Sunday, December 26, 2021

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Omicron on the rise: Pandemic as a life lesson for the human species

If we think of a disease as something that is sending us a message that we need to incorporate into our individual and collective lives, we get a much different view of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. So far, our attempts at integrating COVID-19 into our existence have been met with one surprising turn after another. The rapid rise of the Omicron variant is just the latest twist in the pandemic story. And, it follows the rise of the Delta variant which led to a previous new wave of infections.

The Delta variant seemed to increase significantly so-called breakthrough infections, that is, COVID infections in people believed to be fully or partially vaccinated, something which has flummoxed the medical community and public health officials. Still, those receiving a vaccine have far lower rates of hospitalization and mortality than those catching COVID who have not been vaccinated.

We don't yet have enough information to know just how well vaccines will fare against the Omicron variant. One early report is creating concern. Cornell University has closed its main campus in response to a rapid rise in COVID cases caused by the Omicron variant. And, this is a place where 97 percent of the people on campus are said to be "fully vaccinated."

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Human extinction: Are we already too late?

As I was reading Henry Gee's "Humans Are Doomed to Go Extinct," I was reminded of an iconic scene from one of the many "Star Trek" movies. In "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," the ship's captain, James Kirk, rushes to the engine room to discover that his friend Spock is staggering around in a compartment now filled with lethal radiation. Kirk's instinct is to rush in and try to save Spock. But, Kirk is held back by his colleagues in order to prevent the deadly radiation from flooding the entire engineering area.

"He'll die," Kirk says. "He's dead already," one of his colleagues responds, meaning that Spock has already received a fatal dose of radiation. Kirk is too late to save Spock. But it turns out that many fictional characters survive because of Spock's sacrifice.

It does not seem to Henry Gee, however, that any similar heroic sacrifices by one individual or a few will save humankind. The human race is collectively like Spock; it may be walking around, but it is dead already as a species—and the final demise is coming soon by evolutionary standards.

Gee, a paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and editor at Nature, writes: "There comes a time in the progress of any species, even ones that seem to be thriving, when extinction will be inevitable, no matter what they might do to avert it."

Wednesday, December 08, 2021

U.S. shale oil and gas forecast: Too good to be true?

Earth scientist David Hughes—who is out with a new skeptical report on the future of U.S. shale oil and gas—has two very important things in common with Michael Burry. Burry is the investor made famous by The Big Short, the book that was later turned into a movie of the same name about the 2008 housing crash.

Both men made calls that contradicted an almost unanimous consensus, and both did so after dogged, painstaking research.

First, let’s look at the latest from Hughes, an update on the U.S. shale oil and gas industry entitled “Shale Reality Check 2021.” Then, we’ll return to his previous prescient call.

“Shale Reality Check 2021” seriously undermines rosy long-term forecasts made by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) for U.S. oil and natural gas from shale deposits. This matters because the EIA’s forecasts are counting on shale for 69 percent of all U.S. oil production from 2020 to 2050 and 77 percent of all U.S. natural gas production in the same period. And, it matters to the world because between 2008 and 2018, growth in U.S. oil production accounted for 73 percent of the entire growth in global supplies. (Oil from shale deposits is properly known as “tight oil,” a type of oil also found in other kinds of rock. Natural gas from shale deposits is typically referred to as “shale gas.”)

Sunday, December 05, 2021

Technology that "empowers the individual" can threaten all of us

Whenever I hear about a new technology that "empowers the individual," I know that one thing is likely to be true about it:  It will soon (if not already) be turned to negative and harmful ends. And yet, we as a society keep falling for the line that somehow every new technology will give us more control over our lives and make us somehow happier, more connected, safer and more powerful (but only in a good way).

It's true that practically any technology can be turned toward harmful ends; we haven't banned knives because they are used both to cut food and kill people. But it is the scale of damage that can be done by an individual that is changing.

Newspaper columnist Molly Ivins used to joke that she was not anti-gun, but pro-knife. In a 1993 column she wrote:

In the first place, you have catch up with someone in order to stab him. A general substitution of knives for guns would promote physical fitness. We'd turn into a whole nation of great runners. Plus, knives don't ricochet. And people are seldom killed while cleaning their knives.

Ivins was getting at the increased scale of damage that can be done by, say, automatic weapons versus a knife.

Guns have been around for centuries and have been made more lethal over time. But their lethality may someday soon seem quaint given the future of "empowerment" that awaits us.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Critical minerals problem: Supply chain issues come to the fore

It seems that all of a sudden there is talk of mineral shortages and two metals which are thought to be plentiful in the Earth's crust, nickel and zinc, have been added to the list of minerals now deemed critical to the United States, a list recently updated by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Partly, the concern is that the United States is not producing enough of its own nickel and zinc to rest easy over the availability of these metals on world markets. Nickel's new status stems in part from its emerging role in electric vehicle batteries. There is only one operating U.S. nickel mine. The situation with zinc is less concerning since there are 14 mines and three smelters.

