Sunday, December 31, 2023

Sunday, December 24, 2023

China grinch stops rare earth tech transfer in time for Christmas

Just in time for Christmas, China expanded its already tight restrictions on export of technology related to refining rare earth minerals. The most recent restrictions involve technology for making rare earth magnets which are used in electric motors and generators. These minerals are also used extensively in the automotive industry and in consumer electronics such as cellphones.

I have previously written that the clean energy economy is a metals energy economy, and rare earths constitute a substantial and key part of that metals energy economy.

Export of rare earth extraction and separation technology had already been banned by China. The most recent and previous restrictions are part of a broader trade war between the United States and China over exchange of technology.  In late 2022 the United States banned exports of advanced microchips. China responded with a ban on the export germanium and gallium, two metals crucial to the manufacture of advanced chips. The United States imports half of its germanium needs and all of the gallium it uses.

Sunday, December 17, 2023

Self-driving cars are driving right into their own grave

One of the favorite shibboleths of the world's tech overlords is "Move fast and break things." It seems that one of the things that is now breaking is the dream of driverless cars. The Guardian has a piece out that says that after the billions spent on trying to bring so-called autonomous vehicles to public roadways, the industry behind them is retreating rapidly. (I say so-called because it turns out that many of the vehicles have remote drivers making regular adjustments to each vehicle's movements because the software doesn't work properly.)

I have written previously that such vehicles will only work on closed courses where all vehicles are operating as part of a single system and where the possible actions of all those vehicles are known in advance so that there are no surprises—at least from other vehicles.

It would have been very difficult to predict the incident that has sent General Motors' entry into the autonomous vehicle race, Cruise, into a death spiral. A pedestrian in San Francisco was hit by a car driven by a human driver and then bounced in front of an autonomous taxi operated by Cruise. Instead of stopping, the taxi drove over the person since, by one analysis, the taxi's code tells it to pull off to the right when it encounters an unfamiliar situation. Believe it or not, the poor pedestrian survived and will likely be collecting a very hefty settlement from GM. The state of California suspended permission for Cruise to operate its taxi service—but this came just three months after the state allowed expanded operations by Cruise.

And this was just one of a series of problems that continue to befall the robotaxi industry: "The cars have driven into firefighting scenes, caused construction delays, impeded ambulances and even meandered into an active crime scene."

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Doubling down on fusion

The United States will propose a new emphasis on fusion energy at the UN climate summit known as COP 28. The summit began on November 30 and runs through December 12. Fusion is what powers the Sun and fuses hydrogen atoms to make helium plus a lot of energy. So, it seems like a perfect solution to power human societies without creating the dangerous radioactive waste products from fission reactors nor the carbon emissions from fossil fuel plants.

The reality of fusion―at least the way we humans are pursuing it—is much more complicated and messy than most people realize. The path we are on now suggests lots of radioactive waste will still have to be disposed of on a regular basis and that commercial fusion power is still decades away if it ever becomes feasible.

So, it turns out that fusion is part of the fantasy of a painless energy transition to a society powered by clean, renewable fuels that not only replace the energy currently generated by fossil fuels, but also grow continuously to feed our growing economy.

Sunday, December 03, 2023

Watch what people do, not what they say about renewable energy

In a Pew Research Center poll early last year 69 percent of American adults said that they "prioritize developing alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar, over expanding the production of oil, coal and natural gas." Some 72 percent believe the federal government "should encourage the production of wind and solar power."

So why are there no working wind farms in the waters of Great Lakes, one of the best wind resources in the country? You don't have to take my word for it that this area is a prime location for wind turbines. Here's what the National Renewable Energy Laboratory said in a June 2023 news release about its latest report on offshore Great Lakes wind resources:

Wind resource assessments estimate that the Great Lakes’ potential power capacity is 160 gigawatts for fixed-bottom wind turbines and about 415 gigawatts for floating wind energy systems. That wind energy resource potential exceeds the annual electricity consumption in five out of eight of the U.S. states bordering the Great Lakes.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Taking a holiday break - no post this week

I'm taking a holiday break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, December 3.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Self-extinction: Male fertility, pesticides and the end of the human project

It is a common meme these days that humans are busy bringing about their own extinction. This is usually imagined to take the form of mass death resulting from the effects of climate change including food shortages, and/or from the rapid decline in the availability of fossil fuels, and/or from a worldwide pandemic caused by a microbe as lethal as the Ebola virus.

But what if our path to extinction is really taking the form of damage to human fertility of the type described by a new report that links the dramatic decline in male sperm count directly to pesticides? What if human society collapses for lack of new humans? The plants and animals might rejoice if they can do such a thing. But the human project would come to an end.

And that speaks to the central issue for humankind. Is the human project worth saving? And, if it is, are we as a global society willing to do what it takes to save it? On current form one would expect that the answer is no. But in order to change the answer to yes, the "yes" forces would have to proffer some very compelling arguments to get the world's chemical companies to give up on synthetic pesticides. I can imagine arguments that include reference to the literary, musical, architectural, artistic, philosophical and scientific achievements of humans. But these would likely fall on deaf ears unless the scientific achievements are allowed to include the continued dispersal of pesticides into the air, water and soil across the globe.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

We'll never run out of sand, right?

The single most abundant element in the Earth's crust is oxygen making up 46.6 percent of the mass. The second most abundant element is silicon making up 27.7 percent, mostly in the form of various molecules combining silicon and oxygen. Silicon dioxide is the kind people are familiar with and it is found on most, but not all beaches of the world.

