RECONSIDERING GMOs

14 08 2016

It’s getting wild out there. There’s a lot going on in the Presidential race, from the Green Party’s post-Sanders bump, to the Democratic Party’s increasing right turn and its decision to aim its propaganda weapons at us, to many curious tales of, and from, the Trump campaign. I’ll probably be back on those beats next month, but this month I’m going to take a look at genetically modified organisms from my “Deep Green Perspective”

Back in June, I received several emails from a long-time friend, urging me to accept the evidence that genetically modified organisms are safe to eat, and thus there is no reason to oppose their rapid introduction into our food stream. I confess, I kind flamed my old friend with the vehemence of my initial “no way!” response. I decided that I owed it to him to read the articles he had sent me with as open a mind as I could muster, and consider the pro-genetic modification argument, instead of only reading the anti-genetic modification campaigners like Greenpeace and the Union of Concerned Scientists. I read the National Academy of Science’s report on the safety of genetically modified foods, as well. I’ll tell you up front: I did not change my opinion on the appropriateness of widespread use of genetically modified organisms. Here’s what I wrote my friend.

Dear _______,

I think the best place to start is with this challenge from you:

It’s hard to make the case that we should trust science and act to stem global warming, while at the same time we are scoffing at the statements [PDF] of *snort* scientists on genetic modification.

 We’re looking at two very different kinds of science here. The science of global warming is pretty cut and dried. It involves measuring temperatures and gas concentrations over time, making a graph of them, factoring in possible different levels of future fossil fuel use and other factors that are coming into play such as deforestation, melting permafrost, etc., and noticing that, in a “business as usual scenario,” we are going to be toast in short order.

libertyunderwater

Already in the pipeline? (note green sky due to increased CO2 content)

 

It’s all very quantifiable, very basic chemistry and physics, and what that basic chemistry and physics tells us is that we have in all likelihood dangerously overshot the amount of carbon dioxide we can safely release into the atmosphere and we need to stop all fossil fuel use and commence extreme carbon sequestration and a carbon-neutral culture. Genetically modified crops, and the industrial/chemical agriculture system that they are part and parcel of, are a major source of the excess carbon in our atmosphere, and thus the answer to the science question is that the science of global warming trumps the science of factory farming, which includes pretty much all use of genetically modified organisms. Read the rest of this entry »





THE GREAT FRACKING FRAUD

4 12 2012

There’s a story making the rounds of the mainstream media these days, frequently trumpeted as “International Energy Agency says U.S. to overtake Saudis as  top oil producer.”  This may, technically, turn out to be true. But, as they say, “The devil is in the details,” and in this case, there’s definitely a Hell’s worth of details behind that headline that are all too frequently overlooked in this, our oil-based culture’s cargo cult moment.

“Cargo  cults,” to refresh your memory, were a religious movement that flourished briefly in the South Pacific after World War II.  The natives, who had been living a largely neolithic existence, saw that our troops came in, built an airstrip, and then airplanes landed, bringing all kinds of wondrous things, never before imagined, to the island, and the islanders.  Then,when the war was over, the mysterious strangers packed up and left, the airplanes no longer arrived bearing their magical cargoes,and the airstrips grew up in brush.  Some of the natives thought that, if they just rebuilt the airstrips, the planes would come again.  So they tried it, but it didn’t work, at least not directly, although the brief peak of our now-declining civilization has, in fact, brought the airplanes–bearing tourists, not soldiers, this time–back to many of those once-isolated tropical isles.

But no such temporary relief awaits us.  In fact, the granting of our wish for the oil age to continue bears such a horrific price tag that it’s a sad wonder that most people seem all too willing to buy it.  I’m going to examine the thorns of this “petroleum rose,” and, I hope, push the chorus of voices crying “DON’T TAKE THAT DEAL!!” to a volume level that just might save us from the fraudulent, Faustian  fracking bargain. Read the rest of this entry »





NO WAY OUT BUT DOWN

7 07 2010

In contrast to the cockeyed optimism of Lamar “nuclear option” Alexander and many genuine advocates of sustainable, alternative energy, the sobering truth about our energy future can be found in a short but incisive book by Richard Heinberg, entitled “Searching For A Miracle–‘Net Energy’ Limits and the Fate of Industrial Society.”  It’s available for free from the website of the Post-Carbon Institute.

