/* Added by TWP, 10/12/2012 */ /* End of addition */

One of the live oaks that bless my home

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Life in The Machine

My wife and I are in Munich now. We are enjoying Christmas with old friends, whom we have known through high school, university and the first job.  As I am reflecting on the magic of this relationship, I have realized that it predates the Time of The Machine, or our contemporary society.  And I am not merely suggesting here that "the grass was greener, the light was brighter, the taste was sweeter, the nights of wonder, with friends surrounded, the dawn mist glowing, the water flowing, the endless river, forever and ever," as Pink Floyd once famously sang.

Imagine spending your free time with friends wherever, playing outdoors, biking, walking, or going to the movies or to somebody's house.  The parents needed not know and there were very few phones, so they had to believe that we were OK.  "Privacy matters," as Edward Snowden would say. Imagine standing in line at 5 a.m. in front of a bookstore to buy "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel García Márquez or "Hopscotch" by Julio Cortázar. Later we would read them voraciously and enjoy heated literary discussions.

Professor Kazimierz Raczek, my high school history teacher, was sentenced to teaching in high school, not university,  because of his political past.  When he saw us for the very first time, he asked us to hang the state-sanctioned history books by the toilet, claiming that they would make "fine toilet paper that will last for the entire school year."  He would then calmly proceed to teach us from his own notes, memories, and old prewar history books that were strictly forbidden by the communists.  Imagine a high school teacher today in the U.S. attempting to challenge The Machine like this guy did.  Impossible! We simply adored him and no one in our class uttered a word for four years.
Imagine skipping classes in high school to read new books, learn about the universe, or have wild drinking parties punctuated by philosophical discourses; no TVs, no computers, but plenty of small pleasures of freedom stolen from an imperfect communist police state. I skipped almost exactly 1/2 of my high school to learn more about everything, be examined by the wise teachers, and graduate with highest honors. In my four years in high school I never took a single multiple choice test.  I had to solve open-ended difficult intellectual problems.  In fact, GRE was the first multiple-choice test in my life. (TOEFL is not worth mentioning.) I took it as a PhD student at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw with no preparation, not knowing what the heck it was.  I did sufficiently well to qualify for a Fulbright scholarship as one of the three Polish winners in the PhD student category in technical sciences.

My high school professor of Polish Literature, Krystyna Gara, had the quickest wit and sharpest stinging riposts known to mankind.  She challenged me to learn from university textbooks, and to study writers of many cultures.  How I write today in the languages I know, I owe to her. 
Now, imagine your child trying to emulate the richness of my intellectual experience in the one-dimensional kingdom of The Machine. Impossible! For starters, you would go to jail in this Land of the Free for criminal neglect of your children.  "You must not separate your children from me," hisses The Machine, and she locks them up daily in the vast prison system called "K through 12 schools." At the middle and high school level, the prison rules become stricter and your children are punished for every glimpse of their non-robotic, disobedient behavior. Being black or disabled makes the punishment even worse.

So what is The Machine?  Let me give you a hint: I am a consummate citizen of Machinedom.  I am an academic teacher. I use Google, and a plethora of electronic journals and databases for research. I email all the time, buy most things on the web, and write this blog.  I use GPS after dark and carry a smart phone that locates me down to 100 ft anywhere I go, and may be intercepting and transmitting any sound near it. On the other hand, I refuse to go near Facebook and I tweet only occasionally to communicate facts.  I read and I think.

At my friend's house in Munich, I picked up at random the Polityka, a Polish weekly equivalent of Der Spiegel, or a left-leaning version of The Economist.   In this Polityka issue (44(2931) p. 16), I ran into a two-page interview with Dr. Eben Moglen, Professor of Law at the Columbia University, entitled "Imprisoned in the Machine."

Professor Moglen defines the Machine as a virtual organism.  It consists of all of us, smart phones, computers, software, terminals, the surrounding surveillance cameras, the Internet, the cellular phone networks, satellites, drones, GPS, server farms, cloud computing, the NSA surveillance universe that taps into everything in the Machinedom, the FBI, CIA, the military forces, and so on.

Already in 1954, when I was still in diapers and von Neumann's team was constructing the first modern computers, Martin Heidegger warned us about the Machine in his Question Concerning Technology. Heidegger correctly predicted that humans are but a part of the technology-human system, and technology we think we create and control, in fact uses us  - and can consume us - just like anything else it touches in this world.

