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Common sense alert

Over on bad science blog Depleted Cranium, we have a fun essay titled The Top Ten Things Environmentalists Need to Learn.

I can't commend this piece too highly. Expecting everyone to dump their standard of living in the shitter in order to save the environment is not a realistic strategy because humans don't work that way: it'd require the equivalent of a mass religious conversion, and we have a technical term for periods of history that involve mass religious conversions: we call them interesting. (Usually from a remove of several centuries.) If you really want to know how humans work, in the mass, you need to look to economics; and if you want to effect positive environmental change, you need to figure out how to make people want it.

I've said this before and I'll say it again: the modern environmentalist movement is a puritan religious movement in secular drag. But that doesn't mean that fixing our environmental problems isn't a good idea. Nor are we going to get there by wearing sackcloth and ashes, mortifying the flesh, and trying to live like mediaeval subsistence-farming peasants. Read this article. Then start thinking.




Hmmm... I thought European environmentalists is tamed in present days, and to be environmentalistic now means to replace gas-eating/CO2 producing energy sources with solar power and so on... (there is still a lot of old-fashioned back-to-pampas style people here in russian-language-memspace, but they have no any significant political power)


Finagle, there are still some pretty wild enviromentalists out this way. They've been banging on about air-travel for the last year or so, and about the miniscule amounts of CO2 produced (indirectly) by appliances on standby for a little longer.


Interesting. However, given the way the nuclear lobby has gone over the problem zones in favor of economical gains makes me still refuse more Nuclear Power Plants. The technology is dangerous and those dangers are not yet easily controlled - nor do the companies running Nuclear Power Stations try to be open about the usual glitches and improve their processes. Instead they try to sweep it under the carpet and go on like nothing ever happened.

In short: the Risk/Benefit ratio doesn't cut it for me.

So what's the solution to the problem of Final Deposit of Nuclear Waste?
What's the solution to the inherent technical complexity of Nuclear Power Plants?
What's the solution to the human error in handling the complexity?
What's the solution to the fact that *if* a catastrophe happens in a Nuclear Power Plant, large areas may be uninhabitable for a considerable amount of time?


It's funny to read this after reading all the sturm und drang about Al Gore only purchasing carbon offsets and purchasing green electricity last year, instead of wearing sackcloth and living in a yurt in a national forest.

I'm all for pro-environment and non-austerity.


Axel: you might want to read my (earlier) piece: "nothing like this will be built again".

(Hint: reactors are not inherently technically complex, in the sense of inevitably risky and impossible to understand. There are solutions to human error problems, and properly designed systems are physically incapable of going the way of Chernobyl; I think you've been reading too much alarmist propaganda. Quibbles about the way the nuclear lobby behaves at a political level are, however, somewhat justifiable ...)


Hmm... First, the article is "interesting", indeed ;-)
But I wonder if it's not slightly (or not so slightly...) bad science to lump all environmentalists in one category. Or to say things like "humans are like this" as if a) it was a fixed, absolute trait of character and b) one had the one and only Truth.

Sorry, maybe it's bad form for a first post, but I couldn't resist the snark ^^


Whoa! Scary amounts of crazy in the comments section of that blog. Particularly creepy is Ecofriend, whose political attitude seems to be stuck in 1980's East Germany. Did he really call for these talking points to be taken down, just because he disagrees with them?


NelC: I'm slowly coming to the opinion that puritanism is an infectious mental disease. I'd typify its outcome as the blind fear that someone, somewhere, might be enjoying themselves, but I'm unsure as to the precise cause. However, it's usually found in conjunction with an ideological framework, which it then overwhelms and uses as an excuse for excesses of anti-hedonism.

You see it in self-proclaimed Christians of the subtype who are obsessed with what other people get up to in bed, you see it in Salfi Islam (never mind veiling, these are people who tear down gravestones! Because to identify someone's dead ancestor's resting place is vanity!), and you see secular outbreaks of the disease in many strains of socialism and most strains of environmentalism.

Strip prescriptive puritanism out of any belief structure and the ideology in question almost always turns out to be a whole lot less noxious.

So where does the anhedonic impulse come from?


After wasting several weekends looking for a new car, we finally gave up and bought a 2nd prius. They're nice cars. My wife fell in love with the Smart ForTwo, so we ordered one but they're on an 8-15 month waiting list.

So, I have seen some analyses that say, a prius in the long run costs as much energy as a normal car. But, at a gut level, somehow it feels better than driving a hummer. Speaking as an old hippie, I agree that there is a religious component (earth-mother worship ala wicca) to environmentalism -- the one surviving child of the hippie movement.

Plus, who knows who funded the analyses I saw? GM?

Re one of the comments above: on nuclear waste disposal, I have always wondered why we couldn't dump it in the Marianas trench or other subduction zones. I guess it's because they're too slow. Still, that would maybe just increase the thickness of concrete you have to wrapper the waste in before dumping? Need someone to do the math.

Re source of anhedonic impulse (interesting question): thinking as evolutionary biologist/psychologists (which surely we all are), maybe it is an alternative meme that somehow stays dormant and is triggered normally by local overpopulation or abnormally for random reasons. Look at the chastity enforced in bollywood movies, I had figured this was the Indian alternative to China's draconian population control measures.


I'm with Irene @6: that whole piece reeks of a strawman argument and the comment section is a cesspit. The fact that it draws the usual suspects (must be attracted to the smell of rotting straw) doesn't help. And (per @4) I think it's possible to live a post-agrarian life with wrecking the planet, but neither side is getting us any closer with these simplistic attacks.

It's not so much a Puritan or anhedonic impulse as an uninformed panic. There's a lot we don't understand (some of us understand very little) about what makes this planet work so well. there are cycles that our puny lifespans don't allow us to see, and there are effects that we are slow to pick up on. Is it wrong to want to slow down or modify our behavior until we figure these things out, even a little more clearly?

Understand that a lot of these models and scenarios are based on science, some good and some bad: we may not know which is good or bad for awhile. If one scenario I've heard comes to pass -- the melting of Greenland's ice sheets re-routes the Gulf Stream away from western Europe -- what will happen? This may be cyclical, exascerbated by man's activities. Or it may be entirely manmade.

There is a real sense of smugness in these arguments, an unearned certainty, that looks exactly like the imagined enemy. Time will tell. I hope both sides are wrong, if that could be worked out.


Speaking as a child of back to the land hippies (who are still going strong, by the way; I work for them and I'm proud of it) I couldn't agree more, though with a few caveats. The trouble with religious movements has always been less the religion than the so-called missionary spirit. There's nothing wrong with adapting a simpler lifestyle, especially if it works for you: but bullying other people into one will make nothing but a lot of miserable people.

I do like the list -- again, with a few caveats. The biggest is something that even environmentalists seem ignorant of, which simply drives me wild -- namely, that the biggest, baddest problem with the current agricultural method and its high use of pest- and herbicides isn't that it's all unnatural and stuff, it's that those technologies are going away. As with antibiotics, we have reached a tipping point where resistance is increasing at a greater rate than we are discovering new pesticides. The consequences of this are severe, not just for our current model of agricultural production but for things like diseases currently held in check by pesticide use (malaria is the biggie there -- especially if the global warming models which predict an upward spread of the disease hold true). This is, incidentally, also my reason for opposing GMOs: the vast majority of those on the market are increasing production either by producing their own pesticides or by built-in pesticide resistance. This is what we call "snowballing the problem".

As always -- while I do heavily support the "buy local" movement and encourage everyone to do so; if nothing else, it will expand people's view of where their food comes from beyond "the supermarket" -- the solution will have to be in new technologies. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, those new technologies are not being researched. It doesn't suit the interests of those currently selling pest- and herbicides, and since no one recognizes the problem.... *sigh*

And thus I am reduced to the old environmentalist standby of yelling really loud in hopes of inducing a panic, on the grounds that somebody might do something then. I wonder, really, if much of the bad behavior of the environmentalist movement might not come down to that: people just aren't interested in fixing the leak when it's not raining, so we end up on the roof dumping buckets to try and change something. And by the time the change comes we've forgotten that we don't need to be up there any more. :)


Coming at this from the biologist's perspective, my pathological mistrust of economics — or at least, of the traditional kind — has been that it not only doesn't capture human behaviour very well (the whole rational-player assumption), but that it doesn't model how the world works. I see glimmers of hope from the MRI jockeys on the first front, but neuroeconomics is still pretty new and I don't know how widely it's being embraced by the beancounters. As for the larger perspective, the models seem almost deliberately simplistic. The Exxon Valdez spill, for example, was the best thing evar for the Alaskan economy; the influx of workers, film crews, authors, and compensation bucks far outstripped the environmental costs because the model simply didn't include such costs beyond parochial variables like "fisheries" and "tourism". The break-up of relationships is economically a good thing because the breakees now have to buy two microwaves and two refrigerators instead of one. (Think about that: unhappiness as a prerequisite for economic growth.) And economically, it makes complete sense to drive slow-growing populations (like forests and whales) to extinction as fast as you can, because to harvest them sustainably would yield returns below the rate of inflation; much better to kill everything off fast as you can, and reinvest the resulting windfall in nanotech or the sexbot industry. You'd think the dismal science would at least rack up some kind of cost for lost oxygen production, but for the most part, they don't seem to bother. Some of those models seem to have about as much relevance to the real world as AD&D's Monster Manual.

That said, though, I can't argue with DC's take on why the environmentalists are out in left field; like every other organism, we are selfish assholes with very little impulse control and no gut sense of long-term consequence. That's just the kind of behaviour natural selection promotes. It's unrealistic to expect people to sacrifice comfort to today even to stave off catastrophe tomorrow.

Where I think he goes off the rails is in the implication that incremental, comfortable, nontraumatic change can possibly happen fast enough to keep our asses out of the fire. There is positive feedback involved, and massive trauma already inflicted, and world-sized ships turn so very slowly. Shopping is not the best way to defeat the tewwowists or save the planet. The environmentalists are right in that the only hope we have of fixing things is to change our behaviour on a massive ("religious-conversion", as you say) scale. You and CD are right in that we just won't do that.

Which probably explains why us biologists have such sunny dispositions...


Charlie, it seems to me that puritanism is a mix of several behaviours: there's a self-sacrificing/masochistic strand, whereby you suffer but feel validated by the suffering, kind of like medicine -- if it tastes bad, it must be doing you good; there's a proselytizing impulse -- if it worked for you, it must work for everyone, and be better than any other possibility; and I guess groupthink -- it feels good to be part of a group because it enables you to feel superior to everyone not part of the group. Plus, of course, the thrill of political power in-group. At a certain stage in your political advancement you can stop self-sacrificing if you can rationalise your luxuries as being for the common good.

It's depressing how many human groups (nations, political parties, pressure groups, companies) do this. And how few recognise it.


