Sunday, July 15, 2018

"In Praise of Idleness" Revisited

Last week a new acquaintance displayed mild astonishment at the volume of my writing. He asked me how I come up with ideas for my pieces. I had to pause to think about that since my process has become more of a reflex that anything else.

My answer was that I have the luxury of time. Despite the heightened pace of my life since moving to Washington, D.C., I continue to leave many hours unscheduled so that I can read, think and write.

I am reminded of Bertrand Russell's 1932 essay entitled "In Praise of Idleness"  which critiqued the modern obsession with labor in the age of the machine and with production as an end in itself.

Much of the work in wealthy countries now, however, is in the service industries. Service jobs have always been around, but not as much as they are today. Yet strangely, in an age where a smaller and smaller proportion of the population produces the actual physical objects of life—work that in the past has been associated with long hours of physical labor and repetitive drudgery—many of those engaged in the professions, managerial work, and other white-collar jobs have seen their workday expand almost without limit. We receive emails from workplace colleagues and clients at all hours, sometimes with tasks that must be performed immediately. A dinner with a lawyer friend last week was interrupted by an email from a client who needed a memo that evening for the next morning.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

10 years after the oil price spike: Is peak oil a process rather than a moment?

Ten years ago this week—July 11, 2008 to be exact—the price of a barrel of oil on the New York Mercantile Exchange hit an intraday high of $147.27, its highest price ever. By the following autumn the world economy was in shambles and the price of oil was tumbling. The oil price eventually bottomed out around $34 per barrel in mid-February the following year.

Oil prices started 2002 around $20 per barrel and then rose almost continuously until mid-2008. As they rose, the world's best known critic of peak oil* prognostications, Daniel Yergin, began to look so foolish for having predicted ample supplies for decades to come that his firm finally reversed itself in mid-2008 and began to forecast higher prices. That should have been read as a contrarian signal; just two months later the oil bull market ended.

Peak oil thinkers at the time believed that their forecast of a nearby all-time peak in the rate of world oil production had been fulfilled. The official numbers seemed to confirm this. Petroleum geologist Kenneth Deffeyes' had made a half-serious prediction that Thanksgiving Day 2005 would mark the all-time high for production. Production of crude oil including lease condensate (which is the definition of oil) was slightly more than 74 million barrels per day (mbpd) in December 2005, but thereafter declined.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Is the decline of coal a national security problem?

As the Trump administration seeks to resuscitate the moribund American coal industry, it has decided to invoke "national security" as the justification for a plan to subsidize coal-fired power plants.

Three things are notable about the administration's proposal. First, invoking "national security" has become a favored tool for getting around existing regulations, precedents and the Constitution. It's also handy for labeling one's opponents as unpatriotic in order to avoid a genuine discussion of the true purpose of a proposed action. Second, the coal industry used to be the one attacking renewable energy sources as too expensive to stand on their own without subsidies. As the cost of renewable energy has continued to plummet, the tables are now turning.

Third, the move has united an unlikely coalition in opposition that includes the oil and gas industry, anti-nuclear activists (since nuclear power plants are included in the subsidy plan), environmentalists and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission which is dominated by Trump appointees. It takes amazingly bad policy to get an alliance like this together.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

OPEC production increase shows it's still fighting U.S. shale oil

It felt like opposite day as traders bid up the price of oil last week even as OPEC announced an increase in oil production that should have sent prices downward. The cartel decided it had room to move because of outages in Venezuela, Libya and Angola amounting to 2.8 million barrels per day (mbpd). The increase apparently wasn't as much as traders had expected.

Even though oil prices have drifted upward from the punishing levels of three years ago, OPEC is still interested in undermining the shale oil industry (properly called "tight oil") in the United States which it perceives as a threat to OPEC's ability to control prices. So, it is no surprise that OPEC has chosen to increase output in the wake of lost production elsewhere. OPEC does not want prices to reach levels that would actually make the tight oil industry's cash flow positive.

You read that correctly. The industry as a whole has been free cash flow negative even when oil was over $100 per barrel. Free cash flow equals cash flow from operations minus capital expenditures required for operations. This means that tight oil drillers are not generating enough cash from selling the oil they're currently producing to pay for exploration and development of new reserves. The only thing allowing continued exploitation of U.S. tight oil deposits has been a continuous influx of investment capital seeking relatively high returns in an era of zero interest rate policies. Tight oil drillers aren't building value; they are merely consuming capital as they lure investors with unrealistic claims about potential reserves. (Some analysts have likened the situation to a Ponzi scheme.)

