Friday, August 28, 2009

 

Systemic Breakdown and Non-State Actors

This is kind of an offshoot from the previous post, in which I disagreed with the author of the discussed article by saying that the global system will not grow more complex, but rather now start breaking down, giving way to chaos and simplification. Somewhere way back (I can’t find the post right now), I said that non-state actors would increasingly challenge state power as they perceive the chinks in the armor of state power. Since that time we have seen this trend advance as the Somali pirates and Mexican drug cartels become ever bolder. Just the other day there was a report that Somali pirates had used a large-caliber weapon to fire on a US Navy helicopter. And there are reports that Mexican drug cartels have likewise armed themselves with military-grade weapons, and are launching attacks on such targets as police stations. And then there are the so-called “terrorist” groups (I put this in quotes because, as we know, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter).

A crucial question here is what will happen to the extensive infrastructure of industrial civilization as such increasingly powerful non-state actors take aim at the apparatus that keeps our civilization and societies going. Nigeria is a microcosm of this situation. What happens when it erupts on a worldwide scale? State actors will find their resources stretched when they are obliged to field military units to protect long pipelines, sea lanes, high-tension power lines, and the many facilities that supply our everyday needs. As state power inevitably wanes, non-state actors will step into the power vacuum and take over portions of the infrastructure, either holding it hostage, or perhaps running it for profit.

The answer for us Little People, of course, is to wean ourselves off dependence on this infrastructure to the greatest extent possible. That said, many people are in a position enabling them to take little action in that direction. But in truth, most people simply believe — or want to believe — that we’ll pull out of the “recession” and resume the happy days of economic growth. I wish them the best.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

 

Brave New World of Chaos

The other day I ran across a highly interesting essay over at World Politics Review titled “Risk and Resilience in a Globalized Age: Containing Chaos.” What caught my eye was “chaos” in the title, which is because I see chaos playing an ever bigger role in the world as the competition over a dwindling pie intensifies, and traditional structures start coming apart at the seams. The article makes some very good observations, and raises some questions in my mind that may not be the questions the author intended to raise. Following are a few comments. If you find this interesting, definitely read the article and draw your own conclusions.

First, globalization is seen to be a threat, which is an admission you will certainly not get from mainstream politicians, who relentlessly bombard us with propaganda about how globalization will make everyone affluent and happy. But the author correctly observes that the unintended consequence of globalization is a “supernetwork” that engulfs everything and threatens us because it’s quite literally out of our control. As such, the world system lurches from one crisis to another, dragging whole populations and countries around like a runaway bulldozer dragging a man who is helplessly digging in his heels in a futile effort to stop the machine.

Another interesting feature of this piece is the author’s identification of what he calls “parasites” of the global supernetwork. Let me quote the author’s description.
The third and final threat posed by globalization will be the emergence of super-empowered groups of individuals that compete with the nation-state for money and power. These groups, typically small, leverage easily accessed functions of the supernetwork for their personal benefit at great expense to the collective good. These small networks span the gamut from “trusted insiders” in financial industry to guerrilla/terrorist groups.
The author goes on to illustrate how these small groups pull the levers of this hyper-interconnected system to generate fantastically huge results and secure wealth and power incommensurate with the number of people actually involved.

As a prescription to deal with instability and lack of systemic control, the author recommends “the development of self-sufficient, decentralized systems at the local level — from economics to politics to food to energy to communications — that can operate successfully even when the larger system breaks down.” This is sage advice, of course. Note that the author does not see the global supernetwork breaking down, but rather growing more complex and stronger. Of course among those in the know, you will find little disagreement with the idea of decentralization and local self-sufficiency.