There has long been concern about Rare Earth Elements (REEs) crucial to the computer and renewable energy infrastructure. Part of the concern is China's domination of the production of these minerals. Chinese mines supplied 55 percent of all REEs mined worldwide in 2020 and its REE refineries produced 85 percent of all refined products.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, November 28.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Another extraordinary delusion: Mining helium from the Moon

Asia Times tells us that there is a "secret mining war" taking place in space over helium-3, a version of helium which is surprisingly abundant on the Moon. Helium-3 is an isotope of helium with two protons and one neutron. The far more prevalent arrangement is helium-4, two protons and two neutrons.

(For those only vaguely familiar with the periodic table, helium is an element which therefore cannot be manufactured from other other elements and must be harvested from nature.*)

The fascination with helium-3 is as a fuel for fusion reactors. This fuel, it turns out, would produce absolutely no radioactive waste—unlike hydrogen-fueled fusion reactors which produce pesky neutrons that bombard components of the reactor and render them radioactive.

So, let's get this straight. There is supposedly a "secret mining war" between China, the United States and possibly Russia over potential resources on the Moon, resources that might provide very clean fuel for fusion reactors of which there are zero of the commercial variety. And, the number of commercial fusion reactors is likely to stay at zero until at least mid-century. And, there is no assurance that the type of reactor that could use helium-3—which would require much higher temperatures than the hydrogen-fueled ones being contemplated now—will be commercially available any time soon after mid-century.

Sunday, November 07, 2021

'Health should not be political,' but like everything else it is

Football fans will wonder how it is that I had no idea who Aaron Rodgers was before the controversy involving his vaccine status erupted in the media last week. (The quick response is that I do not follow professional sports at all unless they spill over into the main news headlines.) For the edification of others like me, Rodgers is a professional football player who is quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. He chose not to get a COVID vaccine for reasons he detailed in this interview. He recently tested positive for COVID.

I am not interested here in commenting on the wisdom of his choice. Rather, I found a particular statement in the interview of special significance. Rodgers opined, "Health should not be political." The entirety of the interview tells me that he means specifically partisan politics. But it is easy to equate partisan politics with politics in general which by my definition is a very broad category of human endeavor that impinges on practically our every waking hour. By politics I mean the institutions and processes by which we collectively decide two things: 1) who gets what by when and 2) where personal autonomy stops and the needs of the community take precedence. That definition makes even private family life political.

Americans somehow believe they can take politics out of their daily lives, that they can set up a society in which we all just respectfully leave each other alone to pursue our own best interests so long as we don't hurt others. There are two problems with that thinking. First, as a colleague once explained, nobody likes to be bossed around; but there are plenty of people who want to boss others around. Second, it is a practical impossibility for us humans to "leave each other alone to pursue our own best interests so long as we don't hurt others." It turns out we need clear rules for how we relate to one another, either by custom or by law, in order to accomplish this. It's also equally clear that if those rules don't limit what the bossy among us can do, those bossy types will run roughshod over everyone else's autonomy.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

'Your grocery stores are like museums': Then and now

About 15 years ago I helped to host a group of Russian entrepreneurs during one stop on their tour of the United States, a tour sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce. As we hosts accompanied our visitors, we naturally fell into conversation with them. One of them noted a contrast with Russian life that stuck with me because it was offered in terms that were so unexpectedly strange. He said that compared to Russian grocery stores, "your grocery stores are like museums."

Just as fish don't notice they are swimming in water, we Americans are prone to think of our spacious (by world standards) grocery stores with their carefully arranged and brimming shelves; colorful produce sections; fulsome meat counters; and well-stocked frozen dessert cases—all festooned with artfully crafted point-of-purchase displays—as merely utilitarian platforms for obtaining our daily provisions.

Fast forward to today and we find that some grocery stores are unexpectedly moving even closer to the museum model, but not in the good way my Russian acquaintance had in mind. We are, of course, not surprised to see pretty pictures in museums rather than the objects those images depict. Now, in some of grocery stores in Great Britain, pretty pictures are being used to cover over gaps in the produce and dry goods sections.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, October 31.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Chokepoint democracy: Workers capitalize on global system weak spots

In his book Carbon Democracy Timothy Mitchell attempts to explain the rising and falling political power of the working class in terms of the evolution of the world's energy system. The first fossil fuel, coal, required hoards of men (and it was almost exclusively men) to bring it to the surface, get it to market, and bring it to its final users.

Since coal was the largest fossil fuel energy source for human societies from the early days of the Industrial Revolution until the 1950s and its extraction employed a large number of workers who over time unionized, strikes among coal workers severely impacted energy supplies. Those strikes riveted the attention of the authorities and the public as the health and economic well-being of society was at stake.

The rise of oil as the world's dominate energy source changed all that. Oil required many fewer workers to bring it out of the ground and distribute it. Oil production utilizes pumps and pipelines instead of people to move fuel. The decline of the power of coal miners followed in the wake of oil's rise. Oil did not similarly empower workers because so much of the system to extract and refine it runs automatically and can often be overseen temporarily by a few management personnel in the event of a strike or work stoppage.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, October 17.

Sunday, October 03, 2021

Things do not have to run out for their scarcity to become destabilizing

Economic cornucopians who believe "innovation" and "substitution" will solve every constraint on the resources needed for modern civilization use a clever piece of misdirection to deflect the arguments of those concerned about limits. These cornucopians say that the claim by the limits crowd that we will "run out" of resources we need to maintain the smooth functioning of our complex industrial society is nonsense.