So, what does The Machine want and need?  She wants global reach and control, and she needs stable supplies of everything.  She also needs permanent amorphous enemies, preferably individuals who are outside of her domain.  Hence the permanent "war on terrorism" and the vast Homeland Security  apparatus created to protect The Machine.  You can think of Obamacare as a new addition to The Machine, and its medical portal as a default gateway tailored to her, but not to the people who aren't yet sufficiently reeducated.

The Machine applies her own machine learning methods to teach next generations.  So far, through extensive computerized testing and intensive use of computers in K through 12 schools, The Machine has been very successful in diminishing the roles normally played by human teachers, and decreasing their status.  It is important that children learn machine thinking directly from the elements of The Machine, instead of the free-wheeling, independent humans.  Therefore the next inevitable step is destruction of humanities and liberal arts.

The Machine needs skilled operators who provide her with the ever-more complex software and hardware, and feed her with energy and other raw materials.  But, The Machine does not like humans teaching these skills, therefore she exerts pressure to widen machine learning of all kinds, through online courses and MOOCS in particular.  Anything that prevents humans from influencing the youth is desirable. 

The results are clearly visible, just watch the young people intently staring at their smart phones for hours on end and avoiding human contact at all costs.  Reality is real only what it is mediated through The Machine.  So expect your child to propose marriage on Facebook or phone, rather than looking into the partner's eyes and uttering the magic words. 

The Machine is about enticement and control.  She entices us with offers of immediate pornographic pleasure, and she controls most of what we do through our smart phones, GPS, Google queries, web posts, emails, and credit card purchases. When I say "pornography," I do not mean just the old innocent offers of immediate sex.  Instead, I mean the savage computer games, the Facebook, the Twitter, TV, gratuitously violent movies, and the Shopping Channel.

I cannot imagine that under the old communist system people would be volunteering to reveal everything about themselves, their daily movements, friends and acquaintances, their sexual habits, families,  purchasing patterns, naked bodies, and infidelities big and small.  And most of these revelations are driven by a purely narcissistic exhibitionism. "It's all about you," whispers The Machine, and all too many humans buy this nonsense.

Just remember what Dante Alighieri saw happening to the self-centered gluttons: They lie in the Third Circle of Hell, sightless and heedless of their neighbors, just as they were cold and selfish in their empty lives played on Facebook. The vile, stinking slush, in which  they are trapped like pigs in industrial pig farms, is their penalty for overindulgence in food and drink, and other kinds of addiction, like taking their own pictures on smart phones or watching Fox News. The shady pig farm owners will be sent to the Fourth Circle of Hell for their greed.  You should see what lies in store for those wretched capitalists...
The Third Circle of Hell:  This is the future of selfies and other self-indulgent Facebookies.
But I digressed. So where from here?  Three thoughts come to my mind.  First, the complexity and speed of evolution of human languages and thinking exceed the speed of software writing in proprietary, fixed computer languages.  Second, The Machine works continuously and probably requires Tera watts of electrical power worldwide, especially in the U.S.   This power can be disrupted in many ways around the world.  Third, the center of gravity of human development will move away from the Machinedom, to people who know The Machine, use her elements when necessary, but live outside of her empire.  You know, those people who still talk with each other, eat dinners together, and say "I love you" to a person, not an iPad.

P.S. To visualize what education in The Machine can do to you, please see this sketch by Jon Stewart's reporters. No further comments are necessary.

P.S.P.S.  Jan 9, 2014. The high school prison superintendents arrest and expel their young captives a little too often, but even more if those captives are black, Hispanic, or disabled. The  most telling infraction is "defying authority," for which there is a suspension.  Whose authority exactly?  And on what authority? The Machine rejects young people acting like people and defying authority.

P.S.P.S.P.S.  Jan 10, 2014.  The Machine does not sleep, rest, or have fun.  Neither should her inner circle servants: The Wall Street traders.

P.S.^4 January 10, 2016, Oregon doctors band together to fight the efficient medical machine 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Our Roots

I wrote this blog on August 2 and 3, 2013, after my arrival in Warsaw.

In 8 hours, this marvel of modern technology, Boeing 787 DreamLiner, transplanted me from Chicago to Warsaw, and three hours later, after a fabulous dinner at a by-the-word-of-mouth-only home food diner, here I was on the Nowy Świat Street, walking towards the Old Town and the Royal Palace.