It just doesn't seem reasonable to be concerned that we will somehow run out of sand. After all, the estimated weight of the Earth is 1.3 X 1025 pounds (13 followed by 24 zeros) or 6.5 X 1021 tons. The crust makes up 1 percent of that total weight, so the crust weighs 6.5 X 1019 tons. Of that, 27.7 percent is silicon or 1.8 X 1019 tons. The world consumes about 50 billion tons a year. For comparison's sake, that's 5 X 1010 tons annually—which if you do the math means we will run out of sand from the Earth's crust in 360 million years at current rates of consumption.

But, of course, not all sand is created equal. Much of it is unsuitable for industrial purposes such as making concrete or proppants in hydraulically fractured oil and gas deposits (fracking). The shape and uniformity of sand grains are crucial in certain uses such as proppants (which keep fractures open once they've been made). Sand casting (used to make metal objects) requires a mixture of three different kinds of sand, each with a different chemical formula. Sand of particularly high purity is required for glass-making and for solar panels and computer chips.

Sunday, November 05, 2023

AI: The information economy becomes ever more energy and resource intensive

Back in 2009 I wrote a piece entitled "The unbearable lightness of information." Since then the information economy has become ever more resource intensive. Examples include Bitcoin, the widely recognized digital-only currency, which, as it turns out, consumes about as much electricity as the nation of Norway each year. (Why a currency with no physical bills should weigh so heavily on the energy system is explained in the same linked piece.)

Data centers and data transmission networks account for between 2 and 3 percent of global electricity consumption. Think of all the things in the world which use electricity, and you'll see why this share for this one facet of society is such a large chunk.

While the telecommunications industry is becoming more efficient in its energy use, total energy use continues to expand. The emerging 5G system uses three times more energy than 4G. Between 2020 and 2026 network energy needs are expected to increase 150 to 170 percent. So much for the information economy being light on resources!

Sunday, October 29, 2023

The miniaturization of death: How technology has tipped the balance away from state power

Miniaturization is a signal advance in modern electronics. The slogan has been "smaller, faster, cheaper, better." That has been the case for consumer electronics for decades. But parallel to the seeming benefits are dangers associated with packing ever more destructive power into smaller packages and simpler processes—not all of them electronic in nature.

One of the principles of government and society is the monopoly on force enjoyed by the government. In the abstract, members of society give up the right to use force against one another and agree to live by a set of rules enforced by the government. Law courts become a substitute for internecine warfare and gang violence in resolving disputes. Police become the enforcers of public order. But, in truth, it is the agreement among members of society to abide not only by laws and rules, but also by long-observed customs that facilitates peaceful coexistence which has the most importance.

In reality, the state has never had a complete monopoly on the use of force. There have always been groups or individuals who have challenged that monopoly for various reasons such as the commission of crimes, the resistance to government mandates, the overthrow of governments or the desire to set up one's own independent state in a region currently controlled by the government.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Graphite: A new energy economy resource is suddenly harder to get

The substance that constitutes a pencil lead and an important component of electric vehicle batteries is suddenly less available. China, the world's top producer of graphite, will now require permits for shipments abroad. The country is the world's top producer and plays a special role by refining 90 percent of the graphite used in electric vehicle batteries.

In what now seems like the ancient past, pencils were used to fill out bubble sheet forms and tests because the machines that read them did so by sensing the electrical conductivity of the graphite-filled ovals. (Today, optical scanners read such forms by sensing the reflectivity of the ovals.)

It is the conductivity of graphite which makes its so useful for electric vehicle batteries. China's move would not be such a big deal if graphite were more evenly distributed around the world. But its production is overwhelming centered in China—which produces five times more than second-place Madagascar and 56 times more than either Canada or Russia which are tied for sixth place.

However, the United States, a center for electric vehicle manufacture, has no domestic source of graphite. All of it must be imported.

Sunday, October 15, 2023

We're poisoning teenagers (but it doesn't seem to matter)

Swiss psychologist Carl Jung pointed out that when guilt is assigned to one person for a misdeed, it can weigh heavily on that person. But when guilt is assigned to millions, the burden becomes so light that it is easy to ignore. The general response is, "What can one person do? How can my actions really matter that much?"

See how that works! And, now we have an entire society drenched in synthetic chemicals and people feel powerless to do anything about it. And, the people who make those chemicals may feel that same way. If only one company tries to do something about it, the total picture will remain essentially the same (and the company will probably be penalized in the marketplace as it plays by its own more costly rules). But, on reflection, I think most of those who make these chemicals would deny or minimize their harm.

It shouldn't be much of a surprise then to find out that teenagers are being exposed to two popular herbicides glyphosate and 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and the widely used insect repellent DEET and suffering from poorer brain function. Researchers also opined that the rise in chronic conditions among young people may be related to ever increasing chemical exposures.

Sunday, October 08, 2023

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, October 15.

Sunday, October 01, 2023

The clean energy economy turns out to be the metals energy economy

A very observant longtime friend of mine opined recently that the clean energy economy is really just a metals energy economy where metals provide the basis for energy production and transmission. The idea that this emerging economy is going to be light on resources compared to our current fossil-fuel based economy is a fantasy.

And you don't have to take his word for it. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has attempted to project the needs of this new economy. The IEA's report entitled "The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions" contains some eye-popping statistics that drive home just how much in the way of metals might be needed in order to supply the builders of this clean energy infrastructure.

Using two scenarios the IEA estimated that growth in demand coming from clean energy industries just for battery-related minerals will explode by 2040 relative to 2020:

1. Lithium: Between 13 to 42 times.

2. Graphite: Between 8 and 25 times.

3. Cobalt: Between 6 to 21 times.

4. Nickel: Between 6 to 19 times.

5. Manganese: Between 3 to 8 times.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Pincushion America revisited: The legacy of fracking on our drinking water

Eleven years ago, I wrote about the how millions of holes drilled deep into American soil were already destined to pollute groundwater across the United States, making many areas uninhabitable to humans who rely on such water. I warned that the so-called shale oil and gas boom would make this problem dramatically worse.

