The Keeping of the Light

Several years ago, Yuk Yung noted, either in seminar or at one of his lunch talks, that overall, as a system, the Earth, including its biosphere, actually does not consume energy.  This isn’t so surprising if you think of it like a lifeless rock – of course a spinning asteroid being shone upon somewhere between Jupiter and Mars isn’t consuming energy, it’s just absorbing and re-radiating, by σT4.  It re-radiates at a lower temperature than the sun, and it re-radiates isotropically; the quality of the energy changes, its entropy increases, but the amount of energy coming out, of course, is the same as that which is coming in, barring any interesting chemistry that might take place as a result of the incident radiation.

For some reason, the same statement, applied to the Earth, seems stranger.  We think of life as consuming energy somehow, but really it doesn’t.  At most, the Earth system acts as a temporary energy buffer, as our indigenous biology catalyzes the formation of chemical bonds, using mostly sunlight as a power source.  But by now, overall, the Earth is in almost perfect energetic equilibrium.  The light comes in at nearly 6000 °K, and it comes in nearly parallel.  It leaves at a few hundred degrees Kelvin, and in all directions.  All that’s changed is the entropy, unless there’s a net creation (or destruction) of ions or chemical bonds, or a change in temperature, on the way through.  Somehow, life extracts order from this flow of energy.  “We eat negative entropy.”, Yuk said.  We consume information, transmuting the physical order of the star’s light into the chemical order of life.  We grasp at it as it passes through, and in that grasping, live.

The material with which we encode this order, with which we briefly hold the light, is itself also the product of stars.  I’ve known this since I watched Cosmos as a kid.  We are the “stuff” of stars, but somehow the fact that our order is also somehow tied up in the order of stars, quite literally, seems odder.  We’re some kind of entropically driven reaction.

It seems to me that this physical reality is ripe for mythologizing.

The stars are great unknowing givers.  They are radiant, and generous, and terrible.  They can receive nothing in return for their gifts, incinerating their lovers.  They say to us, without knowing, “Take this light and hold it.  Use it as it passes through you, to know, and to perhaps preserve, against the chaos, and cold dark emptiness of space.”  And so we are become the receivers of the light, composed of the cold cinders of the stars.  We keep the light that only they can make, but which they cannot hold.  I think it’s a difficult and sacred thing to do, to just keep holding on.

Georgia and Russia, sittin’ in a tree

Pravda has put out a helpful timeline of the current Georgia-Russia conflict

Maybe I have a one track mind but, I don’t think this kind of conflict often erupts for purely egotistic political reasons. There’s a lot of energy backstory that isn’t being told in that Russian chronicle, such as the sabotage by someone of natural gas and electricity supplies headed into Georgia from Russia (gee, I wonder who it could have been… in the depths of a Caucasian winter in January 2006), the subsequent commissioning of the South Caucasus gas pipeline in December 2006, and all of the wrangling that’s been going on over the trans-Caspian gas pipeline since the mid 90s (Russian and Iran don’t want it, everyone else does, because Russian and Iran have gas already, and everyone else gets their gas from them).

Perhaps the largest diplomatic stick Russia can wield today is its oil and gas reserves (assuming they don’t want to actually like, invade a NATO country, or shoot off some plutonium fireworks), and they are jealously guarding the ability to wield that stick. Georgia has successfully circumvented them with the pipeline from Baku to Turkey (and eventually on to Europe), and I think in part now, they’re paying the price, so that others in central Asia with gas they’d like to independently pipe out of the region, including, perhaps most importantly, Iran, think twice about setting up their own circumvention. For instance, Iran built a pipeline into Armenia. It was supposed to be extendable, eventually onward to Turkey and Europe. Before it was built, Gazprom bought a controlling interest in the pipeline company, and summarily reduced the diameter of the pipeline from 1.4m to 0.7m, making it unable to carry enough gas for extending it to Turkey and Europe to be worthwhile.

I think that the blurring, or erasure, of the lines separating nations and corporations is interesting, and at least somewhat unexplored.  (Maybe one major difference is that a nation-corp can more dependably rely on its nation’s armed forces to step in occasionally.  Though, historically, US companies have had a pretty good chance of getting help on demand, at least in Latin America).  We wouldn’t be surprised if Exxon did something like buy up a potential competitor, but when a nation does it, how do we react?  In oil and gas, all of the major players are nation-corps. I think this is actually one of many very good reasons for the industrialized world (that, by and large, has used up its oil and gas) to invest heavily in renewable alternatives to oil and gas. If we develop renewables for national security (and environmental) reasons, the costs may well be reduced enough that other economies can use them simply because they’re cheap, distributed (more difficult to sabotage than a pipeline or LNG terminal), and don’t require you to be on good terms with Russia, or Iran, or Saudi Arabia, or Venezuela, or get permission from the IAEA to spin up your centrifuges.

Pipelines are beasts curiously subject to consensus, because they are so easy to destroy.  If anybody in the area doesn’t want one to function, it doesn’t.  So Russia may well be able to maintain its pre-eminent position as gas supplier to Europe for a long while to come, and keep the squeeze on in central asia indefinitely.  At least, until we stop relying on natural gas.  Or until someone in central asia really decides it doesn’t want Russia’s natural gas infrastructure to function.  Now wouldn’t that be fun for everyone!

