Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Inertia Of Bad Economics

                                                                                                            written 21 Sep 2021

                                                                                                        published 26 Sep 2021


            We recently learned of a plan to reopen the rail line north from Willits in order to ship coal to Asia out of Eureka.  This is an example of the financial inertia of a collapsing business model.

            Coal is the most abundant of the fossil fuels, but the most limited, only good for external combustion industries like electric power production and steel.  Burning coal produces more climate changing carbon per unit energy, spreads toxic mercury and sulfur downwind, and leaves hazardous coal ash.  Renewable energy and natural gas are cheaper alternatives, so coal is an economic loser, and can't compete in the market place in countries that care about their environment and public health.  Consequently, coal plants are closing down in the US, and consumption is even falling globally. 

            But the corporations that own coal deposits are unwilling to accept the environmental and economic bankruptcy of their investments.  With diminishing domestic consumption, coal has to be exported to countries that are still in denial about killing their people and our planet, primarily in Asia.  However, less than 10 percent of coal is shipped from western North American ports and those communities vigorously oppose allowing new or expanded export of coal through them, not only for global environmental concerns, but because the shipping process itself is dirty and toxic to the local area.  It is understandable that coal exporters want to open Eureka as another outlet, but reality may precludes their fantasies. 

            Apart from political opposition to such an operation through a very blue part of California, there are physical and economic barriers.  The harbor in Eureka is about 40' deep where it is dredged, and the turning basin can only handle ships less than 400' in length.  Coal is only economically shipped in vessels which are 900' long and draw 75' of water.  The Humboldt Bay Harbor District is committed to a "green harbor", and wants nothing to do with exporting coal.  The corporation that plans to open the railroad to Eureka claims to have $1.5B in funding, but estimates to rebuild the line north of Willits are more than $3B.  Such a construction project would take years, and the economics of coal export could be quite different before completion.  To even get a train to Willits, it would have to travel across tracks owned by Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART), which has invested millions upgrading their infrastructure for high-speed rapid transit trains.  Operating long slow unit trains of coal would quickly destroy that investment, so SMART would be unlikely to agree to such operations.  

            But corporations have a history of ignoring reality.  It is hard to admit that you have bet on a losing proposition, and only a few are shrewd enough to cut their loses early.  We are witnessing a similar issue locally. 

            A Ukiah developer who owns tracts of raw land outside the City limits in the hills west of Ukiah wants to maximize his profits with low density, high value residential development.  This kind of wild-land urban interface development is causing increasing concern in the fire insurance industry.  State fire codes and regulations are in flux as more California communities burn to the ground each year, but at this point the County is not prohibiting such development, and construction is proceeding with boundary line adjustments, avoiding the more rigorous planning scrutiny of a formal subdivision.  

            Rather than risking the threat of an even worse project, the City has considered buying land for open space and approving development of 54 acres as residential, allowing at least 14 high end homes, just outside of the recently constructed shaded fuel break, accessed by a single road.  The City is expected to provide access, power, water, sewage, and fire response.  The concept of the project was approved last week, but the deal has fallen apart over access across a third part land.

            This project is a fiscal gain for the owner, but puts the rest of our community at risk, just as the coal train would benefit a very few at the expense of everyone else.  Because our culture prioritizes individual profit above all else, and refuses to recognize cumulative impact on the interconnected whole, we risk losing it all.  At some point we will evolve our fiscal models or die in bankrupt denial.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Spirituality And Religion

                                                                                                            written 12 Sep 2021

                                                                                                        published 19 Sep 2021



            Spirituality can be understood as an individual's quest for the experience of our divine birthright and religion can be understood as an organization that grows up around a particular spiritual orientation.

            In unity perspective, everything expresses from the same interconnected whole, which is aware, potent, and wise.  The foundation of evil is any denial of this unity.  Once some portion of unity is defined as "other", all forms of violence can enter.  That is why variations of the Golden Rule are so globally universal, directing us to love the other as a way of honoring the divine unity.  

            As humans, our waking awareness of self generates a tendency toward division, which distracts from the experience of our deeper unity.  Yet the yearning is always there, because it is from the unity level that personal meaning and context arise.  The history of human civilization can be viewed as an evolution of spiritual experience.

            Despite whatever limitations our karma, culture, and family overlay on us, we are always expressions of the divine, with constant opportunity to explore that connection.  This is an inherently personal journey.  Since each person is unique, their exploration will be unique as well.  However, we have unity in common, and can benefit by sharing our experiences, helping each other as we struggle.  Everyone has something valid to contribute, despite different levels of experience.  In this way a spiritual community forms for mutual growth.

            Religions arise when the human tendency toward division and structure is overlaid on a spiritual community.  The religious organization can intrude on the personal experience of the divine, inserting interpretation and judgement.  A fundamentally personal experience becomes codified and regulated, with structure imposed "for the spiritual good of the community".  Sharing of spiritual experience becomes a top-down conversation.