Charlie, I've been saying these things for decades, now. So have most environmentalists. But the time for "moderate" is done. If we don't start doing things fast and now, human environmental impacts will be reduced in the traditional ways: social collapse, mass starvation, and so on.

The game timer is up. Now what?


I agree that environmental puritanism is unhealthy, but that post reads like a big "you people" rant and is inconsistent in quality.

Rule 10, and 9 are entirely unobjectionable.
Rule 8 makes a reasonable if entirely irrelevant point. The current use of insecticides and fertilizers isn't sustainable, and I think any solution that avoids lakes of concentrated pigshit is one we should embrace.
Rule 7 starts off phrased well but the text goes off into loony land. Maybe it's because I work with computers, but the phrase Similarly, no plans for the future should ever be based on the assumption that it will be possible to do something better/faster/cheaper than it can now based on future technologies makes me want to prohibit the writer from using anything sharper than a spoon. At least over the next 10-20 years, reasonable assumptions can (and should) be made about technical potential.
I completely disagree with rule 6, and I've heard this precise argument from Scientologists. (I'm trying to deja vu and not ad hominem here). It's perfectly OK to criticize something without an alternative - sometimes there is no alternative, and sometimes highlighting that there is a problem will lead someone else toward finding a solution.
Rule 5 is a thought-provoking point that, if made by itself, might have led to some interesting discussion. The rising costs of energy is a big problem in winter for low-income people.
Rule 4 is problematic, but is a reasonable point politically. The line where a "major" decline in standard of living or comfort is drawn is the tricky part.
Rule 3 made my poor brain explode and smears the aforementioned pigshit on the writer's hard-nosed political savvy. Leaving aside US farm subsidies, does he not realize how much coal, gas and oil are subsidized in the US? Particularly when we count discount leases?
Rule 2 pisses on the Kantian moral imperative and was written by someone frustrated with self-satisfied environmentalists. If I promise not to brag about it, can I still use canvas bags at the grocery store sometimes, and put out my curbside recycling, even if not everyone else does?
Rule 1 completely ignores what happens when you ignore the environment in favor of short-term economic gains (cough, Klamath fish kill, cough). Also, Rule 1 and Rule 7 seem to me to be in contradiction. If we can't rely on any technology getting better, how precisely are we going to rely on a permanently increasing economy?

Also, Rule 5 could be used to argue against nuclear power. I've heard that it's possible to build safe reactors, and I believe it, but it keeps not happening. If we can't count on technological improvement, can we count on improved design and maintenance?

PS - The puritan urge may be a way of sublimating desire in a self-acceptable way. A lot of the right-wing anti-gay crusaders seem Absolutely Obsessed with gay sex, and this is a way for them to wallow in it without contradicting their moral codes. At least until someone finds them dead in the closet wearing a wet suit and a tutu...

PPS - fruitloop.cgi appears to add an extra " nofollow" to the rel field each time I preview


Peter Watts @12: Coming at this from the biologist's perspective, my pathological mistrust of economics — or at least, of the traditional kind — has been that it not only doesn't capture human behaviour very well (the whole rational-player assumption), but that it doesn't model how the world works.

There's worse: classical economics is subject to something analogous to regulatory capture insofar as the economists who get hired and paid to theorize in ivory towers are the ones who tell their employers that their behaviour is good, and as the employers are usually wealthy people or institutions, the result is that the economics research that gets funded is funded by rich guys with axes to grind. (If you theorize that humans are rational actors in the economy whose prosperity is proportional to their rationality and insight, then it follows that you are telling your wealthy patrons that they are rational and insightful. Which is a whole lot more likely to get you a grant than telling them it was all down to luck or inheritance ...)

Fungi @15: Rule 7 is there to remind us that assuming we can make do because Fusion Will Save Us All or we can switch to a hydrogen economy with fuel-cell powered cars (and wave a magic wand and convert all those gas stations into hydrogen fuel stops) is a Bad Idea. Because those technologies might not happen at all. (I'm with you on the near-term; stuff that's in prototype form and looks feasible for scaling up is clearly permissible.)

I'll grant you Rule 3 has holes. But attempts to raise the excise duty on fuel in the UK in recent years have founded on civil disobedience campaigns and major political blowback. That's why gas here is only twice as expensive as it is in the USA -- it used to be four times the price, near enough.

Apropos your PPS, I need to find time to upgrade my MT installation and merge two different MT databases (both of which contain blogs with the inconvenient blog ID number "1").


Charlie: True, I've read my Dyson and about the reactor type they designed that would atuomagically shut down under duress. However, why wasn't that type of reactors pursued more strongly?

I'm extremely wary to trump the terrorism card because it's being way overused as of lately. But still: *if* (and that's a big if, granted) anything dire happens to a nuclear power station, it tends to be inherently more disastrous than with a conventional power station. I love the idea of having solar power stations in orbit, but we're still a bit away from that.

And finally, the argument of nuclear waste is still there.


Charlie, why fusion is progressing so slow?


[Context: Australian. Australia is one of the most suburbanised cultures around - most Australians live in a detatched house in a suburb of one of the capital cities. My suggestions are based on the Australian situation, and may not be applicable to every other nation.]

I've always thought the best way to look at the whole "crisis" business is to admit the following:

* The problem didn't happen all at once - it's been building up over the past two centuries at least.
* The problem isn't going to be fixed all at once - it's too large and complex for such a result to be possible, particularly since we don't yet understand the full ramifications of the symptoms we're seeing.
* The chances of getting the whole mess fixed are greater if everyone is encouraged to do positive actions rather than avoiding negative ones.

So, in an Australian context, what I see as a good starting point is a government subsidy, incentive or rebate for the following sorts of schemes:

* Solar panels fitted to the roof of each house, feeding the power into the main electrical grid; this should be metered both ways (power into the grid, power out of the grid) and then people can get billed/compensated for any imbalance. [1]
* Encourage industrial businesses to sell the rainwater which is collected from their warehouse/factory roofs to the water board for the state they're located in. [2]
* Encourage the growth of the rainwater tank as a suburban icon once more, such that every house has some form of rainwater storage.
* Firm guidelines for the re-use of grey water.
* Encourage the movement of infrastructure and population to the northern states and territories [3]

I'd point out my aim here is not to discourage negative behaviours (this almost never works) but rather to think of positive behaviours which need to be encouraged to replace the negative ones. I do tend toward a conglomeration of co-operative solutions to the problem - everyone doing their bit, and the small bits making a larger whole - rather than a Single Right Answer. I'm also focussed on starting the changes *now*, rather than "when we've invented X" or "when we've figured out Y" - the problem is visible *now*, and it's not going to wait for us to finish the research. We have some ways available now to reduce our impact: why not use them?

[1] This isn't intended to completely replace the existing coal-fired or gas-fired power stations in Australia by any means. However, with sufficiently high takeup (sell it as a way of cutting your power bill?) it would hopefully reduce the demand made on these power stations, and allow the existing infrastructure to support a growing population for a bit longer.
[2] Obtaining potable water is the primary crisis Australia is facing as a result of global climate change. All the capital cities are currently on water restrictions, and every state is having problems with dams drying up. Never mind the loss of oil - without water, Australian culture will collapse overnight.
[3] Rather than moving the water down to the people in the southern cities (for eg, there's the proposal of a pipeline bringing water from Lake Argyle in the Kimberley down to Perth) why not move the people to the water?


Axel: the current generation of PWR that GE is touting around the UK is designed to go subcritical in event of loss of coolant. And the Chinese are doing a whole lot of work on the pebble bed modular reactor (after Germany shut down its research on the topic) -- another meltdown-proof design. Part of the problem is, a new type of nuclear reactor is a rather expensive goal to pursue -- costing in the hundreds of billions by the time you get it right -- so we're only just in the third generation of the stuff that we started with in the 1950s. It's not ideal, but it's a solid, mature technology that doesn't spontaneously spread itself all over the landscape. (Unlike Chernobyl, which was a 1950s military plutonium production design scaled up to power a city, with no containment vessel, known unsafe failure modes, and untrained idiots running it. In other words, a disaster waiting to happen.)

As for the nuclear waste disposal problem, I'm pretty sure it is manageable ... the problem is essentially political, not practical.

Anatoly: the reasons fusion research progresses slowly is that (a) it costs no less to develop a working fusion power plant than any other new reactor design (read: a cool hundred billion or so, at today's prices), (b) nobody needs it right now so nobody's throwing that kind of money at the problem. We have, after all, got fission reactors. If we ran them on a MOX fuel cycle and burned plutonium, we'd have enough fuel to service our current base load for 5000 years using known fuel reserves -- the alleged fission reactor fuel shortage is a political problem due to unwillingness to contemplate a plutonium economy.


I agree there is a streak of puritanism in the some environmentalism. I'm very distrustful of the everything natural is good strand myself. But that said I don't think its necessarily correct to assume "environmental puritanism" won't catch on. I think it is a mistake to underestimate the power of religious movements. People are obviously complex but still, I think, more herd animals than rational maximizers of their own utility and if enough of the herd move a certain way the majority are likely to follow- at least for a time. Also the fact is that history shows you can have regulated austerity regimes if enough of the population is convinced of their need. I'm thinking here for example of the British economy during WW2- and yes most likely there will be blackmarkets but the fact that the idea is unappealing and possibly counterproductive does not mean it can't or won't happen.


I would imagine the anhedonic impulse comes in part as a reaction to the hedonism that is rampant and encouraged by business, culture and society.
But I do not think that describes the motivations of many greens at all. It is more of a byproduct of their thinking.


Fungi From Yuggoth@15
Amen, while I have no liking for deep green types, the "purely rational" economic arguments which studiously ignore preexisting economic distortions, long term payoffs and people's irrationality turn my stomach.
Simply replace "environmentalism" with "anti-terrorism" in each of the ten points and the same arguments, while still equally "reasonable" fall flat on their face. For that matter I've heard the same arguments defending slavery in the South (and still being put forth in the 1980's).
The absence of any economic background is equally damning. The US isn't criss-crossed with the National Defense Interstate Highway System because of pure private sector free market initiatives. SUVs have less legroom than sedans, worse safety records, terrible ride quality, less cargo capacity than station wagons, morph from cars to trucks legally to dodge safety and efficiency standards and are ridiculously subsidized by tax loopholes. By a "rational" "economic" argument SUVs should be incredibly unpopular.
Finally, people actively "accept major reductions in living standards or comfort and convenience" for a broad variety of economic reasons. Outsourcing and arm and a leg health care costs are just two examples.


@20: Yes, the Uranium shortage is a political problem, but most of the problems with Nuclear are political. Theres a good reason why: building nuclear weapons is in fact fairly trivial if you can get your hands on the plutonium: Israel got started with plutonium stolen from the US (twice; its why the US cancelled its civil breeder program).

