TRUTH IN STRANGE PLACES–LAMAR ALEXANDER

11 07 2010

This month’s “Truth in Strange Places” award goes to Tennessee’s  own Lamar Alexander, for saying, in a speech on the Senate floor:

“We use 25 percent of all the energy in the world to produce about 25 percent of all the money in the world—five percent of the people in the world. In order to keep our high standard of living we need to remember we’re not a desert island. Solar, wind and biomass are an important supplement, but America’s 21st Century reliable, low-cost energy needs are not going to be met by electricity produced by a windmill, a controlled bonfire and a few solar panels.”

What makes the placement of this truth strange is the overall context, and the presumptions that surround it.  Senator Alexander apparently thinks that America can keep relying on petroleum and coal, build more nuclear power plants, and thus maintain our current lifestyle.

Senator Alexander’s remarks contain numerous fallacies about our energy supply and its future.

First, he assumes we can keep on relying on petroleum, when the truth is that we on the brink of seeing our petroleum supply diminish rapidly.  One of the rarely mentioned significances of deep water oil drilling is that we are only doing it because all the easy oil is gone.  We are at the point of peak oil.  Demand, especially from India and China, is increasing, while the rate of new oil discoveries has fallen dramatically and the amount of oil produced annually has plateaued.  .  Senator Alexander refuses to face the fact that we are running out of oil.

Second, he assumes that we can go on mining coal indefinitely.  This is not the case; carbon issues aside, some students of our energy future think we may hit “peak coal” in just another fifteen years or so. Let’s face it: mountaintop removal is to coal what deep water drilling is to oil–scraping the bottom of the jar for the last scraps of its contents.  Large-scale coal mining is also heavily dependent on petroleum for lubricants and transportation, and will become more expensive as the price of oil continues to increase.  Sen. Alexander further assumes that the sacrifice of much of West Virginia and Kentucky, and parts of Tennessee, is an acceptable price to pay for that coal.  Many of the area’s residents would disagree with him.  The fact that coal companies do not have to pay out of pocket for the destruction of the Appalachian ecosystem does not make it any less expensive.  It just means that somebody besides the coal companies is having to pay the cost.

Senator Alexander ignores the climate change aspect of coal and oil extraction, as well, and falsely claims that nuclear power is a low-carbon option.  The increasing carbonation of our atmosphere and oceans has spun the planet’s climate out of equilibrium and in a much, much warmer direction.  By cutting back our carbon emissions, we can at least soften the blow that is falling on us, but Senator Alexander recklessly disregards these realities in his demand for comfort now.  Where is his respect for the rights of the unborn on this issue?

“The rights of the unborn”—yes, I find it extremely ironic that many of those who campaign against abortion on this slogan seem to have no compunction about living a high-consumption lifestyle that will leave little in the way of natural resources for those who are not yet born….but I digress…

Nuclear power, too, faces looming limits on the availability of its primary fuel, uranium, and has the further disadvantage of creating radioactive wastes that remain lethal for a quarter of a million years, at least.  Not surprisingly, we have yet to come up with a technology or even a location for safe containment and storage of these poisons.  A quarter of a million years ago, our ancestors were not yet homo sapiens.   That’s how long we’re talking about here.  And, while Senator Alexander rails against subsidies for wind power, he conveniently ignores the massive subsidies that have made nuclear power appear to be a viable option for producing electricity.When the subsidies are factored in, nuclear energy is one of the most expensive ways to produce electricity.  A program that improved the efficiency of insulation, lighting, heating and cooling, and other common uses of electricity could eliminate the need for nearly 400 power plants in this country  We don’t need more, thank you.  The Europeans are doing quite nicely on about half of US per capita energy consumption.

And then there’s the question of how we are supposed to pay for more energy production, or even continue to pay for what we are currently using.  Sure, we have been “five percent of the people with twenty-five percent of the money,” but those days are just about over.  The American middle class is tapped out–in addition to everybody’s personal debts, we middle-class taxpayers are footing the bills for the bank bailout and our country’s military adventures in the Middle East, and just printing up more dollar bills will only go so far.

Can you say bankruptcy, boys and girls?

And the sad thing about all Senator Alexander’s errors of fact and perception is that they are not just one man’s opinion.  They are presumably shared by the million and a half Tennesseans who elected him, as well as millions of Americans around the country, many of whom are not even Republicans.  After all, Obama’s energy guy, Steven Chu, is calling for an expanded nuclear program in this country.  “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” eh?

The one thing that Senator Alexander did get right is that renewable energy sources cannot maintain the energy supply to which we have become accustomed.  The American lifestyle–indeed, the lifestyle of any even moderately wealthy person anywhere on the planet–is possible only because we have burned the greater part of the planet’s accessible supplies of coal and oil in the last two hundred years, leaving only scraps for our descendants.  There is no way we can keep living as we have been.  We are going to need to orchestrate a sensible and orderly return to a simpler lifestyle, or face the chaotic consequences of ignoring that reality.  It’s not what most people in America want to hear, but that’s the way it is.  The party’s over, Lamar.

music:  Eliza Gilkyson, “The Party’s Over






“CLEAN COAL” AND “CHEAP, SAFE NUCLEAR POWER”:TAKE THESE FAIRY TALES AND KISS ‘EM GOODBYE

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”





OBAMA: BILL CLINTON IN BLACKFACE

15 01 2009

I could be wrong.  In fact, for all our sakes, I really, really hope I’m wrong.  But it’s looking more and more like I’m going to be able to say, to all the social activists who shafted the Green Party again and worked and voted for Barack Obama, “Dumb-ass suckers!  Nyah, nyah, ya stupid sumbitches, I told you he was just ‘Colin Powell with charisma’.  You could have mobilized behind Cynthia McKinney, who is really black.  Or you could have gotten behind Ralph Nader, who may not have Hussein for a middle name or Barack for a first name but is just one generation out of freaking Lebanon, for Chrissakes, but NO! You fell for a high yaller fellow who sounded so sincere, then turned out to be the DLC’s housebleep!”  (That’s the “n word” that got bleeped, just in case you were wondering.)

