Saturday, June 28, 2008

Northwest Passage

Some scientists are posting a 50/50 chance that polar ice will all melt this year.

What are we doing to ourselves?

Read it and weep.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Somebody liked my Churchill metaphor

This is vain, but I'm going to post it anyway, mostly because Aimee complains I read too much "world crisis" history. These are some responses I got to my recent post on NYT's Dot Earth blog, re Hansen's idea to prosecute CEOs of energy corporations for climate change "crimes.":

June 26th,
5:46 am

When the world comes to its senses about the combined energy/climate crisis, we will take Jim Hansen very seriously, and while we might not, by the Constitution, actually be able to seriously consider prosecution of certain energy CEOs, we certainly will feel very differently about them.

I’m thinking now not not so much about those “just doing their jobs,” “following orders” from shareholders and boards to make profit at any cost, but those who deliberately funded the disinformation campaign that is responsible, since the early 1990s, for much of the public confusion about climate change.

It’s fairly well documented now that leaders of ExxonMobil and other energy corporations funneled money to fake scientists, lobbying groups and commentators who would spread the notion that scientists lacked consensus on climate change.

Now that this has been exposed, let’s begin to put it in perspective. And I like the 1930s metaphor.

The combined climate-energy World Crisis is already ruining lives and killing people all over the planet. The climate effects: from extreme storms, floods, wildfires, and drought; are combining with the energy effects: high prices, food shortages, a major recession; to create unemployment, poverty, hunger, starvation, and the unhousing of millions. And this is just the beginning. More is to come, a “bitter cup” from which we will now have to drink, “year after year.”

Now, with the midwestern floods, grain prices will likely skyrocket this fall, adding to the gathering storm.

Hansen is our climate Churchill. When we get beyond this crisis, into the “broad sunlit uplands” of a renewable energy century, we will look back and excoriate those who, for pure greed or ideological lunacy, delayed our response, much as we look back on the appeasers, isolationists, and apologists for Nazism of the 1930s. The climate denial lobby are the Lindberghs, Mosleys, and the German-American Bund “in our time.”

Unfortunately, the crimes they have committed (so far) are ones against compassion, reason and truth, not against the law.

— Posted by Mick Womersley

June 26th,
10:57 am

Mick Womersely, #53,

What a damn great post!
To my usual heroes in here, (you know who you are). Keep speaking the truth.
Elizabeth Tjader

— Posted by Elizabeth Tjader

75.June 26th,
11:38 am

Elizabeth Tjader #71, Mick Womersely, #53

I am glad that there are two people agrees with me of the urgency. (Maybe I should re-post poem here again.)

I have reread the September 2005 special issue of Scientific American,”Crossroads for the Planet Earth”. It is still quite current, though I wish somebody can revise it by now. I would recommend to folks in dotearth blog circle to read it too. What amounts to the crisis is that we need a Churchill, a FDR, and a general Gorge Marshall, to arose the people, to inspire the people, and to organize people.

Yu-tsang Hwang

— Posted by Yu-tsang Hwang

Fixing CO2 with algae and then making biofuel

This idea has been kicking around for a while, but the CO2 fixation part is a new wrinkle to me, and a very good area for research. I know from experience that even our essentially sterile well water, placed outside in the sun for a short while in the sheep or chicken waterers, grows algae with little additional input. Other than the CO2 from the atmosphere, it's probably getting trace elements from dust and dirt, and algal spores from the atmosphere. Does the algae also fix nitrogen? It has to come from somewhere. First Law...

Microbe economics

* John Sterlicchi, US correspondent
* Friday June 27, 2008

Forget the notion that fuel from corn or soybeans will solve the energy crisis. That bubble is deflating as quickly as the new one, involving the commercialisation of algae, is inflating.

Already in the US there are almost 20 venture capital funded start-ups that see potential in algae. Many entrepreneurs believe algae could be used commercially to produce biofuels, or burned to generate energy.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Jim Hansen's 20 year anniversary visit to Congress

This is the full text. Hansen recommends putting CEOs of ExxonMobil and Peabody coal on trial for crimes against humanity.

I like Hansen. I think he has a clear-eyed understanding of what will most likely happen this century, and he doesn't feel the need to water down his statements for political purposes.

A truly independent mind.

I still stick to my thoughts of yesterday -- plenty of folks are working on the climate problem now. Climate change will either get fixed, by a supreme effort to reduce emissions, or we will have to adapt to sea level rise and loss of habitable land areas. Most likely we will do a bit of both. The microeconomic and population consequences of either the fixing or adaptation or both seem to me to be the most interesting, and least considered, questions now.

But Hansen is, as ever, always worth a read, our climate Churchill:

Twenty Years Later: Tipping Points Near on Global Warming

James Hansen

Tomorrow I will testify to Congress about global warming, 20 years after my 23 June 1988 testimony, which alerted the public that global warming was underway. There are striking similarities between then and now, but one big difference.

Again a wide gap has developed between what is understood about global warming by the relevant scientific community and what is known by policymakers and the public. Now, as then, frank assessment of scientific data yields conclusions that are shocking to the body politic. Now, as then, I can assert that these conclusions have a certainty exceeding 99 percent.

The difference is that now we have used up all slack in the schedule for actions needed to defuse the global warming time bomb. The next President and Congress must define a course next year in which the United States exerts leadership commensurate with our responsibility for the present dangerous situation.

Otherwise it will become impractical to constrain atmospheric carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas produced in burning fossil fuels, to a level that prevents the climate system from passing tipping points that lead to disastrous climate changes that spiral dynamically out of humanity’s control.