If you propose nuclear as the main global power supply (eg also as an oil replacement vi hydrogen for transport), then you have to face having literally millions of well trained nuclear engineers(what other fuel methods were you proposing for Rwanda, Kenya, Afghanistan ... ), with sufficient plutonium in circulation to make nuclear terrorism a reality. The engineers need to be well trained; the science and engineering needs to be open and peer-reviewed to ensure everyone spots the flaws: thats how safe reactors come about. Partly-trained engineers following manuals is what causes Chernobyls. Stop kidding yourself that you can build and enforce a "safe" nuclear fuel cycle in these circumstances.

If you instead think the rest of the world (all but those safe European and American states? ) will do without nuclear, then who'll develop the technology for their power? If you expect Afghanistan, or Turkmenistan, to be self-sufficient with renewables, then why can't Ireland, or Scotland be?

Whatever way you cut it, moving to a non-CO2 energy future is a hugely expensive task, for which we dont have the technology yet. We can cope short-term, with only a few billion investment in Uranium reactors. But beyond that,
its actually _easier_ to see the technology developed for
a renewable future than next-gen nuclear. There is a known pipeline of PV technologies that havent been economic till now, and silicon improvements too.

Either way, we are going to be literally re-engineering the world. eg. it makes sense to move iron & steel industries to the Sahara, and move the industry, when you realise that moving the fuel isnt much sense (you lose more electricity over long distance lines than oil, for example). Build your datacentres near hydro plants, rather than cities (hmm arent google and microsoft doing this already?)

The hairshirt brigade of the greens is tiny (I was on the national committee of the Irish Greens, so I've met _most_ Irish greens in the 1990s). The number of greens who think we should go back to the 19th century are dramatically outnumbered by those who think there are better solutions than nuclear.


Fusion may or may not happen, but if it does, which environmental attitudes would still make sense, and which are just based on Consume Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone?

I used to hang out with people who semiconsciously held that cheap clean convenient power would be like birth control: it would take away an adverse consequence of sin. I think we saw some of that in some opposition to nuclear, although it may resurface if solar becomes less counter-cultural (and I'll bet the massive energy storage required to make it 24/7 won't photograph well and will kill birds or something.)

Desalinization is still a problem, although I imagine cheap energy papers over some issues in the water cycle. Gonna have to solve ecological engineering for the generation ships anyway....


Jay- the things to make solar 24 hour are listed in this months scientific American. They include- compressed air storage in underground caverns, or molten salt. I have also seen plausible suggestions for Zinc or Ammonia cycles.


kat @11, I haven't been down to Galax in a while, but expect to go that way later this year. Do you sell from the farm?

fungi @15, Charlie does the nofollow on purpose -- it prevents comment spam.


Alistair @24

Partly-trained engineers following manuals is what causes Chernobyls.

No, no and thrice no. Partly trained engineers had nothing what so ever to do with Chernobyl. People do bloody stupid experiments on a badly designed reactor with the coolant system and all fail-safe systems disengaged deliberately as part of a dumb experiment is what causes a Chernobyl.

Chernobyl was a badly designed reactor lacking any of the basic safety features of a typical reactor such as a physical containment vessel and automatic carbon rod gravity insertion and, if that doesn't stop things, a boron (I think) pebble system which will slam the reactor off in seconds.

Nuclear reactors are actually pretty safe, ideally, we'd build smaller ones, think Submarine sized (like the Toshiba 200MW design) which could be used on a more local basis and would be really really rather hard to get to do anything nasty and couldn't be used for Plutonium.

We need more nuclear power, we also need more PV and a bunch of other technologies but we're kidding ourselves if we think we can do it without Fission power.


Yes, we do sell from the farm, though depending on the specific *time* of year, we may or may not have anything to sell. There is a break (roughly) from mid-April until mid-July when we don't have much, and it's best to call or email us first.

as for the nofollow tags, I think fungi's concern wasn't there being one, but an *extra* one being added every time he/she hit "preview."


I've got a big problem with 5. Actually, it's mostly correct - taxation on energy usable is generally horribly regressive[1]. However then he bumps into his own number 6 - how does he propose incentivising industry to generate less CO_2? An emissions trading model doesn't help, as surely that'll in the end result in the same regressiveness as a carbon tax. The only way I can see for making it non-regressive is a personal carbon allowance.

[1] Although, in the case of aviation, probably not so much - lower income people typically make fewer flights than middle class people/those travelling on business. Also, if you're flying for your 2 weeks in the sun, then increasing the cost of the flight won't have that big an effect on the cost of the whole holiday, whereas it would hit those taking frequent 'city-break' type trips more. I've no real idea how elastic the cost of flying is for business - I'd guess prices could go up a lot there before having a large effect on usage.


And, somehow, we hominids are going to live on this world, keeping its living ecosystems intact, at our current population levels and rates of resource consumption. Charlie, explain how you can believe such a thing is even possible. Please? Wanting very badly will not make it so. I will grant we cannot make monks of everyone. But neither can I see how humanity and the earth will survive these times without some privation.


Randolph; the answer is, we're not. Just about every time the WHO issues a bulletin in population, the peak is adjusted down. The most pessimistic projections show 10.5 billion of us in 2100 -- by the more optimistic projections there'll be 6 billion of us around then, 500M fewer than there are today.

The population time bomb has fizzled, and what we're left with is a messy but finite few decades of overshoot -- during which we clearly exceed the planet's steady-state carrying capacity, but as a transient blip.

The "keeping its living ecosystems intact" bit is a red herring. Most of the Earth's ecosystems don't support us, and they are, inevitably, going to get trashed. The question is whether we can keep enough of the human-integrated biosphere going that we don't run into serious problems down the line. And that is another matter.


As regards the Green hairshirts:

I suspect that a lot of it stems from a form of magical or theological thinking. They view environmental abuse not just as a really bad idea (which it is) but as sin; that is it offends a Higher Power of some sort, independently of its demonstrated bad consequences down here in the real world. They think that this sin must be expiated; we must atone for or be punished for it, and this is distinct from, and possibly must precede, any practical measures to remediate the bad consequences. The ones who are trying to force hairshirts on the rest of us are worried that otherwise there will not be enough hairshirt wearing to qualify for forgiveness of the sin.

Of course this is going to spark resistance among those who consider that they have not sinned, even if they accept that environmental abuse is a bad idea, and are willing to put some effort into practical remediation.



CS: "if you want to effect positive environmental change, you need to figure out how to make people want it."


CS: "the modern environmentalist movement is a puritan religious movement".

A very general statement that is unlikely to be true. One can also say that the modern use of economic theory is also a "religious movement" in that economic slogans are pitched based on beliefs, not evidence. This is particularly true in the US.

Unfortunately some of the 10 rules show little understanding of economics either, nor political choices. For example - Rule 5 on energy taxes. While it is true that a direct tax on energy would be regressive, it will cause reductions in energy use in a number of indirect ways to reduce overall costs. Taxes can be more targeted, e.g. carbon taxes, rather than energy taxes, and can be offset to reduce/remove regressive effects, e.g. by increasing tax income tax thresholds. So we can have our cake and eat it too in this regard.

Rule 9 is posited as a general rule, but is really meant for transportation. If we used that rule, well no cellular phones, no WiFi because we would be expected to use the existing copper phone cables. Transformative technologies often overcome the infrastructure. For example, I was just reading about ultra-capacitors for energy storage in electric autos. Since they can charge quickly, they extend the range of the vehicle w/o the slow battery recharge cycle times. Maybe that would be done at a filling station, maybe just in a car park with exposed electric outlets.

Finally, just because modern humans have acquired the taste for a growing per capita GDP world doesn't mean that the world must keep supplying it. We just may end up with a Malthusian collapse unless we think about what we are doing more carefully, even if that means making some very unacceptable choices. What we want and what we can have are not necessarily compatible goals.


Charlie @ 20

As for the nuclear waste disposal problem, I'm pretty sure it is manageable ... the problem is essentially political, not practical.

That's somewhat of a contradictory sentence there; practical problems are at least potentially manageable by definition, political problems may or may not be. And this particular political problem has been with us for 40 years, and it's been getting worse, not better.

That said, do we really need enriched uranium or plutonium for power production? Could we switch to thorium, and not have to worry about weapons-grade fissionables being extracted from the waste? I don't know, and I don't know if anyone has done the necessary analysis to find out. And fusion isn't going to make the waste problem much better; a practical fusion power-generator is going to have a lot of neutron-flux causing transmutation of the containment vessel into some nasty medium-half-life isotopes.

Also, as Fungi said, fie upon Rule 7. I've been surfing Moore's law for more than 30 years now (part of that in the '70s working for the man himself). If you graph efficiency of solar voltaic power generation vs time you get a fairly smooth curve that's monotonically increasing. We know that more efficiency is possible: plants do it all the time. Of course local solar power generation won't solve the problem completely, but it could make the requirements for other technologies that generate more greenhouse gases less, and slow the increase of the problem while we develop other solutions.

That's really the kernel of the social problem: no one technical or social solution is going to solve this problem; it's way too big and complex for that. But people at every point of the spectrum from deep green stone-age-returnees to oil-company apologists want there to be a simple, one-size-fits-all solution. I think this impulse is even more fundamental to human psychology than puritanism, and it could easily be just as dangerous to us in this situation.


Charlie, I can sympathize with your disdain for green hairshirtism. I understand they are incredibly, self-righteously annoying in the EU.

But...I live in the united states, and we really could use more of that over here. We haven't done nearly as much as the EU, and our culture doesn't get anywhere close to the (evident) folk-myth enthusiasm for green-ness either. (After all, our "liberals" are UK style conservatives.)

We destroyed our intra-city, interurban rail lines 50 years ago*, and have essentially _no_ meaningful use tax on road fuel** by comparison. We've built acres of poor quality, high square foot housing type exurbs on our farmlands that are adjacent to our older suburbs, and are completely dependent on oil and oil byproducts to produce the heavily subsidized grains that we use as inputs for fatty red meat and sugar additives for all of our processed food.

I mean, bringing our gasoline tax up to something close to UK levels would be a good _start_. I'll note that we only recently passed inflation equivalent levels for peak gas prices from 1988. Had we a statutory tax that kept gas at that constant price for the past 20 years, we'dve been able to take a pass on both SUVs and exurbia.

Others have pointed out some flaws in the original article, I'll note that road-fuel taxes, here, in the US are very fair: everyone who drives on a road, pays for the road. (And everyone who purchases something transported by a road pays proportionally for it, indirectly - sometimes very indirectly, but still.) Heating fuel operates on a different tax system, precisely _because_ taxes can be targeted enough to not be regressive when it counts. Market forces know nothing about compassion for the poor, and are therefore quite regressive indeed.

