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Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Deja Vu, Again

The Beeb's been at it again. Their finest journos have rehashed a press release from Premier Oil into yet another gushing news item about fossil fuels.

Just as in my "Here We Go Again" blog post from last June, there's no mention of climate change, not one word, apart from the "Climate" in the Department for Energy and (for) Climate Change's title.

Read it and weep.


Posted by Phil at 8:44 PM
Edited on: Wednesday, April 01, 2015 9:53 PM
Categories: Environment

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Domestic LED lighting is Cost-effective Right Now

Of late I've been looking in the lighting sections of supermarkets in search of usable LED replacements for compact fluorescent and incandescent lamps for normal room lighting, but to no avail.

Until yesterday, that is, when I stumbled across this little beauty in my local Aldi store.

This is a Medion MD14536 11W LED lamp (equivalent to 75W incandescent, 18W compact fluorescent), 1055 lumens, 2700K colour temperature, rated lifetime of 35000 hours. Their light output is around 100 lumens per watt. And all for a princely £9.99. The only drawback is that they are not dimmable.

An equivalent Philips 18W compact fluorescent with a 6000 hour lifetime sells for a fiver on Amazon and gives around 60 lumens per watt.

10W (60W incandescent, 810 lumens) and 5.5W (40W incandescent, 470 lumens) are also available.

My experience of modern CFLs is that they rarely last their rated lifetime. I'm lucky if they get to half of it in my residence. CFLs I purchased over a decade ago were much more reliable.

LED lighting at this price is cost-effective right now. A real bargain!

Postscript, October 14th

My local Asda now has 12W (60W incandescent, 810 lumens, 25000 hour rated lifetime) LED lamps for £16. Not such a bargain.

Posted by Phil at 8:45 PM
Edited on: Wednesday, April 01, 2015 9:20 PM
Categories: Comment, Environment

Friday, September 06, 2013

Scientific Illiteracy, Propaganda, or Both?

The Beeb are are being sloppy, ignorant, incompetent, or just plain malicious propaganda-spreaders once again.

A tweet by Greenpeace Nuclear @nukereaction alerted me this morning

Here it is:


Back in November, I commented on this nonsense:


The irony is that nuclear energy is the ultimate non-renewable, actually destroying matter.

Posted by Phil at 11:53 AM
Edited on: Wednesday, April 01, 2015 9:53 PM
Categories: Comment, Environment

Monday, June 03, 2013

Here we go Again

BBC Radio 4's just run a pro shale gas propaganda piece on behalf of UK firm IGas which says "there may be up to 170 trillion cubic feet of gas in the areas it is licensed to explore in northern England".

Up to.

And guess what, no mention of climate change, not one word, though it does appear twice in their web version of the article. In the title of the Dept for Energy and [for] Climate Change.

As I've mentioned several times before, the BBC seems to have a blind spot on the issue of fossil fuels and climate change.


Posted by Phil at 7:47 AM
Edited on: Wednesday, April 01, 2015 9:52 PM
Categories: Environment

Thursday, May 02, 2013

That Which Must Not be Mentioned, Episode 5,100,000

The Beeb reports that Royal Dutch Shell's profits are up.

As usual, no mention of the impacts of the consumption of fossil fuels on the climate.

Worse than that, BBC Radio 4's Today programme's coverage sounded like a worshipful paean to the company, praising the company's performance without any mention of the impacts of burning the stuff.

Posted by Phil at 8:02 AM
Edited on: Wednesday, April 01, 2015 9:54 PM
Categories: Comment, Environment

Saturday, February 23, 2013

It's Time to Bury the "Two Degrees Celsius Temperature Rise is Safe" Meme

The journal Science has just published a paper by Anton Vaks, O. S. Gutareva, S. F. M. Breitenbach, E. Avirmed, A. J. Mason, A. L. Thomas, A. V. Osinzev, A. M. Kononov, and G. M. Henderson about historical periods of Siberian permafrost melt, entitled Speleothems Reveal 500,000-Year History of Siberian Permafrost.

Unfortunately it's behind a paywall (grumble, grumble), but the abstract and reports give us enough information to be very concerned. From the paper's abstract:

Growth at that time indicates that global climates only slightly warmer than today are sufficient to thaw significant regions of permafrost

Siberian permafrost thaw warning sparked by cave data, reports the Beeb, who mention temperatures 1.5ºC above the present, without qualifying 'the present'. Such lack of rigour is a godsend to the climate change deniers, who doubtless will be equally sloppy. But read on.

Scientific American elaborates:

The details of the study reveal that conditions were warm enough even in Siberia for these mineral deposits to form roughly 400,000 years ago, when the global average temperature was 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than present. It also suggests that there was no permafrost in the Lena River region at that time, because enough water seeped into the northernmost cave to enable roughly eight centimeters of growth in the formations.

That was, in fact, the last time the formations in the Ledyanaya Lenskaya Cave grew, although other caves further south showed multiple periods of growth coinciding with other warmer periods. "That boundary area of continuous permafrost starts to degrade when the mean global temperature is 1.5 degrees C higher than present," Vaks explains. "Such a warming is a threshold after which continuous permafrost zone starts to be vulnerable to global warming."

Since Vaks's present is the "preindustrial late Holocene," that means the planet is already more than halfway there, having experienced 0.8 degree C warming to date. Such a thaw is no small matter, given that permafrost covers nearly a quarter of the land in the Northern Hemisphere and holds roughly 1,700 gigatonnes of carbon—or roughly twice as much carbon as is currently trapping heat in the atmosphere. Much of that carbon would end up in the atmosphere if the permafrost was to thaw further.


"The potential impact of these results extends to global policy: these results indicate the potential release of large amounts of carbon from thawed permafrost even if we attain the 2 degree [C] warming target under negotiation," says Kevin Schaefer, a scientist at the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, who has also studied permafrost but was not involved in this, in his words, "great science" effort. "Permafrost thaws slowly and the carbon will be released into the atmosphere over two to three centuries."

Read that again. An average global temperature rise of 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels would be enough to cause significant permafrost melt.

Time to stop talking that "2ºC rise is safe" nonsense, a myth I debunked over six years ago.

