Saturday, July 30, 2011

Does Glenn Beck understand "Peak Oil"?

I just read this interesting article which makes the case that the Tea Party at some level understands that continued growth is becoming a problem, and that is why they want to gut the federal government. Now I think they want to cut all the wrong things, but fundamentally if growth is slowing then we will have to cut back our expectations of what the government can do as well. The standard 'liberal' response - Keynesian stimulus to get growth to return is probably not going to help much this time.

The other evidence I offer up is on page 94 of Glenn Beck's book "An Inconvenient Book". Glenn Beck has been loosely associated with the Tea Party movement although I don't know if he officially considers himself a member. I don't normally watch Mr. Beck or read or buy his books, but this one was left in my house recently. Now this book which was copyright in 2007 has a worthless chapter on climate change. However, on page 94 the book states:

"It may not be a widely advertised fact, but US oil production peaked way back in 1970. Now attention has shifted to another, more important peak: the global one. Even the most optimistic among us believe that peak will happen within the next 25 years. Many of the, let's call them "less optimistic" people, believe it will happen within the next five years. Some even believe that it's already happened."

So Beck (or at least his ghostwriter) understands the Peak Oil problem and did in 2007 - way before I had ever heard of it. The whole chapter is about peak oil, and does a credible job of explaining it, even showing a Hubbert Peak graph, talks about the lack of available substitutes, the problems with ethanol, etc. He even says Jimmy Carter had the right idea way back in the 70's! I was astonished to see this in a "Tea Party" book. Now his proposed short-term solution is horrific - a crash 'coal to liquids' program which would effectively kill the planet via global warming, but Mr. Beck denies that particular problem.

The question is, can an understanding of peak oil be used in some way to forge a common ground between sustainability advocates and 'tea partiers' ? A lot of what we advocate is just good old frugalism, resilience, do-it-yourself kind of stuff which should have great appeal to the tea party as I understand it. If common ground can be found, might some be willing to listen to reason on other issues like climate change, sustainable living, etc. and not just think its all a giant UN plot to foist socialism on us?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Paleoclimate: Climate Change Lessons from the Past

USGS Science in Action, Public Lecture Series
WHEN: Wednesday, August 3; 7 PM
WHERE: Dallas Peck Auditorium, U.S. Geological Survey National Center, 12201 Sunrise Valley Drive, Reston, VA
PROGRAM: According to USGS, its scientists have partnered with international experts in climate modeling to study the Earth's conditions three million years ago. The purpose of this effort is to gain insight into the impacts of future climate. Dr. Harry Dowsett will talk about how we use that information to help understand the magnitude of changes forecast for the end of this century. After a short presentation, a panel of climate change experts will answer questions from the audience. FLYER
CONTACT: For additional information, contact the USGS Visitor Center in Reston at 703-648-4748.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Farm to Fork Loudoun

From Leesburg Today:

More than a year's planning will come to fruition later this month when the Farm-to-Fork Loudoun partnership between local chefs and restaurants, farmers and vintners will showcase the best of Loudoun's culinary skills and agricultural products.

From July 21-31, residents and visitors will have the fun of going to different restaurants around Loudoun to enjoy a specially created menu by the chefs that will be composed of at least 70 percent local fruits and vegetables, meats, dairy products and wines. The Farm-to-Fork Loudoun menu will be an addition to each eatery's normal offerings.

