Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Why not to ask this question

Did I Miss Anything?

Tom Wayman

Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours

     Everything. I gave an exam worth
     40 percent of the grade for this term
     and assigned some reading due today
     on which I’m about to hand out a quiz
     worth 50 percent

Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose

     Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
     a shaft of light suddenly descended and an angel
     or other heavenly being appeared
     and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
     to attain divine wisdom in this life and
     the hereafter
     This is the last time the class will meet
     before we disperse to bring the good news to all people
          on earth.

Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur?

     Everything. Contained in this classroom
     is a microcosm of human experience
     assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
     This is not the only place such an opportunity has been

     but it was one place

     And you weren’t here
From Did I Miss Anything? Selected Poems 1973-1993, 1993
Harbour Publishing

Keystone XL dissent rally

Posted on behalf of Marina Therberge:

Drop Everything and Rally!

A last minute opportunity for Unity College students! This weekend, March 1st and 2nd, join students across the nation in a march from Georgetown University to the White House. Demand the attention of Obama and make it be known that the youth of America does not want to see him approve the Keystone XL Pipeline.

There is also a non-violent direct action training Saturday 5-9PM that we will attend.

To sign up for this event e-mail:

There are limited seats so please sign up quick! If there are more students interested than seats those students will be put on the waiting list.

This trip will be the entirety of the weekend: early morning Saturday-early morning Monday.
More details to come.

Inequality movie -- from Autumn

SEM job in Alaska!

Energy Coordinator

General Position Description:

The Southeast Alaska Conservation
Council seeks a motivated and passionate individual to work on rural
energy issues. The Energy Coordinator position is responsible for
assisting rural Southeast communities in identifying ways to
alleviate high energy costs and reduce their dependency on fossil
fuels. The position involves working very closely with local,
regional and state partners in developing effective strategies to
increase local engagement, provide energy educational opportunities
and explore efficiency measures and renewable energy alternatives for
heating, electricity and transportation.

    * Work within a broader partnership on efforts and demonstration
projects that integrate multiple components of community
sustainability including affordable energy, economic development, the
environment, social well being and cultural values.
    * Travel extensively to communities to maintain current
relationships and build new relationships with tribal partners,
schools, utilities, municipalities and boroughs, conservation
organizations and other non-governmental organizations. Coordinate
with all partners to keep them informed of efforts, programs and
opportunities for energy related involvement
    * Research and help prioritize individual community energy
options, work closely with partners and local leaders to offer
recommendations on near and long term efforts
    * Engage multiple stakeholders in community energy planning and visioning
    * Facilitate community energy meetings and help develop local
energy committees
    * Facilitate, partner on and provide technical support for energy
demonstration projects
    * Work with local campaign staff in compiling updated energy
baseline information for community buildings in order to accurately
measure the impact of efficiency and renewable energy efforts
    * Track performance of demonstration projects through on-line and
site monitoring, develop reports on performance and lessons learned
in order to strengthen future efforts and help guide policy
    * Work with community and regional partners on developing
resource assessments and feasibility studies to prepare for future
project level funding
    * Provide direct support, guidance and training opportunities for
community-based program staff in Kake, Hoonah and Wrangell
    * Conduct outreach to SEACC members and the public through
workshops, publications, alerts, blogs, reports and media
    * Work with SEACC staff and campaign on program development which
will include actively reevaluating goals, objectives and strategies
based on organizational reflection and community and partner feedback
    * Assist community partners with the preparation of grant
proposals and program budgeting
    * Participate in local, regional and statewide energy planning
meetings and events
    * Carry out personnel administrative tasks such as
communications, reporting and maintain records for convenience of
successive members and other staff

Desired Qualifications:

We are seeking a person who is highly motivated, a quick learner and
able to work independently with excellent time management and
communication skills.  Experience working in rural Alaska communities
is preferred. Familiarity with the regional energy framework of
Southeast Alaska, as well as knowledge about energy efficiency and/or
small scale renewable energy applications is highly desired.

The Energy Coordinator position will serve as a "technical team"
member providing guidance and support to staff living in rural
communities, and helping to coordinate efforts and share information
among communities.

Compensation: Annual salary DOE; full health benefits

To apply: Email cover letter, resume, writing sample, and references
to Todd Bailey at Please put
"Energy Coordinator" in the title.

Deadline: March 1st, 2014.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Photos from Monday"s wind power field trip in PS3003 Sustainable Energy Lab

Photographer was Clark Crawford

At Ervin Hochstetler's wind turbine work shop: A wind compressor power head.

Ervin and I explain the machinery

Another look at the power head

One of Ervin's DC battery-charging power heads on the bench

Ervin's home Winpressor turbine running strong in a cold stiff breeze

His home-built battery-charging turbine

At the MOFGA 10 kW Bergey

The 10kW Bergey in full perspective

I explain the inverter system


A drive-by look at MOFGA's solar thermal hot water system, designed and built by engineer Jay LeGore

Beaver Ridge Wind's General Electric 3 X 1.5 mW  wind farm

21st Century Leadership

Expectations for leadership are changing out there in the working world. The most sophisticated and successful organizations no longer rely on what I call the "John Wayne" school of charismatic (dead white) male leadership. They crowd source their problems, consult deeply among their employees, and, more than anything, listen.

