Sunday, May 29, 2005

Peak oil solutions: Is simpler better?

Is complexity bad for us? Is simpler better?

Joseph Tainter first posited in his book, "The Collapse of Complex Societies," that complex societies most frequently attempt to solve their problems by increasing their complexity. This usually requires the input of additional energy from people or fuel sources or both. This strategy may be a good one when returns from complexity are high. But, such a strategy may also subject a society to collapse. Returns tend to diminish as complexity increases. Ultimately, returns go negative. In short, more complexity isn't necessarily better.

For Tainter there are many reasons to believe that contemporary civilization has reached the point of diminishing returns from complexity. If he is correct, this calls into question proposals for technical fixes for our energy problems since by definition those fixes will increase complexity in an energy-starved world. Will solar platforms in space or a vastly increased number of nuclear power plants lead to a more stable, sustainable society? There are many ecological reasons to doubt this in the long run. But there are historical reasons to believe that these things might not even work in the short run, say, the next several decades. Increased complexity may result in less resiliency in our current world system making it vulnerable to novel or persistent shocks. Terrorist attacks on infrastructure and proposals to militarize space are just two that relate to the examples given above.

The alternative would be to simplify our systems. This may necessarily lead to a lower standard of living and to decentralized forms of social, political and economic organization. That will be hard to sell to a population accustomed to having giant international corporations and central governments organize large parts of their lives. These same corporations and governments also propagandize their customers and citizens into believing that material wealth is the only true wealth. Even harder will be breaking through a belief in the magic of technology. Hidden from most people is the fact that technology has its greatest effect at low levels of complexity; new technologies may fail to deliver the promised results when societies have become too complex.

Tainter likes to say that resource depletion is not the direct cause of societal collapse. It is the inability of social and political institutions to adapt to resource depletion that leads to collapse. As we approach the peak in world oil production--whether now or sometime a decade or two down the road--we will certainly test whether one more round of technical fixes will work. Those cheering for technical fixes will likely include environmentally minded people who want to believe that "green" energy and ultralight hypercars will allow us to continue to live the way we do now by using sources of energy and methods of efficiency that we haven't exploited to date.

If the technical fixes fail us and we have made no plans for a less complex and thus lower energy future, we may be faced with a hard and devastating collapse--one that might have been mitigated by a more skeptical response to promises of technological deliverance.

What a pity it will be if the first civilization to publish a thoroughgoing analysis of the dynamics of collapse chooses to ignore that analysis altogether.

(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)

Bad education: Are we teaching our young people to be ecological illiterates?

Environmental educator David Orr makes the case in a 1991 commencement address that the typical college graduate knows nothing about ecological principles. Quite the opposite. What that graduate has learned to do is to wreak more havoc on the planet while calling it by pretty names that add up to something named "success." Perhaps most jarring is Orr's assertion that ignorance is not a solvable problem. More knowledge is not more wisdom. And with any knowledge gained--he uses the example of the discovery of chlorofluorocarbons--some is also lost: No one bothered to ask the ultimate destination of these gasses which turned out to be the ozone layer.

He offers instead six principles for a proper education:

1. All education is environmental education.
2. The goal of education is not mastery of subject matter, but of one's person.
3. Knowledge carries with it the responsibility to see that it is well used in the world.
4. We cannot say that we know something until we understand the effects of this knowledge on real people and their communities.
5. The importance of "minute particulars" and the power of examples over words.
6. The way learning occurs is as important as the content of particular courses.
Can any college or university say it is teaching using these principles today?

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Friday, May 27, 2005

Europe isn't freezing over anytime soon

Thanks again to RealClimate, a blog run by climate scientists, for giving us excellent if somewhat complex information about recent reports concerning the slowing of the Gulf Stream and the possible effect of that slowing on European climate. As the writer and subsequent commenters explain there are several things which contribute to the warming northern Europe including the shape of the jet stream and the movement of warm surface waters toward the region. The Gulf Stream is technically only part of a larger set of heat transporting currents and the one alluded to in the recent Times of London story is actually the North Atlantic Drift.

The RealClimate piece explains how the currents work and that they show significant variations in strength from decade to decade. While there is precedent in the geologic record for short-term dramatic slowdowns and even stoppages, that is not what is now being observed. It appears to be a gradual process that may take a long time, perhaps a century. Nevertheless, the author warns, the situation bears careful watching since the data available is difficult to gather in the icy climes of Greenland and its associated seas and conditions could change for unforeseen reasons.

The situation is a little less alarming than the reporting would make it seem. On the other hand, the slowing noticed so far is occurring sooner than expected. The trick will be to establish whether this is a normal variation or the beginning of a breakdown in the heat-transporting currents.

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Thursday, May 26, 2005

Clueless in California

The Unplanner, a planning official for a county in central California, has for weeks been preparing us for the moment when he would broach the subject of limits on energy supplies to his boss. What followed when he did should scare everyone. If planning departments throughout the United States are this clueless about the energy challenges we face and remain so, we will walk right off the edge of the energy cliff without warning.

Can anyone make a dent in the planning establishment so that it will at least consider the uncertainties we face in the area of energy? If so, can it be done in time?

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What's the big deal about biodiversity?

When most people think of biodiversity they think of endangered species that have been ridiculed in the media for holding up development projects or blocking logging or mining ventures. If that's all biodiversity meant, then we would have little to worry about. So poorly is the concept understood in the media that we get bland, almost meaningless journalism about something that is central to our continued existence as a species. Even the experts don't seem to get it saying that we should aim at "slowing" the loss of biodiversity.

What does biodiversity do for us? It cleans the air and the water and moderates the climate. It provides myriad products for medicinal uses. It is essential for the pollination and thus proper growth of many food crops we depend on. It essential for soil fertility. The Union of Concerned Scientists has a basic primer with additional links that will give you a good start in understanding this idea.