Changes needed to preserve creation, the planet on which civilization developed, are clear. But the changes have been blocked by special interests, focused on short-term profits, who hold sway in Washington and other capitals.

I argue that a path yielding energy independence and a healthier environment is, barely, still possible. It requires a transformative change of direction in Washington in the next year.

On 23 June, 1988, I testified to a hearing, chaired by Senator Tim Wirth of Colorado, that the Earth had entered a long-term warming trend and that human-made greenhouse gases almost surely were responsible. I noted that global warming enhanced both extremes of the water cycle, meaning stronger droughts and forest fires, on the one hand, but also heavier rains and floods.

My testimony two decades ago was greeted with skepticism. But while skepticism is the lifeblood of science, it can confuse the public. As scientists examine a topic from all perspectives, it may appear that nothing is known with confidence. But from such broad open-minded study of all data, valid conclusions can be drawn.

My conclusions in 1988 were built on a wide range of inputs from basic physics, planetary studies, observations of on-going changes, and climate models. The evidence was strong enough that I could say it was time to “stop waffling.” I was sure that time would bring the scientific community to a similar consensus, as it has.

While international recognition of global warming was swift, actions have faltered. The U.S. refused to place limits on its emissions, and developing countries such as China and India rapidly increased their emissions.

What is at stake? Warming so far, about two degrees Fahrenheit over land areas, seems almost innocuous, being less than day-to-day weather fluctuations. But more warming is already “in-the-pipeline,” delayed only by the great inertia of the world ocean. And climate is nearing dangerous tipping points. Elements of a “perfect storm”, a global cataclysm, are assembled.

Climate can reach points such that amplifying feedbacks spur large rapid changes. Arctic sea ice is a current example. Global warming initiated sea ice melt, exposing darker ocean that absorbs more sunlight, melting more ice. As a result, without any additional greenhouse gases, the Arctic soon will be ice-free in the summer.

More ominous tipping points loom. West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are vulnerable to even small additional warming. These two-mile-thick behemoths respond slowly at first, but if disintegration gets well underway it will become unstoppable. Debate among scientists is only about how much sea level would rise by a given date. In my opinion, if emissions follow a business-as-usual scenario, sea level rise of at least two meters is likely this century. Hundreds of millions of people would become refugees. No stable shoreline would be reestablished in any time frame that humanity can conceive.

Animal and plant species are already stressed by climate change. Polar and alpine species will be pushed off the planet, if warming continues. Other species attempt to migrate, but as some are extinguished their interdependencies can cause ecosystem collapse. Mass extinctions, of more than half the species on the planet, have occurred several times when the Earth warmed as much as expected if greenhouse gases continue to increase. Biodiversity recovered, but it required hundreds of thousands of years.

The disturbing conclusion, documented in a paper I have written with several of the world’s leading climate experts, is that the safe level of atmospheric carbon dioxide is no more than 350 ppm (parts per million) and it may be less. Carbon dioxide amount is already 385 ppm and rising about 2 ppm per year. Stunning corollary: the oft-stated goal to keep global warming less than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is a recipe for global disaster, not salvation.

These conclusions are based on paleoclimate data showing how the Earth responded to past levels of greenhouse gases and on observations showing how the world is responding to today’s carbon dioxide amount. The consequences of continued increase of greenhouse gases extend far beyond extermination of species and future sea level rise.

Arid subtropical climate zones are expanding poleward. Already an average expansion of about 250 miles has occurred, affecting the southern United States, the Mediterranean region, Australia and southern Africa. Forest fires and drying-up of lakes will increase further unless carbon dioxide growth is halted and reversed.

Mountain glaciers are the source of fresh water for hundreds of millions of people. These glaciers are receding world-wide, in the Himalayas, Andes and Rocky Mountains. They will disappear, leaving their rivers as trickles in late summer and fall, unless the growth of carbon dioxide is reversed.

Coral reefs, the rainforest of the ocean, are home for one-third of the species in the sea. Coral reefs are under stress for several reasons, including warming of the ocean, but especially because of ocean acidification, a direct effect of added carbon dioxide. Ocean life dependent on carbonate shells and skeletons is threatened by dissolution as the ocean becomes more acid.

Such phenomena, including the instability of Arctic sea ice and the great ice sheets at today’s carbon dioxide amount, show that we have already gone too far. We must draw down atmospheric carbon dioxide to preserve the planet we know. A level of no more than 350 ppm is still feasible, with the help of reforestation and improved agricultural practices, but just barely – time is running out.

Requirements to halt carbon dioxide growth follow from the size of fossil carbon reservoirs. Coal towers over oil and gas. Phase out of coal use except where the carbon is captured and stored below ground is the primary requirement for solving global warming.

Oil is used in vehicles where it is impractical to capture the carbon. But oil is running out. To preserve our planet we must also ensure that the next mobile energy source is not obtained by squeezing oil from coal, tar shale or other fossil fuels.

Fossil fuel reservoirs are finite, which is the main reason that prices are rising. We must move beyond fossil fuels eventually. Solution of the climate problem requires that we move to carbon-free energy promptly.

Special interests have blocked transition to our renewable energy future. Instead of moving heavily into renewable energies, fossil companies choose to spread doubt about global warming, as tobacco companies discredited the smoking-cancer link. Methods are sophisticated, including funding to help shape school textbook discussions of global warming.

CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and are aware of long-term consequences of continued business as usual. In my opinion, these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature.