This was always true, surprisingly, during my military career. I worked for military organizations (specifically the Royal Air Force engineering trades and the RAF Mountain Rescue Service), where the officers had to rely on the inherent leadership in the enlisted men and NCOs, because the work we did was so difficult technically that "John Wayning" was always a recipe for disaster. You don't expect the military to be a place where rank matters less than knowledge and ability, but in my career it was.

This from Tom Friedman's article in the NYT this morning on how leadership expectations are changing in our top organizations. The raconteur is Laszlo Bock, head of HR for Google:

“...the No. 1 thing we look for is general cognitive ability, and it’s not I.Q. It’s learning ability. It’s the ability to process on the fly. It’s the ability to pull together disparate bits of information. We assess that using structured behavioral interviews that we validate to make sure they’re predictive.”

The second, he added, “is leadership — in particular emergent leadership as opposed to traditional leadership. Traditional leadership is, were you president of the chess club? Were you vice president of sales? How quickly did you get there? We don’t care. What we care about is, when faced with a problem and you’re a member of a team, do you, at the appropriate time, step in and lead. And just as critically, do you step back and stop leading, do you let someone else? Because what’s critical to be an effective leader in this environment is you have to be willing to relinquish power.”

What else? Humility and ownership. “It’s feeling the sense of responsibility, the sense of ownership, to step in,” he said, to try to solve any problem — and the humility to step back and embrace the better ideas of others. “Your end goal,” explained Bock, “is what can we do together to problem-solve. I’ve contributed my piece, and then I step back.”

And it is not just humility in creating space for others to contribute, says Bock, it’s “intellectual humility. Without humility, you are unable to learn.”

More on the missing heat -- for Global Change

One current problem in climate science is to understand where the missing heat energy is. The amount of carbon dioxide we've added to the atmosphere in the last twenty years years should have increased the conversion of solar UV energy to terrestrial IR energy, essentially "forced" another fraction of a degree's increase in surface AAT, but it hasn't. The most probable reason is because increased ocean turbulence has driven heat deeper into the ocean than our models expected. This latest news article suggests another reason, likely concurrent with the first, that we've underestimated the amount and effect of sulphate aerosols from recent volcanic eruptions.

This finding is compatible with the general effect we find each year with our own regular classroom project of replicating the Lean and Rind 2008 and 2009 methodology, and updating the data and model, and, in point of fact, the authors of the new paper use the same basic statistical technique.

There's a link to the actual paper in the news article, but it's behind the Nature paywall. I have a list of such articles I'll need our librarians to get for us this semester.

In the meantime, here's the news article.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

My next vacation: Includes Paul Allen of CAT talking about new green tech

Illumexico -- the real work

The innovation this group has provided is their modular electronic charge controllers and inverters. It's not rocket science. Initial circuit diagrams for prototyping and modification can be found in the public domain. It's just that there's not enough money in this market for for-profits, or at least, that's what the for-profits think. They may be mistaken.

We have a student group working on a similar charging circuit prototype this spring.

Again, this is what I call the "real work", borrowing a line from Gary Snyder. Simple ideas making a big difference, sustainably.

Old ice for new

Friday, February 21, 2014

A good day for green job and other career opportunities!

Energy & Enviroment - Northern Illinois University

Northern Illinois University is proud to host a NSF-funded summer Research Experience for Undergraduate program, Operation E-Tank. The goal of this REU program is to create opportunities to engage undergraduates in interdisciplinary perspectives on sustainability concerning the environment, energy, economy, and ethics. Eligible undergraduates interested in environmental issues and scientific research with strong potential for a career in science are encouraged to apply for this interdisciplinary summer research opportunity. Students will work directly with faculty mentors and participate in a number of regional workshops and seminars. The program runs June 15-August 9, 2014. For description of the REU program, potential projects, and information on eligibility and applications, see the Operation E-Tank website: Applications are due Monday, March 3, 2014. 

Green jobs roster

The urls aren't hot -- you'll have to cut and paste. But there's a lot in there.

From the SEM grapevine

Please see below for a link to a recently posted Project Administrator position on the solar team at the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. The position is entry level, and is primarily focused on helping facilitate the Commonwealth Solar II rebate program and the Solarize Mass program. Please feel free to distribute to your contacts who may be interested.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Framing the future of higher education

This was why I skipped class Monday and Tuesday to be in Texas (not just because it was 70 F and sunny).

Some interesting readings:

Brief background:
I was invited to participate because of some CHE articles about the college and hands-on pedagogy. The HEPI was founded by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board as a research arm. They brought together faculty, administrators, students, outside experts, and legislators for this symposium to build bridges. We had speakers, followed by interactive workshops where groups were formed with a mixture of the above, and then wrap-up sessions.

