Sunday, June 27, 2021

From "Me" To "We"

                                                                                                            written 20 June 2021

                                                                                                        published 27 June 2021


            The balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of society is a central thread of history.  Prioritizing only the individual produces anarchy, chaos, despotism, slavery, warlords, robber barons, radical wealth inequity, fascism, autocracies, and destruction of natural systems, as the most powerful few strive to survive at the expense of all else.  Native cultures generally had a better appreciation of the balance, perhaps because tribes were smaller, more obviously biologically related, and their fate was more clearly tied to the fate of the plants and animals they depended upon.  

            As populations increased and civilizations grew larger, structures were created to ensure a more equitable balance between humans, using religion, laws, or customs, such as the Golden Rule, the Magna Carta in England, or democracy.  But society became progressively more disconnected from the natural world.  Our species is being challenged to rebalance the needs of the individual with both the needs of society and the natural world that supports us.

            The western US is now in drought.  Soil moisture records generated from tree ring data goes back 1200 years. The lowest recorded soil moisture occurred in the late 1500's, with a drought that lasted three decades.  The soil moisture level in 2020 was almost as bad, and the fire season in California was the most destructive on record.  Soil moisture this year looks to be worse.  The research team presenting this data calculated that almost half of the current moisture decline is the result of human induced climate change.  

            North of us, the upper Klamath flow is so low that most juvenile fish are dead, and the rest are diseased due to warmer water temperatures.  A recent report in the Ukiah Daily Journal described plummeting coastal abalone populations, mentioning the nuclear waste water from Fukushima, however, a more probable cause is rising ocean temperatures.

            But our society acts like everything is normal, and continues replicating past patterns.  

            A developer in Ukiah is proposing a housing project in the western hills, even as this type of wildland urban interface development becomes a more questionable fire risk, and the national fire insurance industry is reconsidering coverage of such construction.  Mendocino County plans to open more land to commercial cannabis cultivation to increase the tax base, despite concerns about increased water usage during a drought of historic proportion.  Jackson State Demonstration Forest recently revived timber harvesting, following traditional county economics instead of promoting ecotourism.  The large trees being cut are the most effective at sequestering carbon and tourism employs 30 times more county citizens than the timber industry. 

            Elsewhere in the west, fire fighters currently battling blazes in central Arizona can't draw water from the closest reservoir as it is almost empty.  Even Lake Mead is at the lowest level since it was created by the Hoover Dam, putting many cities and agricultural regions at risk.  But rather than addressing the drought and climate change, Arizona Republicans are spending all their energy recounting the 2020 ballots from predominately Democratic Phoenix, looking for proof that southeast Asians hacked the vote.  Ironically, Phoenix has a different water source, so it is the predominately Republican rural portions of Arizona that face impending water shortage from Lake Mead.

            In February 2020, a week of freeze in Texas caused widespread power blackouts, deaths, destruction, and massive electric bills for those that still had power.  The fundamental cause was their free-market power system, which allowed utilities to save money by not investing in winterizing their electrical system.  This week the same deregulated system allowed utilities to shut down production during the current heat wave, again generating massive electric bills for their underserved customers and huge profits for the utilities.

            The determined vaccination effort in the US has resulted in diminished COVID cases and deaths.  However, last week still saw 86K new cases, almost exclusively among the unvaccinated, of which 2,150 died and about 17K will experience "long COVID".  As further self-destructive lunacy, a Georgia man shot and killed a clerk for asking him to wear a mask in a store.

            COVID showed us the need to adjust our individual actions for the good of society, just as the drought is showing we need to adjust our economy for the good of the planet.  Reality is unity, our fates are conjoined, WE, not just ME.







Sunday, June 20, 2021

The Expense Of Externalized Costs

                                                                                                            written 13 June 2021

                                                                                                        published 20 June 2021


            A fundamental assumption in economic theory is that price includes all costs of production.  In reality, there are always unincluded "externalized costs".  These may be considered too minimal or too difficult to calculate, or fraudulently hidden for competitive advantage.  These costs are always paid, just not by the person profiting from the sale of the product.

            A good example of an externalized cost is our global plastic problem.  Every manufacturer saves money with the convenience of cheap, versatile, durable, light weight disposable packaging.  Most winds up in our landscape, air, water, and food, causing blight, wide spread health problems, and death throughout the biosphere.  The enormous cleanup costs are difficult to calculate, so they are "externalized", never affecting the price of the individual products, which continue to seem affordable.  This not only distorts the fundamental function of pricing, prohibiting consumer comparison, but threatens the viability of our entire society as it kills the biosphere upon which we all depend.

