Sunday, August 30, 2009

Deep time and the human future

In Basin and Range, the first of several books he wrote on the geography of the United States, John McPhee tries to explain the deep time of the geologist to the reader:
With your arms spread again to represent all time on earth, look at one hand with its line of life. The Cambrian [544 million years ago] begins in the wrist, and the Permian Extinction [250 million years ago] is at the outer end of the palm. All of the Cenozoic [the last 65 million years] is in the fingerprint, and in a single stroke with a medium-grained file you could eradicate human history.

He explains that the average lifespan of a mammalian species is about 2 million years. Depending on how you judge human evolutionary lineage, we are either just getting started as homo sapiens about 300,000 years ago or we are already in our senescence as homo erectus. In either case you are positing a time when human beings will no longer exist. You are positing a limit on the lifespan of the human species.

In doing so, you are inadvertently laying the groundwork for a different sort of relationship with the natural world than the one humans have had in the last 150 years or so, since the advent of fossil fuels. Modern humans often imagine themselves invincible, living as a species forever into the future, colonizing space, and perhaps even escaping the destruction of the Sun many billions of years hence. This kind of thinking--grounded in neither geology nor paleontology nor ecology I might add--has created the rather cavalier attitude demonstrated by modern leaders and their citizenry toward the daunting dangers of climate change, resource depletion and ecosystem collapse. If you think that as a species you are going to live forever, you don't need a Plan B.

But the humble geologist or paleontologist might take a different tack. Rather than assume clear sailing ahead, he or she might check the fossil record and pursue a more modest goal: extending our stay as humans on the planet a little longer than normal. Doing that would require careful attention to the tricks of species that have lived on Earth much longer than humans. Perhaps the most important lesson is that long-lived species don't destroy their own habitat. Sounds simple, doesn't it?

The point of my journey into the deep time of the geologist and paleontologist is not so much to pick up useful tips from long-lived species. Rather, it is to suggest that the way we think about the human future influences heavily what we do day to day in the here and now. The optimists believe we live outside the realm of nature, and we may pay for that optimism with an earlier than necessary demise as a species. On the other hand, those scientists who are in touch with the deep time of the past accept limits on the human journey. It is their way of thinking that provides a path back to a more sensible view of our relationship with the natural world.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Burning Picassos for Heat

My latest column on Scitizen entitled "Burning Picassos for Heat" has now been posted. Here is the teaser:
Burning natural gas to extract and process oil from the Canadian tar sands has been likened by one industry insider to burning Picassos for heat. But the bidding at the "Picassos for heat" auction may go even higher as those involved in tar sands and oil shale development push for nuclear power to fuel their projects....Read more.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The show must go on

Paris, But Not France

It is a sign that the world may be upside down when French tourists in Las Vegas take pictures of themselves in front of the Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino complex which includes a half-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower. And, yet this is not the strangest behavior I observed recently during a trip to southern Nevada, an area that along with the much of the West is suffering through the worst drought on record.

As a visitor to Las Vegas you could be forgiven for not understanding that the city is suffering a prolonged and extreme drought. Yes, there was a small sign in the bathroom of my hotel room that read: "Dear Guest, Southern Nevada and the West are experiencing extreme drought conditions." It suggested reusing towels as do most hotels now, even those not located in drought-striken areas. But it did not suggest any other measures I might take.

Outside the hotel and in seeming contradiction to the bathroom message, the Las Vegas strip is brimming with so-called "water features," a term taken from geology for naturally occurring water on the earth's surface or underground. But these features are anything but natural. Perhaps the most spectacular is the fountain at the Bellagio Resort & Casino which has water jets that shoot maybe 100 feet into the air and dance to tunes broadcast by cleverly concealed outdoor loudspeakers. (The link leads to a video of the fountain in action though one must really be there to appreciate it fully.) The pool from which this bit of spectacle originates looks like a small reservoir several football fields in size.