So, next time somebody starts talking or writing about biodiversity, don't let your eyes glaze over. Think instead, "My life is on the line here and so is the life of everything else on the planet!"

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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Hurtling toward the Stone Age in style

Our fossil fuels will run out some day, even if that day isn't soon. Then, the only way we will be able to keep many of our modern conveniences is to run the world on renewable sources of energy. Wind power is currently the most viable candidate in the renewable energy quiver. That may account for why it is now the target of the fossil fuel industry. Two U. S. senators, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and John Warner of Virginia, have introduced legislation that would end federal wind power tax credits and would prohibit or allow vetoes over the siting of wind farms in most of the prime wind areas of the United States.

Their supposed concern is aesthetics. It's a truism that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps they are in touch with the inner beauty of the coal-fired power plants that will have to be built instead and the coal from moutaintop removal that will supply them.

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The most important story you didn't see

I've been waiting for major press outlets other than The Times of London to pick up the story about the slowing of the Gulf Stream, an event long predicted by global climate scientists who said it could result from global warming. The consequences of a halt to the flow of warm water from the tropics to northern Europe could be nothing short of catastrophic, pushing it into a deep freeze à la The Day After Tomorrow (though the changes would take place over a decade or more).

Instead, a Google search reveals virtually nothing except for the usual gaggle of environmental sites and blogs--and the occasional right-wing nut case site claiming that this proves somehow that global warming is a hoax. This story should be on the front page of every newspaper and leading every newscast. That's how big it is.

The Gulf Stream has already slowed by three-quarters its usual rate. A stoppage could create change of the magnitude that would not only affect Europe, but the entire world as Europe's economy including its agriculture would be deeply affected. Ultimately, mass migrations could take place from north to south. And, what's more is that no one expected the slowing to occur this soon. It is happening much faster and to a much greater degree that anyone thought possible.

To think through what might happen the Pentagon commissioned a study to analyze the national security considerations. It is grim reading.

So, why hasn't this story been widely reported? I can only believe that environmental literacy among the world's reporters and editors is so poor that they cannot understand the implications of the finding. After 30 years of environmental journalism, you would think that something like this would jump out at them.

CORRECTION: Commenter Sim rightly points out that the slowing was observed occurring in only one of three places where water sinks to the bottom. So it is incorrect to say that the Gulf Stream has slowed by three-quarters. Only in one area has the sinking of water slowed by three-quarters. As the article points out, "...there are two other areas around the north Atlantic where water sinks, helping to maintain circulation. Less is known about how climate change is affecting these."

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It's the sun's fault

A common ruse among global warming deniers is to blame that warming on the sun. RealClimate takes the most recent example of this to task. Perhaps the main inconsistency in the claim is that nighttime temperatures are rising more than daytime temperatures. If global warming is due to the sun, then one would expect the opposite. Those scientists and non-scientists arguing such points are often intellectually dishonest. They simply do not admit conflicting data or conclusions and therefore do not have to deal with inconvenient facts.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2005

ExxonMobil calls a peak

ExxonMobil's executives have been reassuring the world that there will be plenty of oil to meet demand for decades to come. Now, they seem to have changed their minds. They now believe non-OPEC production will soon peak and say that OPEC production will have to rise by one million barrels a day each year after 2010 to meet demand, according to a study released by the company. That's equivalent to a new Algeria each year. They expect nothing from oil shale through 2030 and only 3 percent of demand to be met from Canada's oil sands.

ExxonMobil has traditionally been the biggest defender of the cornucopian idea in the oilfields. In this latest report they are even touting fuel efficiency as a necessary measure to moderate demand. Will the stodgiest of all oil companies be talking about alternative energy by this time next year?

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Wind power for the world

A new map based on extensive data from around the world has identified windy places that could produce far more electricity than the world currently uses. About 2.5 million turbines could supply the world's current needs; but because the wind is intermittent, other more reliable sources would be needed for backup.

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Let's go someplace cooler

Fish in the North Sea are finding that it's not far enough to the north anymore. Climate change is warming North Sea waters and forcing some species to migrate to cooler water further north. "What's striking is people tend to think of climate change as something that's going to affect us in the future, whereas more and more we're seeing signs that these changes are already happening and are going to continue," said one of the scientists who helped write a report on the phenomenon.

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The jig is up

The biotech industry has long contended that GMO foods are identical to regular ones and so require no safety testing. If that's so, why did Monsanto test its own GMO corn? And, why, European officials are asking, did the company not provide the full results? The answer is now out. The feeding studies done by Monsanto showed problems with abnormal development of kidneys and changes in the blood that showed immune system damage.

If companies producing GMO seeds don't even believe their own statements that there is no need to test GMO crops for safety, why should we believe anything else they tell us?

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A small victory

Ignacio Chapela was working as an untenured professor at the University of California at Berkeley when he uncovered contamination from genetically engineered corn in Mexican fields where GMO plants had long been banned. He confirmed what biotech critics had long been saying. GMO crops would ultimately contaminate the world's non-GMO food. His findings were a bombshell.

The biotech industry went right to work hiring a public relations firm which had staffers pretending to be scientists send emails criticizing Chapela's work. So careless was the firm that their emails were traced and the true identities of the senders were revealed. The smear campaign, however, took its toll. In addition, Chapela's criticism of the university's acceptance of a large grant for GMO research landed him in hot water with higher-ups. Despite the fact that he was nearly unanimously recommended for tenure, a special committee headed by a professor deeply connected to the GMO grant voted to deny him his tenure and Berkeley administrators went along.

Chapela's case became an international cause célèbre. Berkeley faculty as well as scientists and activists from around the world protested the denial and called for a reconsideration.

Finally last week, not long after Chapela filed a lawsuit, Berkeley administrators reversed themselves and granted Chapela tenure. In the immediate aftermath Chapela couldn't say where he expected his research to go, but he promised not to be silent on the GMO issue.

