Friday, January 30, 2009

Student opportunities from Xarissa at NWF Campus Ecology

Xarissa is a great name. Very sci-fi, hi tech.


I have some material below that I thought might be useful for your efforts at Unity, as well as good fodder for your blog.

Starting next week, we're launching the first of three national initiatives this winter and spring that will collectively mobilize an estimated 300,000 students, young people and community leaders in addressing the global warming crisis in positive ways that will help create a clean energy economy and new jobs:

We will begin with the historic "First 100 Days, A National Teach-In on Global Warming Solutions," involving more than 700 colleges, universities and faith organizations all across the U.S. starting on February 5. An on-line educational kick-off to the Teach-In produced by National Wildlife Federation's Sara Prohaska, Bill Dion and others will be viewed by an estimated 250,000 students, faculty, staff and community leaders followed by activities ranging from speakers, films and live interfaces with Congress at host sites. Featuring such environmental luminaries as our own, Larry Schweiger, as well as David Orr, Hunter Lovins, Betsy Taylor, Ray Anderson, Dianne Dillon-Ridgely, Jessy Tolkan, and others, the on-line broadcast focuses on policy recommendations for the new administration detailed in the President's Climate Action Plan. It is not too late to register and receive instructions for viewing "The First 100 Days" program.

All the instructions you'll need to participate can be found at:

Next, on February 28-March 2, 2009, we will converge on Capitol Hill with thousands of student leaders from all across the country seeking clean energy solutions and green jobs at Powershift 2009. (

A student reporter press teleconference will place on Feb 4th, with information on the event. Please respond if you are interested in participating, or if you know anyone who writes for your university newspaper that might like to get in on the call.

Finally, on April 15, 2009 - We will celebrate our peers' cutting-edge innovations for the 21st Century by hosting the acclaimed program Chill Out: Campus Solutions to Global Warming ( ) at our campuses, homes and offices. Showcasing the winners of a year-long competition, the on-line program features initiatives that dramatically curb the carbon footprint, tap clean energy, create new green jobs and save money. The campus that registers the most people for this program will win a free concert by the Steps!

For more information on any of these events, let me know!



Wait for the buzz to begin

NOAA scientists just published a paper in PNAS relating to questions of how quickly temperature drops if GHG emissions drop. It doesn't, they found.

Not really big news. We've suspected this for years. This update from Susan Solomon and her team is a nice confirmation and recalibration for modelers.

What is novel is the buzz that this thing will inspire. You see, the NOAA press release, not exactly a work of PR excellence, was written is such a way as to allow journalists to easily choose the oversimplified tag-line "climate change irreversible" for a headline. And they will. They can't resist that tag-line even if it's not true. I bet hundreds of papers all around the country will reproduce it with nary a serious thought about the trouble they're causing or whether they're telling the truth.

Which of course is a nice boon to the anti-GHG emissions control lobby. If climate change is irreversible, then why bother reducing emissions? We're all doomed anyway! Let's have a big ole fossil fueled party and burn it all up!


And of course, the original paper means nothing of the kind. It's just some slightly newer information about the longevity of GHGs in the atmosphere and the time taken to remove them. The paper suggests that there's a flat spot in the AAT curve because of GHG removal, but it says that if we keep releasing GHGs right now, the flat spot can still get higher and things will still be much worse than if we stop as soon as we can.

Bottom line for short-attention span readers: we still need to stop putting GHGs into the atmosphere.

Journalists are crap. Let's just say it out loud. Apart from a few decent types like Revkin of the NYT, or a couple Guardian writers I like, as a profession they can't seem to get anything right about climate change. Worse, I guess, is the gullible section of the public that demands the stuff they write. Can we please all begin to learn to think more complex thoughts and stretch out that attention span a bit?

Another example of how ridiculous journalism is right now, is the flurry of Google-inspired Jimmy Carter solar panel articles asking for Obama to put them back on the White House roof.

There are solar panels on the White House, you morons. They've been there since 2003. The Park Service put them up.

If this keeps up, I'm going to become the Lewis Black of sustainability bloggers. But honestly, whatever happened to research, getting the facts right, journalistic integrity? Did it ever exist?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Iron fertilization experiment to go ahead

This one is for those students of marine biology that think marine biology is all about playing with the dolphins, and that climate change (and genetics, physiology, cell bio, calculus and all the other difficult subjects) is nothing to do with them.

My wife lovely Aimee, a serious marine biologist, evolutionary ecologist, conservation biologist, and all-around nerd (just like me) calls these less serious starter members of her profession "dolphin girls."

The Guardian reports that the first large scale ocean geo-engineering experiment designed to provide test-of-concept for one possible way to limit climate change is to go ahead.

It's interesting to think of the knock-on effects on the marine food chain. Marine ecosystems, I learned from my wife, are more like food webs than terrestrial systems, which tend to be closer to the traditionally linear food chain.

Monday, January 26, 2009

First move, knights pawn to G3

The first Obama administration move in the tactical and strategic chess game of US climate policy has been made. And it's a interesting tactical choice. The administration told the EPA to reconsider its denial of California's request to begin to control climate emissions from cars.

Why is this interesting tactics?

Because everyone who knows anything about climate policy knows that California is a sideshow and that we need federal-level policy. The outcome of the EPA process in California may be mooted in as little as six months to a year. (Or it could be nationalised.)

But the US public has not been prepared for climate policies. Few actually understand even the basics of the science. California is further down the public awareness road, is a bi-partisan playing field, with popular Republican governor, one of few who supports climate emissions reductions, and is thus a relatively safe pool in which to dip one's toe.

I'm not a great chess player, but I do admire good tactics in public debate.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

How much power do wind turbines make? and other questions

With a new wind turbine siting process looming for Waldo and Penobscot Counties (the same proposed wind farm straddling the county line), I'm getting numerous technical questions about wind power. The following is my response to one such question. A previous response, also germane, is at this post here.

(I often get asked the same question or much the same question several times by members of the public so I like to post the answers.)

Another question I got asked recently is, "why can't the State/Federal government do more comprehensive land planning for wind turbines so we can minimize the clashes with other important land uses such as tourism? Why do we always have to do it piecemeal?"

The answer to that one is, you don't have comprehensive state or federal-level planning regime in this country, in the same way you do in, say, most European countries. Since a key court case, Lucas vs, South Carolina Coastal Commission, and other confirming judgements, the only planning system with teeth is municipal or county zoning. If the zoning regime permits a turbine, the landowner or developer with a lease is going to be able to build it. So the impetus is on developers to propose sites. You can see a paper relating how we got in this particular fix in my chapter in Matthias Ruth's edited anthology Smart Growth and Climate Change, if you're serious about getting a full, reasoned answer to the question.

