Thursday, February 2, 2017

Alternative Facts

Its all part 
of my rock and roll fantasy
Its all part 
of my rock and roll dream
     -Bad Company

This is not my beautiful house
       -Talking Heads


      Well, we apparently have moved into the "truth free" area.    Here is a funny ( I think)  take on how the founding fathers might react to our current way of doing things.

"Two hundred years ago no one would have thought sheer volume of available facts in the digital information age would fail to produce informed Americans. Founders of the republic, steeped in the Enlightenment as they were, and believers in an informed citizenry being vital to freedom and democracy, would be delirious with joy at the prospect. Imagine Jefferson and Franklin high on Google. 
The fatal assumption was that Americans would choose to think and learn, instead of cherry picking the blogs and TV channels to reinforce their particular branded choice cultural ignorance, consumer, scientific or political, but especially political. Tom and Ben could never have guessed we would chase prepackaged spectacle, junk science, and titillating rumor such as death panels, Obama as a socialist Muslim and Biblical proof that Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs around Eden. "  (from here)
      So, where am I going with this?    As far as energy and the environment are concerned, we are caught between two visions of the future, neither of which seem to be particularity likely to occur.  On the one hand we have the views of the current administration.  This used to be called "Drill Baby Drill" ,but is now known as   "The "America First Energy Plan", .  

    This plan has three desired goals,  all of which were met in the 1950's, but unfortunately in today's energy world, only two could be realized at the same time. 

Two out of three
To close, let’s look again at the three goals of Trump’s America First Energy Plan:
• Abundant fossil fuel
• Profitable fossil fuel
• Cheap fossil fuel
With remaining resources increasingly represented by unconventional oil such as that in the Permian basin of Texas, there is indeed abundant fossil fuel – but it’s very expensive to get. Therefore if oil companies are to remain profitable, oil has to be more expensive – that is, there can be abundant fossil fuel and profitable fossil fuel, but then the fuel cannot be cheap (and the economy will hit the skids). Or there can be abundant fossil fuel at low prices, but oil companies will lose money hand-over-fist (a situation which cannot last long).
It’s a bit harder to imagine, but there can also be fossil fuel which is both profitable to extract and cheap enough for economies to afford – it just won’t be abundant. That would require scaling back production/consumption to the remaining easy-to-extract conventional fossil fuels, and a reduction in overall demand so that those limited supplies aren’t immediately bid out of a comfortable price range. For that reduction in demand to occur, there would have to be some combination of dramatic reduction in energy use per capita and a rapid increase in deployment of renewable energies.   (for more details see  here.)

           On the other side we have our shiny new renewable plan which also has three goals. - cheap abundant energy, universal prosperity, and no significant environmental impact.

     Once again we find these goals to be internally inconsistent, as illustrated by Professor  William Reese, the creator of the ecological footprint analysis.  In In a nice review of the situation , Chapter 4 of the  Worldwatch Institutes,  "State of the World" 2013 , Professor Reese explains  how thoroughly unsustainable our current situation is, and that on average we are using the "ecological income " from  1.5 planets, each year.   Carbon emissions are of course, a major part of the unsustainable situation, but other population dependent factors such top soil loss,  over fishing and forestry also continue the increase..
        But, of course, the  current lavish, energy rich lifestyles of the "developed nation" , exists overwhelmingly as a result of the use of fossil fuels.   Reese provides a  recipe for sustainability for the west.,  First he punctures the "sustainability through efficiency " meme noting that ..". total resource and energy demand in most of the world’s industrial countries has increased in absolute terms over the past 40 years despite efficiency gains of 50 percent in materials and 30 percent in energy use".

       He then explains what it would take:

Clearly, lifestyle choices have a significant impact on our Ecological Footprint. However, even if average Vancouverites followed a vegan diet; avoided driving or flying and only walked, cycled, or used public transit;lived in a passive solar house that used almost no fossil-based energy; and cut their personal consumption by half, they could only reduce their per 
capita Ecological Footprint by 44 percent (from 4.96 to 2.8 gha per capita).That seems like an impossible challenge already—and yet it is still a full global hectare beyond the one-planet threshold.

