Thursday, September 3, 2015

Thomas Edison on solar power

In case anyone thinks that it has only been recently that folks understood the economic futility of powering societies with fuels, Thom Hartman reminds us that Edison saw these matters pretty clearly himself in 1931.

Note that Edison, whose power plants were stationary, was writing to Ford and Firestone, people who were busy making mobile power plants (cars).  Ford stayed with liquid fuels because they are so handy in the transportation business.  Institutional analysis says that given these facts, a project to turn electricity into high-energy liquid fuels should be given highest priority.  Of course, such a project would only make sense when solar power became cheap, and that happened only a few years ago.

Thomas Edison Was Right About Solar Power

by Thom Hartmann | September 2, 2015

Famed inventor Thomas Edison brought us electric lights, phonographs, movies and even the first research and development laboratory.

But in 1931, he also was one of the first promoters of renewable energy - especially solar.

That year, he described our approach to energy to two industry magnates of the day: Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone.

He told them, "We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using nature's inexhaustible sources of energy - sun, wind and tide."

That was more than 80 years ago and we're still living the same way.

In 2014, just over 13 percent of US electricity production came from renewables in some form or another.

That's not terrible, but it means that we're still getting nearly 90 percent of our electricity production from "chopping down the fence around our house for fuel."

And if the fossil fuel companies, lobbyists and the 21st-century fossil fuel tycoons (like the Kochs, who inherited their oil company from daddy) have their way, that's not going to change anytime soon.

They're still fighting for ways to bring Alberta's tar sands to the US to be processed and burned - and they're still chomping at the bit to drill in the Arctic's deep seas.

They're even using our precious fresh water reserves to shatter Earth's shale just to get to the natural gas - making Earth unstable and much of our water poisoned in the process.

Even as we run out of fenceposts to burn, the fossil fuel barons still point to more of our farm's property to chop down and burn.
Edison even gave Ford and Firestone a little bit of investment advice to go with his criticism: "I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that."

Unfortunately, the fossil fuel companies don't have any interest in folding up operations and letting our 19th-century energy regime join the likes of whale-oil lamps as a historical curiosity.

But according to a new report from Citibank, large-scale investments in renewables are still a smart investment move for both the planet and the global economy.

The report is called "Energy Darwinism," and it looks at the predicted cost of energy over the next several decades - compared to the costs of developing and implementing low carbon energy sources.

And then the researchers looked at the implications of global energy choices in terms of expected climate impacts.

The bottom line?

If we invest in low-carbon energy sources now - like solar, wind, tidal and geothermal - the global economy would save $1.8 trillion through 2040.

And the cost of inaction? The cost of carrying on business as usual? The cost of trying to adapt to the negative effects of climate change instead of reducing the risks by transforming our energy system?

Well - that could cost as little as $20 trillion - or as much as $72 trillion.

And that's a decrease in global GDP of between 0.7 percent and 2.5 percent.

In other words, we can expect a global economic contraction if we continue to rip our carbon reserves out of the earth and burn them into the atmosphere.

Or, through investing in a mix of renewables while reforming our energy system, we can avoid many of those costs and grow the global economy by $1.8 trillion.

The thing is, this isn't really new information. This is basically just a reiteration of the 700-page Stern Review, which pointed out back in 2006 that strong early action on climate change will save money for the global economy in the long run.

It's been nearly a decade since Sir Nicholas Stern concluded that taking bold action sooner rather than later will save money and ultimately grow the global economy.

And in the meantime, the status quo fossil fuel interests have funneled money into researchers willing to lie for a paycheck, while they've fought responsible reporting on climate change in the corporate media, and they've bought our politicians.

All to make sure that people think that climate change isn't real, and that people think that fossil fuels are more affordable than renewables.

But that's not what the bankers, the economists or the scientists say.

Just back in June, a team of researchers from Stanford and UC Berkeley published research showing how every state can go 100 percent renewable by 2050.

