Wednesday, June 28, 2006

June 20 - June 27, 2006

Forget An Inconvenient Truth
How About The Ugly Truth

"If a path to the better there be, it begins with a full look at the worst."
-- Thomas Hardy

Here's something you won't read about anywhere but in obscure scientific journals and on bogs run by the kind of survivalists that make you happy you're unprepared and will therefore not have to share the planet with such folk, should they turn out to be right.

Nevertheless this unmentionable is IT -- the whole banana. Everything else bad, flows from it. It's the headwaters of bad -- war, energy shortages, pandemics, terrorism, global warming. Those things, as annoying, frightening and dangerous as they are, are not THE problem, but simply symptoms of THE problem. Whats THE problem? Since we are all in jeopardy, I will frame answer in the form of a question:

“What's the maximum carrying capacity of the earth?”

Any livestock feedlot operator knows exactly how many animals he can maintain at once. Above that number both the facility and animals begin to degrade. It's not just feeding them. More food can always be shipped in. The problem is that, within the confines of a finite facility, living conditions deteriorate once you exceed it's maximum carrying capacity. And once past that tipping point conditions deteriorate at an exponential rate from that point on.

Like it or not, we have something in common with those feedlot animals. We humans too are fenced into a finite space. Yet we keep adding more load every passing second. This week, for example, the US achieved a dubious milestone. There are now 300 million of us. How many more head can we add to our section of the world feedlot? No one is asking. Because, for some reason, population control has become a taboo subject, a sign of intolerance, xenophobic or selfishness when someone seriously poses the question. (Even the first group to try and address this crisis, Zero Population, had to change it's name to The Population Connection because the "zero" business upsetted the religious right in the West, African and Muslim nations.)

But the real reason no one wants to explore this question is that, instinctively, they know the truth they will discover is about as ugly as truth gets. Here it is:

There are currently about 6.6 billion humans on earth, eating, breathing, craping, farting and, increasingly, driving. New Zealand scientists at the Central Institute of Technology are among the few willing to do the numbers. They say the present global population is about 30% more than the earth's biological capacity can sustain at present standards of living. And they are being upbeat about it. I would say, they actually sugar coated this bitter pill.

Those who have dared to venture deeply into this matter have not come up with a single answer when asked to precisely set the sustainable carrying capacity of earth. That's because the answer depends on from what standard of living level one begins the calculation. (See table below) But they predict a range from half a billion to 6 billion, at current western standards of living. The lowest sustainable population levels assume everyone in the world has the kind of basics of a civilized society; good health, nutrition, prosperity, personal dignity and freedom. But note... this calculation (here) assumes a population for the US of something between 100 and 200 million. Here in the US we've already stumbled blindly past the maximum by a cool 100 million souls, and counting.

Despite growing warning signs that humans are already overtaxing earths life support systems, there are billions more on their way. Here's a look at various population maximums based on various standards of living:

Maximum Global Population Guesses
Each of these assumes that the current depletion of fossil fuel reserves has continued to completion. No fossil fuels are left, except possibly for a small stock, priced high, and used for limited durable uses such as new plastic production and for some pharmaceuticals.

1. Everyone at the current U.S. standard of living and with all the health, nutrition, personal dignity and freedom that most Americans currently enjoy [Pimentel, 1999]. 2 billion
2. Everyone at the same affluence level as in 1, but with few restrictions on commerce, pollution, land use, personal behavior (within current law), etc. Basically a libertarian, laissez faire economy, with only limited environmental restrictions. This points out that there is a population price to pay for the current American way of commerce. 0.5 billion
3. Everyone at the same affluence as indicated in 1, but with many and onerous restrictions on freedoms relative to behaviors leading to environmental degradation. In order to accommodate populationlevels greater than 2 billion, restrictions such as the following would have to be instituted: Massive recycling. Driving restrictions (gasolene rationing, fuel rationing even to mass transit systems). Restrictions on the transport of food (food transported no more than 100 miles for example to its point of retail sales). Prohibitions against cutting of trees on one's property. Limitations on the burning of fossil fuels in order to save these complex molecules for more valuable or durable uses, such as in the manufacture of plastics and pharmaceuticals. Limitations on the areas of open spaces that can be converted to renewable energy power plants, such as solar thermal, solar photovoltaic, and wind energy systems. This latter results from the need to preserve natural areas for atmospheric oxygen generation and food growing. Of course many rooftops can accept solar energy systems and this scenario basically assumes a nearly complete saturation of coverage of roof tops and covers over parking lots for solar energy production. 4 billion
4. Only people in the U.S. and Europe at current level of affluence. Everyone else at the current prosperity level of Mexico. 6 billion
5. Everyone in the world at Mexico's current prosperity level. 20 billion
6. Everyone in the world at the current "prosperity" level of Northwest Africa. 40 billion

So, how's that stack up with actual population trends?