Now that problem has reached the news pages of southern Ohio, and this will likely just be the beginning of coverage of fracking-related damage to the country's groundwater supplies. (There has been much coverage of studies that suggest such harm is inevitable and likely happening from fracking. But, we are now shifting into the stage where the actual harm will start to be discovered—almost certainly too late to prevent contamination in many cases.)

The main culprit (for now) is not the oil and gas wells themselves, but the injection wells used to dispose of huge volumes of water laced with toxic chemicals that have been injected into wells under great pressure to fracture underground rocks containing oil and natural gas in shale deposits. A lot of that water comes back to the surface and so must be disposed of. One of the easiest ways to do that is to pump it deep underground—many thousands of feet down—where it can supposedly be safely deposited away from the surface and far below drinking water aquifers used by us humans.

The trouble is—as I pointed out in my piece 11 years ago—the injected wastewater doesn't necessarily stay put. And, that's the problem in southern Ohio. In the Ohio case, "the [Ohio] Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management found that waste fluid injected into the three K&H [waste injection] wells had spread at least 1.5 miles underground and was rising to the surface through oil and gas production wells in Athens and Washington counties."

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, September 24.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Climate change and the hidden water cost of the Panama Canal

You've almost certainly read about the backup of ships waiting to transit the Panama Canal, which carries 6 percent of all commercial ships worldwide. While the worry among faraway readers may be concerns about supply chain disruptions that could lead to holiday shopping shortages, the problem in Panama is more immediate. The proximate cause of the backup is severe drought. That makes sense on its face because the canal is full of water and that water has to come from somewhere.

In a tropical country with copious rainfall—260 cm (102 inches) on average for the whole country in 2021—one wonders what passes for drought. (For comparison, I used to live in Portland, Oregon, a rather damp city with 44 inches of annual rainfall.) But inadequate rain during Panama's rainy season has left two artificial lakes which feed the canal low on water. These lakes must supply 200 million liters (53 million gallons) of fresh water for each ship that transits the canal, water that is lost to the ocean. During the Panama Canal Authority's fiscal 2022 year more than 14,000 vessels transited the canal. This matters doubly because these lakes also supply drinking water to half of all Panamanians.

The result is that the Canal Authority must ration water to the locks, decreasing the depth of the water and keeping many ships from carrying full loads that would cause the ships to hit the bottom of the locks. It has also had to limit the total number of ships making the trip in order to conserve water.

Sunday, September 03, 2023

How to poison the world (and get away with it)

The most important variable for poisoning the world and getting away with it is a regulatory structure that does not require the maker of a synthetic chemical to test it for safety prior to sale and release and puts the burden of proof for establishing hazards on the government and the public.

That pretty much describes the regulatory structure in the United States—with the exception of drugs, food additives and pesticides—until 2016 when the Toxic Substances Control Act was updated. In Europe a similar state of affairs prevailed until the advent of REACH (for registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals) in 2007.

To understand what happens to public health when this is the case, EcoWatch provides an excellent long-form piece on the history of Teflon and its toxic legacy to this day. Spoiler alert: The makers of Teflon knew almost from the beginning about the toxicity of the processes and chemicals used in making it and even today are creating new versions of similar chemicals (after the old ones were discontinued due to liability) and putting them into the environment all over again. The manufacturers made and sold these products for decades, enjoyed huge profits and only now are having to answer for it. The people who owned and led those manufacturers during their heyday and therefore benefited the most financially are long gone. They essentially poisoned the world and got away with it.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, September 3.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

'White' hydrogen: The hydrogen economy zombie rises again

Just when you thought the hydrogen economy zombie was dead and gone, it rises again, this time in color.

Yes, hydrogen comes in many colors these days: green, blue, gray and now white. No, these are not literal colors, but rather marketing tools designed to convince investors, policymakers (think: public subsidies), and the public (think: support of public subsidies) that the hydrogen economy is right around the corner and will be a key to addressing climate change. When burned, of course, hydrogen combines with oxygen to produce water. When manufactured, however, the process can produce a little or a lot of carbon dioxide depending how the manufacturing is done and whether fossil fuels are used as feedstocks.

Periodically, hydrogen advocates create a boomlet in media coverage to announce the coming of the hydrogen economy that never seems to arrive.

White hydrogen is the newest hydrogen media boomlet. It denotes hydrogen occurring naturally in reservoirs in the Earth's crust as a free gas not combined with other elements. Its presence has been known for a long time. But no one believed the reservoirs were numerous enough or large enough to bother extracting. That thinking has changed, and there are now companies actively prospecting for underground hydrogen reservoirs.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Thinking about a world of scarcity

It has now become more fashionable to talk about shortages. Computer chips have been in shortage and then in glut in the last few years. Natural gas was acutely in shortage in Europe after the war in Ukraine and pipeline sabotage brought supplies from Russia down to a trickle. Then, heroic efforts at conservation and in obtaining liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipments to Europe led to a dramatic reduction in price. But last week just the potential for labor strikes among LNG workers in Australia, a major LNG exporter, sent the European price spiking again.

The world seemed so well supplied with everything in the previous decade that the shortages of this decade seem shocking to those with memories that do not extend further back than 2010.

But in what is actually recent memory, we have examples. It was the mid-2000s that brought us spiking food prices. Now they are rising again. It also brought us the highest price ever for a barrel of oil. Now oil prices are elevated again. Metals prices rose. Now they are again.

Sunday, August 06, 2023

Why I assume "fixes" meant to prevent collapse won't work

There are those who believe our current way of life is not facing any near term threat and will go on indefinitely. In this view, any existential problems—should they ever arise—will be dealt with by new technologies.