            Another significant externalized cost is atmospheric CO2 impact.  Gas bubbles in ice core data show a gradual rise in concentration of atmospheric CO2 from 180ppm (parts per million) at the depth of the last ice age to 280ppm in 1800 (50% increase over 20,000 years).  When precision measurements began in 1956, the concentration was 316ppm (12% increase over 150 years).  Last month it hit 420ppm (33% increase over 65 years).  This human produced increase is so rapid, compared to geologic and biological time frames, the full impact has yet to be manifested.

            Like ubiquitous plastic trash, increasing CO2 concentrations are already costing society.  A warming planet is experiencing wilder weather extremes: rapid shifts, hotter temperatures, colder freezes, longer droughts, heavier rainfalls, and stronger wind storms.  One measure is the increasing cost of natural disasters.  In the last 40 years, expensive weather events (costing over $1B) have increased 60% every decade, from $3B in 1980 to $450B in 2020 (in constant dollars).  This is definitely an underestimate.  While it is difficult to pin any one weather event on climate change, we can assume at least 50% of the increased costs are climate related, for an annual cost of $200B.  These costs are paid entirely by people who are not profiting from selling fossil fuels.  The total US fossil fuel bill is about $1T per year, so the above assumption means fossil fuels cost at least 20% more than what we pay as consumers. 

             As these weather disasters increase in size and frequency, damage will eventually exceed the rate of rebuilding, and whole systems will collapse.  We are beginning to see climate refugees from some parts of the world, including Central America, where immigration is partially driven by agricultural infrastructure destruction from successive storms.  Putting a price on this kind of destruction going forward in very difficult.  

            The value of the American physical infrastructure is about $1,000T, and the odds of environmental collapse of this system due to climate change have been estimated at 1 in 20 within 30 years and 1 in 4 within 50 years.  One way to guesstimate the annual risk is to divide the value at risk by the odds and the time interval.  For the 30-year risk, that give $1,000T/(20x30), or $1.6T.  For the 50-year risk we get $5T.  These are the respective annual externalized costs of toasting off the planet by ignoring the climate emergency.

            When we add the costs of current climate damages and the risk of total economic collapse, we see that the real cost of fossil fuel energy is 3 to 6 times what we are currently paying.  We think we are getting a "good deal" because most of the expenses are not included in the price, but inevitably show up later.

            The point of this thought exercise is to contrast the real costs of shifting to renewable power against the true cost of our current energy system.  Gasoline now sells for about $4/gallon, but really costs $12-$24/gallon.  That makes the cost of an electric car seem more reasonable.  In Ukiah, retail power costs about $0.16/kwhr, 30% of which is carbon based.  Using the above real costs for that 30% would give a retail rate of $0.30-$0.40/kwhr.  Compared to that, solar with storage is a bargain, and we get to leave a habitable planet to our grandchildren.  Such a deal.







Sunday, June 13, 2021

A Real Pro-Life Agenda

                                                                                                              written 6 June 2021

                                                                                                        published 13 June 2021


            I am pro-life!  

            Life is defined as the ability to grow and respond to change.  Higher forms of life have a finite lifespan, the interval between birth and death, so death is linked with life.  As a human, other lifeforms must die for me to live, so before eating I give thanks to those who gave their lives that I might be nourished.  This reminds me of my relationship to these other beings, with gratitude and respect. 

            I am grateful to be alive, and appreciate the radical diversity of life on Earth.  I believe that all life arises from the same source of energy and consciousness, and that working to benefit others is the same as working to benefit myself: the core of the Golden Rule.  Because I am pro-life, I want a society that nourishes life, prioritizing a healthy environment over economic excess.  Because I am pro-life, I want a society that nourishes all people, providing universal health care, good education, equal justice under the law, and a robust economic social net.  

            However, human population has exploded, more than tripling in my lifetime.  Overpopulation is driving thousands of species to extinction while billions of people live in desperate poverty.  The life-support systems of our planet are being stressed to the breaking point.  

            Even though total population is still increasing, human birth rates are beginning to decline, partially due to decreasing viability of human sperm as a consequence of our poisoned environment.  Citing planetary concerns and the high cost of raising children, women are choosing to delay starting a family and having fewer children overall, through contraception or abortion.  Thus, each child born can receive greater love, attention, and resources.  

            This feminine empowerment and recognition of our planetary impact is under assault.  In America, some Christians, under a so called "Pro-Life" banner professing concern for the "rights of the unborn" have worked for decades to preclude the legal options for choice with regard to birth, completely ignoring the impact on the resulting child, its family, or the planet.

            To actually honor the unborn, society could give tangible support to every pregnant woman: paid maternity leave, free prenatal care and good nutrition.  If we honor the unborn, why stop at birth?  A real pro-life agenda would include affordable quality child care, ongoing health care and nutrition.  

            What about a woman who decides, for her own reasons, that she doesn't want to raise another child?  If "Pro-Life" advocates were sincere, in addition to normal support for a mother, they would pay the woman as a surrogate and take the child at birth to be adopted by people who are opposed to abortion.