Not so good.

You can see that, even if the maximum population numbers in the table above are wildly pessimistic, we are still producing humans at a rate that is clearly unsustainable. The early proof of that pudding is already giving us camps.

So, while Al Gore's great film, An Inconvenient Truth, is laudable, and will bring both red and blue state voters into the green camp, it falls short. Gore's film, like most pro-environment pitches, steers well clear of the touchy matter of population. Oh sure, most of them speak of the social benefits of family planning and limiting the size of families. What no one is talking about, except in China, are programs capable of not just slowing population growth, but reversing it.

If governments can pass laws to limit greenhouse gas emissions, why is it so wrong to also enact programs designed to reduce the number of humans who, just by living, create pollution, exasperate food shortages, build on and/or erode tillable acreage?

And just being less consumptivc is not the answer. For example, the average US citizen, for example, requires about 9.7 hectares to provide resources and space for waste, 205% of what the country can provide. China, which has far more folks per square mile than the US, requires just 1.6 hectares for the average Chinese. Great you say. But that's still 201% of the country's capacity. India uses 0.8 hectares for the average Indian, or 210% of the country's capacity.

So, it's not just teaching folks to use less and be less wasteful. The number of booties on the ground matters much more than simply improving our stewardship of "Spaceship Earth."

If we really want to reverse global warming, and stop repeated famines, and make sure future generations have clean water to drink, the nations of the world need to initiate programs that lead to negative population growth for at least the next century. Then hold population growth to sustainble levels thereafter.

So far only China has taken this problem seriously, not because they wanted to, but because they had to. China is on the point of the population spear. And, thanks to it's one-child law and a peddle-to-the-metal family plainning programs, only China will have fewer people in 2050. Everyone else will have more. Lots more. (See here)

I remember a psychology class I took many decades ago. The professor showed a film of an experiment on the effects of over-crowding on white rats. They crammed more and more rats into a confined cage. First the rats get grouchy. Then they start getting on one another's nerves big time. Fights broke out over nothing. The end of the film showed dozens of the rats hanging from by their teeth from the top of the cage, in search of some semblance of privacy, safety and peace. That haunting image has stayed in my mind for 40 years.

The only difference today is that now I find myself understanding why those rats considered hanging by their teeth a reasonable alternative to what was happening around them.

June 20, 2006

Fill-er Up -
With Food

I'm not a scientist. I don't even play on television. I got a gentleman's “D” in high school physics and chemistry. So nothing I am about to say is based on good science. Okay?

Now, here's what's been bugging me.

I can't believe that the best way out of our dependence on oil
is by burning food in our cars instead.

I am speaking, of course, of the push that on for corn-based ethanol. I've been watching as the media parrots the ballyhoo being pumped out by the strange-bedfellows alliance made up of agri-business, the White House, energy companies and farm-state politicians. To believe the thrust of this PR blitz one would think that corn-based ethanol is the most beneficial thing to hit mankind since penicillin.

But every time I see one of those feel-good stories on the news, showing a huge truck dumping tons of golden corn into the hungry maul of a new ethanol plant, I wonder how that jives -- morally and practically -- with the images that too often precede them on the evening news.. the pictures of all those bony sub-Saharan babies covered with flies as they slowly starve.

That's what got me wondering the other night, as I watch an Archer Daniels "Growing Energy for Today & Tomorrow," ad. It made me wondered if there had ever been a civilization so decadent that it burned food for fuel while millions starved? Was that wrong of me? Well, if so, it's not my faul, it just popped into my head.

If the ethanol folks have their way and Detroit starts cranking out E85 cars by the millions, how are you going to feel when you have to buy one. How will you feel filling up your car with food-juice during the day and then watching starving children on the evening news as some horse's ass in Washington pontificates about how the world needs to do something about that? How will you feel?

