Sunday, January 18, 2015

Hurry, more democracy everywhere against barbarism

Demonstrators hold a sign reading 'Hurry, more democracy everywhere against barbarism' as they gather at Place de la Nation during the unity rally 'Marche Republicaine' on January 11, 2015 in Paris in tribute to the 17 victims of a three-day killing spree by homegrown Islamists.

This is a far better slogan than "Je suis Charlie".

Friday, January 16, 2015

Charlie quotes and links

Assholes deserve to be shunned, not murdered with cruel delight. But being murdered doesn't make their behaviour any more reasonable. It doesn't make them heroes to emulate
- Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo: Assholes can't be heroes
Maurice Sinet, 80, who works under the pen name Sine, faces charges of "inciting racial hatred" for a column he wrote last July in the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. ...

"L'affaire Sine" followed the engagement of Mr Sarkozy, 22, to Jessica Sebaoun-Darty, the Jewish heiress of an electronic goods chain. Commenting on an unfounded rumour that the president's son planned to convert to Judaism, Sine quipped: "He'll go a long way in life, that little lad."

A high-profile political commentator slammed the column as linking prejudice about Jews and social success. Charlie Hebdo's editor, Philippe Val, asked Sinet to apologise but he refused, exclaiming: "I'd rather cut my balls off."

Mr Val's decision to fire Sine was backed by a group of eminent intellectuals, including the philosopher Bernard-Henry Lévy, but parts of the libertarian Left defended him, citing the right to free speech
- French cartoonist Sine on trial on charges of anti-Semitism over Sarkozy jibe (Jan 2009)
And why have you been so silent on the glaring double standards? Did you not know that Charlie Hebdo sacked the veteran French cartoonist Maurice Sinet in 2008 for making an allegedly anti-Semitic remark?
- As a Muslim, I’m fed up with the hypocrisy of the free speech fundamentalists
Olivier Cyran, who worked for Charlie from 1992 to 2001:
Doubtless I had neither the patience nor the strength of heart to follow week after week the heartbreaking change that has occurred in your team after the turn of September 11, 2001. I did not part with Charlie Hebdo when suicide planes hit your editorial, but the Islamophobic neurosis that has gradually taken hold of your pages from that day has affected me personally because I remember the good times I had spent in this newspaper during the 1990s. The devastating laugh "Charlie" I had loved now sounded in my ears like the laughter of the fool or a pig who wallows in his shit . So far I have not criticised your racist newspaper. But since today you proclaim loudly your pure anti racism and without reproach, the time has perhaps come to seriously consider the matter
- "Charlie Hebdo " not racist ? If you say so ... (Dec., 2013

My comment: Evelyn Beatrice Hall (misattributed to Voltaire) ("I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it") said it better than George Brandis ("People have the right to be bigots in a free country") but both were right.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Charlie, limited

The focus has been on free speech, which is, of course, very relevant. But like the author below I think there should be more focus on our relative indifference to the massacres in the "less developed" world. eg. Egypt (military overthrow of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood, followed by fresh massacres), Syria (200,000 + dead, 3.5 million refugees). In particular Obama's hands off policies in Syria have led to the creation of a monster (Daesh aka IS or ISIL) within a monster (Assad's Syria). Evil forces, also including Putin, have moved in to fill the vacuum left by the retreat of the USA. Daesh / Islamism can only be defeated at its source. See my earlier blog, Weep for Charlie ... but also pay more attention to Syrian cartoonist, Raed Fares
I do not forget the front cover of Charlie Hebdo issue N°1099, in which it trivialized the massacre of more than a thousand Egyptians by a brutal military dictatorship which has the approval of the USA and of France, carrying a cartoon with a text declaring “Slaughter in Egypt. The Koran is shit: it doesn't stop bullets.” The cartoon showed a Muslim man riddled with bullets that had passed through a copy of the Koran, with which he had been trying to protect himself. Perhaps some find this funny. In their time too, the English colonists in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, thought it funny to have photographs of themselves taken, with wide smiles and rifle in hand, a foot on the corpses of the still-warm and bleeding bodies of the native people they had hunted.

Rather than funny, that cartoon to me seems violent and colonialist, an abuse of the fictitious and manipulated western freedom of the press. How would people react if I were to design a magazine cover bearing the following text: “Slaughter in Paris. Charlie Hebdo is shit: it doesn’t stop bullets” and made a cartoon of the deceased and gunned-down Jean Cabut holding a copy of the magazine in his hands? Clearly that would be outrageous: the life of a Frenchman is sacred. The life of an Egyptian (or Palestinian, Iraqi, a Syrian, etc.) is “humoristic” material. For that reason I am not Charlie, because for me, the life of each one of those Egyptians massacred is as sacred as is any of those caricaturists assassinated today.
- José Antonio Gutiérrez D.
7 January, 2015
Full article here

Monday, January 12, 2015

Weep for Charlie ... but also pay more attention to Syrian cartoonist, Raed Fares

I can certainly identify with the grief, anger and further preparation against home grown terrorist attacks in the "civilised" west. But I also think this needs to be compared with the so little understanding and commitment of what needs to be done in Syria. The problem of fundamentalist inspired terrorism can only be solved at its source. It's the old story of do we fish the babies out of the water or make the effort to stop those who are throwing the babies in further upstream (from The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist)

The Daesh (aka ISIS, ISIL) is the monster created within the monster of Assad's Syria.
The Syrian cartoonist, Raed Fares, survived a Daesh assassination attempt in January 2014... the would-be assassins fired at Fares 46 times. Twenty-seven bullets struck the wall behind him; 17 hit his car. Only two struck him. They shattered seven bones in his shoulder and ribs and punctured his right lung.

Assad's brutality in the face of the Arab Spring inspired Syrian revolution has created 200,000 plus deaths and 3.5 million refugees. Today we witness so much grief and preparation for terrorism at "home". By contrast there is little understanding and commitment of what needs to be done in Syria.

"Obama's Rwanda" (Raed Fares)

This NYT article about Raed Fares, Radio-Free Syria, is very good. It includes one section about Obama's failure in Syria:
“Three years ago, America could have saved thousands of lives,” Bayyoush went on. To them, what they needed seemed simple in hindsight: antiaircraft missiles, airstrikes against Assad, a no-fly zone. All of these options would have offered potential solutions. Their model for U.S. intervention was Libya, where airstrikes in support of the opposition helped to depose Qaddafi. Later the country descended into civil war. Fares acknowledged that Libya was hardly a success story, yet at least, he said, the United States had intervened to protect the Libyan people. In Syria, Assad was free to systematically imprison and kill the moderate leaders the United States was now looking for. “One by one, they were disappeared,” he said.

“Can I speak?” said Hamada, who is with the Fifth Regiment of the Free Syrian Army. “I told the Americans I met in Jordan: ‘If you help us, there will be no extremism in Syria at all. If you’re too late, there will be a time when neither you nor we will have any control.' ” According to a senior retired U.S. military leader, who asked not to be named because he is no longer in the service, the delay in backing the Free Syrian Army led to the death of moderate military leaders. “If we had helped those people earlier, it could’ve gone differently,” he said. “A lot of the good leaders are dead now. They’ve been caught between rocks and hard places and ground into dust.”