It's a small victory. But small ones can add up.

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Sunday, May 22, 2005

A brighter planet could mean greater global warming

In recent decades a "dimming" of the planet seemed to have slowed the rate of global warming below what had been expected given the rise in greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Now the Earth is growing brighter and this is expected to exacerbate global warming. The cause of global dimming is still not clear, and therefore, the cause of global brightening remains unsolved. RealClimate points to several possible candidates. One candidate is air pollution which may have had the effect of reflecting some of the sun's rays. But, our efforts to clean the air for health reasons are now likely letting more sunlight in. But, as RealClimate points out, it would be folly to think we should increase air pollution to fight global warming since we'd have to ultimately make the air thick with haze everywhere at an ever-increasing rate just to keep up with greenhouse emissions. We'd kill ourselves with pollution without tackling the real problem: greenhouse gasses.

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Natural gas shortage: Will the cure be worse than the problem?

Searching for the Truth has a piece on unconventional sources of natural gas, some of which are thought to occur in amounts that could be scores of times larger than conventional reserves. These reserves even have the potential to move the United States to a self-sufficient natural gas powered economy, assuming they can be tapped at reasonable prices. The problem, of course, it that they cannot currently be economically tapped.

But, let's assume for a minute that they could be. The Searching for the Truth piece mentions the work of Dutch economist Peter Odell who predicts that the world will be running primarily on natural gas around mid-century or a little bit later. If this turns out to be the case, then because of the continuing influx of greenhouse gasses global warming will likely have accelerated to the point of no return. That is, we will be doomed to a self-reinforcing warming trend that will end with the extinction of land mammals including us and possibly much worse.

Is the natural gas cure to our energy problems worse than the problem?

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Energy density--a key to understanding our energy dilemma

The Blogging of the President site has a somewhat arcane, but useful piece on how energy density will affect our future energy choices. Density refers to the amount of energy per unit of volume of an energy source. Oil is a very, very dense energy source. Coal is quite dense per unit of energy, but much more bulky than oil. Unfortunately, solar power has very low relative energy density. Density, is often, but not always, associated with the energy profit ratio, the ratio between how much energy you get for how much you expend to get it. Generally, speaking, the higher the density, the higher the energy profit ratio. Oil energy profit ratios were well over a 100 to 1 in the early days of the oil age, that is 100 units of energy gained for every unit expended to get it. Oil has slipped to about 20 to 1 for most old discoveries now and to around 8 to 1 for new discoveries which are getting harder and harder to extract and are of lower quality (i.e., lower energy density). Compare this to 4 for nuclear power, 2.5 for biodiesel, 2 or more for wind, and slightly more than 1 for solar. Oil and coal (about 10 to 1) continue to be favored because of this ratio.

Since the energy density is expected to fall further as we extract oil and coal of lesser and lesser energy content, we can either move to other sources of energy and accept lower energy outputs (and thus a lower standard of living, essentially) or try to enhance the density of the fossil fuel sources. Lower quality oils are currently being enhanced with the addition of hydrogen. But, hydrogen has be gotten from somewhere. For advocates of this approach the source will be nuclear plants which produce hydrogen, probably from water.

Another way to upgrade energy to meet our needs is to add electrical energy to traditional fossil fuels. This is already being done with hybrid cars. If the source of the electricity is renewable, then we have a better chance of a long-lived sustainable energy system. If the source is say, coal-fired power plants, then we will simply continue down the path of unsustainability. This is the choice that the piece mentioned above outlines.

(Via Energy Bulletin.)

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Friday, May 20, 2005

Triage for environmental awareness

This piece on Mobjectivist along with its associated comments got me thinking about how to approach people concerning issues as complex and troubling as peak oil and global warming. The main aim at the beginning is to get people to accept the possibility that oil production might peak or that global warming is occurring and that both these could have very serious consequences.

But when the competing idea is that everything will turn out fine for the indefinite future, it is hard to compete. If you are told that you can go on living the way you do now only more so, it's much more appealing than having to change everything. Still, there are many people who feel unease. They believe something is wrong. They want to find out what it is, and they want to do something about it.

I have worked in political campaigns, and informing people about critical environmental issues resembles nothing so much as a campaign. That work has taught me a very simple but important lesson in strategy. There are three groups in any campaign: 1) those who are already going to vote for you, 2) those who will never vote for you, and 3) those who can be persuaded to vote for you. Group 1 needs to be launched with the necessary materials and talking points toward Group 3. Group 2 needs to be assiduously ignored.

In other words, don't waste a moment on the spoilers and cranks in the opposition. There are plenty of people out there who can be persuaded. Focus on them.

(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)

A preview of farming's future

When oil production peaks sometime in the future the combination of rising fuel and fertilizer prices resulting from soaring oil prices will squeeze farmers. They will find it hard to grow and transport their produce. And, they will find the usual web of supporting truckers, wholesalers and retailers suffering dislocation and disarray. No need to wait, it's happening now as this piece about California's fruit and vegetable farms explains. Every step in the food chain from those who produce the agricultural chemicals and seeds to those who transport the crops to those who process and finally sell them, all are showing signs of stress now.

(Via Energy Bulletin.)

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The business of water

Joel Makower recaps concerns of businesses about future water supplies. Yes, populations around the globe are facing looming water shortages. But, that also means the businesses they work for and own are facing the same problems. Will environmental challenges for businesses bring them into an alliance with average citizens for better stewardship? Maybe.

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Let's play pretend

In the face of high oil prices major energy information agencies are having a difficult time maintaining that oil supplies are plentiful. Now, they seem to have jumped on a notion first broached by BP Amoco that oil demand growth is diminishing and will reach zero by 2007. Of course, if that fantasy were to become true, then additional oil production beyond the 2007 rate wouldn't be needed to fuel economic growth. It's a convenient fantasy when other ones about ample supply aren't functioning. But, the facts belie the fantasy. Oil demand growth has actually accelerated with the growing needs of Asia, particularly India and China. And, this is something not likely to abate soon unless there is a serious economic recession. How convenient that the zero rate of growth prediction coincides with warnings that oil production in 2008 won't be commensurate with demand.