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Leaked U.N. climate change report shows inverted thinking on growth

The Reuters news service managed a genuine journalistic coup by getting an advance copy of a U.N. climate change report not due out until October. Given what the report says—it's dire—and the fact that the climate isn't going to stop changing while the report gets reviewed, somebody decided to get the ball rolling.

Reuters has so far chosen not to make the entire draft available. But from its reporting we can see already the contradictory thinking that remains a barrier to facing up to climate change, to wit:

Global warming is on course to exceed the most stringent goal set in the Paris agreement by around 2040, threatening economic growth...

This kind of thinking is so obviously inverted, and yet the inversion is entirely invisible to most people. While it may be true that global warming threatens economic growth, it is far more salient to say that economic growth threatens us with global warming.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Plato's dream and our modern nightmare

In a recent conversation a friend of mine described our modern understanding of the world around us as a conspiracy theory of the grandest proportions.

We posit theories which tell us that the phenomena we witness are merely ephemera resulting from an underlying structure of whirring particles—not even atoms anymore, but subatomic particles in such categories as bosons, leptons and quarks. This conspiracy gives us the theater that is our everyday experience, experience that cannot be explained in its own terms, but must be understood to be the result of forces hidden from our eyes and ultimately from all our other senses. The surface of things cannot be trusted.

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato gave us the first version of such a world in his theory of forms. Everything in our everyday existence is a pale imitation of ideal forms in the real world, he said. The perfect tiger exists in a different dreamlike realm where it offers a template for an actual tiger. The perfect chair in this other realm acts in a similar way. Our world is not the real one, but a mere ghost orchestrated by the real world which we can never know directly.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

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, June 10.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

The toxic price of convenience

As many as 110 million Americans may be drinking water contaminated by a toxic class of chemicals that according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are used in "stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products (e.g., Teflon), polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products, and fire-fighting foams (a major source of groundwater contamination at airports and military bases where firefighting training occurs)."

The chemicals, referred to as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS, were detected by EPA-mandated testing of U.S. water supplies between 2013 and 2015. The full results of that testing have not been made public. An analysis done by the Environmental Working Group using available data uncovered the widespread contamination. The group's analysis was released last week.

Firefighting foams are a major source of the contamination, primarily from their release during routine training drills at both civilian and military airports. But the desire of consumers for nonstick pans and stain- and water-repellent clothing and carpets brings direct contact with the toxic chemicals.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Genes, synecdoche and the possibility of editing ourselves

Margaret Atwood's 2003 novel Oryx and Crake depicts the evolution and aftermath of a bioengineered global catastrophe. Whether Atwood at the time was privy to insider knowledge that genetic alteration would become easy to do and ubiquitous or whether she just thought it would make a good premise for a novel, I do not know.

What we have now, however, is a world moving ever forward toward what is being called the democratization of genetic engineering or biohacking for short. Anyone with a credit card and a mailing address can now order their own genetic engineering kit. Meanwhile, in major research laboratories around the world visits from awed reporters are bringing the possibility of fabulous advances in medicine to the attention of the public.

Some 6,000 diseases are thought to be linked to our genetic structure. Could these diseases not only be prevented in newly forming humans in utero, but also cured on the fly in fully fledged humans through means that alter their DNA? The preliminary answer is possibly.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

America's 'Cadillac Desert': Is there a substitute for fresh water?

Thirty years after Marc Reisner penned Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water his prophesy is being fulfilled. As the chalky rings which mark previous higher water levels around Colorado River reservoirs grow ever wider, Grist reports that major disputes are now afoot over the remaining water supply.

Modern economists have long told us not to worry about resource scarcity. Higher prices will bring on new supplies whenever resource supplies decline. And, if a resource truly is becoming unobtainable, then we'll always find a substitute.

When I hear this, I often counter: "There is certainly some truth to what you are saying. But, please tell me what the substitute for potable water will be." The response is usually to change the subject—for the obvious reason that there is no substitute.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Information overload, sustainability, and the emerging organization

Nafeez Ahmed, an exceptional journalist who writes at the intersection of resources and society, understands the complexity of the ecological predicament we humans face. In a piece he wrote last year, Ahmed asserted that our current arrangements are approaching a convulsive crisis point. One reason for this is as follows:

[T]he system faces a crisis of information overload, and an inability to meaningfully process the information available into actionable knowledge that can advance an adaptive response.

If he's right, is there anything we can do? The short answer is maybe. The great human ecologist William Catton pointed out in his 2009 book Bottleneck that the mass media has become a conduit for propagating bad or at least inconclusive information. In short, the feedback we humans need in order to run our society in a sustainable way is dangerously lacking.