The next section discusses how to deal with “parasites,” and seems generally on the mark in the sense that it recommends against the use of large-scale, heavy-duty solutions such as launching military strikes. A recommended course of action is sowing discord among actors and co-opting them. One statement gives me pause for thought: “In some few cases, it will be impossible to leave the actors involved intact. In those cases, tightly targeted efforts (i.e., special operations) to eliminate these malicious groups will be required.” And what kind of actors would those be? Probably so-called “terrorists.” Of course, terrorism is abhorrent for the destruction and death it causes. But what about the other kinds of parasites, such as those who prey mercilessly on the rest of us to make themselves rich? Such parasites cause nationwide, or even global-scale financial and social disruption, and bring untold suffering and misery to millions of people throughout the world, which in my view is just as bad, or maybe even worse, than a terrorist who kills a few people in a bombing. Would it be all right to “eliminate” such evil and greedy people? Perhaps in the author’s worldview it’s all right to “eliminate” an olive-skinned Arab/Muslim “terrorist” (who likely believes he is getting back at gross injustice), while it’s not all right to “eliminate” a white Western financier who stole the wealth of uncountable people, while having no illusions about righting wrongs. Maybe that’s the reason that white Western Ponzi-scheme scam artists might go to prison, but they won’t be shot down on the street like dogs or murdered in their beds by “special operations” personnel, or bombed by drones. Food for thought, isn’t it? “Neutralization” isn’t always so neutral. And what should we do with the rogue US government/military elements who were behind 9/11?

For that matter, how would the author propose we deal with groups such as Bilderberg, those unelected elites who discuss our futures behind closed doors?

Finally, the piece ends with a section titled “Delivering Benefits and Improving Fairness.” If you subscribe to the “business as usual” worldview, the prescription set forth here sounds good. Enfranchisement, more-or-less equal pieces of pie, blah blah blah. Right on! But this is flawed by the underlying assumption that we’ll have plenty of resources and energy to work with. There is no acknowledgment — indeed there seems to be no awareness — of peak oil, and how expensive energy will be the primary driving force in global dynamics from now on. Surely the author, who obviously has some good analytical skills, has not overlooked the worldwide jockeying for position to lock down supplies of energy (especially oil) and other resources. Then there is the potential effect on the global supernetwork. Since globalization is the child of cheap energy, it is bound to undergo some kind of radical restructuring and simplification as energy gets more expensive. What will happen to global shipping? To the internet? In that sense, expensive energy will work to undermine the global supernetwork. Indeed, the author says of the supernetwork: “It’s unlikely that we will see any reversal in the spread of the global supernetwork. To the contrary, it will continue to expand, complexify, and intensify.” On the contrary, I think that industrial civilization is at or near its maximum complexity already, at which point it begins to break down and simplify. This has happened to all previous civilizations, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t happen to ours. We are already struggling with layers of complexity — each of which requires more energy. To cope with problems of increasing complexity and scale, we create a new agency or appoint a new “czar,” which only makes the problem worse. The system is already out of control, as we can see from the failure of all these governments, agencies, and czars to effect any meaningful change.

But whatever happens, I guarantee you that there will be plenty of chaos to go around.

Friday, August 21, 2009

 

Will “OPEC Greed” Wean the World off Oil?

Times Online has a rather misguided, or rather confused, article titled “Opec’s greed will herald the end of the oil age,” with the more explanatory subtitle “If producers keep prices high even when demand is slack, the world will be surprisingly quick to wean itself off fossil fuels.” That got me to actually read the article, because the world might as well wean itself off water if we realize that weaning ourselves off fossil fuels means the end of civilization as we know it.

The thesis seems to be that OPEC is cutting its own throat by pricing oil so high (which begs the question of why non-OPEC producers don’t sell their oil for $5/bbl, but we’ll ignore that for now). Lack of investment, it is claimed, is behind these high prices, and the author dismisses peak oil. But the idea behind peak oil is that, as easily accessible oil is depleted, we must move on to developing more expensive oil sources. This need for higher investment, and the need for oil-producing countries to balance their budgets and feed their burgeoning populations, are behind higher oil prices. After seemingly arguing against this, the author then goes on to acknowledge that high oil prices are needed for investment in the paragraph beginning “That [the lack of oil field development] will change over the next decade or so, if prices stay high” [my emphasis]. And that, dear reader, is exactly the point of peak oil. Higher oil prices are now required to sustain the development of new oil fields. And further, the author seems ignorant of the fact that oil infrastructure is literally rusting away. That too will require astronomical investment if the flow of oil is to be sustained.

