presents more of a blog variant
These are more dated drafts, without full polishing, so expect errors in both content and details of execution. For more finished work, please refer to my formal publications page.
The latest rough rants are at current blog.
The content of the following does not reflect the point of view of any known institution (if it does, please let me know; I need to get in contact with them!).
Enjoy the following despite its flaws; its goal is shared entertainment, and to improve the quality of lives.
28 July 2006
I just calculated that big families have another greater impact than most are aware of. Using local numbers, since smaller family groups constitute 85% of the population and average one dependent each, while larger families account for the rest and average 5 dependents, then the pool of health insured is (85x2) = 170 among the small and (15x5) = 75 for the large. Payment is made only by adults. One can reasonably assume that individual need, and thus distribution, will be more or less equal among the overall pool. Thus, almost half the total of the smaller family individual benefits are received by each large breeder’s insured. That means as much as 25% of individual small family or single’s health insurance fees go to subsidize large families, who, as usual, are not paying their fair share.
Meanwhile, it is more amusing to think of humans as having the same bathtub shaped reliability curves as computers, with highest costs for problems on the new and old ends.
17 July 2006
Not a happy camper today, having had an MRI reveal that I have not only completely torn apart the main tendon that held my right foot together, but also that the pieces have separated by more than 2 inches. I have an appointment to see a surgeon in 2 days. Looks like my lifelong skein of not finding it useful to have health insurance may be over. I know that there are so many others worse off, but this still quite literally hurts.
I was meditating later last night about when I lost hope for myself and this country/planet, and decided that the critical point was the election of Ronnie Raygun. Jimmy Carter had many flaws, but at least under his leadership the US was moving in the right direction, with a major governmental focus on reducing energy use and improving the overall environment, with high costs for borrowing restraining stupid business expansion and real estate inflation. Reagan’s handlers gutted all that, while replacing Carter’s straightforward honesty with the sleezeball lying and language degradation that has only gone further downhill since. The result has been successfully bankrupting both the Soviet Union and the US, assuring ongoing augmented global human conflicts through insane military spending, and for us, bottomless trade and other deficits. We haven’t fully paid any of those bills yet, with W’s crew seeing to it that the eventual cost is becoming ever so much greater. I saw all of this coming with November 1980’s electoral choice, and tried mightily to get my view into print. My major scientific error came in expecting the consequences to close in somewhat faster. The carry through of Carter’s restraints, and the hiccup of Clinton’s pastiche, helped to delay what now seems to a few more folks inevitable.
The oldness of my references about energy problems comes about because I did the work that long ago, found them more than sufficient to prove the case, given that my own analytical resources to cross check them were as good as any available then -- or now. Fiddling with alternative energy sources and use pathways can be entertaining and short-term profitable, but the basic number remains, of reducing overall throughput by fully 90%, if we seriously want to deal with the problem set.
I first clearly saw what was coming while still at Texas A&M, through a NASA scientist’s presentation in 1972 at the International Solar Energy Society’s meeting in Gainesville, following Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome’s early publications. I made the mistake of believing that others more glib than I would be carrying the same (lower energy) torch more effectively, and that I would be able to make a better job of further correlating facts and presentation than I have. I did assume correctly that the underlying facts would become increasingly obvious with time, through others’ research in so many areas, but failed to appreciate just how well entrenched interests would smudge, or simply bury, the linking truth, or how conclusively ignorant, unthinking, and uncaring the general public, and most of academia, remains. This part accounts for the obscureness and continuing thinness of the published reference base, not a problem with the available data, which has only deepened.
I also had begun to see by the 1970’s an almost perfect inverse correlation between the desire for political or financial power (with the two usually blending into one another) and a willingness to understand or work towards seriously dealing with the kinds of limits about which I’ve been writing. That kept me from reaching for such direct power, since all I saw resulting for the quest was greater harm, to self and others. I also thought I was a better writer, and a cannier person in general at getting widely heard, than I have turned out to be. The comforting part remains with Michelle Vennema’s observation that I am not personally responsible for the world’s problems, despite nagging from the ethic that I grew up amidst that says that if I can see the truth, and do not preach effectively and act accordingly, I am indeed guilty. Some days I can accept the inevitable at least somewhat cheerfully, while on others it is more difficult. At least I mostly have been able to keep after the quieter acting part, and only occasionally let the preaching bubble through.
