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Renewables Are Dead

Renewables Are Dead

Gustave Courbet The man made mad by fear 1844

If I’ve said once that those among us who tout renewable energy should pay more attention to the 2nd law of Thermodynamics, I must have said it a hundred times. But I hardly ever get the impression that people understand why. And it seems so obvious. A quote I often use from Herman Daly and Ken Townsend, when I talk about energy, really says it all:

“Erwin Schrodinger (1945) has described life as a system in steady-state thermodynamic disequilibrium that maintains its constant distance from equilibrium (death) by feeding on low entropy from its environment – that is, by exchanging high-entropy outputs for low-entropy inputs. The same statement would hold verbatium as a physical description of our economic process. A corollary of this statement is that an organism cannot live in a medium of its own waste products.”

Using energy produces waste. Using more energy produces more waste. It doesn’t matter -much- what kind of energy is used, or what kind of waste is produced. The energy WE use produces waste, in a medium of which WE cannot survive. The only way to escape this is to use less energy. And because we have used such an enormous amount of energy the past 100 years, we must use a whole lot less in the next 100.

We use about 100 times more energy per person, and a whole lot more in the west, than our own labor can produce. We use the equivalent of what 500 billion people can produce without the aid of fossil fuel-powered machines. We won’t solve this problem with wind turbines or solar panels. There really is one way only: cut down on energy use.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Vaclav Smil. Making the modern world: materials and dematerialization

Vaclav Smil. Making the modern world: materials and dematerialization

Preface.  I can’t believe I read this book, it is just a long litany of the  gigantic amounts of materials we exploit, with no analysis, implications, or the meaning of what impact this will have on the planet.

I certainly don’t expect anyone to read even this shortened version of his book, but it might be worthwhile to skim for an idea of how much material we’re consuming.

As I point out in my review of the United Nations 2016 report Global material flows and resources productivity” here, in order to accommodate an additional 2 billion people in 2050, material consumption will need to nearly triple to 180 billion tonnes of materials, almost three times today’s amount. If 180 billion tonnes grows in the future at a 5% compound rate, in 497 years the entire earth will be consumed, all 5.972 x 1021 tonnes of it, and we’ll be floating in outer space.

After reading this book, it’s hard to believe there’s anything left to exploit, though here it is 5 years later and the earth is still being pillaged.  But from Smil’s gargantuan numbers and the exponential exploitation of just about everything, clearly this will end badly.  The issue of peak sand has been in the news more frequently lately, which is essential for civilization to make concrete, computer chips, solar PV, and fracking.

Smil covers a wide range of materials that are essential to civilization that you may not have thought much about, and all the myriad uses of silicon, plastics, nitrogen, aluminum, steel, hydrogen, ammonia, cement, and more.  All of them made possible by oil.  All of them essential for civilization, so if one fails….(Liebig’s law of the minimum).

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Individual Preparations Have National Implications

Individual Preparations Have National Implications

Industrial Forest Science: Industry’s Bitch

Industrial Forest Science: Industry’s Bitch

Photo Source Gunvor Røkke | CC BY 2.0

“As soon as you are a scientist … you take a political side [because] you must necessarily choose to ask only certain questions. Many scientists … produce risk assessment for forest management [which] asks ‘how much can we cut, graze, salvage, spray, develop … and do to Earth’s ecosystems without making them buckle.”

–Mary O’Brien, 1994. Being a Scientist Means Taking Sides. BioScience 43(10): 706-708

“The larger and more immediate are prospects for gain, the greater the political power that is used to facilitate unlimited exploitation; Political leaders … base their policies upon a misguided view of the dynamics of resource exploitation; Distrust claims of sustainability; Scientists and their judgments are subject to political pressures.”

–Donald Ludwig, et al., 1993. Uncertainty, Resource Exploitation, and Conservation: Lessons from History. Science 260: 17/36.

Back in the late 1980s, the good people of Minnesota, alarmed by heavy logging, asked that an impact analysis be done. Jaakko Poyry, an international forestry consulting firm, was hired to produce a Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS), and in 1992, the draft of the million dollar analysis was released for public scrutiny. In essence, it read “There will be ecological damage, we’re not sure how much, but industry rules.”