But what if we could reorganize society to better handle the information available and act on that information quickly, decisively and appropriately? Management consultant and author John Hagel may be able to shed some light on this. (Regular readers will recall that I was channeling Hagel in last week's piece.)

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Is the CEO obsolete? A look at the emerging organization

Recently, the writer of a guest editorial in The Guardian Weekly proposed a solution to what ails the world's business schools: Shut them down. The author, Martin Parker, claims there are 13,000 business schools on the planet and he says that's 13,000 too many. He says the reason he knows a total shutdown is the only remedy that will actually work is that he's taught in business schools for the last 20 years.

His detailed critique covers a lot of territory, but I found one part of it particularly interesting in light of what I've been reading lately. Parker wrote: "If we want those in power to become more responsible, then we must stop teaching students that heroic transformational leaders are the answer to every problem[.]"

At first blush it seems as if we need more such leaders. But I think the point here is the same point which management consultant and author John Hagel is making in his book, The Power of Pull: This kind of thinking leads to passivity rather than the creative engagement which our society so desperately needs.

Hagel explains that what he calls "scalable" collaboration and learning are now the essential ingredients to have broad impact on society.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The global village and the surveillance society

Media savant Marshall McLuhan coined the term "global village" in 1962 in his book The Gutenberg Galaxy. Today, we take the concept of an electronically connected global population with instant access to practically every plugged-in person on the planet as a fact of life.

We often see our global village as a force for good, creating understanding and binding people across cultures regardless of distance. McLuhan saw the downside as well. In his book he notes:

Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence.

It turns out that the global village has many key similarities to an actual village or small town. Fellow villagers and small town neighbors are much more likely to know about each other's personal lives (often including many of the intimate details) than those who live in a large city. The anonymity and privacy today which so many prize and enjoy in the big city is quickly being eroded in the new surveillance economy. Living in the global village can now subject us to the same kind of scrutiny which those in small towns and villages have long been accustomed.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Fake news, algorithmic sentinels, and facts from the future

The suggestion that social media outlets need to police so-called "fake news" rings true on its face. Who wants to read news coverage known to be false? But what rates as "fake news" will be harder to define than we think.

And, putting algorithms in charge of policing those vast information flows claiming to be news will almost certainly not solve the problem. In a piece reflecting on artificial intelligence (AI) on the 50th anniversary of the release of the film, "2001: A Space Odyssey" writer Michael Benson tells us that "[d]emocracy depends on a shared consensual reality."

Well, actually everything we do in groups, whether it's democracy or going to a hockey game, depends on shared consensual reality. And, therein lies the problem. We are now in a fight not over opinions concerning the import of agreed upon facts, but over the consensus itself—whether scientific findings can be trusted, whether corporate-owned media can be believed, whether "objective" reporting is even possible, whether the history we were taught is indeed the "true" history of our country and our world.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Migrant caravan: Foreshadowing the future and reflecting the present

The march of hundreds of Central American migrants through Mexico has inflamed tensions between the Trump administration and the Mexican government and focused attention on the United States' southern border.

The ostensible reasons for the march are familiar: The migrants were fleeing corruption, social and political turmoil, and lack of opportunity in their home countries. Many were from Honduras which suffered a coup in 2009 that continues to divide the country politically including during the last election in which supporters of the challenger to the incumbent president claim their candidate was cheated out of a win.

All of this reminded me of Jean Raspail's novel The Camp of the Saints. In it, impoverished Indians seized hundreds of ships docked in their harbors and set sail to find a better place to live. (The book was published in 1973 when many believed that millions of Indians and other Asians would likely starve in the coming decades due to poor agricultural yields. The full effects of the so-called Green Revolution still lay ahead.)

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Silent spring revisited: New worries and the human future

A precipitous decline in bird populations in France suggests that the silent spring foretold by Rachel Carson more than 50 years ago in her book of that name may yet arrive. The proximate cause of the 33 percent decline in avian populations noted by French researchers over the last 15 years is lack of food.

In practical terms, the birds are not being poisoned as they were in Rachel Carson's day. Rather, their main sources of food, insects, are dropping like, well, flies. The ultimate cause is overuse of pesticides related mostly to agriculture, pesticides which are working all too well in keeping insect populations in check.

Described as "an ecological catastrophe," the decline in bird populations has reached 66 and 70 percent for some species; and the decline is not just in agricultural areas, but also in forested areas outside of agricultural zones.

The findings are not that surprising given previous reports of declines in insect populations of up to 76 percent over that last 27 years in Germany.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Driverless cars and bodiless brains

The death of a pedestrian during a test drive of a driverless vehicle (even as a backup human sat in the driver's seat) calls into question not just the technology—which didn't seem to detect the pedestrian crossing a busy roadway and therefore didn't brake or swerve—but also the notion that driving is nothing more than a set of instructions that can be carried out by a machine.