And they showed that the states would save money and create jobs by doing it.

We've ignored Edison's words to Ford and Firestone for far too long.

It's time to stop burning our fence posts for fuel. It's time to tap the earth's inexhaustible sources of energy in the nuclear fusion reactor 93 million miles away that we call our sun. more

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Expectations for Paris 2015 / COP21

Unless methods are found to fund massive infrastructure improvements it really doesn't much matter what they agree to in Paris, atmospheric CO2 will continue to increase.  And how do we know that?  Because the first 20 such gatherings achieved no decreases whatsoever.  Good intentions make people feel good but without new hardware, intentions alone are pretty damn meaningless.

In spite of the routine futility of climate conferences, the evidence is so scary that one of these days there might actually be something effective accomplished—if only by accident.  Hunziker below lists just some of the arguments that will likely emerge at the paris gathering.  Unfortunately, the argument that will probably come up is that so far the scientific emergency is still not acute enough to throw neoliberalism into the trash heap of human history.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Forging ahead

Spent some time with Tony over the weekend.  He's still fighting the good fight spreading Enlightenment virtue.  Best line from the weekend, "Before the Enlightenment, people mostly believed that if God had meant for folks to fly, He would have given them wings.  With the Enlightenment, the proper restatement of this sentiment was—if God had meant for folks to fly, he would have given them the ability to understand aerodynamics (the ability to extract aluminum from bauxite, the ability to design lightweight heat engines, etc.)

This might be the best unofficial mission statement of this blog.

We discussed a bunch of issues concerning the direction we should take with the accumulated knowledge we have gained through years of writing on topics like climate change and the economic understanding necessary to address such mega-problems.  Right now, my "what can we really do to make a difference on climate change?" videos are the subject of concentration.  The news is good.  The direction, tone, and format of these videos have been distilled into a working outline / script.  There is still a bunch of work to do but this is a major milestone.  Might have taken longer than planned but then, this is a big subject.

Of course, rare gatherings lead to some rare celebrations.  The plan last night was to invite some friends to watch The Big Lebowski and mix up some White Russians.  The problem is that I very rarely drink and Tony made them in water glasses.  And then we watched The Wolf of Wall Street instead.  Today, I feel a little like I have been run over by a truck.  But I will survive and I have some new energy to finish a big project.

Thanks for the visit Tony.

Monday, August 31, 2015

India, energy, and WTO

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

When the organization is the WTO, it is VERY easy to explain their actions in terms of stupidity—these are folks with a long and notorious track record of crazy policy decisions.

But not this time:  India is a country in DIRE need of an aggressive solar program.  The reasons are many but for the rest of us there is this reality—if India goes ahead with it plans to electrify their society by burning coal, they will push the world over the edge all by themselves—there are a lot of Indians.  (Keep in mind that because we are tiptoeing next to the point of no return on atmospheric carbon loading, this applies to 100s of scenarios.)  And they came up with a pretty good solar plan only to discover it did not conform to the free trade religious beliefs.  Keep in mind that in order to believe in free trade, one must ignore essentially everything discovered by science since the dawn of the Enlightenment.  What is more insane, the rules of free trade have a lousy track record.

But not this time.  The WTO has launched an all-out assault on reason.  And they are doing it in the face of overwhelming evidence.  Sorry folks, no one is that damn stupid.  This time we are talking about evil in virtually all of its definitions.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

New austerity measures come to Finland

Finland's economic woes these days are very nasty considering how much she has done to avoid them.  Her work force is incredibly hard-working and skilled, her education system is renown throughout the world as arguably the best, and her political culture is one of the least corrupt. That's the good news. The bad news is that she barely has enough agricultural land to feed herself, she has spent her history trying to maintain a culture while sandwiched between two powerful neighbors that love to rip her off, her complicated language is unlike almost anyone else's on earth, while her remote geographic location make most trade relationships difficult and expensive.