And yes, I know how sincere, how real he can sound.  When I first saw him on TV, watching with my mother, a deeply devoted Democrat who did not live quite long enough to see the neocons get thoroughly trounced in last Fall’s election, we both commented on how he did not sound like a politician.  He didn’t, you might say, bloviate like most Senators and governors and other members of the blowdried set.

But it’s starting to look like it was all a front.  This is not a new regime, this is Clinton III.  The neocons have been replaced by the neoliberals,  and Neo is just a character in a movie.  There is no savior in sight.  Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

In October, In These Times Magazine, a supposedly radical publication that had shilled ceaselessly for Barack, published a breathless list of all the really cool people they hoped he would appoint.  Not one of them made the grade.

And what do we get from “Obama’s dream team”?  While Jim Hanson warns that coal is killing the planet and anybody who can add can see hat nuclear power makes no sense, energy secretary Steven Chu insists that “coal and nuclear energy are critical parts of the nation’s energy mix” and that he will pursue clean coal, safe nuclear, and, I suppose, perpetual motion machines.  Hey, they’re all equally likely, it’s just that perpetual motion doesn’t have a multi-billion dollar industrial base lobbying for it in Congress.

As I was writing this, I heard the news that Tom Vilsack’s nomination as Secretary of Agriculture “sailed through the Senate with bipartisan support,”  if I remember NPR correctly.  Vilsack, while he says he supports organic agriculture, is better known as a strong backer of genetically modified crops, concentrated animal feeding operations, and using corn and soybeans to make fuel, which as everybody knows by now is even more wasteful than feeding them to animals.  He also pushed through a bill in Iowa that made it illegal for local communities to ban GMO crops, which threaten the possibility of organic agriculture due to pollen’s pesky tendency to spread on the wind.

At Health and Human Services, Obama tried to appoint Tom Daschle, who  proposed to “reform” health care by creating a Federal Reserve-type agency to oversee our current private health care system.  Hey, the Federal Reserve has done a swell job, hasn’t it?   Take that, all you folks who thought you’d get a single-payer system out of Obama!  And just because Daschle got shot down, don’t bet that his replacement will be any more radical.  The fact that Daschle was in bed with the insurance industry seemed to be secondary to his unpaid taxes…I’m no defender of the Democrats, but why is it that Repugs can get away with just about anything, but Democrats have to be paragons of virtue?  Can you say, “Double standard,” boys and girls?

Oh, this just in!  Obama is considering Phil Bredesen for the post!  The guy is a known health care vampire–he got rich off of other’s suffering, he “fixed” health care in Tennessee by denying it to tens of thousands of people, and he let quadraplegic Paul House languish in jail for years for a murder he didn’t commit.  Heckuva job, Obrownie!

Furthermore, Obama has nominated Sanjay Gupta for US Surgeon General.  Gupta is well known as a medical commentator on CNN, and also well known in some circles as the guy who lied in order to appear to successfully rebut some of the points Michael Moore made in Sicko.  Hey Mike, what a great payoff for all the work you did for Obama, huh?  Do you like to bend over and spread?  Too bad, ’cause that’s what Obama just told you to do!

And, while Gupta has expressed limited support for medical marijuana and therapeutic uses of MDMA, he has also said

I suspect that most of the people eager to vote yes on the new ballot measures aren’t suffering from glaucoma, Alzheimer’s or chemo-induced nausea. Many of them just want to get stoned legally. That’s why I, like many other doctors, am unimpressed with the proposed legislation, which would legalize marijuana irrespective of any medical condition.

“Why do I care? As Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, puts it, “Numerous deleterious health consequences are associated with [marijuana’s] short- and long-term use, including the possibility of becoming addicted.”

So take that, all you hope fiends who made “ending the drug war” the most popular idea on Obama’s transition website.  Thanks for your votes, now get lost.

There’s a lot I haven’t talked about here–the financial sector being the most glaring omission, but that’s been well covered elsewhere and I think I’ve shown enough of the pattern so that it’s obvious that what we are looking at here, overall, is not a wonderful popular revolution.  We have exchanged 1984 for Brave New World, that’s all.    A “kinder, gentler” fascism.

Yes, we are still in the throes of a fascist takeover in this country.  The collapse is still happening, and the government will still be primarily concerned with blunting its impact, not on the people, but on the corporations that form the core of its support.  To this end, we will likely see increasing regulation and corporatization of the economy, and increasing attempts to bring the informal economy–local craft workers and repair people,  farmers’ markets and small farms, yard sales, Craig’s list, etc.–to heel.   I think this will be balanced out by the increasing disorganization of American society and the decreasing ability of the government–at any level–to enforce its will.

And maybe I’m wrong.  I hope I’m wrong.  It would be great if Obama is telling all the Washington insiders he has enlisted, “OK, suckas, you got us into this mess, now all you smart-asses figure out how to get us out of it, or heads are gonna roll!”  But somehow, I doubt that this is the case.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss….

Music:  The Who, “Don’t Get Fooled Again








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