16 July 2006
Bill Williams responded to my 13 July essay, “Hope that you can improve on the references sited thus far! Self admitted 'obscure references' from an unfindable British Journal are not terribly convincing! I think that I could make a good case for the 'flat earth theory' at that level! … Personally I have concluded that you have overstayed you welcome in the land of BYU and it is affecting you thinking and your normally (slightly) more cheerful demeanor! … There are areas of improvement where things are getting done and what technology will not get done, economics, working through the medium of $6/gallon gasoline, will!”
Unfortunately for that hypothesis, those conclusions were derived in Fort Collins, not Utah. I have long believed in the $6 a gallon cure, but have not wanted price increases to go the thieves at the top, but instead that the price differential from the roughly $1 cost of the stuff itself should go to the children and physical environments being hurt in so many ways by excessive fuel use. Europeans did it for a while, and their increased energetic efficiency has long been paying them bonuses.
The reason for the obscureness of the references is the degree of unwillingness to face what needs to be looked at by those who should be looking. I remain all too alone, with one possibility being that I am simply wrong, but another being the not coincidental isolation of other past prophets. I have changed a lot of attitudes and views over the years, but seen nothing on this issue but incidental and substantial confirmations (from melting glaciers to the burgeoning trade deficit for the United States, and so on) of what I saw then, balanced by virtually no significant contradictions. It’s like the majority still having no concept that excessive population growth is at the root of both immigration problems in the US and Islamic militancy abroad, reflected by Putin’s literally insane worry that population declines in Russia are harmful. The current world human population is several times what can be sustainably supported, just like our energy use rates.
The other message, from the Wall Street Journal, of 3 academics purportedly debunking global climate from human activity because the statistics supporting it were misapplied, ties directly into the problem. Science originated from people making repeated observations, and deriving relationships from them. Experiments began to be helpful, when the absolute essential of appreciating that comparisons made where only one variable changed could provide especially useful information became appreciated. That key has been routinely forgotten. Statistics became helpful for very large samples, as long as its use was cautious. Then, as always through history, others found that a new priesthood could be developed from those useful practices, were if an overlay of obfuscation was added, those that did not understand what was being manipulated would pay them well to continue prestidigitating. I am quite sure that the 3 quoted by the Journal will be especially well rewarded for their chiming in with what those who do not seriously care about any future but their own few remaining years want to be reiterated.
I’ve spent a lifetime confronting misuse of statistics, particularly by those who think that adding another layer of bending, with erstwhile mathematical sophistication, will somehow cure flaws in the original conceptualization or data. Global climate is a classic case. There are no single variable experiments with nature possible, nor are there are very large number of alternative takes to sift among (unlike among a human or mechanical population of millions, among which trends may sometimes be usefully explored). Therefore, most classic or complex statistics about global phenomena are flat out misleading, because their most basic underlying assumptions are not being met. Deepening analytic convolutions won’t fix that inherent limit in validity; they merely hide it better from those who do not appreciate the underlying flaws in related data fluffing. However, those who have made a good living by applying statistics, usually by making various convoluted approaches until they find one that matches possibly useful conclusions for situations they originally derived by more appropriate means, but would have been more easily either attacked or supported by others, and more obviously not be worth paying them buckets of money to do, or have some vested interest in issues or analytical techniques, do not want to admit that their tools have serious inherent limits, especially when those who have not dealt with those limits are the overwhelming majority, and/or share wanting to see results come out that.
I am reminded of my undergraduate days at Colorado State, when I was being criticized for lack of logic, so took a formal class in that subject. I’d been there a week, and stuck my hand up to ask why an elaborate quasi-mathematical system was being built for “logical analysis” when it had just been unequivocally proven that language was inherently slippery, but language was being used to establish the underlying postulates of the supposedly better alternative. The professor pointed at me and said, "you get an A for the course, now shut up". Privately, he told me that the goal was to have that discovered at the end.