For details see:
Middleburg life article



By Tony Noerpel

“Economics may make our recessions deeper, longer and more intractable, when the public is entitled to expect economics to have precisely the opposite effect.” Steve Keen, Debunking Economics [1].
Viewed from outside the economics discipline has three salient characteristics. First economics does not take into account energy flow through society. Second, after three centuries economics has not developed a single universally accepted theory within the discipline. Third economics cannot make successful predictions nor give useful advice. It would be difficult to claim economics is a science.
As to my first complaint, there have been several economists who have recognized the importance of energy flow within an economy including notably Frederick Soddy [2], Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen [3], Robert Costanza [4] and Herman Daly [5] and at least two schools of economic thought have evolved which concede the importance of entropy: ecological economics and biophysical economics. To be precise, the economy runs on exosomatic energy and is ultimately limited by low entropy sources as well as high entropy wastes. Economic schools which ignore energy flow (most of them apparently) cannot possibly be useful. Ecologists, anthropologists, climate physicists and scientists and engineers in other disciplines recognize that complex systems are chaotic, dynamic and non-linear. The human economy is a complex system. It cannot be modeled as a static linear system simply because that’s what economists know how to do.
The failure of modern economics is not limited to the resource side of the human economy but is evident on the output or waste side as well. Anthropologists such as Jared Diamond [6], William Catton [7] and Joseph Tainter [8] recognize the importance of the accumulation of high entropy waste as destructive to economies and society. Most economic schools turn a blind eye towards the profound environmental costs associated with unregulated free markets.
As to my second observation, there are not a plethora of diverse schools of physicists. There is not a school of physics which rejects Newtonian Mechanics or believe that gravity is repulsive or that things fall up. There are no biologists who doubt Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Your computer and your smart phone work because engineers universally accept Quantum Mechanics and Maxwell’s Equations, and these theories turn out to be exceptionally good models which we can use to predict how the real world works. Nothing of the sort exists in economics. Friedman has his followers, Marx his, Schumpeter his, and Keynes his and so on who apparently squabble amongst themselves while never understanding the big picture. This does not mean that there are not fundamental truths which might be applied to the human economy, just that economists as a group have not discovered them. Economics as a discipline has degenerated into collection of ideologies far outside the influence of the scientific method.
The most pervasive, notorious and destructive school of economics in the United States today is the extreme free-market school of Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand. In fact, the Ayn Randian economist Alan Greenspan was forced to concede “I made a mistake.” in testimony before Congress, October 23, 2008. The Wall Street Journal article continues: “In his prepared remarks to the committee, Mr Greenspan said he was in “a state of shocked disbelief” about the breakdown in the ability of banks to regulate themselves.” Skeptics were not shocked.
Before there is a misunderstanding, my targets are ideologies. Communist central planning and unregulated capitalism to a skeptical thinker are different variations of the same thing. To criticize the deficiencies of one is not to praise the other. It is possible to recognize the limitations of both of these extreme opinions. Specifically, the United States today does not have a problem with too many liberal ideologues nor is it in danger of falling into the hands of communists hordes. We are overrun with conservative ideologues. They are worse than stink bugs.
Regards my third observation, the exception which proves the rule is Nouriel Roubini’s forecast on September 7, 2006 of the recent economic collapse while addressing an International Monetary Fund meeting in Washington D. C. [9]. He predicted that the nation’s economy would soon suffer “a housing bust, a brutal oil shock, sharply declining consumer confidence and an inevitable deep recession.” His speech was greeted by economists with shocked disbelief. Had he given the same talk even several years earlier to a gathering of the peak oil community (biophysical economists, scientists and engineers who all understand entropy), it would have been unremarkable except for the rich detail he provided. What puzzles me is not Roubini’s prediction which in my view was robust but the reaction of the economic community to this bit of reality revelation. Robert Shiller also accurately predicted the housing bubble [10] but by contrast the neo-classical economists Margaret and Gary Smith estimated that housing was cheap in 2006, just before the collapse [11]. Neo-classical economists of the Friedman/Rand ilk are shackled to their absurd ideology.
More revealing perhaps is John McCain’s economic advisor, economist and former senator Phil Gramm’s remarks in an interview with the Washington Times, July 9, 2008 “You’ve heard of mental depression; this is a mental recession …We have sort of become a nation of whiners” The recession officially began in the fourth quarter 2007. Not only cannot neo-classical economists make reliable forecasts, they cannot predict events which have already happened.
The economist Steve Keen writes, “economics would have us believe that it is a science, fully able to stand tall beside the more conventional physical sciences and mathematics…you may be inclined to doubt that belief.…The position I favor is that economics is a science, but a rather pathological one. I am particularly critical of what has occurred since 1950, but I still hold out hope of better behavior in the future.”