Others assume the threat of civilizational collapse is real and can be and even will be addressed. They may believe that the threats include climate change, the challenge of evolving microbes that are rendering antibiotics useless, and the increasing toxicity of the biosphere due to human releases of novel toxic chemicals. This group frantically offers solutions which are emitted on an almost daily schedule from the world's universities and industrial research laboratories.

The solutions that are offered usually address an isolated issue such as carbon-free energy. A recent proposal suggests burning iron powder. As one reads about this "solution," it seems more and more like a nonstarter. There's plenty of iron, of course. But we need to ramp up dramatically the manufacture of iron powder. This gets burned to make iron oxide. Then we can make iron "renewable" by using hydrogen to strip away the oxygen from the resulting iron oxide so we get iron again.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Interdependence and the fracturing world: China, Russia, Europe and the United States

The most salient fact about natural resources such as minerals and fertile soil is that they are unevenly distributed around the world. That means some countries have far more than they need and others are desperately dependent on imports.

Some writers think that trade between nations of resources and practically everything else leads to an interdependence that makes war much more costly and thus less likely. Others believe that the many causes of war—for example, a desire to dominate, fear of being attacked (leading to pre-emptive war), ethnic rivalries and grievances, and the desire for direct control of resources—often negate concerns that the cost of war will exceed its benefits.

After the relative quiet of the post-Cold War era during which the world's economies integrated into one global market, major powers and their leaders are again weighing the two arguments. Russia, of course, decided that its fear of being surrounded by NATO-allied countries outweighed the possible economic consequences of war (though it's not clear that the Russian government realized the far-reaching effects its war with Ukraine would have on its trade).

Earlier this year an American general predicted war with China by 2025. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) said that the general's views do not represent those of the DOD. Not surprisingly, the DOD stated that it prefers peace in Asia.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Climate change and the uninsurable future

A person buying insurance does so because he or she is concerned about the future. A house fire could lead to a financial wipe-out. A car accident resulting in hospitalization could result in savings-depleting bills without insurance.

Insurance companies, however, concern themselves primarily with the past. They pay people called actuaries to create detailed models of risk using voluminous data from the past regarding medical diagnoses, life expectancy, damage due to natural disasters, auto accident statistics and myriad other pieces of information. These models help insurance companies predict the frequency and severity of the events they insure against and thereby set their rates.

If, however, conditions that create risks are rapidly changing—as they are now with climate change—models dependent on past data become unreliable. As a result, property and casualty insurers have been stung by huge losses due to severe weather. For example, the California wildfires of 2017 and 2018 resulted in $29 billion in insurance claims. But insurers only took in $15.6 billion in premiums.

Hurricanes and floods resulted in $120 billion in insured losses in 2022. Companies expect insured losses to continue to rise as climate change intensifies.

Sunday, July 09, 2023

Climate change: Our infrastructure is built for another Earth

We humans now face an era of climate that is uncharted for the size and complexity of the human community. Our roads, rails, ports, buildings, electric grid, water systems and food systems are not designed for this new climate. For example, we continue to build infrastructure based on data for rainfall that does not reflect the dramatic changes that are taking place in rainfall patterns and amounts.

In fact, practically all the standards for building our infrastructure to withstand rain, snow, wind, flood and heat are out of date. In addition, termites that weren't a huge problem for buildings in some climates are now causing greater damage as more destructive species spread to new areas.

Our maladapted infrastructure problem is becoming even more obvious now as a combination of climate change and the warm phase of the periodic fluctuation of warm and cool waters in the tropical Pacific Ocean known as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is bringing record worldwide temperatures. A temperature higher on average across the globe than any previously recorded since instrument readings began in the 1850s was measured on July 3. That record was broken again on July 4, and then again on July 5.

Even during the cool phase of ENSO known as La Niña in 2020 the world recorded an average temperature that was "effectively tied" with the warmest year ever in 2016.

Sunday, July 02, 2023

Autonomous chaos: Self-driving vehicles block emergency services

Self-driving vehicles are stopping in traffic for no apparent reason and blocking emergency vehicles reports the Los Angeles Times. The writer alludes to a famous high-tech shibboleth: "Move fast and break things." But in this case the things that are being broken are the health and lives of California residents who are having to endure the growing presence of so-called autonomous vehicles on the state's streets and highways.

I have repeatedly warned that autonomous vehicles could only be truly safely operated on closed courses where the possible moves of all other vehicles would be known in advance and therefore predictable. Humans and the environments in which they drive will never be that predictable.

Beneath the bravado of the self-driving booster club is a completely obvious truth: Autonomous vehicles can only do what they are programmed to do, and that programming is limited to what their creators can put into words or, more precisely, that subset of language we call code.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Flash droughts: Are they the new normal?

The state of Illinois is suffering from its driest conditions in more than a decade. In fact, large swathes of the Midwest and Plains states are suffering from extraordinarily dry conditions according the U.S. Drought Monitor.

But a certain kind of drought is becoming more and more frequent: flash drought. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines flash drought as follows:

Flash drought is simply the rapid onset or intensification of drought. It is set in motion by lower-than-normal rates of precipitation, accompanied by abnormally high temperatures, winds, and radiation. Together, these changes in weather can rapidly alter the local climate.

Illinois had been suffering from flash droughts since mid-April when virtually none of the state suffered from drought conditions.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Fusion: It's messier and harder than you think

A friend of mine who was trained as a physicist used to joke about a future in which each of us would carry handheld fusion reactors that plug in anywhere to provide copious amounts clean energy for our homes, automobiles, offices and factories.

The reality of fusion power, however, is one of huge scale and vast obstacles according to Daniel Jassby, a former research physicist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab. (All of what follows assumes that the remaining obstacles to producing net energy from fusion will be overcome. Addressing that issue would require a seperate and lengthy essay.)

