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?

No comments: