28 01 2009

We heard a lot about  “clean coal” during the recent campaign.  Steven Chu, Obama’s choice for Energy Secretary, tells us  “coal and nuclear power are going to be part of this country’s “energy mix” for the foreseeable future, in spite of a massive chorus of voices from the scientific community warning that coal will kill us and we need to quit using it now–or last year, if we could only do that.  Some of these folks, such as James Hanson and James Lovelock, are of the opinion that nuclear power is, in fact, part of the proper response to climate change and petroleum depletion,  but I think they are wrong and will tell you why in a moment or two.  For now, let’s consider the oxymoron of “clean coal.”

Whoa, this just in:  Lovelock now admits that “nuclear power is not a cure for climate change.”

The shibboleth of “clean coal” should have been washed away with the wave of coal ash slurry that flooded a rural Kingston, Tennessee  neighborhood before finding its way into the Emory River, a tributary of the Tennessee River.  This river system, in the heart of America, is now poisoned with–tada!:  arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel and thallium.  Ironically, one reason this sludge is so toxic is because of environmental regulations and new technologies that keep TVA from blowing the stuff out their smokestacks and polluting the air with it…so, instead, it gets concentrated and pollutes the ground.  Not exactly what was intended, eh?

Dr. Carol Babyak, an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Appalachian State University, who helped analyze  samples of the polluted area, said “I have never seen levels of arsenic, lead and copper this high in natural waters.”    Dr. Shea Tuberty, who worked with her on the project, estimated that  it would take “generations” for the water to return to nontoxic levels.

Hey,  all the local residents have to do is avoid local spring  and well water (since the spilled effluent has also soaked into the water table), not eat any fish that survive the poisoning of their environment, wash well after swimming in the river, and not breathe in any dust that gets blown up when the sludge dries out…for generations.  Simple, huh?

And, let’s not forget, this sludge spill is not staying put.  It’s working its way down the Tennessee River, and will eventually affect the Ohio, the Mississippi, and the Gulf of Mexico.  But hey, the area where the Mississippi enters the Gulf is already a “dead zone” anyway, so some actual poison mixed into the oxygen-deprived water won’t hurt anything, will it?

This spill happened because a spell of heavy rain soaked an earthen dam and made it unstable.  Who could imagine such a thing happening in Tennessee?  Who could imagine that a bunch of “terrorists” (or whoever they were) would fly an airplane into a building?  Who could imagine that there would be no “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq?  Who could imagine that a major hurricane would slam into New Orleans and breach the levees?   Who could imagine that the Ponzi scheme of financing the U.S. economy on credit would ever have a rough encounter with reality and pop like a balloon hitting a hot stove?

The same crew of folks who couldn’t imagine this string of disasters and falsehoods do believe that, some day soon, “carbon capture” technology will be perfected that will enable us to suck up all the CO2 that is currently coming out of industrial smokestacks and “sequester” it it, like a Guantanamo prisoner, someplace where it will never be free again.  Let’s look at what that would really take.

Here’s a visual aid:  if you filled a balloon with one ton of carbon dioxide, the balloon would take up an area about ten yards wide, twenty-five yards long, and six feet high.  That’s about one-tenth of a football field.  Twenty tons of CO2 would cover a football field twelve feet deep.   A football field (without the end zones) has an area of about nine-tenths of an acre.  Now, picture five hundred million football fields.  That’s four hundred and fifty million acres, or abut seven hundred thousand square miles. That’s about the area between Chicago, New Orleans, and the east coast of the US, covered twelve feet deep in CO2 balloons..  That’s how much carbon we’d need to capture every year to keep any more CO2 from getting into the atmosphere and warming the planet into the danger zone, at our current worldwide level of carbon emissions.  Do I have to say that there isn’t that much room underground?  It’s a small planet, and the caves all leak!

In case you’re wondering, about a fifth of the CO2 comes from the US, and another fifth from China.  That means around forty percent of global carbon emission happens to supply the US market.  Not bad for being such a small percentage of the world’s population, folks!

