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 Dictionary.com 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.