Postscript, March 22nd, 2013

Dr Chris Shaw, aka @kalahar1, has an interesting post today on Talking Climate, "Time to ask the public: Why 2 degrees?"

The most important determinants of the two degree limit are the social settings in which the deliberations are conducted. Under conditions of empirical uncertainty, such as those characterising climate change projections, institutional setting alongside social and political values come to play a determining role in defining what is considered ‘true’.

Achieving group uniformity becomes an increasingly important determinant of decision making the greater the level of uncertainty. The groups that have defined the two degree dangerous limit are powerful political and technical actors. The idea of a limit has been defined according to the interests of those groups making the decisions.

What does climate change look like if the available information is interpreted by the values of citizens? The purpose of such an exercise would not be to agree a new ‘dangerous’ limit. Rather, it would be to allow publics to better understand the decision making process and see how uncertainty - rather than offering a reason for doing nothing - actually shows that there is not a single dangerous limit, the avoidance of which means safety from harmful climate impacts.

Postscript, December 2nd, 2013

Also read this summary from David Spratt - Is climate change already dangerous (5): Climate safety and an unavoidably radical future (and the rest of the series).

And today's hot story: 2C rise will be a disaster say leading scientists

Postscript, October 1st, 2014

Controversy erupted today when David Victor and Charles Kennel, writing in Nature, suggested that we should ditch the 2°C warming goal.

Climate Controversy: Does the 2 Degree Goal Need to Go? asks Stephanie Pappas at Livescience.

Limiting global warming to 2°C – why Victor and Kennel are wrong argues Stephan Rahmstorf over at RealClimate.

Victor and Kennel: re-arrange the deckchairs, says William M. Connolley.

I hadn't seen this one before, but it's worth a read: Defining dangerous anthropogenic interference. A handy background by Dr Michael E. Mann to the whole two degrees thing.

Joe Romm nails it in 2°C Or Not 2°C: Why We Must Not Ditch Scientific Reality In Climate Policy.

My own view, for what it's worth, is that it's hard to avoid the conclusion that 2°C is way too high, and that 1°C is the better, more cautious target.

Posted by Phil at 3:47 PM
Edited on: Wednesday, April 01, 2015 9:55 PM
Categories: Comment, Environment

Thursday, November 29, 2012

That Which Must Not be Mentioned (yet again)

The BBC are at it again!

In an article entitled "The Inuit sitting on billions of barrels of oil" there's zero mention of climate change, global warming, or the unsustainable consumption of non-replenishing resources.

Of course not.

But there is mention of jobs and the economy and some mythical 'energy independence'.

Dear BBC, the main issue with drilling for oil in the Arctic, or anywhere else, is what we do with it when we've found it. That's too difficult a concept for you to comprehend, it appears.

I wrote about this obliviousness to the climate change impacts of fossil fuel consumption back in July 2008: Wrong Numbers, episode 200,000,000,000

And again in September, 2009: Wrong Numbers, Episode 3,000,000,000

Will the media never learn?


The other day, talking about the Energy Bill, the Beeb's Roger Harrabin said this:

"DECC argues that in the long term clean energy will save money because renewables and nuclear are dear to build but relatively cheap to run."

And since when has nuclear been a clean energy source?

I expect a lot better than this from the BBC. Appalling.

Posted by Phil at 1:42 PM
Edited on: Wednesday, April 01, 2015 10:53 PM
Categories: Comment, Environment

Monday, June 04, 2012

Browns Ferry

Idly browsing through the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Current Event Notifications today (as one does) I came across Event 47986 dated June 1st, 2012, for the Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama.

"Cable Routing Error Could Fail DC Control Power to Shutdown Board in a Fire":
"During NFPA 805 transition reviews, a cable routing error has been identified that would fail the DC control power to credited 4kV Shutdown Board 3EA for an Appendix R fire in Fire Area 23. "Cable 3B181 provides alternate DC Control Power to 4kV Shutdown Board 3EA from Battery Board 2. Cable 3B181 is routed in Fire Area 23. However, cable 3B181 is not identified as being in Fire Area 23 in Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant (BFN) calculation EDQ099920030037, Appendix R Computerized Separation Analysis. This error allowed the analysis to credit alternate DC Control Power to 4kV Shutdown Board 3EA. The normal DC Control Power to 4kV Shutdown Board 3EA is not available in the event of an Appendix R fire in Fire Area 23. The routing error results in the credited 4kV Shutdown Board 3EA being unable to perform its function for Fire Area 23 Appendix R fires due to both the associated normal and alternate DC Control Power cables being routed In Fire Area 23. The failure of 4kV Shutdown Board 3EA could result in a loss of power to credited safe shutdown equipment that would challenge the ability to provide adequate core cooling during performance of BFN Safe Shutdown Instructions. "Compensatory actions in the form of fire watches to mitigate this condition are in place in accordance with the BFNP Fire Protection Report. "This event is reportable as an 8 hour notification to the NRC in accordance with 10CFR 50,72(b)(3)(ii)(B). This is also reportable as a 60 day written report in accordance with 10CFR 50.73(a)(2)(ii)(B)." The licensee has notified the NRC Resident Inspector.

Oh dear, primary and failover control cables being routed in the same area. If a fire broke out, both cables could be damaged. Don't worry, that's not very likely, is it?

Well, unfortunately, such a scenario has happened before at an American nuclear power facility, back on March 22nd, 1975, in which a candle set fire to insulating foam in an electrical conduit, taking out both primary and secondary control circuits.

Not just any plant, though, but Browns Ferry.

David Dinsmore Comey wrote a damning article in Not Man Apart about the accident. He cites a report to the NRC made by the Factory Mutual Engineering Association of Norwood, Massachusetts, the fire underwriters the NRC engaged as consultants:

"The original plant design did not adequately evaluate the fire hazards of grouped electrical cables in trays, grouped cable trays and materials of construction (wall sealants) in accordance with recognized industrial 'highly protected risk' criteria.... It is obvious that vital electrical circuitry controlling critical safe shutdown functions and control of more than one production unit were located in an area where normal and redundant controls were susceptible to a single localized accident .... A re-evaluation should be made of the arrangement of important electrical circuitry and control systems, to establish that safe shutdown controls in the normal and redundant systems are routed in separated and adequately protected areas."