Literally every building I passed by had a plaque commemorating those murdered there during the war (World War II for the younger audience) and ten bloody years of the Stalinist terror after the war.  Every beautifully kept old building and church or cathedral I passed was meticulously rebuilt after the war.  For all of them perished during the war, together with the people of Warsaw.
Please click on the image to see it in high resolution. All of these buildings were destroyed during WWII.  Some of the heaviest fighting during the Warsaw Uprising occurred not far from here.  But today you see a sparkling, bustling, wonderful city.

The Polish White House, Presidential Palace on the Nowy Świat Street. It was rebuilt too. Here my Polish Professor diploma was signed into a document.
I arrived one day after the 69th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising.  On August 1, 1944, at 5 p.m., the Polish resistance army (mostly Armia Krajowa, or AK) attacked Germans all across the city.  It was an incredibly stupid political gamble of the Polish Government in exile in London.  The purpose was to force Germans out before the Soviet Red Army, camped on the right bank of the Vistula River, would take over the city.  Of course the Russians watched with pleasure how Warsaw was being erased from the map, and the best and most educated Poles were being killed by the thousands.  The Russians also made sure that the Allied flights to supply Warsaw could not land 20 km east of the city and refuel, causing untold casualties among the mostly volunteer, mostly Polish pilots flying night missions mostly from England.
Warsaw and her people are being exterminated by the Germans in late 1944, while the Soviets are enjoying watching the spectacle from the other side of the Vistula River.
Sixty three days later, over 20 thousands of Polish soldiers and about 150-180 thousands civilians were dead,  and the survivors dispersed or were marched to German concentration camps.  On average, each day, Germans were executing 1000 random civilians on the streets of Warsaw.  My wife's grandfather, Zygmunt Paulisz, a professor of linguistics, who spoke fluently seven languages, was caught in one of these random roundups of people, executed and dumped into a mass grave. Until today, no one knows where he is buried. My wife's mother, gave all her jewelery to a German soldier and walked away from a column of civilians marched to a concentration camp.

Please click on the image to see it in high resolution. We are in the Powązki, a cemetery in Warsaw where the Polish heroes have been buried for generations.  This woman was 14 years old when she participated in a hit on two senior Nazi officers.
Please click on the image to see it in high resolution. On her tomb, there are verses of poems by Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński, a Polish poet and AK soldier, one of the most renowned authors of the Generation of Columbuses, the young generation of Polish poets of whom many perished in the Warsaw Uprising.  Defensio Patriae Suprema Lex means "Defense of my country is supreme duty." Baczyński was a poet, not a soldier.  He was made a company commander to prevent him from street combat.  He died from a German sniper's bullet standing in an open window of a building they took from the Germans.  He was a poet, not a soldier.  His young pregnant wife died on the same day not knowing of his fate. Both were barely 20 years old. Can you still weep?
My grand uncle, Zbigniew Niwiński, a civil engineer, fought Germans in Warsaw as an officer of the Narodowe Siły Zbrojne (NSZ or National Army), was caught, and transported to the same oflag in Murnau, where my grandfather was beginning the fifth year of his captivity.

My grandfather, Wiktor Patzek, a physicist and a major in the Polish Army surrendered in early October 1939, after a month of heavy fighting each day and marching towards Warsaw each night. At the end both of his feet were bloody pulp and he could not stand straight without falling asleep. For my grandfather, WWII was the third war he fought in 25 years.  During WWI, he started smuggling Polish deserters from the Austrian army to Pilsudski's Legions in the east.  He then fled Austria and joined Pilsudski's army, which went on to liberate Poland.  In 1919, my grandfather volunteered under a pseudonym to fight the Soviets in the bloody 1919/20 war that is virtually unknown in America.  Since he was a teacher, the young Poland did not want him do die on the eastern front. On September 1, 1939, my grandfather was too old to be on active duty, so he volunteered again.  He told me that in absolute exhaustion it is not your physical strength that counts, but the degree to which you control your fear, pain, and overwhelming urge to sleep.

After the war, my granduncle sneaked in through the southern Polish border, found his fiance, and fled back with her, using his resistance contacts and safe houses.  When caught by the communists, those who belonged NSZ could only expect torture and a bullet in their head.  Whoever was caught with them, would be executed too.