            Over time, such organizations can accumulate secular wealth, political power, and social dominance, attracting leaders desiring personal power and wealth out of balance with the rest of the community.  In extreme cases, a religion will sacrifice its members to preserve the business of the religion.  It takes inspired intention to avoid such excesses, but there are successful examples in the larger world, such as the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and Unity Churches.

            The Catholic Church is the oldest religious organization in the western world.  Without casting aspersions on their faithful parishioners, it began as a spiritual community of political outcasts, but became the official religion of the Roman Empire over 1600 years ago.  Despite an Old Testament commandment not to kill, and New Testament direction to love one another, the Church waged Holy war against Islam and the Eastern Orthodox branch, instituted the Inquisition against heretics, directed explorers to "convert or kill" heathens around the world, and began killing other Christians after the Protestant Reformation.  More recently, the Church killed residents at Indian boarding schools, just now coming to light.  

            Whatever the spiritual rational behind these actions, accumulation of wealth, property, and power were a consequence.  The Church exercises political power to this day, currently distorting the US Supreme Court, prioritizing the business of the Church over the spirituality at its core.  The ongoing cover up of the persistent pedophile priest problem prioritizes protection of the corporate brand over practitioner's welfare.  

            But to be fair, the Catholic Church is not the only example of a contrast between a religion and its spiritual roots of unity love.  Protestant intolerance in Europe drove much of the early settlement in the New World.  The Methodist Church is currently breaking apart over gays, and the Baptist Church is coming apart over women.  In New Mexico, evangelicals hold rallies with armed gunmen shouting "death to Democrats".  

            Islam, which also reveres the teachings in the Bible, has been in lethal internal conflict between branches of the Prophet Muhammad's family ever since his death 1400 years ago, creating the Shite/Sunni split.  The Muslim/Hindu conflict tore apart the Indian subcontinent last century, and Buddhist fundamentalists slaughtered Muslim Rohingya people in Myanmar a few years ago.

            A 2020 poll showed less than half of Americans now associate with any organized religion, but a strong majority are spiritual.  Since religions tend to accentuate divisions, and the core of spirituality is unity, I consider this a hopeful trend.  When you look around, all our dysfunctions come from believing the illusion of separation within a profoundly unified reality.


Sunday, September 12, 2021

Smell That Change In The Air

                                                                                                              written 5 Sep 2021

                                                                                                       published 12 Sep 2021


            Uniformitarianism expects tomorrow will be much like yesterday, assuming a linear, slowly changing world, where small movements produce small outcomes.  Because it is easy to understand and makes future planning simple, it is seductive.  However, such planning has little bearing on complex non-linear systems, where small movements can create abrupt outcomes.  Climate is a massive, non-linear, complex system, currently experiencing rapid global changes, demanding more nuanced planning.    

            One example of this is how floods are classified.  Historical and geologic records are used to determine how often an area has been inundated, then flood zones are designated by the probability of repeat flooding.  A 100-year flood zone has a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year, assuming climactic forces are stable over time.

            In 1992, a friend bought a vineyard in Minnesota which had just experienced a 500-year flood.  Over the next 14 years, they had two 100-year floods, and just after she sold it, they had a 1000-year flood.  In 2017, Hurricane Harvey brought a 500-year flood to the Houston area, which had been preceded by 500-year floods on Memorial Day in both 2015 and 2016.  Climate is clearly no longer stable.

            In the 20,000 years between the last ice age and the beginning of fossil fuel usage, atmospheric carbon increased 55 percent.  In the 200 years since then, humanity has added another 50 percent, 13 percent in the last 20 years.  This increase is so rapid that the Earth's temperature has yet to reflect the full extent of the impact.  Since warmer air holds more moisture, the current 1°C warming supports a 7 percent increase in atmospheric water vapor.  Consequently, the frequency and intensity of extreme flooding events is increasing.  

            NOAA reported in 2018, that from 2010 to 2017 the US experienced 25 separate 500-year flooding events, nationwide.  Last month the national Weather Service reported 17 inches of rain fell in Humphreys County, Tennessee, in less than 24 hours, shattering the state record for one-day rainfall by more than 3 inches.

            Two days before hurricane Ida made US landfall, it was a category 2, but then it traveled over unusually warm water in the Gulf of Mexico.  By the time it destroyed the Gulf Coast it had grown to category 4, with wind speeds of 150 mph, and a diameter of 400 miles.  A few days later, the remains of Ida dumped 6"-10" in the New Jersey and New York area.  Central Park in Manhattan recorded 3" of rain in one hour, drenching streets and flooding subways.  

            While the Midwest and the East are getting flooded, the West is experiencing drought and fires.  In the last five years, California has experienced 6 of the 20 deadliest fires (by people killed), 10 of the 20 largest fires (by area burned), and 13 of the 20 most destructive fires (by structures destroyed), since the State began keeping records.           Here in Ukiah, we have been fortunate this summer, so far.  The fires are far enough from us that we aren't under direct threat, and the air quality is only moderate, as opposed to the hazardous air of last year.  Yet we aren't escaping the impact.   