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The wedge

The makers of genetically engineered food products have been effective at fighting all labeling requirements in the United States--until now. In an effort to protect the Alaskan fishing industry, the Alaskan state legislature passed a bill requiring labeling of genetically altered fish. More such bills are on the way in Oregon and California.

This could end up being the leak in the labeling damn. The Food and Drug Administration has contended that there is no difference between genetically engineered food and the regular kind. Consumers think differently. And, their legislators for pragmatic financial and political reasons are starting to agree. Both the Alaskan house and senate passed the labeling bill unanimously.

Those who have long believed in and lobbied for such labeling may have found their wedge to open up the entire labeling issue. If fish can be labeled, why not everything else?

(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Billion barrel baby--But is it enough?

You might think that the last thing on the mind of someone sitting on a newly discovered billion-barrel oil find would be alternative fuels. You would be wrong.

Mike Miller, president of Michigan-based Miller Energy Inc., whose company is part of a joint venture in Utah that made what could turn out to be the largest onshore find of oil in the United States in 30 years, instead expresses his concerns about the eventual depletion of oil and gas. If the Utah discovery turns out to be a billion barrels as touted--Miller isn't putting any number on it yet--it would provide only enough oil to supply the world for 12 days at the current rate of consumption.

"I totally accept the fact that oil and natural gas are finite resources," Miller said in an interview at his office last week. "I know we have to develop alternative sources." He added that he follows the debate over when world oil production will peak, but he has no firm opinion on the issue himself.

Miller does see some room for optimism that a peak isn't imminent. "We continue to surprise ourselves with new discoveries, new technologies," he said. "We've become much more efficient at extracting oil and gas." Miller added that his own company, which also has operations in Michigan, Wyoming, Texas and California, has frequently spent resources on capturing more oil from existing wells using new technology rather than exploring for new oil. And, he believes that "efficiency rates are going to improve."

He cited large research and development spending on recovery technology by major oil companies as a sign that "they definitely believe that there is a way to continue to improve."

Still, he is deeply concerned about oil depletion. He believes that the world economy is utterly dependent on oil and gas for its continued operation and growth. As for the current substitutes, he thinks ethanol is no solution at all because it takes more energy to produce than it provides.

Until those substitutes are perfected, oil and gas will be needed to power the world economy. He's worried, however, that the oil industry may not be up to the task. "The infrastructure [of the oil industry] has been just demolished," he explained. The long bear market in energy that lasted from the early 1980's to the late 1990's has taken its toll.

"The workforce just isn't there," he said. "And, even when the boom started again, they never came back." He explained that hordes of workers at every level of the industry from field to lab have long since left for other employment.

So scarce are petroleum geologists, Miller said, that if he needed 50 of them, he would have to find some interested young people and send them to school for four years before he could hire them. That's because the number of people going into the few college programs that train petroleum geologists has declined sharply over the last two decades.

In addition, he's having trouble getting the drilling rigs he needs to work his leases. "I have three wells in Wyoming that we want to complete," he said. But, he's been waiting for a month to get what are known as completion rigs to prepare those wells for production. No amount of money can pry the rigs loose, he said. They are simply unavailable.

Miller added that oilfield equipment is in such short supply that major oil companies pay to have rented equipment held even when they aren't using it. The majors want to make sure the rigs and other equipment are available when they need them again.

With demand this high the oil services companies ought to be building more rigs, he said. But, those companies have been burned too many times in the past when upturns in the oil price petered out and left them with huge debts and unused equipment. Many went bankrupt.

With the supply of personnel and equipment this tight, exploration is being held back. Miller believes that it will take many more years of rising prices before new people come into the oil industry and badly needed equipment is built.

As for the big Utah find, Miller is cautious about the size. He says only, "It's going to be significant." One field, called the Covenant field, is already producing. "The next big obstacle to overcome is, can we duplicate the [Convenant] field numerous times?" With 500,000 acres under lease, Miller and his joint venture partners at Wolverine Gas & Oil Corp. which is also based in Michigan will have many chances to do just that.

(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)

Are big cities energy efficient?

Newly minted urban planner Aaron Donovan suggests on his blog, Starts and Fits, that dense, well-designed cities may be one of the best places to be in the emerging energy crunch. Donovan thinks James Howard Kunstler, American's foremost critic of the suburb, has it wrong when he says that big cities will also wilt under the pressure of oil depletion. Kunstler is particularly adamant that skyscrapers will become problematic as energy supplies get tight. Donovan suggests the opposite:

While he is prescient about many things, on this point, Kunstler is dead wrong. Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Baltimore would enjoy a resurgence in a future energy crunch because of the reasons outlined by David Owen. They are energy efficient. They were emptied out precisely because of the suburban expansion that is Kunstler's primary target and was fostered by the cheap oil extravaganza that he sees as running dry. These cities have declined, but it's because of an abundance of cheap oil, not a lack of it, and things may be changing. There may be a correlation between rising oil prices and increasing real estate values in most of these cities. Meanwhile, New York and Chicago will be saved by their skyscrapers, as corporations find that it's less costly and more productive to locate their offices in them. The seven cities Kunstler mentions experienced their growth when people traveled in horse-drawn carriages and trolleys. They'll grow again if motoring becomes all that hard.
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Will environmentalists embrace the nuclear option?

The New York Times outlines the continuing debate over whether the environmental community should embrace nuclear power as part of a solution to global warming. (Generation of nuclear power creates no carbon emissions although the building and maintenance of the such plants require some release of carbon dioxide from vehicles and manufacturing processes involved in the construction and servicing of the plant and from the mining machinery used to obtain the nuclear fuel.)