Selected Speakers:
  • Mark Schneider, VP American Institutes for Research: Discussed the cost effectiveness of higher education. Liberal education pays off, just not as much and takes longer than the best professional programs in dollar terms, such as engineering. (We may need to measure ten-year rates, not five as currently.)
  • Carol Geary Schneider, President AACU: Promoted LEAP program (used in our own AMP). Liberal studies makes fundamentally better and more functional human beings” and is a prerequisite for a vibrant democracy
  • Dr. Eduardo Padron, President, Miami Dade College. Discussed MDC – largest in the country -- in general and the results of their recent academic master planning – “His students know that without that post-secondary credential, there’s no American Dream” for them.
  • Teresa Sullivan, UVA: recently embattled president, fired by the (conservative) UVA Board and then reinstated.
  • Katherine Brooks, author of “You Majored in What? Mapping your path from Chaos to Career.”

Take homes for me:
·     There is a long list of “high impact” practices that we already do or have thought of, many of which we implemented through the AMP and just now being assessed and evaluated, that these experts recommend, but that are very hard to implement in these large systems such as Texas’.
·      Examples:
o   Internships
o   Students support networks and teams
o   Problem-based learning, trans/interdisciplinary
o   Community-based learning. Recommended: more engagement with for-profits, not just non-profits for CBL, which we don’t do much of at all
o   Student research
o   Collaborative research and group work with diverse partners that don’t agree with you
o   Community contributions --- to a larger community, not just the home institution
o   Flipped classes
o   Peer tutoring and advising
o   Outcomes-based curriculum mapping, planning and assessment
o   Reconsider the “agrarian-based” college calendar
o   First year “boot camp” courses (Padron’s phrase, not mine)

They visualized and won a prize!

Good afternoon,

I just received the 7 February 2014 issue of Science.  This issue has the winners of the 2013 Visualization challenge. There are categories for Illustration, posters & graphics, photography, games & apps, and video.  We have the print issue and Science has posted it online at

Happy viewing!

Sandra Abbott-Stout
Interim Library Director
Reference/Instruction Librarian
Quimby Library
Unity College

PS from Mick: If you think about it, this is also a form of critical thinking

Monday, February 17, 2014

"High impact" educational practices

Something we studied for the AMP, that I had forgotten about until this conference:

From Sandra -- "Big Solar"


The world’s largest solar plant started creating electricity today:



I was able to spend an hour at the LBJ museum yesterday, just before it closed. My timing was good, for the 50th anniversary. This is good background stuff for our EC 2003 history of economics discussions.

Potential exam question: What kind of economics did LBJ practice?

Here's a movie the NY Times had on the front page today:

Sunday, February 16, 2014


Remember, no class Monday or Tuesday -- I'm at a conference. Here are your alternate assignments:

PS3003 Sustainable Energy: Prepare project memo. Be sure to comprehensively list materials.

EC 2003 Economics of Resource Conservation and Sustainability: Take home exam -- see menu at right

GL 4003 Global Change: Prepare first draft project memo

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Extra credit

Students in both SP 2014 EC 2003 Economics of Res. Con. and PS 3003 Sustainable Energy:

I am offering five points extra credit for marked attendance at this upcoming event (while I'm away in Texas). I will ask a faculty colleague to take attendance.



Tuesday, February 18
11:00 am to 12:00 pm in PW 204

Sharon Reishus, Senior Director for IHS CERA North American Power Advisory Service

Outlook for North American Energy

The energy sector in North America is undergoing fundamental changes, from newly discovered supplies of domestic, low-priced fossil fuel to innovations in technology. Coupled with an evolving policy landscape around conventional pollutants and carbon, the energy industry faces significant challenges in the decades ahead. Ms. Reishus will discuss some of the trends she sees that may reshape the energy industry in the future.

Sharon Reishus leads the development and delivery of research content for the IHS CERA North American Power Advisory Service. A national leader on energy issues, she served as chair of Maine Public Utilities Commission, and represented Maine at the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, Eastern Interconnection State Planning Council (EISPC), and New England State Committee on Electricity (NESCOE). She is the past president of the New England Conference of Public Utility Commissioners (NECPUC).

Monday, February 10, 2014

Small is Beautiful

Illustrative of the problem

Students' questions about economics, part two

I ordered the questions in categories for easier analysis:

Questions we have about modern economics: 

Questions about corporations and the business world:
  • Are corporations overall a political, ethical, criminal, environmental problem?
  • Does business really self-regulate?
  • Is competition really fair, egalitarian, and efficient?
Questions about economics, sustainability and the environment in general:
  • How do we protect the environment?
  • Is growth compatible with environmental protection?
  • Does it make sense to worry about sustainability as an individual?
  • Where is renewable energy in all this? 
Questions about economics and human well-being:
  • Is ever increasing money wealth good for people, communities, and countries?
  • What effects does economics, consumerism, and industrialization have on the psyche?
Questions about economics itself:
  • Do economies really need to continue to grow exponentially?
  • Does trickle-down economics really make any sense?
  • How much of modern economics is scientific? How much is a self-serving mythology? 
 Questions about American political economy and the social system:
  • How much does this (economics) affect our politics?
  •  Will the middle class survive as we know it? And should we actually want it to?
  • If we don't tax the wealthy and can't otherwise control them or use them usefully what do we do with them? 
  • Can/should the government cap wealth?
  • Should money equal power?
  • Citizens United - does it change our ability to regulate corporations and elites?
  • Leadership - how do we get change?
  • Where is education in all this?
  • Is personal debt a form of social control?
  • Can we change the definition of wealth?
The ultimate question (?):
  • Economics: What lies beyond?

