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.