Sen. John McCain is pushing legislation that would require curbs on greenhouse gasses in the United States, something environmental groups have long advocated. As an incentive to conservative lawmakers to vote for it, McCain includes a huge subsidy for new nuclear plants. Thus, the dilemma. Naysayers charge that moving toward nuclear is not only too dangerous, but also takes money away for other safer proven technologies such as wind and solar power.

A big question in the minds of many is whether nuclear power plants over their life cycle actually produce net energy. When all energy costs including the long-term storage of waste are tallied, the net energy may be negative. Using nuclear power may provide a temporary advantage while pushing the long-term costs onto our children and grandchildren. For some analysis of this issue, check here and here.

In addition, the amount of uranium available to operate such reactors over the long run is questionable. An estimated 72-year supply at current rates of consumption would shrink to 12 years if nuclear power were expanded by a factor of six. One solution to limited fuel would be to employ so-called breeder reactors which create more nuclear fuel by transforming non-usable uranium in the current fuel (which is the largest part) into usable plutonium. Sounds great until you realize that this is the equivalent of giving everyone with a nuclear reactor the capability to making a nuclear bomb.

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Saturday, May 14, 2005

Saudi oil in decline: The telltale sign

Matthew Simmons, Houston energy investment banker and skeptic about Saudi Arabian oil supplies, gives his most succinct and telling statement about reputed Saudi oil reserves in this piece:

[Simmons] observed technology applications and water handling infrastructure that should have been superfluous to a country reportedly awash with cheap reserves. “We’ve always been told they had 260 million barrels of reserves in 80 fields… they weren’t behaving that way,” he said.

He was particularly struck by Saudi efforts to rehabilitate old oil fields. “Why were they doing that if they had 80 [untapped] fields?,” Simmons asked rhetorically.
For those who don't know, the Saudis have been injecting water into their wells for years to force the oil out. This is a common practice in the oil industry for wells that have lost pressure. But, in a country that claims huge untapped reserves of easily obtained oil, it makes no sense. It would be much more cost-effective to develop other easy-to-get reserves that can be pumped without all this extra and expensive effort. Simmons' conclusion: They've already looked and can't find any other major reserves. Saudi Arabia and the world have passed peak "sustainable" oil production.

Simmons doesn't discount the possibility that Saudi Arabia and other countries might be able to overpump for a while longer and continue to diminish their ultimate overall output over time as they damage their wells. But, he believes this cannot be sustained for very long and so concludes that the real "sustainable" peak has passed.

Simmons outlines his views in detail in a new book entitled Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy.

(Via Flying Talking Donkey.)

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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Global warming deniers:
Where do they get their facts?

The late Sen.Daniel Patrick Moynihan is quoted as saying, "We are all entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts." As anyone who follows the news these days knows, the second half of Moynihan's statement has long since been repealed. So, it behooves people to check out official sounding footnotes and organizations to see what's actually behind them whenever a claim seems contrary to what one knows to be broadly accepted.

Of course, interpretations of events are often subjective and depend on one's point of view and agenda. But, interpretation of scientific data ought to turn on the long established rules of logic, observation and measurement. Yes, one might interpret the data differently from others, but there is no practice in science that allows you to just make up evidence.

So, when writer George Monbiot read in a letter to the editor from a well-credentialed scientist in a respected scientific journal that the vast majority of glaciers in the world are growing, he decided to check into the sources cited to see what he had somehow missed. Monbiot reports what he found here. (For those who don't know, it has been widely reported in recent years that the vast majority of the world's glaciers are receding, probably because of global warming.)

When you get done reading what Monbiot the gumshoe found, the next question you'll ask is why a respected scientist would make such claims based on what he had to know was fake evidence. I'm looking forward to the next installment on this issue to discover what would motivate this scientist to do such a thing.

(Via Energy Bulletin.)

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Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Encoded message

KUWAIT (Reuters) - OPEC's oil quota system is irrelevant and the cartel's 10 members bound by output limits will continue pumping 29.7 million barrels per day (bpd) -- virtually flat out -- through June, the OPEC president said on Monday.

...He said the producer group's official supply limits were obsolete for now. "I think now we are dealing with the production without the quotas," he said.
In Kenneth Deffeyes' book, Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage, the author tells us when he first realized that Hubbert's prediction that the United States would reach peak oil production around 1970 was right:
Hubbert's prediction was fully confirmed in the spring of 1971. The announcement was made publicly, but it was almost an encoded message. The San Francisco Chronicle contained this one-sentence item: "The Texas Railroad Commission announced a 100 percent allowable for next month." I went home and said, "Old Hubbert was right." It still strikes me odd that understanding the newspaper item required knowing that the Texas Railroad Commission, many years earlier, had been assigned the task of matching oil production to demand. In essence, it was a government-sanctioned cartel. Texas oil production so dominated the industry that regulating each Texas oil well to a percentage of its capacity was enough to maintain oil prices. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) was modeled after the Texas Railroad Commission. Just substitute Saudi Arabia for Texas.
Two more bits of information, in case you don't already know them: 1) The Texas Railroad Commission has never rescinded its order for 100 percent production, and American production has declined ever since. 2) Saudi Arabia is (was?) the world's only petroleum exporter with excess oil production capacity and therefore can (used to?) effectively set worldwide oil prices.

Is history repeating itself?

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Monday, May 09, 2005

The New Yorker climate change series: Part III

If the first two parts of The New Yorker three-part series on climate change didn't take your breath away, the final installment certainly will. [UPDATE: Thanks to "M" we now have a link to Part III. At this point, the magazine has not posted the article online. You can read the previous previous articles here (Part I) and here (Part II).] Some excerpts from Part III:

For all practical purposes, the recent "carbonization" of the atmosphere is irreversible. Carbon dioxide is a persistent gas; it lasts for about a century. Thus, while it is possible to increase CO2 concentrations relatively quickly, by, say, burning fossil fuels or levelling forests, the opposite is not the case. The effect might be compared to driving a car equipped with an accelerator but no brakes.