       In case you skipped that quote, here is the takeaway,  in order to return to sustainability, , we  in the "west" need to do the following things :No driving, no flying, and  little buying.  Oh,yeah, and become a vegan.   And even then, its pretty iffy. 
       But that's not picture we get from our leaders, or environmental activists.  They assume, we can have more of the same, with no major changes. How can we have such irrationality on both sides.?  It seems that both on the right and left are able to forget facts when they conflict with dreams.   Here's an interesting article on the appeal of "fake news" to both sides of the political spectrum.  One study found  that both sides were happy not to question or analyze,  and that liberals, were only " slightly more predisposed to think critically than conservatives ."
"Daniel Kahan, a Yale professor of law and psychology, says his research has found that people on the right are no more vulnerable to political bias than those on the left.

""Bottom line," Kahan said in an email, "there's ample evidence of politically biased information processing across the entire ideological spectrum."

         So, one might argue that humans are often  basically irrational, and believe what makes them feel good.  see here  When confronted by opposing facts, they will often, not change their minds , but will even hold their original position more strongly See e.g. The Back fire effect.

         OK, so, how is this likely to play out?

         For one possible future, lets look at John Micheal Greer, who recently wrote,

The Earth’s economically accessible reserves of fossil carbon dwindle day by day; with each year that passes, on average, the amount of coal, oil, and natural gas burnt exceeds the amount that’s discovered by a wider margin  (ed  see above); the current temporary glut in the oil markets is waning so fast that analysts are predicting the next price spike as soon as 2018.  (ed. see here) Talk of transitioning away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, on the one hand, or nuclear power on the other, remains talk—I encourage anyone who doubts this to look up the amount of fossil fuels burnt each year over the last two decades and see if they can find a noticeable decrease in global fossil fuel consumption to match the much-ballyhooed buildout of solar and wind power.

The industrial world remains shackled to fossil fuels for most of its energy and all of its transportation fuel, for the simple reason that no other energy source in this end of the known universe provides the abundant, concentrated, and fungible energy supply that’s needed to keep our current lifestyles going. There was always an alternative—deliberately downshifting out of the embarrassing extravagance that counts for normal lifestyles in the industrial world these days, accepting more restricted ways of living in order to leave a better world for our descendants—but not enough people were willing to accept that alternative to make a difference while there was still a chance.

Meanwhile the other jaw of the vise that’s tightening around the future is becoming increasingly visible just now. In the Arctic, freak weather systems has sucked warm air up from lower latitudes and brought the normal process of winter ice formation to a standstill. In the Antarctic, the Larsen C ice shelf, until a few years ago considered immovable by most glaciologists, is in the process of loosing an ice sheet the size of Delaware into the Antarctic Ocean. (ed. see here I look out my window and see warm rain falling; here in the north central Appalachians, in January, it’s been most of a month since the thermometer last dipped below freezing. The new administration has committed itself to do nothing about anthropogenic climate change, but then, despite plenty of talk, the Obama administration didn’t do anything about it either.

There’s good reason for that, too. The only way to stop anthropogenic climate change in its tracks is to stop putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and doing that would require the world to ground its airlines, turn its highways over to bicycles and oxcarts, and shut down every other technology that won’t be economically viable if it has to depend on the diffuse intermittent energy available from renewable sources.  (ed.  see above).  Does the political will to embrace such changes exist? Since I know of precisely three climate change scientists, out of thousands, who take their own data seriously enough to cut their carbon footprint by giving up air travel, it’s safe to say that the answer is “no.”

So, basically, we’re in for it.