Class project option

Can be used in either PS 3003 Sustainable Energy or EC 2003 Economics of Resource Conservation and Sustainability. See me or Molly Cronin for details.

Nokomis and Unity Research Partnership

The 9th grade physical science class at Nokomis Regional High School will be exploring alternative energy and creating proactive plans for different countries and regions. They will need to research what methods are currently being used by the region for energy, if that could be improved or replaced by something more efficient, and what forms of alternative energy would best suit that region. Part of the project is to contact someone in the field or a professional contact, essentially a more "knowledgeable other." I am proposing that Unity College students become the more knowledgeable other and assist in the Nokomis students’ research.

The Unity College (UC) Student will provide answers to the questions asked by Nokomis 9th graders regarding alternative and renewable energy with an accurate and detailed response. Along with an answer, the UC student will use and share an appropriate source.

Sample Questions:
"Are there enough direct hours of sunlight annually to support solar panels in Iceland?"
"How much energy is supplied yearly by wind power in Spain?"
"Is the coast of Brazil deep enough to have tidal generators?"

How to participate:
If you wish to participate in this partnership or have questions related to the assignment please send Molly Cronin ( an email. I will need your response and commitment by Monday February 24, 2014.

In order to filter questions efficiently, it would be best if there were a few “experts” on these types of energy:

When you agree to participate, please give me your number one and number two topics of interest.

All communication between Unity College students and Nokomis High School students will be professional, appropriate and only related to the energy project. Any misconduct should be reported to me, your instructor, or to the Nokomis teacher Ms. Katie Thompson. This email relationship must end April 10, 2014.


New research suggests strongly that Pacific Ocean trade winds are churning up the water, pushing what would have been surface heat into deeper levels of the ocean. As with a lot of things that are currently happening to our climate, we don't quite know what happens next. But this information, if confirmed with other supporting evidence, explains one recent problem, the recent slowdown in the rate of increase of surface warming. I don't think that this is good news -- you only have to take a look at what's been happening this winter in Great Britain to see that adding energy to the oceans is probably not a good thing.

The following picture comes from the Guardian newspaper and can be seen in its original context at this page here.

Saturday, February 8, 2014


I had a nice affirmation yesterday, but one that is less than moderately comprehensible to my American colleagues, friends and relatives (and even some of my British colleagues, friends and relatives), that are unfamiliar with the academic organizations of Britain and the Commonwealth of Nations, and related institutions: I was "elected" a Fellow of the RSA, the "Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce."

This is not a huge deal, as academic honors go. The RSA is easily confused with the Royal Society or RS. To be elected to the RS would be a much, much bigger deal.

RSA fellows are far more numerous than Royal Society Fellows. You really have to be "eminent" to become a Fellow of the Royal Society; whereas the RSA has 27,000 Fellows all around the world, the RS has only about 1,600. I wouldn't be eligible for the RS, because I'm not a particularly eminent academic. And the RSA is more about practical applications of science and philosophy, less about pure research and new knowledge, which are the main concerns of the RS.

There has already been some confusion around campus, which I'm anxious to dispell.

The official line is, "Fellows must have demonstrated achievement or potential related to the arts, manufactures and commerce." By "the arts", they mean the liberal arts, and so science and social science are included. In recent years the RSA has adopted a sustainability mission, which I found particularly attractive. The benefits for me, my students and the college will include access to ideas through conferences, meetings, networks and publications, and access to small amounts of competitive funding for researchers, practitioners and students. There was an application letter and they asked for referees. They must have thought about it somehow, since they kept me waiting for a couple of months.

I think, other than studying their webpage, the best way to understand what this is about if anyone is particularly interested is to watch the following animation from the current Chief Executive of the organization:

PS: Wikipedia keeps a list of RSA Fellows here.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Tidal power development back in Wales

I'm part Welsh, and some of my family, including my mother and father when they were alive, and my sister, and various cousins on both sides distant and close, live in the valleys and coastal towns of South Wales. When I go "home" to see family, that's now the first place I go, the second being the hills and valleys of the west side of Sheffield (one of the birthplaces of the industrial revolution, thanks to the coal, iron ore and water power found there in close cohabitation).

When I'm back in Wales, I often take a walk on the beaches of the Severn estuary. This tidal inlet, large even by American standards, has been proposed, on-again/off-again, for tidal power development over many decades.

Finally one development has made it to the permit application stage.

This is going to be an important project in the history of renewable energy development, and may even have importance for Maine.

It will be interesting to see what happens, especially as I'll literally be able to see, i.e., visit and take photographs over the years.

Like a lot of good multiple-use renewable energy projects dating back to the days of the TVA and BPA, this one seems to have multiple planned uses, including recreation, sport, brownfield redevelopment, and mariculture.

I would also like to see a full cost accounting of this proposal, including any UK government subsidy. It seems likely to be expensive per kWh, especially compared say to offshore or land-based wind in the same region, although it would be less obtrusive to nearby property owners than wind power would be, and even a positive development for property owners close to the very large brownfield sites in Swansea, previously a center of copper smelting, among other heavy industry. I'll keep looking.

Here's the news article:

Here's the company web page:

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The real work...