The surprised backup driver seemed to have confidence in the inventors of driverless cars as he was looking down at his computer briefly just before impact.

Certainly, a real human driver might have hit this pedestrian who was crossing a busy street at night with her bicycle. But, of course, as a friend of mine pointed out, there is a big difference in the public mind between a human driver hitting and killing a pedestrian and a robot killing one. If the incident had involved a human driver in a regular car, it would probably only have been reported locally.

But the real story is "robot kills human." Even worse, it happened as a seemingly helpless human backup driver looked on. The optics are the absolute worst imaginable for the driverless car industry.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The troubling realities of our energy transition

I recently asked a group gathered to hear me speak what percentage of the world's energy is provided by these six renewable sources: solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tidal, and ocean energy.

Then came the guesses: To my left, 25 percent; straight ahead, 30 percent; on my right, 20 percent and 15 percent; a pessimist sitting to the far right, 7 percent.

The group was astonished when I related the actual figure: 1.5 percent. The figure comes from the Paris-based International Energy Agency, a consortium of 30 countries that monitors energy developments worldwide. The audience that evening had been under the gravely mistaken impression that human society was much further along in its transition to renewable energy. Even the pessimist in the audience was off by more than a factor of four.

I hadn't included hydroelectricity in my list, I told the group, which would add another 2.5 percent to the renewable energy category. But hydro, I explained, would be growing only very slowly since most of the world's best dam sites have been taken.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

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, March 18.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

United States as energy exporter: Is it "fake news"?

Much of the media coverage of the American energy industry implies that America has become a vast and growing exporter of energy to the rest of the world and that this has created a sort of "energy dominance" for the country on the world stage.

Whether such reports qualify as so-called "fake news" depends very much on three things: 1) How one defines "fake news," 2) whether writers of such reports qualify the words "imports" and "exports" with the word "net" and 3) which energy sources they are discussing.

In this case let's define "fake news" as claims that official, publicly available statistics show plainly to be false. By that criterion anyone who claims that the United States is a net energy exporter would certainly be guilty of propagating "fake news."

Energy statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) show that in November 2017 (the most recent month for which figures are available) the United States had net imports 329.5 trillion BTUs of energy in all its forms.* That's down from a peak of 2.74 quadrillion BTUs in August 2006, something that is certainly a turnabout from the previous trend. But all claims that the United States is a net energy exporter must be labeled as unequivocally false.

It turns out, however, that most people making misleading claims about America's energy situation don't actually say or write things which are technically false. What they do is use language which intentionally or unintentionally misleads the reader or listener.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Climate change: The feel-good catastrophe

Last week my newly adopted home of Washington, D.C. had two back-to-back days of summer in the middle of winter. The first day the temperature reached 78 degrees (when the high is normally 48 degrees). That was a new record. The next day the high was 82 degrees (normally 49 degrees). Not surprisingly, that was a record, too.

People were walking the streets in T-shirts and shorts. Last week's balmy interlude felt like those late spring days which provide a preview of the summer ahead. Everyone was telling me I had to get outside so I could to take advantage of such great weather—which I did.

But the long walk I took on day one was not a particularly happy one. As most of the rest of the Washingtonians I encountered were experiencing the feel-good part of the feel-good catastrophe called climate change, I was experiencing the catastrophe part.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

LNG comes to Boston, a harbinger of the future?

The most curious natural gas story of the year so far comes out of Boston and seems to have echoes of a deepening Russia-related scandal in Washington. A liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanker bearing natural gas produced in part in Russia delivered its cargo to the Boston area for insertion into the natural gas pipeline system there. Apparently, the Russian company that supplied some of the gas may fall under U.S. sanctions against the financing and importation of Russian goods.

One of the many ironies of the delivery is that the United States is simultaneously importing LNG in one place even as it exports LNG from another. (I'll explain later why this may become a more frequent occurrence in the years ahead.)

The hue and cry from the natural gas partisans blamed Boston's predicament on the lack of pipelines to carry growing gas production from the nearby Marcellus and Utica shale deposits to needy Bostonians whose gas supplies had been depleted by a deep winter freeze.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The stock market swoon and our hatred of (some kinds of) volatility

The steepest one-day point drop in the history of the Dow Jones Industrial Average last week shook stock investors into an awareness that all is not sweetness and light in the financial markets. The sudden downside stock market volatility had been preceded by the breathless upside volatility of a months-long melt-up—one that had financial gurus outbidding each other to increase their targets for major stock indices. (See here and here.) Investors, too, felt that heaven had arrived on Earth, at least financial heaven.