Please click on the image to see it in high resolution. A symbolic grave of the hundreds of Polish girl scouts, who died in WWII, mostly in the Warsaw Uprising.
Please click on the image to see it in high resolution. A symbolic grave of the thousands of Polish boy scouts who died in WWII, mostly in the Warsaw Uprising.
After the upraising, the good Germans went on to blow up, incinerate, or bomb every larger building still standing in Warsaw.  With the burning buildings went the irreplaceable treasures of Polish culture, science and heritage.  While at it, the German SS troops and their Latvian SS helpers committed unspeakable atrocities, of the kind that even today would earn a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records.

October 1944: This is how Warsaw looked like when Germans finished raping her.
After the war, the NKVD and the Polish communist traitors killed another 50 thousand of survivors of the Uprising and of the Polish resistance fighters elsewhere, but mostly in the east. My granduncle married and settled with his wife in Vancouver, Canada, where I visited him many times before he died.

I adored my grandfather.  He showed me experiments with high voltage, using his prewar inductor machine.  He showed me stars through a small telescope he had, and their constellations in the dark sky outside Piotrkow Trybunalski, where he lived and I often visited him.  He took me to the WWII battlefields around Piotrkow, and walked with me in the forests where he fought German invaders.  There were still pieces of old rusting canon, destroyed trucks, tanks, and other military equipment.  I literally saw my grandfather fighting and the line of fire.  He would lose chess games with me, a 9-year old, and I suspected that he was too easy on me.  My grandfather and my father never lied, and they infected me incurably with this unfortunate lack of social skills.  

My grandfather died of a heart attack in 1962, when I was just ten.  It was a bright sunny day, when the mailman delivered a telegram with the news.  I opened the door for him and then opened the telegram. Today, I still can see the black capital letters telling me that my grandfather was no more.

These two sisters were 21 and 23 when they fell fighting Germans.  The older sister was executed in the Jewish Ghetto in January 1944, and the younger one fell in Czerniaków in September 1944. Both belonged to the same AK Company "Rudy." Only one photograph survived.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Some Narratives Are Better Than Others

The dominant contemporary narrative in the U.S. was delineated 42 years ago by Lewis Powell in his August 23, 1971, confidential memo to the Chamber of Commerce. No one I have talked to in the U.S. knows anything about this memo, but several people in other countries do.

As the Powell memo instructs its confidential readers, there should be a concerted effort to bring our side of facts (our facts?) to fore regularly, with high intensity, and from many seemingly independent sources:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.  Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.
Edward Bernays, Propaganda, Chapter 1, 1928.
In this vain, for a while now, it has been fashionable to put down OPEC and Russia, and tout eternal oil and gas abundance in the U.S.  Here are but three recent examples:
There are many similar examples in mass media, now merged into a single web of circular non-thinking and positive feedback through Twitter, Facebook, and so on.
Ordinary people must be rather confused when assaulted by a cacophony of learned opinions from the "world authorities," "global experts," "friends," and other talking, writing and tweeting heads.

Now, if I were an emperor or Edward Bernays, author of the original Propaganda (1928), how would I create a narrative about American oil and gas A.D. 2013, and make the world believe it?

First, I would have to understand the cold facts.  The U.S. still is the top world consumer of petroleum and natural gas.  Half of the petroleum is imported.  Most of the increase of domestic petroleum production is the non-petroleum light condensate from wells that cost a lot and decline fast.  Since my refineries are fine-tuned towards heavier petroleum, not condensate, I have a small problem, but I will use Canadian heavy crude imports through the new Keystone pipeline to solve it. If not the pipeline, I'll use trains to solve my problem. I could go even deeper into the Gulf of Mexico and farther north into the Arctic, but such moves are monstrously expensive and risky, and I must be careful.

Actually, everything I do is too expensive to continue, so I finance my house of cards by borrowing astronomical amounts of money. Then I borrow even more money to keep on borrowing money.  But I do not want to dwell on such details.  Instead, I'll help you snort Facebook a little longer. If not, I would need to tell each tax-paying fool that his share of my borrowing has been over one million dollars. Yes, all of you little people became negative millionaires while you were busy tweeting each other!

I digressed, but I could not help laughing a little about the total debt I created by globalizing the world economy and exporting my debt all over the place. Fooled ya!

Going back to my script: I import a lot of oil from Canada, and will import even more in the future.  So, since I think that I can destroy enough demand for petroleum in the U.S., and use Canada and few other countries to fill the rest of my tank, screw OPEC.  More specifically, when Saudi Arabia exhausts the Ghawar, the largest oilfield in the world, they will be unable to export enough oil and become irrelevant to me.  Screw them.