In a mere eighty-three pages, Heinberg makes it clear that it  will, indeed, take a miracle for our energy-intensive way of life to continue.

He begins by laying out “ten key criteria for comparing energy systems and their limits,” and then he rates the full spectrum of energy production possibilities, from the greenest to the grungiest,  by those criteria.  In the third section, Heinberg expounds his view of our most likely energy path into the future, and closes with  “The Case for Conservation.”

The criteria are:  direct monetary cost,  dependence on additional resources, environmental impacts, renewability, potential scale of contribution, location, reliability, “energy density” (how much energy can be derived from a given quantity of the energy source), transportability, and “energy returned on energy invested,” (“EROEI” for short) more simply referred to as “net energy,” analogous to “net profit.”  That seems like something that any capitalist should be able to understand, right?

The net energy return of the petroleum we have used for the last hundred years or so was extremely high–a hundred to one for most of the twentieth century. This fantastic profit is what has enabled us to create the civilization we think of as normal.  The problem, as Heinberg is quick to point out, is that there is no other energy source that offers a return anywhere near as favorable.  Domestic petroleum production today, which mostly comes from technologically complex sources like offshore wells, clocks in at around 10:1, while imported oil has an EROEI ratio of about 20:1–the cost of getting it to the USA does not completely offset the greater ease of extraction from Saudi, Mexican, and other oil fields. Coal still offers a fairly good net energy return, around 70:1 by Heinberg’s calculation, but at an unacceptable environmental cost.  And nuclear power, the darling of so many on both sides of the aisle in Washington, is near the bottom of the pile with an EROEI of about 10:1.  That ratio, interestingly enough, is the same EROEI that anthropologists calculate for hunter-gatherer societies  Ain’t that enough to make ya think?

If it’s any consolation to you nukeheads out there, photovoltaic power also has a dismally low EROEI, and wind generators are only a nose ahead of the solar/nuclear bottom dwellers.  The EROEI of extracting oil from tar sands comes close to being negative, especially if larger environmental factors are considered.

Petroleum currently provides about a third of the world’s energy needs.  The only major oil fields that are still increasing production are in Russia.  Mexico, which is one of the US’s major suppliers, is in steep decline, and the status of the oil fields in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait are closely guarded state secrets–and the Saudis have recently announced that they are no longer looking for new oil fields “so part of this wealth is left for our sons and successors God willing,” as King Abdullah put it.  A wise monarch, at least on this issue.

About a quarter of our civilization’s energy comes from burning coal.  Its high environmental price, both at the mine and out the smokestack, goes without saying; but Heinberg predicts that we are at the point of peak coal as well as peak oil, and that in another three decades much of the coal that remains in the ground will take more energy to extract than it will provide.

Natural gas provides another quarter of what keeps our lights on, and it, too, is pushing its limits.  The recent invention of “fracking” technology, which injects chemicals into deep formations to loosen up gas deposits, is creating an epic ecological conflict:  is it more important for companies to get rich harvesting natural gas in the eastern US, or is it more important for New York City to continue to have potable water?  While natural gas once blew freely out of the ground along with oil, giving it a very favorable EROEI, the new, high-tech extraction methods have made natural gas much more expensive to extract, and Heinberg pins the EROEI of fracted natural gas as equal to or less than 10:1, which he estimates is also the threshold below which energy extraction is not worthwhile.

Hydropower, aka “dams,” provides about a fifth of the world’s electricity.  There are actually quite a few rivers in the world that could still be harnessed, but the environmental price tag of doing this would be quite high, in terms of carbon release and ecosystem disruption for humans and other animals.  Dams also depend on a steady supply of flowing water, which, in a time of erratic climate change, could be problematic, and dams do fill up with silt after a while, a problem the US is encountering with Hoover and Glenn Canyon dams on the Colorado River.  When, not if, these dams become full of silt and empty of water, it will be “game over” for much of the southwestern US.  Sooner or later, China’s massive dam projects will meet the same fate.  Increased hydropower is not a long-term solution to our demand for electricity.