....As we delay, the opportunity to change course is slipping away. "We have only a few years, and not ten years but less, to do something," the Dutch state secretary for the environment, Pieter van Geel, told me...

...."Right now, we're going to just burn everything up; we're going to heat the atmosphere to the temperature it was in the Cretaceous [which ran from approximately 100 million years ago to 55 million years ago, long before humans came onto the scene], when there were crocodiles at the poles. And then everything will collapse[,]" [according to Marty Hoffert, professor of physics at New York University.]

....Climate records also show that we are steadily drawing closer to the temperature peaks of the last interglacial, when sea levels were some fifteen feet higher than they are today. Just a few degrees more and the earth will be hotter than it has been at any time since our species evolved.

....It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.
The article focuses on the example of the Dutch, much of whose country lies below sea level. They are already making preparations to abandon some of their land to the encroaching waters. There is also a discussion of possible actions to avert reaching dangerous levels of greenhouse gasses and of the meaning of and problems with the Kyoto protocol process. (Hint: The United States is the main problem.)

The short version: Time is running out--fast!

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Sunday, May 08, 2005

Community's missing dimension

It's easy to think of our communities along the usual spatial dimensions, whether we think of our neighborhoods, our towns or our countries. We can even imagine that our communities extend down into the coal mines or upward into the airspace above us. What eludes us is the dimension of time.

Here in the United States we are more likely to imagine ourselves detached from time, especially from the past. We are, after all, a nation founded on the idea of forgetting--of forgetting Europe or more recently, of forgetting Asia, Africa and Central and South America. We are an industrial people out of time. We have disconnected from the past because of our technology.

On the other hand, we modern industrial people are obsessed with the future. When we think of the future, we often think of ourselves as smarter, perhaps better-looking and most certainly wealthier. We may imagine our children and spouses in the same vein. But rarely do we contemplate what we as a country or world society will look like. In the future the dimension of space which allows us to conceive of our community extending far out into the world shrinks back to that point called the personal.

This is our blindness. Our present community has three dimensions, but even if we make these dimensions broad enough, we still lack the fourth dimension that links us backwards to those who came before us and forward to those who will come after us. We are cut off from the past by our forgetting and from the future by our hopelessly personalized version of it.

Tribal people often speak to their ancestors through ritual and rite. For them the past is ever present. The community of the tribe extends backwards. It is this temporal connection that makes them keenly aware of how their actions will affect those who come after them. They can imagine themselves as ancestors to the tribe of the future and as such, answerable for their deeds.

Can we modern rational thinkers find some way to make such a connection meaningful? Can we imagine ourselves as ancestors to the whole human race of the future, answerable for our deeds? The great economist, John Maynard Keynes, once famously answered critics of his ideas on deficit spending by saying, "In the long run, we are all dead." He may have had justification within his context for saying this.

When it comes to the environment, however, we're not all dead in the long run. Will the many more who come after us think of us as worthy ancestors, both wise and prudent, or will they lament that they have no ancestors to look back to save those who deserve scorn for thinking only of themselves?

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It's happening!

Long predicted as a possible effect of global warming, the slowing of the Gulf Stream which warms northern Europe has begun. The mechanism that warms Great Britain and Scandanavia--which are at the same latitude as Hudson Bay--is fairly straightforward: Cold water in the northern Atlantic sinks and draws in warm water from the tropics to replace it. Now, that mechanism is failing, and the cause is the melting of ice sheets off Greenland which are necessary to keep it going.

Not long ago the Pentagon studied the possible effects of the Gulf Stream coming to a stop. Although that hasn't happened yet, the first signs are in place, and the prospects for reversing the global warming trend that could lead to it over the next several decades are virtually nil.

(Via Flying Talking Donkey.)

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Friday, May 06, 2005

The 'dean' of peak oil explains the illusion of plenty

Colin Campbell, a retired petroleum geologist most readily known for his tireless efforts at publicizing the concept of peak oil, spoke recently at a conference in Scotland about its causes and consequences. Perhaps one of the most contentious issues between those (mostly economists) who believe a peak in world oil production is 30 years hence and geologists like Campbell who believe it is imminent is technology. The optimists say that new technology will allow us to withdraw far greater amounts of oil from existing reservoirs of oil. Campbell has a different view laid out in this summary of his remarks:

A widely held myth proclaims that technology will deliver more, when its main impact has been to hold production higher for longer, accelerating depletion. The observed growth in reserves has been an artefact of reporting, not technology, save in special cases.
The second contention made by Campbell--and he knows this from personal experience in the oil industry--is that so-called "reserve growth" is a chimera. Reserve growth refers to the growth of oil reserves in existing fields. This supposedly occurs as more of the field is drilled and explored. Campbell knows firsthand that reserve growth has more to do with Wall Street than drill bits. Oil companies report increasing reserves each year to satisfy financial markets; but, all they are actually doing is stretching out the reporting of previously discovered oil. That's good for stock prices, and it is perfectly legal. But, it doesn't really give the world an accurate picture of discovery rates.

Thus, reserve growth doesn't represent newly discovered oil. When we tally numbers for new discovery, we find that only 1 barrel is currently being discovered for every 4 consumed (7 or 8 billion barrels for every 30 billion consumed per year). That's unsustainable, and it's a sign that we are coming close to a peak, according the Campbell. It's simply getting harder and harder to find the oil that's left.

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Peak oil humor

Check out Peak Energy's Worst Case Scenario post for a few laughs.

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Kings and queens of Vietnam?