            Wide spread access to affordable contraceptives reduces both unwanted children and abortions.  As Bill Clinton once said, "abortion should be safe, affordable, and rare". But "Pro-Life" advocates also oppose contraception, claiming a person begins at conception, not at birth.  While it is true that growth begins with conception, for about six months the fetus is not autonomous, but dependent and biologically integral with the mother, who is already a person.  Society demands a mother take responsibility for the child, but the "Pro-Life" agenda eliminates her power to determine when to have a child, putting the "rights of the unborn" above the rights of the mother.

            As a religious principle, the "Pro-Life" claim they don't want to pay for abortions, or contribute to a government that does.  This is a fair complaint.  Abortion services could be paid totally by private donations, or with an "opt in" check box on federal income tax returns, like campaign finance support.  It is striking that this same religious impulse is not applied to governmental support for war and weapons of mass destruction.  What is not fair is that this moral stance be forced on people who do not agree with them, causing untold suffering.  

            Of course, none of the pro-life programs suggested above are supported by abortion foes, because they aren't really pro-life, but only "forced birthers" with no real concerns for quality of life of the resulting child.  Despite the lofty rhetoric, by denying both abortion and contraception, their agenda is just a deeply misogynistic, punitive morality.  A majority of Americans are opposed to such narrow-minded thinking.  Unfortunately, Republican packing of the Supreme Court may preclude the will of the people.









Sunday, June 6, 2021

Houston, We Have A Problem

                                                                                                          written 30 May 2021

                                                                                                        published 6 June 2021



            On April 11, 1970, Apollo 11 was launched, the third mission expected to land men on the moon.  Two days later, a previously damaged oxygen tank in the service module exploded, forcing a significant change of plans.  With no oxygen for life support in the service module, the three-man crew was forced to live in the lunar module for the four days it would take to return to Earth.  But the lunar module had been designed to support only two men for two days on the surface of the moon.  The most critical need was to scrub CO2 out of the air.  The challenge was to improvise a functional solution from parts on board, before the astronauts passed out and died.  It is a testament to ingenuity under pressure that all three men survived to tell the tale.

            As a species, we are facing a similar emergency: climate change.  After centuries of living off the abundant energy of fossil fuels, we are coming to the end of our finite resources.  In addition, we have a CO2 problem.  Unlike the Apollo crew, we won't choke of it, but the warming effect is cooking us.  On our current trajectory, we will hit a 1.5°C increase within a few years, and the odds of reaching a lethal 5°C increase get very high within a few more decades.  To give our grandchildren a chance to survive, we must immediately begin constructing a solution with our existing technology. 

            In the Apollo emergency, everyone agreed the problem was serious and a solution was imperative.  That consensus meant the entire creative energy at NASA could focus on the task at hand.  Our situation with the climate emergency is radically different.  For economic and political reasons, a sizable portion of our species denies there is even a problem, let alone one demanding immediate action.  The fact that this is playing out over decades, and not hours, contributes to this complacency.  But the magnitude of effort required to make such a fundamental global change means taking action sooner rather than later.  By the time the problem is abundantly obvious, it will be too late to do anything meaningful, like realizing you need fire insurance as a firestorm sweeps toward your house. 

            Even though we have wasted decades, the good news is that awareness of the climate emergency has increased in the last few years.  The negative climate impacts are becoming apparent, with increasingly severe wildfires, droughts, floods and storms, building to a tipping point in both political and economic will.  Exxon Mobil, after funding climate denial for decades, just had a significant change toward climate awareness in their board of directors.  Last week Denmark required Shell to reduce emissions by 45% within 9 years.  Even Republicans, currently obsessing over hysterical conspiracy theories, are noticing that their younger members are concerned about climate. 

            It must be acknowledged that there is no guarantee that humans can turn this around, and many serious investigators think it is already too late.  The inertia of the climate system is huge, and there are natural climate tipping points that could radically accelerate the rate of warming.  But if we value life at all, the attempt is worth it.  We have no idea of what is possible until we try.

            Life has survived such a situation in the past.  The first single celled organisms flourished on the abundant chemical energies of the new planet, just as humans have with stored fossil fuels.  But eventually, these were exhausted, threatening extinction.  Life's solution was photosynthesis, harnessing the ongoing energy of the sun. 

            Or consider the situation of a chick in its egg, which initially grows as an isolated individual, using the stored energy in the yolk.  At exactly the point where it exhausts that stored energy, it hatches out into a larger world, learning to live in cooperation with the rest of life.

            We're on the verge of doing the same thing, for the same reasons.  Our economic and energy systems will have to evolve, transcending the illusions of human supremacy and the fiscal fiction of externalized costs, shifting from opportunistic energy parasites to living within our energy income.  While human creativity is boundless, it's not yet clear if humans are wise enough to emulate the wisdom of bacteria and chickens.  The jury is still out.