Perhaps the most unexpected revelation Jassby offers runs entirely contrary to the clean image that fusion energy has in the public mind. It turns out that the most feasible designs for fusion reactors will generate large amounts of radioactivity and radioactive waste.

As Jassby explains, inside the Sun, which is powered by fusion, normal hydrogen atoms, each consisting of nuclei containing one proton, are fused together and produce helium plus energy. Here on planet Earth, fusion reactors "burn neutron-rich isotopes [that] have byproducts that are anything but harmless: Energetic neutron streams comprise 80 percent of the fusion energy output of deuterium-tritium reactions and 35 percent of deuterium-deuterium reactions." (Deuterium is a hydrogen atom consisting of one proton and one electron in its nucleus. Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen having one proton and two neutrons.)

Jassby details the consequences:

[T]hese neutron streams lead directly to four regrettable problems with nuclear energy [both fission and fusion]: radiation damage to structures; radioactive waste; the need for biological shielding; and the potential for the production of weapons-grade plutonium 239—thus adding to the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation, not lessening it, as fusion proponents would have it.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Are we missing something about the coming population decline?

Reactions to the now frequently predicted decline in worldwide human population range from mild celebration to panic. The mild celebration comes from those concerned about the huge environmental impacts a growing human population continues to have on the planet. The panic comes from government officials and economists who wonder how societies will support the huge number of old people (who generally work less and therefore contribute less to the economy) without a substantial influx of new, young workers. Economic growth is expected to take a large hit as population growth slows and then actual population decline sets in.

One writer ticks off the environmental benefits of a gradual population decline and actually embraces a degrowth path for the economy. The editorial board of The Deseret News in Salt Lake City tells us that "big troubles await" for a world with declining population. A staff writer for The Atlantic magazine notes the precipitously declining population growth in the United States and trots out several sources who tell readers how bad this is for economic growth and innovation.

All of these writers assume that population decline, however troubling or salutary, will be gradual. They attribute it to a series of factors such as rising education (especially of women), increasing urbanization, changing cultural attitudes and the costs of bringing up children. These scenarios of gradual, seemingly manageable decline are called into question by the work of fertility researchers who discovered that fertility rates are dropping like a stone and on present trends expect the worldwide fertility rate to reach zero by 2045. That's not a typo.

Sunday, June 04, 2023

On the emerging copper shortfall, mainstream media notices

I'm certainly not the only person who noticed before now that sustaining our increasing consumption of copper would be difficult as I suggested in my July 2022 piece entitled "Acceleration forever? The increasing momentum of mineral extraction." But the mainstream media now seems to be catching up with the story. The boom in demand for copper for electronic devices, electric vehicles, and energy infrastructure is likely to lead to shortages in the next decade.

The Reuters story cited above also tells us that mines take 10 to 20 years to develop AFTER the deposits they are based on are identified. There is, therefore, little prospect that copper production will be dramatically increased in the next decade. (I'm assuming that there are going to be no crash government-subsidized programs and waiving of environmental and permitting regulations. But, even if such programs and waivers emerge, I'm not sure they will have much effect in the next decade or so.)

Copper isn't the only critical metal of which we may not have enough. The European Commission noted in a 2020 white paper the growing list of critical minerals, the supply of which may not be adequate. Some are in demand because they are important to an increasingly electrified transportation system and the renewable energy industry. Many so-called Rare Earth Elements fall into this category. Right now those metals come primarily from China.

I summarized the mentality that has neglected what to me was an obvious emerging problem in a piece I wrote in 2009. Let me quote from that piece:

Sunday, May 28, 2023

AI: Storytelling, communication and B.S.

A scene from the 1992 film "The Player" seems to foretell a current dispute over the role of artificial intelligence between studios and production companies and the writers who feed them content. The dispute is one among many that have led to an ongoing strike by the writers. In "The Player" a studio executive while in a meeting with other colleagues says:

I've yet to meet a writer who could change water into wine and we have a tendency to treat them like that.

Then, the executive asks for headlines from a newspaper lying on the conference table and shows how those headlines can instantly be fashioned into recognized Hollywood movie formulas.

When another executive who reviews script submissions from writers finally comments, he says:

I was thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we can just get rid of the actors and directors, maybe we've got something.

What was a thought experiment in 1992 has become a reality today. Here is a short science fiction film written by AI. Here is one both written and directed by AI; ironically, it's about AI taking over the world. AI is now simulating actors' voices. And, at some point virtual actors (NOT digital copies of real actors) could make film and television acting obsolete...or will it?

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Faster and faster: The pace of climate change keeps surprising us

This seems like the 10th time that I've read a story that says Greenland's glaciers are melting faster than previously thought and thus the consequences of climate change are moving much more quickly than we have estimated in the past. Even the pace of such stories has picked up. I found some in 2015, 2016, 2019, 2021 and 2022.

And, back in 2013 scientists reported that just a little to the north of Greenland, their models were showing that the median estimate for an ice-free arctic in summer was 2060. (Median means half the results were before 2060 and half the results of the model were after.) Those scientists were convinced at the time that their model might be underestimating the pace of climate change in the Arctic, suggesting that an ice-free arctic might come before 2050.

Fast forward to 2020 when a study suggested that an ice-free Arctic in summer might come as soon as 2035. Not surprisingly, the story notes that the finding is "one of the more direct signs that humans are warming the Earth's climate at an even more dramatic pace than expected."