But that statement is a straw man designed to avoid the real issue, an issue which we see in abundance all around us today, namely: Things do not have to run out for their scarcity to become destabilizing. This is a key argument among those concerned about limits and the effects of those limits on the stable functioning of modern society.

We have not run out of fossil fuels but shortages are creating widespread problems in China and Europe. We are not running out of water in the world, but there is not enough of it in the right place to supply all the needs of those living in the American Southwest. That lack of water is leading to a reduction in geothermal power generation as well. And, drought in California is reducing the amount hydroelectric generation by a third so far this year.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

'Pre-crime' software and the limits of AI

The Michigan State Police (MSP) has acquired software that will allow the law enforcement agency to "help predict violence and unrest," according to a story published by The Intercept.

I could not help but be reminded of the film Minority Report. In that film three exceptionally talented psychics are used to predict crimes before they happen and apprehend the would-be perpetrators. These not-yet perpetrators are guilty of what is called "pre-crime," and they are sentenced to live in a very nice virtual reality where they will not be able to hurt others.

The public's acceptance of the fictional pre-crime system is based on good numbers: It has eliminated all pre-meditated murders for the past six years in Washington, D.C. where it has been implemented. Which goes to prove—fictionally, of course—that if you lock up enough people, even ones who have never committed a crime, crime will go down.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

It's all connected: The natural gas market and its casualties

Natural gas was supposed to be the so-called bridge fuel to the low-carbon renewable energy economy. It was abundant, cleaner to burn than oil and coal, and more and more available to anyone who wanted it as a global market in liquefied natural gas (LNG) blossomed and boomed.

But this season it is looking increasingly like that metaphorical natural gas bridge is going to come up short. And, the effects are starting to ripple throughout the economy, not only in the natural gas markets themselves, but also in the electricity and agricultural markets.

First, there are the obvious signs in the natural gas market. In both North America and Europe natural gas prices have bounded upward. In Europe gas import prices have zoomed up more than 400 percent in the last year from $2.86 per million BTUs (MMBtu) to $15.49 per MMBtu. (A million BTUs is roughly equivalent to the U.S. measure of a thousand cubic feet or mcf.)

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, September 19.

Sunday, September 05, 2021

A moving target: Hardening our infrastructure against climate change

As fires continue to rage in the American West, as swaths of Louisiana including New Orleans remain without electricity as a result of Hurricane Ida, and as flood damage resulting from the remnants of that hurricane continue to dog New York City and the Northeast, we are already hearing calls for "hardening" our infrastructure. Hardening means making our infrastructure more resilient in the face of disaster, both natural and man-made. That supposedly means making our electrical grid more resistant to wind, improving drainage and sewer systems to prevent flooding, and upgrading roads and bridges to prevent them from washing away.

While hardening infrastructure seems like a good idea, there are two major obstacles. One is obvious: It is much easier to harden infrastructure when building it from scratch. Upgrading any piece of existing infrastructure means working within the limitations of that infrastructure and replacing and adding parts in ways that are less expensive but also less ideal than rebuilding. While some of Louisiana's electrical grid might be rebuilt from scratch, very little electrical infrastructure elsewhere will be rebuilt since upgrading will be far less expensive. The same holds true for water and transportation infrastructure.

The second obstacle may not be so obvious: Climate, the primary reason for hardening, is a moving target. The planet has not simply reached a new stable state. Rather, climate change itself is changing, that is, it is getting worse over time. First, the rate of human-caused emissions of climate destabilizing carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, continues to rise. We are adding more carbon dioxide every day at ever higher rates. Second, that trend has resulted in continuously rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Third, there is

Sunday, August 29, 2021

The standard American diet: Downstream revenue for the U.S. health care system

I once heard someone say that the standard American diet (high in fat, sugar, salt and processed foods) was a mechanism for providing downstream revenue to the country's health care system. Two recent reports add to the mounting evidence about how this strangely destructive system involving both food and agricultural chemicals works.

One report focuses on the effects of eating soybean oil. That oil is one of the most ubiquitous ingredients in packaged food, and it makes up the lion's share of cooking oils. To test this assertion, next to time you shop for groceries, read the labels of the packaged food and cooking oils you buy (unless you are already careful to avoid soybean oil—in which case you'll have to read labels on things you wouldn't dream of buying).

So, what did the report find? "[S]oybean oil not only leads to obesity and diabetes, but could also affect neurological conditions like autism, Alzheimer's disease, anxiety, and depression." Now, that really does spell lots of revenue for the medical system. The study notes that "soybean oil is by far the most widely produced and consumed edible oil in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture."

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Whatever happened to China's revolutionary molten salt nuclear reactor program?

Several years ago during a radio interview, the host told me that the Chinese were planning on deploying a commercial modular molten salt reactor (MSR) by 2020. For context, these nuclear reactors are based on existing technology demonstrated by previous operating prototypes, can use fuel that is hundreds of times more abundant than the only naturally occurring fissile isotope (uranium-235), are resistant to making bomb-grade material, and cannot suffer meltdowns. Modular design could allow them to be built in factories and shipped ready to install to any suitable location.