“But before better behavior can take widespread root, economics will have to wean itself from a methodological myth. This is the proposition first put forward by Milton Friedman that a theory cannot be judged by its assumptions but only by the accuracy of its predictions.”
This methodological myth is called the F-twist in Friedman’s honor. He first articulated this remarkable bit of logic in a 1953 paper when confronted with the fact that his assumptions underpinning his economic theories were wrong. In Standard English the F-twist logic is that it does not matter if one’s assumptions are invalid (which fact Freidman readily conceded) so long as one ends up with the correct result. How one is supposed to know that one’s results are correct when the assumptions are clearly wrong is left as an exercise for the skeptic. Free-market economists don’t ask questions.
Keen describes a battle that took place in the 50’s and 60’s between the economic heretics of Cambridge University and the economic true believers led by Paul Samuelson of MIT. Keen writes “Summing up the conflict in 1966, Paul Samuelson observed that the heretics ‘merit our gratitude’ for pointing out that the simple homilies of economic theory are not in general true.”
Keen quotes Samuelson: “If all this causes headaches for those nostalgic for the old time parables of neoclassical writing, we must remind ourselves that scholars are not born to live an easy existence, We must respect, and appraise, the facts of life.”
Keen’s book is well worth the read. With regard to my first complaint that economics ignores energy flow, Keen writes in his introduction that his aim is to debunk the discipline using economic arguments themselves and so prove that it is internally inconsistent. This he does masterfully. He does acknowledge in a footnote that any evolution of economics towards assimilating reality has to account for environmental degradation. I asked Keen privately why he excluded ecological economics from his list of alternative economic theories and he replied: “I was limited by space to comparing only the larger schools of thought in economics, and unfortunately ecological economics is still small compared to Post Keynesian, Austrian, etc.” And indeed he does cite several papers by Costanza, a biophysical economist. Keen is preparing a second edition to be published this fall.
During the 1970’s the biophysicist Carl Woese, discovered that what biologists once thought of as one domain of life, bacteria, was in fact two distinct domains of life, bacteria and archaea, while studying their RNA. This raised the hackles of biologists and taxonomists initially, but because he had the data, the biologists in short order got over the angst of being scooped by an outsider and now fully embrace Woese’s new tree of life. It took maybe a decade. During the same time period, the four authors of Limits to Growth, Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Randers and William Behrens, systems analysts, scooped economists by applying dynamic modeling to economics. Economists reacted with vitriolic, nauseating and irrational jealousy and not just initially but to this day. If economics were a real science, they’d have capitulated within a decade just like the biologists. Instead, the economists’ assault was so effective, that even today, whenever I mention the Limits to Growth, I’m informed that the reason the Meadows et al got it wrong was that they didn’t take economics into account and ignored price signals, substitution and the law of supply and demand and so on. I’m amused. They got it right and specifically because they did ignore economics. And there is no substitution for low entropy.
One might better ask why a genius of the caliber of Friedman got it wrong. In The Believing Brain [12], the psychologist Michael Shermer writes “smart people believe weird things because they are skilled as defending beliefs they arrived at for nonsmart reasons.” Keen explains that undergraduate economics text books are so bad that critical and skeptical thinkers are systematically weeded out by Econ 101. Only ideologues survive into graduate studies in economics. My own personal experience is with the neo-classical economist Gregory Mankiw’s unreliable and unverifiable text book [13]. This is the only text book I’ve seen which has no references. It is simply shoddy propaganda.
Unfortunately, for all of us, Keen may be forced to hold out hope economics gets its act together for a long time.
There is some good news. The physical chemist Ugo Bardi has just written Limits to Growth Revisited which covers the technical aspects of dynamic modeling as well as the “political reactions to the original, how it was demonized and misunderstood, and what is its relevance to the present situation of the world” [14]. And one of the original authors of Limits to Growth, Jorgen Randers, is preparing a sequel to be published sometime next year [15].
[1] Steve Keen, Debunking Economics, 2001. ON Keen’s web site there is indication that Keen is preparing an updated version to be released soon, so you may want to wait for that.
[2] Frederick Soddy, Wealth Virtual Wealth and Debt, 1926.
[3] Nicholas Georgescu Roegen, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, 1971, 1999.
[4] Robert Costanza, Lisa Graumlich, Will Steffen, eds., Sustainability or Collapse, 2005.
[5] Herman Daly, Beyond Growth, 1996.
[6] Jared Diamond, Collapse, 2004
[7] William Catton, Bottleneck, 2009.
[8] Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, 1988.
[9] Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm, Crisis Economics, 2010.
[10] Robert J. Shiller, “Long-Term Perspectives on the Current Boom in Home Prices,” Economists’ Voice March, 2006.
[11] Margaret Hwang Smith and Gary Smith, “Bubble, Bubble, Where’s the Housing Bubble?” Preliminary draft prepared for the Brookings Panel on Economic Activity, March 30-31, 2006.
[12] Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain, 2011.
[13] Gregory Mankiw, Principles of Economics, 2007