Screw Russia, too. Even though I badly need access to oil and gas in Siberia, I have never trusted them Russians. And for good reason. Screw them.

Second,  I would need to convince everybody around the world (but not in Canada) that I don't need their stinking oil.  I'll do this by developing a story of eternal oil and gas abundance in North America. Both will gush forever from a horn of plenty, a modern cornucopia my fellow Americans have always hoped for.  I still need to make my fellow Americans use less petroleum, but I can do this through pricing, taxation, and expensive toll roads, without ever mentioning the real reason: Like there is not enough oil to continue our current drinking binge.

Third, I could throw in corn ethanol for energy independence, and a few other renewables for fun. Those are expensive, subsidized, and not very important to me, but by paying lip service to "green energy" I can keep the left distracted and the right quiet. Oh, I forgot, I also need to keep on praising our superior technology and advances in efficiency.

This sounds like a plan.  Now I need to find several well-placed "independent experts" in my extensive network, and ask them to retell my script as many times as possible.  It is not the content that counts, but the simplicity of message, and repetition, repetition, repetition...  Like this Energy Revolution page on Time's website. Which brings me back to Bernays, the Powell memo, and the three examples above.

Time Magazine, October 18, 2013.
Let's start in the middle. The New York Times piece follows my script to the letter and ends with this thought-provoking claim:
The behemoths of today — the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Russia, and even some major oil companies — could be losers if they do not adapt. “People underestimated the U.S. and overestimated countries like Iraq,” said Majid Jafar, the chief executive of Crescent Petroleum, an oil company based in the United Arab Emirates with production in Iraqi Kurdistan. “It is more about the investment climate than what is in the ground.”
Hmm, doesn't this statement imply that a Luxembourg with no hydrocarbons whatsoever under its soil and good investment climate might become a larger producer of oil and gas than Iraq with its giant untapped oil reserves - the largest in the world?! Oops, stuff happens when my man parrots the script. But never mind, the confused readers might not notice, and my man can always rewrite this paragraph and repost it. At least he put down Iraq.

This reminds me, I just borrowed a trillion dollars to liberate Iraq from Iraqis. But now those Chinese, Iranian, Italian, French, and Russian oil companies are getting all the Iraqi oil and gas concessions, and I got nothing. So screw Iraq (but not Iraqi Kurdistan). Iraqi Kurds gave me the concessions I wanted hoping I would liberate them from Iraq. But now that Syria, Turkey and Lebanon are unstable -  and I lost the rest of Iraq -, I can't. Oops, all these unknown knowns. They confuse me.

On the bright side, my experts on the West Coast (Amy Myers Jaffe) and the East Coast (Ed Morse) did a tremendous job presenting my script to the world. Thank you both. I could not do this better.

Here are a few small suggestions for further improvement. For example, why dwell on the oil despots we kept in power for decades, protected from justice, and supplied with our weapons and military training so that they could better kill and oppress their people? Let bygones be bygones. Instead, let's strengthen these masterpieces:
U.S.-led innovation in alternative fuels (including natural gas-vehicle fueling technology and electric vehicles), energy-efficiency technologies, battery storage, and smart-grid solutions, working together with and complementing the supply surge in unconventional oil and gas, should also change the face of demand, giving consumers around the world more freedom of choice. And as the United States becomes an energy exporter -- at competitive prices -- that should seal the deal. By providing ready alternatives to politicized energy supplies, the United States can use its influence to democratize global energy markets, much the way smartphone and social media technologies have ended the lock on information and communications by repressive governments and large multinational or state-run corporations....
Over the coming decade, the United States looks likely to overtake Russia and rival Qatar as a leading supplier of natural gas to international markets....
And U.S. crude oil exports might also be possible some day, strengthening America's lead in market-related pricing for kingpin crude oil, much the way rising North Sea production did in the 1980s. ...
What I love about this brilliant text is that my entire script is laid out in its essential, unquestionable beauty in just a few sentences.  But I would caution Amy and Ed not to be too specific about natural gas and crude oil exports from the U.S., and U.S. becoming a new democratic Saudi Arabia. That's because it will not happen.  We may barely reduce imports of crude oil, and barely produce enough gas to satisfy our ever growing needs over the next few decades.