When I wrote about our human tendency to underestimate the pace of human-induced climate change way back in 2006, few people imagined that climate change would progress as quickly as it has between then and now. The idea that we have time to get ready for climate change or that climate change is "slowing down" has turned out to be a grave miscalculation.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Sunday, May 07, 2023

Little things mean a lot: The world's microbiome under threat

Among the most visible species threatened with extinction are leopards, tigers, elephants, orangutans, gorillas and rhinoceroses. What may be of even greater consequence, however, are the millions of species we cannot see, the microbiome of the Earth which is essential to the life of plants and animals worldwide. As the Sixth Great Extinction proceeds, our attention ought to turn as much to these tiny creatures as to the ones who make good television commercials because we can relate to them and because they are such large and grand products of evolution on our planet.

In a recent paper, scientists outline the stakes:

Microbes regulate the major biogeochemical cycles on Earth, to the extent that signatures of microbial biogeochemical activity underpin efforts to discover extraterrestrial life. By regulating global nutrient cycles, greenhouse gas exchange, and disease transmission and protection, the Earth microbiome provides an essential life-support system to our planet. A functioning Earth without a functioning microbiome is nearly unimaginable.

Back in 2017 I asked, "Which species can we do without?" I provided a preliminary but not very helpful answer: "The answer so far is the ones that have already gone extinct while we humans have been around on the planet." But that leaves unanswered which of the remaining species we could do without. I observed:

If you consider that the broader world with which we interact has millions of species of which we are not aware, it becomes apparent that the Sixth Great Extinction is a rather clumsy and thoughtless way to play Russian roulette with human existence. We could easily cause an organism essential to our survival to go extinct without even realizing it.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

Platinum: It doesn't have to run out to become unavailable

Whenever there is an argument about the sufficiency of resources to meet the demands of our voracious industrial economy, those defending the cornucopian view say, "But, we are not running out of that resource." Of course, that is not the point. It is more likely that the first phase of resource depletion will be that not everyone who was previously able to afford a particular resource will continue to have access to it at affordable prices.

Enter platinum, which may soon be in short supply since the country that produces 75 percent of it, South Africa, is running low on power to mine and refine it. There are two things to notice here: First, the geographic concentration of the source of supply, and second, that energy is the critical resource without which all the other resources we take for granted would become unavailable to us.

Why should we care? Platinum is a precious metal, but mostly it is an industrial metal used as a catalyst in catalytic converters for motor vehicles (to reduce noxious tailpipe emissions), in the production of hydrogenated of vegetable oils (not good for the health, but it keeps them from spoiling too quickly), and in the refining of petroleum to obtain high octane elements. Platinum is also found in electrodes, in human body implants because of its high degree of compatibility with human tissue, and, of course, in jewelry and high-end watches.

Sunday, April 23, 2023

Dangers from future technologies? It's the current ones that are killing us

Certainly, there a plenty of horror stories about possible disasters awaiting us from emerging technologies. I've written about two of them: 1) the possibility of small cheap, AI-guided drones used to commit mass slaughter (or targeted assassinations) and 2) lethal synthetic viruses for warfare or released by an apocalyptic cult trying to bring the apocalypse forward on the calendar. More recently, some have predicted that advances in artificial intelligence will ultimately lead to the destruction of humanity.

As bad as these sound, it's possible that doomscrolling our way through the breathless coverage of dangerous new technologies is distracting us from what is already happening in right front of us: Existing technologies are already pushing humans quickly down the path to extinction (along with many plants and animals). Pretending that dangers to the survival of the human species come ONLY from the future is a perilous diversion.

In fact, the combination of climate change; the increasingly toxic pollution of the soil, water and air; depletion of arable soil, water, energy and critical metals; galloping development of wild and farm lands; and second order effects such as habitat and biodiversity loss, acidification of the oceans and dramatic loss of Greenland's ice that may lead to a breakdown in the Gulf Stream ocean current that keeps much of Europe temperate—all this has gathered so much momentum that, frankly, we don't need any help from the future to kill ourselves as a species. (Oh, I almost forgot; we could obliterate ourselves with a nuclear winter without any new nuclear technology or warheads needed.)

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Another offering from our tech overlords: A climate change solution without sacrifice

My expectations are never disappointed when I read the news each day and find out that the solutions to the problems created by our modern technology are to be found in more technology. We do not need to restructure our society, reduce our consumption, moderate our desires or change our habits. Technology will solve our problems without us having to make any substantial change in our way of life.

The breathless coverage of a university-based startup company that will draw carbon dioxide out of the ocean—thereby making room for more carbon dioxide from the air to be absorbed—may convince you that we can all sit back and let our tech overlords solve climate change. But if you read to the very bottom of the article, you will find out that there is one important sticking point. It's an energy-intensive process and the energy must come from somewhere.

The company says its process will produce hydrogen as a by-product which will cover about half of the energy needs. What about the other half? Well, I suppose they could just use renewable sources. But that would seriously limit the scale of this technology because of the lack of available renewable energy in many locales and its low market penetration to date. According to the "Our World in Energy" site (using data from the BP's Statistical Review of World Energy), less than 3 percent of the world’s energy comes from wind. Only 1.65 percent is solar. Only seven-tenths of one percent is biofuels. Even if you add nuclear which is nonrenewable, nuclear makes up only 4.3 percent of world energy. And, this is not to mention other demands on these sources of energy.

Sunday, April 09, 2023

Hazards of a connected world - Should you forgo the Internet of Things?

One of the wonders of our age is that we can have real-time communication with people anywhere in the world there is access to the internet. Wait a minute! Actually, we had similar access a century ago after the first transatlantic telephone call was placed in 1927. The feat was accomplished using radio signals to transmit the call over the waters of the Atlantic from New York to London.

Today, of course, we can transmit images and text in volumes that early teletypes could not achieve. And, we can even see and hear one or more people in a videoconference.

All the convenience and speed, however, has led to great vulnerability. It used to be moderately difficult, but not impossible for a person outside the telephone company to spy on someone's telephone calls. And, in the age of manual switching (think: operators plugging and unplugging jacks) and even the following age of electromechanical switching (the operators are no longer needed to do the switching), it would almost certainly have been impossible logistically to spy on all of the telephone calls in, for instance, the entire United States at once.