Dear Mick:

Several of us Thorndikeans [Thorndike: local town] have decided to form a citizens committee to research potential risks -vs- benefits of wind turbines. I thought since you are involved in the Mount View project you would be interested to know this is happening as the decisions made could impact that project and second, to ask you for some sources of information. I am seeking information about the economics of wind power. I know that wind is the most cost effective per watt, but I am looking for the larger picture. How much power can a wind project of this scale (say 30 turbines) provide? Would it be a drop in the bucket compared to what our community is currently using power wise or could they make a significant difference?

My goal is to gather enough sound informationto make an understandable presentation and then let people choose for them selves wether or not wind power is a good- albeit sometimes noisy, sometimes flickery- way to generate energy.

Dear XXXX:

The question you ask is fairly straightforward, but the details get technical fast.

First up, the costs and benefits. I'm going to direct you to a letter I sent XXXX, a former student of mine who was working with your neighbor, XXXX, to form some kind of wind power group. I got the impression, although I could be wrong, that XXXX were mostly worried about the negative impacts, so I wrote this letter to point out that there are benefits as well as costs. Very rational, I'm afraid, but that's what environmental scientists do.

You can get to it at

Let me know if you have trouble getting to it.

The main thing I would add is, since then, I studied up on some of the negative impacts of [another Maine wind power installation], and particularly questioning why their local noise level was higher than advertised. I think I know why, and how it can be avoided. It's most likely to do with the increase in noise when one turbine's noise is added to anothers, as well as the neighbor's buildings being downwind perhaps more often than was thought.

With better planning you'd likely be able to avoid these problems.

I would be happy to explain the noise characteristics of turbines and the aspect of site planning related to adding one turbines noise to anothers in abstract terms should you or your neighbors be interested.

As to benefits, wind power can be profitable, which is why private financiers are interested. Most essentially, the economics of wind power are not that different from the economics of any other industrial plant installation, where the primary factor is the interest on borrowed capital. Towns and municipalities can issue bonds with good interest rates, and so community-owned wind can be profitable.

The second factor is the site assessment work, which we are learning to do at Unity College, having just completed our first for Mt. View. The data you need is the frequency distribution of wind speed, not just the mean or average, and the power curve of a given manufacturer's make and model of turbine. There's a major increase in power produced per dollar of installation costs as the size of the turbines increases. The "square-cube law" applies. The power of a turbine increases relative to the square of the diameter of the swept area, and the cube of the windspeed, up to the cut-out speed of the turbine. This provides for a major economy of scale. Put simply, as turbine height and blade area increases, so KWH produced increases much, much more.

So, for instance, on the Mt. View site, using a medium-sized Northwind 100 KWH-rated turbine, the power produced according to our assessment would be 120-130 megawatt hours/year. Your house probably uses 6-10 MWH per year, so that's enough power for 10-14 houses. The turbine has a hub height of 32 meters and a 21 meter rotor diameter.

The GE 1.5 MWH turbines at XXXX have a hub height of 60-70 meters and a 77 meter rotor diameter. I would guess that they will produce each enough power for several hundred houses. Two orders of magnitude greater.

As you can see, the benefits increase greatly with larger turbines. Assuming the owners make 2 cents a KWH for their power, the 3 turbines at XXXX might bring in a million dollars gross per year. Likely they make more than 2 cents some of the time, with some kind of green rate. So, for instance, I pay 12.5/KWH cents to my power production company for hydropower because I want to use renewable power at home. That would be a lot more money.

A thirty turbine project would produce ten times the energy of a three turbine project, assuming it employed the 1.5 MWH models or similar.

So, in general, taking into account the effects on birds and bats, which have to be compared against negative effects from coal and oil and nuclear power, wind power is quite effective. There is, however, what's called the "base-load problem," which is just that the wind doesn't blow all the time in all the places where there are wind turbines. Generally, a good site is active 70% of the time, and up to 90%.

This means we'll still need to have up to 80% of our power from other sources. Hydropower is, however, a good base load supply in Maine.

The theoretical maximum load of regional or national electrical supply that could be met by wind turbines is usually given as 20%. We're nowhere near that yet in the US. The Danes, however, are set to exceed that this year for the first time, and plan to get up to 30% or more, so we'll see if they can do it. By the time they get to 30%, we'll be at 10% or less, so we don't need to try that particular experiment when they will do it for us.

I hope this helps. If you'd like more information, or you want me to explain any of this in person, I'd be happy to do so.

I hope you don't mind if I publish this reply on my blog too. It saves me writing it all out again when someone asks next time, as with the letter to XXXX above. I will make sure your name isn't on there.



Mick Womersley, PhD
Associate Professor of Human Ecology
Unity College

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A road not taken

Here's a link to the Official Google Blog with news of our Jimmy Carter solar panel that we shipped to DC just last week. Google is putting the panel on display at it's DC office.

Here's a link too to the blog post just before Christmas of the panel cleaning process. It took more than a little elbow grease on the part of Aaron and myself and the Maintenance staff to get it shipshape.

Also posted is a Youtube clip of Roman Keller and Christina Hamaeur's movie, The Road Not Taken, featured our students taking the first panel that we shipped, to the Carter Library.

I have good memories of the movie-making process, and the clip brings it all back.

This might be a good moment to thank Google itself, particularly for the Google Blogger software, which I put to dozens of good teaching and outreach uses every single work week.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

'One million jobs in wind power' by 2010

(Unity students and Steve Cole of CEI work on our NRG Sytems 60 meter wind assessment tower.)

That was The Guardian's headline today. I've been studying up on these jobs: where they are, what qualifications, and so on.

The average American wind power employee seems to be a wind turbine technician, lives in Illinois or Iowa and travels quite a bit. Her salary is bigger than mine, and she is a recycled engineer or technician from some other industry. Degree or associate degree programs to train wind power folks are few and far between but increasing, and some spanking new facilities are being built to train students.

Frankly, I'd like to build one myself, or at least a combined physics/sustainability lab. But while we wait for Unity College planning gears to grind away, we do have reasonably effective facilities for some of this work right now, in particular wind assessment and planning.

Wind assessment is a fairly technical business, requiring math and computer skills a cut above technician-level training. So far the best wind assessment programs are graduate-level, which is reasonable because wind assessment is one kind of basic science research. We're just finishing our first wind assessment report for a client here at Unity College, involving students a good deal in the tower work, but not so far the data collection and analysis, which is something I want to correct quickly, and so I've put in to teach a seminar this fall in the topic to add the more brianiac component.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inaugural lunch

A very spirited crowd met at the Unity College Student Activity Center for jalapeno poppers, pretzels and speeches.

The cheering was loud, as if we were all on the mall, not watching a flat screen!

My favorite inaugural choice? A arrangement of Simple Gifts or, 'Tis a gift to be simple, was the musical offering.

Simple Gifts

Elder Joseph Brackett, Jr. 1848. First published in The Gift to be Simple: Shaker Rituals and Songs.