*and replaced them with poor quality diesel powered buses, due to an honest to God, for real conspiracy of big oil companies and auto manufacturers. No lie.
**except for diesel, much to the annoyance of sole business owner type truckers, who see the cost up front.


From a quick peek at that article (for lack of a better word; the sfx for it would involve me pointing and laughing derisively) I'd say that the author was being very ecologically sound with his careful reuse of strawmen that have already been pretty comprehensively demolished.

To be charitable, I'll admit that the author might be so blinkered that he can't imagine that anything that's in front of his nose might not be G-d's own truth. But there are so many 'may' and 'might's in his petulant little rant that I don't think that that's the case. If he'd done a more Geoff Miller-ish style rant, it would have at least survived the initial laugh tests, but as it is it reminds me of a die-hard Nader support trying to claim that there's no difference at all between the Democrats and the Republicans and that it doesn't matter where the Green Party is getting their donations from.


My impression is that the puritan streak of environmentalism, while it clearly still exists, is yesterday's trend. In the places I've lived recently (Oxford & Oakland) there are lots of local eco-groups that are coming up with new ideas, not just spouting dogma. Innovation is exactly what's needed to effect the transformations that you (rightly) point out won't arrive through preachy ascetic self-mortification. Maybe one or two those self-flagellating hippies will actually come up with ideas for new ways to live. And yeah, we need top-down incentives too, but I doubt any of those incentives will ever be created without "the movement" there to ramp up political pressure.

I thought that article was good, if unnecessarily negative in places, e.g. (paraphrasing) "synthetic hydrocarbons are better than ethanol because you can re-use petroleum pipelines" -- yeah, but by the same reasoning, ethanol is much better than some of the alternatives because you get to re-use the CARS; biofuels also seem a bit closer to hand than synthetic hydrocarbons (where's the energy to synthesize them supposed to come from)?

I certainly sympathize with any distrust of the puritan eco-hippies. As a bioengineer, I was repeatedly lectured by disciples of George Monbiot that genetic engineering was the purest evil. Now, of course, they are looking to it for salvation, since engineered biotic reactors can make ethanol from cellulose, instead of foodstocks (taken from the mouths of the poor).

Regarding nuclear power, you do seem to have rather a big techno-fetish for it Charlie! And I can dig that, but I do wonder about any process so sensitive to human error at so many points along the chain. I don't know much about the subject, but aren't the solutions to the human error problem all themselves vulnerable to human error too? (e.g. cuts in funding, poor inspections etc) We just had a tiger escape from a zoo and kill a guy here in San Francisco. If we can't get safety right on something as straightforward as a tiger cage, how can we be sure that nuclear reactors will still be safe 50 years from the day they're shiny and new? Um, I know that's a slightly facetious analogy, but basically my gut feeling is there are too many points of failure and that the public-media-politician complex has too short an attention span. I am still somewhat on the fence but I think the burden of proof rests heavily on the nuke industry, and their political modus operandi thus far does little to instil trust. As for "waste storage is just politics", that sort of glosses over just how difficult it is to get politics right...


Charlie, #32. "Most of the Earth's ecosystems don't support us, and they are, inevitably, going to get trashed. The question is whether we can keep enough of the human-integrated biosphere going that we don't run into serious problems down the line. And that is another matter."

That's pretty much the attitude that got us into this mess in the first place; we thought we knew what mattered for our survival and what didn't, and we were wrong. It is, less obviously, the same attitude that the most brutal humans take towards humans; if people are not of immediate value, they can be trashed.

Gregory Bateson (a darling of the people you love to hate) once commented, "If this is your estimate of your relation to nature *and you have an advanced technology*, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate, or, simply, of overpopulation and overgrazing." Every passing year seems to confirm Bateson; he was writing in 1972, long before, even, the full scope of the disaster had become clear. Bateson thought that we needed to develop an ethical respect for the earth's ecosystems; I think he was right. It is hard to escape the reality of the ecological history of humans, or our current state; without changes in our attitudes there will be no technological fix--any solution will recede before us like a mirage; it will be "this time we've got it right" until the Four Horsemen ride.


Iron Thighs, #38: I'm fond of saying that nuclear power on a planetary surface is a great technology, if you have saints and angels to run the plants and manage the fuel chain. Lacking a reliable supply of either, I am skeptical. The idea of, say, Haliburton contracted to run a nuclear plant gives me the cold grue.


Randolph@39: That sounds like a pretty good argument against agriculture too.


Jay, #41: Considering how destructive, in the long term, industrial agriculture promises to be, there's a case to be made for that view. (And there are people who point out that hunter-gatherer cultures are generally healthier than agriculturalist cultures as well.) But, no, I don't believe that (and I don't think Bateson did, either). If one species is very successful and outcompetes many others, ecologically that's fine. But humans have overdone it--ecologically we become a catastrophe--, and that's not fine. Even for us, in the end.


But we're far beyond being able to revert to hunting-gathering without massive dieoffs.

It's more realistic to consider vegetable gardens, home crafting, and the like. It's one thing the hippies got right. Macarame owls and anti-intellectualism, not so much. But if we do have an argentina-style crash, having a hen coop or raising rabbits makes a huge difference in the quality of life.

Possibly relevant, certainly interesting:

I've been reading a fascinating book called "The Rebel Sell" by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter. While it's basically an examination and denouncment of anti-authoritarianism (and how it's used to sell stuff):
, it ties together quite a bit about the current anti-intellectual tendency of the modern left. (I suppose I'm a leftist, but I don't subscribe to the 'let's have a demonstration with giant puppets and a drum circle' solution to all our problems.)


Charlie, are you sure the author of this piece didn't cut and paste it from a 1977 Jerry Pournelle column in Galaxy?


David @28: Well, yes. There were a huge number of causes for the failures of Chernobyl: lack of containment vessels, etc., bad design ... all true.

Let me put my point the other way round: Properly trained staff, with full knowledge and the ability for public
peer-review is what makes Western reactors _safer_.
That includes a nick-picking environmental movement probing every flaw that the management would like hushed up, because fixing them would cost big bucks.

RBMK reactors were in use due to a lack of democracy, where those running them knew they were dangerous, but had no power over their superiors to change matters. Secrecy was inherent in the system, and when they failed, the failures were hushed up. The controllers on that fateful night had a faith in the control rods to deal with any near-criticality incidents. They were not aware that there was a failure mode where inserting the control rods led to a spike in radiation: this had led to two near disasters before, but it had been hushed up. Instead of fixing the problem and making everyone aware of the dangers, the designers had written rules in the manual that, if followed, would avoid the problem without letting on the problem existed. This policy backfired badly.

This is not of merely academic: the huge cost of nuclear power installations, and the danger of proliferation of nucler weapons means that while happy to do scientific design, the industry and governments try to clamp on day-to-day operations: with fear of terrorists, we have the stupidity of govts trying to hide even the locations of nuclear power plants (hint: follow the 400 kV power lines ....). The safety ("experiment") done at Chernobyl was not an unrealistic thing to do; those running the plant should know the results. The problem was, they couldn't do it safely.

In terms of 'inherently safe' plants, I am deeply suspicious of the concept. For all its design flaws, RBMKS were being run safely on a regular basis. To get it to go boom required turning off over 30 safety systems. But it happened. A faith that the system is "inherently safe" is what makes people do stupid things: knowledge is what makes people run them safely.

As for fission being needed, its a classic bait-and-switch. If you do the numbers _just_so_, it looks as though you could replace our current electrical power generation, in the west, with fission, just swapping out coal and gas for uranium plants. But when you look at the _actual_ problem, allowing for replacing other energy systems (transport), growth and energy requirements in the developing world, the numbers for uranium doesnt work. We have a lot more proven technologies in energy saving (NOT HAIRSHIRT STUFF) than breeder reactors, etc.

Examples: It is simply silly that in Europe passive heating is not mandated as standard. Living here in Ireland, we have the technology to build houses that dont need heating ( cut our fuel needs by 10-20% simply by better civic planning, cutting out much commuting. Thats not hairshirt stuff, just common sense. Start implementing things like this, and then you're in range of renewables.


Most of the Earth's ecosystems don't support us, and they are, inevitably, going to get trashed.

Most of Paris doesn't support the Parisian population. Inevitably, the Louvre and the Beaubourg are going to get trashed. However, we might just manage to save Carrefour, and keep the GDP up up up!

Pardon me if this image doesn't fill me with delight.

Economic puritans -- the market is a jealous market, and won't hold with the consumer whoring after foreign gods, like the environment -- are just as inane as ecological puritans, and swapping `we must keep the economy going at all costs' for `don't buy anything from more than 5ks away' is not an improvement.


Alistair, I'm with you on the benefits from established power-saving technology. And Europe has done better on this than the USA.

But we can build nucear power plants now. We're still experimenting with small-scale wave power. potential hydro-electric power is limited. A hidden cost of wind power is the extra need for fossil-fuel generators on standby.

In short, an increase in nuclear power generation has to be part of the total solution. But it also needs politicians capable of the long term planning that could have started in the Seventies.

There were all sorts of reasons why solar power satellites never stood a chance, but the overwhelming obstacle was the initial cost and the time before payback, political and financial.


Alistair, I'm with you on the benefits from established power-saving technology. And Europe has done better on this than the USA.

But we can build nucear power plants now. We're still experimenting with small-scale wave power. potential hydro-electric power is limited. A hidden cost of wind power is the extra need for fossil-fuel generators on standby.

In short, an increase in nuclear power generation has to be part of the total solution. But it also needs politicians capable of the long term planning that could have started in the Seventies.

There were all sorts of reasons why solar power satellites never stood a chance, but the overwhelming obstacle was the initial cost and the time before payback, political and financial.


Keir @46: one of the problems with the economic purists is that the time frame in which their fetish for profitability must be satisfied is, as Buckminster Fuller put it, the accounting cycle originally designed for taxing Sumerian peasant farmers circa 2000BC. And they generally discount externalities.

Which suggests to me that we need to overhaul our economic assessment of profitability so that things like not emitting carbon and not turning the oceans into a toxic sump clogged with jellyfish become profit centres, not costs. (Carbon credits are a first, crude, stab at this.) A second thing we need to do is to take another look at accounting cycles and non-profit enterprises: it should not be possible for a key recycling industry (such as paper recycling) to fall apart in a year due to a sudden glut in a short-term market, if its maintenance is a long-term strategic requirement.

But this isn't to say that we can ignore economics when evaluating environmental problems. We're heading for a car-crash right now because of the idiot rush for biofuels (in effect taking food when people are hungry and using it to stabilize gas prices when it's still too cheap!), and another because the politically designated successor technology (hydrogen fuel cell powered cars) is basically a Space Shuttle solution -- over-engineered, expensive, requires a lot of new infrastructure, and harbours fundamental flaws (such as how we provide the electricity to split the water to produce the hydrogen in the first place).