The host was confident about his prediction because it had come from one of the many books circulating at the time telling us how great the human future would be and that new technology would solve all the world's major problems including hunger, climate change, environmental pollution and resource scarcity. This would happen in part due to abundant energy produced by MSRs even as human populations continued to grow.

Sticking to the narrow question of MSRs, I opined that development of complex technologies takes far longer than anticipated and that there are unique challenges in the utility industry. I guessed it would be 20 years before a viable commercial Chinese MSR would appear.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Vaccine passports, globalism and the threat to humankind

Globalism is in retreat and world leaders don't understand that they are being forced by circumstances to prune it back. When the Biden administration announced that it is working on a plan that would require all foreign visitors to the United States to prove that they are vaccinated for COVID-19, it was yet another sign that the supposedly inexorable march toward greater and greater integration of global society is being reversed.

Globalism is a word used to mean many things. Let me offer a definition for what I mean from a piece I wrote in 2016:

[I define globalism as] the management of worldwide economic activity and growth by large multi-national corporations which have no particular allegiance to any one country or people. Our belief has been that this arrangement is the most rational and efficient. Therefore, trade deals which bring down barriers both to international trade and to the movement of capital and technology across borders are believed to encourage global economic growth. That growth supposedly will ultimately lift the world's poor into the middle class and enrich everyone else while doing it.

I should add that a chief feature of this world is its extreme connectivity both physically through air travel and shipping and electronically through the internet. That connectivity promotes worldwide understanding, communication and trade. It also creates serious vulnerabilities and possibilities for harm to individuals and organizations.

Sunday, August 08, 2021

All of a sudden: Climate change tipping points appear with a vengeance

Across the world climate change seems to have arrived earlier than expected. There are world-class athletes with bodies trained for endurance and strength breaking down from the extreme heat visited on the Tokyo Olympics by mother nature. There are the continuing wildfires in the American West that take out entire towns. The drought there is so bad that states are thinking about paying farmers NOT to irrigate their crops as a conservation strategy.

One of the other effects of climate change is heavier rains and devastating floods. Recent floods in Germany were caused by rains characterized as once-in-a-millennium, rains which, for example, killed more than 200 people and caused $1.5 billion in damage to the German railway network. But, of course, statements about once-in-a-fill-in-the-blank rains or droughts seem less and less relevant in the age of climate change as what we call extraordinarily destructive weather just morphs into "the weather."

Once-in-a-millennium rains also visited parts of China recently dumping in just three days an entire year's rainfall on one town of 12 million.

Sunday, August 01, 2021

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Huge carbon capture pipeline network proposed: Industry's 'delay-and-fail strategy' rises again

An astute journalist I know once described carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a "delay-and-fail strategy" devised by the fossil fuel industry. The industry's ploy was utterly obvious to him: Promise to perfect and deploy CCS at some vague point in the future. By the time people catch on that CCS won't work, the fossil fuel industry will have successfully extended the time it has operated without onerous regulation for another couple of decades.

And because huge financial resources (mostly government resources) will have gone to CCS projects instead of low-carbon energy production, society will continue to be wildly dependent on carbon-based fuels (giving the industry further running room).

The trouble is that the cynical CCS strategy has already been under way and failing for more than two decades already. And yet, it is seeking a renewed lease on life with a proposal for a vast network of carbon dioxide pipelines "twice the size of the current U.S. oil pipeline network by volume." The public face of the effort is a former Obama administration secretary of energy with a perennially bad haircut, Ernest Moniz.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Has OPEC finally won the war against shale oil?

I have maintained for the past six years that a key goal of OPEC has been to so demoralize investors in shale oil that they stop sending money to the companies that drill for it. As I've written previously, I believe that OPEC's contest with the shale oil industry is "part of a broader strategy meant to maximize Saudi revenues as production in the kingdom hovers at an all-time high over the next decade before beginning a decline." It now appears that OPEC may have finally won its war against shale.

Investment in shale oil companies has finally collapsed—even as oil prices levitate. It has been a long time coming. The industry would like you to believe that it is now showing "restraint" in its capital spending. But, to use a dieting analogy, there is a big difference between watching what you eat and having your jaw wired shut—involuntarily in this case. The industry has experienced the equivalent of the latter in the capital markets.

What has amazed all of us who watched this battle play out is that OPEC didn't win sooner. The relentless tolerance for losses among investors was beyond belief. And, when those investors returned in force after a brief vacation during the oil price bust in 2015, we skeptics grew concerned that rational thought had been eliminated from the universe.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Sunday, July 04, 2021

Climate change consequences: Too hot, too wet and out of time

The last few weeks have demonstrated that we have arrived at the climate change catastrophe long prophesied by climate scientists—a catastrophe that many thought we still had decades to avert.

In the Pacific Northwest high temperatures broke records day after day. In my former home of Portland, Oregon the temperature reached 116 degrees F (47 degrees C). If you look at the average high temperatures in Portland in summer, you'll see why air-conditioning is not a feature of the average Portland home or apartment. I lived comfortably without it during the four years I was there. Last week Portland seemed as if it had moved to the desert Southwest.