'Tis the gift to be simple,
'tis the gift to be free,
'tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.


When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed.
To turn, turn will be our delight,
'Til by turning, turning we come round right

'Tis the gift to be loved and that love to return,
'Tis the gift to be taught and a richer gift to learn,
And when we expect of others what we try to live each day,
Then we'll all live together and we'll all learn to say,


'Tis the gift to have friends and a true friend to be,
'Tis the gift to think of others not to only think of "me",
And when we hear what others really think and really feel,
Then we'll all live together with a love that is real.


Monday, January 19, 2009

Orwell and the inauguaration, again...

Nothing like a foot or more of snow in 24 hours to allow time for reflection. Especially as it's still falling, and as today is Martin Luther King Day. No need to break out the tractor until it stops.

Yesterday I wrote about unformed, unscripted moments, but particularly about George Orwell, and how, in one completely unscripted moment in 1941, when few Britons thought their democracy would even survive the decade, he was able to see into the future and predict with what seems to be massive confidence, the moment we are now experiencing. I managed to surround this interesting point with a lot of dross about other things, so let me excise the thesis statement at the heart of the matter so we can look at it more clearly:

"The whole English-speaking world is haunted by the idea of human equality, and though it would be simply a lie to say that either we or the Americans have ever acted up to our professions, still, the idea is there, and it is capable of one day becoming a reality. From the English-speaking culture, if it does not perish, a society of free and equal human beings will ultimately arise."

(From The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, Part III.)

The important phrase is "...will ultimately arise." Not "might," or "could," but a flat, confident, certain "will."

How, given that Britain remained in 1941 the greatest imperial nation (and therefore oppressor) the world had ever seen despite German bombs and U-boats, and given that the US in 1941 still tolerated Jim Crow violence and inequality (and would for many more years), could Orwell have such confidence? The notion that an idea latent in society can remain dormant for years, or at least un-influential, and yet so haunt a society that it will one day be forced to live up to it, is compelling, and was surely at the center of Martin Luther King's philosophy, especially as revealed in his "I have a dream speech."

What are the great ideas latent in today's Anglo-American society that remain to be fulfilled, but will ultimately, inexorably come? Would Orwell have found them? Or did he, and we've forgotten?

I think most Americans and Britons and members of the other English-speaking, or closely linked nations such as Canada, India, Australia, know, down deep in their hearts, that with intelligence, hard work, and careful policy, poverty can be eliminated worldwide. Most poverty today results from the obstinate refusal of elites in Africa, the Middle East, South America, and elsewhere to depart from their positions as leeches on the flesh of their own peoples. Most of us know that capitalism and entrepreneurship has a role to play in eradicating, but we also know that honest, democratic, technically competent government will be required. Orwell advocated for a more stringent social control over the market than most of us would see as necessary today. But he would have had stronger words for characters like Mugabe than we have seen so far from our leaders.

Most of us still believe deeply in free speech and action for the individual and wish to see it become universalized. This deep and abiding faith separates us from the French, who cannot yet tolerate the sight of a muslim headscarf in a classroom; the Germans, who have a list of state-approved names that families must use; the Russians, who cannot yet imagine themselves without a Big Brother government; or the Chinese, for whom youthful energy must always kowtow to the old and the Party, and for whom corruption seems inevitable. And on and on. The leading role of our nations, particularly the US and India, in the development and deployment of the Internet, the mobile phone, and other technology that enables free speech and free political action, is just the latest manifestation of this deep and characteristically English-speaking idea. Orwell, with his critique of Big Brother, and 1984, worked tirelessly on freedom of speech. His early experience as an imperial policeman in Burma made him ever suspicious of censorship, internal or external. I can imagine the Internet as the ultimate source of the downfall of, say, theocracy in Iran, or the spread of democracy in China. Orwell made good use of the media he found available to him in his time, the book, the pamphlet, the radio talk. I expect he would have welcomed the Internet. He would have worried, however, about how it could be used to monitor and control, as well as to speak freely.

Then there's safety and the family. Most of us understand somewhere deep and quiet that the main outcome of economic effort is, or should be, directed to making a comfortable, safe home life. Orwell had a thread of writing and praxis devoted to this, and could extol the homely virtues of a cup of tea or the perfect pub, or even British "cookery." He was an habitual gardener, animal-keeper, hunter and fisherman, and believed that food production was as much of a right, and as much of a base of national security, as free speech or fire-arms keeping. He even advocated for widespread gun ownership as a means to protect democracy, discourage the Gemran invader, and encourage reform in the reactionary.

(Some of our democratic politicians today might consider this one anew.)

This is all interesting conjecture, and I had better break out that tractor and move some snow.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Freedom and sustainability, part II

Regular readers will remember that I occasionally depart from my normal diet of student activities, technical bulletins and climate science news to spot a few somewhat random paint drops on a wider canvas of ideas. I'm full of personal contradictions in this respect: patriotic English ex-patriot, pacifistic drill sergeant ex-serviceman conscientious objector, Quaker militarist, and on and on, so I sometimes wonder if I follow too many threads at once for my own sanity. At other times, I feel that if I try to carry only one idea at once and concentrate on it, I might go crazy. So I like to have two or three pots on the boil at any one time and don't care very much if the flavors clash or seem irreconcilable to other chefs.

For this reason, I like Orwell. Mr. Eric Blair, to give him his real name, somehow managed to reconcile many of the same threads, and in his time boiled a lot of the same pots.

At this point in the development of political ideas in the English-speaking world, we might fess up to a few Orwellian contradictions of our own:

One in particular I'm thinking about, American capitalist or free-market political economic theory, has somehow quietly expired of its own internal intellectual weakness in the last six months, to be replaced by, well, nothing much, as yet.

It was always too simple, too uncomplicated a creed, with none of these eternal internal human contradictions.

And now it's gone. Good riddance. But what will replace it?

For a generation and a half, since the Reagan revolution, the English-speaking world was somehow incrementally bludgeoned out of any reliance on the state as an organizing force in commerce. Keep private industry and international trade free of the trammels of social control, we were told by the likes of various Friedmans, Thatchers, Bushes, Clintons, and Blairs in succession, and the swelling tidal force of private exertion and production would trickle down to lift all boats. We would all be rich eventually. Capitalism could succeed so brilliantly, if only it were allowed to, that even the homeless and mentally deranged would somehow be trickled up to become owners of capital and property themselves.

And to give the insane this sterling opportunity to thrive, Mr. Reagan promptly freed many of them from their publicly-funded asylums and put them on the street, where many of them remain, struggling manfully to beg in the best capitalist fashion.

Just give it a little time. Say, 28 years or so, to do its work.

But, to let everyone get so wonderfully rich, we would have to tolerate the sight of some of us getting almost impossibly rich. A single family, the Gates, for instance, or Google's founders, might have tens of billions. Their just reward for being so incredibly inventive.