 "In for it" is a short hand way of saying that the feedbacks will eventually make it impossible for the industrial system to continue.   Some people might say "It's about time!   Now perhaps we can give the biosphere a chance to heal itself.!  Maybe we can pick up the pieces and start again on a sustainable basis" .  See e.g  Surviving The Future    But what about between now and when we "pick up the pieces"?   Greer's prognosis for that era is not all that appealing 

" From the early days of the peak oil movement in the late 1990s on, a remarkably large number of the people who talked eagerly about the looming crisis of our age seemed to think that its consequences would leave them and the people and things they cared about more or less intact. That wasn’t universal by any means; there were always some people who grappled with the hard realities that the end of the fossil fuel age was going to impose on their own lives; but all things considered, there weren’t that many, in comparison to all those who chattered amiably about how comfortable they’d be in their rural doomsteads, lifeboat communities, Transition Towns, et al.

Now, as discussed earlier in this post, we’ve gotten a very modest helping of decline and fall, and people who were enthusiastically discussing the end of the industrial age not that long ago are freaking out six ways from Sunday. If a relatively tame event like the election of an unpopular president can send people into this kind of tailspin, what are they going to do the day their paychecks suddenly turn out to be worth only half as much in terms of goods and services as before—a kind of event that’s already become tolerably common elsewhere, and could quite easily happen in this country as the dollar loses its reserve currency status?

What kinds of meltdowns are we going to get when internet service or modern health care get priced out of reach, or become unavailable at any price?  How are they going to cope if the accelerating crisis of legitimacy in this country causes the federal government to implode, the way the government of the Soviet Union did, and suddenly they’re living under cobbled-together regional governments that don’t have the money to pay for basic services? What sort of reaction are we going to see if the US blunders into a sustained domestic insurgency—suicide bombs going off in public places, firefights between insurgent forces and government troops, death squads from both sides rounding up potential opponents and leaving them in unmarked mass graves—or, heaven help us, all-out civil war?

This is what the decline and fall of a civilization looks like. It’s not about sitting in a cozy earth-sheltered home under a roof loaded with solar panels, living some close approximation of a modern industrial lifestyle, while the rest of the world slides meekly down the chute toward history’s compost bin, leaving you and yours untouched. It’s about political chaos—meaning that you won’t get the leaders you want, and you may not be able to count on the rule of law or even the most basic civil liberties. It’s about economic implosion—meaning that your salary will probably go away, your savings almost certainly won’t keep its value, and if you have gold bars hidden in your home, you’d better hope to Hannah that nobody ever finds out, or it’ll be a race between the local government and the local bandits to see which one gets to tie your family up and torture them to death, starting with the children, until somebody breaks and tells them where your stash is located.

It’s about environmental chaos—meaning that you and the people you care about may have many hungry days ahead as crazy weather messes with the harvests, and it’s by no means certain you won’t die early from some tropical microbe that’s been jarred loose from its native habitat to find a new and tasty home in you. It’s about rapid demographic contraction—meaning that you get to have the experience a lot of people in the Rust Belt have already, of walking past one abandoned house after another and remembering the people who used to live there, until they didn’t any more.

More than anything else, it’s about loss. Things that you value—things you think of as important, meaningful, even necessary—are going to go away forever in the years immediately ahead of us, and there will be nothing you can do about it.  It really is as simple as that. People who live in an age of decline and fall can’t afford to cultivate a sense of entitlement. Unfortunately, for reasons discussed at some length in one of last month’s posts, the notion that the universe is somehow obliged to give people what they think they deserve is very deeply engrained in American popular culture these days. That’s a very unwise notion to believe right now, and as we slide further down the slope, it could very readily become fatal—and no, by the way, I don’t mean that last adjective in a metaphorical sense.

That gives the "transition"  a different perspective.  And when might this happen?  Well, Greer suggest that in some sense it is happening; i.e. social and political conflicts are coming to the fore.  I'd suggest that we wont really notice until the next "Great Recession", which at least one pundit , Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, suggests that it's around the next corner.  See  here.     Who knows?

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