Conviction of ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal CEOs will be no consolation, if we pass on a runaway climate to our children. Humanity would be impoverished by ravages of continually shifting shorelines and intensification of regional climate extremes. Loss of countless species would leave a more desolate planet.

If politicians remain at loggerheads, citizens must lead. We must demand a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants. We must block fossil fuel interests who aim to squeeze every last drop of oil from public lands, off-shore, and wilderness areas. Those last drops are no solution. They yield continued exorbitant profits for a short-sighted self-serving industry, but no alleviation of our addiction or long-term energy source.

Moving from fossil fuels to clean energy is challenging, yet transformative in ways that will be welcomed. Cheap, subsidized fossil fuels engendered bad habits. We import food from halfway around the world, for example, even with healthier products available from nearby fields. Local produce would be competitive if not for fossil fuel subsidies and the fact that climate change damages and costs, due to fossil fuels, are also borne by the public.

A price on emissions that cause harm is essential. Yes, a carbon tax. Carbon tax with 100 percent dividend is needed to wean us off fossil fuel addiction. Tax and dividend allows the marketplace, not politicians, to make investment decisions.

Carbon tax on coal, oil and gas is simple, applied at the first point of sale or port of entry. The entire tax must be returned to the public, an equal amount to each adult, a half-share for children. This dividend can be deposited monthly in an individual’s bank account.

Carbon tax with 100 percent dividend is non-regressive. On the contrary, you can bet that low and middle income people will find ways to limit their carbon tax and come out ahead. Profligate energy users will have to pay for their excesses.

Demand for low-carbon high-efficiency products will spur innovation, making our products more competitive on international markets. Carbon emissions will plummet as energy efficiency and renewable energies grow rapidly. Black soot, mercury and other fossil fuel emissions will decline. A brighter, cleaner future, with energy independence, is possible.
Washington likes to spend our tax money line-by-line. Swarms of high-priced lobbyists in alligator shoes help Congress decide where to spend, and in turn the lobbyists’ clients provide “campaign” money.

The public must send a message to Washington. Preserve our planet, creation, for our children and grandchildren, but do not use that as an excuse for more tax-and-spend. Let this be our motto: “One hundred percent dividend or fight!”

The next President must make a national low-loss electric grid an imperative. It will allow dispersed renewable energies to supplant fossil fuels for power generation. Technology exists for direct-current high-voltage buried transmission lines. Trunk lines can be completed in less than a decade and expanded analogous to interstate highways.
Government must also change utility regulations so that profits do not depend on selling ever more energy, but instead increase with efficiency. Building code and vehicle efficiency requirements must be improved and put on a path toward carbon neutrality.

The fossil-industry maintains its strangle-hold on Washington via demagoguery, using China and other developing nations as scapegoats to rationalize inaction. In fact, we produced most of the excess carbon in the air today, and it is to our advantage as a nation to move smartly in developing ways to reduce emissions. As with the ozone problem, developing countries can be allowed limited extra time to reduce emissions. They will cooperate: they have much to lose from climate change and much to gain from clean air and reduced dependence on fossil fuels.
We must establish fair agreements with other countries. However, our own tax and dividend should start immediately. We have much to gain from it as a nation, and other countries will copy our success. If necessary, import duties on products from uncooperative countries can level the playing field, with the import tax added to the dividend pool.

Democracy works, but sometimes churns slowly. Time is short. The 2008 election is critical for the planet. If Americans turn out to pasture the most brontosaurian congressmen, if Washington adapts to address climate change, our children and grandchildren can still hold great expectations.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Summer philosophizing

For most college professors, summer must be a time of readjustment and reflection. For me, I switch from brain work to manual work, which I always welcome, as I build or fix up various buildings, and do other practical work, around our own farm or for friends or contacts. I keep up with my renewable energy and energy efficiency consulting work by email, but I don't teach, and that saves me 40-50 hours work a week, which gives me the time to run the farm and, perhaps most importantly, to think.

The last three years, while I took a temporary administrative role, with a 12 month cycle, I've had to work during the summer. This year, I'm back to a nine-and-a-half month contract, and am happy for it.

Time to think.

A good reflective question that I often ponder during breaks of any kind in my routine, but especially my long, outdoor-working, manual-labor-intensive, summer breaks, one that can even make me uncomfortable is, "what's the most important thing now." Once or twice in my life, this question has kicked me into motion, taking me physically around the planet, or mentally from one topic area or problem to another. This is, I suppose, why I have three different degrees in three different subjects, instead of the usual bachelor's, master's and PhD in the same subject that most career academics possess. As I studied and reflected, my concept of what the most important thing was expanded and changed, and my topic area had to shift with it.

Most recently, together with with a large number of my colleagues, I've been heavily engaged in the job of building a modern ecological/environmental college out of a 1970's resource management school.

Unity College is now heading in a good direction. After years of effort my myself and other reforming faculty trying to turn the college around, finally, I'm starting to feel, that process is becoming self-sustaining. In particular, during the last 8-9 years at our small college, there have been hired enough new faculty, administrators, and staff, many or most of whom are recently out of graduate school, to start and self-sustain a virtuous cycle of improvement for the college. The work of taking even a small academic institution and bringing it completely up-to-date in substantive knowledge, pedagogy, and attitude, is not easy, nor is it without conflict, particularly between the reformers and the improvers. But after a time, it becomes impossible to stop or reverse, because enough change has happened that few folks even really know how things were back then.