So, what happened to weaning ourselves off oil? The claimed need for new investment to keep the oil flowing is just an acknowledgement that we aren’t anywhere close to doing that.

Ah, but technology will save the day!
When the 1970s oil shocks gave Japan a second whammy after a sharp revaluation of the yen had given it a first, its Government and industry set about transforming themselves from cheap clunker-producers into the world’s leading makers of semiconductors, consumer electronics and fuel-efficient cars — all within ten years.
And how did Japan accomplish this wondrous transformation? With cheap, abundant fossil fuel energy, of course. Fuel-efficient cars embody much fossil fuel energy, just like any other industrial product, not to mention the construction and maintenance of the roads they use. And semiconductors embody a shockingly huge amount of energy.

The usual forecasts, based on extrapolation of past trends, do not see electric cars or non-fossil fuel power plants having a really big impact for another 20-30 years. Imagine, though, the effect on innovation of oil at $100-200 a barrel, of hundreds of thousands of Chinese (and Japanese, European and America) engineers trying to do for solar power and for car batteries what has been done in the past decade for mobile phones and computers.
I’m sure there will be a lot of innovation at high oil prices, but the author seems blind to the total dependence on fossil fuels to make all these things. It’s the same simplistic argument that, if fossil fuels are too expensive, we’ll switch to electric vehicles, to renewable energy, and to nuclear power, while totally ignoring the fact that none of these things would be possible without fossil fuels.

In that sense, people like this former editor of The Economist are just dragging us into a deeper hole with their false promises of technological innovation saving the day.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

 

Wind Turbines and Maintenance

Opening this morning’s newspaper here in Japan, I found an article on problems facing wind power in Japan, mainly the northern island of Hokkaido. While the public seems to have a rosy picture of renewables — thanks to the relentless propaganda put out by governments and corporations — there is next to no knowledge about the surprising drawbacks.

Let me cite some of the information given in this article (unfortunately I could not find anything in English online, so trust me). Three-quarters of the wind turbines installed in Hokkaido and Japan as a whole are foreign-made, which may surprise many people who think of Japan as a major “green technology” exporter. A point made here is that when wind turbines break down and need parts, they are out of service for long time periods for the parts to arrive and be installed. One municipality in Hokkaido says its foreign-made turbines are typically out of service for three months while waiting for maintenance! Of the total 267 turbines in Hokkaido, 74% are foreign-made, and in FY2007, 62 of them were out of commission for at least one month.

What can we learn from this? Of course many will say the lesson is that using domestically made wind turbines is the answer. That would indeed shorten down time because replacement parts could be obtained quickly. But the real important lesson here is the surprising number of turbine breakdowns reported. And when a turbine breaks down, that requires maintenance personnel to come with cranes or even helicopters to do the repairs. The cranes in turn need access roads, and those roads too must be built and maintained. So the important lesson here is that once the petroleum economy falters, so will maintenance on windmills and other renewable energy infrastructure, not to mention conventional sources of power.

Because the world public is ceaselessly bombarded with upbeat information about renewables, people naturally have woefully unrealistic expectations about what renewables can do. Instead of beating the drums, rolling out the bandwagon, and passing out pairs of rose-colored glasses, proponents need to be honest with themselves, and with the public about what we can expect from renewables, which is far less than most people understand.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

 

Solar Panels and Dust

Everyone is so bullish on renewables these days that you can’t tell them anything negative. One problem with solar panels that I have repeatedly raised is dust. It’s everywhere, and the atmosphere is full of it — it’s estimated that about 1,000 tons of dust fall to Earth from space each year. That’s a lot of dust, and it coats everything, including solar panels. And more dust is kicked up by the wind.