Kevin Skislock, founding partner and CEO of Irvine, California-based Laguna Research Partners, predicted in a recent report that Vietnam would "emerge as a key U.S. trading partner and ally over the next ten years." (Hint: It's got something to do with China and oil.) After seeing my post on his report, he emailed some additional observations about his first trip to Vietnam which I think would astonish most Americans. Here's the key paragraph from Kevin's email to me:

Your surprise about conclusions regarding the likelihood of a strong U.S.-Vietnam allied relationship reminded me about how nervous I was before making my first trip there in early 2004. I was flat-out startled by how much Vietnamese like Americans, even in Hanoi. I discovered that Vietnamese frame their expectations of their country's relationship with the U.S. in their understanding of the U.S.-U.K. relationship--something along the lines of "You beat the British to win your independence, and now you're best friends... How about the U.S. and Vietnam?" Also, the Chinese occupied Vietnam for 1,000 years and the French led a brutal occupation that lasted from (roughly) 1847 to 1953. Compared to those experiences, the U.S. stay in Vietnam was extremely brief. The bottom line... if you're an American and you want to be treated like a king or queen, go to Vietnam.
He also pointed to evidence that American and Vietnamese ties are already moving in the direction he expected. Vietnam's prime minister just announced that he plans to visit the United States next month. This is the first time since the end the war that the top leader of Vietnam has scheduled a visit to America.

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Thursday, May 05, 2005

Can we make farming sustainable?

Global Public Media has a transcript of one of the most eloquent presentations I have ever read on sustainable agriculture. Here are some excerpts:

The path to a sustainable food system passes through the people it feeds, and it must be built on the local level. For this reason, a sustainable agricultural system cannot be considered separately from a sustainable society.

....The average meal in the U.S. travels 1500 miles from farmgate to plate, through a myriad of processors, packagers, handlers, truckers, warehouses and chain stores. By the time it reaches the consumer up to 75% of the nutritional value is gone.

....The farmer who grows the food that should be sustaining you is not sustaining himself - typically he or she receives 10% of the food dollar; while at the turn of the century that farmer could count on 50%. For any farming system to be sustainable, the first thing that must be sustained is the farmer.

....We suffer from an illusion of unprecedented prosperity and economic growth while we live in a land of degraded farms, forests, ecosystems and watersheds; polluted air, failing families and perishing communities. We must bring the security of our planet’s ecological capital into the calculations of the marketplace.
The first half of the speech by a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farmer lays out the ideology that has gotten us where we are. The second shows the way back. It's the positive vision we sorely need.

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Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Six and counting

The Western U. S. is entering its sixth year of drought conditions. Is it weather or is it climate change? Inquiring minds in the West want to know.

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Know-nothing judges

"We can't even tell what the weather's going to be two weeks from now, but these models tell us what the climate is going to be like 100 years from now," said Judge A. Raymond Randolph, a federal appeals court judge hearing a case by 12 states asking the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency to set standards for greenhouse gas emissions.

Thus, we have the confusion of the ignorant about the difference between weather and climate. Let me illustrate it for Judge Randolph's sake. It can rain on any particular day in the Arizona desert, and occasionally it does. But, the desert doesn't stop being a desert because of one day's rain. The climate remains the same: dry. Everything clear?

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Is peak oil a "disinformation campaign?"

Deconsumption takes on the conspiracy theorists directly. His thesis: Peak oil theory has been developed out in the open where everyone can see it and test its assumptions and evidence. Much of the information gathered is available to anyone on the Internet and has been put forward by genuine experts in petroleum geology. The reality of the coming peak in world oil production and possible effects were not intentionally "leaked" by any government agency or private corporation. A pretty good rebuttal.

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Corrupt the states

After three counties in California successfully passed bans on the planting of genetically modified crops, the GM seedmakers got smart. They've started pressuring state legislatures to pass pre-emptive laws that prevent localities from enacting their own bans. If you can't corrupt the locals, then move to the states. I think the reason the companies don't move to the national level is that this would provoke a huge national fight that they might not win. Better to work state by state with measures that are easier to hide from the public. After all, how many of us know what major bills are pending in our state legislatures?

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Do we need to recycle everything?

Any good environmentalist will tell you that human wastes used to be returned to the land, thus completing the natural cycle. But, with the advent of modern sanitation that cycle was broken. Human wastes are now sequestered in sewage treatment plants where they eventually end up as sludge or "biosolids" as the people in the industry like to call them. The idea of taking that waste and using it for fertilizer isn't new, and it isn't a bad one in principle, provided that certain safeguards are taken to prevent the spread of pathogens into the food supply.

But, the hue and cry over the use of sewage sludge on farm fields is based in part on what actually goes down city drains: a mixture of human wastes, toxic chemicals, and heavy metals from both households and industry. Even the human wastes are riddled with residues of antibiotics and other prescription drugs. It's not exactly what people had in mind when the idea of recycling biosolids was first proposed. And, it points up the virtual impossibility of separating the good and useful from the bad and toxic while living in the chemical soup we call modern industrial society.

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It doesn't take a rocket scientist, or does it?

The city of Rialto is dealing with decades of damage done by military storage facilities for rockets and explosives. Those weapons contained perchlorate, known to interfere with the production of thyroid hormones in humans in a way that is especially dangerous for young children and fetuses. Now six of the city's 13 water wells are contaminated with the chemical, and the fight is just beginning over who will pay for the cleanup.

Perchlorate pollution has also been plaguing lettuce growers and milk producers throughout the country.

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I know where you're coming from

Some pollution comes from sources that are small but widespread. An example would be runoff from farm fields and city streets. But, others are easy to pinpoint. It turns out that 11 percent of the total mercury emissions in the United States come from smokestacks associated with gold mines near Elko, Nevada. Unfortunately, the mines are not covered under the most recent rules regarding mercury emissions.