The one thing the world doesn't need right now is a 1960 and 1970s-type resource management school. So much of the forestry, wildlife management, environmental economics, and environmental policy knowledge that was the canon during that period has been made outdated, there's hardly anything that is still really used in the field. It's hard of course, for people who went to graduate school during this period to admit this, but it's true. If you go out and look at the environmental careers that are available, virtually no-one is hiring timber cruisers, ungulate-only wildlife biologists, or neo-classical environmental economists. The basic sciences, social sciences, and skills courses at the root of the applied fields, biology, physics, chemistry, math, stats, these have changed rather less. But take my PhD area, environmental policy. If you didn't study carbon management in graduate school, if you didn't go to graduate school after 1990 (or, more likely 1995 or 2000, because a lot of programs took a while to catch on) you didn't study the most important environmental policy area of the 21st century.

Recapitulating how the environmental filed has changed in the broadest possible terms, first, in the late 1980s and the 1990s, we had "ecosytem management," and "ecological economics," the broad application (finally, after 150 years since Haekel founded the discipline), of ecology to resource management problems. Then we had climate change and the energy crisis, which were collectively a huge hit from a sledgehammer driving the ecological nail home. The world of environmental science and environmental studies has changed and remade itself completely these last few years.

Ecological thinking, systems thinking, feedback thinking is everything now. Linear systems are out. Complex systems are in.

And so now the news is full of energy and climate concern to an extent most academics probably could not even have imagined even 5 years ago.

But some of us did imagine it. Some of us thought about the current climate-and-energy crisis even a decade, or two, or three, before it hit. Some of us have been studying and teaching about oil depletion, energy efficiency, renewable energy and sustainability for all this time. And now everyone is studying it, in a way, as CNN and CBS and even Fox has energy news and extreme climate news, 24/7.

Ironic, isn't it, that the very cornfields just flooded are the ones supposed to grow the ethanol.

So, what is The Most Important Thing now?

It isn't climate change and energy, not anymore. Plenty of people are working on those problems. Those problems will get solved, one way or another. My work will be part of this, of course. I'll be teaching the systems thinking that is at the heart of both energy economics AND climate science for decades to come. But it will be routine, part of the canon. Not ahead of the curve. Not anymore.

Students will go on to apply these ideas in mitigation efforts. Politics, communities, farming, housing transportation will change. Civilization won't be saved, not quite in its current form, it never is. But it will endure much as we know it. (There'll aways be an England!) There'll be some backsliding a few wrong turns, of course. Like ethanol. I doubt we'll make Jim Hansen's goal of 350 ppm stabilization level for CO2. I expect we'll lose big land areas to their current, conventional farming and habitation systems. I can't quite imagine saving Ethiopia, Southern California, Spain, these currently marginal lands, from turning to desert, more or less. Maine will stabilize with a climate like Virginia's. Or Georgia's. If we're lucky, Connecticut's.

Or something like that. It doesn't matter so much anymore.

What does matter?

The more I think about it, the more I think what matters is the nature of the civilization, particularly the western civilization of Europe and the Americas, but also the eastern one of China and India, that comes out of the other side of the energy and climate crisis. And the big problem is the combined role of population and macroeconomics and particularly of current western conventions of conventional employment and consumption, which in case you haven't noticed are being exported to India and China at an unstoppable pace.

How can we stabilize climate and the energy economy and protect what will be left of biodiversity, unless we are willing to reduce population and move away from growth economics?

It took 200-plus years for industrial, capitalistic growth economics to become a worldwide institution, to the point where Chinese and Indian families now aspire to essentially the western one-to-two-kid, one-to-two-family car, middle class, meat-every-day, consumerist lifestyle.

But the planet cannot sustain that lifestyle. The west now knows this. Although we will try now for a while to have our cake and eat it too.

How can we fix this huge collective cognitive dissonance and still have a free, even a capitalistic or at least a free-enterprise based civilization.

How can we avoid the next totalitarianism? Which might even be a totalitarianism of climate advocates?

That's what I want to think about next.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Sustainable washing!

The more time I spend at Unity College, the more I learn about sustainability, and the more I want to learn about sustainability! Here is a result of one of those stumbling sessions I have on the internet: A virtually waterless washing machine! The technology I find that isn't that popular yet is just amazing.

Virtally waterless washing machine heralds cleaning revolution

Washing machineResearchers at the University of Leeds have developed a new way of cleaning clothes using less than 2% of the water and energy of a conventional washing machine. The revolutionary technology will provide alternatives to both domestic washing and dry cleaning, heralding the world’s first “virtually waterless” washing system.

Xeros, a University of Leeds spin-out, is commercialising the technology with some of the biggest names in the washing and dry-cleaning industries.

The process is based on the use of plastic granules (or chips) which are tumbled with the clothes to remove stains. A range of tests, carried out according to worldwide industry protocols to prove the technology performs to the high standards expected in the cleaning industry, show the process can remove virtually all types of everyday stains as effectively as existing processes whilst leaving clothes as fresh as normal washing. In addition, the clothes emerge from the process almost dry, reducing the need for tumble-dryers.

Xeros' technology uses as little as a cup of water in each wash cycle and could also bring benefits to other industrial processes such as wastewater treatment and metal degreasing.

According to Waterwise, a UK NGO focused on decreasing water wastage in the UK, washing machine use has risen by 23% in the past 15 years, up from 3 times a week in 1990 to an average of 4 times a week per household today. The average UK household uses almost 21 litres of water each day on clothes washing - 13% of daily household water consumption. This accounts for approximately 455 million litres of water daily, enough water to fill 145 Olympic size swimming pools.