I wonder how many reactors are still susceptible 37 years on from the Browns Ferry fire.

We learn from history that we do not learn from history, it appears.

Related material:

NUREG-0050, Recommendations related to Browns Ferry fire, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, February 1976.

Cable Fire at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant, Robert G. Sawyer and James A. Elsner, P.E., Fire Journal, July 1976.

Browns Ferry Fire, M. Ragheb and Jim Kolodziej, January 2011.

Safety Deficiencies at the Brown's Ferry Nuclear Power Complex, Nuclear Information and Resource Center, December 2010. Read this carefully, then read about the March 2011 Fukushima meltdowns, and weep.

Browns Ferry Unit 2, Union of Concerned Scientists.


Apologies for the missing apostrophe in Browns. Much as I'd love to write it as Brown's, that does not appear to be the common usage. And as I'm playing 'boy reporter' and not 'grammar teacher', I've left it apostropheless, except where I'm directly quoting others.


See also, "Fission Stories #98: Fires at Browns Ferry: Get Your Fiddles Ready"

Postscript, Nov 1st, 2012:

Notification 48467, October 31st, 2012:

"During BFNP [Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant] NFPA [National Fire Protection Association] 805 transition review, it was determined in the event of an Appendix R fire, the ability to provide power to equipment needed to achieve and maintain safe shutdown may be adversely impacted. In certain fire zones/areas, feeder breakers for the 480V Shutdown Boards are credited for backup control operation using the 43 emergency switches, which isolate the breaker controls from circuits going to the control bay, and allow for local operation of the breaker. Fire damage to Main Control Room 480V Shutdown Board transfer switch cables could cause the control circuit fuses for the credited breaker to clear prior to the use of the 43 emergency switch. In addition, cable fire damage in the same fire areas could also cause the normal and/or alternate feeder breakers to spuriously trip. These breakers do not have separate emergency fuses like other BFNP breakers equipped with backup controls. Therefore, Safe Shutdown Instruction (SSI) procedure steps to use 43 switches to perform local breaker operation to supply power to safe shutdown equipment may not work as written where this cable fire damage can occur.
"Compensatory actions in the form of fire watches to mitigate this condition are in place in accordance with the BFNP Fire Protection Report. "
This condition is being reported pursuant to 10CFR50.72(b)(3)(ii)(B) and 10CFR50.72(b)(3)(v)(A),(B),(C).&(D).
"The NRC Resident Inspector has been notified."

Posted by Phil at 6:20 PM
Edited on: Thursday, November 01, 2012 8:41 PM
Categories: Environment

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Hot? Or Not?

Today my outdoor thermometer was reading 12ºC at 3pm, rather warm for this time of year, or so it seemed.

So I decided to investigate. The Met Office provides a dataset of Central England Daily Temperatures, dating back to 1878. After downloading the daily maximum HadCET 1878-2001 data, extracting the January 8th data, adding today's measurement, and playing with a spreadsheet, I got this graph (click on image to enlarge):


The line through the middle of the graph is a linear trend line, increasing over time.

Also interesting is the numbers of January 8ths with maximum temperatures of 10ºC or more:

1878-1944, 8 January 8s with max temp 10ºC or more.

1945-2012, 15 with max temp 10ºC or more, the last eight of which are from 1992 to 2012

So, yes, January 8th is getting warmer in these parts.

Posted by Phil at 9:26 PM
Edited on: Wednesday, April 01, 2015 10:51 PM
Categories: Comment, Environment

Sunday, December 18, 2011

We Are the One Percent

Half of mankind's carbon emissions come from the top one percent.

We are the one percent.

Or, as Walt Kelly's Pogo famously put it forty years ago, "We have met the enemy and he is us".

Well, anyone gets on a plane, or in the UK earns over £30,000 is.

The rest of us, well, don't get smug, we're all among the 700 million top consumers of fossil fuels, or the top 10%.

This lecture, in which Prof Kevin Anderson talks of that one percent, is from July this year.

Professor Kevin Anderson - Climate Change: Going Beyond Dangerous
View another webinar from DFID

It's the usual story. If we want to prevent disastrous climate change, we, the over-consuming top 1%, must change our ways.

Which is why we still need to talk about austerity, but not in Cameron's sense, but in the sense of a purposeful reduction in our affluence in order to save, not the economy, but the planet.

Posted by Phil at 10:30 PM
Edited on: Sunday, December 18, 2011 11:01 PM
Categories: Comment, Environment

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Power Corrupts

The second edition of Daniel S. Halacy's The Coming Age of Solar Energy (1973, or 1975 in paperback) starts with an interesting quote from Earl Cook's The Flow of Energy in an Industrial Society (Scientific American, Sept 1971):

"Power corrupts" was written of man's control over other men but it also applies to his control of energy resources. The more power an industrial society disposes of, the more it wants. The more power we use, the more we shape our cities and mold our economic and social institutions to be dependent on the application of power and the consumption of energy. We could not now make any major move toward a lower per capita energy consumption without severe economic dislocation, and certainly the struggle of people in less-developed nations toward somewhat similar energy consumption levels cannot be thwarted without prolonging mass human suffering. Yet there is going to have to be some leveling off in the energy demands of industrial societies. Countries such as the U.S. have already come up against constraints dictated by the availability of resources and by damage to the environment.

Halacy's book is interesting to read retrospectively. A whole two paragraphs devoted to climate change!

By the year 2000 it is estimated that [carbon dioxide concentrations] may have climbed to between 375 and 400 parts per million

Close, we hit 375ppm in 2002.

... by the year 2020 we may have increased the ambient air temperature over the United States by as much as 2.5 degrees F.
... some scientists feel that a few degrees could upset things dramatically

A bit on the high side, perhaps, as current estimates are around 1 degree Celsius (1.8 deg F) warming by 2020.

