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?

Meta-reinventing the sacred, yet again

Michelle and Jeremy and I went to a talk entitled Sacred Science at Caltech last night put on by the The Skeptics Society, it was part of Suart Kauffman’s book tour for Reinventing the Sacred. It was okay, but it could have been great. If you’re interested, he gave essentially the same talk at Beyond Belief in December (41 minutes long).

His purpose seemed to be to outline a semi-formal proof that atheistic humans are justified in reinventing the sacred for themselves as something which is wholly naturalistic, and that doing so has great value. I agree, but I’ve agreed for years. I guess some atheists haven’t yet come to this conclusion. This is the same conversation that we ended up in at Amy’s Salon a couple of months ago, and I’m always like “Yes, YES already, so let’s just get on with reinventing it, instead of continuing to try and convince ourselves that we should do it. It’s a meta conversation. We’re talking about talking about what we think should be revered. Are we afraid that we won’t be able to come to any kind of common ground, and that just having the conversation will somehow splinter us into even smaller non-theistic sects?
Continue reading Meta-reinventing the sacred, yet again

Science Framed at Caltech

Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet came to Caltech and gave SASS talk on Monday night, and ran a science media messaging workshop entitled Speaking Science Bootcamp all day Tuesday. It was great. Anybody who’s getting a PhD in science should go through at least that much communication training, and if they’re in an area that has policy implications, or they have any interest whatsoever in doing outreach or communication of science, they should have a week long course on the same material.
Continue reading Science Framed at Caltech

Our Drought Aware Shower

Water rates in all of the SoCal MWD are going up this summer by 15-30%.  Drought has been declared.  There’s talk of Lake Mead being completely dry by 2021, and our shower has decided to conserve water.  It refuses to stay on for more than a few seconds at a time, strongly suggesting that you conserve water.  At first this might seem annoying, but long showers have been a guilty pleasure of mine, and I actually don’t mind getting some backtalk from the plumbing. Continue reading Our Drought Aware Shower

The Two Mile Time Machine by Richard B. Alley

I just finished reading Richard Alley’s little book The Two Mile Time Machine. It’s by far the best climate change book I’ve read so far. More information, less polemic. Personally I would have loved more plots and fewer long complex sentences explaining the relationships between different climatic variables, but maybe that’s just because I’m a scientist. Continue reading The Two Mile Time Machine by Richard B. Alley