SEM near-graduate Ben Holt, of whom much more is expected, produced this awesome video about TerraHaus, with help from philosophy and media studies professor John Zavodny.

The kind of cutting-edge renewable energy and building design and construction work Ben highlights in this movie is what I call the real work (misusing a phrase from American beat poet Gary Snyder).

It contrasts starkly with the mainstream approach, both at other colleges and universities, and in mainstream construction and energy businesses.

(The media studies work isn't half bad either!)

A personal note: When the movie was first shown, I worried about the potentially annoying screensaver slides flashing on my computer desktop. I wondered if they were distracting. But now I think it adds. Ben, who is wise beyond his years, cuts away before it gets too much, and the slides demonstrate that the TerraHaus is not a one-off.

It's what we do.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Students' questions (after three weeks of economics)

After three weeks of introductory material, essentially a primer in modern economic thinking (delivered as dead-pan as I could, by the way, as if I believe in it -- to some students' discomfort and dismay!), I asked my students in Economics of Resource Conservation and Sustainability to list questions that economics really needed to answer, properly and scientifically. This is the list (below). It's a very good list, one that demands some serious and straight answers, and, if unanswered, amounts to a substantial indictment of our current political economy.

What happens now is that we discuss the ecological economics responses to these questions, comparing them to the mainstream doctrine, as well as any other ways to think about it that students can imagine. 

This is what I call critical economics, or economic criticism, borrowing terminology from academic philosophy. Another term would be old fashioned political economy. It should be more widely taught, but isn't, hence our current and compounded economic inequality, energy, agricultural and climate crises. (Here's an interesting recent related protest.)

The primary result is that mainstream economic thinking often goes unquestioned. For a flavor of this, visit my recent debate with University of Alberta economist and apparent apologist for oil sands exploitation Andrew Leach, below.*

Here are the students' questions. Over the next few weeks I'll be categorizing them and reordering for logical investigation.

The italics and some of the rephrasing is mine, but the questions come from the students without any prompting.

Questions we have about modern economics:
  • Does business really self-regulate?
  • Is competition really fair, egalitarian, and efficient?
  • How do we protect the environment?
  • Is growth compatible with environmental protection?
  • Is ever increasing money wealth good for people, communities, and countries?
  • Does it make sense to worry about sustainability as an individual?
  • What effects does economics, consumerism, and industrialization have on the psyche?
  • Do economies really need to continue to grow exponentially?
  • Will the middle class survive as we know it? And should we actually want it to?
  • Does trickle-down economics really make any sense?
  • If we don't tax the wealthy and can't otherwise control them or use them usefully what do we do with them? 
  • Can/should the government cap wealth?
  • Are corporations overall a political, ethical, criminal, environmental problem?
  • Should money equal power?
  • Citizens United - does it change our ability to regulate corporations and elites?
  • How much of modern economics is scientific? How much is a self-serving mythology?
  • How much does this affect our politics?
  • Where is renewable energy in all this?
  • Leadership - how do we get change?
  • Where is education in all this?
  • Is personal debt a form of social control?
  • Can we change the definition of wealth?
  • Economics: What lies beyond?
*BTW, the debate ended fairly unsatisfactorily with Leach saying we'll have to "agree to disagree" (thereby logically negating the view that economics is at all scientific, since in natural science you'd have to change the theory if new evidence appeared, not agree to disagree). 

I've since heard from activists in the climate movement that they've had other intellectually unsatisfactory run-ins with the good doctor Leach.

Before someone accuses me of character assassination, let's get this straight: I don't think he's a bad person. 

I just think he's not thinking well, and either has a direct conflict of interest, or is in denial. Which is more or less par for the course for economics and economists.

And, after all, he's the one that "put it out there," publishing an article in public discourse in which he used an obtuse bit of economic theory to make is sound as if tar sands exploitation was OK, when it most certainly is not.

More of Robert Reich

From Jim G.

Volunteer Opportunity

If you are in any of my classes this semester, you can use this opportunity to get credit towards the project portion of your grade. See me to ask how. Click on the image to enlarge.

Introductory movie about ecological economics -- for Economics class

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The wrong way to talk about it

Among a myriad other sources of environmental news, I'm on New York Times environmental blogger Andy Revkin's FaceBook feed, which means I get bulletins from his wide reading and web surfing, as well as from his professional travel in the environmental world, which is nice for me since, although I know I need to do it and comply to the best of my abilities and patience, I don't overly care for this kind of travel and schmoozing.

(It's bad for the sheep and gardens, and everything else I take care of, when their primary caretaker is gone. My students, I think, benefit when I get out to conferences and meetings, since I'm always stimulated by the people and ideas I meet. But a little of this kind of thing can go a long way.)

Revkin, by the way, in addition to having far more stamina for social interaction in general, is an advocate for blogging and other social media as a better medium than traditional journalism for having national and international conversations about complex environmental problems. I think I agree with this. My own experience blogging with students and collaborators here on Sustainability Thought and Deed has been very positive, and I think this kind of writing definitely makes me a better thinker and teacher. In particular, it's a way of participating in the debate while still working on real biophysical sustainability at home and at the college. (All those air miles, y'know...)