The recent strikes against ISIS in Syria frustrated the Free Syrian Army commanders on two counts. First, unlike that of the United States, the F.S.A.'s primary foe was the regime. “The regime has launched chemical attacks and many more massacres than ISIS has,” Bayyoush said. Second, they had been warning the United States against the growth of ISIS for more than a year. “A year and a half ago, ISIS started activating cells,” Hamada said. “If America had helped us in the beginning, there would be no ISIS.” But the growth of ISIS wasn’t simply America’s fault. The Free Syrian Army bore its own responsibility. “These extremist groups formed because we were weak within the Free Syrian Army,” he said
Some more Raed Fares cartoons, they are all located in one place here, Liberated Kafranbel:

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: How to Answer the Paris Terror Attack

Recent interview on ABC with Hirsi Ali here

How to Answer the Paris Terror Attack
The West must stand up for freedom—and acknowledge the link between Islamists’ political ideology and their religious beliefs

By Ayaan Hirsi Ali

After the horrific massacre Wednesday at the French weekly satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, perhaps the West will finally put away its legion of useless tropes trying to deny the relationship between violence and radical Islam.

This was not an attack by a mentally deranged, lone-wolf gunman. This was not an “un-Islamic” attack by a bunch of thugs—the perpetrators could be heard shouting that they were avenging the Prophet Muhammad. Nor was it spontaneous. It was planned to inflict maximum damage, during a staff meeting, with automatic weapons and a getaway plan. It was designed to sow terror, and in that it has worked.

The West is duly terrified. But it should not be surprised.

If there is a lesson to be drawn from such a grisly episode, it is that what we believe about Islam truly doesn’t matter. This type of violence, jihad, is what they, the Islamists, believe.

There are numerous calls to violent jihad in the Quran. But the Quran is hardly alone. In too much of Islam, jihad is a thoroughly modern concept. The 20th-century jihad “bible,” and an animating work for many Islamist groups today, is “The Quranic Concept of War,” a book written in the mid-1970s by Pakistani Gen. S.K. Malik. He argues that because God, Allah, himself authored every word of the Quran, the rules of war contained in the Quran are of a higher caliber than the rules developed by mere mortals.

In Malik’s analysis of Quranic strategy, the human soul—and not any physical battlefield—is the center of conflict. The key to victory, taught by Allah through the military campaigns of the Prophet Muhammad, is to strike at the soul of your enemy. And the best way to strike at your enemy’s soul is through terror. Terror, Malik writes, is “the point where the means and the end meet.” Terror, he adds, “is not a means of imposing decision upon the enemy; it is the decision we wish to impose.”

Those responsible for the slaughter in Paris, just like the man who killed the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004, are seeking to impose terror. And every time we give in to their vision of justified religious violence, we are giving them exactly what they want.

In Islam, it is a grave sin to visually depict or in any way slander the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims are free to believe this, but why should such a prohibition be forced on nonbelievers? In the U.S., Mormons didn’t seek to impose the death penalty on those who wrote and produced “The Book of Mormon,” a satirical Broadway sendup of their faith. Islam, with 1,400 years of history and some 1.6 billion adherents, should be able to withstand a few cartoons by a French satirical magazine. But of course deadly responses to cartoons depicting Muhammad are nothing new in the age of jihad.

Moreover, despite what the Quran may teach, not all sins can be considered equal. The West must insist that Muslims, particularly members of the Muslim diaspora, answer this question: What is more offensive to a believer—the murder, torture, enslavement and acts of war and terrorism being committed today in the name of Muhammad, or the production of drawings and films and books designed to mock the extremists and their vision of what Muhammad represents?

To answer the late Gen. Malik, our soul in the West lies in our belief in freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. The freedom to express our concerns, the freedom to worship who we want, or not to worship at all—such freedoms are the soul of our civilization. And that is precisely where the Islamists have attacked us. Again.

How we respond to this attack is of great consequence. If we take the position that we are dealing with a handful of murderous thugs with no connection to what they so vocally claim, then we are not answering them. We have to acknowledge that today’s Islamists are driven by a political ideology, an ideology embedded in the foundational texts of Islam. We can no longer pretend that it is possible to divorce actions from the ideals that inspire them.

This would be a departure for the West, which too often has responded to jihadist violence with appeasement. We appease the Muslim heads of government who lobby us to censor our press, our universities, our history books, our school curricula. They appeal and we oblige. We appease leaders of Muslim organizations in our societies. They ask us not to link acts of violence to the religion of Islam because they tell us that theirs is a religion of peace, and we oblige.

What do we get in return? Kalashnikovs in the heart of Paris. The more we oblige, the more we self-censor, the more we appease, the bolder the enemy gets.

There can only be one answer to this hideous act of jihad against the staff of Charlie Hebdo. It is the obligation of the Western media and Western leaders, religious and lay, to protect the most basic rights of freedom of expression, whether in satire on any other form. The West must not appease, it must not be silenced. We must send a united message to the terrorists: Your violence cannot destroy our soul.

Ms. Hirsi Ali, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, is the author of “Infidel” (2007). Her latest book, “Heretic: The Case for a Muslim Reformation,” will be published in April by HarperCollins

Thursday, January 08, 2015

response to Charlie Hebdo attack

Holding up pencils in a free speech demonstration in Barcelona

Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine, published every Wednesday, that was founded in 1969 though it stopped publishing between 1981 and 1992. Known best for its illustrations and provocative imagery, the magazine aims to mock all forms of authority, from politicians to religion to the military. Its ideological roots are left-wing and atheist — with religion in all its forms a constant target.

In 2006, the paper reprinted images of the Prophet Mohamed that had appeared in a Danish magazine a year before. The next year, it published a picture of Mohamed crying, with the tagline “It’s hard to be loved by idiots.” The Grand Mosque of Paris and the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, among other similar religious bodies, filed slander charges at the time, but a French court cleared the paper.

The magazine’s offices were set on fire by a molotov cocktail in November 2011 after it published a cartoon of the Prophet Mohamed saying “100 lashes of the whip if you don’t die laughing.” The firebomb forced the publication to relocate to their current offices in the 11th borough of Paris. Editorial staff were often threatened: The magazine’s director, Stephane Charbonnier (better known to readers under his illustration pen name of Charb), had a personal bodyguard. A French man was arrested in 2012 after he called on a jihadist site to have Mr. Charbonnier decapitated. Mr. Charbonnier was among those killed Wednesday.
Stephane Charbonnier after the 2011 bombing. “It is perhaps a bit pompous to say so but I prefer to die on my feet than live on my knees.”

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Indigenous violence and its enablers

I have bought Liberating Aboriginal People from Violence by Stephanie Jarrett. It has been the subject of disagreement between John Van Tiggelen in The Monthly (Thinking Backwards) and Gary Clark in Quadrant (Speaking out on Aboriginal Violence). Here is an interview with the author.

Stephanie Jarrett spoke of her research and the book it produced, Liberating Aboriginal People from Violence, with Quadrant Online‘s Roger Franklin. Never shrinking from the grim truths of Indigenous violence, its tradition and tragic, ongoing consequences, her book is a demand for a change in both attitudes and policies. What follows is an edited transcript of their exchange:

Q: Why did you write this book? It would seem to fall into the “brave” category in that merely raising the topic of Indigenous violence will earn you a long list of ardent enemies.

A: My profession entails a responsibility to uphold truth, despite my primary political orientation, and any personal discomfort and attack that may follow. I see little point in post-graduate studies specialising in political science at one of Australia’s finest universities if I do not hold to this principle.

I am committed to the liberal-democratic principles of universal individual human rights and non-relativism regarding violence. My left-leaning feminism increases my outrage against the oppressions endured by remote Aboriginal women. Through my research, I came to understand that Aboriginal self-determination is a key causal factor in the persistent, high levels of violence against Aboriginal women.

I also saw the necessity for this book for the following reasons. There is a persistent non liberal-democratic, cultural relativist approach among white professionals regarding Aboriginal violence. There remains a denial of the violence in pre-contact Australia, despite scholarly works detailing this violence. There is an evasion of the implications that traditional violence has for self-determination policies. Above all, I wrote this book as my contribution towards a less violent future for Aboriginal Australians.

Q: Are there truths that cannot be uttered?