So when these ideas had had their 28 years, and there still were homeless in the streets, and all of our factory production had been exported to Mexico and China, away from even the timid remaining ghosts of our unions, and we still somehow still got ourselves into a recession, what then happened?

I don't think we quite know yet. But somehow, the managers of all this capital, much of which is now overseas, the technical experts who ran the exchanges and the banks and the insurance companies and mutual funds, when it came to the crunch, were revealed most definitely not to be Friedmanites. They suddenly wanted some socialism, a little intervention on their own behalf. Never mind that they were ridiculously better off than the homeless beggars they walked by each day on the streets of New York, San Fransisco, even London, who still lacked decent asylums and health care. And so the governments in all the major English-speaking countries, desperate in their economic illiteracy and naïvity (because honest decent questioning political economy, the subject matter of Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, Dickens, and Orwell has been so out of fashion these twenty-eight years that it hasn't even been taught in the universities), rolled over and borrowed millions more of other countries' money, much of it Chinese, to keep them in business.

The only thing we're debating is who gets their bailout first!

And now we're waiting to see what sort of political economist Mr. Obama will be. Will the bailout and handouts go just to the businesses, or will we get a new New Deal and Great Society, a new system of safety nets and recovery organizations? How green will it all be in the end? Will we really get on with this project of stopping emissions and shifting to a new energy economy, or will we pay mere lip service and instead keep the old one propped up as long as we can?

It's an unformed, unscripted moment. No-one quite knows how it might all work out. We're hopeful, I think. But not very knowledgeable. And still impressively naïve in political economy, to the point where I'd give fifty-fifty odds as to whether or not we'll be fleeced, the great mass of us essentially taking on a massive 24.9% APR credit card to the tune of trillions to keep a very few of us in business, while the coal and oil companies set up an energy economy that will lead to almost certain catastrophic climate change.

A new holocaust awaits for all of us, if some of us can't see these things sufficiently clearly and presciently.

During a similar unformed, unscripted moment in history, writing in his wartime best-selling pamphlet, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, Orwell looked to the future in a clear-eyed unsentimental way. He correctly predicted the wartime system of political economy that Churchill and Atlee and the war cabinet would find purely necessary. He understood the few seemingly tenuous but massively strong threads that held the disparate British class system together, and how the whole thing could be used against fascism. He even predicted in its entirety the Labour platform of 1945 that would win the election that year, junking even the wartime hero Churchill, and founding the first truly democratic welfare state in history.

It's worth a fresh read for those of us seeking a lesson in political economic writing applied to holocausts.

American should understand that when Orwell wrote, there was still massive doubt as to where America's loyalties would lie. The German-American Bund, Lindbergh and the Isolationists were working freely to subvert Congress and winning. Even Lend-Lease, just recently begun, was weak and massively controversial.

As Orwell wrote, most Americans honestly thought that Europe could be left to Hitler, and Britain's fate was none of their business.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the Wannsee Conference would soon be underway and the Final Solution established, intended as a permanent program in the Thousand Year Reich. After the feeble, the Jews, the homosexuals, the gypsies, the Slavs, who would be next?

Orwell knew. as he wrote at the time,

"If Hitler wins this war he will consolidate his rule over Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and if his armies have not been too greatly exhausted beforehand, he will wrench vast territories from Soviet Russia. He will set up a graded caste-society in which the German Herrenvolk (‘master race’ or ‘aristocratic race’) will rule over Slavs and other lesser peoples whose job it will be to produce low-priced agricultural products. He will reduce the coloured peoples once and for all to outright slavery. The real quarrel of the Fascist powers with British imperialism is that they know that it is disintegrating. Another twenty years along the present line of development, and India will be a peasant republic linked with England only by voluntary alliance. The ‘semi-apes’ of whom Hitler speaks with such loathing will be flying aeroplanes and manufacturing machine-guns. The Fascist dream of a slave empire will be at an end. On the other hand, if we are defeated we simply hand over our own victims to new masters who come fresh to the job and have not developed any scruples.

But more is involved than the fate of the coloured peoples. Two incompatible visions of life are fighting one another. ‘Between democracy and totalitarianism,’ says Mussolini, ‘there can be no compromise.’ The two creeds cannot even, for any length of time, live side by side. So long as democracy exists, even in its very imperfect English form, totalitarianism is in deadly danger. The whole English-speaking world is haunted by the idea of human equality, and though it would be simply a lie to say that either we or the Americans have ever acted up to our professions, still, the idea is there, and it is capable of one day becoming a reality. From the English-speaking culture, if it does not perish, a society of free and equal human beings will ultimately arise. But it is precisely the idea of human equality – the ‘Jewish’ or ‘Judaeo-Christian’ idea of equality – that Hitler came into the world to destroy. He has, heaven knows, said so often enough. The thought of a world in which black men would be as good as white men and Jews treated as human beings brings him the same horror and despair as the thought of endless slavery brings to us."

That political equality that Orwell predicted is here now, as on Tuesday we install the first black man to be the American President.

A kind of rough economic equality has also transpired, for the middle classes at least, as all of us are just as dependent on the market for our security and pensions. Not that we all have the similar incomes that Orwell envisaged. We're simply about as insecure as one another, the twenty-year UAW worker as dependent on market earnings as any fund manager. The homeless are merely the most insecure of all. There is no yawning economic class divide, as there was in Orwell's day when a young middle class Englishman had to deliberately try to be the tramp of Down and Out in Paris and London. Any of us could be homeless, in the right circumstance.

We have very little educational equality. The real class divide is between those of us who get a successful high school education and those who do not. The worst public inner city high schools, in Britain and America despite eight years of No Child Left Behind, and sixty years of social democratic education policy in Britain, remain mere warehouses for hip-hopped up thugs of a dozen different cultures and skin colors, who each have about as much chance of getting a elementary education or getting to university as Holocaust victims had of surviving the war.

If we ever have to draft these youths, we will soon discover how bankrupt our education policy has been.

But what we lack most of all in all of this is a voice of decent, honest, political economic criticism about how weak-minded and unfair and foolish it all has been. For our fecklessness in allowing political economic debate to become unfashionable and even vaguely disloyal to the capitalist creed, we face the obvious danger that all we will be able to think to do is bailout and patch up this tottering system.

If we don't grasp the nettle and start to argue for a better economic and energy future for everyone in the west, we will abdicate that future to the Chinese. As it happens, they already own a lot of our future anyway, right now. They are becoming the masters of the world.

We could just as easily let them succeed as fight them with ideas in our own interests. At which point we'd better hope that they will be nice enough to let us remain democratic and open societies.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Amish wind problems

I've been talking wind with an Amish wind turbine engineer. That's been sort of unexpected, and fun, for me, not just because of my own Quaker background, but because Amish are such communal and pleasant people, and because of the engineering problems involved.