As for the ecosystem damage, I'm describing what's already happening. Sorry you don't like it: neither do I. But protesting that it shouldn't happen is wasting your breath. The problem we face is how to deal with it.

Meanwhile, stuff like nanosolar really is making a difference. If we could actually collect our collective shit and build the intercontinental high-capacity electricity grid that Buckminster Fuller proposed back in the 1970s, then solar power from this (and similar) technologies really could take up most of the base load. (And we'd probably get really neat bridges or tunnels across the Bering Straits and the Straits of Gibraltar as part of the deal. And give a bunch of impoverished north-African countries a stable post-oil source of export power.)


Dave @48: We need investment in practically all areas of energy generation and conservation. I'm particularly disheartened by the lack of real investment in fusion: everybody talks as if it'll be here in 30 years, but it never will be at the current drip feed.

Nuclear has a much worse rep. for safety here in Europe, so the current "renaissance" in nuclear power is down to a marketing campaign to government rather than people, based on "its inevitable; its the only way", while simultaneously funding anti-renewable campaigns via the Countryside Alliance (to fight wind farms, etc.).
Hence I'm very wary of the this spin. Its very cleverly circumvented any real discussion of the energy needs.

I don't buy the meme about Lower energy usage == lower quality of living. I built my own house, and moving from a drafty 10-15 kW central-heated rented house to a snug 2 kW one was a step upwards. Serious efforts using solar water heating, and efficient lighting, etc. drops electricity usage from 1-2 kW to

Seriously though: our economy uses _whatever_ resources are available, as quickly as possible, for maximal growth. Only later, when forced to, do we become efficient. Looking around, our economy is based on cheap energy: eg. Just-in-time deliveries rather than local stockholding, maximal use of air transport, etc; Energy use is very like a non-newtonian fluid: highly inelastic in the short-term, but quite elastic in the long-term: building energy-efficient houses, planning to avoid commutes, etc.
This is why I've been ranting about this for decades (it seems): it takes decades to fix.

I'm fairly ambivalent about nuclear power, suprisingly. I think the oil companies have engineered a crisis (politically: getting govts, especially the US, not to do anything about energy policy) to maximise profits during the "Peak Oil". Because of this, and the short-term (10-20 year) crisis, more conventional nuke power may be needed. But beyond that, breeder reactors are still a poorly thought-out pipe dream, all round: the technology is immature, and the politics a nightmare.


Charlie@49: Isn't nanosolar the sort of thing Depleted Cranium is mocking in #2? After all, it will only make a difference if it becomes ubiquitous. Furthermore, couldn't it be argued that the people who think "every little bit helps" and are early adopters of solar panels or wind turbines on the roof help to keep the tech development chugging along until it is reliable and inexpensive enough to become ubiquitous?


JBU has a related article this month - by Greg Benford

Charlie at 49:

One problem with the recycling business is that these days it has become a heavily government regulated business, especially in the EU, with all the efficiency and entrepreneurship typical to government programs (i.e. none).

The biofuels business is another classic case of corporate welfare aka governments getting involved and doing the wrong thing thanks to a bunch of lobbyists, the same goes for wind power IMO. However unlike windpower biofuels do have the possibility to be sensible once some smart biochemist genetically engineers the right bacterium to eat cellulose and pee alcohol (butan-1-ol seems ot be the most likely but ethanol or methanol are fine too) - or produce the enzyme to do the same trick in bulk form.

Oh and bacterial/enzymatic biofuels have another benefit. They are typically just as efficient in small amounts as they are in large ones so you can have lots of small local plants and reduce the danger of a national grid failure - something that a high capacity contenental energy grid doesn't do.

Finally they work well in conjunction with solar power where their output runs generators or whatever to handle the times when the sun isn't shining enough.


Nick @51: nanosolar is actually shipping a product right now, so no, it's not ridiculous. On the other hand, sitting back and saying "fusion will save us -- it's only twenty years away" is blatantly something we can't rely on.

For a long time, the dirty little secret of the solar power biz was that semiconductor solar cells took more energy to make than they produced over their working life. Nanosolar and the polymer-based technologies are net-energy-positive, which for the first time means that photovoltaic power as a primary energy source makes sense.



Well yeah, I agree. Depleted Cranium apparently does not.

Would nanosolar be shipping now if there hadn't been solar enthusiasts/environmental puritans arguing that "every little bit helps," putting clunky inefficient solar panels on their roofs, and convincing municipalities and electrical utilities to change laws and regulations forbidding solar panels. I'd suggest that the silly environmental puritans and their rooftop solar panels may have helped to create a market for nanosolar by creating a cultural and regulatory environment which is primed to accept solar power. When Depleted Cranium dismisses small individual contributions, he is basically arguing that we shouldn't do anything until fusion can solve all our problems in one fell swoop.


"But protesting that it shouldn't happen is wasting your breath."

Me, I'd just like us to stop protesting that we're in a hole while we are digging and digging. We still haven't turned that corner. Meantime, I really hate arguments that say we're in a hole, but we need to keep digging anyway.


Nick @54:
Would nanosolar be shipping now if there hadn't been solar enthusiasts/environmental puritans arguing that "every little bit helps," putting clunky inefficient solar panels on their roofs, and convincing municipalities and electrical utilities to change laws and regulations forbidding solar panels. I'd suggest that the silly environmental puritans and their rooftop solar panels may have helped to create a market for nanosolar by creating a cultural and regulatory environment which is primed to accept solar power.

Well I think the real driver is not the puritans (other than as an offset to the Nimbys who don't like the aesthetics of solar panels) but the price of oil. At $10 oil there is no incentive to find alternative fuel soruces. At $100 oil there is lots of incentive. Hence actual commercial funding of nanosolar and other similar things (e.g. look at GM's invetsment in the cellulosic ethanol business - http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/01/gm_banks_on_coskata.php ).


What about the whole premise of trying to tweak what appears to be a negative feedback system that does a pretty good job of keeping the climate in a range that is habitable for a large number of species? Mightn't we question the overall effect of that? Or is that fundie in the opposite way?


Francis, #56: the missing pieces are: (1) petroleum is underpriced--we're just using its embodied energy, rather than gathering energy to make it (2) we aren't accounting for the costs of pollutants produced by burning petroleum. This is where carbon taxes come in. In an honest market, burning petroleum would be very expensive.


Alistair @various: I'm still not all that convinced by the training issue. It took a lot of training to know how to turn off all the safety systems. Part of the problem was, as you point out cultural, but if there had been a containment vessel there wouldn't have been the leakage of radiation we had even with the text book "how to make the reactor go phoom clusterf**k" there was.

Personally I'm waiting to wake up to find out that the 3 Gorges has burst and taken out 5 million people in the process - given Chernobyl was about as bad as it can physically get with a nuclear power station, I'm tempted to say I'd live near a nuclear power plant before I live down stream from a large hydroelectric dam.

Besides, you really can't get a submarine sized reactor to do something like that. The physics doesn't support it.

I can't argue against your other points. Nuclear is only part of the solution, but it's a major part, renewables just aren't really going to cut it. Solar will start to make a significant contribution even in Northern Climates, which is one step we need to start taking. Putting PV cells on all new builds with a suitable battery back up and 2 way arbitrage system for the grid will start to make an impact. Wind will have a part, and so could wave. The Severn River could power much of the Southwest UK if we could be bothered just from tidal turbines.

We should have more central and combined heat power systems and better conservation. I do wish that the usual suspects would see this as a business opportunity rather than claiming it's going to be the end of business as usual.


Bruce (stm) @35, we should learn to photosynthesize ourselves!


Brett L #57- do you mean that in trying to reduce human Co2 production we may go too much the opposite way and head usback into an ice age?
As far as I can tell, no chance.
Unless we put up orbital mirrors and foul them up.
Basically, no huge negative feedbacks have been found or are postulated. Ok, we don't know everything, but there is no way we can cool the planet down or remove enough Co2 from the atmosphere in only a few decades to make getting colder an issue.


Dear Charlie Stross,

I found your comment @ no. 32 very interesting indeed - I think I understand it, and some of its implications, but I think it quite possible that I might have missed something...and I don't want to!

Would it be possible for you to (as I believe they say around here) unpack it for us?

With apologies if I'm merely being dense,


Jane P.


Re @61 and "we may go too much the opposite way and head usback into an ice age". This was basically the premise of
"Fallen Angels" by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael Flynn, 1991. I guess they were somewhat ahead of the political incorrectness curve.


As for the ecosystem damage, I'm describing what's already happening. Sorry you don't like it: neither do I. But protesting that it shouldn't happen is wasting your breath. The problem we face is how to deal with it.

I'm very, very suspicious of people who say: Oh look. The way we live has done a whole bunch of nasty shit to the environment. Oh well. Too late now. Let's get on with the important business making sure that the rate of growth doesn't dip below 5%.

You can't say no use crying over spilt milk when (a) it's you that spilt the milk, and (b) it wasn't your milk in the first place, and (c) the milk isn't actually spilt already.

By the way -- that story about the ladybugs is merely the cane toad story, except he can't actually use that story, because environmentalists didn't introduce cane toads. In fact, I would think that most environmentalists find the idea of introducing exotic species for pest control (or most any economic reason) positively anti-environmentalist, at least with out rigorous preliminary work.

It's not even misrepresenting your opponent's arguments; it's making shit up.


Dave @59:

"part-trained" was a bad choice of words. "Informed" would be better. The Chernobyl engineers were trained to follow the manual, but ill-informed about failure modes of RBMK reactors.

The underlying theme I'm getting at is that making things safe means an underlying culture of free information, free criticism and review, technical and cultural. This happens at all levels: greenpeace, etc. protests on the streets leads to informed critics being allowed cross-examine designers at public hearings into future plants; engineers with safety concerns being tolerated within the nuclear industry, etc. This didn't happen in the USSR, hence, boom.

Agreed, 3 Gorges has probably more chance of failure. Same problem: lack of toleration of criticism.

The difficulty then is not running the power plant: its that your weapons proliferation depends on "people will never figure out how to build a bomb / where to get the plutonium, etc.". You've moved your booms from the reactor onto the street.


Alastair @65: you put your finger on something very important there.

Open societies with a free flow of information are vital when it comes to maintaining complex systems safely. And our post-2001 security fetish, in combination with the application of the precautionary principle to teaching resources (e.g. no toluene in school chemistry labs because (a) it's toxic and (b) it's a precursor to some explosives) is getting in the way -- badly.