North and south of Portland, the extreme drought in the West continues as wildfires swirl toward another terrible season. Wildfires now dot British Columbia as well as Western Canada suffers from extreme heat. And, drought exacerbated by climate change is occurring on other continents including in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest and in Thailand.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Modern architecture: Ugliness is Beauty

There's a joke about contemporary architecture schools (which I've related before) that goes something like this: The purpose of architecture schools these days is to graduate tortured geniuses who design one-of-a-kind buildings which have no relationship to their surroundings. But I think the joke is on us. Board after board, commission after commission, and company after company have approved the most hideous buildings, believing they were being forward-thinking, open-minded and on the leading edge.

John Ruskin, the great Victorian art critic, observed that art both reflects and instructs the society in which it is embedded. The cartoonish buildings which now deface the American skyline and those in many cities around the world reflect a fundamental disturbance in the mind of the architectural community. But they also reflect the minds of those who approved these buildings, minds which appear untethered to any sense of historical continuity or human connection.

That is the curse of an age which believes it has now freed itself from the past. We have lost all perspective and anchoring. And, instead of being free, we have become bewitched characters in an Orwellian fantasy in which ugliness is beauty and love of beauty is some kind of pathologically naive attachment to bourgeois values—values which have no sympathy for the rising democratic spirit of the age.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Shale oil and gas fraud: A sign of a peak in oil supplies?

Those of us who watched incredulously as investors shovelled more and more money into what we were sure were money-losing shale oil and gas drillers do not find the current spate of fraud lawsuits against these drillers surprising.

The gargantuan claims about shale hydrocarbon reserves—which were compared more than once to those in Saudi Arabia—were clearly designed to woo investors into bidding up the stock price and/or hoovering up the constant stream of junk bonds emitted by the shale oil and gas drillers. The hype succeeded for a long time, even during the crash in oil prices in 2015 and beyond when investors convinced themselves that they were picking up "bargains."

It wasn't until the pandemic-induced plunge in oil prices that the reality of those outlandish claims was revealed, and many companies disappeared.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Who pays for the care of "orphaned" oil and gas wells? You do

When oil and gas wells end their useful life, one of two things happens: 1) They are plugged and capped to prevent further flows or 2) they are simply abandoned.

When they fall into the second category, they are called "orphaned" wells and they become the responsibility of the government to secure. But that's if the government actually knows about them. Records of well placements are not always so carefully maintained and can get lost during bankruptcies and changes in ownership or due to sheer carelessness. As a result, there appear to be far more abandoned wells than the orphaned ones that governments know about.

Since I last wrote about this problem in 2012, there has been a huge wave of drilling in Texas, North Dakota, New Mexico and Colorado as the so-called shale revolution unleashed billions of barrels of previously inaccessible oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas on the world. Now that drillers in the shale fields have fallen on hard times, many wells are idle and at risk of being abandoned.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Debate over origin of COVID highlights catastrophic systemic risks

I do not claim to know where the COVID-19 virus originated. And, I don't think we will ever know for sure. But claims and counterclaims about its origin highlight a systemic problem that goes far beyond the details of this debate. In this case, those positing a possible laboratory origin believe that scientists manipulating coronaviruses for research purposes may have carelessly let one of their altered viruses infect them. The scientists then unknowingly carried the virus out of the lab and into the streets of China.

What's important about this scenario—and again, we have no definitive evidence it happened—is that it could occur in any of the special laboratories worldwide which study dangerous infectious diseases. A recent report highlighting the problem listed 59 biosafety level 4 labs (the highest level), a tally that includes those planned and under construction. Some 42 are believed to be currently operating. These labs "are designed and built to work safely and securely with the most dangerous bacteria and viruses that can cause serious diseases and for which no treatment or vaccines exist." (For a very brief primer on biosafety levels, read this.)

So, how closely are these labs monitored? The report continues, "There is, however, currently no requirement to report these facilities internationally, and no international entity is mandated to collect such information and provide oversight at a global level. Moreover, there are no binding international standards for safe, secure, and responsible work on pathogens in maximum containment labs."

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Not just another drought: The American West moves from dry to bone dry

The American West is having a drought. So, what else is new? And, that's just the point. The American West has been in an extended drought since 2000, so far the second worst in the last 1200 years. Here is the key quote from the National Geographic article cited above:

In the face of continued climate change, some scientists and others have suggested that using the word "drought" for what’s happening now might no longer be appropriate, because it implies that the water shortages may end. Instead, we might be seeing a fundamental, long-term shift in water availability all over the West.

That is what climate scientists have been warning about all along. The problems we are now experiencing are not just cycles or fluctuations—although those continue to be important—but rather, permanent changes in the climate (that is, on any timeline that matters to humans).

I wrote about this drought when it was only 10 years old. (For a sense of how bad it is now, see the U.S. Drought Monitor.) Back then it did not seem that residents and businesses were taking it seriously, even if some water officials were. There have been ups and downs in the intervening years, but mostly downs.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

The American infrastructure, ancient Rome and 'Limits to Growth'

Infrastructure is the talk of the town in Washington, D.C. where I now live and with good reason. The infrastructure upon which the livelihoods and lives of all Americans depends is in sorry shape. The American Society of Civil Engineers 2021 infrastructure report card gives the United States an overall grade of C minus.

Everyone in Washington, yes, everyone, believes some sort of major investment needs to be made in our transportation, water, and sewer systems which have been sorely neglected. There are other concerns as well about our energy infrastructure and our communications infrastructure—both of which are largely in private hands. The wrangling over how much will be spent and on what is likely to go on for months.