   Frank Sinatra and the Fountain

As Frank Sinatra crooned "Luck Be a Lady," the evaporation from the water jets was so great that the Nevada desert air was transformed for a few minutes into something akin to my own muggy Michigan summer atmosphere. My face ended up dripping not from spray, but from condensation--even in the still searing nighttime heat that generally leaves one hot and dry rather than hot and sweaty.

At the New York, New York Hotel and Casino one need only stand outside to experience the Statue of Liberty in a fake New York Harbor complete with a squirting fireboat and a Brooklyn Bridge that you can actually walk over. This "water feature" was one of only two on which I saw a small plaque which mentioned the drought. It read:
New York New York is proud to operate this water feature in full compliance with all drought ordinances. A current water efficiency and drought response plan is on file with local water purveyors.

One wonders about the efficacy of these ordinances if they allow such profligate water use. And, in fact, it turns out that water features at resorts in Las Vegas are exempt from these ordinances. Nevertheless, some hotel owners have responded with extraordinary conservation efforts. MGM is featured in a video on the Southern Nevada Water Authority site for its efforts. (Click on "Conservation" and then "Rebates and Programs" to find this video.) Yet, MGM continues to operate huge water features at its Mirage and Treasure Island hotels albeit with so-called "gray water" generated by guests in its hotel rooms and purified on site for this purpose.

The water authority claims that hotels and casinos only consume about 4 percent of southern Nevada's water. But, of course, they are leaving out all the vendors who sell to and service the hotels and casinos, all the people who work there and thus live in the city's apartments and homes that use water, and all the ancillary businesses that serve the people who work and live in Las Vegas, i.e. the banks, laudromats, car washes, restaurants, day care facilities, schools, and so on.

Las Vegas is built on gambling. Tourism is a major driver behind the city's growth. The people who flock there often find work in the so-called "gaming industry." Without gambling Las Vegas would still be a backwater town servicing ranchers, farmers and the remaining mining industry in Nevada.

Lake Mead's Bathtub Ring

A tourist flying into Las Vegas might be alerted to the actual situation by looking out his or her airplane window to view the noticeable white ring around Lake Mead, a lake created on the Colorado River by Hoover Dam and the source for 90 percent of the city's water. The ring is the result of the deposition of minerals on the lake floor in better times. The 10-year drought has lowered the lake level more than 120 feet from its most recent peak in 1998. The lake is now at about 40 percent of its capacity.

So quickly is Lake Mead falling that an intake pipe which supplies 40 percent of Las Vegas' water may emerge above the lake's surface by 2012. The Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) is working furiously to lay pipe for a new intake that will assure continued supplies should the lake fall below the current intake on schedule. The authority is a consortium of water districts that act together on water issues.

But the new intake may not be enough. A recent report from two researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography calculates that there is a 50 percent chance that Lake Mead will cease to supply water to the millions that rely on it by 2021. They calculate a 10 percent chance that this could occur by 2014 and a 50 percent chance that lake levels will drop below those necessary to generate electricity from Hoover Dam's many generating turbines. Their study assumes no changes in water management. But they hope to prompt radical changes in that management with their conclusions. (For the complete study, click here. It should provide a gripping read for anyone who lives in and around southern Nevada.)

The study's authors indirectly point out that Hoover Dam and the communities that rely on the Colorado River for water have grown up in what might turn out to be a rather wet period in the western United States. They note that average Colorado River flows over the last 500 years are less than those over the last century or the last 50 years. If that is any indication, the West may now be experiencing the new normal. Despite all this Patricia Mulroy, manager of the SNWA, insists that Las Vegas' water troubles shouldn't be cause for limiting growth. She told Reuters that Las Vegas can continue to grow sustainably for the next 50 to 80 years as it changes the way it consumes water.