A: No there are not. All truths need to be told so that we understand more fully the range of human behaviour, beliefs and norms, how negative behaviours and norms develop and are exacerbated, and how to address them. Nevertheless while the book depicts violent events, I abbreviated some awful descriptions, because the point being made was amply clear enough. In my field work, I experienced hearing harsh truth on a physical level, when I witnessed that [any given] weekend’s violent events were an amusing topic for conversation. I found this so upsetting that I went into flight mode, wanted to leave the area, my visual and auditory senses wanted to shut down, and my heart raced. For me, this was an early signal that I might be witnessing a norm about violence very different from my own.

Writing uncomfortable truths may have a downside, possibly augmenting stereotypes. However denying the truth does this even more so, as we are in desperate need of compassionate, non-racist Australians to engage with the problem of Aboriginal violence.

Q: In exploring your topic, one guesses that a substantial weight of documentary evidence must have been more or less readily available. Was it difficult to find your sources? Why has nobody tapped them before?"

A: There is ample documentation of pre- and early contact traditional violence from across Australia, including by early French navigators, First Fleet officers, explorers, missionaries and anthropologists. Such accounts are publicly accessible in bookshops, libraries and online. Stephen Webb’s palaeopathological study of skeletal remains is categoric evidence of commonplace cranial and other bone injuries caused by assault in pre-contact Australia for thousands of years.

There is also accessible documentation of continuing traditional violence, such as submissions for the recognition of customary law from Aboriginal communities to the Australian Law Reform Commission. There are recent, fine scholars who have tapped into this evidence, most notably Joan Kimm, Louis Nowra, and Peter Sutton. However this evidence is still being denied or evaded, and the strategies indicated by the pre-contact origins of today’s violence have yet to be faced up to.

Q: So, what is the solution?

A: The last three chapters explore potential solutions. In developing responses to Aboriginal violence in communities, we need to acknowledge that while alcohol and welfare dependency are exacerbators, the violence is underpinned by traditional norms and practices that make it particularly difficult to overcome. This limits the impact of outside interventions against violence in communities separated from mainstream society.

Acquisition of the liberal-democratic lower tolerance for interpersonal violence is essential. This requires regular, positive interaction with mainstream people. The permit system needs to be removed for this to occur. Voluntary integration, plus the skills and opportunities for successful participation in mainstream life, are also needed. My final chapter presents strategies to overcome the policy-created separation between remote Aboriginal communities and mainstream Australia.

The Aboriginal-initiated, voluntary Family Re-Settlement Program in New South Wales of the 1970s, where mainstream communities provided welcome and support for Aboriginal families establishing a new life in a city, is exemplary here. The program ceased when funding stopped because it was deemed assimilationist. Hopefully we are now more enlightened.

Q: What part does welfare dependency, if any, play in fostering violence?

A: I adhere to the principle of the need for a robust welfare state. Compassion and welfare for those in need are fundamental to the viability of liberal democracies. Even conservative governments in most Western democracies uphold this, at least until recently.

Welfare dependency is a step too far. It defines welfare-supported people capable of working but [who], for various reasons, shun employment. Welfare dependency locks away vulnerable people, such as many remote community people, from the demanding but character- and esteem-building path of employment. Being work-ready and available for mainstream employment requires the adoption of many mainstream norms and behaviours, including self-esteem building education and skills, and a reduction in the use of, and toleration for, violence.

Furthermore, as described in my book, welfare is sadly compatible with a range of bad behaviours, including violence, because it provides financial support to those unwilling to change negative behaviours, and provides no incentive to change negative behaviours.

Q: One need not venture too far off the beaten track to witness the consequence of violence in Indigenous life. How could so many people professing their concern for Aboriginal betterment have remained so blind for so long?

A: A key reason is the guilt white Australians carry for the injustices and losses Aboriginal people suffered under white colonisation. For many caring, well-educated white Australians, the primary task is to address these past colonial wrongs. For them, cultural respect, cultural rights, cultural relativism even for violence, “never criticise”, and a sense of “otherness” more than our shared humanity, are uppermost. These inhibit perception that intra-community violence needs mainstream attention. They blunt national outrage and the sense that it is even our concern. As one service provider said, “we have left it in their hands”. Gary Johns’ recent article in The Australian makes this amply clear. As a nation, we are outraged and saddened by the horrific rape and murder of the young Indian woman in New Delhi. We are a caring people, but we are largely mute about the many horrific instances of rape, assault and murder of remote Aboriginal women.

Q: What is the worst example of violence you came across?

A: Numerous incidents could be chosen as “the worst”. Here are three. Dieri marriage ceremonies, which included pack rape against the kidnapped, screaming young bride, documented by Howitt over 100 years ago, is one example. In a mid 19th century example first recorded in writing by T.G.H. Strehlow, two or three “Aranda” young men were immediately executed for accidentally committing a grave sacrilege. The execution consisted of twisting the young men’s necks so much that their vertebrae became dislocated. A more recent example reported in 1998 by Tony Koch in The Courier Mail, is the brutal rape by an adult male of a tiny Cape York girl when she was just 17 months old. Her injuries were so horrific that she needed a colostomy bag, and she became socially withdrawn. No smiles, no play, no talking, the little girl stopped showing almost any emotion.

Q: The attitude, especially amongst those who inhabit academia and bureaucracy, often seems to regard Aborigines as a quaint form of bipedal fauna. How much does this reflect the tyranny of low expectations?

A: I am sure that most academics and bureaucrats would deny this, would have no conscious sense of it, and would view such an attitude as racist. However, your question does raise uncomfortable truths.

As late as 2000, South Australia had a Department for Environment, Heritage and Aboriginal Affairs. This suggests an attitude in high places that Aboriginal people are closer to nature than non-Aboriginal people. As the Rev Dr Steven Etherington wrote in his 2007 article, Western people yearn for less stressful, less busy lives. We yearn for a greater spiritual connection to the environment, we want Aboriginal people to keep living such lives for us, and we turn away from the harsh consequences this has for Aboriginal people.

The result is a perverse tyranny of low expectations, in that by devaluing the mainstream world, we find it difficult to consider that remote Aboriginal people could or should aspire to it.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

reviews of "Harvesting the Biosphere: What we have taken from Nature" by Vaclav Smil

Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken from Nature by Vaclav Smil

My limited goal here was initially to extract factual information from the reviews of Vaclav Smil's book about the real environmental state of the planet. I then added other information from the reviews which gave some impression of the flavour of the book.

From the Bill Gates review:

The biosphere means all plant and animal life in the air, ground and oceans.

How much life is in the biosphere? The dry mass (take out the water) of all living things equals 1.6 trillion metric tons.

What percentage of the biosphere's primary productivity - the plant life generated by photosynthesis - is consumed by humans? Roughly we harvest 17% of each year's new growth (may be as low as 15% or as high as 25%)

12% of the Earth's land mass is now devoted to farmland.