Tests are currently underway in the dry-cleaning market with a view to replacing certain solvents that are currently used in dry-cleaning. Some of these solvents are potentially harmful, having been linked with certain types of cancer and some are now facing a ban in various states in the USA. The company believes that its new proprietary technology would eradicate the need for these solvents from dry-cleaning providing safety and monetary incentives for the dry cleaning industry.

The new technology could be on the UK market as early as 2009. Xeros has recently received funding of £500,000 from the University’s commercialisation partner, IP Group, subject to certain milestones being met.

Xeros was established in February 2007 to exploit a new patented washing method invented and developed in the School of Design at the University of Leeds. Company founder, Professor Stephen Burkinshaw, is an internationally-recognised expert in the science of textiles and dyeing.

Professor Burkinshaw, Professor of Textile Chemistry and director of Xeros, said: “The performance of the Xeros process in cleaning clothes has been quite astonishing. We’ve shown that it can remove all sorts of everyday stains including coffee and lipstick whilst using a tiny fraction of the water used by conventional washing machines. The investment from IP Group will help us to accelerate the commercialisation of the technology and I look forward to seeing new washing and dry-cleaning machines that use the Xeros technology.”

A typical washing machine uses about 35kg of water for every kg of clothes that are washed - as well as large amounts of energy to heat the water and to dry the clothes afterwards. With environmental concerns becoming increasingly urgent and water becoming an increasingly scarce resource, there is an urgent need to reduce the amount of water and energy used for washing clothes.

Dr Rob Rule, Managing Director of Techtran Ltd, IP Group’s Leeds business, and a director of Xeros, said: “This is one of the most surprising and remarkable technologies I've encountered in recent years. Xeros has the ability to save billions of litres of water per year and, we believe, the potential to revolutionise the global laundry market. ”

The potential revenues for machines based on the Xeros technology are considerable. There are more than two million washing machines sold in the UK annually, valuing the UK market alone at around £1bn.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Shearing Day at the Womerlippi Sheep Ranch

This is Rob Manner of Gentle Manner Farm in Frankfort, Maine, probably the best shearer in the great State o' Maine for handling animals well.

150 pounds of high quality fiber was the weight of the "wool clip." It can be used for clothing, and will likely be sold for that purpose, but I discovered that with the addition of some borax to ward off insects and as a fire-retardant, wool makes very good household insulation, so I'm toying with that idea. A new experiment.


Solar future brightens as oil soars

· World's biggest producer of panels doubles output
· Cost approaching parity with supply from grid

* Ashley Seager in Munich
* The Guardian,
* Monday June 16 2008

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Peak oil vs cornucopians again...

I get tired of all the Peak Oil conspiracists I run into in my line of work. But I also get exhausted by all the industry cornucopians who keep telling us that there's no problem with oil supplies, or the problems we meet are purely political.

Of course there's a problem in the oil market. If there wasn't, prices wouldn't be so high. And of course oil is a finite resource. You do know the definition of the term finite, right? And, somewhere in all that great MBA training, someone did explain the first and second laws of thermodynamics and some geology, before they put you in charge of an oil company? That molecules of extremely useful hydrocarbons don't just appear in large quantities from nowhere, annually replenished, manna from corporate heaven?

As to the Peak Oil conspiracists, it's easy enough for me to imagine that oil execs are stupid. Lord knows I run into enough stupidity in my line of work. But do you really imagine that they are in charge of the planet? And that all the geologists and other petroleum scientists report directly to corporate mind control once a day, for the order of the day?

Even the Nazis, who probably had one of the tightest mind control ships in the ocean, were not that good. They leaked like a sieve, witness Rudolf Hess, Canaris, and the Wehrmacht assassination plot. Human organization is inherently messy and stochastic.

But what really gets me is not just the social theory that is implied in these silly and mutually antagonistic points of view, nor the way they vie for our attention when I can so easily see that both are mistaken. No, what gets me is the root world view itself that is revealed by their advocacy. The corporate types reveal their uber-capitalistic, super-arrogant notions of world hegemony, such that they actually seem to fancy themselves in charge of geology. The Peak Oil conspiracists, on the other hand, are so helpless in their self-affirming notions of resistance and defiance as to negate both the fact of democracy itself, and their own responsibility to participate in that democracy, in one breath. Plus, they seem to like to go around scaring people into listening to them.

But what appalls me the most is the maths. Neither side gets better than a D-minus for word problems, and I think if we were being honest, and not socially promoting the poor kids so as not to hurt their sad little feelings, we'd flunk them both.

The word problem goes like this:

Little Johnny has a big bucket of oil he can produce each year, called the oil supply capacity. This capacity can be increased, but right now little Johnny can physically only produce about 35 giga-barrels a year. If little Johnny wants to make more oil, he has to build more oil plants and terminals.

It doesn't matter how many plants and terminals he makes, though, because he only has a certain amount of oil in the ground to begin. This is a big problem for little Johnny. We call this problem geology. We're going to talk about giga-barrels of oil. Just remember, children, a giga-barrel is a billion barrels.

Geology means that little Johnny estimates on the one hand he has between 700 giga barrels of oil in the ground (Peak Oil theorists), and on the other hand he thinks he may have as much as 2500 giga-barrels of oil in the ground (the US Geological Survey). This may seem confusing to little Johnny, but geology is not an exact science when you can't actually see the oil to count the number of giga-barrels, and it wouldn't be so confusing if Johnny understood the maths and the geology.