Mulroy's hopes for continued growth lie north of Las Vegas where she wants to tap groundwater resources currently used by ranchers, farmers and rural communities in the Snake Valley and nearby areas that straddle Nevada and Utah. While driving through areas in southern Nevada and Utah still used for ranching, I was struck by the number of irrigated fields growing feed crops of hay and alfalfa. Even more striking was that the large spray irrigation systems were turned on during the midday when evaporation is at its peak. The midday temperatures were well above 100 degrees when I passed some fields being watered in Nevada.

Much of the West's and the nation's water is used for irrigation. In the United States, the portion of water withdrawals used for irrigation in 2000, the last year for which complete figures are available, was 34 percent, according to the U. S. Geological Survey. This contrasts with 11 percent for what is called public supply for homes and businesses and another 1 percent brought up through private wells, all for household use.

Mulroy complained years ago about the profligate ways of ranchers and farmers in her region and little seems to have changed. Moreover, these same ranchers and farmers are disinclined to share their water with Las Vegas. And, a recent agreement between Nevada and Utah would put the water out of reach until 2019 if both states accept it, something that isn't a forgone conclusion.

Farmers, ranchers and rural residents in the area that would be affected by Las Vegas' groundwater withdrawals fear that their already arid landscape will end up being desiccated. They point to California's Owens Valley where Los Angeles in the early part of the last century secured water rights and shipped the valley's water to the city. Owens Lake dried up and became an alkali flat responsible for local dust storms. Vegetation changed, and farming and ranching declined for lack of water.

Also in question is whether Las Vegas will be able to afford the estimated $3 billion cost of a pipeline from the north since its bond rating is in peril because of the deteriorating economy and the devastating effect that has had on tourism in the city.

   All Dressed Up, But No Place To Go

Meanwhile, visitors to Las Vegas continue to ride in gondolas on fake canals in front of The Venetian hotel. I paced off the length of the ride, and the maximum distance one-way appears to be about 200 feet. But it does include passing under a bridge. There's an interior version, too. Across the street at the Mirage one can enjoy waterfalls with flaming volcanoes that simultaneously deplete water and natural gas. And, there are countless exterior misting systems used to cool off outdoor diners for those who prefer to waste water while sitting down.

You are allowed to wonder why this writer even visited Las Vegas given his previous writings. I was on my way to a family hiking vacation in southern Utah, a vacation generously organized by one family member working in a national park there. Las Vegas was the closest city via air to my final destination. Other family members wanted to stay in Las Vegas a few days before the hiking adventure. In part, it seems this was to offer a subsidy to wealthy casino owners by means of the gambling tables and slot machines. And, I confess that in the absence of anything else to do, these owners received a small subsidy from me, too.

For now the water authorities and the casino owners agree that despite the drought, the show must go on. The city's residents are counting on it. The state of Nevada is counting on it. Perhaps even the whole country is counting on it. But I'm guessing that the small amount I surrendered at Las Vegas' gambling emporiums may come in handy for the city's beleaguered casino tycoons as they are gripped ever tighter by the triple threat of worldwide economic decline, disappearing water and peak oil. These developments are likely to drive operating costs through the roof even as they reduce the ability of customers to pay. That casts doubt on whether a show that supposedly must go on will go on very far into the future.

Photos Courtesy of Olga Bonfiglio
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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Short break

I am taking a short break while I travel this week. I expect to post again on Sunday, August 23rd.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

A thing of beauty

             A thing of beauty is a joy forever.
                                 --John Keats

             The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass,
              it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.
                                 --Henry Miller

             It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.
                                 --Leo Tolstoy

I frequently walk by a nearby lot on which a modest one-story home sits amid a vast sea of the greenest grass you will encounter outside a golf course. The man who lives there with his wife is often tending his lawn: removing weeds, watering, riding his lawnmower. There are a couple of small flower gardens. But mostly it is grass.

The man told me last summer that one month he paid $230 for water. For him the enormous resources in water, fertilizer, and gasoline seem well worth it; his lawn is a work of art. Possibly he learned his aesthetics from a lawn fertilizer commercial or possibly from wealthier neighbors who live not too far from him--neighbors who mostly hire other people to get the same effects. But the origins of these aesthetics do not matter to him. His lawn is a flawless piece of monoculture rivaling the best lawns to be found anywhere in the city.

