Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Listening to the best

Last night, I had a real treat.  I got to hear an old teacher.  I know, I usually complain about how lame most of my educational experiences were.  But this guy was anything BUT lame.

Dean Abrahamson taught a two-quarter graduate-level sequence entitled Energy and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota.  He was a consummate generalist.  After getting his undergraduate degree in mathematics, he got a Ph.D. in Physics.  He then worked for the nuclear power industry before becoming concerned by the various exotic emissions those plants throw off.  But before condemning them, he decided he needed to understand their effects on humans and so wrangled a spot in the medical school—becoming a doctor.  But soon he discovered that the real action when it came to understanding and mitigating the effects of nuclear power was not in physics or medicine, it was in public policy.  So it was back to school and soon he had another degree in public policy.

Peak oil in USA was in 1970 and the Arab Oil embargo was in 1973 so when I took his classes in 1974, energy issues were fresh on my mind.  I felt damn lucky to get into his class.  Because the big energy events were so recent, there were no textbooks Abrahamson found suitable—so the reading material was handouts of reprints.  Because energy is a huge sprawling topic, he had everyone try to get their arms around a small part and report back our findings.  One quarter, I wrote on the problems associated with increasing the energy efficiency of existing dwellings (my latest effort) and the other I wrote on the hazard associated with ocean shipping of oil products in VLCCs or Supertankers.

Because energy touches and is in everything, discussing it can really only be well-done by a serious generalist.  And while Dr. Dean did not tolerate fools gladly, he was warm and funny and utterly fascinating.  The best part is, he was right about so much.  Nearly forty years later, I have not discovered anything that has contradicted what he taught—and I follow energy matters pretty seriously.

As I walked out the door, my S.O. warned me not to expect too much.  "Old guys get frail and stupid.  Just remember, you haven't seen or heard him in almost 40 years."  Well, Dr. Dean hasn't lost much.  He was on a program with two other speakers and intellectually, he just towered over them.  But yes, he is getting frail and walks with a cane.  My comrade-in-video was there last night and later we decided that we should figure out a way to get this phenomenal genius in front of a camera before he is felled by a stroke or worse.

Last night he spoke on Climate Change and Energy Policy.  Not surprisingly, he was pretty unforgiving about climate change deniers and was caustic about cheap solutions like corn-based ethanol.  Someone asked about some of the exotic biomass experiments and Dr. Dean informed us that compared to the size of the problem, they wouldn't amount to "diddley-squat."  I LIKE my intellectuals to get to the point!  Ask a mathematician a silly question...  Dean doesn't necessarily expect folks to be able to do high-level math, but he does think they should be able to count.

One other thing.  I am occasionally kidded about how often I use the word "folks" in both my writing and conversation.  Picked up that little habit from Dr. Dean those many years ago and refuse to get rid of it because I admired so much else about the man.  Whenever I get frustrated about how this country absolutely refuses to deal with such an obvious problem as energy consumption, I should think of what it must be like to have Dr. Dean's vision and intellectual clarity—and he has had it far longer than I.
Our National Energy Options: Simple in Theory, Difficult in Practice
BY DEAN ABRAHAMSON   November 3, 2010

I've been a long-time trustee of the NRDC, and am professor emeritus of the University of Minnesota, where I began teaching energy and environment policy in the early 1970s. I'm retired since 1998 (I prefer to think of it as being unemployed), but still teach energy policy at the University of Iceland and in Sweden. 
A summary of my views on U.S. energy policy has just been posted here:"Sustainable Development and Energy Options" [PDF, 3.46 MB]. 
Our energy policy options are simple in theory -- decrease demand or increase supply -- but extrememly difficult in practice. Small, incremental changes, each with a time horizon of around 20 years are not going to be enough to avoid very serious, probably devastating adverse impacts. more


  1. Hmm, the good doctor believers people should at least count. I hope he was not watching the Miss USA pageant this past June, when contestants were asked, "Should Math Be Taught In Schools?"

    Well, they are being judged on their looks, not their brains. Still. . .

  2. OK Tony—that video was too funny for words. Except for one thing. Miss USA Ditzes are pretty harmless. By comparison, when you have journalists, and pundits, and politicians who are so scientifically illiterate that they can "balance" a study of a billion data points about climate change with the observation that Al Gore is fat and is a monumental hypocrite when it comes to walking the walk on carbon emissions. Sorry folks, that is an insanely moronic way to think. And if you want to see this thinking in its purest form, watch our sweet young things explain why a 7-year-old should be able to choose not to learn math.

    Fortunately, I am pretty sure Dr. Dean missed this wonderful moment in human consciousness. He is one of my tribe—we weren't that frivolous when we were three.