Today, new technologies make it relatively easy for a hacker to invade your email and other accounts if you are not scrupulously careful to observe security precautions. And, your telephone calls, emails and browsing habits are all monitored by governments—though occasionally they get caught and have to modify what they are doing.

Sunday, April 02, 2023

Chinese imagine genetically engineered radioactivity-resistant soldiers

A story about the possibility of creating genetically engineered radioactivity-resistant soldiers last week made it seem that life was imitating art. I am currently rewatching "The Expanse," a popular science fiction television series based on a book series of the same name. I recommended it in 2018 as an entertaining and disturbing tale illustrating the concept of systemic ruin, a possibility that our civilization faces on a number of fronts.

In "The Expanse," far in the future as war between Earth and Mars nears, evil men (and women) create an army of soldiers who live on radioactivity and who require no spacesuits. These evil scientists do this by transforming human captives using something dubbed the "proto-molecule." These so-called "hybrid soldiers" are remorseless killing machines and can also infect humans with the "proto-molecule" by merely spreading it around. The general advice is not to get near these soldiers or touch the blue goo that they seem to be able to generate.

Back on Earth in the 21st century—beyond the morally repugnant idea of genetically engineering babies to later become radioactivity-resistant soldiers—we have bioengineers who seem to forget the first rule of ecology: You can never do merely one thing.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Sunday, March 19, 2023

What the dramatic drop in European demand for natural gas showed us

When Russian natural gas supplies to Europe dropped dramatically in the wake of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, Europeans and their governments wondered how they could remain warm through the coming winter. After all, Russian natural gas constituted 40 percent of the European Union's total supply. The only near-term solutions were to cut natural gas consumption and import more liquefied natural gas (LNG). But with a limited ability to accept LNG, cuts in consumption seemed inevitable.

While some industrial facilities temporarily closed due to high gas prices and some companies said they were relocating gas-intensive production outside Europe, much of the reduction in natural gas consumption was due to the mild winter weather and the reduction in use by households. (Some of reduction was due to fuel switching as electric utilities substituted coal for natural gas though the numbers have yet to be compiled.) As a result, prices of natural gas in Europe (using Dutch TTF Gas Futures as a proxy) fell by 80 percent from the end of September until now. Europe avoided the worst.

Last year Europe as a whole decreased its natural gas consumption by 13 percent, a hefty decline. Its use over the recent winter declined by 19 percent from the 5-year average.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Despoiling the final frontier: Satellite mega-constellations threaten ozone layer

Here we go again. Satellite companies that plan to put tens of thousands of satellites into orbit to create space-based internet and cellphone networks are about to reach the final frontier for human degradation of the environment, outer space. And, they are doing it in ways that threaten the radiation protection of the ozone layer.

The so-called low Earth orbit satellites the companies are launching are designed to last for around five years and then fall back to Earth, disintegrating in the atmosphere as they fall. What they leave behind are materials that are likely to lead to the destruction of the ozone layer. With thousands of satellites potentially falling to Earth each year, the extent of the damage could be major.

We've seen this movie before. Without the curiosity of a lone scientist and his assistant in the early 1970s who asked what happens to highly persistant chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) once they are released into the air from refrigerator coils and spray cans, we humans might have lived (and died) through the destruction of the ozone layer without having the knowledge to stop it. That layer high up in the stratosphere protects all living things from the Sun's ultraviolet radiation.

Sunday, March 05, 2023

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Is AI a job killer? What does history say?

With all the concern about artificial intelligence (AI) destroying a large number of jobs in the coming years, it might be worth it to see what history tells us. It's possible that things are different this time and we may all soon be reading news articles and watching entertainment created through AI and dealing with automated call centers and accountants. On the other hand, maybe not.

More often, new technologies have augmented what people are already doing. They help them focus on other more complex tasks. Despite the introduction of automated bank tellers (ATMs) in 1969, human bank tellers are still around. While ATMs have mastered dispensing cash and taking deposits, today's tellers tend to focus on more complex transactions. And, I am happy to report that they are still willing to take my deposits at the teller window with a smile. Even a second wave of technology in the form of online deposits and other transactions has yet to finish off the job of bank teller.

As ATMs grew in popularity, one New York City bank (I cannot remember which one) limited teller transactions to those involving a high dollar amount. (Again, I cannot remember the amount.) A local competitor rolled out an ad campaign with the theme, "Our tellers love people." The first bank rescinded its policy very soon after.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Efficient and fragile: Low prices, modern railroading and the toxic Ohio derailment

Complex, tightly networked systems run very efficiently and can work with precision for long periods, until they don't.

Money saved on the front end can be lost in one catastrophic accident. There is no better recent example than the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying copious amounts of toxic vinyl chloride and other toxic chemicals. By now nearly everyone knows the tale of toxic fires and fears of explosion which led officials to drain undamaged tank cars carrying the same toxic chemicals which escaped the initial fires and then burn those chemicals as a precaution. Toxic smoke and residue settled far and wide from the crash site near East Palestine, Ohio, a small town of about 4,700. (You can read a summary of the possible effects of these chemicals on living organisms here. But I think the writer might actually be underplaying the consequences both short- and long-term.)

Who will pay for all the damage to people and the environment is a tricky question. You can be certain that Norfolk Southern won't be embracing its responsibility for the accident financially, at least not in public. Companies that get into such trouble have tried to limit their liability by reorganizing their companies and/or going bankrupt and saying they are unable to pay much. The injured must wait in line with other creditors for their share.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Taking a short break - no post this week

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

Sunday, February 05, 2023

Who knew? There are limits to growth in the American West

The most recent poster child for the failure to understand resource limits is the town of Rio Verde Foothills, an unincorporated part of Maricopa County in Arizona adjacent to Scottsdale. The town's residents were blindside recently, when the City of Scottsdale ceased allowing water trucks to fill up from the city's water system to service the hundreds of homes in Rio Verde which lack water wells and use water tanks.

