizard’s work. It’s possible to put additional levels between the system on the spot (in the example, the thermostat-furnace system) and the human being who manages the system, but in appropriate tech it’s rarely a good option; the Jetsons fantasy of the house that runs itself is one of the things most worth jettisoning as the age of cheap energy comes to a close. Your goal in crafting systems is to come up with stable, reliable systems that will pursue their own intentionalities without your interference most of the time, while you monitor the overall output of the system and keep tabs on the very small range of data that will let you know if something has gone haywire.

That same two-level system also applies, interestingly enough, to the process of learning to become a green wizard. The material on appropriate technology I’ve asked readers to collect embodies a wealth of data; what prospective green wizards have to do, in turn, is to decide on their own intentionality toward the data they have, and begin turning it into information. This is the exercise for this week.

Here’s how it works. Go through the Master Conserver files you downloaded, and any appropriate tech books you’ve been able to collect. On a sheet of paper, or perhaps in a notebook, note down each project you encounter – for example, weatherstripping your windows, or building a solar greenhouse. Mark any of the projects you’ve already done with a check mark Then mark each of the projects you haven’t done with one of four numbers and one of four letters:

1 – this is a project that you could do easily with the resources available to you.
2 – this is a project that you could do, though it would take some effort to get the resources.
3 – this is a project that you could do if you really had to, but it would be a serious challenge.
4 – this is a project that, for one reason or another, is out of reach for you.

A – this is a project that is immediately and obviously useful in your life and situation right now.
B – this is a project that could be useful to you given certain changes in your life and situation.
C – this is a project that might be useful if your life and situation were to change drastically.
D – this is a project that, for one reason for another, is useless or irrelevant to you.

This exercise will produce a very rough and general intentionality, to be sure, but you’ll find it tolerably easy to refine from there. Once you decide, let’s say, that weatherstripping the leaky windows of your apartment before winter arrives is a 1-A project – easy as well as immediately useful – you’ve set up an intentionality that allows you to winnow through a great deal of data and find the information you need: for example, what kinds of weatherstripping are available at the local hardware store, and which of those can you use without spending a lot of money or annoying your landlord. Once you decide that building a brand new ecovillage in the middle of nowhere is a 4-D project, equally, you can set aside data relevant to that project and pay attention to things that matter.

Of course you’re going to find 1-D and 4-A projects as well – things that are possible but irrelevant, and things that would be splendidly useful but are out of your reach. Recognizing these limits is part of the goal of the exercise; learning to focus your efforts where they will accomplish the most soonest is another part; recognizing that you’ll be going back over these lists later on, as you learn more, and potentially changing your mind about some of the rankings, is yet another. Give it a try, and see where it takes you.

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Gulf of Mexico reconsidered: building your house on salt

A strategically timed item in the New York Times presents an overview of the geology that makes the Gulf of Mexico so rich in oil, how new technology has enabled us to track these deposits - and the risks we run to extract them.

It was published Wednesday [July 28], one day before a special judicial panel in Boise, Idaho began to consider “how to bring order to the hundreds of civil lawsuits” stemming from BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. The seven judges will “consider which U.S. court, or courts, should oversee hundreds of spill-related suits by injured rig workers, fishermen, investors and property owners,” reports Reuters – as oil companies themselves begin to count the cost of an offshore drilling ban. It states:

Potentially adding its name to the line of claimants, Royal Dutch Shell Plc idled seven rigs and took a $56 million charge related to the drilling ban on Thursday. Saying the ban would reduce its production by almost 3 million barrels this year, the company did not rule out reclaiming the cash from BP.

Shell, one of the biggest oil producers in the Gulf of Mexico, said it had idled rigs rather than move them elsewhere because the ban's six-month duration meant it was not profitable to redeploy them to other areas.

Coincidentally, the New York Times item happily sugests that the Gulf’s reserves, which 25 years ago seemed exhausted, could postpone peak oil.

Even if you discount such hype, it provides a fascinating and balanced account of how industry dismay at test drills producing little more than salt turned to feverish excitement once everyone realized that salt, in fact, indidicated large oil reserves. It states:

Do you know the old Bible reference, don't build your house on sand?" said William Galloway, a geologist at the University of Texas at Austin. "Well, building your house on salt goes beyond anything in the biblical expression."

Gulf geology is not only about salt, of course, but scientists' improved take on the rock is one of the best examples of how, for 50 years, the Gulf has served as one of the world's foremost geology labs. Backed by society's endless thirst for oil, geologists have guided drillers to ever deeper and riskier oil reservoirs.

So the good news is that there is more oil down there than we earlier thought – the bad is that, as the ongoing Gulf of Mexico disaster is proving, getting at it is a risky business. One blowout can put an oil major into a desperate fight for survival.

But the industry needs to follow the oil, and the item continues with some bullish quotes from Clint Moore, vice president at ION Geophysical Corp:

Moore, while at Anadarko Petroleum Corp., was one of the earliest geologists to probe beneath the Gulf's salt, helping discover the Mahogany oil reservoir, the region's first producing subsalt field, after burrowing through 3,825 feet of salt in the early 1990s. The productivity of these salt-based fields could prompt a re-evaluation of peak oil's arrival, he said.

"If the volumes are there, this will be a significant addition to the world's resources," he said.

Of course, there are complications. Deeper wells sit at higher pressures, increasing the risk of blowout. The deepest exploration well, drilled by the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon, is 35,000 feet down, several times the depth of BP's Macondo well. And further oil production will only add to the greenhouse gases humans pour into the atmosphere each year, slowly increasing global temperatures.

A New York Times item from 2006,Drilling Deep in the Gulf of Mexico, suggested: “According to the most optimistic estimates, there could be 40 billion barrels of undiscovered reserves in the deep water, which starts at about 1,500 feet, enough to satisfy American consumption for more than five years.”

Clearly, five years’ domestic consumption will not do much to deter the onset of peak oil. And that is the optimistic best. A June column by longtime peak oil writer Tom Whipple, The peak oil crisis: the real gulf crisis, that suggests the Gulf may not live up to this hype. He writes:

The international oil companies that are drilling in deep water certainly are not about to connect the dots for us, but independent observers say it is looking like our new deepwater oil wells are only going to be producing some 10 or 20 percent of initial estimates. Deep water oil is a whole different game with which no one has much experience. None of the deepwater fields have been producing long enough to have established any track record as to just how much oil can ultimately be recovered from deep beneath the sea where temperatures and pressures are extreme.

This details declines in output at the Thunder Horse (“instead of production increasing to the rated 250,000 b/d, production began to drop at 2-3 percent each month so by the end of 2009 production was down to 60 or 70,000 b/d”) and Neptune projects (“It now looks as if the platform that was supposed to produce 150 million barrels of crude will produce on the order of 33 million”).

Meanwhile, global consumption of oil is reported to be currently close to its 2008 high of 86.6 million barrels a day. In June the International Energy Agency (IEA) presented two “oil demand cases for the next five years,” essentially predicting that by 2015 the world will be burning 90-92 million barrels per day, depending on factors including growth rates and conservation measures.

It’s interesting to note that the IEA presentation suggests that at the higher levels of demand, “OPEC spare capacity. . . begins to decline again as soon as next year, reaching 3.6 mb/d by 2015. . . we anticipate a tightening global balance, with surplus capacity falling below 5% of global demand. This could lead to more jittery markets ahead, after what has been a prolonged period of relative price stability over the past year.” This could be taken as a reference to peak oil – what better way to chart the arrival of peak production than charting the decline in Opec’s spare capacity? Surely, peak oil can be defined as the time of zero surplus production capacity.

Nashville families’ beach plans marred by Gulf oil spillOilwatch Monthly July 2010

Book Review: The Climate Files by Fred Pearce

The Climate Files by Fred Pearce

Fred Pearce (2010) The Climate Files: the battle for the truth about global warming. Guardian Books.

The saga of the hacked, or leaked, emails from University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU) has gone on to become known, predictably, as ‘Climategate’. This release of thousands of emails and documents, sceptics argued, proved that climate science was fabricated and fraudulent, and showed scientists deliberately falsifying data. The release of the emails just days before the Copenhagen climate talks couldn’t have been worse timed, and they were dissected endlessly online, often by people with little understanding of the science, selected quotes being used to dismiss climate science in its entirety as a wicked scam (here’s one more lurid example of this). In this, the first book to look in depth at Climategate, Pearce offers a remarkably well balanced and up-to-date account of what really happened, what it all means and where climate science finds itself in the wake of the whole sorry saga.

