Sunday, March 24, 2019

The Russians are coming (and they're bringing oil)

As America's Russia hysteria is stirred once again by the arrival of the long-awaited report of the U.S. Department of Justice on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, a surge in Russian oil imports has arrived on America's shores.

The surge was little noticed by what passes for the U.S. foreign policy apparatus these days which has now become obsessed with toppling the current regime in Venezuela—a regime unloved by American oil interests who saw their property expropriated by the Venezuelan government.

By effectively preventing the national Venezuelan oil company from getting paid for its cargoes to the United States, the U.S. government has forced Venezuela, previously a major source of imported oil, to seek other customers for its mostly heavy crude.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Deep adaptation, post-sustainability and the possibility of societal collapse

I write this piece primarily to get you to read an academic paper that has attracted relatively widespread attention. It is entitled "Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy."

It is remarkable in a number of aspects. First, it was written by a professor of sustainability leadership who has been heavily involved for a long time in helping organizations including governments, nonprofits and corporations to become more sustainable. Second, the author, Jem Bendell, has now concluded the following after an exhaustive review of the most up-to-date findings about climate change: "inevitable collapse, probable catastrophe and possible extinction." Third, his paper was rejected for publication not because it contained any errors of fact, but largely because it was too negative and thought to breed hopelessness.

It is important to understand what Bendell means by "collapse" in this context. He does not necessarily mean an event taking place in a relatively short period of time all over the world all at once. Rather, he means severe disruptions of our lives and societies to a degree than renders our current institutional arrangements largely irrelevant. He believes we won't be able to respond to the scope of suffering and change by doing things the way we are doing them now with only a few reformist tweaks.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Uber, Lyft and oil frackers: Tech mirages, not real businesses

Ultimately, businesses must make money for their investors or those businesses are shut down. It's true that some businesses "make" money by laundering it for people engaged in criminal enterprises.

There is another category of businesses that don't make money but are not an extension of criminal activity. I'm calling them tech mirages. Tech mirages appear to be exciting, new viable businesses that are revolutionizing the way we do things. That's the mirage part!

In fact, they are doing old things to which they add some not particularly new technology and in the process attract and then consume vast amounts of capital. Investors are dazzled by the mirage while seemingly incapable of understanding what the financial numbers are telling them.

Ride hailing giants Uber and Lyft are two examples of tech mirages. The part of the oil industry engaged in extracting oil from deep shale deposits using a special form of hydraulic fracturing or fracking is another tech mirage.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

The unfinished American project: Democratizing work

At the dawn of the American republic, most people worked on farms. Census data for 1790 didn't include occupation. But it is estimated that 90 percent of those living in the United States were farmers. America was known in Europe for having a large middle class made up primarily of "yeoman" farmers, that is, small farmers owning their own land.

A form of political democracy had come to the newly independent country. It didn't include women, slaves, Native Americans or the propertyless. But the right to vote has by fits and starts expanded as property requirements were dropped, slaves were freed and given the vote (only to have it wrested away later), women were enfranchised, and finally voting rights legislation brought down barriers to ballot access for African-Americans. (New challenges to those rights have arisen with the striking down of portions of the Voting Rights Act by the U.S. Supreme Court.)

Still, universal suffrage seems closer than ever (even if voter turnout in presidential years has been in the 50 to 60 percent range since 1918).

Sunday, February 24, 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, March 3.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

"Which species are we sure we can survive without?" Revisited

Two years ago I asked the question in the title of this piece. Now comes a wide-ranging study that suggests we are about to test that question in a major way.

The study predicts that at the current rate of loss of insect species, 40 percent could be gone "in the next few decades." What is particularly alarming is that this "could trigger wide-ranging cascading effects within several of the world's ecosystems." That means that many other life-forms including other animals and plants could find themselves without what they need to survive in this dangerous game of musical chairs orchestrated by humans. Might we be one of those species?

Insects do much of the crop pollination necessary for food production. A list of crops pollinated by bees is quite long. Humans could survive without these foods, but the nutrition and variety in our diets would be severely limited. And yet there is a greater problem. Outside of agriculture 80 to 95 percent of plant species require animal pollination. Since those plants are the base of every food chain, catastrophic declines in insect populations could lead to a collapse of existing ecosystems. The exact scope and effects of such a collapse cannot be fully anticipated. But it is doubtful humans would be unharmed.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Is a key ingredient humans need to live about to run short?

Phosphorus is essential for all living organisms. So, it's not surprising that humans get their phosphorus from other living organisms, mostly plants, that have absorbed phosphorus from the soil.

The introduction of phosphate fertilizers made it possible to ensure that enough phosphorus for healthy plant growth is available in practically any farmland soils. At first, farmers had access to phosphate fertilizers from bone ash and later from phosphate deposits accumulated from bird and bat guano on certain tropical islands (some of which deposits were 30 feet deep before they were mined and completely exhausted). More recently, phosphates have come from mining rocks rich in phosphorus.

All seemed well for the long term as supplies of the rock phosphates were thought to be hundreds of years at current rates of consumption. But a group of researchers upended the consensus in 2009 forecasting that phosphate production could peak as early as 2030. A peak wouldn't be the end of phosphate production. But it would mark the beginning of an ongoing decline in phosphorus available from mines. This would come as a shock to a world food system accustomed to consistently rising phosphorus supplies needed to feed a growing population.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Will anything slow down the U.S. LNG juggernaut?

It is the legally mandated purpose of a for-profit corporation to make money for its owners and to prioritize that goal above all else. So, it is no surprise that U.S. natural gas producers have been seeking relief from domestic prices that have generally hovered between $2 and $4 per thousand cubic feet for most of this decade.

Qatar Petroleum and Exxon Mobil Corp announced last week that they would be adding to investment in Texas in liquefied natural gas capacity for export from the United States, a move that was described as a response the immense volumes of gas coming from American shale deposits. With so many LNG projects being built and on the drawing board, will anything slow down the U.S. LNG juggernaut?

The fight over U.S. exports of natural gas is long since over. U.S. producers now have the right—like almost all other U.S. producers of commodities or manufactured products—to sell their products to the highest bidder wherever that bidder may be in the world.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Has U.S. shale oil entered a death spiral?

The bad news coming out of the shale oil fields of America could all be put down to slumping oil prices. That is certainly a big factor. But as investment professionals like to say, when the tide goes out, we all find out who's been skinny-dipping.

The pattern of negative news from shale country is not just related to price, however. Oil production, it seems, is being overstated industry-wide by 10 percent and 50 percent in the case of some companies, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The CEO of one of the largest players in the industry, Continental Resources, predicted that growth in shale oil production could fall by 50 percent this year compared to last year. In reality, we should expect worse as the industry for obvious reasons tends to exaggerate its prospects.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The greatest good for the greatest number: A doctrine of acceptable losses

In 1776 philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote a phrase that continues to be central to our modern way of thinking: "[I]t is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong."

That phrase has morphed into the familiar one cited in the title of this piece. Happiness, however, has been reinterpreted first as "good" meaning something which gives pleasure, a move toward a kind of hedonism. "Good" has, however, become associated with "goods," that is, objects which consumers and businesses buy to further their personal and occupational goals.

This drift from the original meaning of what Bentham called his "fundamental axiom" is, in part, why we are addicted to economic growth and the consumerism that derives from it. We believe that "goods" are good for us and so more "goods" will always bring more good in their wake.