Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The Future of Energy is Bright, Part II

To pick up where we last left off, running an industrial economy requires a source of cheap and stable electricity. Electricity provided by wind and solar is intermittent and therefore does not fit the bill. Electricity from coal, diesel and natural gas does work but causes environmental damage, plus these fossil fuels are mostly past peak, are increasingly expensive to produce, and won’t last for much longer in any case. Hydroelectric is a good choice, but all the sweet spots for it have already been tapped. Boutique resources such as biomass, micro-hydro, tidal energy and what have you are insufficient to power an industrial economy. This leaves nuclear energy, but nuclear energy has some major problems.

Thus, there are no good solutions, but this may not be a problem because, you see, without a stable source of cheap electricity there won’t be an industrial economy, and without an industrial economy there will be neither supply of nor demand for any of the above. There will still be demand for firewood, to be met by you wandering up and down a stretch of abandoned highway collecting dry tree branches for your campfire, on which to cook some rodents you caught with a forked stick.

If you find this scenario unappealing and wish to look for other options, there is little choice but to look more closely at nuclear energy. Yes, it has some major problems, but what if these problems have solutions? You haven’t thought of that, have you? But that’s not as outlandish an idea as you might imagine. Huge teams of brilliant scientists and engineers working diligently for decades do sometimes come up with solutions to even the most difficult problems. Clearly, it would be foolish to simply assume that all major problems will be solved, but I believe that it does make sense to try to stay informed about the actual progress that has been made, if only to satisfy your intellectual curiosity, should you have any.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Five Stages of Collapse, 2019 Update

Collapse, at each stage, is a historical process that takes time to run its course as the system adapts to changing circumstances, compensates for its weaknesses and finds ways to continue functioning at some level. But what changes rather suddenly is faith or, to put it in more businesslike terms, sentiment. A large segment of the population or an entire political class within a country or the entire world can function based on a certain set of assumptions for much longer than the situation warrants but then over a very short period of time switch to a different set of assumptions. All that sustains the status quo beyond that point is institutional inertia. It imposes limits on how fast systems can change without collapsing entirely. Beyond that point, people will tolerate the older practices only until replacements for them can be found.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Is The US Still A Superpower?

Some believe that the USA is a superpower. They cite GPD figures, military spending, the ability to coerce various US vassals to accede to US/Israeli demands at the United Nations. They also point to its ability to force other nations to abide by its unilateral sanctions even though they are ineffective at best, generally counterproductive and tend to hurt US allies. Are these not the hallmarks or true superpowerdom?

Let us see... If the US were a superhero endowed with various superpowers, what would they be?

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Tuesday, January 08, 2019

National Bankruptcy as a Board Game

Most people are familiar with the game Monopoly. Its goal is to teach capitalist kiddies a valuable lesson about capitalism; namely, that in running a business it isn’t useful to shoot for some happy modicum of accommodation with your competitors or to strive for a sustainable steady state. Instead, what you need to do to survive (never mind win) is to grow as quickly as possible and eat up your competitors alive, or you’ll get eaten up yourself. That’s not just a game; that’s exactly how capitalism actually works, and if that doesn’t work for you (it doesn’t for most people) then that’s exactly how capitalism doesn’t work.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

The Year the Planet Flipped Over

End of the year is a good time to draw some conclusions as to what has changed, what has worked and what has failed. This past year was in many ways remarkable because of a large number of irreversible, transformative events. In some ways, in 2019 we will be dealing with a significantly different planet. Let us look at what has succeeded and what has failed.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2018

A Seasonal Homily: Gratitude and Joy!

Merry Christmas!—but, if you don’t like the idea of celebrating the 2019th birthday of an infant born of a chaste union between a virgin and the Holy Spirit who went on to die for your sins to save you from an eternity in hell, then Happy New Year! Be grateful that the Earth—our one and only planet—managed to make it around the sun one more time without getting struck by a giant rock or sterilized by a burst of interstellar radiation. You can be grateful most efficaciously if your gratitude is directed toward a deity and/or deities of your choice who you feel have provided you with such benign conditions. Doing so may help you feel a measure of joy. Failing that, you can be grateful to me personally, for providing you with things to read and to listen to designed to keep you sane in the midst of an increasingly insane world. If so, you can click here and send me a present. And then I will feel joy too.

Gratitude is important. It is the way of the world that the grateful and contented thrive while the ungrateful and disgruntled languish and perish. No matter how bad things are, you can still be grateful for something. Each person’s situation is different with respect to gratitude, but zooming out a bit and looking around the world around this year’s end we can easily spot a number of things for which we can all be grateful.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

RIP European Union, 1973-2019

In 2019 the European Union, will, in a sense, cease to exist: the no-longer-so-great Britain will no longer be part of it. True, it will still include such priceless gems as Latvia and Moldova, but of the three core Western European nations only two will be left, and of the remaining two one is in the grip of popular protests, with exit from the European Union featured prominently among the protestors’ demands.