The dry mass of all living humans = 125 million metric tons
The dry mass of all domesticated animals = 300 million tons
The dry mass of all wild vertebrates = 10 million tons

Dry mass of:
  • Plants = 1100 Gt
  • Bacteria = 500 Gt
  • Protists = 10 Gt
  • Fungi = 5 Gt
  • Animals = 2.5 Gt
From one of the amazon reviews (Chad M):
  • about 40% of all terrestrial phytomass - trees, brush, grass - has been removed by human activity
  • land and ocean mammals are at 10% of historic levels

Smil examines all harvests -- from prehistoric man's hunting of megafauna to modern crop production -- and all uses of harvested biomass, including energy, food, and raw materials (official blurb)

the ocean's zoomass or animal matter is perhaps that most vulnerable area in next few decades, according to the author. This is well described in the final chapter (amazon reviewer)

Smil surprises with a somewhat optimistic final chapter on long-term trends. He ends with a set of recommendations, well supported by the evidence in this book, that we need to stabilize our global population, eat less meet, waste less food, share the world's resources more equitably, and manage the demand for wood (amazon reviewer)

The collective weight of all domestic animals destined to be our meat is 25 times the weight of all wild animal on earth (amazon reviewer)

Smil gives as clear and as numeric a picture as is possible of how humans have altered the biosphere. The book is a bit dry and I had to look up a number of terms that were unfamiliar to me, but it tells a critical story. (Bill Gates)

It is amazing how little meat was available in most diets as recently as 1800: just a few kilograms per year, versus about 100 kg of meat per year in an average American diet today. (The average Indian, by contrast, eats about 10 kg of meat each year.) The world now harvests far more crops to feed animals that produce meat, dairy, and eggs than to feed humans. (Bill Gates)

But in some ways we've been less responsible in the sea than on land. We don't harvest a high percentage of all the life in the sea, but we concentrate on a very few species—especially carnivorous fish, like cod and tuna. Smil writes that most of the traditionally targeted species and major fishing areas are now being fished to capacity if they're not already overfished, near collapse, or collapsing (Bill Gates)

I was a bit surprised that he didn't talk more about innovations that will help avoid some of the problems he's concerned about. For example, he writes a lot about the impact of meat-eating on the biosphere. Producing meat is very inefficient: To get 1 kg of edible meat from a cow, you have to feed it about 10 kg of grain. But he doesn't mention the possibility of making alternatives to meat, which could reduce the inefficiency and the need for additional crops (Bill Gates)

I truly appreciate the work that has gone into this volume, and I am impressed by the diligence and attentiveness of the author in his pursuit of perfect human biomass impact calculation. As a scientific study it is thorough and boring. While it offers an overview, it contributes little to our understanding – save for the elusive numbers. And it is the numbers, I feel, which are the true protagonists here (Anna Krzywoszynska)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

environmental talking points and references

This is an appeal for myself and others to study more rigorously the real state of the world, ie. the environmental world and its connections to the political, ethical, philosophical and economic worlds. My study is incomplete but I feel I have done enough to make some valid points and to map out a path of further study. At the least, this article is an annotated reading list which indicates the general direction of my thinking at this stage.

It is difficult to separate your hopes and world view (we all carry around and rely on bullshit detectors, filters and blinkers) from an objective assessment of what is really happening in the world.

At one extreme there is a world view which I will call "deep Green" that we are rushing towards environmental Armageddon. At the other extreme you find cheery technological optimism, that any problems created by our technological advance can also be solved by further technological progress.

In history we find people who have made extreme predictions and have ended up looking foolish. See The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon and Our Gamble over Earth's Future
"University of Illinois economist Julian Simon challenged Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich to put his money where his mouth was and wager up to $1,000 on whether the prices of five different metals would rise or fall over the next decade. Ehrlich and Simon saw the price of metals as a proxy for whether the world was hurtling toward apocalyptic scarcity (Ehrlich’s position) or was on the verge of creating greater abundance (Simon’s).

Ehrlich was the country’s, and perhaps the world’s, most prominent environmental Cassandra. He argued in books, articles, lectures, and popular television programs that a worldwide population explosion threatened humanity with “the most colossal catastrophe in history” and would result in hundreds of millions of deaths from starvation and dire shortages not just of food but all types of raw materials.

Simon, who passed away in 1998, was a population optimist. A disciple of conservative University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, Simon believed the doomsayers’ models gave little or no credit to the power of efficient markets and innovative minds for developing substitutes for scarce resources and managing out of crises. He went so far as to claim that population growth should “thrill rather than frighten us.”
Although Paul Ehrlich's extreme predictions were wrong and the bet was won by Julian Simon it does not follow logically that there may be extreme environmental concerns that we should be dealing with urgently. I think the only valid response to those ringing alarm bells about environmental issues is to investigate deeply the real state of the world. This is a different response to ridiculing alarmists who have been wrong in the past.

Humans are contrasted to nature by the deep Green side of the discussion. I feel that the humans - nature division is a false dichotomy which leads to a contamination of language. Words such as wilderness, sustainability, biodiversity and ecology need to be looked at carefully.

Wilderness is a human social, religious construct. This is powerfully argued from within the environmental movement by William Cronon in The Trouble with Wilderness. The concept of wilderness tends to reinforce a polarised human-nature dichotomy with nature worship on one side and arrogant human "mastery" of nature on the other.

Biodiversity appears to be a plural concept, a pseudo scientific term, partly invented for environ-political reasons, which can't be clearly defined (see James MacLaurin and Kim Sterelny's What is Biodiversity?). No doubt, biodiversity is a "good thing" but there isn't just one biodiversity but a plurality.

Is ecology a science, or, what sort of science is ecology? Mark Sagoff suggests that it isn't a science (What Does Environmental Protection Protect?), that holistic systems ecology is a figment of the environmental imagination, that ecological concepts such as structure, function, stability, resilience (emergent holistic properties) are more or less meaningless terms. In his vision the whole debate about invasive species is a distraction since species migrating is a natural process anyway. However, I lean to those who seem to be more expert on this issue such as Daniel Simberloff, who specifically reject Mark Sagoff's views and who appear to have studied the issue more closely:
"Sagoff [Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 18 (2005), 215–236] argues, against growing empirical evidence, that major environmental impacts of non-native species are unproven. However, many such impacts, including extinctions of both island and continental species, have both been demonstrated and judged by the public to be harmful"
A better descriptor of where we are at is co-evolution in the Anthropocene.
"The Anthropocene is an informal geologic chronological term that marks the evidence and extent of human activities that have had a significant global impact on the Earth's ecosystems" (Wikipedia).
This recognises that we are both part of nature, an evolutionary product, as well as recognising our unique influence over nature, both good and bad.

How can this issue be better framed? Humans who are a part of nature, a tool making product of natural evolution, are destroying huge amounts of the rest of nature and this is bad in its own right (in a spiritual or aesthetic sense) as well as incredibly dangerous for human quality of life too (anthropogenic global warming and other issues - ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, nitrogen cycle, phosphorous cycle, global freshwater use, change in land use, biodiversity loss, atmospheric aerosol loading and chemical pollution). The claim is that we are shitting in our own nest and that is aesthetically ugly and dangerous for our own health.

"Tread lightly on the Earth". This is an ascetic and / or anti consumerist position. eg. Mahatma Gandhi. Poverty ennobles and wealth corrupts. But it turns out that in India Mahatma Gandhi is highly respected for his nationalistic, non violent and humanistic outlooks but less respected for his ascetic, deprivation and traditional viewpoints, that the caste system is natural, akin to an ecological niche. Once again, the modernist beliefs in equality undermines the position of letting things stay as they are. See Shome, Siddhartha's The New India versus the Global Green Brahmins.

But anti-consumerism, for those who are currently advantaged, can be argued from a non Gandhi position as well. See the Vaclav Smil references below.

Pascal Bruckner has written a philosophical critique and addressed the House of Lords about the promotion of fear and mother earth as a sacred object by deep Green ideology. I would see this as an important contribution to human political psychology but one which does not claim to begin to investigate the real state of the physical world.

There is no static balance in nature. Irreversible change has always been the real state of the natural world. See Alston Chase's In a Dark Wood: The Fight over Forests and the Myths of Nature where he critiques the biocentric viewpoints that "There is a balance of nature", 'that nature can be "healthy' or "unhealthy" ' in a similar sense to the human body being healthy or unhealthy, that "in the beginning all was perfect" (a Garden of Eden or Golden Age) and that "Nature is sacred".