Keir @64: I'm not anti-environmentalist per se, I'm just anti-puritan. Self-denial and repentance is not some sort of necessary precondition for getting out of this mess. Neither is a witch hunt for the (mostly dead) folks who got us into it. Concrete attempts to ring-fence remaining untouched ecosystems from destruction and exploitation (e.g. the destruction of rain forest for palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia that's going on right now) would be a good start; so would be taking a skeptical look at the jam-tomorrow solutions (hydrogen fuel cells for cars) that promise a shiny way out if we only invest a few hundred billion in an untried new infrastructure system over thirty years or so (while doing nothing today).

Oh yeah. It would also help to try building some prototype vertical farms. (Not that I've got anything against organic farming -- most of the produce we eat at home is organic: I don't like eating pesticides. But it takes more land per kiloCalorie of food to grow organic produce, and given our likely peak population over the next few decades we won't have enough land to make it viable for everyone. Learning how to grow food indoors on an industrial scale would be a really big step forward.)


Unusually high standard of discourse here, people. Everyone pat yourself on the back and experience that warm feeling of satisfaction that comes from positions well argued in a spirit of mutual respect. A stiff brandy also does the trick, but that's neither here nor there.

The NIMBY factor should not be underestimated. In my own sad little corner of the planet, coastal wind farms capable of generating non-trivial baseload power are being fought tooth and nail. Property values in conservative electorates are at risk. The brown coal burning power plants inland are fine because only proles live nearby. Bugger the planet, I've got an uncluttered ocean view.

You can of course amuse yourself by wondering who these people will threaten to sue when said ocean renders formerly beachfront holdings fit for little more than aquaculture.


Everyone's seen this cheery little nugget?

'In a formal survey the researchers said that a number of systems that influence the Earth's weather patterns could begin to collapse suddenly if there's even a slight increase in global temperatures.
* Melting of Arctic sea-ice (about 10 years)
* Decay of the Greenland ice sheet (about 300 years)
* Collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet (about 300 years)
* Collapse of the Atlantic thermohaline circulation (about 100 years)
* Increase in the El Nino Southern Oscillation (about 100 years)
* Collapse of the Indian summer monsoon (about 1 year)
* Greening of the Sahara/Sahel and disruption of the West African monsoon (about 10 years)
* Dieback of the Amazon rainforest (about 50 years)
* Dieback of the Boreal Forest (about 50 years)

Dunno what's new in that news, but more fodder for my stash of eco-apocalypse porn.

Regarding vertical farms, I remember reading about some proposals to use shipping containers for farming. This, however:
feels like science fiction: Las Vegas may be the first place to build a vertical farm.


Oh, sorry, nuclear waste issue: send it to the most geologically stable part of the planet with the lowest population density: Australia.

There's a reasonable chance we sold you the uranium that got you into this mess in the first place.

Naturally, you'd have to pay for the service. Underground containment sites in the middle of nowhere with 7x24x365 shoot-to-kill security doesn't come cheap. Not to mention transport and logistics.

The political dimension can be dealt with by convincing the Americans to tell us to do it.


Sebastian @68: that farm in Las Vegas looks like good news to me. If their cost and productivity estimates are right, scaling it up suggests you could build vertical farm infrastructure to feed a nation the size of the UK using about 800 buildings at a cost of about US $160Bn -- not inconsiderable, but if you amortize that over 20 years it's entirely affordable, and the effect in terms of reducing long-distance shipping of food should be enormous.

It's still very much a developed-world project (the startup costs alone make it so), but we're now predominantly an urban species (more than 50% of us live in cities). If we can move our agriculture into cities, too, then we not only reduce the amount of carbon emitted by shipping of food, we can return large areas of land to wilderness (and carbon sequestration via reforestation).

Adrian @69: yes, that's a sensible model for disposing of nuclear waste. A damn sight smarter than the British government's model, which is "ape what the Americans are doing", i.e. look for somewhere in the crowded UK(!) where they can build a deep depository.


While I am very much in two minds about the article linked to (read it yesterday, tried wading through the commenst this morning, got fed up), it did highlight one CO2 source I hadn't previously considered. Mine fires and peat smoulders. I doubt they contribte nearly as much as was claimed (the article says "more than cars", other sources say "about 1% of CO2" but was unclear if that is in the US or world-wide) and effective extinguishing would be cool sresearch and possibly doable.

I know that extinguishing smoulders is suprisingly hard (there was a peat store outside Uppsala in Sweden that smouldered for I think 18 months before it was completely reduced to ash), but I suspect it might be possible. A not-too-high-hanging fruit for someone to go off and do something about, methinks.


Andrew@69 - I'd go with old-school Niven/Pournelle on security for nuclear waste storage: a fence marked at intervals with the skull-and-crossbones and the phrase "If you cross this line you will die" in as many languages as you like.

Pournelle nowadays seems to favour vitrifying it and dropping the resulting glass blocks into a subduction zone on the ocean floor, but that seems a bit of a waste; it might be useful someday (and you might annoy BLUE HADES...)


Those who say that "every little bit does not help" are ignoring the tragedy of the commons.
Simply, modify your behaviour before the consequences of your behaviour modify you.

Depleted Cranium's article merely serves to illustrate how deeply entrenched consumerist attitudes are, particularly in the US. Who amongst us is not rich? (Compared to global mean, historical mean.) Who amongst us is hungry? Is continual growth necessary? At what point can we say that continued growth has assimilated everything, has touched every life? What happens then?



we should learn to photosynthesize ourselves!

Green leopard plague!


The NIMBY factor should not be underestimated. In my own sad little corner of the planet, coastal wind farms capable of generating non-trivial baseload power are being fought tooth and nail.

I've never understood this. Wind farms always struck me as highly inoffensive things. It's not like the wind-generator next door is going to sneak around and slash your tyres. They're not even visually upsetting; a bunch of white shapes flapping about in the distance? On the coast, no different to seeing sailing ships, and on land, not unlike a cricket match :) Practically bloody bucolic. NIMBYs should be all over it.

Perhaps they're worried about heavy electricity.


Sure, it would be nifty to be able to photosynthesize, but have you considered the surface area a plant needs in order to support its own growth and produce a few measly seeds?

Not feasible, unless you're a tiny transparent organism (and live in a very sunny place ;) )

The author of the Green Leopard Plague was no biologist, and SF is just that: fiction.

Meg @19: we visited Queensland last year, and I was surprised at the discussions re. effluent treatment in the letters sections of various local papers. Apparently, there is plenty of resistance, with slogans along the lines of: "we won't drink sewage"

Australia is running out of time when it comes to managing aquatic resources rationally...


Harry @72: also, as any archaeologist will remind us, seawater erodes most silicate glasses fairly rapidly! I hope the subduction enthusiasts have a work-around in mind ...

Canis @74: there are several arguments against wind farms that make more sense. They play merry hell with pulse doppler radar (for which reason air forces tend to hate the things). They kill birds and bats in large numbers. And the need to root them on deep foundations can actually cause carbon emissions -- concrete is a major culprit.

(Photosynthesis isn't an option, unfortunately. Even if we could do so, we have too fast a metabolism and too small a surface area for it to supply more than 1% of our individual energy needs. There's a reason we don't see plants with legs, or animals with chloroplasts ...)


Oh yeah, if I thought photosynthesis actually scaled to sprinting mammals I'd have linked to some promising research instead of a WJW short-story :) I was just reminded of the story by Marilee's post.

I didn't realise wind-farms reached high enough to trouble radar; & I'd heard people worry about birds flying into them, but only as an unconfirmed "What if?" rather than actual fact. But I haven't been following them that closely.


Canis @77:

Charlie clearly reads the Register

To my mind the Ofgen complaint is the more serious one. Although I'm distinctly unimpressed with the reliability of wind power in general.


There's worse: classical economics is subject to something analogous to regulatory capture insofar as the economists who get hired and paid to theorize in ivory towers are the ones who tell their employers that their behaviour is good, and as the employers are usually wealthy people or institutions, the result is that the economics research that gets funded is funded by rich guys with axes to grind. (If you theorize that humans are rational actors in the economy whose prosperity is proportional to their rationality and insight, then it follows that you are telling your wealthy patrons that they are rational and insightful. Which is a whole lot more likely to get you a grant than telling them it was all down to luck or inheritance ...)

I think this is probably the most egregious offense of them all. If you can give good policy reasons for doing something, sound reasons, reasons flowing directly from facts and figures that anyone can understand, then you can usually get some sort of compliance, albeit grudging, half-hearted compliance.

But the Lysenkoization of economics has utterly destroyed this possibility for years to come (which may in part have been deliberate.) Instead of some sort of real objective truth, there is now some sort of post-modernist struggle among various 'truths', with the putative victors imposing their 'truths' upon others.

Which leads to point number four in the essay. I think this is the most important one, for now, but there was a time when there was a little give to this sort of political muscle. At least enough give to engineer a little funding for long-term programs that might have been enough to greatly lesson the woes now facing our collective populations.

But when the man in the street thinks that it's all lies, that the authorities are using point-headed academics and the pronouncements of 'experts' just for plausible deniability, that it just comes down to raw strength and power, the ability to project your will upon others, then it's all a scramble to get yours and the Devil take the hindmost.

Not a good environment in which to invest large amounts of capital, monetary, manpower, political, and otherwise, for which there will be little visible return for many years.


Rosco @73: Actually, I'd draw the opposite conclusion from the Tragedy of the Commons. If I understand correctly, the TotC says that when a large number of parties all get to use as much as they like from a limited shared resource (like a field for everybody's cattle to graze on, or a river for everybody to take water from), and every party has short-term economic incentive to overuse the resource, then the resource's days are numbered unless conditions change.

In the original example from Hardin's essay (livestock grazing on common land), "every little bit" would not have "helped": even if some 'virtuous' farmers had reduced their livestock holdings, it would not have saved the commons unless all the other farmers had also gone against their short-term interests and stopped overgrazing.

How do you interpret the tragedy of the commons to mean "every little bit helps?"


While the article has a few good points the author seems to be a "look-at-me-I'm-so-cool-flying-in-the-face-of-enviromental-research-nazis"

Seriously? It's a bit juvenile IMO. Climate Change is a big deal, and we need to adress it. That includes cutting down emissions and pursuing alternative means of energy production. Unfortunately I don't think technology will save us this time. The hard fact is that we can't go on consuming resources and poluting the way we do today. But since we're inherently selfish and stupid as a race we're slowly sawing off the branch we're sitting on. I think humanity as we know it is doomed and in a couple of hundred years time this planet will look very very different with large parts of it uninabitable. Before that wars, famine and climate change will have caused mass extiction of humanity and civilization as we know it will be gone.

And I'm not so sure I'm gonna miss it...


That's an interesting contribution (which is what I say when I'm trying to be tactful about someone who's way behind in the progression of this debate when they're talking about arguements that are so much further behind in the debate that the arguements are pretty much straw men).