Posted by Phil at 6:23 PM
Edited on: Thursday, November 01, 2012 8:11 PM
Categories: Comment, Environment

Money Annihilates Distinctions

"The love of money is the root of all evil" said St Paul in 1 Timothy 6:10, but I prefer a slight variant:

The concept of money is the root of all evil

Still hyperbole, I know, but I'm trying to express the essence of a profound problem.

I happened upon the following gem by accident today when searching for the origin of another quote. Here's a small excerpt from Roy Rappaport's Adaptive Structure and its Disorders (1977):

High-energy technology is, of course, not alone in impelling maladaptive trends. All-purpose money has also played a part. In addition to its obvious contribution to the concentration of real wealth and regulatory prerogative, it flows through virtually all barriers, increasing the coherence of the world system enormously. Its ability to penetrate whatever barriers may have protected previously autonomous systems against outside disruption rests upon its most peculiar and interesting property: it annihilates distinctions. It tends to dissolve the differences between all things by providing a simple metric against which virtually all things can be assessed, and in terms of which decisions concerning them can be made. But the world upon which this metric is imposed is not as simple as this metric. Living systems - plants, animals, societies, ecosystems - are very diverse and each requires a great variety of particular materials to remain healthy. Monetization, however, forces the great ranges of unique and distinct materials and processes that together sustain or even constitute life into an arbitrary and specious equivalence and decisions informed by these terms are likely to simplify, that is, to degredate and to disrupt, the ecological systems in which they are effective. Needless to say the application of large amounts of mindless energy under the guidance of the simplified or even simple-minded and often selfish considerations that all-purpose money makes virtually omnipotent and, when united with a capitalist ideology, even sacred, is in its nature stupid, brutal, and almost bound to be destructive.
With increases in the amounts of energy harnessed, with increases in the internal differentiation of social systems, with the monetization of even larger portions of life, the contradiction between the direction of cultural evolution on the one hand and the maintenance of living processes, both meaningful and material, has become increasingly profound. We are led to ask whether civilization, the elaborate stage of culture with which are associated money and banking, high-energy technology, and social stratification and specialization, is not maladaptive. It is, after all, in civilized societies that we can observe most clearly oversegregation, overcentralization, oversanctification, hypercoherence, the domination of higher- by lower-order systems, and the destruction of ecosystems. Civilization has emerged only recently - in the past six thousand or so years - and it may yet prove to be an unsuccessful experiment.
What are taken to be evolutionary advances institutionalize new contradictions and set new problems as they solve or resolve older problems or overcome earlier limitations, and social systems may eventually become paralyzed by accumulating structural anomalies at the same time that they are increasingly perturbed by mounting substantive difficulties. It may be recalled that both Bateson and Slobodkin have argued that it is good evolutionary strategy for evolving systems to change no more than persistence requires, but increasing systemic deformity may require radical correction. Revolution has historically been an ultimate corrective response of systems so affected by maladaptation as to be unable to respond homeostatically to events continually perturbing them. Flannery has argued that the radical correction of structural anomaly has been an important factor in the evolution of civilization (1972), and inquiry into the dynamic relationship among structural anomaly, substantive problem, and profound corrective processes is, in other terms, central to the thought of Marx.
Bateson (1972), however, has located the problem at a level that may be beyond the reach of revolutionary correction - in the characteristics of human intelligence. He argues that purposefulness is the dominant characteristic of human reason, a plausible suggestion, for purposefulness, encompassing both foresight and concentration, must have been strongly selected for during man's two or three million years on earth (and even earlier among man's prehuman forebears and other animals). But, located in the conscious minds of individuals and serving in the first instance their separate survivals, purposefulness must incline toward self-interest or even selfishness. (Indeed the philosopher Bergson in in recognizing this problem took religion to be society's defense against the "dissolving power" of the human mind.) That some human purposes are selfish cannot be gainsaid. But Bateson suggests that the problem of purposefulness is more profound. Purposefulness, he argues, has a linear structure. A man at point A with goal D takes actions B and C, and with the achievement of D considers the process to be completed. Thus, the structure of purposeful action is linear: A - B - C -, D. But the world is not constructed in linear fashion. We have already discussed the circular structure of cybernetic, that is, self-correcting, systems, and it is well known that ecosystems are roughly circular in plan, with materials being cycled and recycled through the soil, the air, and organisms of many species. Moreover, the circularity of both cybernetic and ecosystemic structure blurs the distinction between cause and effect, or rather suggests to us that simple linear notions of causality, which lead us to think of actors, objects upon which they act, and the transformation of such objects, are inadequate, for purposeful behavior seldom affects only a single object, here designated D, but usually many other objects as well, often in complex and ramifying ways. Among those being affected in unforseen and possibly unpleasant ways may be the actor himself.
It may be suggested, however, that linear, purposeful thought is adequate to the needs of simple hunters and gatherers, and not very destructive to the ecological systems in which they live, because both the scope and power of their activities are limited. It is when linear thought comes to guide the operations of an increasingly powerful technology over domains of ever increasing scope that disruption may become inevitable.

The process of annihilation of distinctions is also a process of alienation from nature, or what Keith Farnish calls "disconnection". And, as Charles Eisenstein notes in Sacred Economics, it depersonalises its users:

Just as money homogenizes the things it touches, so also does it homogenize and depersonalize its users: “It facilitates the kind of commercial exchange that is disembedded from all other relations.” In other words, people become mere parties to a transaction. In contrast to the diverse motivations that characterize the giving and receiving of gifts, in a pure financial transaction we are all identical: we all want to get the best deal. This homogeneity among human beings that is an effect of money is assumed by economics to be a cause. The whole story of money’s evolution from barter assumes that it is fundamental human nature to want to maximize self-interest. In this, human beings are assumed to be identical. When there is no standard of value, different humans want different things. When money is exchangeable for any thing, then all people want the same thing: money.

So, money leads to alienation, and alienation leads to... evil, of course (Colossians 1:21).

Damn that Cameron bloke for putting me in a biblical frame of mind.

Happy 400th birthday to the King James Bible.

Postscript, March 10th, 2012

Gary Alexander's Report on the Planet Earth from the Intergalactic Study Group on Worlds in Transition is a rather good rant on the dysfunctional nature of the whole concept of money.