Another way to look at this is that the average CO2 emission per household in the US is sixty-one tons, enough to cover three football fields twelve feet deep in CO2 balloons.  Who would have ever thought that we would need to capture that much CO2 to keep from roasting the planet?

I haven’t even touched on mining issues here.  “Mountaintop removal” is a whole other story–but I will mention that the well-heeled and well-connected environmental organization Natural Resources Defense Council took a group of executives from the Bank of America on a tour of Appalachian strip mines, and what the execs saw shook them up so badly that they decided not to loan any more money for such projects.  Even an old cynic like me finds that encouraging.  I just wish it had happened a few decades ago.

As for nuclear power–first of all, the people who can’t even keep an ash pond from leaking are asking us to trust them with something far more toxic than coal ash.  It may be possible to make the actual production of nuclear power safe–after all, it’s been twenty years since Chernobyl–but there are other technical, financial, and social reasons to just walk away from nuclear power.

Technically, the continued extraction of uranium is a health risk wherever it happens, which is, all too frequently, on the land of native people whose bodies and homeland are poisoned in the course of the extraction. Furthermore, we will likely be facing “peak uranium” in the next few decades.  The price of uranium has increased by a factor of five in the last decade.

Financially, nuclear power is a very slow and expensive way to produce electricity.  Even with a so-called “streamlined” approval process, which allows developers to use a bulldozer to overcome any objections to their plans, it takes a decade and fourteen billion dollars to build a new nuclear plant. TVA wants to do just that in Bellefonte,  Alabama.  Fourteen billion…hey, that’s chump change compared to what Congress is throwing at the banks…what’s the problem?

That’s fourteen billion dollars that won’t go into conservation, demand reduction, and decentralized power production, just like all those trillions the big banks are swallowing up is trillions that won’t be available to recreate a saner America.  It’s too late to stop the bank giveaway, but The Solar Valley Coalition is running a contest called “How Would You Spend Fourteen Billion Dollars?” and I bet they’ll get some very good answers. It’s not too late to enter, if you’re interested in making a contribution.  And hey, you might help talk TVA out of building a new nuke plant.  If Bank of America can get talked out of funding strip mining, anything is possible, huh?

The last objection I have to nuclear power is what I would call “the sociology” of nuclear energy as a power source.  It is a highly centralized system.  The center, the power company, is of necessity a huge entity, supplying electricity to individuals, businesses, and industries, who all depend on it and are helpless without it.  This is the model that has gotten us into the mess we are in, and it is the model that must be abandoned if we are to get out of that mess and into a saner future. I believe we need to become a society of interdependent equals if we are going to evolve as a species.  This may sound mystical, but it boils down to the fact that we are not going to make it as a species unless each of us is smart enough to take responsibility for him or herself.

And speaking of taking responsibility for ourselves…it’s easy to sit here and wax indignant about all the messes TVA has made and wants to continue making, but we have to remember that, by using their services, we are all complicit in the pollution and destruction that pangs our consciences so deeply.  We need to take what steps we can to unplug from this system–some of us can put up solar panels and pull out of the grid or sell energy back to it, but all of us can find ways to use less electricity.  The Solar Valley Coalition’s contest will undoubtedly show that it would not be difficult to save more energy than the proposed new reactor would generate.  Saving that electricity will take–not a one decision by the directors of TVA, but thousands of decisions all over Tennessee.  Each of us is small, but when we move together, the earth shifts–and it’s shifting time, people.  Let’s roll….

music:  Brother Martin and the Intangibles, “Terrorists in the Heartland”


13 01 2008

I was driving to Nashville with my 18-year old grandson. We had about an hour on the road; it was the first time we’d been alone together in a while. I was curious to see what would arise between us, but I was a bit surprised when he asked me, “What is the deal with these subprime mortgages?” It’s just not the question I expected from an 18-year old, but I was gratified to know he was interested.