Rambunctious Garden is a good metaphor for an environmental future. Not the only metaphor but a good metaphor. This is the title of a book by Emma Marris. Subtitle: Saving Nature in a Post Wild World. She is saying that nurturing nature in the big cities is an important part of the path we go down. It fits my preferred vision of human-nature co evolution in the Anthropocene. However, it does seem to be written more from the point of view of how to think about nature rather than an attempt to assess the real state of the world:
Every single chapter challenged my thinking about how we classify and define what is natural, what’s worth saving, why, and how to got about it. However, I must admit, I began reading with the expectation of spending some time communing with, well, nature. But this book dwells less on experiential factors and more on the meta: it dives deeply into the thinking and philosophical frameworks that undergird the conservation of nature today.
Anthropogenic global warming has received more attention than any other issue of late. A reasonable solution to the anthropogenic global warming issue has been articulated: massive increase in R&D in non carbon energy sources, including nuclear (see The Climate Fix by Roger Pielke jnr; The Long Death of Environmentalism by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus).

I agree with the Shellenberger / Nordhaus article which concludes with 12 theses, 8 approaches that won't work and 4 approaches that will work.

Eight approaches that won't work:
  1. better, louder climate science won't transform the global energy economy
  2. fear / scare tactics backfire
  3. environmental justification won't work
  4. anti consumerism won't work
  5. regulation / pricing schemes won't achieve a clean energy economy
  6. climate change is not a traditional pollution problem
  7. a soft energy path (reduced green energy) is a dead end
  8. internalising fossil fuel cost won't work
Four approaches that will work:
  1. R&D into clean energy
  2. embrace nuclear power
  3. the State needs to invest in clean energy
  4. Big, centralised energy is the way to go, not Small is beautiful
But ocean acidification is a relatively understated problem which may lead to extreme marine life destruction through destruction of coral reefs. (see Elizabeth Kolbert's "Ocean Acidification"). Roger Pielke snr has long warned against the issue of ocean acidification as have scientists concerned about the future of Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

Several writers have pointed out that the widening gap between the world's rich and the world's poor (both in terms of money and access to energy) over rides environmental concerns. See Chris Foreman's On Justice Movements: Why They Fail the Environment and the Poor. Roger Pielke's iron law is correct, "that when policies focused on economic growth confront policies focused on emission reductions, it is economic growth that will win out every time" (The Climate Fix, p. 46).

Thomas Wells, in Debating Climate Change: The need for economic reasoning also argues that a pragmatic approach is far more likely to succeed than moralising about the state of the earth.

Poor people and indigenous people, "the wretched of the earth", usually desire modernity. Listen to Marcia Langton's Boyer lectures about how the mining industry, for all their faults, has done more for Australian aboriginals than the Australian government. You can't leave out the poor in your environmental considerations.

The problem with "the noble savage" metaphor is that our progressive Enlightenment values such as equality of women, non violent raising of children, against capital punishment, for democracy are repelled by the values of tribal hunter gatherer societies, once we scrutinise them carefully. Modern people aren't prepared to give up modern values and so "the noble savage" metaphor fails.

Bjorn Lomborg built his reputation initially around his book The Skeptical Environmentalist. Lomborg began by trying to refute Julian Simon's optimism for the future but ended by agreeing with him. Following that he developed the Copenhagen Consensus forums about the best way to spend money to solve world problems. However, Lomborg has come under a lot of criticism for inaccuracies in his work (which he fails to acknowledge) and promoting short term issues over longer term issues. I must admit that I like a lot of what Lomborg does but feel that the criticisms developed at Kare Fog's website, Lomborg Errors, do significantly weaken his case.

There are a few books around about the threat to biodiversity. If you prefer one written by an actual scientist then see Edward O Wilson's, The Future of Life (2003). Others, written by journalists without a strong background in science, include The Sixth Extinction (2014) by Elizabeth Kolbert and The Song of the Dodo (1997) by David Quammen).

I read Edward O Wilson's 12 dot point "strategy aimed at the protection of most of the remaining ecosystems and species" which is on pp. 160-64 of his book along with some other parts of his Ch 7 "The Solution". In summary:
  • Salvage the hotspots, 1.4% of the Earth's land surface protects 44% of known vascular plants and 36% of known mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.
  • Keep intact the 5 remaining frontier forests
  • Cease all logging of old growth forests
  • Save lakes and river systems
  • Define and save marine hotspots, eg. coral reefs
  • Complete the mapping of the world's biological diversity
  • include the full range of the world's ecosystems, eg. deserts, arctic tundras
  • make conservation profitable
  • use Genetic Engineered crops
  • initiate restoration projects, from the current 10% of protected land up to 50%
  • use zoos and botanic gardens to breed endangered species
  • support population planning
I still feel that technological risk taking is a sensible way for the human race to proceed (the proactionary principle critique of the precautionary principle,
People’s freedom to innovate technologically is highly valuable, even critical, to humanity. This implies several imperatives when restrictive measures are proposed: Assess risks and opportunities according to available science, not popular perception. Account for both the costs of the restrictions themselves, and those of opportunities foregone. Favor measures that are proportionate to the probability and magnitude of impacts, and that have a high expectation value. Protect people’s freedom to experiment, innovate, and progress.
R&D, nuclear power and genetic engineering are important parts of the solution. Humans are a tool making species and irreversible change has always been normal. But technological optimism as a blind faith is not a good outlook. Be neither a religious environmental alarmist nor a religious technological optimist. Rather explore the facts of the real state of the earth, without hype.

The Planetary Boundaries analysis asserts that we are headed towards environmental tipping points in a number of fields: climate system, ocean-acidification, ozone depletion, phosphorous levels, land use change, biodiversity loss, nitrogen levels, freshwater use, aerosol loading and chemical pollution. For some critical discussion of this view see Nordhaus, Schellenberger and Blomqvist. The Planetary Boundaries Hypothesis: A Review of the Evidence. They assert that in most cases these are not "tipping points" in a global sense but need to be evaluated according to local conditions. However, they do agree that Climate Change and Ocean-acidification are in grave danger of reaching tipping points.

So, which authors are on the track of documenting the real state of the world? How will issues such as rich-poor gap, energy, biodiversity, global warming etc. work themselves out in the future? I've become very interested in the writings of Vaclav Smil who has written Harvesting the Biosphere: What we have taken from nature (2012) and Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next 50 years (2008). I've only read selected extracts from these books so far and feel that he is neither an environmental alarmist or denier but someone striving to work out the real state of the world.

Some of Smil's other writings (about energy, nitrogen / food and oil - see references) could provide extremely valuable background knowledge about how to think about these issues.


Brand, Stewart. 2009. Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands and Geo-engineering are Necessary.

Bruckner, Pascal. 2013. The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse: Save the Earth, Punish Human Beings.

Bruckner, Pascal. Against Environmental Panic.

Bruckner, Pascal. 2013. Address to House of Lords

Chase, Alston. 2001. In a Dark Wood: The Fight over Forests and the Myths of Nature

Cronon, William. 1995. The Trouble with Wilderness.

Foreman, Chris. 2013. On Justice Movements: Why They Fail the Environment and the Poor.

Kolbert, Elizabeth 2014 "Ocean Acidification"

Kolbert, Elizabeth 2014. The Sixth Extinction

Langton, Marcia. 2012. The Quiet Revolution: Indigenous People and the Resources Boom.

Lomborg, Bjorn. 2001. The Skeptical Environmentalist

Lomborg Errors. (Kare Fog)

Marris, Emma. 2011. Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post Wild World

MacLaurin, James and Sterelny, Kim. 2008. What is Biodiversity?

Nordhaus, Ted; Schellenberger, Michael; Blomqvist, Linus. The Planetary Boundaries Hypothesis: A Review of the Evidence.

Pielke jnr, Roger. 2010. The Climate Fix

Planetary Boundaries.

Proactionary Principle.