In my mind, it is far better to put others down and say that we no longer need them, because now we can satisfy most of our thirst for oil and gas.  Just imagine an Egyptian despot on our payroll reading these words and calculating how much longer he has to live before his house of cards crashes without our constant propping it up?  Otherwise, Amy and Ed, you are beautiful.

I could glow about the last press example, but you're already getting my drift.  These three literary gems are examples of a narrative better than merely telling the truth.  Most people want to be lied to.  That's why we have elections. Every four years we are free to choose our favorite pack of lies, and revert back to our iPhones, Facebook and Twitter.  Sleep tight America.

P.S. 10/27/2013. Another one of my people at the New York Times, Mr. Binyamin Appelbaum, has reported that inflation is good for economic growth by, for example, eroding increases of teachers' salaries in Alaska and increasing profits of Walmart and Costco.  Kenneth S. Rogoff, a Harvard economist, wrote recently. “It should be embraced.” And there is more...

I am humbled. Why didn't I think about such an elegant novel way of screwing Americans?  May be because I still think that Americans are on our team? I need to grow up.

Actually, novel this plan is not. Ten days before the Powell memo, on August 13, 1971, President Nixon met secretly at Camp David with Federal Reserve chairman Arthur Burns, incoming Treasury Secretary John Connally, then undersecretary for international monetary affairs and future Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, and other high-ranking White House and Treasury advisers. Quoting Wikipedia:
There was great debate about what Nixon should do, but ultimately Nixon, relying heavily on the advice of the self-confident Connally, decided to break up Bretton Woods by suspending the convertibility of the dollar into gold, freezing wages and prices for 90 days to combat potential inflationary effects, and impose an import surcharge of 10 percent. "Connally brilliantly packaged the program not as America abandoning its commitment to the gold standard but as America taking charge. He turned the dollar's collapse, which could have appeared shameful, into a moment of hubris."
This disastrous move caused the prolonged stagflation of the 1970s, and the 45% cumulative inflation by 1976.  Since very few Americans remember anything older than yesterday, my boys are fixin' to do it again.  But this time around the consequences will be direr than in 1971. Like a two-digit inflation for a decade or longer?

Please click on this image to see it in full resolution. If we follow the 1971 example, we may expect 10+ % inflation rate for over a decade. Such inflation would wipe out most of the retired people and people on fixed incomes. It would impoverish 98% of the rest. Source: The New York Times, Published: October 26, 2013.

P.S.P.S. 11/08/2013.  My crew at Goldman Sachs, when they rest from trying to starve millions of poor people around the world or from conspiring to destroy the world economy, they toy with predicting future of production of oil and condensate, and ethanol in the U.S.  Here is their prediction for the record, to be revisited a year or two from now.

P.S.P.S.P.S. 11/09/2013. My men at the Economist are following up on Mr. Binyamin Appelbaum's script, praising charms of inflation. Something's cooking here. The hopelessly indebted and inefficient developed economies have to cancel their debt. That's what we are about to do through gentle inflation. But we need a whole lot of inflation to get rid of the many tens of trillions of dollars of our collective debt. For example, if the U.S. wants to bring down the $70 trillion of our current debt to $16 trillion (current GDP), we need 10 years of 16 percent per year inflation. Well, let's see what happens...

P.S.^4.  08/25/2015. My friend, Art Berman, has just pointed out that the script I mocked here two years ago, is well and alive. It is used to con the gullible into losing even more money than they just lost in the global tera$-con I so aptly described.

Monday, October 21, 2013

UT Energy Students Debunk Modern Myths

Angela Kelechi Eluwa is a graduate of Geology from Nigeria, and is currently a Master of Science Student in the Energy and Earth Resources Department at UT Austin.

The human species has been growing exponentially since the World War II. Any population of living creatures is constrained by the availability of food, water, land, or other important resources. Once those resources are depleted, a population won't continue to grow exponentially. It will plateau, or decline, as a result of disease or malnutrition.

The major driver of technology is fossil power (energy/over time). The accumulation of fossil fuels is a slow process that took hundreds of millions of years, yet in just the last few hundred years we have depleted a large percentage of their total accessible endowment.