In this particular case, Revkin promoted a blog post by Canadian energy business professor Andrew Leach, of the University of Alberta. Dr. Leach explains the traditional neoclassical economics case for not worrying too much about fossil energy scarcity in national economic planning.

This airs one of the key economic issues in the overall sustainability and climate change debate. You can read the material here on Leach's own academic blog:[1474503399443904]&action_type_map=[%22og.likes%22]&action_ref_map=[]

Another, less technical, version is here:

I'm well familiar with these arguments since they were one focus of my PhD. One of my PhD advisors was Herman Daly, who takes quite the opposite point of view, with a series of compelling ecological economic arguments as to why resources, especially fossil energy resources, are categorically different than other inputs to the economy, and so need to be treated so in national planning and accounts. At one point in my PhD work, I even managed a live interview with Julian Simon, now passed away, one of the primary proponents of Leach's viewpoint, sometimes called "cornucopianism" in the literature.

I came away with the distinct impression that Dr. Simon was, more or less, full of himself and these ideas, and enjoyed the controversy, money and fame that his iconoclastic utterances gained him, especially from right-wing organizations and fat-cat moneybags, whose interests his theories served. It left me with an uneasy feeling about the nature of fame in the academic profession, and contributed to my resolve to continue to keep my feet firmly rooted in energy engineering, green building work, and agriculture, as well as academics.

Leach is not, I feel, a full-blown cornucopian. The rest of his blog reveals him to be a moderate conventional economist with, for that ilk, fairly strong environmental interests. He probably understands that things are more complex than Simon believed. But he trots out the familiar arguments, including the Hotelling Rule, to demonstrate again Simon's main point -- in the "pure" context of economic thought, infinite economic growth is theoretically possible on a finite planet. He disagrees with (or hasn't heard of) the ecological economics criticism of the Hotelling Rule approach.

So, let's debate him.

Biophysically, as Daly often repeated, this is Kenneth Arrow's "impossibility theorem."You'll never get a physical or life scientist to accept this point of view, since it contravenes the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics. Since we can't explain how the world works without these two useful laws, we'd like to keep them around, and so we'll always argue against economists who feel, from within the narrow viewpoint and tortuous logic of their own profession, that the natural laws are expendable as long as we get the economics "right".

In other words, economists often think they don't have to make physical sense. They make unscientific assumptions. And they find complicated reasons from within economics itself as to why this doesn't matter. No other science or social science is allowed to do this!

(I'm so glad I took engineering and biology before economics!)

Part of the problem is the language. Daly and other ecological economists assume that growth means growth in the scale of biophysical material and energy inputs, and waste outputs, to and from the economy.

Of course infinite growth in the scale of biophysical resource throughput is not possible on a finite biophysical planet. Let's not be silly. And even were it possible, it's not desirable. No-one I have ever known except perhaps Julian Simon was so-one-dimensional as to be willing to think that paving the planet was a nice idea.

So we (Leach) needs to parse some words more carefully. He probably means to say infinite "economic growth", or infinite "growth in GDP", is possible on a finite planet.

If so, what is instead possibly true, more carefully stated, and can be read into or alongside Leach's argument, is that, in the context of the Hotelling Rule and the associated asymptotic declines in resource stocks, as well as ever-more extreme recycling of metals and plastics, it may be theoretically possible to provide ever-increasing amounts of subjective, psychic economic services using smaller and smaller quantities of scarce biophysical resources. If we can do so while trammeling population growth we may be able to continue with something that looks like today's high throughput economic growth to the punters, i.e., the consumers, but uses far smaller amounts of resources, while using a political economic system that looks more or less like capitalism.

I explain, in detail, why we may want to, very carefully, go down this road here. This makes me a moderate among ecological economists. I don't want to jump immediately to an ecological economic system. I want to get there carefully. (But in time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.) I'm motivated in this by the history of other economic "isms", especially communism and fascism. They didn't end well, and I don't want to repeat their mistakes, so I describe a pathway that gets us to ecological economics without as much room for blunders and unexpected outcomes. But I still want to get there. I just don't think it will be easy or without risks or problems.

So let me be clear: I see a transition period in which we accept continued economic growth as an inevitable stage in the evolution of human economic thinking, on the way to the equally inevitable acceptance of ecological constraints, in other words of sustainability.

I doubt Leach would agree, but we could agree on other points. You see, essentially, to get to where Leach says we can go, we'll actually have to become more sustainable in all we do.

See, the problem with Leach's explanation is that he doesn't go on to describe what his economy of infinite economic growth on a finite planet actually looks like. He doesn't explain how, for instance, we'll actually use oil when there's very, very little of it left at the end of the Hoteling trajectory; that, for example, one of the productivity increases he'll be looking for might easily come from using renewable energy to save scarce expensive fossil fuel stocks for important purposes, and so on.

Eventually, either way, you'll get to a point where you're using very little fossil fuel to run the economy, mostly for specialized material inputs that have very high value, such as important plastics needed to save lives in hospital treatments. Oil, as one of my other thesis advisors, MD Robert Sprinkle, suggested, will become too precious to burn. You'll instead be running the planet on sunlight and its useful derivatives, wind, wave, and hydropower. Markets or no markets, the real message of the Hotelling Rule is that you get to sustainability in the end.