The implications of Climategate are only just starting to really sink in. What the emails revealed was that climate scientists can be as territorial, unpleasant, defensive and bitchy as the rest of us. For anyone who thinks that teachers, for example, in the privacy of the staff room don’t discuss some of their students in rather derogatory terms, or lawyers, or nurses or whoever… this may come as a bit of a shock. Climate scientists are shown in the emails as having, on occasion, refused to comply with Freedom of Information requests for them to share their data sets, misused their position to try and keep papers they diasgreed with out of journals, and generally tried to shut up shop in the face of a barrage of demands from climate sceptics. Pearce, in spite of being a leading writer on climate change himself, is frank in his assessment that some of the behaviour within UEA was not up to the standards expected, and has put the process of peer review in a very bad light.

It is clear that several years before the release of the emails, relationships between the scientists and the sceptics had already broken down, and levels of animosity had reached such levels that it gets rather hard to start telling right from wrong. Like a ‘family at war’ on the Jeremy Kyle Show (such as this one), relationships had soured, and people were happy to block other people’s work on principle, and had started acting so unreasonably that nobody emerges from this story with very much credit.

Pearce does a great job of explaining just what it was that everybody was arguing about. Much of it relates to what is called ‘paleo-climatology’. While we have climate data, temperatures and so on for the past 160-odd years (“since records began”), it is the detective work required to build up a picture of temperature changes further back in history that is the source of much rancour. Debates revolve around which data is used to build up that picture, tree rings data being a bone of particular contention. Sceptics and critics point to Mike Mann’s famous ‘hockey stick’ graph and argue that he cherry picked the data in order to show flat temperatures followed by the more recent spike, an accusation which Mann himself has argued against for years. Pearce explains patiently and clearly what all this means, and the different sides of the debates.

The key question of course is whether any of this proves that climate science is wrong, or is part of some vast shadowy conspiracy to usher in a One World Government, or some such nonsense. Pearce is clear:

“none of the 1,073 emails, or the 3,587 files containing documents, raw data and computer code upsets the 200-year-old science behind the “greenhouse effect”. We might wish it weren’t so, but the world still has a problem. A big problem”.

This is a point also made by George Monbiot in this recent interview:

The world continues to warm, the first half of 2010 having been the hottest ever recorded. Evidence of other feedbacks and indicators of rapid warming continue to accumulate – Climategate has done nothing to undermine the science. Indeed if anything, as this recent report from WWF shows, the science published since IPCC’s fourth assessment in 2007 suggests a far graver picture than that set out in that report.

‘The Climate Files’ does occasionally feel like it was written in a hurry, rather like books about celebrities lives that emerge weeks after their demise, with no index and the odd typo, but the advantage of that is that it is right up-to-date with developments. Pearce’s style is clear and patient, and although I picked up the book in order to gain a clear overview of the story and implications of Climategate, I found I also picked up a great deal about climate change and the debates within the science. Clearly, he argues, something went horribly wrong here. The levels of openness, the practice of good science and, as he explicitly states, the levels of basic human courtesy, were not what one would expect from scientists of such repute.

Pearce argues that in moving forward from the mess of the past 9 months, given the damage and disrepute it has caused not just for climate science, but for science in general, a new principle of openness is required, in effect, the ‘Open Sourcing’ of climate data, the opening up of datasets and information, a new spirit of collaborative learning. This, Pearce argues, is actually one of the key objectives of the new generation of climate sceptics, who are not like the older generation of sceptics, often funded by petrochemical interests to ‘manufacture doubt’ (watch Naomi Oreskes’s excellent presentation on ‘manufactured doubt’ here), but who rather see themselves as ‘liberators of data’, arguing for the open sourcing of all climate-related data.

‘The Climate Files’ is a highly readable, fascinating account of an event which has been spun by so many different people as meaning so many different things, depending on their views about climate change. Is it the ’smoking gun’ that proves climate change is all a conspiracy? Does it prove scientific fraud on an unprecedented scale? Or does it show that climate scientists are, in fact, human, and that when put under pressure, sometimes people don’t behave to the standards they would otherwise observe? Pearce’s book is clear, fair and balanced, and a fascinating account of this whole sorry saga. Essential reading for anyone with an interest in climate change, and a reminder of why alongside good scientific practice we also need to value civility and courtesy.