Because of Finland's historical isolation, she leapt at the chance to join the EU.  On paper, this looked like the obvious thing to do.  In reality, this has caused most of her current economic woes.  First, she got put on the hook for the Greek debts and then she was forced into an economic boycott with Russia—her biggest and most important trading partner by far.  If that were not bad enough, her two most important industries have been slammed by forces that were not at all easy to prepare for.  Not so lang ago, Nokia was one of the big global players in the mobile phone market.  That was before smartphones made folks believe that reliable call quality was not nearly so important as having a portable computer that could shoot high-def movies.  Finland's innovative and clever paper industry managed to become the top player on the planet just in time for the promise of the "paperless" society to finally come true.

Yes indeed, no one in their right mind would want the economic problems of Finland these days.  So no one should be especially surprised that the political response to these massive problems are especially lame.  In the article below, we see that some "bright" minds think the solution to her economic woes is to increase the working day by 15 minutes.  That's going to fix things...NOT!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Ellen Brown on dealing with the Federal Debt

As the world's stock markets start to crash, we are about to be treated to much nonsense about which concept of neoliberalism has been breached to cause such a disaster.  All this is to distract us from the reality that such turmoil is the natural and predictable outcome of neoliberalism and that becoming more rigorous will only make things worse.  This is because the real problem affecting the global economy is lack of customers with money.  Whether the proximate reason for this is income inequality or debt-driven austerity, one simply cannot get around the fact that when the world runs out of customers, everything else eventually goes bust.

There are dozens of ways that money could be pumped into the economy.  For example, if social Security benefits were simply raised by $1000 per month, virtually ALL that money would find its way back into the real economy.  And since pumping money into the economy is a job that needs doing, increasing Social Security benefits would be a job even the elderly could do effectively.

In my mind, the job of reflating the economy should go towards the project of building a workable green society.  It wouldn't benefit the eateries that specialize in "Early Bird" specials like pumping funds into the retirement communities, but it would do a world of good.  Besides, without such expenditures, the planet will soon become uninhabitable for humans so it really should take priority.

Below, Ellen Brown suggests ways that we could find the funds to get past the debt / austerity stalemate.  Like most of the suggestions Ms. Brown has made over the past few years, this one has an almost infinite chance of working better than anything the neoliberals are likely to propose.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The great northern meltdown

The big effects of climate change, it seems, has come first to the poles.  Not that the rest of the planet has been spared, mind you.  It's just that the differences in the polar regions are so much more significant and dramatic.   Unfortunately, polar changes are also easier to ignore.  Virtually no one lives in the polar regions and they are so cold, warming them up a few degrees would seem intuitively to be an improvement.

As someone who has lived through over 60 spring thaws, I can tell you that the difference between snow or ice cover and bare ground is dramatic.  Because the atmosphere has so little mass for its size, its ability to retain heat is low.  So when the sun goes down on a cloudless winter night, it gets COLD in a hurry.  And because snow reflects sunlight, it takes a long time to warm up the next day.  Here in Minnesota, this dynamic can produce cold snaps that last for several weeks.  But once that snow cover has melted, everything else—open water, trees, plowed ground, cities, etc.—absorbs more heat.  Suddenly there are warm breezes at night and the air has fragrance once more.  The pile of snow in the picture below (and miles more like it) melted in less than three weeks causing the devastating Grand Forks, North Dakota Flood of 1997.

60+ spring thaws have taught me one thing—when the polar ice caps melt, this will change everything else so fast that anyone who still denies climate change will be considered a raving lunatic.  (Of course, such people are already lunatics—they just don't do excessive amounts of raving.  But that's another story.)

Monday, August 24, 2015

The West spreads intellectual idiocy

The other day, I read a really sweet story about a young man from Pakistan who had made heroic efforts to learn to read and then made even more heroic efforts to get his hands on good books.  He went on to rhapsodize about the incredible blessings that came from reading and why it had been worth walking miles to a school so he could learn how to extract meaning from books.  The story was so touching I nearly wept.  Why?