The real difference is, Leach implicitly wants the market to do the work, while sustainability activists would like the government to step in and accelerate the process. He doesn't say that out loud, but Hotelling Rule only works under market conditions. The assumption of free or lightly regulated markets, especially for money and so interest, is one of the assumptions of Harold Hotelling's rule. For this reason it's often trotted out in defense of resource capitalists. Leach should explain this, and doesn't. 

But a Hotelling solution to ultimate oil scarcity would likely be too late for a lot of things we know and love, such as the Albertan and Maine climates and natural ecosystems.

You could more happily choose to accelerate the Hotelling process by using government power, especially taxes and subsidies, and as a result perhaps avoid the worst effects of climate change on human and biological systems. These are external to the Hotelling calculation, which is a major oversimplification.

So Professor Leach's arguments are not carefully stated and give the wrong impression. They make you think that we don't need to worry about oil, when we clearly do. But the problem is not that there's too little, but too much. And even the way we'll get to the result he imagines is actually by having lots and lots of people in government and industry realize that they need to increase the marginal efficiency of the natural capital of fossil fuel, and come up with ways of doing so, including regulation and innovation. That's how it works. We get there by worrying about it, not by not worrying about it. Hotelling's market solution is just one, particularly slow, way to worry about it, that is particularly unresponsive to the climate crisis. We can and should do better.

And while Leach makes these over-simplifications, they're not made in a political vacuum. His oversimplified explanation, if believed and used in this attenuated form, will serve to increase the political power of the folks who want to keep burning oil and coal as fast as we're doing right now, and decrease the political power of those who feel we'd better slow down for the climate's sake, such as Michael Mann, who can be read here arguing against the Keystone Pipeline.

Interestingly enough, if believed and used, Leach's oversimplified explanation will also enrich him personally, since on his "conflict of interest disclosure" page, an otherwise laudable innovation, he specifies the oil stocks he owns and  income and other support he's received directly or indirectly from the oil industry. I don't want to belabor this point -- Leach is clearly not one of the "bad guys." He's just got a stake in the outcome. As do we all. It's just that some of us are less well educated about the climate part of this stake than others, and so, like Leach and indeed the entire Canadian province of Alberta, we become effectively, apologists for our own denial and our own self-interest. But if Leach's ideas are used and believed, it will also help enrich, for instance, the Koch brothers, currently funding an anti-democratic political campaign in the United States. So such utterances are risky, and should be challenged.

Arguably I have similar conflicts from my own work in renewable energy and my own divested retirement portfolio, and so also have a stake in the outcome, but I don't think this is at quite the same scale. I don't directly own wind or solar power stocks. I own a small retirement fund, blindly invested in social choice stocks and other equities. I'm quite comfortable with the ethics of my own career and investments, perhaps more so than Dr. Leach is with his. Maybe he should think about divesting in order to further his credibility.

(I also wonder if the Koch brother's consciences' trouble them at all. But that's a whole other story. We live in interesting times.)

All this is good material for the more motivated students in Economics of Resource Conservation and Sustainability this fall. We'll eventually talk about all these bits of theory and their political and cultural contexts in class. I sent the url to this blog post to Dr. Leach. We'll see if he responds, or better yet, involves his own students in the discussion. So far he has not, but it's only been a day.

But, for now, we're going to start talking soon about the economic thought of EF Schumacher.

Better get reading.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

If a turbine falls in the forest ...

Every so often I go through this old blog and sometimes I find something I've almost forgotten that seems worth airing again. 

Here's one:

There are some kinds of work that require the most perfect, precise planning. These are very few, in my opinion. Most jobs have their surprises. And then there are types of people who think that prior planning for everything is the hallmark of the professional. Holders of this opinion are fairly common, because it's taught at colleges and universities, especially in the business and administrative classes.

The theory is that it's the job of the modern manager to anticipate every eventuality, perform total "due diligence" and have a plan in hand at all times.

But my job isn't like this, and while I often make detailed, extensive plans, my personality has evolved over the years to the point where I actually enjoy those surprising days when nothing goes according to plan.

Yesterday was one of those days.

Our wind power research crew was scheduled to motor over to Newport, Maine, with a truckload of tools and equipment to begin the dismantling of a Bergey 10KW wind turbine. This is parked in a field not far from town, and the owners have come to dislike it, and want it gone. They want to run cattle in the field, and they want their young children to be able to play there without having to warn them about the tower. It doesn't help their opinion of it that it produces very little power on this site, and that it has already fallen down once. It isn't very well installed, and they've come to fear it in wind storms, which are frequent in this neck of the Maine woods.

(By the way, any wind turbine will do this, produce inefficient quantities of power, if not properly sited. Be sure to consult with a qualified anemometrist and have your site tested before investing in an expensive wind turbine. Steer clear of the contractors who are selling these things until you have your site's wind numbers and an independent power production estimate. The contractors often don't know how to properly measure the wind or find the precise wind map data, nor how to interpret it for a given site. Their job is to sell you the machine, otherwise known as a pig in a poke, if you don't take this advice. And they don't mind selling you the follow-up service when it doesn't work, or falls down, or whatever, either.)