You can also hear Fred Pearce, along with some of the other key players in ‘Climategate’ in the podcast of the excellent debate hosted recently by the Guardian in London, which explored many of the issues raised in the book, here.

Dems roll over, abandon climate bill. will citizenry follow suit?Book urges job seekers to employ the power of seduction

Beyond the limits to growth

Beyond the limits to growth


In 1972, the now-classic book Limits to Growth explored the consequences for Earth’s ecosystems of exponential growth in population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion.1 That book, which still stands as the best-selling environmental title ever published, reported on the first attempts to use computers to model the likely interactions between trends in resources, consumption, and population. It summarized the first major scientific study to question the assumption that economic growth can and will continue more or less uninterrupted into the foreseeable future.

The idea was heretical at the time, and still is: During the past few decades, growth has become virtually the sole index of national economic well-being. When an economy grows, jobs appear, investments yield high returns, and everyone is happy. When the economy stops growing, financial bloodletting and general misery ensue. Predictably, a book saying that growth cannot and will not continue beyond a certain point proved profoundly upsetting in some quarters, and soon Limits to Growth was pilloried in a public relations campaign organized by pro-growth business interests. In reality, this purported “debunking” merely amounted to taking a few numbers in the book completely out of context, citing them as “predictions” (which they explicitly were not), and then claiming that these predictions had failed. The ruse was quickly exposed, but rebuttals often don’t gain nearly as much publicity as accusations, and so today millions of people mistakenly believe that the book was long ago discredited. In fact, the original Limits to Growth scenarios have held up quite well, so much so that even the thoroughly pro-business Wall Street Journal printed a lengthy frontpage reflection on that fact in March 2008.2

In any case, the underlying premise of the book is irrefutable:

At some point in time, humanity’s ever-increasing resource consumption will meet the very real limits of a planet with finite natural resources. We the co-authors of The Post Carbon Reader believe that this time has come.

... Limits to Growth foresaw this inflection point nearly forty years ago. But the world failed to heed the warning; as a result, adaptation now will be much more difficult than would have been the case if growth had been proactively curtailed decades ago. Global leaders now face the need to accomplish four enormous tasks simultaneously:

1. Rapidly reduce dependence on fossil fuels. We must do this to avert worse climate impacts, but also because the fuels themselves will be more scarce and expensive. Ending our reliance on coal, oil, and natural gas proactively with minimal social disruption will require a rapid redesign of transportation, agriculture, and power-generation systems.

2. Adapt to the end of economic growth. This means reworking, even reinventing, our existing economic system, which functions only in a condition of continuous expansion. Banking, finance, and the process of money creation will all need to be put on a new and different footing.

3. Design and provide a sustainable way of life for 7 billion people. We must stabilize and gradually reduce human population over time, using humane strategies such as providing higher levels of education for women in poor countries.

But even in the best case, this objective will take decades to achieve; in the meantime, we must continue to support existing human populations while doing a better job of providing basic services for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. We must accomplish this in the context of a nongrowing economy and with a shrinking stream of resource inputs, and we must do it without further damaging the environment.

4. Deal with the environmental consequences of the past 100 years of fossil-fueled growth. Even if we cease all environmentally destructive practices tomorrow, we still face the momentum of processes already set in motion throughout decades of deforestation, overfishing, topsoil erosion, and fossil-fuel combustion. First and foremost of these processes is, of course, global climate change, which will almost certainly have serious impacts on world agriculture even if future carbon emissions decline sharply and soon.

Read the full report:

»  Download the PDF (1.3 MB)Read other reportsFrom the Post Carbon Institute/Watershed Media Book:

Beyond the limits to growth

The Post Carbon Reader

Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises

Edited by Richard Heinberg and Daniel Lerch


Table of Contents

Content available for download

Order the book

about The Post Carbon Reader

How do population, water, energy, food, and climate issues impact one another? What can we do to address one problem without making the others worse? The Post Carbon Reader features essays by some of the world’s most provocative thinkers on the key issues shaping our new century, from renewable energy and urban agriculture to social justice and community resilience. This insightful collection takes a hard-nosed look at the interconnected threats of our global sustainability quandary and presents some of the most promising responses.