Our Amish engineer, whose privacy I'll protect by not naming him or putting up photos, is developing a shop to produce wind turbines. The Amish generally don't have electricity in their houses, so these turbines are designed to produce compressed air. They use air for machine tools of all kinds in manufacturing. A lot of Amish farms are actually small manufacturing facilities, turning out anything from wooden park benches and cabinetry to, well, wind turbines. This particular plant will make small-to-medium turbines for farm-scale installation, each turbine connected by an air hose to a large compressor tank. By both saving lots of air in storage tanks, and by scheduling manufacturing and other shop work for breezy days, the Amish can have compressed air without doing what they normally do, which is run a small gas engine to run the compressor. Gas has been expensive lately, and not all Amish church meetings allow the use of gas engines, so there's reason to think that wind compressors will be welcome additions to the Amish toolkit.

The last Amish family I got to know, several years ago in western Pennsylvania, used air in a very tidy and well-developed shop to make harness and tack out of leather. The shop, with homemade bridles, saddles and harness hanging everywhere, was a magnet for every horsey person in a hundred mile radius, and business seemed very brisk.

(I once went hunting on Peter Brown's farm with the four sons of this family. Because it was far, they couldn't drive buggies over to the farm, so I picked them up in my vehicle, a 1975 VW bus, which I sill have. At five am on a back road in Pennsylvania, with four Amishmen and a hairy Englishman in a VW bus, all pacifists armed to the teeth, I wondered what might have happened if I'd been stopped for speeding.)

There are some interesting problems to solve with a wind compressor.

The first is the cut-in speed of the compressor. A normal wind generator has a certain mechanical inertia to be overcome before it will run. The level of inertia is related to the strength of the magnets used, or electromagnets, and the quality of bearings. In a wind compressor, there's a piston to crank, and the inertia level is related to the compression ratio of the piston and cylinder and their mechanical efficiency and lubrication.

This could lead to high inertia. If you don't change your compressor crank oil, if it's cold out, and if you have a high compression ratio, your turbine might not run at all until you get a fairly high wind. In any case, you'd be better off with a turbine blade design with an aerodynamic shape that can produce high torque at low speed, to overcome the inertia and get the compressor cranking. Manufacturers of off-the-shelf wind turbine blades don't make these kinds of blades. So our engineer needs to find a way to make, or have made, a different kind of blade, with a wider base and higher pitch at the base, than a normal skinny, high pitch, high-speed small generator blade.

Another problem will be telling customers fairly what the capability of the compressor is. With an normal gas compressor, the manufacturer's label will tell you what to expect, and unless there's something wrong, that will be what you get. In the case of a wind compressor, the amount of air you compress will depend as much on how windy a site you have, and how high your turbine tower is, as on the actual label efficiency of the compressor. The Amish are required by their religion to be fair in business practice and to give fair value. So our engineer needs to be able to relate wind speed to the power output of the prototype wind compressor, producing in effect a power curve for the generator to give to customers and potential customers, except in this case power produced will be measured in compressed air, not in KWH. So he needs to measure the wind on a prototype generator tower. I've provided some analog equipment to do this job, but a computer-logged system would be much better. We have several, but the Amish aren't allowed to use them.

Interestingly, the power curve will not be sigmoid or logistic as is usually the case with a wind generator. It will exhibit an exponential curve to begin, followed by a declining slope, because any piston-driven compressor loses efficiency/stroke as stroke speed increases (because of valve and air intake capacity limitations).

Finally, users of these wind compressors will need to pay close attention to air efficiency and storage efficiency. Most compressed air users tolerate a lot of leakage. The compressor needs to run to keep the pressure up, and you have to exercise the compressor at least daily, and bleed out water that accumulates in storage tanks, so a little air leakage is generally not such a bad thing, and a downright convenience when from the little valve at the bottom of the tank where the water accumulates. In the case of a wind compressor, unless you are willing only to work when it's windy, or have a site where it's always windy, you had better have good storage and little leakage. The customers will need an instruction manual that emphasizes efficiency and leak control.

These problems are all kinds of engineering fun, and, as my wife noticed yesterday, much more fun than teaching classes, so I've been Hanging out With the Amish.

Luckily we have students at Unity College in our Sustainability Design and Technology major who want and need to learn this kind of practical problem-solving engineering, so we can involve a couple of students in this exchange. Not a whole class, though. That wouldn't be fair.

As an added bonus, students will get an education in cultural diversity and sensitivity and be able to observe first-hand the case-study in practical ethics that the Amish just naturally are, which is not such a bad additional set of outcomes.

The compressor power curve problem is very good math, and statistics, for students to have to learn and apply too.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Climate Change in Katine, Uganda and elsewhere

2007 surface temperature changes compared to base years 1951-1980 average, from NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies

There are still millions of Americans who don't wish to pay any serious attention to what climate scientists are telling us about climate change. Every cold snap has denial mongers like Rush Limbaugh shouting their wares from the rooftops. "How can it be global warming if Iowa is freezing this winter?" they say.

First up, as Holdren says in the movie below, it's not "global warming." It's climate change. Global warming sounds benign, only to do with temperature, moderate, gradual. Climate change is patchy, involves all climate factors (wind, precipitation, ocean currents), and need not be gradual.

Second up, it isn't reasonable to assume that climate changes linearly. Not only will there be random or stochastic fluctuations, such as last year being the coldest year in a decade, globally (but still the tenth warmest since 1880), but there are several important hypothetical thresholds or "tipping points," any one of which, if it turns out to be more than just hypothetical will kill a couple billion people and throw the rest into acute resource and territorial wars. Tipping points can be cold or warm. There are several heating feedbacks, and one or two cooling ones, in the climate system. The IPCC consensus report assumes that no serious tipping points are reached in the next 100 years. But recent data on methane release suggests that at least one may already be tipping.

Finally, we know with the best of scientific certainty that climate change has already occurred. Some of us don't read the news, or not all the news, and so we might not know about these new records, like the 2003 Paris heatwave that killed 27,000, or we might not string them together or attribute them to greenhouse gas emissions. Even once we have connected the dots, we may still decide it's not our problem. Save the worry for the next generation. Why not?

Here's a Guardian article extract about a typical current climate change effect on an African village. You have to know a little about how rural African generally live to see what an ecological disaster this is for these people:

"The dry season is usually in June, but this year [2008] it was very, very long and went on until October," says former headteacher Yuventine Ekwaru, from Olochoi village. "The only time we have had anything like this before was in 1959. Then the swamps dried up and the government had to distribute food. This time all our crops are affected and there is going to be great hunger.

"This year two springs have dried up and our borehole has gone smelly and milky and we can no longer use it. It is certainly because of the drought," he adds.

Read the full article at this spot here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

John Holdren on Democracy Now

This is a great clip, republished in today's Guardian, to use in class when trying to explain the effect that the climate denial movement has had on US climate politics. Thanks to Democracy Now for giving more than a 30 second sound bite. Nearly none whole minutes of careful explanation!