Monday, July 11, 2011

Loudoun Green Drinks Meeting Thursday, July 14th

Come out after work to have dinner or a drink and meet new folks at this month's Loudoun Green Drinks meeting. Loudoun Green Drinks is an informal networking of green businesses and consumers that come together on the 2nd Thursday of each month to discuss eco-friendly products, services and find ways to create more demand. For more information, please visit the Loudoun Green Drinks facebook page.

Thursday, July 14, 2011
6:00pm - 9:00pm
Vintage 50, 50 Catoctin Cir. NE #100, Leesburg, VA

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Virginia Offshore Wind Energy

Tony Noerpel
On June 22, I attended the Virginia Offshore Wind Conference in Virginia Beach sponsored by the Sierra Club in cooperation with industry, government and other NGOs. There is considerable momentum up and down the east coast of the United States to develop this technology. The amount of energy which could be generated is quite impressive. Jane Twitmyer wrote about this in a past Sustainable Planet article [1]. Indeed, it is estimated that Virginia offshore wind could produce up to 83 percent of current electricity consumption in the state by one study [2] eliminating all fossil fuel consumption for electricity generation and displace 29.6 million metric tons of atmospheric carbon emissions. Another study by George Hagerman, one of the plenary speakers and Patrick Hatcher, speaker at this year’s REHAU/Sustainable Loudoun awards ceremony for regional science and engineering fair winners, estimates that the total potential wind farm capacity on Virginia’s outer continental shelf between 3 and 50 nautical miles is about 48 GigaWatts [3].
Conservation however is still the most important and necessary strategy to address global warming, resource depletion and energy security. From Figure 1, if Americans reduce our exosomatic energy consumption by 65% we would be on par with current European usage and at the same time be able to increase our quality of life to European standards. And Europe already has plans to do even better than that. Since electricity and transportation each use about half of total energy consumption, 83 percent of electrical power is roughly 42 percent of total power. But if we can cut total consumption by 65 percent then in fact Virginia would export energy. If we only build out some offshore wind and increase consumption by that amount then it isn’t worth doing.
In fact all new energy must come from conservation in America and indeed our conservation strategy should be aggressive enough to allow us to retire old coal fired power plants and nuclear power plants. This is the cheapest form of energy but there is no market based mechanism to make this happen. Federal regulation, subsidy, carbon tax and mandate are required. This is one point on which the conservative Republican congressman Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) and I, a liberal progressive, completely agree. This agreement bridging extremes of the political spectrum does not in and of itself mean we are correct but it does suggest that maybe people should at least consider the concept. What makes our case compelling is that both of us are well informed and our shared opinion is verifiable, i.e., we reference the peer-reviewed scientific literature.
Dominion, which dominates energy and climate policy in Virginia, has a senior vice president, Mary Doswell, responsible for alternative energy, and it is quite remarkable that the importance of alternatives has such a high level of visibility within the company. Doswell presented a rather complete list of technologies which the company is considering including offshore wind. Conservation, the most obvious and best solution, was absent from the list. There is simply no way that Dominion can make money selling less. Turning neo-classical economics on its head, clearly energy cooperatives would be a preferable organizational strategy to private enterprise at least in the energy distribution industry. Dominion, as with other private energy companies, is focused specifically on how to make more money, i.e., self interest, which is at odds with the public good. Dominion will support whatever technology makes them the most money so long as the public pays for externalities such as pollution and cancers, which means the scales are heavily tilted towards coal.