Because I know dozens of people who own large private libraries of thousands of books they have never, and will never, read.  Virtually every person I know is a functional illiterate if measured by the standard, "How many serious non-fiction books have you read since you graduated from a University?" because the answer is usually zero.

And then there is the point made by Andre Vltchek below who argues that the organs of information dissemination from schools to newspapers are so dishonest and backwards, folks might be better off "knowing" nothing at all than to learn from them.  And I believe he has a point.  I know this young German scholar, the son of a math professor, who has had the doors opened to the most prestigious schools on the planet, and who is just scary-smart.  Unfortunately, because he accumulated all those As in neoliberal / neocon nonsense, he is also ridiculously ignorant because what he "knows" is demonstrably preposterous.

One night in the late 1990s, I found myself engaged in an utterly pointless argument with man who routinely bragged that he had graduated from Harvard as his ultimate seal of authority.  He was claiming that petty morals aside, the USA military had been remarkably effective in prosecuting the war in Vietnam, and that we were mistaken as a society to not glorify those efforts.  Amazingly angered, I wanted to intellectually crush the arrogant prick.  And so I wheeled out the heavy artillery about Rolling Thunder, Agent Orange, the Phoenix Program, and a few more atrocities committed against the people of SE Asia until finally, his argument was reduced to, "Yeah, who cares?  Who even remembers this stuff?"  I responded, "Well, the victims remember—along with most of the world who understand the basics of Vietnam.  But yes, I certainly understand why a Harvard guy doesn't know this stuff.  Because in the expensive view of Harvard historians, the only history worth remembering is the history of important people—you know, people like the Harvard grads."

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Corn wars

Anyone who attempts to grow anything quickly discovers that there are two eternal truths—you got to have the right growing conditions and you simply must have the right seeds.  The great gardeners I know treat the arrival of the seed catalogues in the dead of winter as an event.  Farmers proudly advertise the kinds of seeds they planted with signs on the edge of their fields.

Even more interestingly, the people who have figured out ways to produce better seeds are accorded phenomenal respect.  Henry Wallace, FDR's ├╝ber-enlightened vice president was a plant geneticist (Pioneer Seeds) who was both scientifically and commercially successful—the Bill Gates of his day.  His magazine, Wallace's Farmer was read carefully by thousands who wanted to better their methods—those loyal readers were the basis of his political influence.  And so we had a millionaire Republican Iowa scientist who was thrown off the Democratic ticket of FDR in 1944 for being excessively progressive.  He was replaced by Harry Truman, a two-bit creature of Kansas City organized crime.  I would argue that between the nuking of Japan and the creation of the national security state, Truman is clearly the worst President we ever had.  And we could have had Wallace.  (BTW, one of the best reasons to watch Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States is that he gets the Wallace story right.)

Between the predatory behavior of senior management at Monsanto and the fight over GMOs, the very idea of the plant geneticist as the very distillation of the promises of the Enlightenment seems quaint and distant.  But it once was true.

We have a Syngenta research facility about six miles (10 km) from the house.  Considering the plant magic going on in there and the serious qualifications of their scientists, the place is very unpretentious.  Syngenta is a Basel Switzerland-based agricultural / chemical conglomerate that merely claims they are Bringing Plant Potential to Life.  The seed station was originally part of Northrup-King—a Minneapolis seed company founded in 1896.  It was sold to Sandoz in 1976 (also of Basel) which in turn sold it to Syngenta in 1996.  The latest word is that Syngenta is merging with Monsanto.

The quaint little research station that was once known around here for giving high school kids summer jobs detasseling corn, is now going to be a wing of the agribusiness giant that many consider the distillation of evil.

Those are some seriously healthy-looking corn plants

The small offices of the research station.

As you can see. the subject of plant genetics is big business.  Growing enough food to feed the planet is actually a LOT harder than it looks.  And even though the senior management of companies like Monsanto are Dick-Cheney evil, the guys who figure out how to make better plants are quite literally, doing the work of the gods.