At even the lowest level investigated [the level that had caused public concern], there were projected declines in species of rare trees; declines of tree species within their ranges; unavoidable destruction of rare plant communities; loss of genetic diversity in many plants, including trees. The authors wrote “The lack of data … make it difficult to interpret impacts with any degree of certainly”; “Projections assume no natural disturbance” [Really!]; “Implicit assumptions [are] unrealistic”; “Loss of genetically unique ecotypes is irreversible.”; “Knowledge [is] not sufficient for detailed analysis of effects of fragmentation on biodiversity.”

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Murdered for Sand

Murdered for Sand

The world is running out of sand, and people are dying as a result

“It is to cities what flour is to bread, what cells are to our bodies: the invisible but fundamental ingredient that makes up the bulk of the built environment in which most of us live.“

Vince Beiser, author of “The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization”

Think of a valuable resource. What images come into your mind’s eye? Maybe oil? Water? Perhaps you looked at a ring on your finger and thought of gold. All of these are valuable resources, it’s true.

Now, what if I told you sand was also an incredibly rare and precious resource? It may sound absurd, especially if you’ve been anywhere near a beach or desert lately, but the world is running out of sand. A crucial material in everything from cellphones to high-rises, the resource is being used up faster than it can replenish itself, sparking environmental concerns and community conflicts. Some are even willing to kill for it.

You may not realize it, but nearly everything around you is built with sand. The concrete your apartment, condo, or house is made out of was mixed with sand. The glass windows you look through to see what the weather looks like — those were made with sand as well. The cellphone or computer you’re reading this on — the silicon chips in them are made with sand. The road you travel on to work — sand as well. If you live in any kind of urban setting, it is constructed with sand.

Credit: Sand Stories

Sand Isn’t as Plentiful as You Think

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Some Thoughts On Climate Change

Some Thoughts On Climate Change

A new IPCC report written and edited by 91 scientists from 40 countries who analyzed more than 6,000 scientific studies says we’re looking at climate catastrophe as early as 2040 unless changes are made worldwide on a scale and speed which has no historic precedent. $54 trillion worth of damage is predicted to result from the 1.5 degree Celsius rise in global average temperatures we’re expected to be facing at that time if drastic changes are not made.

To be clear, when climate scientists talk about a 1.5 degree hike in global average temperatures, they are not saying that days will tend to be around 1.5 degrees warmer, which doesn’t sound bad at all. What they are saying is that there will be drastic heat spikes which elevate the overall average by 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) around the globe. This means moving into a world which sees sea levels rising and destroying coastal and island civilizations, it means mass famine due to destruction of crops from heat spikes in summer months, freezes in the winter and other extreme weather events, it means potential worldwide violence and predation as livable regions and resources become scarce on a rapidly changing planet.

This is coming off the back of the Trump administration’s seamless shift from claiming climate change is a Chinese hoax to saying it’s very real and very bad but there’s nothing that can be done about it. In a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, Trump’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that a temporary freeze in fuel efficiency requirements for cars won’t be that big of a deal in terms of environmental impact because we’re headed toward a four degree Celsius increase in global average temperatures by the end of the century and avoiding that “would require substantial increases in technology innovation and adoption compared to today’s levels and would require the economy and the vehicle fleet to move away from the use of fossil fuels, which is not currently technologically feasible or economically feasible.”

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Paying the True Costs of Living

Paying the True Costs of Living

We’re in trouble. We as in the people of the Earth, which is all the people there are, notwithstanding theories of extraterrestrials munching their popcorn equivalents while watching us flail about. Our planet is only so big and has only so much in the way of natural resources to offer us. Think of The Giving Tree. As we cruise to a 7.7 Billion human population, the rest of the Earth and its species aren’t doing so hot (anthropological climate change aside), with a few notable exceptions such as starlings, cockroaches, and rats. This represents one of the unquantified costs of living, the impact of our increasing population and activities on the global ecosystem. Not to mention the ever decreasing EROEI (energy return on energy invested) that is signalling the end of capitalism as we know it. Gulp!

For example, flying insect biomass has been found to have decreased by over 75% in Germany over the past 27 years. Insects are one of the foundations of our ecological house, with some 10 quintillion (1 with 19 zeroes after it) bugs in existence on Earth at any given time. Well, maybe 2.5 quintillion these days. Regardless, the fate of these lowly arthropods is an indicator of the fate of higher organism and our fate as well. Other animals eat these bugs and are themselves eaten, the whole circle of life thing. Such as in Britain where farmland birds have declined by 50% since 1970. The world has been made aware of hive collapse syndrome in our hard working bees for hire which pollinate so many of our food crops. But what about all those wild bugs that pollinate for free? Can we lose 75% of them and maintain a functioning ecosystem? 85%? 95%?