That shouldn't have to be a victory, but it is.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

"Savage torpor"?

Andrew O'Hagan, a Scottish writer, delivered the recent Orwell Memorial Lecture at Birkbeck College, London, and I found an edited version in today's Guardian. Which led me to the Youtube recording of the entire lecture. Which, like the total geek I am, I listened to avidly over my Saturday morning coffee. (Check it out by clicking on the video above. You'll have to find parts 2-5. This is just part 1. But you can get them at this site here.)

I thoroughly enjoyed O'Hagan's erudite and pithy exposition of the symptoms of, and reasons for, the decline of the English working class, and their lack of any radical, self-healing collectivist response.

And if, as Obama revealed during the campaign when he thought he wasn't being recorded for once, the white poor of America's heartland have turned bitterly to guns and religion, their counterparts in England have their own symptomatic illness, manifested in soccer hooliganism, celebrity mania, credit cards, and designer drugs and the like, a shallow consumerist nightmare.

And since, as de Toqueville recognized and O'Hagan mentions, these two peoples remain much the same people, separated by a common language, yet joined by common surnames and a common faith in individualism, coming closer each year in many ways, in particular sharing every year more of the same electronic and consumer culture and fighting the same wars, you could, with little stretch, apply the same conceptual analysis to the white American underclass.

You'd have to change most of the references to their American analogs. But you could do it.

In O'Hagan's analysis, this sad decline of the English working community is just the most recent manifestation of a greater, infinitely sadder history, much older, one that predates Polanyi's "Great Transformation."

I resonated strongly and intuitively to O'Hagan's theory, which surprised me although it shouldn't because I grew up working class in Sheffield, England, and by rights should be stuck in that nightmare myself, along with many of my relatives. I only escaped by the skin of my teeth and a terrifyingly risky personal odyssey that eventually landed me permanently in America.

Where can you go with this?

I wonder, because for too long I've suspected that the great transformations wrought by Anglo-American industrial capitalism will pale in comparison to those that will be wrought by today's emerging forces.

Climate change, the energy crisis, the food crisis, China, militant Islam. Massive forces. Massive changes. Who knows how they will combine and clash?

O'Hagan, like Orwell and Polanyi, is to a great extent only hindcasting, an innately conservative approach, and is focused on a tiny group who almost certainly matter very little today, the working English. I'm not sure any of the survivors of this new great transformation will even have time to worry too much about how their ancestors lived and what they have lost, whoever their ancestors were.

On the other hand, if as I keep belabouring on this blog and our farm blog, one response to the combined climate, energy and food crises is a re-intensification and de-industrialization of agriculture, and another is the re-naturing and re-regionalization of energy and industry, then some of us at least, those of us that have the time and temper for it, really ought to go over this ground again and see what we can pull out that others can use.

The first great transformation started in these green hills and valleys where the working English still live. The people O'Hagan studies are those who have felt the full force of the industrial way of life for the longest. In understanding their decline, perhaps we can begin to imagine China after another twenty years of consumerism, or what might happen to social life in India.

O'Hagan does seem to lack one element, though, the perspective of land and soil and place. If, as he repeats to good effect in several ways, few young Englishmen and women suffering the banal imprisonment of a British working class housing estate at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century have much connection remaining to community and nationality and collective voice, fewer yet have connection to the "green and pleasant land" surrounding.

This is a tragedy far greater, I think, than the mere loss of connection to their politics and their radical ancestors. And he seems to assume, perhaps more by omission than intent, that it was always the case, which I don't think is true at all.

Land is healing and it always has continuity. This is because, sea level rise notwithstanding, it is always here in place. And many of the working English of recent generations had a deep and abiding connection to it, in large and small ways, and for all O'Hagan and I know, they still do.

When my maternal grandfather came back from the First World War probably as shattered and traumatized as any human could be, he essentially walked and double-dug his way to peace and sanity. His geography was small. He walked the still-green fields of the Mayfield Valley, and he dug the ground and planted vegetables and flowers as a professional gardener. The fact that what he was doing was exactly what his ancestors had done, on the same ground, in the same valley, for centuries, never probably occurred to him. But he did it all the same, probably because he knew instinctively that there was nothing else to do, and it saved him, made his family, and led to me.

His legacy of flowers and food is long compost, but I still treasure it.

And when, in 1945, my paternal grandfather, who'd been an activist before the war as well as an outdoorsman, artist, and Kinder Trespasser, came back from wartime service in Iraq to the next valley south, a more industrialized part of Sheffield, he came back to a house that was bombed out, a family scattered, and a community disrupted. His response was to gather first his wife and kids, and then his community, and to begin to organize new, safe, decent community housing through the new Labour government council house program. He was instrumental in the building of a new estate on a greenfield site in Dronfield where he lived the rest of his days and his daughter and granddaughter and their family still live. It was and remains one of the best, most well-designed public housing developments of that era. He also continued to campaign for access and rights-of-way for outdoor recreation, and remained active in Sheffield city planning, for the rest of his life. He essentially was able to implement his working class vision of a better England on the ground and community, and his legacy too was lasting.

His geography was larger. Slightly better educated than my maternal grandfather, he could drive, and had access to knowledge my maternal grandfather lacked, and his working landscape ranged from Dronfield north over the Pennines to Scotland. At the end of his days he sat in his council house and tried to capture those mountain scenes in landscape art, until Parkinson's took that pastime from him too.

These are working class British stories that seem to break the mold that O'Hagan is making. He would probably say that they are the exception and not the rule, and I would probably have to agree to be fair.

But they do show that in a recent generation at least, a knowledge of land and place led to the deep remaking and rebuilding of English family and community, and moreover, that this successful remaking took place after trauma much deeper than anything seen in recent times. And does it matter that each man was perhaps more of an individual than a collective actor?

And for me, I'd like to think I try to take the same ethos and put it to work on new land, a new community, a New England, with new problems, new trauma coming.

Just because the Scots and Welsh and Irish discovered their community and place more collectively, doesn't mean to say that the English (and by extension those other individualists, the Americans) might not find it and re-find it more individually, possibly with as much success.

But what a superb lecture. It surely made me think. And does old George proud.

Well done, Mr O'Hagan.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Unity's day in the sun?

From the most recent speech by President-elect Obama on the economy:

"To finally spark the creation of a clean energy economy, we will double the production of alternative energy in the next three years. We will modernize more than 75% of federal buildings and improve the energy efficiency of two million American homes, saving consumers and taxpayers billions on our energy bills. In the process, we will put Americans to work in new jobs that pay well and can’t be outsourced – jobs building solar panels and wind turbines; constructing fuel-efficient cars and buildings; and developing the new energy technologies that will lead to even more jobs, more savings, and a cleaner, safer planet in the bargain."