Quammen, David. (1997) The song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction (1997)

Sabin, Paul. 2013. The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon and Our Gamble over Earth's Future

Sagoff, Mark. 2013. What Does Environmental Protection Protect?

Shellenberger, Michael and Nordhaus, Ted. 2011. The Long Death of Environmentalism

Shome, Siddhartha. 2012. The New India versus the Global Green Brahmins.

Simberloff, Daniel. 2005. Non-native Species DO Threaten the Natural Environment!

Simberloff, Daniel. 2013. Invasive Species: What everyone needs to know

Smil, Vaclav. 2001. Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch and the Transformation of World Food Production.

Smil, Vaclav. 2008. Oil: A Beginner's Guide.

Smil, Vaclav. 2008. Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next 50 Years

Smil, Vaclav. 2010. Energy Myths and Realities.

Smil, Vaclav. 2012. Harvesting the Biosphere: What we have taken from Nature

Soule, Michael. 1985. What is Conservation Biology?

Wells, Thomas. Debating Climate Change: The need for economic reasoning.

Wilson Edward O. 2003. The Future of Life

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

two cartoons about the terror in Gaza

Both sides (Hamas, Israel) use terror against innocents and this has been ongoing for a very long time. What is relatively new, since 9/11, is that the terror is gradually being spread, world wide. Sooner or later, it may engulf us.

In my view a short term viable political solution could only arise if Israel was prepared to give up the West Bank and Hamas was prepared to recognise the state of Israel.

A longer term solution is even more problematic. Israel is occupied Palestine, it always has been, since its inception, occupied Palestine. The Palestinians and their descendants who were expelled after 1948 (using terror) have the right to return to their land with full citizens rights within Israel. If this happened they would eventually outvote the supporters of Zionism (the dubious idea that the Jewish religion ought to have a State, owing to the crimes of the Nazis)

Israel has become an albatross around the neck of US Imperialism. The US will continue to be hated in the Middle East as long as it bankrolls a Zionist state that has always used state terror against Palestinians.

This in turn, in the swamp of the Middle East, breeds a production line of recruits to Islamic fundamentalism and suicide bombers who commit atrocities against innocents in the West. That problem and its latest manifestation, ISIS or ISIL, won't go away and we will have to deal with it. The longer we delay dealing with it the worse it will become.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

The Andrew Forrest report recommendations

The Forrest Review

Follow the links for more detail.

Recommendation 1: Early childhood
 That all governments prioritise investment in early childhood, from conception to three years of age.

Recommendation 2: School attendance
That governments work together to improve school attendance and be measured and accountable to the public for their success.

Recommendation 3: Improving educational outcomes
That a high quality of school education is ensured, particularly for children in remote and disadvantaged areas as assessed by achieving parity in National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) results so they have the best chance of employment.

Recommendation 4: Stopping distractions to education
That Commonwealth, state and territory governments, business, sporting organisations and community leaders ensure that school attendance is not unintentionally undermined by sports carnivals, visiting celebrities or any activities that can give families an incentive to take students—particularly from remote schools—away from school for lengthy periods of time.

Recommendation 5: Healthy Welfare Card
That the Commonwealth Government implement immediately a Healthy Welfare Card scheme in conjunction with major financial institutions and retailers to support welfare recipients manage their income and expenses.

Recommendation 6: Implementation and accountability
That the implementation of recommendations be prioritised across all governments, closely monitored and reported along the lines that are described by the value driver trees.

Recommendation 7: Implementation
That the Commonwealth, state and territory governments ensure that a major component of funding for government-funded service providers is at risk if they fail to achieve satisfactory performance.

Recommendation 8: Agreement to implement the recommendations of this report
That the Commonwealth, state and territory governments agree to sign a new multilateral agreement to affirm their commitment to implement the recommendations of this report and be held accountable for delivery, through regular public reporting on the Creating Parity website as detailed in each recommendation.

Recommendation 9: Young people
That young people below 19 years of age must be working or in school or other educational institutions, training for a guaranteed job.

Recommendation 10: Job seeker obligations
That all discretion of Centrelink and job service providers to waive job seekers’ obligations and grant exemptions and transfers to non-activity tested payments such as the Disability Support Pension to excuse working age, capable welfare recipients from efforts to get meaningful employment be removed.

Recommendation 11: Breaking the welfare cycle
That the welfare system be simplified by reducing the number of different working age payments available to a single unemployment benefit (with only a very limited number of supplements available) along the lines of the 2009 Pension Review by Jeff Harmer.

Recommendation 12: Tax incentives
That tax-free status be provided to new and innovative first Australian commercial enterprises that create real jobs by providing the training grounds to eliminate the disparity for the most disadvantaged job seekers.

Recommendation 13: Employment services
That the Commonwealth Government replace and consolidate current Job Services Australia services and other work preparation and literacy and numeracy programmes with a demand driven system.

Recommendation 14: Vocational education and training
That, in order to create job-specific employer-directed training, the Commonwealth, state and territory governments, as joint regulators and funders, introduce vouchers for employers redeemable at education providers to replace all funding for the vocational education and training system, particularly the TAFE system.

Recommendation 15: Driver’s licences
That all state and territory governments introduce a consistent approach to issuing provisional ‘locked’ driver’s licences for people who are unable to drive due to unpaid fines or other traffic infringements so that they can get and keep a job by being able to drive.

Recommendation 16: Training in incarceration
That states and territories require compulsory participation of inmates, while in incarceration, in proven methods of explicit instruction in English and maths, driver’s licences for those who need them, and job skills training.

Recommendation 17: Housing
That the Commonwealth, state and territory governments work together to put in place housing delivery mechanisms to support and encourage workforce participation, optimise transition and mobility to work, and remove disincentives and impediments to taking up work.

Recommendation 18: Government procurement
That the Commonwealth Government purchase at least 4% of its goods and services within four years (either directly or through subcontractors) from first Australian businesses (with a minimum of 25% Indigenous ownership) and in particular from the new first Australian commercial enterprises once they are established.

Recommendation 19: Top 200 employers
That the Commonwealth Government provide the top 200 companies in Australia and those with a strong track record of first Australian employment, with tailored contracts to increase the proportion of first Australians among their employees.

Recommendation 20: Support for employers
That the Commonwealth Government ensure the Indigenous Employment Programme funds training only when there is a guarantee of an ongoing job and has the flexibility to package support according to employers’ needs.

Recommendation 21: Public sector employment
That the Commonwealth, state and territory governments each set and enforce public sector first Australian employment targets of 4% within four years for each portfolio with a minimum of 4% within five years, but with no individual portfolio with less than 3%.

Recommendation 22: Remote Job Centres
That the Commonwealth Government replace and consolidate current Remote Jobs and Communities Programme services and other work preparation and literacy and numeracy programmes with demand-driven Job Centres, drawing on the Vocational Training and Employment Centre model, where training and support are provided to get people into guaranteed jobs.

Recommendation 23: Local governance
That community decisions about job seeker compliance and social norms be made locally by a local responsibilities board and not remotely.

Recommendation 24: Consolidating service delivery
That, to reduce duplication and improve outcomes from service delivery from services aimed at improving employment and social wellbeing of first Australians, the Commonwealth, state and Northern Territory governments engage with Local Responsibilities Boards to consolidate and integrate service delivery in credible local first Australian organisations.

Recommendation 25: Remote housing
That governments ensure the approach to remote housing on Indigenous land is revised to include performance-based funding to move to a sustainable system with strong incentives for workforce participation and home ownership.

Recommendation 26: Enabling leasing or freeholding of Indigenous land
That governments create the ability for traditional owners to convert their land to freehold or hold the underlying title with a 99-year lease owned by the home or business owner, so that it can be mortgaged or traded through the open market and so that traditional owners can build their houses on allotments on their own land.

