Enron had the right Idea

Last night we watched a program called ‘Plan B’ on PBS, a lengthy documentary talking about the coming world catastrophe due to uncontrolled climate change. Enron was mentioned as a prime example of how deceptive practices and refusal to look at the entire balance sheet was bad. The assertion in the program was that this is what is happening with climate change — everyone agonizes publicly about how expensive making recommended changes to reduce greenhouse gasses was. The program asserted, probably rightly, that we are ignoring the consequences of not doing anything. No doubt true, but what Enron did was a very human thing and with a little thought one can see that the practice of selective inattention, what facts to praise and what to ignore, is surprisingly widespread at many levels in our global society. Perhaps a few examples will help:

When I filled up last week I noticed that the gas pumps had stickers announcing that there was up to 10% Ethanol in the fuel being sold. Now we have all seen the commercials about how ‘green’ it is to use a crop-based fuel rather than a gradually depleting fossil fuel. Gas modified with ethanol has been around for a long time. I remember putting a bit in my first car in the 1970’s. And because I have kept careful notes about fuel economy I can say with some confidence that overall the decrease in fuel economy is roughly proportional to the amount of ethanol adulterant. But what is even better is that the fossil fuel cost of producing the ethanol, ignoring other subsidies, is even higher than the energy content it represents. SO by adding this stuff to the gas we effectively have INCREASED our total consumption of fossil fuel per mile driven. But politicians still think this is a great idea and are pushing to increase it in the future.

Over the last few decades it has been fashionable in business to increase profits by outsourcing jobs to other countries. The labor costs over there are lower and even with the increased energy costs of shipping and communications the company still profits. But what is the societal picture? The people who were displaced may not have gotten equivalent work elsewhere but are still consuming social services in one form or another. If they are lucky they may be able to retrain to qualify. But the net net is that it it the taxpayer who picks up the cost. Fewer personal tax dollars are generated and government costs increase. But the corporation profits and the taxpayer picks up the tab. Sound familiar? And it is still considered a great idea.

On a more tragic note we have a number of wars being fought world wide. Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya come to mind. But there are many more that we fashionably ignore. The military, if pressed, will bemoan the lack of clarity about the objectives and paticularly a clear end game. i.e. what are we there to do and how do we get out. Wikileaks suggested that there were motives other than the public ones for why some of these battles and not others. But at a time of general public funding shortfalls due to the recent economic collapse (see previous paragraph for a hint) that we would agonize over education or healthcare or keeping our cities from collapsing from neglect but leap right in when there is a call to bomb the heck out of some other poor slob — suggests that lying to ourselves is alive and well.

And I can remember the oil embargo in the 1970’s and how enthusiastic everyone was for a while on energy conservation and improving fuel economy. But then the manufacturers stepped in and sold us SUVs to flatter our egos and up our consumption of many resources, not just fossil fuels. Guess the short term pain got in the way of the long term gain — so here we are again.

So I think that we are all doomed. Destructive climate change is inevitable. As is the social unrest that will accompany it — not only food riots but the border pressures from human migration to less blighted areas. Our civilization will collapse because we are too short-sighted to survive. As long as private profit (today) trumps investment in the future nothing will change until it is too late. My experience with doing disaster recovery planning tells me that only those who have survived a near death experience really appreciate the point of the exercise. But what will it take for our leaders(?) to get their heads out of the trough and look down the road? The process of selective inattention as demonstrated by Enron and in active use by government and big business continues to dominate our development. A pity.

Oh No, Not Again!

Well, it finally happened. Last Friday the Canadian Parliament finally got up on its hind legs and voted no confidence in the current government. So we are off to another election — this one slated for May 2. In reality though Canada has been in a continuous election campaign for the last five years or so and we are all sick of it. Attack ads smearing the Liberal leader have been steady fare on TV. Our local Con MP Scott Reid sends out periodic ‘updates’ about how tough the CONs are on crime and how bad the opposition would be if they came to power. And it always comes with a mail-back response form — but if you give any response but ‘ja!’ there is never a reply. As for what he is doing there is never an update — just a non-stop stream of what appears to be campaign literature. Problem is that in a rural area the issues are not crime but economic development, roads, utilities and the constantly soaring cost of government. Not much progress seems to be made on any of those.

So the Globe was saying today that this will be the first campaign fought in the social media — then asked ‘but will anyone vote?’.  Its a hard call to find anyone worthy of a vote. The incumbent has been quick to take credit for every positive gain of Canadian business and even faster to smear his fellow party leaders. But leadership and providing a statement of direction for the government and the country has been pretty scarce. But if people don’t vote we will be stuck with the same old stuff for a few more years — more stupid spending and even more sleazy deals. There just doesn’t seem to be much of a choice. My Dad used to say that the secret of voting is to try and work out which politician will steal the least. So far that doesn’t appear to be Harper.  The only thing he is good at is harping on the big lie — the attack ads, the fear mongering about a ‘coalition’, ad nausea. He wants to be PM for life but hasn’t the guts for a takeover — so we are all condemned to a death by 10,000 cuts.