It might seem important that there are two extreme estimates, but it isn't really, children. We'll explain later. We call this part, the "punchline."

(The BP executive in the article used the number of 1.24 trillion barrels, or 1,240 giga-barrels for his estimate. But remember, it doesn't matter, and I'm going to tell you why.)

Little Johnny has a smaller bucket of oil he finds in the ground, at a certain rate per year. The rate goes up if he spends more money to find the oil in the ground, but it has has never exceeded 10 giga-barrels a year in the last twenty years. We don't know why, but some of us suspect it's that bad old geology again. Bad geology just didn't make enough oil to begin. Oh well.

But when little Johnny gets his oil out of the ground, he refines it and sells it. Right now this is very controversial. Lots of big rich people have invested in little Johnny's oil companies, and are making beaucoup of money. But so have all kinds of other people, including lots of littler, poorer people with pension funds and the like, and the pension funds are in fact using the oil investment profits to make up for the losses in real estate and other areas so they can keep paying the little pensions to all the little people. I think we may want them to keep doing this. This is something we call "macroeconomics." But all kinds of people are still upset that this is happening. They don't call it macroeconomics. They call it "gouging." Oh well.

Children, when you grow up, I want you to be nicer than that.

Let's get back to little Johnny's oil that he's selling. This is the punchline. You see, the planet has a thing called the economy, which grows every year. The economy grows about three to six hundreths of it's original size a year. We call this three to six per cent growth. To grow this three to six per cent, the economy seems to use between two to four per cent more oil per year.

Two to four per cent more oil per year is what Johnny is asked to sell, extra, each year. But he has to build new plants and terminals, and he only has between 700 and 2500 giga barrels to begin

So now we have everything we need to do the math, children. Except the proper word problem question.

The question of course is, "how long will little Johnny's oil last?"

If Johnny starts by selling 35 giga-barrels, and he has 3 per cent growth, the next year he's supposed to sell 36.05 giga-barrels. The year after that, he starts expecting to sell 36.05, but he's asked for 37.13. If after 10 years, oil demand increases at 3 per cent per year, he is going to be asked for 45.6 giga-barrels, then at twenty years, he'll be asked for 61.3, then at thirty years it will be 82.4 giga-barrels that little Johnny will be asked for. We call this phenomenon, children, exponential growth.

So you see, children, with exponential growth, it will only take little Johnny twenty or so years longer to finish up his oil if he has 2500 giga-barrels, than if he has 700. That's why it doesn't matter how much he has, really. It matters most what the number is that the global economy grows by each year, and whether that number also makes the oil demand number grow or whether we uncouple our economy from its dependence on oil. That would make a big difference.

Of course, there's a silver lining in this cloud. The inexorable exponential math of oil depletion is just one side of the coin, one part of the model. There's also the math of arithmetic decay that results from supply and demand. Because if oil price keeps rising, oil demand will not in fact grow by as much as two to four percent a year, because people will be busily uncoupling their economies from oil, so as to save money. Demand may even drop below 35 giga-barrels, and that will help little Johnny sell oil a little longer.

I could crunch those numbers for you too, and give you a complete model that accounted for both depletion due to rising demand, but predicted demand as a function of price. But you, like little Johnny and the conspiracy theorists and the oil executives in the article are probably tired of trying to do math in your head. You just want me to tell you what will happen to oil supply.

What will happen to oil supply is, it will run out. Not as slowly as the oil executives think, because demand is rising faster, and new discovery is negligible. But it won't run out as quickly as the Peak Oil conspiracists believe, because, well, there is no conspiracy, and because high price means people look for other ways to run their businesses and homes than oil, and demand actually drops. What will happen is that the price will continue to increase steadily, but this price will be matched in stages by the prices of various other energy sources, such as wind or solar or biomass power, and we will learn to use those now-cheaper sources of power to do the things we do with oil, such as run cars and trucks, or heat our homes.

This will be a confusing time for some of us, especially if we can't do word problems or understand math.

Here's the article that got me going on this. Enjoy.

Production decline does not mean oil is running out, says BP

Chief executive calls for Arctic and other areas to be opened up for exploration

* Terry Macalister
* The Guardian,
* Thursday June 12 2008

Monday, June 9, 2008

National climate change summary

In case you've been looking for an easy-to-read summary about climate change and its effects in the U.S., here you go:
It's got short sentences, bullet points, boxes, and pictures, only four pages! The fact sheet is put together by the US Climate Change Science Program Office; it's not just an international issue, it's a national one!
The report is mostly about the effects of climate change, not the technicalities of it. If you want more on "what is climate change?" or "what's making climate change happen?" then feel free to email me questions, I'd love to help!Get more information and the full report here:

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Off again, on again

Inside the Straw Bale House

This is a funny little article on the perils of living off-grid, all familiar to Aimee and I because of our Bale House project. In our case, we lasted three years, and what killed the idea wasn't the lack of electricity -- we'd gotten used to that -- but the distance the house was from the college, and the 50-hour weeks we work in the months of August through May.

It was fine to hang out in our bale house during the summer and live off-grid and grow gardens, raise livestock, and generally live the Good Life. But as soon as classes started up, the amount of time necessary to feed the wood stove, pump water, empty compost toilets and tend gardens and animals wasn't there, and we became overworked, tired, and sometimes, when we couldn't get it all done, we went without heat or light or bathing.