“It’s about human greed, stupidity, and shortsightedness,” I said. “The bankers figured that if they could sell the loans they made to somebody else, they wouldn’t have to worry about collecting on them. And the people they sold the loans to figured the same thing, and so on up the ladder. It’s a pyramid scheme, a hot potato.”

My grandson was amazed and dismayed to discover that so many supposed adults could be that stupid. I have to agree. What were they thinking? Well, if they were thinking that they personally could get away with it, so far they’ve been right. To pick the most egregious example, Countrywide Financial, which is responsible for a big chunk of the bad mortgages that are clouding the financial air these days, was just sold to Bank of America, and Countrywide’s CEO is getting not just a golden parachute but a whole golden airplane out of the deal, in spite of the likelihood that BoA was nudged by the Fed to buy Countrywide in order to avoid the beginning of a domino-effect chain of bankruptcies that would have left the US ecomony bleeding to death in short order.

What a world for my grandson to grow up into. How could so many people have believed that the value of their homes was going to go up forever? That’s why they signed on the dotted line for all those adjustable-rate mortgages–they figured that by the time the rate went up, their home would be worth more, so they could just refinance, pay off the old mortgage, and be sitting pretty. Meanwhile, savings plummeted and debt soared. There was always going to be somebody to borrow from when it was time to pay the piper. Then, one day, the bubble burst and housing prices started to slide. Oops.

The bubble was still inflating when the junta, with copious assistance from the Dimocrats, passed a bankruptcy bill so draconian that anyone filing for bankruptcy is pretty much opting for a lifetime of indentured servitude, not freedom from debt. Hey, bankruptcy is for deadbeats, right? Well, it’s also for people with overhwhelming medical bills and people whose jobs get outsourced. Banks don’t go for hard luck stories and good intentions. They want cash, especially when they’re not the hometown bank but some mutual fund in Germany that’s trying to make a fortune in CDO’s.

CDO–Collateralized Debt Obligation. In theory, it makes a certain amount of sense. I loan you money, but instead of waiting around to collected it back as you make payments, I sell the debt to Joe, who gives me a lump sum and collects your payments. In practice, several other things happen, leading to unintended consequences. One is that huge numbers of debts are bundled up and sold, with the buyer pretty much having to take the seller’s word that all the apples in the bag are good. Another thing that happens is that these bundled debts are in their turn bundled and sold, and then we have another round or more of that, which leads to a complete disconnect between the bank that holds the mortgage and the person who is paying it off. If you are talking to your local bank about the possibility of defaulting on your mortgage, your local bank is interested in making sure the community in which it does business stays healthy and viable, and is more likely to try and work with you to keep you in the house and making some kind of payment. If your debt is owed to some bank overseas somewhere, they could care less about what’s happening to neighborhoods in Cleveland, or wherever you happen to be. Furthermore, they are not in much of a position to do anything with the house they have kicked you out of, because the house is not worth the value of the note they are holding on it, so the house is likely to stay empty and gradually be vandalized until it really is worthless.

And, speaking of “worthless,” anybody or any institution that bought these rotten debt securities finds, as the mortgages go bellyup, that they have a worthless piece of paper on their hands instead of an asset. So that means that hundreds, maybe thousands of governments, retirement funds, banks, and other institutions wake up one morning and discover that they are worth a lot less than they thought. Bye-bye municipal services, welfare payments, salaries. Bye-bye new loans. Bye-bye pensions and medical insurance.  Good luck, run of the mill business credit!

If this were taking place in a country that was financially healthy, it could be contained and repaired, but the US is not a financially healthy country. Just as the Ottoman Empire was once “the sick old man of Europe,” so the US is now everybody’s sick, needy Uncle Sam, constantly borrowing from Peter to pay Paul (or, all too often, borrowing from China to pay China), making a little money from arms sales (the last intact chunk of our manufacturing sector), but not really paying our own way in the world. It is only because the US owes so much to so many that we stay afloat. It’s the last big bubble. Everybody knows that we’re in over our heads, but nobody wants us to drown fast, because we’d pull them down with us; so, they’re going to let us slowly sink. As peak oil kicks in further, we will be outbid for fossil fuels; as Europe’s saner fiscal and social policies keep it afloat, the Euro will supplant the dollar as the international currency of choice, and US bond offerings will go begging. When everybody knows the only reason you’ve got money to spend is because of the printing press in your basement, they get shy about doing business with you, y’know? Well, kids, that’s where the US dollar is headed. From the government’s perspective, the only way out of this mess is massive inflation. Visualize a shopping bag full of money…to pay for a shopping bag full of groceries. That, in my crystal ball, is where we are headed.