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Did the Club of Rome Ever Disavow “The Limits to Growth”? A Story of Ordinary Disinformation

Did the Club of Rome Ever Disavow “The Limits to Growth”? A Story of Ordinary Disinformation

Aurelio Peccei in 1969, when he was appointed the first president of the Club of Rome

The Club of Rome is inextricably linked to the legendary report that it commissioned to a group of MIT researchers in 1972, “The Limits to Growth.” Today, nearly 50 years later, we still have to come to terms with the vision brought by the report, a vision that contradicts the core of some of humankind’s most cherished beliefs. The report tells us that we cannot keep growing forever and that we have to stop considering everything we see around us as ours by divine right. 

Not surprisingly, the report generated strong feelings and, with them, there came plenty of disinformation and legends. Some cast the Club of Rome in the role of a secret organization with dark and dire purposes, others aimed at the Limits report, claiming that it was “wrong” or, worse, purposefully designed to deceive the public. I wrote an entire book on this subject (The Limits to Growth Revisited) — in short, most of these stories are false but some contain grains of truth and all of them tell us something about how we humans don’t just deny bad news, we tend to demonize the bearers.

So, there is a peculiar legend stating that the leaders of the Club of Rome disavowed their brainchild, The Limits to Growth and, in doing so, they admitted that it had been wrong, or an attempt to mislead the public. It is an old legend but, as all legends, it is surprisingly persistent and you can still see it mentioned in recent times (for instance, here and here) as if it were the obvious truth. It is not: it is a good example of how disinformation works.
…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

‘The Expanse’ is a story about systemic ruin

‘The Expanse’ is a story about systemic ruin

“The Expanse” is a popular science fiction television series (based on a book series of the same name) that at first seems to follow a predictable storyline: essentially the Cold War revisited, only in this case with warlike Mars (previously settled by people from Earth) pitted against Earth as the two planets vie over the resources of the asteroid belt (which is a stand-in for today’s so-called less developed countries).

But quickly we are drawn into a mystery that implicates a non-state actor with interests so important that that unknown actor has its own warships which are superior to those of Earth and Mars. While I made some fun of “The Expanse” previously for its assumptions about energy, after watching the entire series I’ve come to appreciate the nuanced manner in which it deals with the systemic risk that unfolds as the story progresses.

Here I must issue a spoiler alert for those who have not seen the series and wish to see it unhindered by foreknowledge of the plot.

Those who’ve seen the series know that the systemic risk results from the discovery of what comes to be known as the “proto-molecule,” an alien life form first encountered on one of Saturn’s moons. The proto-molecule has the miraculous power to transform anything living that it touches, remaking and reorganizing it from the ground up. (Later it learns to transform inanimate matter as well.)

The life form is initially controlled by a large conglomerate which immediately sees the proto-molecule’s potential as a weapon, one that could be sold to the highest bidder in the solar system. (The parallels to current-day genetic engineering and bioweapons seem obvious.)

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Equality: A Beneficial Alternative to Collapse

Equality: A Beneficial Alternative to Collapse

What future shall we choose? Equality or inequality? Deep democracy or more limited forms? Sustainability and wise stewardship of resources, or exploitation for profit? You have a good idea of where current systems are taking us. A viable alternative path exists, and that path is science based.

InMarch 2018, Bloomberg news reported that income inequality in the United States had hit a disturbing new high. Not unlike atmospheric carbon dioxide, income and wealth inequality in the United States have been rising since at least the 1980s, under Democratic and Republican presidents, and Democratic and Republican Congresses. The Occupy Wall Street movement crystallized public attention on inequality in 2011 with its slogan “We are the 99 percent.” In 2014 the French economist Thomas Piketty wrote a masterful book on the subject that became a global best seller. His take-home message? Capitalism itself produces severe income inequality.

Yet with all the written words and public discourse on inequality, very little attention has been paid to its complement, income and wealth equality (or near-equality, essential equality). That discussion is long overdue.

Obviously, severe inequality of income and wealth benefits those at the top. But what about everyone else? Pick any dividing line, say the 70th, 80th, 90th, or even 99th percentile of family income or wealth. It’s difficult to argue that inequality helps those below the line as much as those above it. If it benefits everyone evenly, there would be little reason to prefer the 60th over the 40th percentile, for example, or the 90th over the 60th.