Besides snatching surplus corn from the world's starving, the more corn turne into fuel the less of the stuff that will be available for domestic food use, animal feeds, breakfast cereals, nachos, etc. Prices will go up for anything with corn in it. It's basic economics -- supply and demand. Who will suffer most? American families and the working poor, of course. The price of breakfast cereal,. for example, is already high. Just wait until we start pumping it into SUV's instead of our kids. Are you a meat-eater? That meat grew on corn, so get ready for steak-sticker shock.

Yes, we do need to get away from petroleum-based fuels as soon as possible, for both national security and pressing environmental reasons. But again I am forced to ask the question; is burning food the right or moral way to do that?

Corn-holed - again?
Besides that, my reporter's gut tells me we about to be collectively screwed again by the usual suspects. You know who they are. Energy companies have invested trillions of dollars into fuel processing and distribution infrastructure. It's only good for one thing -- making and moving flammable liquids to market. Suddenly their traditional raw material – oil – has become a wasting asset. They needed another flammable liquid suited to their existing storage and distribution infrastructure, and they needed it fast.

Ethanol is it.

A friend in desperate need, can be a friend indeed to another friend in desperate need. And Big Energy found a very needy friend in middle America -- agri-business. Farmers had watched with growing alarm as one federal farm (welfare) subsidy after another disappeared. Farmers, once a political sacred cow, had lost most of its political clout over the past few decades.

Ah, agri-business has gotten its groove back -- by becoming America's very own Saudi Arabia. And who could better show them how to do that than Big Energy companies who were ready, willing and able to help farmers turn their food crops into fuel.

Man, do those energy companies and farm groups know how to build a buzz. "Go Yellow" campaigns, complete with tee-shirts, pro-environment seminars and ads, family farmers whined (again) about the imminent demise of the family farm.

Almost overnight, voting against farmer bordered on voting for terrorists, for dependence on foreign oil and for global warming. Being a farmer growing corn is now a patriotic endeavor.

Not only has ethanol revived the image of corporate farmers. Big energy benefits as well, as they try to use their support for “cleaning burning ethanol” to burnish corporate images that were heading into the shitter right behind Big Tobacco companies.

So what am I trying to say? Nothing scientific, that's for sure. I've read some research materials for and against ethanol. But I still have no idea if corn-based ethanol is better for the environment than oil-based fuels or not. Hell, I'm not even sure if the damn stuff doesn't use as much energy to make as it can produce when you burn it in your car.

I will leave such conclusions to those who got C's and above in science class. But I am pretty damn sure that burning food as a replacement for oil is not a solution the world can live with – literally. It simply does not make sense to me -- on any level.

Nevertheless the ethanol from corn juggernaut is on a roll, and it's going to be tough to stop.

The United States fuel ethanol industry is based largely on corn. As of 2005, its capacity is 15 billion liters annually. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 requires U.S. fuel ethanol production to increase to 28 billion liters (7.5 billion gallons) by 2012. In the United States, ethanol is most commonly blended with gasoline as a blend of up to 10% ethanol, known as E10 and nicknamed "gasohol". This blend is widely sold throughout the U.S. Midwest, which contains the nation's chief corn-growing centers. (Wikipedia)

This is not the first time America has faced a fuel crisis. During World War II gasoline was scarce and innovation sparked a number of unique solutions. For example, I bought a farm in the Midwest back in the 1970s and among the tractors I got with the deal was a 1943 John Deer "all-fuel" tractor. If you poured a liquid into it's tank that burned the damn thing would run on it. It had a big fly wheel on the side you turned by hand to get it started and the weight of that wheel turning kept the tractor running even if the fuel you put in it did not burn very well. The war only lasted four years of so, and as soon as regular old gasoline and diesel were readily available again that kind of "out of the box" innovation stopped. But you know, I bet that little green tractor is still running today, 63 years later. I only wish I stilled owned it.

I have long advocated a Manhattan Project II... a government funded, ten-year, all out program to produce clean, renewable energy. Who knows what our energy picture would be like today if gasoline had remained scarce after WWII? We were certainly heading in some interesting directions at the time. So what we need now is a sustained push, harnessing the best minds in science and engineering until we come up with set of solutions that fit both earth and mankind's needs.

Instead what we have is a solution being shoved down our throats by two groups, Big Energy and Big Agriculture, that are looking after their interests solely.