After years of steady gains—with only the occasional drop—stock and bond market investors had gotten used to narrow swings in price that didn't disturb their sleep. In fact, whenever the stock (or bond market) looked like it might crash, the world's central banks offered reassurance both in words and deeds. The deeds included unprecedented buying of bonds (which kept interest rates low) and in some cases the purchase of stocks. The Bank of Japan and Swiss National Bank are two central banks which buoyed stocks through purchases though they bought stocks for different reasons.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Ruin is forever (revisited): Why your death isn't as bad as that of all humankind

It should be obvious that the death of an individual human being isn't as bad as the death of all humankind. But that's only true if you accept the following premise laid out by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his upcoming book, Skin in the Game:

I have a finite shelf life; humanity should have an infinite duration. Or I am renewable, not humanity or the ecosystem.

The quotation actually comes from a draft version of one chapter available here. The book is not yet out.

But what does this mean in practical terms? The simple answer is that human societies should not engage in activities which risk destroying all of humanity. Nuclear war comes to mind. And, most, if not all, people recognize that a nuclear war would not only result in unthinkably large immediate casualties, but also might threaten all life on Earth with a years-long nuclear winter.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Who will drink the last glass of water in Cape Town?

Because Cape Town sits between picturesque beaches and mountains, it is a favored travel destination. And, its weather during the summer is described as "almost too perfect." That's in part because it rains very little in the summer in this second most populous city in South Africa.

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink

Trouble is, starting in 2015 the rainy season never arrived. One year, then two years and now three years of extreme drought have brought the city's water supplies almost to exhaustion. Barring extraordinary rains or even more draconian cutbacks in water usage than have already occurred, Cape Town officials say they will have to turn off water to most household taps and businesses sometime in April. They're calling it "Day Zero." Hospitals and essential public facilities will be exempt. Most residents would have to line up at designated water supply stations for a daily allocation of 25 liters.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The energy of Bitcoin, the information economy and the (possible) decentralization of the world

The near vertical rise and fall in price of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin in recent months has been accompanied by reporting about the energy used to run the Bitcoin network. The amount is enormous, more than enough to supply the entire country of Ireland.

Many other cryptocurrencies operate under less energy-intensive designs. But the more than 1,000 other digital coins beyond Bitcoin certainly use a considerable amount of energy though there is no overall estimate I'm aware of. (For the technically minded, here is a discussion of two popular methods associated with validating transactions, one of which is considerably less energy-intensive.)

We'd like to think that the information economy of which these newfangled currencies are part bears lightly on the broader environment. But as I pointed out in my piece "The Unbearable Lightness of Information," much of what happens in the information economy is simply focused on extracting more resources more quickly to create more goods and services for more customers. The physical economy isn't disappearing. It is merely being exploited more completely using digital information.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Protagoras and the Anthropocene: Can man still be the measure of all things?

The ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras is famous for his saying that man is the measure of all things. Though we don't know much about Protagoras or his written work except for quotations appearing in other ancient works, the general view is that Protagoras was the father of moral relativism in philosophy.

The Protagoras's complete statement has been translated as follows: "Of all things the measure is man, of the things that are, that [or "how"] they are, and of things that are not, that [or "how"] they are not." It is unlikely that Protagoras believed that physical truths about the natural world such as the freezing point of water depended on one's personal standpoint.

But under Protagoras's tutelage in matters of values, we are left only with the measuring instrument called "man" (or more inclusively "humans"). In the age of the Anthropocene—that still-not-official geologic age in which humans are designated as the most potent geologic force on the planet—those issues thought to relate solely to the lives of humans do NOT, it turns out, relate simply to humans.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Hawaii's existential choice: Tourism, food and survival

Hawaiians used to feed themselves quite easily on this island paradise. With the arrival of Europeans and Americans came European and American ideas about plantation agriculture. Hawaii became a producer of coffee, sugar, pineapple, papaya, rice and other plantation crops.

While destroying Hawaii's diverse food system, the growers created a prosperous agricultural trading economy with mainland markets as customers. But competition from low-cost producers elsewhere has more recently devastated that economy. The last remaining sugar plantation closed in 2016.

The decline of the previously large sugar and pineapple industries now make Hawaii much more dependent on tourism as a source of income. Tourists are Hawaii's largest industry. They spent $15.6 billion in 2016 on vacations there representing about 18.5 percent of the total economy. That certainly underestimates their importance as many additional support services are needed to maintain the businesses that service the tourists.