Recommendation 27: Land access payments
So that land access payments can be applied to the economic and social progress of traditional owner and native title groups and ensure intergenerational benefits, that the Commonwealth Government consider the recommendations in the report of the Taxation of Native Title and Traditional Owner Benefits and Governance Working Group.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

ABC's Vision Impaired by Solar Hype and Hope

Critique of the ABC's "Power to the People", 4 corners, 7th July 2014

The ABC narrative goes something like this:
  1. Anthropogenic Global Warming is a huge problem, so we have to reduce our carbon outputs.
  2. PM Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt (Environment Minister) are not serious about tackling this problem. As well as scrapping the carbon tax they are now threatening to scrap the 20% renewable energy target as well
  3. Renewables, with a focus on solar power is a vital way forward for Australia. We are in grave danger of being left behind the rest of the world as they latch onto the clean energy market. (jobs, economic development)
  4. Solar thermal and solar PV can make a big difference now provided you have some insight, determination and care for the planet.
  5. In the not so distant future we will develop a radically different electricity system, with community micro-grids and technology that allows buildings to create and store their own energy.
Geoff Russell has already written a critique, Four Corners and its field of dreams, of this program on the pro-nuclear Brave New Climate site. He correctly takes the ABC to task for not doing the maths required for a critical assessment of the potential of solar power (point 4 above). In his view, consistent with the Brave New Climate perspective, nuclear power can do the job of serious carbon reduction much more effectively than solar:
By comparison, France built an essentially carbon free nuclear electricity system in under 20 years. So while Australian electricity generates 850 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour, France is down around 70 grams per kilowatt hour and she’s been there since 1990. 
My research also indicates that there are a huge range of problems with solar and wind power. These problems were either glossed over by the ABC or not even mentioned. Nevertheless, the ABC claims to be well researched with dozens of supporting links revealed when you press the Show Background Information button on their website. In such a long standing polarised debate it is always possible to find lots of support for your preferred position. In omitting consideration of core issues the ABC has been far too selective, blinkered and unreflective in their focus.

The problems I refer to are energy returned on energy input (EROI or ERoEI) for renewable technologies, intermittency, diffuseness, storage, integration into the grid (the nature of baseload and peaking) and capacity issues. The capacity factor is how much electricity a generator produces relative to the maximum it could produce.

These issues, some of them technical, should form the core part of an informed program about the role of renewables in the energy mix. But apart from misleading claims about the storage issue most of them are not even mentioned in the ABC program. They have chosen to be warriors in the cause of renewable energy before completing the research that has to be done to be an informed warrior.

A good, free online reference to these more complex technical issues is Energy intensities, EROIs, and energy payback times of electricity generating power plants. Warning: it contains something missing from the ABC program - mathematical rigour.

Also see the book reviews on Brave New Climate for (an unfortunately too expensive book) Energy in Australia: Peak Oil, Solar Power and Asia's economic growth by Graham Palmer. (1) Precis by Graham Palmer (2) Review by John Morgan

This summary by Peter Lang (first comment after the book review) illustrating the relatively low values for solar and wind of the energy returned on energy invested (ERoEI) could form the starting point of a further discussion of the problems involved with solar and wind power.
  • PV (Germany) 2.3
  • Solar thermal 9.6
  • Wind 4
  • Hydro (NZ) 35
  • Coal 29 – 31
  • Gas 28
  • Nuclear 75 – 105
The ABC program is a complete fail with respect to these core issues of energy transformation. Here is a sample, referring to Canberra's Royalla Solar Farm:
STEPHEN LONG: And still tiny by world standards.

It costs a lot to build a plant like this, and that does feed into electricity prices, but in the medium term, the energy will be cheaper because the fuel input, sunlight, is free.

SIMON CORBELL: The economics is a no brainer and it also drives down the cost of electricity more generally in the market because, often, at times of peak demand, renewables is the cheapest source of energy into the electricity market
This could only be described as manipulative journalism. By mentioning that sunlight is free, and ignoring the other fixed production cost of the panels and labour as well as the relatively poor return due to the diffuseness and intermittency of sunlight, the impression is given that energy returns on inputs for solar power is an economic "no brainer". But the ERoEI figures above demonstrate the falseness of that claim.

Furthermore, I think the critique of the ABC needs to go beyond the technical issues. Their full message is for a clean, green and decentralised future, point (5) above. A nuclear energy future is not decentralised and so it is important to address that claim as well. The ABC claim is a political / cultural message that such a decentralised, energy future is desirable and possible, the cultural appeal of the long standing "small is beautiful" movement.

The ABC program suggested strongly, towards the end, that centralised electricity through the traditional grid would be replaced in time with decentralised micro-grids. This thought bubble inspired the "revolutionary" title of the program, "Power to the People".

Consider these extracts, I have emphasised the hype:

a) From the section about the Orange City Bowling Club in the central west of New South Wales.
STEPHEN LONG: An electricity bill that was running at $116,000 a year has fallen by more than a third, and the investment in rooftop solar will pay for itself in three years.

This humble bowling club may be part of a paradigm shift, a new era for the economy.

Danny Kennedy calls it the rooftop revolution, power to the people.

DANNY KENNEDY: What we've had is these big power stations at the middle of a hub and spoke model, shunting electrons down a one-way fire hose, telling us what we should pay for it.

What we're getting now is the ability to participate in the creation of electricity. We're going to have our own power plants on our own roofs. There's going to be a community level storage system, a solar farm or a wind farm out the back, and all those are going to take part in the creation of electricity and the economics of electricity, and it's all going to be managed through software and information communications technology.
b) From futurist Jeremy Rifkin:
JEREMY RIFKIN: We now have millions and millions of small players, home owners, small businesses, cooperatives, even large businesses that are producing their own solar and wind generated green electricity at near zero marginal cost.

In 10 years from now, 15 years from now, we'll have tens of millions of local sites producing green electricity on micro-grids
c) The section discussing the aftermath of superstorm Sandy:
STEPHEN LONG: When super storm Sandy struck the United States in 2012, Americans discovered what it's like when the power grid breaks down.

Millions of people across the east coast were left for days without electricity: no light, no heat and no communications.

RICHARD KAUFFMAN, CHAIRMAN, ENERGY AND FINANCE, NEW YORK STATE: The thing that people had the hardest time with during Sandy was the fact that they were cut off from communications. If you're without power for days, it is, not just inconvenient, but it really feels like you can't live your life.

Individuals and communities want to have more and more control over their energy system. We again saw this after Sandy where communities have asked for their own micro-grids because they don't want to be as reliant upon the grid.

STEPHEN LONG: Former investment banker, Richard Kauffman, is known as New York's Energy Tsar. He's overseeing a move to decentralised electricity.

RICHARD KAUFFMAN: In the last 10 years, we've invested $17 billion just to keep the grid as it is. And, in the next 10 years, if we keep just doing exactly as we've been doing, it's, we have to invest another $30 billion.

The Empire State is instead planning a radically different electricity system, with community micro-grids and technology that allows buildings to create and store their own energy.

RICHARD KAUFFMAN: It used to be that you had to get the electricity that came through the central grid because that was the only alternative.

Well that's not true anymore, so we have had, across a whole range of industries, the benefit that customers are now in charge and the technology exists now for that to be true in the power sector.

The cost of all these solutions are going down, while the cost of the traditional central station power and distribution systems goes up.
The ABC is promoting a decentralised field of dreams here. Here is a rebuttal to their views found on line. DG stands for distributed generation. Emphasis added.
If you want to know what utilities actually object to about DG, it is policies that functionally require them to purchase power from solar homeowners at $0.30/kWh when they don’t need it instead of buying it on the wholesale market for $0.04/kWh when they do. The result is not just less-profitable utilities but also higher rates for the vast majority of ratepayers. A recent California Public Utilities Commission study concluded that by 2020 the state’s net metering programs would increase rates by a billion dollars annually.