Postscript, Sept 5th, 2012

Over at the A Prosperous Way Down site, Mary Logan asks What is Money?

Postscript, Sept 22nd, 2014

Interesting comment in an article about "Flood Wall Street", A climate of disobedience: the coming destituent flood:

"Through its univocal conception of value, capital serves to shape our actions and how we imagine our relationships with one another and the ecosystems that support us. It also mediates how we cooperate together to reproduce our world. This reconfiguration of personal and social life in strictly economic terms obliterates a whole ecosystem of values which are foundational to the continued maintenance of life on this planet."

The article has a link to The Financial Crisis as a Crisis of Imagination (.pdf), which is an interesting dissertation on the "imaginary" nature of money.

"Our endless fascination with the worthlessness of money is in some ways a catharsis for our conscription within a society where we are compelled to elevate money above all other values"

Posted by Phil at 5:25 PM
Edited on: Thursday, January 01, 2015 8:53 PM
Categories: Comment, Environment

Thursday, November 17, 2011


It was a lovely day on Tuesday. Unseasonably warm, like the rest of November's been.

So I went a-strolling in the Malvern Hills, up to the top of British Camp (huff puff).

Returning to the car park along one of the lower paths, I heard an unsual bird call from above. A kind of "meeyug", sound, but as one syllable, not two. Having never heard that call in my life, I looked up, and saw a magnificient raptor flying above. It would fly 100 feet or so above the ground, then fold in its wings and dive, calling out as it did so, pulling short about 30 feet above the ground. It then flew back up, repeating the sequence, several times. That flight behaviour is, I discovered later, known as stooping.

Now here's the problem. It was too big to be a Peregrine Falcon (and had wrong wing shape), and it wasn't a behaviour I'd normally have associated with Buzzards, nor did the call match the Buzzard's normal pi-oo bi-syllabic call. After listening to numerous sound clips of raptors, it was more like the sound of a Golden Eagle, but there aren't any in the wild in these parts. It wasn't trailing any tethers, so was unlikely to be an escaped-from-captivity Golden Eagle. But Golden Eagles do the stooping thing too, like Peregrines.

Back to Google, and I found a clue. Buzzards, in their spring courtship rituals, do that sort of dance to impress prospective partners. I haven't found any examples of their courtship calls, but I can imagine them being different from their normal call, which I have heard many times.

So, was it a Buzzard, confused by the mild weather and thinking it was Spring, trying to impress the ladies with its Golden Eagle impersonations?

Whatever it was, it was a totally enrapturing experience, so beautiful to witness.

Next time I go walking in the hills, I'll take my camera.

Posted by Phil at 9:19 PM
Categories: Environment

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Bootstrapping Sustainability

In today's blog, we're going to get physical.

Are you sitting comfortably? If so, stand up, please.

Now grasp your shoelaces between finger and thumb and pull vertically, as hard as you can.

That didn't achieve much, did it?

The process you've just attempted in vain is called bootstrapping:

The saying "to pull yourself up by your bootstraps" was already in use during the 19th century as an example of an impossible task. Bootstrap as a metaphor, meaning to better oneself by one's own unaided efforts, was in use in 1922. This metaphor spawned additional metaphors for a series of self-sustaining processes that proceed without external help.

It's the latter concept that I wish to explore here. The term is most commonly used in computing: bootstrap loaders (from which the term to "boot" one's PC arises), but also in a more interesting way, as in bootstrapping compilers.

Bear with me with this digression, all will be clear in a little while.

A compiler translates a computer language into the low-level instructions that your computer hardware understands. So, suppose we invent a new programming language, Z, and get clever and write a compiler in Z for Z. But, there's a slight problem with that. Z's a new language, no compiler for Z exists. We're not going to get very far with that "chicken and egg" problem. So we write a compiler for Z in an already-existing language, use that to compile our Z compiler written in Z, and use the resulting program to compile itself. Now we're there. We have a self-sustaining ecosystem in which all things Z are written in Z. The chicken has become the egg, so to speak.

Now here's the problem: bootstrapping sustainable energy and a sustainable society.

We clearly can't start with everything powered from renewable, nay, replenishing1, sources. We're not there yet.

Consider the construction of a wind turbine, a whole lifecycle:

1: Obtain the minerals and iron needed for its construction. Initially, that'll be from mining, later, mostly from recycling (though the entropy law puts limits on our ability to recycle, recycling can't be 100% efficient2). Diggers running on diesel fuel. That would have to change to the use of renewable energy only.

2: Transport the materials. More diesel. That would have to change to the use of renewable energy only.

3: Turn the iron ore into steel. We currently do that using coking coal3. That would have to change to the use of renewable energy only. Whilst electric arc and induction furnaces do exist, they're not on the scale required. Can they scale to the point where they replace coke-based smelting of iron? What energy efficiencies are involved?

4: Manufacture the wind turbine's components. Probably using a mix of fossil fuels and fossil/nuclear/solar/wind-generated electricity. That would have to change to the use of renewable energy only.

5: Transport to final site and erection. Using fossil fuels, electric vehicles, sailing ships, whatever. That would have to change to the use of renewable energy only.

6: Repair and maintenance.

7: Decommissioning, recycling, returning to step 1.

We could infinitely recurse here and consider the manufacture of the mining equipment, transportation vehicles, etc. Just bear that in mind.

So there's the problem. For a technology to be sustainable, every constituent component must itself be sustainable, powered by replenishing energy sources. Pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.

Wind turbines, solar photovoltaic electricity, and biofuels are all adding to the mix of "renewable" fuel sources available.


But is it?

Apart from a few voices in the wilderness (Howard T. Odum, Sharon Astyk, John Michael Greer, and Gail Tverberg come to mind), we've pushed aside the bootstrapping problem.

What does this mean in practice? The switch to renewables will save less fossil fuel than expected, and that getting our fossil-fuel consumption down to zero will be very difficult. We'll need to reduce energy consumption, not just substitute "renewables". Their hidden fossil fuel subsidies are going to be difficult to eliminate.