Sometimes it seems that the only way to sort this out is to have the elections decided by the candidates with pistols at 20 paces — winner take all. Or maybe AK-47s. Or perhaps the ultimate outsourcing of political union with the US. Ontario would make a nice state, maybe two or three. And at least there would be some investment in the Arctic. Pity about healthcare though.

We all should really care about the governance of the country. It is, after all, the world where our children will live. But with an entrenched political class constantly jockying for power and richly rewarding themselves — while the real business of the country takes care of itself. They clearly are not interested in OUR problems or outlining a future that we want to work towards. To me, being conservative always meant being prudent with spending but making investments in the future.

So let us look at the current CONs. In the original campaign there were promises of fixed election dates, a factor which helps US politicians focus on business, but as soon as he was in this vanished. Instead we have constant campaigning and an election every time the polls flicker in his favor. Is the ‘security’ of the G20 the model for the future? I hope not. ‘1984’ would not be my desired future. So far everything seems to be pointing at a nightmare world of central control and constant supervision. As in 1984, ‘we have always been at war with East Asia…’ or whatever the message of the day is supposed to be. Like any 3rd world dictator money flows into self-aggrandizement and the military.  Makes me think that if my kids want any future not in the US they had better learn Spanish or Mandarin.

And as for the current election — we will ignore it as much as possible and on election day vote strategicly. A pity there is nothing to vote FOR.

Weekend Thoughts

It was a good weekend, time for a model railroad show and a classical concert here on the island. But a couple of thoughts occurred that seem worth sharing.

Our mythologies tell us that man has been given stewardship over nature — and because we see ourselves as separate from the natural world, all of our (generally) destructive reshaping of it is ok.  The loss of species is just acceptable collateral damage… And the world is a huge place to people who had to walk out of Africa (all of us). So when we messed up or exhausted one part of it we could walk to another part and start over. And since we fancied ourselves as the top level predator on the planet (and mostly we are) there was nothing besides ourselves and our messes to keep us in check. (See previous comments about walking away…).

But the rub is that we have cluttered up and despoiled a very large portion of the world. Any walking away will have to be done with rockets (or somesuch) and quite frankly there doesn’t appear to be any other desirable real estate in the neighborhood. So we are stuck here for the moment and must face the consequences of our choices.

And this includes getting our noses rubbed in the fact that we are a part of nature, not something apart. The air we breath comes from the trees, grasses and oceanic algae that we are busy cutting down, paving over and polluting. Intensive agriculture has its own side effects — the land can only be pummeled for so long before forcing it to produce more crops loses its effectiveness. Climate change is inevitable because of human greed and short-sightedness (just look around). The only good side of climate change, if there is one, is that large swaths of Canada and Siberia will become more inviting while Florida and many seaside places get drowned.

Closely related to this was the second thought — the resurgence of anti-nuclear hysteria and the impact of further hindering development. I guess the problem is that we are no where near desperate enough to actually face the nuclear genie and wrestle him into submission. There is still lots of bucolic rural landscape to cover with wind turbines (pretending to be green) and plenty of natural gas to burn to provide the real power we need as a civilization. And coal, and wood and… meanwhile, we are still actively wrecking the planet and making it harder to get rid of the toxins we produce. Sigh…

With prior major technological changes the move forward was driven by desperation. We either ran short of something that we were happy with as a solution or found the side effects from our solution too overwhelming. Think electricity and petroleum vs whale oil and horses, sewers and municipal water supplies, etc. There are still too many solutions for providing the energy we need to really get serious about nuclear. That the Japanese were using a forty year old reactor with known problems and had been dodging inspections is not really surprising. They are not the only ones who recognize the need for the technology but don’t really want to come to grips with the issues.

And the terminology we use is also suggestive of tunnel vision. We talk about carbon footprint but exclude the cost of production. Has anyone really thought about the huge energy input it takes to make solar cells or the vast piles of concrete used in industrial wind turbines? And the byproducts of nuclear fission we call waste and worry about how to get rid of it. Would it appear to be the same kind of a problem if we sought to find uses for materials that on their own will be releasing energy for decades if not centuries? What could that do for us?

And conservation just won’t cut it, not for the long term. The history of mankind back to the Rift Valley is one of creating a series of civilizations based on increased energy production and utilization. But we need to face up to two things — we are part of this planet and need to take better care of it for our own survival. And if we want to continue developing a civilization, finding ways of producing more intense sources of energy is essential. The pity is that all we need to do is want to.

Japan Nuclear Disasters — Will anything be learned?