It seems to me that we are well-poised to contribute to this effort with our degree program in Sustainability Design and Technology.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Two interesting details

When the college term is out and there's few hands on sustainability projects, this blog tends to become a foil for whatever climate change and energy news-of-the-day I'm following. That's not such a bad thing, I figure, and I know I have a few readers who tune in just for that.

Today's crop of news demonstrates once again how ethics, economics, physics, engineering, climate science and ecology are all needed to truly understand what's going on right now.

First there's Monbiot's latest interview. For those of you who don't know Britain's chief climate-and-energy polemicist, this will be an easy introduction. I find Mr. Monbiot more than a little difficult at times, mostly because he loves sensation and scaring people a bit too much. I don't want people so terrified out of their wits by climate change that they either reject the news as unlikely, or adopt the rabbit-in-headlights position and do nothing. But he's been making himself into kind of a latter day Frosty, doing his best to put some of the leading figures in the energy world on the spot in televised interviews. Even though I distrust his column, you have to admire his chutzpah in remaking himself from academic polemicist to daring TV interviewer.

The moral of the Shell interview, which Monbiot doesn't hold back from spelling out on his own, is that there is no built-in tendency for capitalism to hold off on otherwise dangerous or amoral courses of money-making action just because. Society has to make it do so by shaping the legal playing field.

This is what's called the "prohibited transaction" problem in ethical or normative analysis of capital markets and economic policy. It's one way to think about how society shapes the actions of capital.

It goes like this: Not all transactions are permitted, legally. If I hate you so much I want you hurt or dead, I can't legally go buy the services of a thug to beat you up or kill you. Neither can I purchase certain kinds of pornographic images. I'm not allowed to buy a slave to do my laundry. And on and on. Do any of these things, and I'm likely to end up in jail. Despite what free market economic commentators want us to believe, society always does place prohibitions on the transactions capitalists and consumers are legally permitted.

If there are always prohibited transactions, then how do the boundaries of what is permitted change? That's the interesting part, and the bit Rush Limbaugh doesn't want you to study. It's complicated, but a simple understanding of history shows the boundaries do change, the abolition of slavery being a great example. Society, in uneven and complicated political and ethical ways, comes under pressure to change from within, generally through the actions of pressure groups, who bring ethical considerations to everyone's attention. Sometimes there is conflict, either verbal or physical before change takes place. But society does both advance and retract the boundaries of ethical and legal transactions, changing the playing field on which capital seeks a profit.

This is hardly ever taught in Econ 101, but if you think about it, prohibited transactions are basic to economic analysis, even pre-analytical. If a transaction is prohibited, you can't really use economic analysis to determine what the trade-offs are (a branch of environmental economics called Coasian theory is usually used). Society has decided they are too great and preemptively prohibited the transaction, and thus the permission to use ordinary economic analysis is also somewhat attenuated.

That doesn't mean to say there isn't demand for prohibited goods. Of course there is. It just means that supply-demand analysis, particularly when used for getting-the-price-right sin taxes, is not a particularly useful tool for academically studying, say, the demand for the services of a murderous thug. Law and criminal justice studies are what is normally used.

Monbiot, to cut a long story short, on the basis of his interviews with the capitalists of climate change, calls for the prohibition of the worst climate emissions causing transactions, such as trading in oil shales or non-CCS coal power.

And he's right. For once.

Then there's this bit about how you can use natural gas pressure, a geological phenomenon, to drive micro-turbines and cooling equipment, producing power and refrigeration. Who knew? But the physics of it makes sense, and yes, it will produce useful energy in useful places and save climate emissions.

Energy is abundant. It's getting it in useful form to wherever you need it that's generally the problem. Here particular energy knowledge is crucial. One crucial piece of information is that solar panels work better if cool. They can be several percentage points more efficient if they're kept at a cool temperature. This is difficult because they're usually black and placed in the sun.

Go figure.

Turns out that numerous gas-producing countries, places in the sun, have natural gas depressurization stations in spots that could also be home to solar power stations.

And of course a pipeline for gas is a ready-made right of way for power lines. Very cool. And a whole new field of engineering and commerce opens up as a result of this discovery. Which isn't really anything new. Some clever person who's on top of his game put two-and-two together.

And your point, Mick, is?

My point is, sustainability, climate and energy studies is a very interesting and complex interdisciplinary field, requiring at least a solid groundwork in at least the following: ethics, economics, physics, engineering, climate science and ecology .

You need to master a lot of fields to be any good in my field. And because it's so fast-moving right now, with new information coming in more or less daily from climate science, energy engineering news, and commercial and political developments, you have to stay on top of a lot of news or you'll be made obsolete as a thinker within a few months.

Not too many degree programs cover all those bases, huh?

Monday, January 5, 2009

The real presidential debate

The NYT published an article Friday relating Clinton era weaknesses on climate policy to personalities in the new Obama team, particularly Carol Browner and Larry Summers.

I asked the same question when I saw that Summers was appointed.

Herman Daly used to tell an anecdote about one of his experiences working with Summers when he was President of the World Bank (and Daly the Banks' Chief Economist). The story was about trying to explain the physical impossibility of infinite economic growth on an finite planet to Summers. Shown a picture of what is now the standard ecological economics Venn diagram (with the human economy a wholly contained subset of the biosphere) that Daly wanted placed prominently in a new Bank environmental report issued sometime after the Bruntland Commission's own report, Summers allegedly said dismissively, "That's not the way to think about it."


If the NYT piece isn't speculative, if Larry Summers is still a climate skeptic and as dogmatic, and if he keeps his job, then I can't see how John Holdren can keep his new job very long.

If Summer's views are the same as they were, and if they win the day, or even the first battle, there will have to be a showdown.

I'm not sure the transition team quite understood what mutually incompatible theoretical views they were building into the President-elect's group of closest advisors. You'd probably have to be an academic working in the field to understand all the differences.

Not that they're particularly nuanced.

You can come to the position that we need immediate and effective controls of climate emissions from two primary directions. Either you're a climate scientist or other natural scientist, and you have studied the literature and realized that the human niche on the planet is gravely threatened by climate instability.

Or you're a human ecologist or ecological economist and you understand that if it continues to grow, sooner or later the human economy will crash because it runs out of key resources, one such resource being the atmosphere's continued ability to process emissions without becoming unstable, climatically speaking. (Ecological economists would call this the "sink resource" characteristic of the atmosphere.)

This is sometimes disparagingly called the Malthusian or Neomalthusian view by detractors within conventional economics, although ecologists refer to these kinds of limits simply as carrying capacity and apply a standard population model that has been part of the canon in biology for many years. Holdren in particular is one of the authors of modern human population theory.

If you're like me, and have climate, ecology and ecological economics training, you fit the two views together. In which case, we worry about climate change first, but realize that we have other resource concerns to worry about too, like energy, and so you put the two together.