And we have to do all this within the constraints of whatever economics fad we're following at the time. Don't overlook trade deficits4.


This argument also applies to nuclear electricity as a substitute for fossil fuels. Though nuclear is the ultimate non-renewable energy source, being the only one which destroys matter.


A little thought experiment. Let's suppose we make real progress and get all transport and consumer use of energy onto renewables. How much fossil fuel would be used to produce and maintain that infrastructure?


1: "renewable" is not per se sustainable. Consider a forest chopped down for fuel. It's sustainable if the forest is regrown at the rate it is harvested. Hence my preference for the term "replenishing". Hydropower is another example. It's replenishing until the drought comes.

2: See Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, "Energy and Economic Myths", 1975

3: Let's not forget that it was Dud Dudley's and Abraham Darby's process for smelting iron using coke instead of charcoal which made mass-production of cast iron and steel possible. See Carl Higgs' "Sedgley's Men of Iron; Dud Dudley and Abraham Darby – Keeping it in the Family!" for an interesting commentary.

4: "It makes no sense to substitute imported wind turbines or solar panels for imported oil", writes Prof Judith Stein - Keynesian Stimulus Isn't Enough: The Great Recession and the Trade Deficit


This blog post is also the basis of a comment I've made at The Oil Drum, in response to Rembrandt's article "Thoughts on a Sustainable Human Ecosystem".

Postscript, Nov 17th

"Ruben", in a comment over at The Automatic Earth, draws our attention to a paper by Christian Kerschner, "Economic de-growth vs. steady-state economy" (.pdf), in which we're reminded of Georgescu-Roegen's point that sustainability is not possible, and that decline is the best we can achieve.

PPS, Dec 2nd

Interesting Low Tech Magazine article addressing some of these concerns: The bright future of solar powered factories. A bit short of evidence re scalability. It's not enough to say that we can smelt iron and produce steel using solar furnaces. We need evidence that the process can be scaled to an appropriate level.

PPS, June 8, 2012

Have a listen to Extraenvironmentalist Podcast #42 too. Seth and Justin talk to Ozzie Zehner about his new book Green Illusions which discusses the ecological impacts of manufacturing a renewable energy future.

PPS, Oct 27th, 2012

Nicole Foss, as always, says it so much more eloquently than I ever could: Renewable Energy: The Vision And A Dose Of Reality

PPS, Oct 28th, 2012

John Weber has done a much better job than me on this. His blog posts, Machines Making Machines Making Machines and Energy in the Real World are must-reads. (via his comments on Nicole Foss's article above). And, more recently, Energy Return on Energy Invested (ERoEI)

PPS, Jan 30th, 2013

Dawn Stover's written a good Reality Check on alternatives to fossil fuels in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, (@BulletinAtomic on Twitter)

PPS, Feb 25th, 2014

Robert Wilson's written a good piece on this theme over at the Energy Collective: Can You Make a Wind Turbine Without Fossil Fuels?

PPS, Nov 19th, 2014

Gail Tverberg's on the ball in her post Eight Pitfalls in Evaluating Green Energy Solutions.

John Weber (who I've cited above) comments about the extreme resource depletion involved in rolling out renewables en masse, and asks us to Prove This Wrong.

PPS, Jan 22nd, 2015

Alex Smith's Ecoshock Radio has recently devoted three shows to Ozzie Zehner's "Green Illusions" and the issues he raises:

"Green Illusions" - Ozzie Zehner

Green Reality VS. Ozzie Zehner

Green Dreams - Future or Fantasy?

All worth a listen. To my mind, the second is the weakest, with Dan Miller all too glibly asserting that we can produce renewables technologies without fossil fuels. I've addressed that particular illusion above. It's harder than we think.

Recycling's not the answer, either, as I pointed out a while back on Twitter:

PPS, Dec 23rd, 2018

Low-Tech Magazine asks How Circular is the Circular Economy? 

"The circular economy – the newest magical word in the sustainable development vocabulary – promises economic growth without destruction or waste. However, the concept only focuses on a small part of total resource use and does not take into account the laws of thermodynamics."

Well worth a read.

PPS, Sep 18th, 2021

Thanks to a insomniac chat with @imightbeakulak on Twitter, I was reminded of the work of Dr William Rees and The Real Green New Deal project.

Their papers here are worth a read, though, ironically, the PDF has huge blocks of colour which makes printing it extremely wasteful of printer ink. Oh well.

Posted by Phil at 12:33 AM
Edited on: Saturday, September 18, 2021 11:35 AM
Categories: Comment, Environment

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Dot E

Andy Revkin's latest Dot Earth piece, on how it's Overhaul Time for U.S. Nuclear Overseers, starts with the following apoplexy-inducing paragraph:

I’m convinced that the United States will be better off keeping existing nuclear power stations running, where their management can be demonstrated to be reliable, rather than initiating a decades-long decommissioning process that would not resolve community concerns about spent fuel and many other sources of risk.

I found it hard to continue beyond this, but the story is important enough to read on.

What was so upsetting about the above? Let's pick it apart and see. It is full of hidden assumptions and faulty logic.

keeping existing nuclear power stations running

Unfortunately, nuclear power plants get less reliable and more dangerous the longer they're in use. Does Revkin mention this? No.

where their management can be demonstrated to be reliable

Let's be charitable and take Revkin's managerial reliability assumption as read, and see where that leads us. They might be reliable now, but are there any factors which could or would change that during the lifetime of these plants? Like financial meltdown, peak oil, peak everything, for example? Of course not, silly me.

rather than

The decommissioning process has to take place anyway, so there is no rather than. It's an as well as. Revkin's showing a temporal bias here, completely discounting the future, only allowing for the impacts in the present. That's the kind of short-sightedness which has helped propel us into our current mess.

initiating a decades-long decommissioning process

It's implied here that somehow keeping the plants going will prevent their decommissioning, and all that goes with it. Or that somehow in the future decommisioning won't take as long, or that we'll be better able to decommission in the future than in the present. Dubious unstated assumptions.

that would not resolve community concerns about spent fuel

The longer you run them, the more spent fuel, Andy, so there's something more than slightly awry with your logic here.

and many other sources of risk

Great catch-all. There's still an underlying conceit that by putting all this off things will get better, that in the future there will be fewer risks. That's an assumption I wouldn't dare make.