It can be argued that technological advancement has made a major positive impact on our living conditions like access to clean drinking water, toilet systems, antibiotics, etc. However, technology cannot advance without the use of Earth’s resources. Both renewable and conventional sources of energy are needed to help technology function and grow. Electricity, for example, can be generated on a global scale only with hydrocarbons or coal. The same dependence on hydrocarbons is true of metals; in fact the better types of ore are now becoming depleted, while those that remain can be processed only with modern machinery and require more coal and hydrocarbons for smelting and refining. In turn, without metals and electricity, there would be no means of extracting and processing hydrocarbons and coal.

The world’s deserts have an area of about 47 million of square kilometers, and the solar energy they receive annually is 300,000 EJ, which at a typical 11-percent electrical-conversion rate would result in 33,000 EJ.

Annual global energy consumption in 2010 was approximately 665 EJ. To meet the world’s present energy needs by using solar power, then, we would need an array (or an equivalent number of smaller ones) with a size of 665/33,000 x 47 million sq km, which is about 947,000 sq km - a machine the size of France. The production and maintenance of this array would require vast quantities of hydrocarbons, metals, and other materials -- a self-defeating process. Solar power will therefore do little to solve the world’s energy problems.

In the entire world there are 15,749,300 square kilometers of arable land, this is 11 percent of the world’s total land area. The present world population is over 7 billion. Dividing the human population by the area of arable land, we see that there are 444 people per square km of arable land. On a smaller scale that means about 4 people per hectare. Less than a third of the world’s 200-odd countries are actually within that ratio. In other words, too many people are already supported by non-mechanized agriculture.

With the inevitable depletion of the readily available biotic and abiotic components of the Earth's ecosystems, technology - and all it has to offer - will be available only at a cost, and in that case technology will become the “survival of the richest”. This may be described as the Earth check-mating the greed and excesses of humans. The exploding cost of living in the developing countries serves as a clear indicator.

Ryan Kelkar was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is a senior student of Petroleum Engineering at UT Austin.

The author of the article “Over Population is Not a Problem” perpetuates the same cognitive dissonance that many people have towards the very large (pun intended) problem of over population. The author of the article makes the fatal flaw of assuming technological advances will always be capable of being ahead of the population reaching its carrying capacity. The flaw associated with this line of thinking is that these technological advances require the depletion of natural resources, and without these resources no technological advances will be able to save us.

For instance, the Haber-Bosch process uses natural gas (or coal in the old days) to create ammonia for fertilizer. This technological advancement had a dramatic effect on the carrying capacity of the earth, as agriculture was able to become more efficient and humans overwhelmed the natural nitrogen cycle by a factor of several. Some estimates are that more than half of the earth’s population would not exist today if it wasn’t for this technological advancement. The author of the article would like the reader to believe that the Haber-Bosch process is another example of a technological advancement staying a head of any impending population problems. However, the flaw in that line of thinking is that the Haber process, while ingenious, requires the use of a finite resource, natural gas. Without natural gas or coal and lots of water, the Haber-Bosch process simply can not work.  You may appreciate this circular reasoning of the author: Without fossil fuels and clean water, the Haber-Bosch process can not create fertilizer to sustain the population it itself created. Technological advances are not independent of the fact that they are dependent on resources from earth to sustain them.

The author also ignores the direct correlation that the access to cheap hydrocarbons has had on the earth’s population. At the beginning of the 20th century the global population was around 1.5 billion people and now the population is approximately 7.1 billion people. That is nearly a five-fold increase in the global population. If the author’s assumption that technological advances and human ingenuity alone were the reason for increasing the earth’s carrying capacity then why is it that only in the last century has the population increased so dramatically? Human ingenuity didn’t only begin at the start of the 20th century. The truth is that without the large-scale production of cheap hydrocarbons the population today would be much closer to what it was at the begging of the century (around 2 billion people).

All of this would be perfectly fine if we were able to produce cheap energy forever. Unfortunately, reality is rarely what we would like it to be. The reality is that hydrocarbons are a finite resource that takes millions of years to create, and according to some estimates we have already reached the peak oil production for the world in 2005 and it will only decrease into the future.

Our current population growth comes from humans taking out more and more loans from Mother Earth's natural resources. Nearly half of the people on earth today owe their existence to fossil fuels in some way. Unfortunately, our line of credit with Mother Earth is running out, and eventually she will request the repayment of our giant debt. 

Haber and Bosch, 29 july 1999. Web. 25 Sep 2013. .  
Clark, Josh. "Have We Reached Peak Oil." How Stuff Works, 2110 9 Decemnber 2012. Web. 25 Sept. 2013.