We were to be helped in this endeavor by some experienced Bergey operators, Verne LeCount of MOFGA, and his regular consultant in all things renewable, Dr. Jay LeGore, a retired materials science academic and engineer who lives in our area and who experiments with solar, biofuel and wind systems. I've handled a lot of towers, but I'd never lowered a Bergey, so I was pleased to have them there. I also figured they could help pass some knowledge on to our two student apprentices.

Of course, they motored to the site in Jay's white Prius. Not trying to be stereotypical at all.

Anyway, long story short, we assembled our equipment, began the lower, which uses an electrical winch, and things were going well until...

the winch cable was frayed at the half-way point!

How this damaged bit of cable found it's way onto our winch drum is an interesting mystery. The winch had been systematically checked, and the cable completely replaced, just a few short days ago.

The supervisor (me) was on hand for this process and watched the wind worker spool most of the cable onto the drum. But I didn't watch it all. It's also possible that the tangle that caused the fraying occurred out of sight.

Suffice it to say the wind power crew and their supervisor are undergoing a process of memory- and soul-searching this weekend...

Ultimately, snafus like this are the supervisor's problem though.

Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft, a great read I plan to require for all our Sustainability Design and Technology students, suggests that mechanical work of this kind has what other forms of professional work in this country increasingly lack: an objective standard of performance.

Managers in today's society, he suggests, can "spin" their performance endlessly, because often there's no way of telling whether or not they are actually producing good management.

He likens their predicament to that of the Soviet apparatchik, who has to have two whole spearate languages, one in "party-speak" for spinning her performance, another in more realistic and/or colorful Russian for trying to get things to work at all.

Good management is like composition or poetry. There's a lot of room for opinion. The eternal rhetorician's question, "what is good, Phraedrus?" applies. Since most students at colleges or universities are studying for these white collar types of jobs, they have to be taught, if possible, good judgment on questions like a good format for a report, or a good way to summarize a policy. Objectivity is difficult with such nebulous problems. Students grow up learning that effort and application will put them ahead of the pack, not necessarily being correct or right.

But for an old-fashioned machinist or wind engineer, or a climate scientist, for that matter, there are objective and time honored standards like "square," "level," "within tolerance," or "within specifications" (as opposed to without), and objective devices to use to gauge the quality of what is produced. The supervisor comes by with his level or gauge or micrometer, and the thing either is or isn't right, runs or doesn't run, produces the expected kilowatts per hour, or doesn't. Your planet either heats up and people begin to die, or it cools off and we manage to avert disaster.

Or, almost as obvious, and thus objectively, and with less time clock to run out while spinning endless excuses, your turbine is down on the ground safely.

Or not.

Crawford also notes that technical work is a "stochastic art" in that outcomes are inherently unpredictable and subject to intervention of random variables. Craftsmanship is found when the craftsman (or craftsperson, if you prefer) has mastered the process of his or her labor, including learning to cope with random problems.

I've come to think of teaching and mechanical work as having this stochastic feature in common.

Teaching is stochastic in that you never know when a teaching moment will occur, and the teacher has to be light on her feet to capture the moment, give the timely lesson, and drive it home. In today's distraction filled world, young minds are open to change only for very short windows. You can't afford to waste any of these window-open periods. A superb teacher is probably one who knows how to create those teachable moments really well, even predictably, and follow them up with the right lesson every time.

Anyway, this is all a very philosophical way of saying, we almost killed our wind turbine here. The day was saved mostly by experience. We had three grizzled veterans of many a battle with renewable energy equipment, including among the three, two PhD's, one of which was in engineering, and enough experience and coolness that we could talk it out calmly, study the problem, and come up with a solution.

We improvised a back-up system to support the weight of the turbine and tower while we passed the frayed cable, and then "sistered" in a reinforcement for the frayed section. The frayed wire plus sister wire held until the very last minute of the lower. We're actually not sure why it parted in the end. That will have to wait for a careful autopsy of the damaged equipment. This made for a "hard landing," but the damage was limited to one tower section, for which there is already a replacement on-site.

Following the final short drop, our two apprentices were somewhat shaken. The day's stress had shredded their nerves already, and the noises of twanging wires and twisting tower were truly scary. No-one was ever in any real danger; We made sure of that. We were all very close to the tower, though, fielding different bits of it, the way the manual says. The apprentices were at the head, fielding the blades to keep them from the ground, when the tower fell it's last two feet right next to them. They immediately let go their blades and ran!

But the tower was already almost down when this happened, so the only way it could really have hurt them was if they had ignored the instruction not to get under it at any point.

Even so, they were shaken by the noise and sudden movements of the big scary tower.

But the experience just shrugged their more aged shoulders, tidied up a bit, and headed for lunch.

Disaster averted. Lessons learned. One for the casebook.

When I repair that winch this week, I'm thinking I'm going to spool all the wire on there myself. Every inch.

But then I think again. How do we learn to be the most responsible and capable people we can be, if we don't get given the chance to make mistakes, even expensive ones, and live through them? Especially when the standards are objective, like these are.

And while we may not be training blue collar technicians and certified engineers with our Sustainability Design and Technology program, we do need to train our people to deal with objective facts, such as climate emissions reductions, and to not spin their results.

It also occurs to me that if things do go to crap with the climate, we will need a few people seasoned in handling emergencies, too.