An article that describes the seriousness of this problem is Dust clouds sap UAE's solar panels’ power. Desert countries are of course best suited to photovoltaic generation, but keep in mind that arid regions also have a bigger problem with dust, and you can get a glimpse of just how big from this article. That means PV panels have to be frequently cleaned to maintain optimum power production, and that of course requires a further expenditure of energy for maintenance.

Oh, and did I mention that fossil fuels are needed to make solar panels? But I digress.

Now we have ideas for setting up vast solar arrays in desert countries and exporting the power to other countries. And the bigger the solar park, the more people and machines will be needed to keep making the rounds and cleaning the panels, especially after a dust storm. This continuing expenditure of energy for maintenance needs to be taken into account. If cleaning is neglected, then before you know it a solar park’s output will drop to half or even below as dust continues to accumulate.

In fact, all renewable energy installations will likewise need maintenance, which in turn requires access roads, vehicles, boats (if offshore), personnel, and other various energy expenditures. Much of it will be dependent on fossil fuels. I’m all in favor of building renewable energy projects, but proponents need to cool their heads and think more rationally about what renewable energy hardware will cost over the long term.

Friday, August 07, 2009

 

Low Oil Profits and Energy Development

Lately there has been a spate of reports on the plummeting earnings of oil companies. Many people will no doubt experience a moment of schadenfreude in the belief that the oil companies deserve this for sticking it to us and basking in fat profits. But let’s think carefully about this for a moment. Since all the easy oil has been found, this means that finding and developing new oil fields — which is essential if we want to continue using oil — will become more and more expensive over time. Therefore, oil companies will have to dedicate increasing amounts of money to exploration and development, and that money will come from their profits. So in that sense, their inability to keep being very profitable will translate into their inability to keep up the pace of finding and developing new oil fields.

As I write this, the world economy is still in the toilet, but oil is over $70/bbl. That’s because it’s costing more to find oil and get it out of the ground — and increasingly, to get it out of the sea bed. So profitability for oil companies is now more important than ever.

Think about that the next time you gas up your car.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

 

The Cost of Energy

A few days ago Businessweek’s site had an article on DARPA’s efforts to find alternative energy sources. Frankly I doubt very strongly that DARPA will pull any rabbits out of its hat, unless it has that Holy Grail, “alien technology.” But for now, I’m totally discounting that possibility, for reasons I explained here.

Anyway, the article makes this very revealing statement.
The U.S. forces deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq are voracious consumers of energy. As a result they have become perilously dependent on long, costly, and vulnerable convoys of diesel-fuel tankers. More vehicles are used to transport and guard the fuel—mostly for running generators for air conditioning, laptops, and other gear at U.S. bases and posts—than are deployed in actual combat, according to a May report by the Military Advisory Board. With the expense of convoys and guards thrown in, the cost of a gallon of fuel used at the front can range from $15 to several hundred dollars, says the same report.
There are some juicy tidbits of information here. For example, transporting the fuels requires the services of more vehicles than are used in combat itself. Of course the dollar value range given in the quote is instructive, but this fact about the vehicle requirement is really telling. This large expenditure of money, personnel, and vehicles (which all comes down to energy) just to get fuel to the front reminds me of the “net Hubbert curve” that is so much in the news these days (if you haven’t yet read this Oil Drum article, I urge you to do so at your earliest possible convenience).

Another interesting tidbit is what the fuel is used for: mainly to power electric appliances and electronic gear. Here we get a glimpse of how energy-intensive these industrialized, high-tech military forces are, and of course how vulnerable they are to fuel shortages. Which brings to mind the question of how the rag-tag enemy (for lack of a better term) forces manage without so much high-tech communications gear, air conditioning, laptops, and the like. They seem to be putting up an amazingly good fight with certainly much less high-tech gear, and a far lower energy expenditure. And recall from the previous post that high-tech gear itself also gobbles up huge amounts of energy in its manufacture.

As I write this, the world economy is still in the toilet, yet oil is trading at close to $70/bbl. I don’t know about you, but I wonder about the future of such energy-intensive, high-tech warfare. Sooner or later, it’s back to horses.

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