Heinberg next analyzes nuclear power, which accounts for a mere 6% of world electrical production.  If we attempted to achieve Senator Alexander’s fantasy of replacing coal and oil with nuclear power, we would need to build nearly ten times as many nuclear power plants as are now in existence–but there’s a supply choke-chain for uranium that, like coal and oil supplies, gets tight about the middle of this century–and that’s without a massive increase in demand for nuclear fuel–production of which, Heinberg is quick to point out, is neither clean nor carbon-neutral.  Nuclear power advocates have been promising for decades that reprocessed nuclear fuel will give nuclear energy long-term viability, but the reality of nuclear fuel “reprocessing” is, Heinberg points out, still experimental at best and highly polluting at worst.  France, which Senator Alexander likes to hold up as a shining example of nuclear power, has a radioactive hot zone around its reprocessing plant that should be enough to give anybody pause.

Heinberg then goes on to give us the mostly bad news about all the “green” and not-so-green energy alternatives.  Wind power is intermittent and land-intensive; photovoltaic power is too high-tech and dependent on rare elements; biofuels have ridiculously low EROEIs and all too often  take food out of people’s mouths, biomass is at or beyond its sustainable supply limits already, passive solar doesn’t really generate energy, it just conserves it.  He has some good things to say about solar mirrors and geothermal energy, but both are dependent on a fossil-fuel economy–which, it appears, is going to be fading away in the coming decades.

So–what is to be done?

On page 58, Heinberg tells us:

…there is no single “silver-bullet” energy source capable of replacing conventional fossil fuels directly….Though several of the sources discussed already serve, or are capable of serving, as secondary energy sources.
This means that as fossil fuels deplete, and as society reduces reliance on them in order to avert catastrophic climate impacts, we will have to use every available alternative energy source strategically. Instead of a silver bullet, we have in our arsenal only BBs, each with a unique profile of strengths and weaknesses that must be taken into account.

And even if we fire all our BB’s, the result will still be, in his words

…the world’s economy is likely to become increasingly energy-constrained as fossil fuels deplete and are phased out for environmental reasons. It is highly unlikely that the entire world will ever reach an American or even a European level of energy consumption,and even the maintenance of current energy consumption levels will require massive investment.

That “massive investment,” as he sees it, is quite unlikely.  Why?  He doesn’t say it, but I will: there is too much inertia in the status quo.  The world’s wealthiest people believe that there is not enough to go around, and they have determined that they will do whatever it takes to hang on to what they have, and to hell with the rest of us.  If the planet would be better off with fewer humans, let social Darwinism determine who survives–but candy-coat it, spin it carefully, find charismatic spokespeople like Barack Obama who project caring and compassion and hope for the future; but, behind the friendly facade, circle the wagons and load the machine guns.  If the US did not have such a massive military establishment, we would have enough money to fund energy transition, social programs, and health care, and still cut the budget.  Why don’t we?  Because of who the army answers to, and why those people want to make sure they maintain control…but, as I do so often, I have digressed…back to the book review!

As I said, the final quarter of the book is devoted to energy conservation.  Early in it, Heinberg lays out the results of continuing down the path we are on:

How far will supplies fall, and how fast? Taking into account depletion-led declines in oil and natural gas production, a leveling off of energy from coal, and the recent shrinkage of investment in the energy sector, it may be reasonable to expect a reduction in global energy availability of 20 percent or more during the next quarter century. Factoring in expected population growth, this implies substantial per-capita reductions in available energy.  These declines are unlikely to be evenly distributed among nations, with oil and gas importers being hardest hit, and with the poorest countries seeing energy consumption returning to pre-industrial levels (with energy coming almost entirely from food crops and forests and work being done almost entirely by muscle power).

Thus, the question the world faces is no longer whether to reduce energy consumption, but how.  Policy makers could choose to manage energy unintelligently (maintaining fossil fuel dependency as long as possible while making poor choices of alternatives, such as biofuels or tar sands, and insufficient investments in the far more promising options such as wind and solar). In the latter case, results will be catastrophic. Transport systems will wither (especially ones relying on the most energy-intensive vehicles—such as airplanes, automobiles, and trucks). Global trade will contract dramatically, as shipping becomes more costly. And energy-dependent food systems will falter, as chemical input and transport costs soar. All of this could in turn lead to very high long-term unemployment and perhaps even famine.