Contributors to The Post Carbon Reader are some of the world's leading sustainability thinkers, including Bill McKibben, Richard Heinberg, Stephanie Mills, David Orr, Wes Jackson, Erika Allen, Gloria Flora, and dozens more.

Published by Watershed Media

Forthcoming in October

440 pages, 6 x 9“, 4 b/w photographs, 26 line illustrations

$21.95 paper 978-0-9709500-6-2

Jim Wright is Nashville Chamber’s Partnership 2010 co-chairmanVision of the future : Dune

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Happy homestead happenstances

Happy homestead happenstances

How many slick tricks have you learned about farming and gardening more or less by accident? My favorite example happened because of laziness. I didn’t clean out the roof gutter on the barn for over a year. I have a longstanding prejudice against roof gutters anyway. Why not just let the water run off the roof onto a layer of gravel or stone along the wall? The gutters plug regularly and the water overflows anyway. This is especially true of my barn which sits in the woods. All sorts of tree leaves, twigs, and seeds end up in the gutter. Five tree leaves can plug a downspout no matter what kind of contraption you install to prevent it. And those screens that are supposed to keep debris out of the gutters become clogged and the water cascades right on over and down to the ground. That is, in any event, how I justify my laziness. Water running off the barn roof (as opposed to running off the house roof) is certainly not of any consequence as far as looks are concerned. In fact that water off the roof keeps the whole barnyard lawn nice and green all summer.

Now the plot thickens. Last year I decided to turn one of my pasture plots into woodland as you know if you have been reading this website. I figured I would just scatter all kinds of tree seeds over the plot and by and by some of them would sprout and grow. That does work, but I could see right away that nature’s way was going to be too slow for this old man. So I started transplanting seedlings. That too has proven not to be as easy or automatic as it sounds. Digging up seedlings is hard work and some of them die no matter how careful I try not to disturb the roots.

I was thinking about this situation one day in June when I happened to be walking past the barn. I looked up at the gutter and was startled to see that it looked like one very elongated pot of plants. All sorts of things were growing ludicrously out of it. But of course: maple, oak, ash, elm and wild cherry seeds had been washing into it for over a year. Some of them had sprouted and were growing with the abundance of rain that had fallen. I could lift them out with all their roots intact without straining one muscle, carry several dozen in a bucket at once, and plant them with only minimal effort.

Sometimes laziness pays. Happy happenstance farming!

Another example of learning by accident is something my sheep taught me earlier but never more graphically than this summer. On the strips where I grew corn last year, I disked and broadcast red clover this spring. It came up fine but then in our very wet May and June it faltered in the water-logged soil. I grazed it anyway, thinking it would come back with drier weather. But by mid-June, and after I shifted the sheep on to other plots, the clover was completely blotted out by crabgrass and quack grass. I moaned and groaned. By mid July, time for that plot to be grazed again, the strips that had been clover were bright green with these two grasses. But the sheep went after them like a child after chocolate.

So now I can tell you how to have good lush pasture in the hot dry days of summer. Pretend that you are going to grow corn. That’s really all you have to do. Plow and/or disk some land, then go away. It might even help to plant some corn if you have some cheap seed since I am convinced that quack grass and crabgrass will grow even faster and denser if they think they are competing with corn. Or broadcast clover like I did which also seems to bring out the villainy of these two weed grasses. Then pray for bad weather. Crabgrass and quack grass love it wet and love it dry. They are genetically engineered by nature to cover bare land to protect it against erosion and by hickory they will cover it come hell or high water. Where all those grass seeds came from to make such a magnificent stand, I do not know. Life is full of mysteries.

This method of growing lush pasture in summer is not necessarily a good thing. It requires cultivating the soil, which is what I am trying to get away from in pasture farming. But if you are going to cultivate some of your land every year anyway, a rotation of corn, quack grass and crabgrass is something to consider. Another happy happenstance might follow. It did for me. After the sheep grazed the grasses down to the ground, (they did a fairly good job on some ragweed that dared to dispute the territory with the grasses) I mowed the strips and guess what. Here comes the red clover back again!

Nashville families’ beach plans marred by Gulf oil spillFast growing plants