Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sleeper agents in the (somewhat) enchanted biosphere

When I was a young boy, I was afraid of creatures I called "hoppers" who I believed lurked under my bed. They were patterned after leaping animated cartoon figures appearing in the closing credits of "Fractured Fairytales," a segment of the popular children's television program "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show." My bedroom had to be checked each night for these creatures before I could enter and go to sleep.

Of course, over time, the hoppers disappeared from under my bed. But, the world never quite lost its enchanted if sometimes menacing quality. Though only vaguely aware of it, I continued to react to animals, plants and just plain objects of all kinds as if they had unusual potency in the affairs of humans--potency with malevolent possibilities.

As a young man in my 20s this peculiar version of reality became conscious to me when I read Swiss psychologist Carl Jung's essay entitled "General Description of Types." Since that day I have learned to sift carefully through my experience and thoughts for the undue influence of this psychological disposition and rigorously question any overly positive or negative conclusions that might have been influenced by it.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Monday, June 16, 2014

We will never run out of oil (which is entirely beside the point)

Harvard economist Morris Adelman, famous for saying that we will never run out of oil, died last month. What followed the announcement of his death was a predictable set of encomiums like this one from defenders of the oil industry extolling Adelman's infinite wisdom.

Some (including my father, it seems) were so caught up in the odd celebratory mood--one that resurfaces every time people contemplate just how much stuff there is in the universe--that Adelman's rather narrow and almost meaningless dictum was being offered as the basis for a complete energy policy. (And, never mind that that energy policy makes absolutely no mention of climate change.)

All of this makes sense only if you keep yourself from thinking about it. But a simple illustration will show just how meaningless the notion that we will never run out of oil is. Imagine for a moment that starting tomorrow one-half of the oil that human society normally consumes each day is no longer available and that this goes on for several months.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Talkin' trash: Are we literally throwing away energy?

Philipp Schmidt-Pathmann wakes up every day thinking about trash. What got him thinking about it in the first place is how much of it is simply dumped into landfills across America when most of what is not recyclable could instead be turned into energy for homes and businesses everywhere.

Schmidt-Pathmann has seen a better approach in his native Germany where only about 1 percent of all municipal waste goes into landfills. This compares with about 68 percent in the United States of the 400 million tons discarded annually, he explains. (Exact numbers are hard to come by, but he prefers figures collected by Biocycle Magazine.) Germans recycle almost 70 percent of their municipal waste and burn almost all the rest to turn it into energy.

Schmidt-Pathmann is founder and executive director of the Zero Landfill Initiative based in Seattle. He says that the United States could add 12 gigawatts (billions of watts) of electricity generation by expanding waste-to-energy facilities even if the country upped its percentage of recycling to that of Germany's. The United States currently recycles about 25 percent of its waste. Burning all the landfill waste currently available would provide an extra 33 gigawatts. That would be the equivalent of 33 large electricity generating plants.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

What climate activists should learn from the Monterey Shale downgrade

There is an important hidden lesson for climate activists in the vast downgrade of recoverable oil resources now thought to be available from California's Monterey Shale. Almost all climate activists have rejected any talk that the world's oil, natural gas and even coal supplies are nearing plateaus and possibly peaks in their production. That's because they fear that such talk will make the public and policymakers believe that climate change will be less of a problem as a result or no problem at all.

Any yet, for obvious reasons climate activists rejoiced when the Monterey downgrade was announced. But this only served to highlight the fact that climate activists have lost control of the public narrative on energy and can only steal it back by including constraints on fossil fuel supply as part of their story.

In fact, climate activists have been content to accept fossil fuel industry claims--the two parties agree on little else--that we have vast resources of economically recoverable fossil fuels, the rate of production of which will continue to grow for decades--unless, of course, climate activists stop this trend. This stance makes for an heroic narrative, but misses what is actually happening in the minds of the public and policymakers, minds which must be won over in order to address climate change effectively.

Let me explain.