The writer sounds like he's just done a few classes in environmental economics at first-year uni. That's useful, but it's yet to get to the questions that really matter. It's not wrong, it's just not good enough. (But it's going to be useful for some.)

I'm going to pick just two of the points, coz it's sunny day outside, but the rest are as weak.

"10. Go after pollution sources with the highest benefit/cost ratio, not those which are most noticeable"

Thank you, Captain Obvious.

But what if the benefit/cost ratio is not known, or is unknowable? What if there's extensive arguements about the shape of the tail of the bell curve that describes the likely returns? (For example, Martin Weitzman's latest paper on the likely costs of climate change pretty much turns on whether the chance of +10 Celcius warming is 0% or 0.1%. We don't know that, we quite possibly can't know that for many years to come. So, what's the cost/benefit ratio here, given that we're talking about potential extinction of civilisation? Original paper, critique of the obvious critique here.)

If you're planning your investments of the future, you want a diversified portfolio, some investments high risk, high return, some investments low return but far more certain. Solving climate change is just the same, plenty of money should be invested in efficient light bulbs, and some into blue skies research into wacky stuff that may never pay off, but if it does, we win big. Fusion power is an obvious far off hope here.

What if we're comparing values that don't fit well into purely financial terms? Ask yourself this - what is a blue whale worth? What is the last breeding pair of blue whales worth? How much would you pay for them not to be harpooned? Well, it's a stupid question, coz their value, for most people, is not expressable in financial terms. In this case, why not do something that looks good? The return is uncalculable, but that's true for most advertising.

So, as a maxim, "get the best bang for the buck" is a good starting point, but there's so much more to it than that.

"5. Taxation, price increases and caps on energy are inherently regressive and cause great damage."

Half right. Increasing energy prices is regressive. So what? All consumption taxes are regressive. Do they cause great damage? Well, the answer is to weigh up the damage caused by the price increase versus the damage caused by the energy use.

That's the way to handle all regressive costs. Taxes on smoking are extremely regressive and this hurts poor people's budgets. If a family's breadwinner gets sick of lung cancer and dies, that affects the family's budgeting a tad more.

At a higher level, you need to ask: "what's the public income gain from the tax, what's the reduction in emissions, what's the cost overall, who's having to pay that cost, and can and should we compensate them". If poor people are hurt by energy costs that most can bear, then part of that extra government income can go to compensating those who can't afford to pay. To just say "energy is important so we can't tax it" is not good enough.

As for whether this means that "the modern environmentalist movement is a puritan religious movement in secular drag", well Charlie, some of them are, some of them aren't. I've just spent a week in a field at a festival with some of the more useless hippies in the world and right now, I'm ready to run amok with a chainsaw (two-stroke and badly tuned, of course). But tomorrow I'll be working back the real world, where there's a whole bunch of environmental problems that need solving, and it's looking like technology isn't going to deliver solutions to all of them. And the "modern environmentalist movement", whatever the fuck that is, is going to have to play a part in sorting out this mess.

(Oh, and Charlie@76, yup, wind farms cause carbon emissions, mainly from the concrete for the bases and towers. It's roughly as much carbon emissions as nuclear power stations, from the conrete for the bases and towers.)


Victor @ 80.

Surely the tragedy teaches us to play nice and go against our short term interests. That's what I mean by "every little bit helps". I know, I'm a hopeless idealist...


The best thing for the greenies to do today is work out what they are going to say when everything takes its inevitable downturn.

There are going to be hundreds of millions of extremely pissed off people with an entitlement mindset a mile wide. They WILL trash, they WILL smash, and the WILL kill whole groups of people in a version of ethnic genocide. One of those at the moment will be greenies, for no other reason than people have always shot the messenger.

So what they need to be doing now is getting their message straight, so when the SHTF they are ready with the message and the finger to point at particular groups and say "get them". My favourite would be economists, financiers and politicians, if for now other reason than you keep populating your futures with these parasites and I think we could do quite well without them.


Denni@75: You would be referring to the township of Toowoomba, which recently voted down 62% to 38% a proposal to supplement (one part in four) drinking water supplies with treated effluent.

Once the reservoirs dry up and the aquifers are pumped out, they can always drink sand.

"Australia is running out of time when it comes to managing aquatic resources rationally..."

Indeed. It is a serious problem we share with our European cousins, our American friends, our Asian business partners and our African pen pals.


Charlie @66: You're mainly right; but where's the fun in agreeing with people?

(Also, if you want cool new transportation, this is vapourware train porn.)


Gracious, you guys, I know photosynthesis isn't possible for us, I was being silly! (The new antidepressant has started working, I'm likely to be silly more often now.)

Canis, I read that WJW story, but what I was thinking of yesterday was Nancy Kress' Beggars series. In the last book, people photosynthesize. I finished another book of hers last night and the frailties of the book and the first two in the series have been making me think more about her writing and about Sheffield dying. I'll write the review of the book in my LJ (the URL attached to my name) in a couple of hours, if anybody wants to read.


Vertical Farming: Is the 'energy in energy out' document an exercise in begging the question?

Only the roof and a fraction of each floor will get any sun light, this concerns me. Where is the energy coming from to illuminate the rest of the farm? They claim that this requirement is met by the methane digester, the problem here is that digester's source of energy, I.E. the plant/animal waste, is grown using the sun and energy from the methane digester. (Presumably from a previous cycle.)

Using PV to power grow lamps is a non-starter without significant improvement in technology, and the wind farm is irrelevant it's maximum contribution is, according to their figures, too small to matter. The methane digester might get additional waste from NYC, which undermines self-sufficiency, and it would need to be a shed load of waste. In any case their calculations and claims ignore these additional energy sources. So the energy needed to provide illumination for the plants must be meet by the sun, via the methane digester!

It's a long document, so I might have missed something radically important, but right now the vertical farm as imagined in this document seems like magic.



86: not so vapourware, considering an Italian traincompany has already ordered 25 for use from 2011.


Open societies with a free flow of information are vital when it comes to maintaining complex systems [in reference to Nuclear energy] safely.

And where can I find myself one of these open societies? The whole history of nuclear energy in the UK and the US is one of secrecy and lies. We're still uncovering information about leaks and poor design from the 60s. Given that the trend is towards more secrecy in both countries, I don't see any reason to support nuclear in practice.


Incidentally, I'm not convinced that big reductions in energy usage need to have a substantial affect on living standards. We live in an astonishing profligate and wasteful society. Everything from modern distribution chains (JIT), to electronics (heat dissipation from my stereo cabinet is a serious problem for me), to farming (organic farming may not be the solution, but industrial farming as practised simply isn't sustainable), to housing (we can build houses that require almost no heat energy, and yet instead we build houses that barely meet standards from the 70s), to geography (everything from malls, to exurbs), to cars, to power generation (why the hell don't we use the excess heat from these things?). I think power generation is not so much a red herring, as the wrong focus - the real savings are in conservation.


Andrew @85: I was certainly not implying that the UK is managing its aquatic resources rationally (lol!)

What was it--recent stats showed that Thames Water loses about a gallon of water a day from leaky pipes for every quid of profit they make? And they make a lot of profit!

(The relevant reference was in the Evening Standard, but there are plenty of links to the company's wastefulness. e.g. here)


KafirCake @88: personally I'd suggest sticking a PBMR in the basement of each vertical farm. 50Mw with no transmission loss ought to do the trick nicely, and you can use the waste heat as well.

Cian @90: you've just proved my point about the urgent need to oppose the drift towards a surveillance state that we've been seeing lately.

Denni @92: that's a good example of how to lie with statistics. Because you seem to have missed the fact that the retail unit of water is the cubic metre -- or a thousand litres -- and when you look up what that sells for, it's on the order of £1. Assuming they're making a gigantic 20% profit on the sale of water, the loss you refer to corresponds to roughly 5 litres per 5000 litres shipped, i.e. 0.1%. That's an approximate BOTE calculation -- you'll need to do some more digging to get to the real figures -- but I smell a rat.


I don't really see a connection to surveillance, but rather secrecy. They're different things and there are different reasons for opposing both. But while there is a trend towards greater secrecy due to TWAT (though its been much worse) - neither the US, or the UK have ever had close to the level of openness that you've stated is a requirement for safe operation. Nor can I realistically see us having that level of openness without a dramatic change in our political and social structures. Now while as a libertarian marxist I'd quite like to see such a thing...


Zold @ 81

You're spot on. After a wee lurk and click through on user profiles, I've noticed that there seem to be a great deal of nuclear industry fanboys and vested interests contributing to the boards. Some anthropogenic co2 deniers, some nuclear war enthusiasts(!), lots of Republicans and one guy who rates his biggest hero as "The Lord your God". I'm not going back there again... I feel as if I've just seen something nasty in the woodshed.


KafirCake @88: personally I'd suggest sticking a PBMR in the basement of each vertical farm. 50Mw with no transmission loss ought to do the trick nicely, and you can use the waste heat as well.

Drop the produce down the central shaft for a few gamma rays and that 20-week shelf life all the supermarkets are pining for, and the synergies are piling up like nobody's business. But 50Mw sounds like a lot for what's basically a skyscraper-greenhouse, also the nimbies won't want to live near them 'cos they won't understand about the meltdown-proof nature of the design.


re. 93

Mmmh, maybe something got muddled with the figures, but in 2006 Thames Water's leakage losses amounted to ca. 1/3rd of supplies--certainly far from trivial. I may need to do some more digging.


Charlie @93: you've just proved my point about the urgent need to oppose the drift towards a surveillance state that we've been seeing lately.

Maybe you should go the public intellectual route like Cory; public essays, letters to the editor, the lecture circuit, blog entries about things that intrest you, and so on. You stand a chance of making a difference that way.


Equally, there are proven things done in other countries which require relatively minor adjustments, such as banning free plastic bags in supermarkets.

As for power, nuclear is a perfectly good option. The modern plants just sit there if you lose power, and there are even safer designs in production. Judging by Chenoybl or even Three Mile Island is a mistake. Nuclear accidents happen, yes - every few years a worker in Japan manages to kill himself via incompetence. Still a lot safer than working in say a coal-fired station.


Deni@92 -

That's going to come down in the next few years. A lot. Why? Someone has *finally* come up with a water-loss meter which is cheap and small enough to fit to every house.

My problems with the green movement (and why I call myself eco-realist) can be summed up by the article's #5. More than that, Greenpeace's core don't make a living by cleaning up messes, they make a living by screaming about messes.


How do you interpret the tragedy of the commons to mean "every little bit helps?"

Because in Garret Hardin's made-up commons, there was no social benefit to being decently prudent, and no social cost to being indecently profligate. In real historical commons, that wasn't true, which was why they persisted in good health right up until they were stolen ("enclosed") by a conspiracy of very rich men.