            Water shortage on the coast has stunted essential local tourism, already affected by the ongoing pandemic.  Overall tourism in the State is affected by air quality and roads closures due to fires, and all the National Parks are closed.  At least two more California towns have been burned to the ground (Greenville and Grizzly Flats), and South Lake Tahoe is being threatened as I write this, further depressing summer travel.

            Real estate transactions are finding more fire insurance problems, even for coastal sales.  The wine industry is dealing with smoke taint contamination, described as "tasting like a used ash tray", which degrades the value of the wine.  The heavy smoke last year cut the value of the crop by 2/3. 

            We are in a new, rapidly changing climate reality, and we ignore that at the risk to our life and our economy.  However, some people are still planning as if tomorrow will be like it used to be.  The Ukiah Planning Commission recently voted 4-1 to approve residential development in the Western Hills based on "historic patterns of development". The longer we deny reality, the shorter the odds of avoiding catastrophe.


Sunday, September 5, 2021

A Worthwhile Effort, part 4

                                                                                                           written 29 Aug 2021

                                                                                                          published 5 Sep 2021



            The climate crisis is already here and growing.  To avoid economic collapse within a few decades, we must begin with a 50% reduction of carbon emissions by 2030.  This is the fourth part of a description of what that might look like in Mendocino county.  In addition to installing distributed renewable energy production and storage, and beginning the shift to electric vehicle (EV) transportation, there are two other important elements required to actually reduce emissions: a green hydrogen economy and a trained labor force.

            Batteries are adequate for storing energy on a daily basis, and EV's work for most short distance transportation needs.  But saving summer sun for winter use, long distance transportation, commercial heating, and heavy industry all require another form of energy storage.  The emerging candidate is green hydrogen, which uses non-carbon energy sources to split water.  The released hydrogen can then be stored as compressed gas, cooled to a liquid, combined as a chemical hydride, or converted to a Liquid Organic Hydrogen Carrier (LOHC), such as ammonia (NH3).  Each method has an energy and infrastructure cost, but all provide shippable long term energy storage.  Quick refueling times make hydrogen attractive for long distance road transportation and industries needing around the clock operations, without EV charging downtime.  Hydrogen can also power the shipping, railroad, and airline industries.  

            The transformation has already begun.  Around the world, trillions are being committed to infrastructure construction.  UPS, FEDEX, and Amazon warehouses are investigating moving to hydrogen, attracted by quick refueling times.  Ten automotive corporations are currently developing hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles, including Toyota, GM, BMW, Daimler, Mazda, and Hyundai.  A hydrogen powered ferry has begun operating in the Puget Sound.  A residential backup power system using hydrogen storage is now on the market, in competition with the Tesla Powerwall battery.  Demonstration projects using hydrogen for residential heating are ongoing in Scotland, Japan, and Sweden.  The heavy industries of cement and steel can't operate on electric heat, but hydrogen will work, and Sweden has just shipped the first batch of steel produced by hydrogen.  Several bus lines now have arrays to produce their power, which run hydrogen electrolysers supplying fuel cell busses. 

            A possible Ukiah hydrogen economy could start with MTA as a first customer.  Hydrogen would be produced using excess array production in the summer and lower cost overnight grid power.  Once hydrogen is available, the MTA bus fleet could begin transitioning to fuel cell busses.  In addition, having hydrogen available along the 101 corridor would aid the expansion of all types of fuel cell powered transportation.  A local fuel supplier could begin retail residential deliveries as homes begin shifting away from propane.  Local businesses that have commercial heating needs could install arrays and electrolysers at their locations.

            The other required element is a large trained labor force.  If we are to succeed, this will be a war time like mobilization.  To increase annual renewable installations by a factor of four, build an entire hydrogen economy, and convert every home and business away from carbon-based power will require a pool of skilled labor far beyond what exists today.  Mendocino College, in combination with the local high schools and all the various local contractors, should develop a training program to accomplish this worthwhile effort.  Shifting the country away from fossil fuels will take decades, so we are talking about creating long term employment in meaningful work: creating a habitable planet for our grandchildren.  This is the kind of commitment that allowed cathedrals to be built over centuries, giving meaning to the lives of the people doing the work. 

            Such a massive infrastructure shift requires significant and prolonged investments.  But doing nothing risks complete economic collapse, with the added possibility of human extinction.  There are people who still doubt this, and require certainty before they act.  However, certainty is an illusion, and making large social change is slow.  Waiting for certainty increases our risk of failure.

            One of the biggest barriers to accomplishing this is the investments of the fossil fuel industry.  Given how they have convinced people to invest in the bankrupt fracking industry, we see that only compete economic collapse, like Enron, will get their attention, like an addict in denial hitting low-low.  But the entire planet is at risk to their addiction and we really can't wait.