And what will this do to our vaunted world hegemony? You can expect to see the civilian sector get squeezed to maintain the military, whether “hundred years in Iraq” McCain or “invade Pakistan” Obama is elected, but things are going to get thin for the military, as well. Right now they’re just taking it out of veterans’ benefits, but you can bet that sooner or later lack of equipment and fuel will hinder the government’s ability to bully the world. You can see it looming in all the National Guard equipment that has been abandoned or destroyed in Iraq, and has not been replaced.

These are the realities that the next President of the United States is going to have to deal with, although it is certainly not what is getting talked about on the campaign trail. Expensive health care plans? Fuggedaboutit. The next president will either be cleaning up the Bush Junta’s mess or making it worse. In either case, he or she will be increasingly constrained by the twin choke chains of internal financial collapse and international moral and financial bankruptcy.

There is a certain perverse upside to this. The worse the financial situation in the US becomes, the less demand on the world’s resources we will make. With no loan money available, suburban development will dry up–but, with money tight, there may be an even stronger pull to harvest any natural resources–from forests to coal–that can be easily turned into cash–but there will be less demand for them. My crystal ball gets a little cloudy on this one.  Sorry…

If I were the financial adviser to a Green President of the United States, with a solidly Green Congress to back me up, what would I advise? Where would I begin to unravel this fine mess we’re in?

I’d start by repealing the bankruptcy act that Bush passed, and go back to the status quo ante coup when people really could write off their unpayable obligations by declaring bankruptcy. I’d pass a law that forbade mortgage holders from evicting people except under extenuating circumstances. I’d make stockholders liable for the misdeeds of the corporations they own, to encourage corporate responsibility. I’d institute a corporate death penalty for irresponsible corporate behavior, and replace big chunks of the banking, insurance, and health “industries” with credit unions, co-ops, non-profits, and single-payer health insurance. I’d pull the US out of all so-called “free trade” agreements and work to encourage local, sustainable self-reliance in all sectors–food, clothing, housing, manufacturing, transportation, communication, entertainment…what have I left out? And I’d demilitarize the US and unlock all the resources we have tied up in world domination to meet the multiple threats of global warming and peak oil. And one last thing…me and Dennis Kucinich are gonna carry this snowball through hell!

Yep, that’s about the chance we have of making the right moves in America, unless millions of people have a road-to-Damascus moment and something even more pervasive than the fall of Communism takes place here…the fall of Capitalism! It has a nice ring, but it won’t be an overnight phenomenon. The revolution, as Gil Scot-Heron famously said, will not be televised. On television and in the corporate media in general, there will be an insistent drumbeat that things are fine and all our problems are about to be solved. There will be increased security against “terrorism,” increased focus on trivial news (BRITNEY HAS HOT FLASHES, STRIPS NAKED AS THOUSANDS WATCH)….now, what was I talking about? Gee, let’s go to Walmart…they just sent me a credit card…..as long as I keep both my job at MacDonalds and the 7-11, I can keep up with the interest on one more card…maybe we can find somebody else to live here, with ten of us in this apartment the rent’s not bad….

Is that the future? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it will be stranger than we can imagine. Maybe there will be a lot of self-reliant, interconnected people taking care of each other under the government’s radar, and “the government” will become increasingly irrelevant until it just fades away. Sooner or later, we’ll find out. I wish I had a better situation to leave to my grandson.

music: REM, “Fireplace”

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