But we do have preferences. We toil and sweat, even sometimes step on each other’s heads, in hopes of climbing one rung higher. Higher is almost always preferred to lower, all else being equal. That’s because wealth has real benefits.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The next financial crash is imminent, and China’s resource crisis could be the trigger

The next financial crash is imminent, and China’s resource crisis could be the trigger

Over three decades, the value of energy China extracts from its domestic oil, gas and coal supplies has plummeted by half

Source: naturepost

China’s economic slowdown could be a key trigger of the coming global financial crisis, but one of its core drivers — China’s dwindling supplies of cheap domestic energy — is little understood by mainstream economists.


All eyes are on China as the world braces itself for what a growing number of financial analysts warn could be another global economic recession.

In a BBC interview to mark the 10th anniversary of the global financial crisis, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney described China as “one of the bigger risks” to global financial stability.

The Chinese “financial sector has developed very rapidly, and it has many of the same assumptions that were made in the run-up to the last financial crisis,” he warned:

“Could something like this happen again?… Could there be a trigger for a crisis — if we’re complacent, of course it could.”

Since 2007, China’s debts have quadrupled. According to the IMF, its total debt is now about 234 percent of gross GDP, which could rise to 300 percent by 2022. British financial journalist Harvey Jones catalogues a range of observations from several economists essentially warning that official data might not reflect how bad China’s economy is actually decelerating.

The great hope is that all this is merely a temporary blip as China transitions from a focus on manufacturing and exports toward domestic consumption and services.

Meanwhile, China’s annual rate of growth continues to decline. The British Foreign Office (FCO) has been monitoring China’s economic woes closely, and in a recent spate of monthly briefings this year has charted what appears to be its inevitable decline.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Is Capitalism Killing Us?

Is Capitalism Killing Us?

Ecological economists, such as Herman E. Daly, stress that as the external costs of pollution and resource exhaustion are not included in Gross Domestic Product, we do not know whether an increase in GDP is a gain or a loss.

External costs are huge and growing larger. Historically, manufacturing and industrial corporations, corporate farming, city sewer systems, and other culprits have passed the costs of their activities onto the environment and third parties. Recently, there has been a spate of reports with many centering on Monsanto’s Roundup, whose principle ingredient, glyphosate, is believed to be a carcinogen.

A public health organization, the Environmental Working Group, recently reported that its tests found glyphosate in all but 2 of 45 children’s breakfast foods including granola, oats and snack bars made by Quaker, Kellogg and General Mills. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/aug/16/weedkiller-cereal-monsanto-roundup-childrens-food

In Brazil tests have discovered that 83% of mothers’ breast milk contains glyphosate. https://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Brazil-Poisonous-Agrotoxin-Found-Over-80-of-Breast-Milk-Samples-in-Urucui-20180809-0008.html

The Munich Environmental Institute reported that 14 of the most widely selling German beers contain glyphosate. https://sustainablepulse.com/2016/02/25/german-beer-industry-in-shock-over-probable-carcinogen-glyphosate-contamination/#.W3XKtC-ZOGQ

Glyphosate has been found in Mexican farmers’ urine and in Mexican ground water. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5486281/

Scientific American has reported that even Roundup’s “inert ingredients can kill human cells, particularly embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells.”
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/weed-whacking-herbicide-p/

A German toxicologist has accused the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment and the European Food Safety Authority of scientific fraud for accepting a Monsanto-led glyphosate Task Force conclusion that glyphosate is not a carcinogen. https://gmwatch.org/en/news/latest-news/17307-german-toxicologist-accuses-eu-authorities-of-scientific-fraud-over-glyphosate-link-with-cancer

Controversy about these findings comes from the fact that industry-funded scientists report no link between glyphosate and cancer, whereas independent scientists do. This is hardly surprising as an industry-funded scientist has no independence and is unlikely to conclude the opposite of what he is hired to conclude.

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Today we’ve consumed more resources than the planet can renew in a year

Today we’ve consumed more resources than the planet can renew in a year

Our economies are operating a giant planetary Ponzi scheme: borrowing far more from the Earth’s ecosystems than they can sustain. 