The folks who owned the land (we own the building) disallowed the idea of putting up the wind turbine we thought would solve some of these problems, as well as cutting down the trees needed to make the passive solar design work well. Another neighbor disliked us and our dogs. The distance to work used more fossil fuels than a furnace would have. Eventually, succumbing to our own rationality, and a cost-benefit analysis of our situation, we gave up on the neighbors and on living in the bale house, and moved to what we call the "New House", really a restored 1900 Maine farmhouse, now very comfortable and energy efficient, but on-grid. Some colleagues from the college moved into the Bale House, and still live there, so the building is still in full use, after nearly 6 years. And, I suppose, if the housing crunch ever bites hard, we have a back-up house.

I get contacted by about a half dozen people a year asking for advice on building straw bale houses in Maine. I routinely try to discourage them a little. Straw bale is a fine building product where it is plentiful, in places that grow wheat or barley. In our part of Maine, farmers grow cows and corn silage, and wheat and barley straw has to be trucked in, with prices per bale actually higher per unit of R-value than than other kinds of insulation, which defeats the purpose of a straw house, which is to save money and energy.

In our part of Maine, we do grow lumber in very large quantities, so if you want to build an energy-efficient off-grid house, it makes more sense, and is more ecologically efficient in most cases, to use lumber and find some other kind of cheap insulation. I will be experimenting with sheep fleece as insulation with my next-but-one experimental building -- the extension Aimee and I plan for the farmhouse. We grow a lot of fleece.

I also give very firm advice on off-grid living. If you insist on having electricity in your off-grid home, it takes quite a lot of technology, more than a few pollutants are created, and there are good reasons to think that grid-tie solar and wind power are more sustainable forms of household electricity than off-grid solar and wind. In particular, if you go use grid-tie, you don't need to buy batteries every 4 to 10 years. batteries used in off-grid houses are usually lead acid, and they are recyclable, but they don't lst forever and are expensive to replace.

In the meantime, I'm making plans for the barn that students will build at Unity College this fall. I just heard from the college administration a couple days ago that they will fund most of the barn. I had been planning to have students raise donations of money and materials, but we won't have to do that now, at least not very much of it. The plan is to have students work with our Vice President for college advancement on a couple of fund raising ideas -- students really need to learn about non-profit finance and philanthropy if they are to be fully capable environmental professionals.

But they won't have to raise all the cash and materials needed, which is a nice thing, for which I'm quite grateful since it lets me concentrate on teaching the lost art of independent, self-reliant building.

Which, I suppose, is where I started with this rambling piece.

Of course, the important things for young people to learn about building a barn are not necessarily the barn-building skills themselves, but more the problem solving, the group process, the leadership and other skills needed to get a barn actually built.

No running water. No flushing loo. No electricity. No television

What happened when one family went back to basics for a month?

William Shaw
Sunday June 8, 2008
The Observer

Read the article

Friday, June 6, 2008

Different visions of sustainability

I thought this was an interesting response to a reporter's tough question.


Subject: Unity House

Hello, Mick,

I saw you speak in Belfast when Waterfall Arts had their symposium with
Pliny Fisk. I am a writer/editor for XXXX and
because I have a degree in landscape architecture I usually get
assigned the stories with that kind of slant. As you may know, a couple
of weeks ago we printed Tedd Benson's commencement address on our cover
and many people were captivated by his Rules for Living. Our publisher
wants to follow up on the story by having me drive to Unity and do
something on the current Unity House construction. But I feel < and
this is strictly MY feeling < that the project is very hyped up and I
honestly am struggling with finding the sustainability of a building
that uses five tractor trailers to deliver its components hundreds of
miles away. There doesn't seem to be much future in that. I also don't
see anything about how it will be heated, a major energy issue in

So, before I call Mark Tardiff and drive out there, I was wondering if
you'd give me some of your ideas on this project. Despite my RISD
degree, I'm much closer to your sensibilities, I believe when it comes
to sustainable building and while I appreciate the idea of what they're
trying to do with flexibility and use of HVAC systems, I am having
trouble seeing how this can be as sustainable as it needs to be when
oil reaches $400 a barrel.

If you can reply to this, I'd appreciate it It would be strictly for
my information and off the record.



Dear XXXX, thanks for the note.

It gave me food for thought, and I always appreciate that. And, if you like, this can be on the record. (There's no secret plan for sustainability.)

I'm going to say this as gently as I can, but it was a hard-minded question (my favorite kind) and so I know you won't mind if I give you a hard-minded answer.

I think we might be confusing "sustainability" with "de-urbanization and de-industrialization" here. Do you assume sustainability means "back-to-the-land". If so, I think you're plain wrong.

What this question really implies, or the question it begs, is, do you assume sustainability means doing away with factories and shipping of factory goods, and the towns and cities they serve?

I don't.

Factories, and the towns and cities that serve and depend on them are inherently more comfortable, more safe, and certainly capable of being as energy efficient as otherwise isolated self-sustainable farms and homesteads. They can also produce essential stuff, like housing or hospital equipment, as easily as they make nasty useless ticky-tacky. I think we will have to find ways of running factories on renewable energy, on sunlight, and ways of recycling the physical raw materials embodied in pretty much all consumer goods at the end of their life back into useful new goods. But I think these are actually questions of renewable energy production and of industrial process design. Even the recycling industry is an industry, using industrial processes and engineering.

I think we should keep industry around for the benefits it gives, but cut back on it for the sake of reducing its downsides. Prefabricating housing, the industrial case-in-point can be more energy and materially efficient than building housing on-site. I also think we might want to begin to get the population to go down, so the burden of running industrial civilization falls on a smaller part of the planet every decade.