Ethanol is not the issue, but what we make it of sure as hell is the issue. Corn is not the only way to make ethanol. It's just the most convenient and profitable raw material. And it's politically convenient as well.

So far those with the vested interest are getting what the want. Farm states have their political clout back, energy companies have their replacement for oil and can claim they've "gone green." Politicians have new pork for their barrels, the White House can claim it's doing something to wean us off foreign oil, auto makers get another couple of decades out of their old internal combustion engines.

When American's burn food for fuel it seems everyone wins ...

Well, not everyone.

Cut & Run Liberals

I want to be perfectly clear about this. We liberals really do want to cut and run.

I admit it. We are cut and run liberials, just as Karl Rove alleges. More than that, I am proud of it and encourage more Americans to join us.

We are liberal/progressives and, damn it, we want to cut and run:

We want to cut and run from the borrow and spend, borrow and spend economics of the GOP that have piled an additional $4 trillion in debt onto our children, grand children and great grand children.

We want to cut and run from the unholy alliance between the GOP and energy companies that have left us at the mercy of a bunch of medieval Islamic tribal leaders who run their own countries like feudal states and treat their own people -- especially their women -- worse than Americans treat farm animals.

We want to cut and run from a national health care system designed by and for giant health care and pharmaceutical interests, that enriches a few while leaving 45 million Americans without affordable health insurance.

We want to cut and run from a government which, over the past six years, has become not only increasingly closed to public scrutiny and accountability, but overtly hostile and suspicious of citizens who insist on either.

We want to cut an run from a style of governance that not only plays on fear and petty prejudices, but cultivates and exploits them for cheap political gain. The cynical, dishonest purposeful pitting of majority populations against minority groups on the grounds that they don't share “American values,” and then later deny responsibility for the entirely predictable destructive consequences of those tactics.

We want to cut and run from policies that view science and scientists as adversaries whose findings must sometimes be suppressed, while embracing, even endorsing, religious dogmas that have no basis in fact whatsoever.

We want to cut and run from GOP economic polices that have handed the already wealthy a couple of trillion dollars in tax cuts while leaving working Americans payroll tax virtually untouched.

We want to cut and run from GOP economics that argue – with a straight face – that the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour should not be raised to a still unlivable $7.25 an hour because doing so would “hurt low wage workers.”

We want to cut and run from policies that scoff at mandating substantially higher fuel millage standards, even as the fossil fuels run out and the effects of global warming become more apparent with each passing day.

We want to cut and run from policies that justify turning “the land of the free and home of the brave,” into place where none of us can any longer feel sure that the government isn't listening to our private phone calls, reading our emails or isn't keeping an eye on us from a pole-mounted camera on the corner.

We want to cut and run from an administration that wraps inconvenient truths in the opaque blanket of national security while justifying selective disclosure of classified information for purely political reasons -- such as the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, and the now discredited disclosures that Iraq had tried to buy uranium ore from Niger.

We want to cut and run from policies that allow religious extremists to determine what medical procedures or family planning medications women will be allowed access to.

We want to cut and run from policies that allow our government to decide which American citizens will be allowed to enter into legally recognized committed relationships, and which will be banned by law from doing so.

We want to cut and run from policies that encourage counseling and treatment for Americans suffering from alcohol addiction, but incarceration for those suffering drug addiction.

We want to cut and run from cynically selective policies that treat some dictators as friends of America and others as enemies requiring a deadly dose of regime change.

We want to cut and run from policies that are increasingly militarizing entirely domestic matters, such as internal terrorist threats, border control and domestic law enforcement, particularly the gathering of intelligence on political groups and movements.

We want to cut and run from policies that allow industries government is supposed to regulate for the public good, to write the very rules under which they will be regulated.

Do we want to cut and run from Iraq? I wish the hell we could. But that fat is already in the fire. Liberals understand we can't cut and run from Iraq. But whose fault is it that we're stuck there now? Not ours, that's for sure. We would like to see US troops leave Iraq as soon as possible -- but not in a way that would make matters worse for ordinary Iraqis than our invasion already has.

In the meantime we are not about to let the very neocons that got us into that mess shift the blame onto liberials who oppose the war. You guys started it and that dead chicken is hung around your necks, not ours. So, Karl, stop the blame-shifting and wear it like man.

But Karl is right when he calls us "cut and run liberals." As you can see the list of things we do want to cut and run from is a long one.

We are cut and run liberals. And proud of it.