Sunday, October 13, 2019

California wildfires, electricity shutoffs and our troubled energy future

Most of the news surrounding the electricity shutoffs in California—done to avert the ignition of additional wildfires by aging electrical infrastructure—has focused on two things: climate change and the greedy, incompetent management of Pacific Gas & Electric.

Missing in this discussion is the broad neglect of the complex infrastructure of the United States and possibly other wealthy nations. The American Society of Civil Engineers' (ASCE) most recent "Infrastructure Report Card" gave the United States an overall grade of D+. (Those readers unfamiliar with the American system for grading schoolwork should note that "E" is a failing grade.)

While some will point out that the ASCE's assessment is self-interested—civil engineers will, of course, benefit from an uptick in infrastructure spending—the organization hasn't always been this negative about American infrastructure. The 1988 report card wasn't flattering, but it wasn't nearly as dire as the most recent one.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

'Factfulness' may calm you down, but won't change our ecocidal trajectory

Here and there people have been referring to author Hans Rosling's idea of "factfulness" as an antidote to gloomy thinking about the trajectory of the human enterprise. Rosling writes:

[T]he vast majority of the world’s population live somewhere in the middle of the income scale. Perhaps they are not what we think of as middle class, but they are not living in extreme poverty. Their girls go to school, their children get vaccinated. Perhaps not on every single measure, or every single year, but step by step, year by year, the world is improving. In the past two centuries, life expectancy has more than doubled. Although the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress.

"Factfulness," it seems, relies on nothing more than drawing attention to a narrow set of facts. Yes, we have made tremendous progress for humans taken alone. The problem with such assessments is that they leave out how that progress was purchased. While Rosling does not deny climate change, profligate resource consumption or toxic pollution, he does not see that they are the pillars upon which the so-called "progress" we've achieved rests and not mere side-effects.

I agree with Rosling that the daily flow of news does not provide an accurate picture of our true trajectory. While the media may overplay the negative news about human well-being or at least give the wrong impression, it vastly underplays the damage that human dominance has inflicted on the biosphere. And, it reliably ignores the relationship between continual growth in consumption and population and that damage.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Oops! Gene editing not as precise as advertised

Sometimes a headline gives you practically the entire story. Take this one: "Gene-Editing Unintentionally Adds Bovine DNA, Goat DNA, and Bacterial DNA, Mouse Researchers Find." The writer details how this happens, of course. And, there is an important subtext. The problem is chalked up by scientists and regulators to incompetence on the part of the company doing alterations to create cattle without horns.

But the real news is this according the author: "[F]oreign DNA from surprising sources can routinely find its way into the genome of edited animals. This genetic material is not DNA that was put there on purpose, but rather, is a contaminant of standard editing procedures." [My emphasis.]

At the risk of sounding like a broken record (remember records?), as Garrett Hardin, the author of the first law of ecology, reminds us, "we can never merely do one thing." Why is this truism so hard to accept, so hard that I feel compelled to refer to it in consecutive posts? The simple answer is that as long as there is profit in ignoring it and as long as it is possible to pass the bad consequences on to others, people will act as if Hardin's first law was never spoken.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break from posting this week. I expect to post again on Sunday, September 29.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Genetically engineered honeybees: Not the dumbest idea ever, but close to it

In the wake of widespread declines in bee populations, farmers and beekeepers are wondering who exactly is going to pollinate that third of the world's food crops which require pollination. The declines have been attributed to pesticides, parasites and climate change.

In Europe one response has been to phase out a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. The phase-out has coincided with a revival of bee populations. But pesticides are clearly not the only factor affecting bee health.

Another response has been to consider building a better bee. Enter the geneticists. Why not genetically engineer honeybees to resist those things which are undermining their health?

Sunday, September 08, 2019

Oil prices and the coming financial 'Ice Age'

Albert Edwards turned bearish on stocks back in 1996—well, not exactly bearish, but cautious. He recommended to clients that they overweight long-term, high-quality bonds and therefore underweight stocks in their portfolios. It turns out that clients who followed his advice fared not quite as well as those 100 percent invested in stocks but also took far less risk. Edwards believes that events that are currently unfolding will actually vindicate his approach.

Although Edwards never mentions energy as central to his thinking, I believe that energy and oil, in particular, are related to his views. I'll develop this later, but first more on Edwards.

Edwards is a long-time financial strategist for the French investment bank and financial services giant Société Générale. He has an investment thesis that arose from the experience of Japan in the 1980s. He calls it the "Ice Age" thesis. It amounts to this: Gigantic debts that built up during Japan's boom in the 1980s led to exceptionally sluggish economic growth after the Japanese stock market bust and finally to deflation and ultra-low interest rates.

Sunday, September 01, 2019

Taking a holiday break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break from posting this week to enjoy the holiday. I expect to post again on Sunday, September 8.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Trump and Greenland: America keeps looking for the next frontier

President Donald Trump's announcement that he was looking into buying Greenland, an autonomous territory of Denmark, was treated with derision by Danish politicians, Twitter users around the world (the idea was announced on the president's Twitter account), and by television comedians.

It turns out that the United States has tried to buy Greenland twice before. The U.S. State Department asked about a possible sale in 1867, and President Harry Truman made an offer after World War II. From a historical perspective Trump's impulse to expand American territory seems entirely consistent with the American story.

By the time historian Frederick Jackson Turner published his seminal essay entitled The Significance of the Frontier in American History in 1893, the American frontier had ceased to exist.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Plastic, plastic everywhere

When we discard a plastic bag, an electronic device encased in plastic, a plastic pen emptied of its ink or any of the myriad plastic objects which populate our lives, we usually say we are throwing the object "away." By that we mean into a trash or recycling bin and from there to a landfill or recycling facility.

I put "away" in quotes because if there were ever any piece of evidence to convince us that there is no "away" in the sense described above, it is the discovery of tiny particles of plastic in the Arctic ice, deep oceans and high mountains.

These so-called microplastics are so ubiquitous now that they are believed to be floating in the air practically everywhere. Some tiny plastic bits have been seen the lungs of cancer patients who have died. Humans not only breathe them in, but also supposedly eat 50,000 of these particles every year.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

The wheels come off shale oil

A flurry of coverage about the gloom and outright calamity in the shale oil business appeared last week. Low prices continue to dog the industry. But so does lack of investor interest in financing loss-making operations for yet another season. Plunging stock prices portend more bankruptcies if circumstances don't change.

I received considerable pushback last January when I asked whether U.S. shale oil had entered a death spiral. The almost constant refrain of the cheerleaders for the shale oil industry has been that increasing production demonstrates there is something wrong with my analysis and that of others who have been skeptical of the industry's claims.

We skeptics have certainly been wrong about how long the boom could go on. We could not fathom why investors kept funneling capital into businesses that were consistently consuming it with no hope of ever providing a long-term return.