What won't be talked about is that the cost of maintaining our infrastructure is rising for one key reason: There's more of it every day. We keep expanding all these systems so that when they degrade and require maintenance and replacement, the cost keeps growing.

Sunday, May 09, 2021

Clean energy minerals shortage: Who knew it could happen?

The race for so-called green energy has spawned another race, one for the minerals needed to make the devices such as solar panels and batteries that produce, store and transmit that energy. A hitherto largely unchallenged economic idea—that we will always have supplies of everything we need at the time we need it at prices we can afford—is in the process of being tested.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the world will need to produce six times more of these critical metals than we are producing now to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, a target widely held out as an essential goal for avoiding catastrophic effects from climate change. The need for lithium—the key component in lithium batteries that are prized for light weight and the ability to charge quickly—will grow 70 times over the next 20 years, the IEA predicts.

One wonders what the price trajectories of the minerals IEA mentions will look like in the coming years. The long-term charts are concerning for nickel, lithium, cobalt and others since this appears to be just the beginning of the run-up.

Sunday, May 02, 2021

Is there an alternative to the modern corporate knowledge grab?

There is a scene in the hit science-fiction television series "The Expanse" in which a leader of "The Belt"—that is, the asteroid belt which is a stand-in for our current-day "developing" countries—remarks about an attitude typical of Earthers, inhabitants of the now unified Earth. It will come as no surprise to you that 500 years into the future Earthers are still systematically exploiting people and resources far from their home. The Belter leader says: "Earthers cannot look upon a thing but wonder who it belongs to."

We who are Earthers today needn't wait 500 years to experience the consequences of this outlook. It is on display every day and has now become so ubiquitous that it wastes precious natural resources while it crushes badly needed innovation and genuine consumer choice in practically every area of commerce. There is an alternative. But, more on that later.

Of course, there is the obvious tendency of modern humans to look at a forest and see not trees, but board-feet of lumber. Or to look at a beautiful Appalachian mountain range and assess how to decapitate it by using mountaintop removal in order to get at the coal underneath. Or to see a flowing spring and think of all the groundwater that can be pumped to fill six-packs of bottled water.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Asking the right questions about human genetic engineering

It's refreshing to find a reporter capable of asking probing questions about the the dangers of human genetic engineering. The central question BBC reporter Zaria Gorvett asks is whether genetic alterations due to genetic treatments can make their way into future generations. (She asks many other questions, too.)

The answer researchers give is that they do not know. They believe they can reduce the likelihood over time, but could never reduce it to zero.

The first question you may ask is why passing on genetic alterations through procreation would be a bad thing if those alterations were meant to cure a genetic disease or alter an unfavorable trait. The answer is that it depends on what one means by "bad thing" and "unfavorable trait."

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Climate change and the "law of acceleration"

When scientists reported that carbon dioxide levels in the Earth's atmosphere reached a new record last week, I thought of American writer Henry Adams whose 1918 Pulitzer-Prize-winning autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, included a chapter entitled "A Law of Acceleration."

Adams noted that "in the nineteenth century, society by common accord agreed in measuring its progress by the coal-output. The ratio of increase in the volume of coal-power may serve as dynamometer." He tells readers that the "coal-output of the world, speaking roughly, doubled every ten years between 1840 and 1900, in the form of utilized power, for the ton of coal yielded three or four times as much power in 1900 as in 1840."

Adams was the grandson of John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States and the great grandson of John Adams, a celebrated Founding Father of the American republic and its second president. Henry knew something of the trajectory of American life and of the world as a whole.

Today, we mark both our progress and our peril through such observations. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography is the keeper of what is known as the Keeling Curve which charts the rise in concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii from 1958 onward. That rise is, of course, due primarily to the burning of coal and other fossil fuels, something Adams tells us would be a barometer of improvement in his own age.

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Geoengineering the climate: The zombie idea that just won't die

Just when you think the last boomlet for geoengineering the climate has expended itself and we might be rid of any serious consideration of it as a strategy for addressing climate change, it rises zombie-like from the dead and starts roaming the Earth again.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has recommended spending $100 to $200 million over the next five years to study the idea—its feasibility, possible unintended consequences, and an ethical framework for governing it.

The most important thing you need to know about geoengineering the climate is that we humans have probably been doing it since at least the dawn of agriculture. What we need now it seems is an intervention from TV talk show psychologist Dr. Phil to ask us his favorite question, "How's that working for you?"

Sunday, March 28, 2021

COVID variants reach escape velocity

The dense worldwide transportation network constructed by humans is now powering so-called variants (mutations) of COVID-19 across the world from their countries of origin. The British variant (called B.1.1.7), the Brazilian variant (called P.1) and the South African variant (called B.1.351) are all racing across the globe. This shouldn't be surprising since all three are thought to be more contagious than the original virus.

The Brazilian variant is thought to be capable of reinfecting people who have already had the original virus. And, it may have greater capabilities to evade the protections created by vaccines.