The following is a long and quite comprehensive look at the big picture of growing corn.  I don't agree with it all but most of the descriptions of the facts on the ground are very accurate.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Japan's economy is much stronger than neoliberals will admit

As someone who has been following the Japanese economy very closely since they made such spectacular inroads into the USA automobile industry, I tend to dismiss those who somehow believe that when it comes to economic matters, Japan is doing it all wrong.  Nikon Cameras and Lexus LS do not fall from the heavens by accident—they are the products of intense planning.  The economic system that nurtures such efforts must recognize the importance of planning.  Therefore, the Japanese will always be considered "mistaken" by those techno-cretins who believe that economic planning is unnecessary, or worse, evil.

Just as it isn't necessary to build automobiles to employ the techniques Lexus developed to make their nearly perfect cars, it isn't necessary to create an export industry to use the techniques MITI employed to make make Japanese manufacturing world-class.  As for me, I simply assume that a green economy will look a lot more like the Japanese model than one designed by folks who actually believe in invisible hands.

Japan has an incredible producer class.  So naturally, I have been admiring their accomplishments for a long time.  The following by Fingleton is an excellent description of why we should pay them more attention.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Nobody loves Russia

As someone who lived through and quite vividly remembers the lies and horrors of the Cold War, (I was 13 during the Cuban Missile Crises—old enough to be very frightened) I believe the most dominant reason for the mindless Putin-bashing that goes on here in USA lies in the simple fact that the propaganda of that era left almost everyone with severe brain damage. After all, since we as a nation were making expensive preparations to nuke USSR, it hardly mattered if the "experts" on USSR got the culture, history, and accomplishments wrong.

There were a lot of professional Cold War liars—my least favorite was Marshal Goldman who was a frequent guest commentator on all things Soviet for PBS. With a voice dripping with contempt, he would describe USSR as this place where folks needed better instructions on how to pick their noses. I remember at one point, I screamed at my TV, "Goldman, you idiot, you are describing a society where they put chess matches on TV and get viewers."

What is so disgusting about the Putin / Russia bashing this time around is they haven't even bothered to change the lies. And why should they? They invested a lot of money in them and for 40 years, they worked. So now they just get updated. Of course the solution would be if public officials would learn a little history before they open their yaps—but that would require an expensive effort that would so disorient most people, it would be like telling them their God died. Just remember, the overwhelming majority of Americans do not even know that USSR fought the Germans in World War II. Expecting such cretins to understand the nuances of Tsarist Russia or the Orthodox Church would be like expecting your dog to learn C++.

The following was written by someone who has a firm grasp on the various nuances of Russian history.  He points out the errors in fact and logic of the new Russia bashers.  On one hand, I want to congratulate him for pointing out the obvious flaws in the current narrative about Russia.  On the other, I want to tell him, "Don't you get it? Getting Russia all wrong is a feature, not a bug!"

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

James Galbraith on the future of Europe

When I first visited Berlin in 1970, the contrast between East and West was stark and not a little frightening.  West Berlin was already bordering on hip with bright lights, well-stocked shops, and cars that could make grown men drool with envy.  East Berlin was so colorless it was as if suddenly someone had thrown a switch to black and while.  The cops were armed with machine guns.  The border guards of both sexes were frightening.  And the cars were a sick joke—Trabants and Wartburgs, anyone?  It was little wonder the people in the East eventually succumbed to the desire to emulate the West.

The only problem was that the "capitalism" practiced in the West in 1970 was a showpiece meant to highlight the contrasts between the two economic strategies.  By the time the Wall came down in 1989, the "capitalism" being taught and practiced was a nasty, ugly variation being pushed on the unsuspecting Europeans by Reagan, Thatcher, and the University of Chicago, etc.  By the time the Euro came into use in 1992, the capitalism that had produced such miraculous prosperity in 1970 West Berlin had been replaced by a neofeudal banksterism that would lead directly to today's economic catastrophes.