The keynote speaker was State Senator Frank Wagner. Wagner maintained that offshore wind energy might be good for jobs and contribute to reducing our dependence on foreign oil. Wagner is a global warming denier and is unaware of America’s energy crises. He mentioned that fossil fuels will be the main source of energy for centuries. We most likely do not have enough fossil fuels for that to happen, and if we do, we will so utterly compromise the environment that Homo sapiens extinction becomes the likely outcome [4].
A few speakers did acknowledge Anthropogenic Global Warming, being nearly apologetic about it as if denial is actually a rational alternative position to take. Imagine a politician or policy lobbyist saying “The GPS satellite system is important even for those of us who do not accept the controversial science that suggests the Earth may not be flat…” or “even though the science supporting a heliocentric solar system is not settled we still need to teach our children about gravity so that they don’t fall down the steps.” Anthropogenic global warming is not a scientific controversy and denial is irrational. We need to demand that our elected officials tell the truth.
It was pointed out by several speakers that most of the manufacturing occurs in countries which have strong government commitments to alternative energy and available subsidy such as Denmark, Spain and Germany. So we will have to import most of the stuff to build these offshore wind generators from those countries. No speaker verbalized the obvious connection that these countries acknowledge global warming and resource depletion. While this conference was a step in the right direction, it is a step which should have been taken 40 years ago. The tone of politicians like Wagner suggests that we will continue to fall further behind until our economic situation is hopeless and the destruction of the biosphere is beyond several critical turning points. The alternative energy manufacturing which does occur in the United States takes place in the 35 states which have mandatory Renewable energy Portfolio Standards (RPSs). Virginia has a rather weak voluntary standard, which apparently you have to quickly apologize to Dominion every time you bring this up.
A “Smart from the Start” program was established in the Midwest [4] to ensure that land-based wind energy did not negatively impact the environment. Of particular concern was the preservation of leks, which are sites where migrating birds reproduce. Apparently we do not know how to artificially build these and so once they are destroyed they are gone for good as are the birds which now no longer reproduce [5]. This was conveyed to me by a biologist in the audience. I asked if most of these leks hadn’t already been destroyed by farming and strip mining. He didn’t know. Still we can site a wind tower pretty much anywhere and easily avoid more sensitive locations.
The “Smart from the start” program as applied to off-shore wind in Virginia was initiated by the Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar [6]. This program is intended to kickstart offshore wind energy. Money has been approved to conduct an audit of existing ocean species so that potential threats can be monitored and studied and more sensitive areas can be avoided. While such a study is required for countless other reasons, there appears to be no motivation to produce an estimate of the ocean ecosystem as it was before Europeans arrived, such as the survey performed by Heike Lotze [7] on several United States estuaries, so that we can determine how close to extirpation these species already are from current human misbehavior, such as factory farming, pollution, over fishing, over use of shipping lanes, fossil fuel extraction and military activity. There is no intent to regulate the practices which are already causing the sixth major extinction event [8], whether or not we ever build a single off-shore wind energy generator.
Lobbyists representing these destructive practices are campaigning to make sure wind energy does not “negatively” impact their misbehavior. This includes the military first of all but also fisheries. The fishery lobby was represented by a very slick and articulate lawyer who worried about the impact of wind plant where fishermen currently drag their destructive nets across the ocean floor, destroying every life form except perhaps jelly-fish and harmful bacteria. If wind energy interferes with this practice then it is worth building even if we never generate one kWhr.
It is remarkable that we are front loading a promising new technology with costs to preserve an environment which no longer exists and additional costs so as not to interfere with the very practices which destroyed that environment in the first place. Am I the only person who gets this profound irony?