That this is happening is no surprise to people who understand viruses, particularly those with knowledge of coronaviruses. Almost exactly one year ago I sat across  from a colleague at dinner who knows a lot about coronaviruses. Let me summarize what he told me:

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Variations on a theme: COVID-19 mutations turn problematic

We pandemic-weary humans are ready to be done with COVID-19. But apparently, it is not done with us. Our conversation with a coronavirus, as I dubbed it last year, continues as a growing number of variants of COVID-19 appear across the world.

Preliminary data suggest that some of the variants may evade the protections of existing vaccines and lessen the effectiveness of various treatments. So concerning are these variants that one of the world's leading epidemiologists is recommending a reversal of the recent re-opening steps being taken in the United States and elsewhere across the world.

Whether that advice will turn out to be warranted is likely to be tested in the next several weeks as U.S. states and foreign countries move forward with re-opening despite the rapid rise of new variants. This is all happening against the backdrop of Italy returning to a lockdown for much of the country due to the rapid spread of these COVID-19 variants.

Of even greater concern is the possibility that COVID-19 is here to stay and may continue churning out variants that defy our attempts to vanquish the virus. No one knows for certain what that might look like. It could be that COVID-19 becomes a seasonal disease returning each year like the flu. It could become milder in its effects. That would be an adaptive evolutionary strategy for the virus since killing one's host is not a good way to spread. COVID-19 could be banished in some places, only to pop up periodically.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

Of semiconductors, water, Martian rovers and converging risks

If the Perseverance rover now exploring Mars finds substantial deposits of water under the Martian soil, perhaps it can send some to Taiwan. Taiwan—where so many of the world's semiconductors are manufactured, but probably not the ones guiding the Martian rover—is suffering its worst drought in 67 years. The Taiwanese drought illustrates converging risks that involve climate change, geographic concentration of a critical industry, outsourcing, international tensions and supply chain fragility.

The drought has been very bad for those Taiwanese farmers affected by a shutoff of irrigation water. So far the shutoff affects only 19,000 hectares (46,950 acres) or 6 percent of all irrigated land.

But now the drought is threatening a mainstay of the Taiwanese economy, semiconductor production. This matters to the rest of world because the island nation of Taiwan is home to more than 20 percent of the world's semiconductor manufacturing capacity, the largest percentage located in any one country.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Declining sperm counts: Nature's answer to overpopulation?

Epidemiologist Shanna Swan projects that on current trends sperm counts will reach zero by 2045. That shocking conclusion comes from a new book by Swan and her colleague Stacey Colino. Is this nature's way of bringing human population under control? (More on that later.)

In a 2017 study Swan and colleagues looked at "244 estimates of SC [sperm concentration] and TSC [total sperm count] from 185 studies of 42,935 men who provided semen samples in 1973–2011" in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Men elsewhere may fare better, but the causes of this trend suggest that it is worldwide.

Swan told The Guardian that she blames so-called "'everywhere chemicals', found in plastics, cosmetics and pesticides, that affect endocrines such as phthalates and bisphenol-A." She also pointed to unhealthy lifestyle choices including use of tobacco and marijuana and to rising obesity. Obesity itself has been linked to increasing human endocrine disruption from these same chemicals.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Things (nearly) fall apart: The year so far in electricity, finance and computer chips

We are less than two months into the new year and the news is full of stories about a system whose rivets are about to pop en masse and send us—the United States and maybe the world as whole—into a catastrophic systemic downward spiral in critical areas.

The first thing to understand is that these disparate calamities are all intimately related in that they arise out of system that applies certain "principles" across sectors of society. Those principles have their origin in rigid economic ideology, but their effect has been to further enrich those at the top—which is why elites keep defending these discredited approaches.

Let us take Texas utility customers who shivered through rolling electricity blackouts last week designed to keep the electric grid from cratering altogether under the strain of record demand. The demand resulted from a polar-vortex-induced cold snap that brought record low temperatures to much of the southern plains states and the Midwest. The reason for the spiking demand was simple: 60 percent of homes in Texas use electricity for heating.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Demateralizing the economy isn't happening (Hint: All that material is actually hiding in plain sight)

If you are trying to prove something is true and certain facts get in the way, it's almost always useful to exclude them. This is apparently what technology cheerleader Andrew McAfee has done in his recent book More from Less, which claims that advanced economies have been dematerializing for something like the last 40 years. Simply put, those economies are producing more output with little or no increase in physical resources.

There's just one little problem as anthropologist Jason Hickel points out in his review of More from Less: McAfee forgot to count the physical resources used in making products imported from other countries by all those advanced economies. McAfee only counts those resources extracted within the boundaries of the advanced countries.

I am highlighting Hickel's piece not so much as a book review. There are dozens of books making similar ridiculous claims that are contradicted by the facts. I am highlighting the piece because Hickel provides perhaps the clearest, most concise refutation of the nonsense that McAfee and others like him are peddling.

Let me touch on the high points though I encourage you to read the full article:

Sunday, February 07, 2021

The clickbait future of news and our crisis of consensus

It's often hard to distinguish between what has come to be known as "clickbait"—which according to is "a sensationalized headline or piece of text on the internet designed to entice people to follow a link to an article on another web page"—and simply a clever headline.

What irks me about true clickbait headlines is that the story often contradicts or fails to mention the claim made in the headline. Of course, if the entire story is merely fabricated or exaggerated in ways that obscure what is actually going on, that is a problem, too.

