Sunday, November 18, 2018

Australia's drought, climate change and the future of food

There's a reason that few people are thinking about world grain supplies. Last year saw record worldwide production of grains and record stocks of grains left over.

But this year worldwide production slipped about 2 percent, owing in large part to the plunge in Australia's production caused by an ongoing severe drought. Production is expected to fall 23 percent. Fortunately, in our globalized grain markets, this hasn't affected overall supplies or prices very much as grain stocks are high and supplies are mobile and shipped all over the world as needed.

But Australia is the world's fifth largest wheat exporter, accounting for nearly 9 percent of the total in 2016 according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In fact, the top five wheat exporting countries account for 56 percent of world wheat exports. The rest of the world is highly dependent on these exporters to make up the difference between what they grow and what they eat.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Connected and vulnerable: Climate change, trade wars and the networked world

The increasing connectedness of the global economic system has long been touted as the path to greater prosperity and peaceful relations among nations and their peoples. There's just one hitch: Complex systems have more points of failure and also hidden risks that only surface when something goes wrong.

For example, our dependence on cheap shipping to move commodities and finished goods has resulted in a system vulnerable to environmental disruption, particularly climate change, and to rising political and military tensions.

The extreme drought in Germany last summer, the warmest ever recorded in the country, has resulted in such low water in the Rhine River that shipping has been greatly curtailed. Ships can only be loaded lightly so as to avoid running aground. Consequently, many more barges and other vessels have been pressed into service to carry the lighter but more numerous loads along the river. This has driven up the cost of shipping considerably. In addition, fuel tankers have not been able to reach some river ports resulting in scattered fuel shortages. Some industrial installations along the river have had to reduce operations.

The natural inhabitants of the river have also suffered as die-offs of fish and other marine life have spread along the river.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Is the "world" actually getting better? Depends on your definition of "world"

A frequent critique of the daily news flow is that it is filled with negative events. This is partly a product of the human nervous system. We react very quickly to perceived threats and more slowly to hope of gain or pleasure. Editors and reporters know what will grab people's attention which is why the old adage—if it bleeds, it leads—still applies.

There are, of course, heartwarming stories about miraculous recoveries from illness and injury, rescued animals, and saintly persons doing amazing charitable acts. And, then there is a sub-genre of the feel-good story which I'll call the you've-been-living-in-opposite-land-things-are-actually-getting-better story.

Now as an antidote to the relentless negativity of the news, this kind of story gets attention. And, sometimes we need to be reminded, for instance, that life expectancy continues to rise, child mortality continues to decline, and smoking remains in decline. Humans are capable of making progress by certain measures.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Shale oil becomes shale fail (and a nice subsidy for consumers)

I'm tempted to say the following to the writers of two recent pieces (here and here) outlining the continuing negative free cash flow of companies fracking for oil in America: "Tell me something I don't already know."

But apparently their message (which has been true for years) needs to be repeated. This is because investors can't seem to understand the significance of what those two pieces make abundantly clear: The shale oil industry in the United States is using investor money to subsidize oil consumers and to line the pockets of top management with no long-term plan to build value.

There is no other conclusion to draw from the fact that free cash flow continues to be wildly negative for those companies most deeply dependent on U.S. shale oil deposits. For those to whom "free cash flow" is a new term, let me explain: It is operating cash flow (that is, cash generated from operations meaning the sale of oil and related products) minus capital expenditures. If this number remains negative for too long for a company or an industry, it's an indication that something is very wrong.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The risks of synthetic biology in the information society

Knowledge is power. The instructions for making viruses from synthetic strands of DNA are on the internet. And, the strands themselves are available for purchase online. It's called synthetic biology. Right now it's not easy to get the strands you need to make dangerous viruses or to put them together. But it is becoming easier.

That's the issue that exploded concerning the synthetic construction of an thought-to-be extinct horsepox virus. The problem is that the instructions for making horsepox are distressingly useful for constructing a smallpox virus, a virus responsible for hundreds of millions of deaths in the 20th century alone until its eradication. Smallpox, you'll recall, was eradicated through a successful worldwide effort led by the World Health Organization. After 1980 it was no longer necessary to vaccinate people against the disease and very few people alive today have been vaccinated against it.

Not surprisingly, an outbreak resulting from, say, the inadvertent or possibly intentional release of a synthetic smallpox virus from a lab could prove devastating worldwide.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Climate catastrophe: The median is NOT the message

Anyone who has followed the climate change issue in the last 30 years knows that official forecasts provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are quickly upended by developments and have often been obsolete before they were issued.

The latest report from the IPCC is the first, however, to abandon the measured tone of its previous ones and foretell what it considers a climate catastrophe for human civilization unless the world makes an abrupt U-turn and begins dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions almost immediately.

And yet, even this forecast is probably too conservative in its pronouncements. That's according to Michael Mann, a climate researcher whose famous "hockey stick" graph has been central to understanding the rise in global temperatures and has been replicated again and again using other measures of historical worldwide temperatures.

Sunday, October 07, 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, October 14.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

U.S. government embraces climate catastrophe, but is it a 'crisis'?

The United States government has now officially embraced climate change as a catastrophe in the making. Only it contends that the catastrophe is now inevitable no matter what humans do...and so, we should do nothing at all since whatever we do won't matter much.

That, at least, was the justification offered for freezing fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles after 2020. For the National Transportation Safety Board which issued a report containing the justification, the phrase "Every little bit helps" has morph into "Every little bit won't matter."

The problem, of course, is that if this becomes the attitude of everyone trying to mitigate climate change, almost nothing will get done.

But the report does highlight one very important problem for those who desperately want to address climate change: Climate change is no longer a "crisis."  As French thinker Bruno Latour reminds us in his book Facing Gaia, climate change is not really a "crisis," at least not anymore. A crisis comes and goes. Climate change isn't going anywhere except toward a place which is much worse. It isn't going to pass. It is going to endure.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The problem with models...is getting stuck on just one

Alfred Korzybski, the father of general semantics, first uttered what must now seem like a well-worn phrase: "The map is not the territory." And yet, I don't think this view has yet been well-incorporated into human culture.

In a time when social media outlets are trying to sort what is "fake" from what is "genuine" or "true," very little thought is being put into what we even mean by "fake," "genuine" or "true." Facebook, for example, has resorted to third-party fact-checkers, a mix of news organizations and fact-checking nonprofits. It is also hiring thousands of new employees to check what it calls "non-news" information posted on Facebook pages.

A lot of checking revolves around whether someone said or did what is claimed. That's not too hard. The next level involves the effect of a policy or position. That's more difficult since some of the policies in question aren't in effect and even for those that are, it is always hard to trace cause and effect from a policy to a specific result.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

'The Expanse' is a story about systemic ruin

"The Expanse" is a popular science fiction television series (based on a book series of the same name) that at first seems to follow a predictable storyline: essentially the Cold War revisited, only in this case with warlike Mars (previously settled by people from Earth) pitted against Earth as the two planets vie over the resources of the asteroid belt (which is a stand-in for today's so-called less developed countries).

But quickly we are drawn into a mystery that implicates a non-state actor with interests so important that that unknown actor has its own warships which are superior to those of Earth and Mars. While I made some fun of "The Expanse" previously for its assumptions about energy, after watching the entire series I've come to appreciate the nuanced manner in which it deals with the systemic risk that unfolds as the story progresses.

Here I must issue a spoiler alert for those who have not seen the series and wish to see it unhindered by foreknowledge of the plot.