Julio Leva is Ph.D. student of geology at UT Austin, where he came after obtaining a bachelor’s degree in his native Spain. He has lived for short periods of time in several other countries, giving him a good idea on how things change when you are in different places.

Technology, as a key for an improved future, is a recurring topic of science-fiction novels; this is so because history shows that we now have things, we could not have even imagined a generation ago. This experience gives Dr. Ellis the notion that there is no “environmental reason for people to go hungry now or in the future” since we will certainly find a technological breakthrough that will allow an unceasing expansion of human population, until, I guess, the earth is completely covered with human bodies.

But there are several limitations to the “increased land productivity.”  First, in typical crop plants[1] photosynthesis has an abysmal 1-2% efficiency, which limits the maximum amount of food we can produce. Second, modern farming relies on fertilizers. About 50% of our crops are due to commercial fertilizers[2], which are taking a big toll on our ecosystems. For example, about half of lakes in the U.S. are now eutrophic, meaning that they do not contain enough oxygen to support life. Our dependency on fertilizers, especially inorganic fertilizers, is staggering; this is a direct result of the increasing demand for food for an increasing world population. But in addition to nitrates from natural gas, inorganic fertilizers require large amounts of potash and phosphate rocks which are mined and concentrated. These are not “clean” activities. They require large amounts of energy. According to Dr. Ellis, this is not a problem if we use our technology to mitigate the pollution derived from fertilizer use. Unfortunately, with or without technology, mitigation of agricultural pollution consumes more energy  than the energy produced by growing crops in the first place.

Another issue that Dr. Ellis completely overlooks is wealth distribution. The claim that the earth system can sustain an ever-expanding population has to be met with this important question: Sustained with what living standard? Technology is wonderful; our phones are super-smart, our cars very fast, our planes convenient, our electric supply extremely reliable, and our TVs are gigantic. But how are those items in, let’s say, Kalo, a small village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the country with the world’s lowest GDP[3]. Probably not that smart, fast, convenient, reliable or large; in fact these items are not there at all. This is because even today, with our wonderful advanced technology, it is impossible to give all of our toys to everyone in the world. We can look at conditions in Beijing, where people might have the same size TVs but their children must be kept indoors because of air pollution[4]. Is this the life that the planet is going to be able to sustain? Is it worth it?

A third problem is assuming, as Dr. Ellis does, that in fact we can obtain unlimited energy resources. This is lunacy. Humans have extracted energy from plants and animals, which ultimately are solar energy, with increasing efficiency, as Dr. Ellis points out. Then, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, humans switched to extracting the solar energy concealed in fossil fuels, first coal, then oil, and finally natural gas. The problem is that the amount of recoverable fossil fuels is finite. The rate at which we can extract them is limited, and more importantly it takes more and more energy in the form of fossil fuels to get new fossil fuels. It is not a never-ending, ever-expanding resource; this is an unavoidable fact no matter what technological marvels we might devise. But it may be possible to find a new source of energy; we have after all harnessed (to some extent) the power of the atom and we have built nuclear power plants. These future energy sources are again the stuff of science fiction. The truth is that nuclear power requires fissionable materials that are energetically costly to produce, nuclear fuel mining and refining is highly polluting and leaves behind radioactive waste, and so far we do not know what to do with this waste. It is piling up and becoming more and more expensive to keep in safe conditions. The energy that arrives on earth in the form of solar energy is finite and the amount of energy stored as fossil fuels is finite; these are, unfortunately, facts.

Another important reason why technology cannot support an ever-increasing population is that to create our technological marvels we need to extract materials from the environment and refine them, which will unavoidably create waste in the form of pollution. And no matter what technology we use, including recycling, carbon dioxide sequestration, or increased efficiency, waste materials will be produced. The larger the population of the world, the larger the amount of waste materials and their pernicious effects on our environment will be.

Finite energy and waste creation are two factors that technology cannot overcome. We are thus left with two options: (1) reduce our living standards and allow population to keep growing until living standards are so low that they cannot support life or (2) find a method of population control that results in a manageable population. Either way the result is the same: An ever-increasing population is impossible.

[1] http://www.life.illinois.edu/govindjee/whatisit.htm
[2] https://www.agronomy.org/publications/aj/abstracts/97/1/0001
[3] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2004rank.html
[4] http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-202_162-57563772/record-beijing-air-pollution-forces-warning-from-china-officials-to-keep-kids-indoors/