The big risk is putting things off until mañana in the naïve hope that things will get better, when all around us is evidence demonstrating the contrary.

Out of sight, out of mind.


Dot E.

Posted by Phil at 7:22 PM
Edited on: Sunday, May 08, 2011 8:06 PM
Categories: Comment, Environment

Monday, March 14, 2011

On Nukes

I said this on the subject on an internet mailing list back in December 2007:

I confess to being ill at ease over nukes, partly, I suspect, a gut reaction to the over-zealousness of its current proponents.

The late Alvin Weinberg, had this to say back in 1972:

"We nuclear people have made a Faustian bargain with society. On the one hand, we offer -- in the catalytic nuclear burner -- an inexhaustible source of energy. . .
But the price that we demand of society for this magical energy source is both a vigilance and a longevity of our social institutions that we are quite unaccustomed to."
(Science, July 7, 1972)

He continued:

"We make two demands. The first, which I think is easier to manage, is that we exercise in nuclear technology the very best techniques and that we use people of high expertise and purpose. . . .
The second demand is less clear, and I hope it may prove unnecessary.
This is a demand for longevity in human institutions. We have relatively little problem dealing with wastes if we can assume always that there will be intelligent people around to cope with eventualities we have not though of. If the nuclear parks that I mention are permanent features of our civilization, then we presumably have the social apparatus, and possibly the sites, for dealing with our wastes indefinitely. But even our salt mine may require some surveillance if only to prevent men in the future from drilling holes into the burial grounds.
Eugene Wigner has drawn an analogy between this commitment to a permanent social order that may be implied in nuclear energy and our commitment to a stable, year-in and year-out social order when man moved from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Before agriculture, social institutions hardly required the long-lived stability that we now take so much for granted. And the commitment imposed by agriculture in a sense was forever; the land had to be tilled and irrigated every year in perpetuity; the expertise required to accomplish this task could not be allowed to perish or man would perish; his numbers could not be sustained by hunting and gathering.
In the same sense, though on a much more highly sophisticated plane, the knowledge and care that goes into the proper building and operation of nuclear power plants and their subsystems is something we are committed to forever, so long as we find no other practical source of infinite extent."


"In exchange for this atomic peace [referring to no recent nuclear bomb use] we had to manage and control nuclear weapons. In a sense, we have established a military priesthood which guards against inadvertent use of nuclear weapons, which maintains what a priori seems to be a precarious balance between readiness to go to war and vigilance against human errors that would precipitate war. Moreover, this is not something that will go away, at least not soon. The discovery of the bomb has imposed an additional demand on our social institutions. It has called forth this military priesthood upon which in a way we all depend for our survival.
It seems to me (and in this I repeat some views expressed very well by Atomic Energy Commissioner Wilfred Johnson) that peaceful nuclear energy probably will make demands of the same sort on our society, and possibly of even longer duration."

John Gofman wryly noted at the time that

"If we can predict the social future for generations, including civil strife, international strife, revolutions, psychoses, saboteurs of all stripes and types, hijackers of whatever bizarre or mundane motives, psychopathic personalities of all types, and all criminality, then nuclear power is acceptable, according to Dr. Weinberg's requirements."

There seems to be a complete lack of consideration of these moral and ethical issues by today's nuclear proponents.

When the pro-nuke brigade starts earnestly and seriously discussing Weinberg's "Faustian Bargain" I'll start to take them seriously.

But not until then.

Posted by Phil at 8:23 AM
Edited on: Monday, March 14, 2011 8:38 AM
Categories: Comment, Environment, Waffle

Friday, January 07, 2011

Don't You Love Local Papers?

On Monday, the Worcester News published a letter from one K Hemming, entitled "Global warming? You must be joking".

The usual nonsense:

"So will all those easily fooled, gullible people now shut up about global warming. If there was any truth in their brainless propaganda, we would all be holding outside barbecues now and frying eggs on the pavement instead of old age pensioners freezing to death."

My response to the editor:

"In Monday's letters, K Hemming referred to "global warming" as "brainless propaganda", basing his claim on the cold weather we've experienced this winter and last.
Since not one climate scientist has predicted UK winter weather suitable for pavement egg-frying, he's rather overstating his case.
What they do predict, however, is more extreme weather conditions.
The Europe-wide Ensembles project, which reported in November 2009, predicted "increases in precipitation across northern Europe in winter", i.e., more rain and snow in winters to come. A graph on page 61 of that report shows a forecasted increase in winter precipitation over the UK.
Dr Kevin Trenberth, of the USA's National Center for Atmospheric Research, has stated that last winter "the cold and snow in Europe was 'balanced' by very warm temperatures in Greenland... The was a large so-called blocking high in North Atlantic that led to the polar outbreaks into Europe and so that is where the cold air went, making it warmer in behind". He notes that this is "weather", not "climate".
A similar "blocking high" was a feature of last month's cold snap. A paper by Varvus et al. in the International Journal of Climatology in 2006 titled "The behavior of extreme cold air outbreaks under greenhouse warming" predicted that periods of severe cold weather would persist, and in some areas, worsen, despite a greenhouse-warmed world.
Whilst we were having a cold snap, parts of Newfoundland recorded temperatures 20 degrees Celsius above the norm for December.
NOAA's National Climatic Data Center reports that "for the 2010 year-to-date (January–November), the combined global land and ocean surface temperature was 0.64°C (1.15°F) above the 20th century average—the warmest such period since records began in 1880."
19 national temperature records were broken in 2010.
So much for global cooling."

And what they printed:

"SIR – In his letter in Monday’s Worcester News, K Hemming referred to global warming as “brainless propaganda”, basing his claim on the cold weather we’ve experienced this winter and last.
Since not one climate scientist has predicted the UK’s winter weather is suitable for pavement eggfrying, he’s rather overstating his case.
What they do predict, however, is more extreme weather conditions.
While we were having a cold snap, parts of Newfoundland recorded temperatures 20C above the norm for December.
Nineteen national temperature records were broken in 2010. So much for global cooling."