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The 'smoking gun' for global warming

As the evidence continues to mount, global warming deniers will go the way of Holocaust deniers and flat-earthers. Last week a new study confirmed that the Earth is absorbing more heat than it releases and that the additional absorption can only be reliably explained by human activity. Since the heat is being stored primarily in the oceans, the full effect of the warming will only be felt over several decades as heat is distributed and released across the planet. But, even if all new emissions of greenhouse gasses stopped today, the Earth would continue to warm because of heat previously trapped in the oceans.

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Monday, May 02, 2005

The New Yorker climate series continues

The second installment of The New Yorker magazine's climate series has more monitory news. Here are a few segments:

…since our species evolved, average temperatures have never been much more than two or three degrees higher than they are right now. [Predictions cited in the article call for increases of 4.9 to 7.7 degrees.]

...A possible consequence of even a four- or five-degree temperature rise--on the low end of projections for doubled [concentrations of carbon dioxide]--is that the world will enter a completely new climate regime, one with which modern humans have no prior experience.

...It is believed that the last time carbon dioxide levels were in this range was three and a half million years ago, during what is known as the mid-Pliocene warm period, and they likely have not been much above it for tens of millions of years.
One of the scientists quoted models the effects of global warming on rainfall patterns. The entire continental United States ends up in varying degrees of drought and severe drought as a result of the warming.

Much of the article discusses emerging science in paleoclimatology (the study of the climate of the past) which tells us that civilization after civilization has fallen at least, in part, due to rapid and severe climate change.

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Sunday, May 01, 2005

'Standing in the way of progress'

The unfolding saga over whether a small California biotech company will be allowed to plant rice that produces human proteins shows how much resistance there is to the idea of essentially growing living pharmaceutical factories that could contaminate human food supplies. First, brewing giant, Anheuser-Busch, the country's largest buyer of rice, threatened to boycott all rice grown in Missouri where the planned field trial was to take place. Then, the brewer relented, no doubt under pressure from the state's pro-biotech governor. Then, it was the turn of Missouri farmers to object which sent the company to North Carolina where opponents will again try to block planting of the rice.

Even if the activists, concerned food processors and farmers win this one, they will be accused of standing in the way of progress. But, let's see what that phrase really means.

If we had known in 1930 that turning the automobile into the primary form of transportation in the United States would within 75 years send our domestic oil supplies into decline, make us dangerously dependent for fuel on countries far away that don't particularly like us (and lead to two wars with them), help to hollow out our major cities, create huge sprawling suburbs that are unsustainable, pollute the air with lead and smog, contribute substantially to global warming, kill up to 50,000 people a year and maim many times more than that, lead auto companies to intentionally destroy light rail and other forms of public transportation across America, and help bring us close to a peak in world oil supplies in the first decade of the 21st century, would we have gone ahead with the experiment?

Now, what do we already know about the dangers of genetically modified crops?

1. They breed with wild relatives, spreading their traits unpredictably.
2. They are marketed primarily to force farmers to use specific brands of herbicide and pesticide and to buy seeds every year from the maker.
3. They can create new undetected allergens in crops that are sometimes life-threatening.
4. They can be made not to bear useful seeds with what is called terminator technology. This prevents farmers from keeping their seeds, a hardship for poor farmers in developing countries. It also risks spreading sterility to natural relatives.
5. They have already contaminated organic crops which are prohibited from having genetically modified genes in them.
6. They will be used to produce pharmaceutical compounds and could pass these traits on to the same species used for food.
7. They cannot be effectively separated from non-genetically modified grains in the food supply chain even after harvest.
8. They can adversely affect insect and wildlife populations, some of which are beneficial to farmers.
9. There are alternatives that can provide the same or better results from traditional breeding techniques.
10. Genetically modified crops are controlled by fewer and fewer corporate giants making all of us more and more dependent on them.
11. The GMO seed makers have successfully prevented people from choosing non-GMO foods by keeping all labeling off American food. (If these crops are safe, what's the worry?)
12. These seeds have led to lawsuits against farmers whose fields were contaminated with GMO seeds by the carelessness of the haulers and adjacent farms. These innocent farmers were successfully extorted out of money for having "stolen" the intellectual property of the seed makers.
13. No feeding studies are required on genetically modified foods for adverse reactions or long-term safety. We just plain don't know if they are safe.

What is it about genetically modified foods that makes anyone except those who profit from them believe they are going to turn out to be a great boon to mankind? Who's really "standing in the way of progress" this time?

[For a good synopsis of the problems with GMO crops check out "The Future of Food," a documentary, and a recent article entitled, "The GMO Menace".]

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Is Jay Hanson's struggle our struggle?

Jay Hanson is familiar to many who have been following the peak oil issue because his site, dieoff.com, was perhaps the very first to deal with the issue in any systematic and thorough way. Hanson said in a 2003 interview that he named the site Die Off in order to shock people into awareness.

Today, Hanson, a computer programmer by profession, lives in Hawaii and has handed over his site to someone else to keep up. He now believes that nothing can be done to avoid a dieoff--not because it isn't feasible to do something, but because people are too competitive by nature to cooperate when the going gets really rough. He's returned his focus to his work and, oddly enough, to investing to make a few dollars before the energy tsunami hits. He says rich people will have more options on the downslope of the oil depletion curve, at least at the beginning.

He seems sad about his conclusion that warning people is a useless exercise, and yet, he thinks on about the issues of population, energy use, overshoot and dieoff. He seems to be struggling with whether his own competitive spirit is the one he should follow or whether his compassion for others is the right beacon. In that he mirrors the internal struggle we all face when difficulties visit our families or our communities. Of course, we'd probably be better off working in concert to solve our problems. But, we face the classic prisoner's dilemma. Can we trust that others won't sabotage us in order to gain advantage and thereby save themselves while discarding us?

(Thanks to Big Gav at Peak Energy [Australia] for pointing me to this interview.)

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