If you're a skeptic or a denier, you can oppose climate policy via either route too. You can remain skeptic, or deny, that climate scientists have accurately described the way the planet's climate works, and/or accurately predicted the various outcomes. There's probably a spectrum of views and positions between mild scientific skepticism and unreasonable or ideological denial.

Or you come from within economics to deny that the economy is limited in growth by the scale of the planet's resources. This is essentially the Julian Simon or cornucopian position (see below for an update on Simonian thinking). This was the position Summers took, perhaps inadvertently, by opposing Daly's use of the Venn diagram in the World Bank report, way back when.

There is a route between the horns of the dilemma: Nicholas Stern's view that we need climate control as a kind of insurance against dangerous climate change. Insurance is a notion that can be explained within neoclassical economics, and believing in insurance allows you to control emissions without identifying climate change as a kind of Malthusian or ecological check. It's a bit of a fudge, if you ask me, although I can go along with it as a kind of second best.

Maybe Summers has become a New Sternian. (To coin an obviously mortal phrase.)

It seems that one of the first jobs that the new administration must complete, is to decide where it stands on all of these points.

This all seems very academic, I know, but to students of ecological economics, it's an interesting debate. We've been working on this paradigm shift in economic theory now since the mid-eighties. Never before has the inherent theoretical dispute between ecological and neoclassical economics really been aired in such a public way, or become so prominent.

We live in interesting times. Sort of makes me wish I was teaching economics this semester. It would be a great teaching opportunity.

By the way, we can guess which side the NYT author, John M. Broder, is on. Here's the telling quote:

"It may once again prove to be Mr. Summers’s role to inject a rigorous economist’s reality check into the debate over the scope and speed of an attack on global warming."

Rigorous? That seems like wishful thinking, Mr. Broder. At the very least it sounds like editorial approval.

How rigorous is it to deny the results of current climate science? Or to deny that the human economy is a wholly enclosed subset of the biosphere? Or both?

I think we're conflating our fear of the economic unknown here with rigor.

Just because Summer's economic views (assuming they're more or less what they were in the early 1990s) seem nice and safe and, well, normal, doesn't mean to say they're scientifically rigorous!

I think in this case the rigor might all be on John Holdren's side.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Full text Hansen-Obama letter

The Guardian published the full text here

Friday, January 2, 2009

Hanson pleas Obama through Holdren

Boy, this climate-advice-to-the-president thing is getting frantic already. In addition to all the missives received through and blogs like Andy Revkin's, the buzz about John Holdren on CTR and even TierneyLab, now Hansen has written directly to the president-elect via Holdren, pleading for a moratorium on coal.

If I were Obama, I'd be wondering what to do about all the noise.

Of course, a lot of us think this is the most serious thing in the world right now. So, in my lights, and probably Holdren's and Hansen's, the noise is justified.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Tierney torment misses the point

John Tierney, the NYT science writer who "always wanted to be a scientist but went into journalism because its peer-review process was a great deal easier to sneak through," is again publicizing his view that the public should be skeptical about Obama science appointee John Holdren because of his participation in the infamous Julian Simon/Paul Erhlich bet about resource scarcity.

In a nutshell, in the early '70's, Simon, remembered most for his belief that human population could grow forever and never require controlling (documented in his book The Ultimate Resource), bet population ecologist Paul Erhlich, holder of the 100% opposite belief that population should and could be controlled immediately to husband scarce resources (in The Population Bomb), that his thesis was flawed.

Erhlich famously lost the bet, and this loss has been used (as if it were serious evidence) by neoconservatives against sustainability advocates ever since.

A deeper understanding of the bet is that it is a clash of economic ideology against physics and ecology.

Essentially, Simon bet that humans would find a way to adapt in each and every case of resource scarcity by substituting or innovating around problems because of the incentive to change provided by increased price. The free market would always win.

Erhlich, essentially, bet that some resources could not be substituted for. Physical resource constraints would limit global population, and Ehrlich wished to avoid the Malthusian crunch.

Simon invited Erhlich to pick any resource commodity to monitor to see who was correct. If the real price of the commodity increased after a certain time, Erhlich would win the bet. If not, Simon would win.

Simon won because the five commodity metals, which were picked by Holdren for Erhlich, all decreased in price.

Forensic reconstruction and deconstruction of this famous wager is a specialty obsession carried on by sustainability geeks and neo-conservatives around the world, as if it somehow mattered. I once took this stuff seriously enough myself to go interview Simon for my own research. It was easy enough to get an interview. Simon had an appointment in the UMD Business School, which was in the same building, Van Munching Hall, in which I spent the first four years of my PhD.

Simon was charismatic, lively, charming, and utterly conceited. It was easy to see why he relished the bet. Ehrlich and Holdren were foolish to take him on, inadvertently helping him publicize his views. In particular, back then in the early days of academic sustainability, few ecologists were studying economics, which was generally seen as part of the problem, not the solution, and so most of the early work was characterized by a reliance on ecology and physics, untempered by supply/demand and other economic theory.

The ecological economics movement would eventually emerge to begin to correct the trend. But that would be years later.

Tierney, it seems, is a Simon protégé. To the point of initiating a new bet, this time with peak oil guru Matthew Simmons.


Imitation is the sincerest from of flattery, I guess. But again, both Simmons and Tierney are missing the point. And Tierney, to compound his Simon-like arrogance, is using the occasion to cast aspersions on John Holdren.

Whose career since the initial Simons/Erhlich bet has been stellar to say the least, blameless, and a serious contribution to world science. And peer-reviewed. Unlike Tierney's.


What is the real point?

Of course humans, within reason, can find technical workarounds for any given resource scarcity. What the economists predict, the engineers usually deliver. With no help, I might add, from economists, ecologists or science writers. High price is often sufficient. No-one likes to leave 100 dollar bills lying in the ground. And we can likely find workarounds for our current scarcity-driven problems, particularly in energy. Some of us are even actually working on the problems, not just writing about them.

But the root of resource scarcity is population growth. And who really wants to live on a planet with 9.5 billion people? Especially one whose climate is changing unpredictably? All that concrete, all those cities, that much less space for wilderness, wildlife, farms and gardens? What Patrick Geddes called the "real wealth."


Not even John Tierney!

And does John Tierney know for sure that free market high price is going to be sufficient incentive to control carbon emissions before a major feedback such as methane or albedo kicks in? Before we enter some accelerated phase of climate change.

Of course not. When Simon and Erhlich made their bet, abrupt climate change was barely known. If the planet decides to enter an accelerated warming or cooling cycle, all bets will be off. There won't be any time or ability for either unbridled market economics, or getting-the-price-right ecological economics, to do a damn thing.

Maybe Nick Stern is right. Maybe an insurance policy is the best way to look at carbon pricing. At least it gets us away from this forever debate between Malthusians and Cornucopians.