Yes, folks, we are staring down the road to Hell, and yes, it is paved with good intentions.

The other road, the one we have not yet taken, involves rethinking, restructuring, and restraint.  For an example of “rethinking,” one of the most important points Heinberg makes is that we need to quit thinking of “growth” as a measure of the health of an economy.

There are a lot of “re-words” in Heinberg’s list of, uh, re-medies:  research, retrofit, reduction, re-localization, re-ruralization, re-direction, and return–as in,

The return of control of the bulk of the world’s remaining natural resources from corporations and financial institutions in the industrialized countries to the people of the less industrialized nations where those resources are located.

For me, this simple statement has incredible ramifications.  For one thing, I think the corporate pirates and their puppets in government are highly unlikely to let go of their ill-gotten gains.  On the other hand, this is what many corporate mouthpieces are talking about when they say of people who are not co-operating with their agenda, “They hate us for our freedom.”  They hate us for our freedom to go into their back yard and take their stuff–and well they should.

Heinberg also points out that this greed is unnecessary, citing studies that relate human satisfaction to energy access:

The data appear to show that well-being requires at least 50 to 70 Giga Joules (of energy) per capita per year. As consumption above that level slightly expands, a sense of well being also expands, but only up to about 100 GJ per capita… above and beyond that level of consumption, there is no increase in a sense of well being. In fact the more consumptive and wealthy we become, the less content and satisfied we apparently are….. North America’s energy consumption is currently about 325 GJ per annum.

And there you have it….we are using three or four times more energy than we would really be happy with….a kind of “energy obesity.”  I submit that the extreme reactivity of all those, Tea-Partiers and “liberals” alike,  who subscribe to the doctrine that ‘the American way of life is not negotiable”  is rooted in denial and a guilty conscience.

Will enough Americans (especially our corporate overlords) break through the cycle of anger and denial, let go, and allow a sane future to evolve?  Or will we burn up the last petroleum in a battle over the last clean water, and pollute it in the process?  It’s an exciting time to be alive, folks.

music:  Eliza Gilkyson, “Unsustainable





UH-OH

7 05 2010

Back in the early eighties, as we were first becoming aware that an ecological meltdown was at least as likely as a nuclear showdown, a friend of mine used to say,”I think there could come a time when we look back and realize that we have just driven one of the other species necessary for our survival into extinction.”  We didn’t use the phrase “tipping point” back in those days, but that’s 21st century shorthand for what he was talking about.

Last month’s oil rig blowout in the Gulf of Mexico has the potential to be a lethal tipping point, but even if we dodge this bullet, the message from the mess in the Gulf is that we cannot blithely proceed in the same profligate manner to which we have become accustomed over the last hundred years or so.  There are limits to growth, and we have exceeded them, and we are now going to pay the price.

So, what is our quest for deep oil in the Gulf of Mexico gonna cost us?

OK, worst first:  containment efforts fail, and the whole oil pocket blows out into the Gulf.  Nature tells us, “You want oil?  Here’s some oil!”  Millions of gallons wash ashore along the Gulf coast, devastating coastal marshes–not just the plants, but all the birds, mammals, and fish that live in them.  Denuded of vegetation, the bare sand erodes away, pushed by a category 5 hurricane that comes roaring into the Gulf and makes Katrina look like a spring shower.  We lose a big chunk of Louisiana, including New Orleans, most of the migratory bird population of the central US, and the entire Gulf Coast fishery.  Meanwhile, the oil gets sucked around Florida and into the Gulf Stream, blackening beaches in western Florida, the Keys, and Cuba as it travels.  Storms push it ashore all along the Atlantic coast, polluting Florida’s east coast, decimating the ecosystems of the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina, the   North Carolina barrier islands…you get the picture.  Gulf coast oil ends up on the shores of Ireland, leaving a floating charnel ground of dead sea life behind in its wake, from whales to the phytoplankton that are a major source of the oxygen we breathe.