That’s not to say that the growth of renewable energy is not disruptive—just not in the way its advocates claim. Look at just about any place that has achieved significant deployment of renewable electricity, and what you find is that the vast majority comes from large, utility scale installations, not rooftop solar or any other behind-the-meter generation source. Even Germany gets over three-quarters of its renewable generation from large-scale wind, hydro, and biomass.

Given the current state of renewable technology and the scale of generation necessary to run a modern economy, these basic dynamics appear unlikely to change anytime soon. Take a peek at any of the dozens of scenarios produced by renewables advocates that claim we can run the U.S., Europe, or the world largely on renewables, and what you find is that most generation comes from massive industrial scale wind and solar developments from North Dakota to the North Sea—not DG.

In fact, a renewables-powered future will probably require more centralized generation, not less. Achieving significantly higher penetrations of renewable energy will require transmitting electricity over hundreds or thousands of miles from where large amounts can be generated to places where it will be consumed. Renewables champions may talk small-scale DG, but what they intend to build is every bit as centralized as the centralized power sources we have today.

Ultimately, what is disrupting the existing utility model is not the distributed nature of renewables, it is their intermittent nature, and the policies necessary to make them viable. Heavy public subsidization of the capital costs of wind and solar, combined with preferential purchase requirements for the power they generate, ensure that the marginal cost of wind and solar will always be lower than just about anything else when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. Hence, Germany simultaneously boasts the highest retail electricity prices in Europe and the lowest wholesale prices—not because the power costs less to generate but because most of the cost has been shifted elsewhere. In Germany, expensive, highly subsidized, intermittent renewables generation has driven wholesale prices so low that the utilities that must manage the grid and operate conventional power plants can no longer operate profitably. This, not cheap distributed solar, is what is disrupting the utility industry here and abroad.
- The Revolution won't be distributed (2014) 
Consistent with it's decentralisation thesis the ABC program provides us with a false idea about the nature of disruptive technologies:
MATTHEW WARREN: Oh look, I think we are seeing in the energy industry, it's going through a transformation that's not dissimilar to telephony to retail to newspaper media and that is, we're seeing, you know, quite radical transformation that is driven by technology and driven by changing market conditions.

DANNY KENNEDY: It's disruptive like media was disrupted a decade ago.

Once upon a time, the ABC and New York Times were all the news that was fit to print and they shunted the news of the day down the one way fire hose, and now we use social media and Twitter and whatever else to co-create what is the news stream and what makes for big news.

And, the economics, we know well, has been completed transformed. That's coming to electricity. The coal and other protected, vested interests of Australia are going the way of the Dodo if they don't adjust to this reality.
The important point about digital disruptive technologies is that they start out cheaper than established technologies. Mobile phones and online journalism start out cheaper than the media which they threaten to displace. The reverse situation applies to solar and wind power, which are still far more expensive than fossil fuels. Moore's law does not apply to energy technology as the ABC is suggesting.

Is a 20% Renewable energy target a good idea?

We need both more energy, particularly for the world's energy poor, and more clean energy, meaning, in part, energy produced without or with reduced CO2 emissions, also known as decarbonisation of the energy supply.

The program begins with Kerry O'Brien voicing the fear that the Abbott government is threatening to cut the 20% Renewable Energy Target (RET).

Why would Abbott and Hunt contemplate this? Well, the real reason, not spelt out clearly in this ABC program, is that renewables are expensive and so have to be subsidised.

The Australian political reality is that ongoing political uncertainty (no one knows what will happen electorally in the future) threatens renewable energy subsidies. As long as renewable energy can't compete with fossil fuels in the capitalist market place then it will remain dependent on subsidies whose delivery will remain politically uncertain.

Roger Pielke jnrs iron law says (assuming the continuation of the capitalist system) that when tough decisions have to be made economic issues will always trump environmental issues. He's right. The Australian people won't support a political system which raises or even vaguely threatens to raise energy prices to the point which either cuts deeply into our standard of living or makes us uncompetitive on the world stage. The election of the far from popular Tony Abbott as PM, who promised to rescind the carbon tax introduced by the ALP, demonstrates that.

So how to proceed? What policies do I support, which may be capable of gaining political traction? (1) Intelligent subsidies where there is justified hope for a rapid price reduction in the given renewable (2) Much more emphasis on Research, Development and Demonstration (RD and D) to bring the price of renewables down. Setting a target with a strict timeline does not necessarily promote these policies. I think the critique of the Abbott government's policies by Roger Pielke jnr (Australia's Climate Follies) has far more substance than the ABC critique.

Given that renewables such as solar and wind remain far more expensive (despite considerably cost reduction to date) than nuclear which in turn remains more expensive than fossil fuels then the emphasis needs to be on RD and D to bring the price of clean energy alternatives down to a level where they can compete.


Further reading about policy decision making in the USA: Beyond Boom and Bust

Monday, April 28, 2014

the core problem with marxism

I have put the following post up on reddit (link) for discussion. Comments here are welcome but I expect there will be more discussion there than here.

I'll try to articulate a critique of marxism that makes sense to me. Marxism was developed in the 19th Century when Reason and Science as a conquering force from the Enlightenment, which more or less overwhelmed religious belief, was seen as either a higher form of thought or at least a sufficient form of thought to solve all the significant problems in the world. Marx called his form of socialism "scientific" in contrast to utopian socialism. Marx's historical and dialectical materialism was influence by Hegel's idea that there were clear historical laws which, with much effort, could be discovered, articulated and provide a guide to scientific action.

When you put together the overarching concept of "scientific socialism", combined with a monistic (rather than pluralism) One TrueWay world view, expounded by Plekhanov and adopted by Lenin, and further combined with a (perhaps unconscious) fact-value or science - ethics dichotomy (rather than a distinction) then you end up with an overly deterministic way of evaluating how the world works.

Engels said that freedom is the recognition of necessity and this is the marxist view of virtue or ethics. This downplays the importance of ethics in our thinking in general and provides a basis for totalitarianism. The quickest way to achieve justice for the oppressed is to seize political power by whatever means available and implement the socialist order.

The "necessity" of overthrowing capitalism by revolution and establishing a dictatorship of the proletariat has led in practice to a dictatorship by the communist party. Democracy is denied since the masses are denied the right to reintroduce capitalism if 51% desire that. Communists are not the best democrats. Unfortunately, in practice, this has led to the Gulag (1). The historical facts have been endlessly debated, disputed, interpreted and reinterpreted. Marxists always admit that errors have been made but they can be corrected. What I am trying to outline here is the underlying cause, an overestimation of the role of Science as in "scientific socialism".

My argument here is not that any particular or detailed contribution by Marx is clearly wrong. For instance, Capital in my view is a brilliant critique of the political economy. It is also true that at certain times in history there was little alternative but to become a communist. If you were a Jew, or indeed any decent person, in Europe facing the rise of the National Socialists in the 1930s the only good options were to become a communist, since the alternative opposition was pathetic, or run away.

I am not arguing that capitalism is a good system. Capitalism is a terrible system. It is just that all the alternatives we have tried so far have turned out to be worse. (to paraphrase Winston Churchill)

This is a philosophical critique. Dialectics and Logic, the tools of scientific socialism are very useful and have their place in good analysis. It is just that they do not and cannot provide a One True Way forward. The core problem is that Marxism was built on a theory of the role Science that was plausible in the 19th Century but which we need to re-evaluate today.

(1) update 9th September 2014: My understanding now is that gulag's existed in Stalin's USSR but not in Mao's China. Red Guards being sent to the countryside at the end of the Cultural Revolution as a policy decision to narrow the city-country gap is a different concept to a gulag (prison with forced labour). The Red Guards in China's countryside were not detained there against their will, long term.