If the European Union proceeds to shed members until it dissolves, such a development should be regarded as perfectly normal. Europe has never been unified for long, and the EU, which one may consider the Fourth Reich, will have only lasted 46 years (as measured by the duration of Britain’s membership). That is significantly longer than the 12 years that was the lifetime of the Third Reich, but still rather modest when compared to other Eurasian unions: 279 years for the Golden Horde; 298+ years for the multinational, multi-ethnic Russian Empire/Soviet Union/Russian Federation.

The Europeans have typically unified on a temporary basis, in order to attack and exploit other regions, such as Bysantium and Palestine during the Crusades—with mixed results—or Russia, under Napoleon and then again under Hitler—both times unsuccessfully. NATO was and still is really just an American occupation of Europe and doesn’t count. The unprecedented and currently failing effort to unify in order to take full advantage of the Soviet collapse was, briefly, somewhat more successful.

The European Union is said to consist of nations, which have surrendered much of their sovereignty to some unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, but in general the term “nation” is so ambiguous that it is nearly meaningless. Is Catalonia a nation? Is Scotland? Is the dissolution of the EU just the first step toward smaller-scale separatism, followed by regional reintegration along different lines?

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Monday, December 17, 2018

The Future of Energy is Bright, Part I

There are numerous disagreements on the topic of energy with substantial, and well substantiated differences of opinion between knowledgeable people. People tend to be blindsided by these, because this topic is at once visceral (you very well know when you are too cold or too hot, and in the dark), political (you very well know when utility bills leave you broke) and technical (you don’t necessary know the difference between a kilowatt and a kilowatt-hour, or that a terawatt is a million megawatts). But it is very important not to be blindsided by these disagreements, because if you end up on the wrong side of this argument, your lack of access to affordable energy is guaranteed to seriously crimp your style.

But there does seem to be one point of near-universal agreement: concentrated forms of energy, and especially electricity, are an essential ingredient of modern civilization. Fuel shortages and price increases are a major cause of social upheaval and mayhem. Power cuts are disruptive, especially to industrial production facilities that require steady state conditions. In hospitals and medical centers they can be lethal. Extended power outages often result in riots and looting. Without refrigeration food stockpiles go to waste; without heat or air conditioning urban centers become unlivable. Commerce, increasingly reliant on distributed information networks for payment processing and inventory control, grinds to a halt. Without elevators high-rise buildings become inaccessible.

If frequent though temporary power cuts are a major nuisance, stable electricity but high electricity prices are even worse because they make entire economic sectors—any that involve running electrically powered industrial machinery—globally noncompetitive. Sometimes all it takes is one bad decision. A case in point: some time ago Lithuania decided to shut down its only nuclear reactor, because it was an old Soviet design—RBMK, the same type as had blown up in Chernobyl, although with numerous safety upgrades, and so dumb politics rather than safety were the real issue. Now the Lithuanians have some of the highest electricity rates in Europe, there is no more industry in Lithuania, and instead they have to look for work in Germany.

A lot of people seem to think that energy is all about fossil fuels, which are bad because burning fossil fuels causes global warming. True, much of our energy, and virtually all transportation energy, comes from fossil fuels. But they are also not as plentiful as we would like, and the world as a whole is depleting the resource base of fossil fuels much faster than it is finding new resources. It is also generally conceded that there are enough of these resources left in the ground to completely wreck the climate—if they are ever going to be produced. Thus, fossil fuel resource depletion, and the fact that most of the remaining resources may turn out to be too difficult and expensive to produce, is actually a sort of blessing in disguise.

Furthermore, most of the fossil fuel resources, as far as quantities of usable products, are past their peaks. China has powered its transformation into an industrial powerhouse using cheap and abundant coal (causing much environmental devastation) but now China’s coal production is declining. Gasoline production, worldwide, peaked around 2006. Heavy oil, and diesel production with it, appears to have peaked in 2018. Natural gas production is still growing, but mostly thanks to new Russian liquefied natural gas production, and to shale gas production in the US, but the latter suffers from very high depletion rates and an overall lack profitability. Though everyone involved in the fossil fuel industry is compelled to paint a rosy picture (lest the investment money dry up) and we are being constantly barraged with optimistic projections, these often turn out to be exaggerated when reexamined in the rear view mirror. In short, we may be more blessed than we know.

But the blessing is also a curse, since a lack of stable, reliable, affordable energy pretty much spells the end of the world as we know it. Perhaps it will make you feel better knowing that you are no longer destroying our home planet as you wander up and down a stretch of abandoned highway collecting dry tree branches for your campfire, on which to cook some rodents you caught with a forked stick, but wouldn’t it make you feel even better if there were a way to keep the lights on without destroying the planet?