The residents still have access to water, but at a price that now averages triple what they were paying, about $660 a month for a thousand gallons. Instead of filling up and riding 15 minutes to Rio Verde, water trucks must now spend up to two hours round trip—after finding a willing supplier.

Warnings about the inevitable water crisis in the American West are not new. The most comprehensive and prescient critique came from author Marc Reisner in 1986 in his classic tale of greed and corruption, Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water. In a previous piece about water and the West I wrote:

It turns out that there is no substitute for potable water—despite what economic theory may wish to assert. To get enough of it in many locales will be increasingly expensive as we turn to ever more exotic means to extract water while both population grows and climate-enhanced droughts diminish replenishment of existing sources.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

How the modern fantasy of an eternal civilization warps our view of technology

What historians call the Golden Age of Greece—which ran from about 500 to 300 BC—spawned the foundational Western philosophers Plato and Aristotle; mathematicians such as Euclid whose geometry is still taught in schools today; classical Greek dramatists such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, whose plays are performed even now; an architecture so grand that it has been imitated in our own time, especially in government buildings; and the practice of democracy, a form of governance that would go into eclipse for over 2,000 years until the American and French revolutions.

What most people don't know is that the ancient Greeks who lived through that era did not think of themselves as being in a golden age. Instead, they thought of their society as a much degraded version of the heroic age that preceded it, an age described in such works as Homer's Illiad and Odyssey and Hesiod's Works and Days. How utterly difficult it is for most people living today to imagine a society whose members believed that the future would only bring further degradation and decline perhaps until civilization itself disappeared. History was to them cyclical with dark and golden ages—golden ages that start out with great vigor and hope and then grind down to dark eras that destroy the progress of the past.

Today, most modern people think of time as linear and history as merely a story of the gradual and now rapid rise of technological, social, political and cultural progress. Since time is linear, the trajectory is always forward and expected to be up. We humans will never again fall prey to the civilization-ending mistakes of the past. Our technology has no equal. Humans have decoupled from the limits nature previously imposed on them. They may even soon live and thrive on other planets. And, when limits or difficulties seem insurmountable, human ingenuity creates new technologies to overcome those perceived limits or difficulties.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, January 29.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

California shows why 'climate chaos' describes the climate problem better

"Global warming" morphed into "climate change" which now seems inadequate to describe the weather chaos we are experiencing on planet Earth.* The recent "atmospheric rivers" which have drenched California have been a catastrophe causing an estimated $1 billion in property damage and at least 17 deaths. As of this writing, overflowing river waters could cut the Monterey Peninsula off from the rest of the mainland.

The terrible rains that have hit California since December 26 have also been a bit of a blessing to the drought-ravaged state. Just as the storms began, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported that 28 percent of the state was considered to be in "extreme drought" and 45 percent was considered to be in "severe drought." But, even after an estimated 24.5 trillion gallons of water have dropped on California since December 26, 46 percent of California remains in "severe drought" and 49 percent is considered to be in "moderate drought."

So intense has been a drought which began in 2020, that the state is still not out of danger when it comes to water supplies. While California is prone to droughts, droughts are getting more severe and developing more quickly. This might be explained by something called the Clausius-Clapeyron relationship. For every degree Celsius of warming, there is 7 percent more moisture in the air. That is driving extreme downpours around the world as average temperatures have risen 1.1 degrees Celsius since 1880. But the flip side of this relationship is that warming temperatures and the greater capacity of the atmosphere to hold water can cause drying to occur more quickly.

California faces extreme rainfall and serious drought at the same time. That's chaos.

Sunday, January 08, 2023

The uncertain future of industrial process heat: A mirror for our energy challenges

Few of us think about heat as an essential ingredient in the products we use every day. And, yet industrial process heat constitutes two-thirds of all energy used by industry. It is used to melt and form metals, to make ceramics, to refine crude oil, to make industrial chemicals, to dry crops, to process food, to sterilize medical instruments, and to heat the facilities within which industries operate. Practically, everything we use on a regular basis has at some point required heat to process. And it turns out that the challenges society faces obtaining process heat mirror in many respects the energy challenges for society as a whole.

Without process heat, much of the world would grind to a halt. That's why the ready availability of fuel for creating that heat is so important. Currently, fossil fuels dominate as energy sources for process heat, chiefly natural gas and coal. There are two reasons to be concerned about their supply.

First, evolving regulations regarding fossil fuel emissions in order to address both pollution and climate change may make fossil fuels more expensive and difficult to use (for example, due to the need for advanced scrubbers and carbon capture). Second, the underground supplies of fossil fuels may not be as plentiful as the public has been led to believe. (Regarding oil and natural gas, see this piece. For coal, see this piece.)

Sunday, January 01, 2023

Can our current global system coexist with pandemics?

The first truly worldwide pandemic may have been the Russian flu which traveled from eastern Russia to the rest of the world in 1889 and 1890. (I'm certain someone will dispute this claim, but it won't affect my thesis.)

The death toll was estimated at around 360,000 which seems modest by our standards. The world population, however, was about 1.5 billion (circa 1900), so the presumed percentage of that population that died as a result of the Russian flu was about 0.02 percent. For comparison, the COVID-19 pandemic has so far killed 6.6 million people worldwide out of a population of approximately 8 billion. That's 0.08 percent of the population, and the COVID-19 pandemic is by no means over.

It's worth noting that some past pandemics have spanned decades (and even centuries if you count recurrences).