So my overall understanding or vision of sustainability is not "back-to-the-land" but a reinvented industrial urban civilization, backed by a flourishing and more localized agriculture and forestry, and obviously a plan to reduce numbers by encouraging (not forcing) folks to not have quite so many kids per family.

Bensonwood experimented a bit in this direction by making a prefabricated building using renewable energy and recyclable materials. The building also has a longer useful life, which helps a good deal, and reduces the lifetime energy consumption, which is much more than the shipping energy consumption.

(Think about it: It takes a few hundred gallons of oil to ship an efficient, prefabricated, non oil-powered building, while a badly designed, on site-built, oil-powered building might burn millions of gallons of oil during it's lifetime.)

Although I didn't have much to do with it, I thought this was a useful experiment in moving industrial housing production towards sustainability, and certainly a high-quality finished product.

On ticky-tacky in general, I think we might want to even keep some factories that make otherwise wasteful consumer goods. Some at least.

I don't like much cheap plastic ticky tacky much myself, but I don't want to get in the business of saying who can have it and who can't. That seems a little totalitarian.

In this kind of theory, I'm pretty much a Dalian thinker, which is not surprising, since I was a Daly graduate student. You can read Daly and Cobb's 1994 second edition of "For the Common Good" to get the academic theory, if you are interested in going that far.

I will say I do enjoy practicing the "back-to-the-land" theory of sustainability, like that found in the works of the Nearings, for instance, in my home activities. But I wouldn't confuse that notion with, or advocate it, for the entire population. That would be unsafe and unwise, I think. I just do it for fun, for exercise, and for the pleasure of growing my own food.

It's also my family's plan B. If we don't fix industrial civilization on time and on schedule, it will fall apart and then we will have to do without it. But a lot of people will die or get hurt in that process. I tend to wonder about my friend who emigrated to New Zealand, or instance, to set up an intentional community. That seemed very selfish and non-communitarian, when I think we can save this current community called America, and save much of most other countries, and the people in them, if we rally. I prefer we fix it all properly and on schedule.

Never, ever despair! (Churchill.)

Be glad to talk with you more if you do come out.


Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Our wind assessment consulting "business"

This is a note from an alum requesting help with a wind assessment. We have some gear to do this, thanks to several generous donations from NRG Systems, who make the equipment, and are providing this as a free service. We've been doing quite a bit of this lately, and are happy to do more, especially if the "client" is a community or a household that couldn't otherwise afford the assessment work. We have equipment suitable for assessing wind for both very small and very large scale wind power projects, and our students get good training in its safe use, again largely thanks to NRG.

Just email me at
Hi Mick,

I met you at the MOFGA wind power demo last week. I am interested in your service but at this time I am just learning about the various types of wind generators available. I live at XXXX in XXXX. During the winter we can see Mt. Washington through the trees.

My thought is that a 30 to 40 foot wind mill might work on my property. I do not want to go too high to save on the cost. I do have a 10 meter tower but it is about 40 years old.

Anyway, since my operation is a small scale one I am asking if you know of an inexpensive source for an anemometer? I would like to monitor the wind on my property and continue to after the wind generator is up.

BTW I graduated from Unity in 1983 B.S. in Env. Sci.



Dear XXXX:

I have a spare computer logger, anemometer and directional vane on a site now, awaiting reassignment, and I am looking for a site and a new "client" (this is a free service, since I use this gear to teach the science) willing to have me and some students come put it up to gather data on a suitable site. What I don't have is a spare tower. But since you have one, assuming it remains safe, I can put this gear on that tower.

You generally leave the equipment in place for a year to gather the data.

If you want me to come over and scope this out, I'd be glad to. Name the day and time.

If you want your own anemometer equipment, you can buy it online, but frankly for a small scale site, if all you want is a small turbine, you may as well buy a small turbine and use that to find out if you have enough wind for a small turbine! Prices start at $800, which is far less than the computer logger. If you were planning a larger, more expensive installation, such as one of the Bergey's or a Skystream, you might want the data first. I can give you some advice on all this too, and help put it up if need be, again using students for the educational value.

And again, I can come over and help you scope this out, or help you choose what to do.


Mick Womersley, PhD

A sustainable food policy looks like....

Food crisis: 'Governments have huge amount of involvement'

Professor of food policy Tim Lang says that there are ways of solving the food crisis in the long term

* Tim Maby ,
* Friday May 30 2008

* Download mp3

Monday, June 2, 2008

Why bother?

Those of us who follow environmental issues face a daily dose of big-scale bad news. The global climate crisis is worse than scientists had thought. We have less time to make big changes. The rapid development of countries like China and India make our chances of success ever more distant.

With problems this big and bad, how can anything I do really help? I'm not a CEO or a senator. For every light bulb I change, mile that I bicycle, or tomato that I grow, a new coal plant in China more than makes up for my greenhouse gas savings. Yes, my efforts yield lower electric bills, daily workouts, and tastier salads. As far as earth's climate is concerned, though, am I making a difference or merely applying a psychological salve to ease my anxieties? At least on some days, 'thinking globally' actually discourages me from 'acting locally,' as the saying goes.

In a recent New York Times Magazine editorial, Michael Pollan bluntly asks "Why bother?" Pollan's eloquent arguments invoke Wendell Berry, the vegetable garden, and even Unity College's own Jimmy Carter solar panels. His conclusion is both realistic and optimistic: "as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world."

Thanks Mr. Pollan ... I needed that.