News organizations are no strangers to sensationalized headlines. In fact, the newspaper business invented an entire category for what is called clickbait, namely, tabloids. The often repeated adage that "if it bleeds, it leads" is reaffirmed on a daily basis.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

GameStop: Why the elites hate peer-to-peer power

During Great Britain's golden age of gambling, a Scot named William Cunninghame Graham—losing at cards, out of money, but not yet ready to quit for the evening—secured a loan of 1,000 pounds from a Colonel Archibald Campbell. Graham pledged as security the use of his estate to Campbell for the rest of Campbell's lifetime should Graham be unable to repay the loan. Graham lost all the money. And thus, for a 1,000-pound loan did Graham gamble away his entire estate in one evening.

Today, a group of Wall Street hedge funds are acting like Graham on steroids in the face of a growing group of small investors who have awakened to the power of peer-to-peer communications made possible by social media. (More on peer-to-peer communications below.) In this particular case these small investors seem to be winning hand after hand by pledging much of their savings—in some cases their total life savings—to another risky but decidedly much more political proposition: Beating Wall Street hedge funds at their own game by forcing losses on them for bets the hedge funds have made against a down-on-its-luck retail chain called GameStop and other companies. The focus, however, has been on GameStop which specializes in video games and equipment which increasingly can be purchased online. Another blow to GameStop has been the ongoing pandemic which has kept people out of its retail stores.

The small investors, emboldened by an online Reddit group called WallStreetBets, have so far inflicted nearly $20 billion in losses on their arch short-selling foes as the stock price of GameStop has rocketed from about $17 a share on January 4 to $325 a share on Friday. The stock sold for under $4 a share as recently as July 31. On January 25 the stock closed at $76.79 a share. Two days later it closed at $347.51.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The latest story of toxic deceit and delay: PFAS

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS—a group of persistent toxic chemicals often referred to as "forever chemicals"—are everywhere. Don't take my word for it. Here is a list posted on the site of the U.S. Environmental Protection (EPA) agency:

  • Food packaged in PFAS-containing materials, processed with equipment that used PFAS, or grown in PFAS-contaminated soil or water.
  • Commercial household products, including 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).
  • Workplace, including production facilities or industries (e.g., chrome plating, electronics manufacturing or oil recovery) that use PFAS.
  • Drinking water, typically localized and associated with a specific facility (e.g., manufacturer, landfill, wastewater treatment plant, firefighter training facility).
  • Living organisms, including fish, animals and humans, where PFAS have the ability to build up and persist over time

PFAS are even found in animals in Antarctica. Here is a list of health effects again provided by the EPA:

  • Infant birth weights
  • Effects on the immune system
  • Cancer (for PFOA)
  • Thyroid hormone disruption (for PFOS).

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Paul Feyerabend and the fight over 'truth'

I read philosopher Paul Feyerabend's book Against Method many years ago, and it has shaped my thinking ever since. Feyerabend has been wrongly criticized as anti-science. I would say that he felt that the modern definition of science was too narrow. He described true science as having methodological pluralism. There is no such thing as a unified science, only sciences plural, as French philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour has said.

Feyerabend also championed something he called epistemological anarchism. Wikipedia actually gives what I think is a good two-sentence summary:

[T]here are no useful and exception-free methodological rules governing the progress of science or the growth of knowledge. It holds that the idea of the operation of science by fixed, universal rules is unrealistic, pernicious, and detrimental to science itself.

It is worth noting that the word "science" comes from the Latin "scientia." That word does not denote a specific approach to understanding. It means more generally knowledge or skill. When we explore the world in search of competence in our living and being,we ought to be open to many sources of knowledge and many avenues to gain skills.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

What my Linux adventure is teaching me about our possible future

I am a Linux ambassador of sorts. I've been using the Linux computer operating system since 2013. I can still remember the light feeling I had the day I broke free of the Microsoft Windows operating system.

No more constant worries about viruses hijacking or corrupting my computer. No more outlays to pay for each upgrade. No more worries that the next upgrade will be really lousy and buggy and remain so for months or even years. And, above all, no more freezes in the middle of my work and work lost as a result.

Now eight years into my Linux adventure I am wildly satisfied with that choice. That remains the case even though my most recent upgrade did not go as planned and got stretched out over several days. But this latest upgrade has made me think hard about why I stick with Linux and what the Linux way of doing things can tell us about a possible, better future.

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Solar now 'cheapest electricity in history': How much will it matter?

The International Energy Agency (IEA), the Paris-based consortium of 30 countries, has told us in its flagship World Energy Outlook 2020 that solar-produced electricity is now the "cheapest electricity in history."  That seems like very good news, that is, until the actual expected impact of that fact is examined more closely.

For those who are concerned about climate change and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electric generation, it is certainly good news—but not quite good enough to make a dent in fossil fuel emissions.

Setting aside any concerns about critical materials needed to make the solar revolution reach completion, it may surprise many readers of the "cheapest electricity in history" headline that growth in solar energy will likely NOT lead to a reduction of fossil fuel burning anytime soon. In fact, the IEA's main forecast has natural gas consumption growing by 30 percent through 2040 while oil consumption levels off but does not decline. Coal use does continue to decline as a share of total energy.