Our media mustn't let cited facts get in the way of opinions.


Posted by Phil at 9:53 PM
Categories: Comment, Environment

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Two Stories...

Energy Bulletin published a couple of seemingly unrelated stories today. But I see a common thread:

Frank Rotering, in Environmentalism and political struggle states:

A year ago I produced a video that discussed the limits of today’s environmentalism. My main point was that the movement can be effective when it operates within capitalism’s rules, but that it is incapable of offering solutions that would break these rules. I concluded that environmentalism, in its current form, “...cannot lead us to a steady-state or contracting economy. ... And it cannot shift the economy to sharply lower production based on needs or tempered wants.”

He then cites Bay Area activist Saba Malik on the need for radical activism:

Malik, after citing statistics about global inequality and ecological decline, also referred to our economic system: “It's stunning to me how capitalism has become a sacred cow that no-one will attack in discourse.” She cited a “well-known environmentalist” who claimed that, because capitalism had decisively defeated socialism, the task at hand was to provide capitalism with an ethical framework. Malik’s terse comment was that, “A profit-based system can’t be ethical.” Rose rejected this combative stance: “... much of what needs to be happening is actually beginning to happen.” Malik’s response clearly exposed the difference between her and both Rose and Mander: “You say things are happening ... give me an example. Numerous organizations are doing lots of great work - permaculture, relocalization, etc. This is wonderful, and I’m involved in it. But everything measurable is going the wrong way. So whatever we’re doing is not working. ... Unless all this community work is linked with a broader political struggle, we’re not really going to get anywhere.”
“This perspective is growing in the movement. There are more and more people who feel like I do ... that political resistance is absolutely necessary if we’re going to have any future on this planet.”

Capitalism's. or rather, our society's rules are quite simple. Dissent is allowed as long as it is ineffective. We have the right to protest, as long as those protests change nothing. We must at all times play by the establishment's rules - be polite and quietly spoken, and never ever take direct, effective, action.

If we step outside those rules we will be shouted down, condemned as hysterical loonies, violent thugs or environmental terrorists, completely ignored, and demonised as "enemies of society and democracy".

Marc Roberts puts it succinctly:

The second article is a roundup of comment about the Wikileaks "cablegate" controversy, which starts with this quote from Wikileaks' founder Julian Assange:

“To radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us, and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not. Firstly we must understand what aspect of government or neocorporatist behavior we wish to change or remove. Secondly we must develop a way of thinking about this behavior that is strong enough carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity. Finally must use these insights to inspire within us and others a course of ennobling, and effective action.”
Julian Assange, “State and Terrorist Conspiracies”

Assange restated that position in an online interview with Guardian readers last week:

“The west has fiscalised its basic power relationships through a web of contracts, loans, shareholdings, bank holdings and so on. In such an environment it is easy for speech to be “free" because a change in political will rarely leads to any change in these basic instruments. Western speech, as something that rarely has any effect on power, is, like badgers and birds, free. In states like China, there is pervasive censorship, because speech still has power and power is scared of it. We should always look at censorship as an economic signal that reveals the potential power of speech in that jurisdiction. The attacks against us by the US point to a great hope, speech powerful enough to break the fiscal blockade."

See the connection?

Posted by Phil at 9:57 PM
Edited on: Wednesday, December 08, 2010 10:55 PM
Categories: Comment, Environment

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

British oil company's Arctic find fuels hope of huge new reserves

Here we go again... Spot what's missing in this Daily Mail story and win a prize:

British oil company's Arctic find fuels hope of huge new reserves

The Arctic is set to become the world's last dash for oil after a British energy company reported a discovery off the coast of Greenland. Cairn Energy said it had found oil and gas bearing sands in one of its exploration wells, indicating there was an ‘active hydrocarbon system’ there. The Edinburgh-based company is drilling in a basin the size of the North Sea, meaning the find is potentially of enormous significance. Greenland’s waters could hold 50 billion barrels of crude and gas, enough to meet the energy demands from every country in Europe for almost two years. But Cairn’s find has already attracted the attention of environmental campaigners who are furious that the untouched beauty of the Arctic is being put at risk.

Hope? This is not cause for hope! News like this should strike terror and despair into the hearts of everyone.

Read the whole article. Note the complete lack of any mention of "greenhouse effect", "climate change" or "global warming". Not even from the environmentalists cited.

The article proudly proclaims that this find will power Europe for a few years, so we can keep our selfish, destructive lifestyles going, compounding the effects on planet Earth's ecosystems and the lives of those who follow us. Fabulous news, isn't it? I almost wrote "our planet" there, but I think that meme is part of our problem.

That wonderful press oblivion with regards to the connection between oil consumption and climate change? Well, as I've noted before, the media keeps doing this.

Posted by Phil at 10:54 PM
Edited on: Wednesday, April 01, 2015 10:46 PM
Categories: Comment, Environment

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Local Media #fail

On Thursday Caroline Lucas, leader of the Green Party, won the election in the Brighton Pavilion constituency, becoming the first British Green MP.

Duly reported by the Malvern Gazette as "Greens win historic first seat", and in the Worcester News as "Greens win historic first seat".

BBC Hereford and Worcester failed to do any better.

"Why should they?", I hear you all cry in unison.

Well, here's a hint, I had to edit the Malvern St James Wikipedia entry to reflect the election results.

Yes folks, Caroline Lucas was born and educated in Malvern.

Our local media is full of banal stories about locals and former-locals making and doing good, but this time, they completely failed, preferring to merely regurgitate the Press Association's stories.

A hint to the Beeb and NewsQuest hacks in Hylton Road. Always look for a local angle, you might be surprised at what you find (after a ten second Google search).

You're worse than useless.

Postcript, May 12th:

"A Worcestershire-born politician will make history today when she's sworn in as the Country's first Green MP. Caroline Lucas, ...." reported BBC Hereford and Worcester news this morning. Well done!

Posted by Phil at 1:10 PM
Edited on: Wednesday, May 12, 2010 7:38 AM
Categories: Comment, Environment