Americans are quite capable of appreciating the kind of beauty that is not created by man and machine. It is a country with magnificent natural parks and untouched wilderness. And, it was the desire of determined devotees of nature's own aesthetics that such places be set aside for posterity.

We grow up recognizing the natural beauty around us, the rich hues of the flower garden and the deep green of the forest. We are made for this. Michael Pollan in his book, The Botany of Desire, posits that humans and plants are co-evolving. The plants are as interested in enticing us to do things to propagate them as we are in getting them to do things for us. One way they do this is to appeal to our sense of beauty through color and symmetry. Otherwise, how could one explain the human attraction for flower gardens which yield no food?

But we learn to like other kinds of beauty: The kind that leads modern architects to build strangely monstrous steel and glass boxes. The kind that entices drivers to buy stylish, but wildly impractical cars. The kind that causes shoppers to choose perfect tomatoes that are oftentimes perfectly tasteless.

None of this is sustainable. But it is not merely an engineering problem. For those concerned about a sustainable future, changing the reigning industrially-conditioned aesthetic--which is now deeply ingrained in the public mind--will be as much of a challenge as changing the underlying system that created it.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Burning the furniture

When there is no money for fuel in the middle of winter, desperate residents have on occasion resorted to burning the furniture. That works as long as the furniture lasts. But come spring, there may be no place to sit or sleep, and no prospect of resorting to the same practice should a heating emergency arise the following winter.

Yet, this is more or less the equivalent of what many states and municipalities are doing in the face of our unprecedented financial crisis. They are selling prized assets to private companies in the hopes of plugging current budget holes. This move is predicated on two premises: First, the public will not accept new taxes or should not be taxed during a downturn to pay for maintaining government services. Second, most government officials believe that the downturn is temporary, and that their finances will return to health once a recovery begins.

If the second premise turns out not to be true, then the first one is merely locking state and municipal governments into a long-term liquidation of public assets. One asset sale will begat another and another because such sales appear painless in the short run.

When Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley sold a 75-year concession for the city's parking system to help balance the city's budget, he hailed it as a creative measure designed to carry the city through a rough financial patch. He even promised that the concessionaire, a subsidiary of Morgan Stanley no less, would actually make improvements in the system. The plan has raised the ire of many city residents and visitors as the service and reliability of the system have tanked.

Perhaps most important, public assets serve needs that cannot always return a profit directly. A well-run parking system can focus on making it easy for people to do their daily chores and not feel that they are paying too much for the privilege. That's critical for merchants who must rely on municipal parking to handle their customers. Parking enforcement can even be relaxed when special events or special circumstances such as construction warrant it.

But private concessionaires have no such interests. Their interest is in maximizing their investment within the rules. They will not concern themselves with the broader needs of a city or state. Such has been the case in Chicago where the private parking system company is attempting to maximize its take through strict enforcement and higher parking rates.

On the other hand, Chicago also privatized the Chicago Skyway, a toll road that is still by far the most direct route into Chicago from the east. For a one-shot cash infusion of $1.83 billion, the city sold a 99-year operating lease to a company owned by foreign corporations. In a post-peak oil world, Chicago may actually get the better of this deal. It is hard to imagine enormous volumes of car and truck traffic making their way over the skyway in the year 2104.

Without any apparent sense of irony, the state of Arizona announced that it wishes to sell its house and senate buildings to private interests and lease them back. The state is assuming financial circumstances will improve so that it can retake ownership sometime in the future.

Public assets are the capital stock of a municipality or state. And, that capital stock is used to provide the services that citizens want and need. If too much of it falls into private hands, we will find out the hard way that those private hands are only too willing to burn the furniture for short-term gain.

Not all privatization schemes are bad ideas. But ones entered into with the intention of bailing out the short-term problems of politicians needing a budget fix rather than serving the public better are bound to turn out badly.