Photo by Jenny Tañedo

Today is Earth Overshoot Day, the date when we have taken more from nature than it can renew in an entire year. Unsustainable extraction is occurring on a planetary scale: we are using natural resources 1.7 times faster in 2018 than the Earth’s ecosystems can regenerate this year. Critically, this year is the earliest date that we have gone into ecological deficit, the only deficit that truly matters.

Earth Overshoot Day is a clear and growing signal that our economies are, in the words of the Global Footprint Network, operating a giant planetary Ponzi scheme: borrowing far more from the Earth’s ecosystems than they can sustain. But we are already having to pay the price. From deadly heat waves to mass extinctions, soil erosion to dwindling water supplies, we are entering a new era of accelerating environmental collapse.

And on current trends, this is only set to worsen. Critically, those most likely to bear the violence of climate and other environmental change will be those with least past responsibility for our current situation.

The continued reliance on carbon to power our economies means that we are highly unlikely to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the ambition agreed at the Paris climate summit, increasing the chance of severe climate disruption and the resulting social stress. Meanwhile, the global food system has destroyed a third of all arable land and, at current rates, global top soil degradation means that there may only be 60 global harvests left. The collapse of ecosystems means we are in the age of the sixth mass extinction – the last being the dinosaurs – with nearly two-thirds of all vertebral life having died since the 1970s.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The Commons, Short and Sweet

The Commons, Short and Sweet

I am always trying to figure out how to explain the idea of the commons to newcomers who find it hard to grasp.  Here is a fairly short overview, which I think gets to the nub of things.

The commons is….

  • A social system for the long-term stewardship of resources that preserves shared values and community identity.
  • A self-organized system by which communities manage resources (both depletable and and replenishable) with minimal or no reliance on the Market or State.
  • The wealth that we inherit or create together and must pass on, undiminished or enhanced, to our children.  Our collective wealth includes the gifts of nature, civic infrastructure, cultural works and traditions, and knowledge.
  • A sector of the economy (and life!) that generates value in ways that are often taken for granted – and often jeopardized by the Market-State.

 There is no master inventory of commons because a commons arises whenever a given community decides it wishes to manage a resource in a collective manner, with special regard for equitable access, use and sustainability.

The commons is not a resource.  It is a resource plus a defined community and the protocols, values and norms devised by the community to manage its resources.  Many resources urgently need to be managed as commons, such as the atmosphere, oceans, genetic knowledge and biodiversity.

There is no commons without commoning – the social practices and norms for managing a resource for collective benefit.  Forms of commoning naturally vary from one commons to another because humanity itself is so varied.  And so there is no “standard template” for commons; merely “fractal affinities” or shared patterns and principles among commons.  The commons must be understood, then, as a verb as much as a noun.  A commons must be animated by bottom-up participation, personal responsibility, transparency and self-policing accountability.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

An Engineer, an Economist, and an Ecomodernist Walk Into a Bar and Order a Free Lunch . . .

An Engineer, an Economist, and an Ecomodernist Walk Into a Bar and Order a Free Lunch . . .

Photo source NASA Goddard Space Flight Center | CC BY 2.0

Humanity’s and the Earth’s prospects have been dimming for the past year and a half. But they’ve been bleak for a long time; as little was being done about the global ecological crisis before January 2017 as has been done since. Neither then nor now has the national or world power structure acknowledged that deep reductions in human resource use and economic activity, but with sufficiency for all, are necessary. Instead, the most popular proposed “solutions” would double down on human ingenuity and market forces, the two factors that have been central to creating our predicament in the first place.

. . . So the bartender says, “OK, I’ll start you a tab and bring out your lunch”

With the political-economic road to an ecological civilization seemingly blocked for now, too many of our allies are following detour signs toward dubious industrial and post-industrial fixes.

The mother of invention is the quest for new markets, and, as Thorstein Veblen once quipped, it’s invention that’s the mother of necessity. If a technology will sell, society is obliged to accept it. In this new century, Silicon Valley and Seattle have weaponized the invention of necessity, and innovation for innovation’s sake has become the driver of the human economy. Material and energetic limits are wished away; money, human brain power, and soon, artificial intelligence will miraculously transcend all limits.

That’s all hogwash, of course. The ecological economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, in his 1971 book The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, and those who followed him have shown that no technology can repeal the Entropy Law—that there is not and will never be a free lunch. Today, those realities are being studiously ignored by innovators, disruptors, and other perpetual-motion specialists.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Olduvai IV: Courage
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