The nuclear reactor problems in Japan are a great concern — especially to the people nearby and downwind. But on a broader base it provides more fuel for the anti-nuclear folk and their hysteria. Nuclear contamination is not new — a few years back there was a map produced that showed the deposition patterns across the US for the fallout from open air bomb testing in Nevada in the 1940’s & 50’s. The tail swept across the US and over where I grew up in CHicago. We are mostly all still here.

Over the centuries we tend to learn how to control the forces of new technology by killing people — not intentionally but by accident. The Gothic cathedrals of Europe collapsed during construction as the builders learned about foundations, construction techniques and the distribution of stresses. The Romans were smart — the designer got to stand under an arch while the construction supports were removed. A bit too Darwinian for my taste but it gave architects a real incentive to build things to last.

If we had the level of press coverage and public hysteria about air travel when the Comet jet liners started mysteriously blowing up in mid-air (terrorist-free) we would probably still be traveling by train and cruise ship. Not that this would necessarily have been a bad thing, you understand.

Nuclear is no different. I have hoped that we would have worked out the secret of fusion by now but clearly the power that operates the stars (and all of us) is still out of reach. With all the babbling about wind and other intermittent power sources aside, nuclear in my judgment is still the only viable technology for providing power to run a developing civilization. But the nuclear genie is dangerous and can kill. We know that and so do the poor people of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Chernobyl — seems Japan is getting a second reminder. But the real crime is not that our engineering control is imperfect but that we seem massively unwilling to learn from out mistakes and go on. That is not what happened with stone and metal construction, steam power, aviation — literally everything that has made us who and what we are. Perhaps we are getting tired of trying.

Followup: Two days later the news articles seem to be running two to one — stressing about how dangerous nuclear is and whether we should shutdown existing plants in North America.  Seems to be much more interesting than the suffering of the Japanese people and the efforts to come to their aid. Everyone seems to be saying that if a technology is not safe we should not even be trying to use it. A faustian bargain, one commenter said. Safe? Nothing we do is safe.  Personal transportation development focused on steam and electricity because gasoline wasn’t safe. And electricity?

By slowing down development and focusing on the up-front safety issues we maximize our chances that we will learn little from the experience.  And we lose sight of what is important — where the risks come from and what can we do to offset them.  And in this case, what needs to be done now to alleviate the suffering.  Learning from the mistakes of others can come a little later, since most of the world does not sit on a major fault zone.

And let us not also forget that by making it difficult to modify or replace these nuclear plants because we cannot be SURE that what we are doing is absolutely safe we ensure that the older designs continue to be used, thereby maximizing our exposure rather than minimizing it.  The old plants continue in use because there is no good replacement for the power they produce.  If we were sincere about safety we would encourage upgrading and replacement instead of trying to slow it down.  I guess this is another one of those conflicts between fantasy and reality — and as always, reality has it wrong.  But we persist in requiring the developers to guarantee safety for extended periods — not decades but centuries.  This is science fiction merging into religious myth.

Degrees and Dollars

Paul Krugman had an interesting column today in the New York Times. He was suggesting that the relationship between education and employment was a myth and had been for decades. My own experience suggests there is some truth to this and that we need to look beyond the nattering of our HR universal experts to determine what to do next. When I started working back in the 1960’s the economy was rumbling along and a wide range of jobs were open to anyone who showed an interest. Companies had expected to train new hires in the specifics of their industry and job needs,so there was no need for an exacting fit — good attitude, intelligence and adaptability were enough.

One could contrast this with the job requirements one reads today — very specific and exacting (recent) skills, for many experience is a disqualifier. So people are encouraged to ‘invest’ in an education and gamble that when they get out that jobs will be available in their specialty. And they will somehow manage to pay off the enormous debt that accumulates in the current ‘for profit’ education model. We will ignore the kinds of jobs for which a Phd is just an entry requirement.

What Krugman points out is that there has been a hollowing out of the job market — the real low end jobs are still there, the high priced jobs (for which ‘clubability’ and connections seem to count more than just ability). But the kinds of well-paying jobs that supported a robust middle class are largely gone — replaced by automation and foreign imports.

As society continues to re-feudalize, the growth of an impoverished lower class is inevitable, possibly even desirable for the ruling parties, the rich and fatuous, to maintain class distinctions. But there is a problem — without a supply of bread and circuses (reality TV?) this growing lower class will eventually explode and we start on another cycle of re-democratization. This has been the pattern for a while, certainly seems like it will continue.

But I would suggest that there is another alternative hinted at in the realms of scifi. If goods are being produced by automated processes, why work?  Food, shelter, medical care and access to education could be just government services. Population management will be a real issue of course. But education rather than mere skills development might lay the foundation for a new kind of society. Something to think about and question our assumptions and expectations.