Not surprisingly, the countries of Eastern Europe that came late to this capitalism have been left wondering when they were going to get their own Kurf├╝rstendamm.  Well, folks it's not coming because their are several variations of capitalism and unfortunately, you got a really, REALLY bad one.  Fortunately, humanity once figured out how to do prosperity really well.  The bad news is that those of us who still remember how it was done are dying out and have been for several decades.  The rest have forgotten and only know the bankster / neoliberal version of "capitalism" that is ruining lives, whole cultures, and the biosphere itself.

The whole point of this blog is to write about the ideas that can lead to the energy and prosperity of 1970s Western Europe or 1980s Japan.  We will need this sort of thinking if the species has any hope of survival—we cannot build the green world on the cheap with slave labor, you know.  So the following from James Galbraith represents another effort by someone else who hopes to keep the old prosperity ideas alive.  It's an attempt to light a candle in the midst of some serious darkness.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Climate Change Nightmares Are Already Here

The problem with science is that because it has developed such superior methods for investigation, a scientifically informed worldview will usually be light-years ahead of other fact-gathering efforts.  So while there is no shortage of evidence of climate change, there is a huge shortfall in plans for doing something meaningful about it.  While reality races ahead, the professions of law, banking, economics, journalism, education, theology, etc. have fallen into deep cesspools of fundamentalism.  Not only do folks in these professions believe things that are just plain goofy, but their thinking is moving in exactly the wrong direction.  The problem is so acute that even scientists who fully understand climate change get trapped in a fundamentally looney world when they try to venture into politics or tax policy.

The events of 2015 must certainly sound the clarion call for the peoples of the world to do SOMETHING about climate change.  I mean, it's getting really scary out there.  Unfortunately, just because everyone with a room-temperature IQ or higher can now be convinced that climate change is real, this does not mean the proposed "solutions" will be any more effective.  Massive, undirected motivation is hardly sufficient—even though motivation as an explanation for how the world works is incredibly popular in all the Leisure Class pursuits from sports to economics to political policy.  It's the go-to lazy explanation for damn near everything because the team that "wants it more" usually wins, doncha know.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Greece staggers on

These days, I am re-reading Marriner Eccles 1951 memoir Beckoning Frontiers.  It is an astonishing account of the unlikely story of how a small-town Mormon banker from Ogden Utah became easily the most enlightened Federal Reserve Chairman in history.  The Fed headquarters was named after him by an act of Congress in 1982.  The bad news is that it is VERY unlikely than anyone working there today shares his ideas and insights.

In a chapter entitled The Magi, Eccles recounts his early 1930s encounters with the prevailing conventional wisdom that the Great Depression would only end with firm adherence to fiscal austerity and a balanced budget.  Even FDR believed in balanced budgets as a new president in 1933.  Eccles had just spent nearly four years scrambling to keep the lights on in his Utah banks and had come to the conclusion that the Depression would only end when the most impoverished economic actors got some money to spend and the only source for that money was the ability of the Federal Government to run deficits.  For this heresy, Eccles was labeled a Keynesian even though he makes it perfectly clear he had come to his conclusions without reading Keynes.

In a sense, Eccles was like a fiscal and monetary Galileo trying to explain that the sun really didn't revolve around the earth.  He was arguing that the perfect time for aggressive government spending was when the economy was stuck.  Of course, he was absolutely correct.  But somehow, his ideas were shelved—ironically about the same time his name was plastered on the Fed headquarters.  So here we are in 2015 watching people destroy Greece with the same nitwit beliefs Eccles had to vanquish.  What is being done to Greece in the name of fiscal responsibility is not only cruel and evil, it is hopelessly stupid.

Below, Andre Vltchek explains some of the human tragedy triggered by this stupidity.  It is unbearably sad.  It is also, remember, absolutely unnecessary.