Congress has failed us on renewable energy again

Last week Congress left DC for its summer vacation without extending the federal tax credits for investments in renewable energy. This is an abject failure on the part of our elected representatives. Without these tax credits, the booming renewable energy industry will grind to a halt come December 31st. Already, companies like EI Solutions in Pasadena, that design and build large solar installations, have been forced to stop signing contracts for projects that cannot be completed before the end of the year. For years these tax incentives have been renewed only on an annual basis, and sometimes only at the last minute, or even retroactively, making it impossible for the industry to develop long range business plans and investments.

At the same time, we reliably subsidize the mature, well capitalized, and fabulously profitable domestic fossil fuel industries, encouraging our dependence on polluting, finite, and often foreign resources. This doesn’t make any sense, because the oil, gas, and coal companies already have they capital they need to make investments in additional production capacity, but they choose not to, and instead return their profits to their shareholders. On the other hand, tax credits for renewables currently make or break the industry.

Which should we be doing? Pouring money into the pockets of ExxonMobil shareholders, or fostering the emergence and growth of a domestic, renewable, clean, energy industry, that can provide thousands of new jobs in California. I think the choice is clear. Evidently, Congress feels otherwise. An army of lobbyists paid by the fossil fuel industry has made sure of it. We don’t have to depend on fossil fuels forever, but unless we demand change from our elected representatives, they are going to keep listening to the campaign contributions.

We need more Dionysian Science

Michelle and I just finished reading The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. It was good. He can get a little rambling at times, but overall it was entertaining and enjoyable. The book follows the relationships between people and four plants, through history. The four plants are: apples, tulips, cannabis, and potatoes. It pairs with them four desires, respectively: sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control. The connections are more than a little tenuous, but the histories are certainly worth examining. The apple chapter in particular has inspired me to learn more about hard cider (since it turns out that’s largely what Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman’s apples were used for, all across 19th century America). And who can resist an examination of cannabis’s relationship with humans, written at least partially while stoned?

One theme Pollan has touched on repeatedly, in this book and his others, is the competition between Apollonian and Dionysian impulses in nature and society. Apollo representing order and control, Dionysus wildness and chaos, both being utterly necessary for civilization to be dynamic and persistent, for knowledge to increase and broaden through time. E.g. our Apollonian monocultures of Russet Burbank potatoes are vulnerable because of their uniformity, but are also productive and economically efficient. The Andean potato farmers of antiquity grew dozens of different varieties in different micro climates, all the while allowing the plants to hybridize with the local wild potatoes, maintaining a possibly less productive, but certainly more diverse and robust system of potato cultivation, in which new biological innovation was constantly taking place, and in which the farmers were well protected against catastrophic collapse in any one year… unlike the potato farmers of Ireland in the 1840s. The potato chapter in particular focuses largely on a very recent interaction with the potato: the introduction of a genetically engineered variety called the “New Leaf” by Monsanto, that produces Bt toxin to guard the plant against the Colorado potato beetle and other insect pests. Continue reading We need more Dionysian Science

Too big to fail is too big, period

With the collapse of Bear Stearns and the US automakers and airlines tanking, and the prospect of a trillion dollar bailout of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and who knows how many other large lenders, all because they are, putatively, “too big to fail” (by which is meant, obviously, not that they are so large as to be incapable of failing, but that they are so large as to make the consequences of their failing worse than the immediate, visible consequences of bailing them out), I’ve started wondering if perhaps what we really need is an update to our anti-trust laws, to the effect of: if you’re too big to fail, you’re just plain too big.

Instead of allowing corporate juggernauts to form, and then eventually being “forced” to save them from their own follies, why not just keep these captains of industry small enough that we never need to save them. The Feds already have to approve the bigger mergers and acquisitions – they already have this power by-and-large. Keeping our companies a little smaller would increase competition, and diversity within the corporate ecology of our markets. GM doesn’t want to make fuel efficient cars? Fine – their small-cars division can spin off and do its own thing. Sink or swim in its competition with Toyota, while GM itself just sinks, into an ever shrinking ocean of $150 oil.

Instead, we give taxpayer cash to large companies that have made bad business decisions, and absolve them of their obligations to pay the pensions they promised to their lifelong employees. We inflate the dollar and erode both our spending power, and our savings, while simultaneously crippling the long term competitiveness of our biggest industries. I don’t think the marginal increase in productivity from economies of scale that happens between being a $20 billion company and a $40 billion company is really worth it, if it means we’re all eventually on the hook for bailing out the $40 billion company, when we wouldn’t have to shovel mountains of cash at the two $20 billion companies… one of which might actually have made some good business decisions.

Imagine no mines

Imagine a world in which nothing is mined, where all the mineral resources we will ever need as a society have been extracted, and circulate perpetually in the economy, being endlessly transformed from finished goods into raw materials, and back again, with nothing input except renewable energy. This is a world of increasing material efficiency, and static population, in which standard of living is not defined by quantity of materials consumed. Buildings are de-constructed and re-assembled. They are designed with this in mind. Acid mine drainage is a thing of the past, and the mountaintops of West Virginia have regrown their deciduous veneer. Landfills are systematically emptied, and the copious resources placed within them by previous generations are re-organized into their useful constituent parts.

In response to What comes after green?

Who cares about guns?

Amy’s Salon is meeting tonight, talking about the recent Supreme Court decision to uphold the 2nd amendment in Washington, D.C. I did a bit of reading on the subject, and (regrettably) I agree with Scalia:

“Undoubtedly some think that the Second Amendment is outmoded in a society where our standing army is the pride of our nation, where well-trained police forces provide personal security and where gun violence is a serious problem. That is perhaps debatable, but what is not debatable is that it is not the role of this court to pronounce the Second Amendment extinct.”

Continue reading Who cares about guns?