Wouldn’t it be smart to have a similar “smart while it is not already too late” program for the human misbehavior which is the real problem, like mountaintop removal, drag line fishing, shipping, military activities, factory farming, fertilizing lawns and so on?
Two expert presenters described these smart from the start activities. Both worked with The Virginia Institute for Marine Studies (VIMS) neither had heard of Robert Condon [9], a recent graduate and his salient paper describing how we are transforming the oceans into a jellyfish-based ecosystem from the fish-based ecosystem with which we actually evolved and desperately need. I gave one of them a list of references which I’ve cited in my articles in the past including the Condon and Lotze papers.
These are my major top-down take-aways from the conference. Cost is a driver, the cost of borrowing is important, we need to think regionally not just per project, We need a mandatory RPS in Virginia, and clear regulation and federal and state support so that manufacturing companies are encouraged to locate their facilities and “jobs” in Virginia or the US. And we need government subsidy to kick start this nascent industry such as was done in UK, Germany Spain and Denmark where it is most impressively successful.
Is it possible to encourage Dominion to aggressively pursue conservation instead of the Wise county coal fired power plant? This would be feasable if Dominion were a cooperative since it would be owned by rate payers who would have every incentive to reduce costs the most effective way possible. This is one demonstration that private enterprise is not the best institutional mechanism for many human activities such as power distribution. Think about how much insulation and caulking that coal power plant would have paid for and how many jobs for energy auditors and installers. But there is no market based mechanism to enforce or encourage rational behavior. It is ironic that rational behavior is actually precluded by the inefficiencies of the market.
Another lesson is that we cannot continue to use the energy security excuse to encourage appropriate behavior. We have to accept global warming and resource depletion and agree to do something about those two very real problems or we will not get this done. We’ve been using the energy security argument for 40 years and it has failed utterly. We have to stop condoning lies. Our energy is not insecure simply because it comes from countries which do not like us because we’ve overthrown their constitutional governments in the past to protect our various industries, or because we have from time to time replaced their democratically elected governments with ruthless dictators. Our energy is insecure because we waste so much of it. And our future is insecure because of the way we treat the biosphere. Our military is not a “solution” but perhaps the largest part of the problem, as one speaker mentioned, the US military is the single largest user of energy in our nation and uses more energy than most countries so that downsizing the military would solve a host of problems, such as its presence would no longer interfere with viable solutions such as off-short wind energy generation.
Figure 1 annual per capita fossil fuel consumption in metric tonnes of carbon.
[1] Jane Twitmyer, Wind Energy, an Alternative to PATH, March 8, 2011,
[2] Simon Mahan, Isaac Pearlman, Jacqueline Savitz, Untapped Wealth: Offshore wind can deliver cleaner, more affordable energy and more jobs than offshore oil, Oceana, September, 2010.
[3] George Hagerman, Patrick Hatcher, Kenneth Newbold, Jonathan Miles, Virginia Offshore Wind Studies, July 2007 to March 2010, Final Report, Virginia Coastal energy Research Consortium, 20 April 2010.
[4] Tony Noerpel,
[7] Heike Lotze, “Historical reconstruction of human-induced changes in the U. S. Estuaries”, Oceanography and Marine Biology: An Annual Review, 2010, 48, 267-338.
[8] Anthony D. Barnosky, Nicholas Matzke, Susumu Tomiya, Guinevere O. U.Wogan, Brian Swartz, Tiago B. Quental, Charles Marshall, Jenny L. McGuire, Emily L. Lindsey, Kaitlin C. Maguire, Ben Mersey and Elizabeth A. Ferrer, Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived?, Nature, Vol. 471, 3 March 2011.
[9] Robert H. Condon, Deborah K. Steinberg, Paul A. Del Giorgio, Thierry C. Bouvier, Deborah A. Bronk, William M. Graham, Hugh W. Ducklow, Jellyfish blooms result in a major microbial respiratory sink of carbon in marine systems, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2011; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1015782108. See also