That's why I'm uncomfortable with the hate talk by Charlie and other capitalist bien-pensants. If the only reaction you get by being decently prudent is to be attacked for "making the rest of us look bad", then it makes Hardin's fable true; in fact, it makes it extra true, because there's now a social cost to not joining in. Oh, look who's so superior! Puritan!

I think the ultimate source of all this propaganda is the same: corporations who don't want to stop until all the commons is gone or enclosed.


I started reading the article and thought it was making a lot of sense:

10. Go after pollution sources with the highest benefit/cost ratio, not those which are most noticeable – If you are attempting to make a difference in the world, you should start with the largest problems with the simplest solutions and the least cost in remedying.

but then this followed:

For example, underground coal fires produce as much CO2 as all the light cars and trucks in North America and most of those in Europe. The cost of developing a method of fighting such fires and implementing it is likely very low compared to the benefit especially in the context of the amount of effort which has gone into reducing the pollution from cars and trucks.

which is the first time I ever heard that this problem was so significant. I am still unable to find solid information on the impact of these fires. The author also asserts that the cost of fixing it is "likely very low compared..." but one of the links he provided in support asserts:

One coal fire in northern China, for instance, is burning over an area more than 3,000 miles wide and almost 450 miles long.

No data is given on how one fights a fire of that size. I don't know if this problem is real or not. I don't know if the solution is cheap or expensive. What I do know is that it was a poor example to support a good proposal. The net result was that I took the whole article less seriously.


Andrew Crystall & Deni:
Someone has *finally* come up with a water-loss meter which is cheap and small enough to fit to every house.

What do you mean a water loss meter? In the US water is metered per house (occassionally with two meters, one for interior use that charges for water input and wastwater output, and one for exterior use that only charges for water used.)

If this is what you are talking about, "finally" arrived over here decades ago. (I think at least a century ago, but I'd have google it, and that's far too much work.)


obble, no, these can detect any flow loss between the main pipes and the house, and together pinpoint main pipe leaks as well.

Before it reaches the house. This has allways been possible, but never in a cheap device which can be fitted to every house before.


In a world that is messed up mainly because humans are worse than pigs (think gross capitalism), it's hard to disrespect the puritans. Maybe a little nuts around the edges, but the core philosophy is not too different from many other sects that saw over-indulgence (of the hedonistic sort) as a serious human flaw. Were they wrong, or is our MORE-MORE-MORE culture that much better? But then again, capitalism is the engine that pushes science forward, and capitalism is almost without morality. Blame it all on the British Victorians, with their industry and science and cheap factory goods.


The general thrust of the 'Ten Things' list is that the broader issues of energy and the environment should be approached with solutions that have the best cost benefits ratio and the least distortion to the economy, and the highest acceptance with the general public, many of whom are not willing to make sacrifices because this will be the easiest path to take.

Is the list prefect? No and Steve will be the first to say it isn't, but attacking it on ideological grounds is silly.

The coal fire quote in post 102 is taken out of context. The argument here is more effort should be spent on dealing with these fires than chasing incremental gains in renewables.

Finally one has to understand that energy issues encompass a much broader field than just direct loads from domestic (home) heating/lighting and personal transportation. These make up only part of our energy usage, we cannot neglect the vast amount of power that is required to support the infrastructure that these depend on.

Piecemeal attacks on energy issues by individuals are laudable for the effort they make, but in the long run to little to address the issue as a whole.

Demands that we all must lower our expectations along with are consumption are ethically correct but are not likely to succeed.


Comment #3 said: "What's the solution to the fact that *if* a catastrophe happens in a Nuclear Power Plant, large areas may be uninhabitable for a considerable amount of time?"

If you think of the very biggest nuclear disasters ever - the now modern and thriving cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - you will see that an area hit by the very worst results of fission *isn't* uninhabitable. Others have explained why Chernobyl could never happen again, so I won't go into that.

I'd invite you read up on the UN's World Heath Organisation report on Chernobyl:

They found 47 deaths were directly attributable to the disaster. They estimate that over all 4,000 people will die an earlier death due to the effects of radiation. They also found that the BIGGEST threat to people's health wasn't the radiation, it was the fear and stress of *worrying* what might happen to them. Far more people will die early deaths because of the psychological impacts (thereby causing them to abuse alcohol and drugs, become depressed, unable to work etc) than the radiation.

But let's take the estimate of 4000 deaths due to radiation. That number is over a 'lifetime' - not in one day.

Every year around the world 3 million people die due the the effects of air pollution (both indoor and outdoor). We would need 750 Chernobyl disasters a *year* to equal the number of deaths caused by air pollution right now.

In China every year they have at least 5000 deaths from coal mining disasters. In 1979 and 1980, 3500 people were killed because of hydro-electric dam failures. Have a look at the worldwide energy-related deaths since 1977 for more: http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf06app.htm

So, we need to be realistic about all of this. Nothing is without risk and coal is responsible for an ASTOUNDING number of deaths... so, for that matter, are hydroelectric dams. Nuclear power is by far the safest irrespective of what anyone's "gut" feeling might be.


[a very late thought]

It occurs to me that here's one thing that I wish anti-environmentalists would learn: solar and geothermal energy can climate-control buildings, replacing at least 90% of the energy which is currently either delivered electricity or fossil fuel. The research projects of the 1970s, still under way though at reduced levels of funding, have borne fruit, and it is possible to build much more energy-efficiently than anyone thought possible in 1970s.

For more on this, I turn you over to the US NREL, the British BRE, the RMI, and so on, and on. Before we build a whole lot of nuclear plants, with all the attendant problems...maybe we need to find out if we actually need them?


Is there another "source" for the article? The website has died (or, more correctly, it's dead _to me_!)

Keen to read it.


Randolph @ 108

These guys with their top 10 and their love of nuclear are disingenuously hiding their true motivation. They want to find any way they can to retain their muscle cars and SUV's. I think that's all they care about.


Rosco: have a cigar and kick back -- you've just proven my point: you don't like the idea of being able to retain muscle cars and SUVs if there's a way to do so. The puritan instinct redux!

Randolph (@108): building geothermally or solar controlled houses isn't going to help those of us who have a slight space/housing stock problem. I live in a 176 year old apartment -- it's unlikely to be suitable for those solutions, isn't it? (Although it's a damn sight better insulated than many more modern buildings.) Here in the UK we just don't have the physical space (let alone the money) to tear down our existing housing stock and replace it. Houses are built with a design life of 50-150 years, and changing standards of construction is a long drawn out process.


Charlie @ 111: You're right, my post does come across a bit puritanical. That's not me. Good luck to the motorists, but they've missed the bus (pun?) The horse has already bolted (another). The particular issue of inappropriate vehicles in the urban environment is already beyond the political pale. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/7240309.stm

A cigar WOULD be nice, but the missus won't let me.


Rosco, I don't like SUVs either. I especially don't like them because they're marketed at insecure folks who then use them as a safety blanket and drive with markedly less consideration for other road users, including not only pedestrians and cyclists but other drivers; and because they're more dangerous in event of a collision and don't provide the protection to the occupants that people think they do. There are legitimate uses for them -- anyone who lives in the countryside, for starters, or has a job that involves hauling masses of stuff about -- but their fuel efficiency is ultimately self-punishment enough.

As I understand things, the US monster truck fad is to some extent a side effect of a tax loophole: if you've got a truck weighing over 2 tons and over 50% of its annual mileage is for work purposes, then you can write 100% of its value off in 12 months against your tax. Which worked fine when the only folks who used the loophole were working stiffs who needed to haul loads of cargo, but then the car manufacturers realized that if they just made their luxury cars a bit heavier ... and now you get loads of tax lawyers and accountants driving to and from the office in Hummers because it gets them a tax break.

This is a case of a tax system actively encouraging stupid behaviour, in conjunction with pernicious advertising by domestic US car manufacturers who can't turn a profit on ordinary-sized vehicles but who can do okay selling obese luxury items. To fix the problem you don't even need to punish SUV drivers; you just need to level the field.


I have a minivan and if it dies before I do, I'll likely get another or an SUV. The big deal for me is that I need a place I can sit (within my getting-up-after-sitting range) at the back so I can slide things between the car and the little rolling crate I use to move stuff around. Toyota makes specialized cars for disabled folk in Japan -- one-offs -- but I can't get that here.



I'm a woman. I live in the UK. I'm pro-nuclear power. I'm anti-big stupid vehicles. Why? Well, I'm not a fan of air pollution. (I live in London and my allergies are getting worse and I've had a couple asthma attacks despite not being asthmatic.) I'm also pro-recycling and want less packaging. Why? Cos I'm not a fan of filling up our landfill sites too quickly. I'm pro-nuclear power because it seem like the very best bridging solution for our baseload power until we get fusion sorted out.

For the record: I used to be anti-nuclear power until I actually seriously looked into it. Within about two weeks of researching it I learned about radiation, half-life, storage, 'risks' and realised I had no rational reason to be against nuclear.

So, no, people who are pro-nuclear aren't necessarily that way because they 'don't care'. I think if you are a REAL environmentalist you'd actually support nuclear power... :)


Isn't the anhedonic impulse also shown by the way in which the word "decadent" (a derivative of "decay") is often used as a synonym for "hedonistic"?


I dropped by with a few more links & found a reply. Charlie, #111. I know that Europe has an older housing stock than the USA, but I'm pretty sure that retrofitting is possible. I can think of some things that can be done off the top of my head, but I'm not familiar with European building practices. BTW, I don't believe that objections to greed count as anhedonic impulses. More links: US Department of Energy Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy group. DOE's Solar Decathalon--new house designs. The one from Technische Universität Darmstadt probably has more material science innovations per square centimeter than any other structure I've seen.



At no point have I said that I'm against nuclear power. My position is a little more subtle than that. I agree that nuclear fission power has its part to play in the energy generation mix (at least until, as you say, fusion comes along to save the world). What I'm not so sure about is the necessity for expansion of this capacity.

I AM against the further centralisation of our generating capacity which an expansion of nuclear implies. This centralisation in turn implies a centralisation of economic and political power. I understand that any new nuclear power stations in the UK are to be built using the already-discredited, expensive and inefficient PFI model - hoi, thats MY money!

Around 20% of energy use in the EU is not justified on economic grounds. Let's go after that. I'm sure that's something we CAN all agree on.


Even nuclear fusion doesn't make carbon stay in the ground through the sheer force of its goodness. Nuclear fission certainly doesn't. As a way of keeping the megawatts coming when the oil's run dry on its own, fission makes sense, but as a global warming counterstrategy, it's a bit of an underpants gnome scheme (1-we build nukes.. 2-???.. 3-oil wells stop working!).

At some point, you have to look at an underground carbon reservoir, and decide that burning it off is illegal, for the sake of the atmosphere. But that would be *puritan*. Or, as we used to call it, the right thing to do.