That’s the worst case scenario.  The best case scenario is that the leak is plugged in the next week or so.  The oil that has already leaked will still take the same trajectory I outlined above, but the damage will not be quite so great.

And what is the lesson here, whether we’ve just taken enough poison to kill ourselves, or only enough to make us good and sick?

The lesson is that we have passed the point of peak oil supply and it is time to power down.  Exerting military force will not increase our oil supply, just burn more of it faster.

Current emphasis on offshore drilling sends the message loud and clear:  the easy oil is all gone.

There is a ratio called “Energy Returned On Energy Invested.”  Saudi Arabian oil, for example, has a ratio of nearly 100:1; that is, you get one hundred units of energy back for every  one you invest.  Projects like corn ethanol and Canadian tar sands, on the other hand, have a nearly even EROEI ratio, because it takes so much energy to transform them into something usable.

Nuclear power advocates used to boast (and still attempt to boast) about the high EROEI ratio of nuclear power, until Three Mile Island and Chernobyl suddenly added a lot of cleanup cost to the “investment” side of the ratio.  Of course, they never included the cost of keeping radioactive waste safe for hundreds of thousands of years, which has always made nuclear power a play now, pay and pay and  pay  and pay some more later proposition at best.

Similarly, we have just been given notice that many of the remaining oil pockets on the planet are difficult and dangerous enough to extract that it may simply not be worth our time and investment to go after them.  To drill into them anyway, without regard to the danger, is like an alcoholic drinking rubbing alcohol because it’s the only alcohol he can find. Damn the consequences, gimme my fix NOW.

In the face of this clear and present danger, the Obama administration has decided to suspend granting new offshore drilling permits for three weeks.  Three weeks.  “Hey, I didn’t grab for the bottle for five minutes..see, I got self-control!  I’m not an alcoholic!”

Can you say “denial, ” boys and girls?  How about “suicidal society”?

All this so we can drive our cars,heat and cool our homes, bring tasty foods from afar, and…maintain our empire.

All this  so I can sit here at my plastic computer keyboard and burn electricity communicating with you out there about how dangerous it is to use the amount of energy I am using to tell you  how dangerous it is to use the amount of energy I use, in spite of my best efforts to limit the degree to which I personally am poisoning the planet.

It’s a dilemma. I’m living about as simply as I can imagine, but when I take a “measure your carbon footprint” test, it tells me I’m still using about twice my fair share of the resources. When I examine why that is the case, I find I am bumping up against societal constraints rather than personal lifestyle choices.  Other than grow more of what I eat, there really isn’t much more I can do to further reduce my “footprint.”

I have to wonder about all the petroleum it takes to maintain the empire.  Aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, attack helicopters, tanks that use gallons of fuel per mile of travel, all that military hardware. Stretch limos and mansions and corporate headquarters. Why should I make my life any more Spartan as long as the government of my country is burning fuel like there’s no tomorrow?

Hmm….maybe they know something.

Or maybe they’re just running on ignorance and bad habits.

I feel like saying, “As long as the American Empire is using so much more than its fair share of the resources, why should a relative ascetic like me stint any more than I naturally can?”  Really, I’m not resting on my laurels  I am working towards having a lighter footprint, and sooner or later I will, but let’s face it–we can walk, bike, grow our own food, minimize our electrical use all we want, and that will not influence the energy hogs, military and otherwise, in our midst.  In fact it will please them, because we will just leave more for them to consume–and consume, they will.

On the other hand, my “I won’t cut back ’cause they won’t” stance starts to sound like a personal echo of the undeveloped world’s response to global warming:  “Why should we who are poor deprive ourselves when it is you who are rich who have created the problem?”  Well, maybe they do have a point there….

It’s not a question for which I have an answer.  Meanwhile, oil is still leaking into the Gulf, mountains are being removed in Appalachia, coal is burning all over the planet, and that volcano in Iceland has just gone off some more.  Volcanoes are out of our control, but the rest of it, at least theoretically, isn’t.  We’re in the garage with the door closed and the engine running.  Can we get it together to turn off the ignition?

music:  Eliza Gilkyson, “Runaway Train








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