What it has consistently been a theme in this lifetime of dealing with exceedingly complex issues in interpreting phenomena in the natural world is how human observational capabilities are horrendously limited, so that only the simplest possible extrapolations from what we have seen can be legitimately justified. When it comes to global climate, straightforward plots of human activity have for the past few hundred years paralleled important climatic markers (e.g., CO2 concentrations, Arctic ice cover, and glacial length). This is so apparent from the simplest of possible graphs and other straightforward analytical tools that we ought to be paying serious attention. When that attention also appreciates that gross energy releases humans have begun exceeding natural phenomena that have been known, unquestionably, to elicit climatic effects, such as massive volcanic eruptions and the sum of photosynthetic activity by green plants, that combination ought to make leadership and general public attention have it be at the forefront, not left on a back burner. No amount of statistical twisting ought to obscure its criticality.
What is a related issue is the assumption that climate is stable, or this world is an infinite sink for our effluents. Evidence against both is abundant, overwhelming, like what we are continuing to do. That climate sits on a knife-edge ought to be perfectly clear from all manner of evidence, at least from the perspective of local environments being consistent enough for humans.
I basically lost the larger level hope a very long time ago, when I had seen through religion (and its new age alternatives), and it then became obvious that population growth rates were not going to be seriously addressed outside of a few northern areas, nor were energy usage or consequent pollution going to be approached other than piecemeal, when single parts became so obvious that their effects could no longer be swept aside. As Tolkien long ago wrote, “we are fighting the long defeat.” Last, I lost the belief that somehow I could be the one to say the magic words, perform the magic acts, that would somehow turn around the slide.
On my good days, I try to make that a cheerful decline, like the physical parts of aging. Having just finished a biography of him, Willie Nelson may well have had the right approach: stay stoned, try not to notice the bad parts, and keep on playing. I also share this much with the “more responsible” W and crew, that the worst of the deluge from our inadequacies in dealing with what really needs to be done mostly won’t be happening till after our own deaths. What I do have some pride in, however, is not so heavily greasing the ways, and trying to live by example as well as by words that the more potentially justifiable approaches are more satisfying both at the time and in retrospect, at both personal and planetary extrapolation levels.
Extrapolation is unfortunately one of the areas that I have been blessed or cursed with an especially good ability to do, to visualize effectively what may be just fine for one person, or one hundred thousand people to do, but becomes catastrophic over time when 300 million or 6 billion do it. As a budding adult, I started out by having some pretty serious industrial untruths visited upon me in a very personal way (among them the safety of working with mercury and X-rays), which led to questioning other “scientific” statements widely believed, including by the apparently very well educated, and finding their deadly underbelly. Kathleen pointed out at dinner the problems that come along with being a Cassandra, that being right is anything but the same as being comfortable, or comfortably accepted. For the most part, it’s a curse that I’ve kept under some control, not least by not routinely bringing up how I genuinely believe, especially when I know from experience that I can’t be making a convert.
My father was one never to push a point of view upon others, but eventually withdrew to a large extent from social interaction. I seem to be doing the same, after trying a bit harder to share what I learned. At this point, I have spent a lifetime listening, and do have the temptation to be a bit more aggressive about the point of view that I have acquired, since I see so few others with the same point of view, and there isn’t all the much time left, certainly for me, and from what I’ve learned if no serious course change ensues soon, for the rest. I hate seeing death happen unnecessarily around me, whether to people or other species, and I see too much of it. It will happen anyway, but does not need to be so soon, so uncomfortably, or the experience to be so unpleasant beforehand.
Sure, there have been expectations, more or less widely shared, of some form of apocalypse, for at least thousands of years. The difference between the current situation and the past is that it’s not theoretical gods that are bringing the indications and the processes this time, but ourselves, and that we have the numbers and the tools to get the job well and thoroughly done. That it is already happening has too abundant evidence. On a still 95 degree evening, the hottest I have ever seen in a reasonably high altitude mountain cool air drainage, with air perceptibly smoky from massive fires a thousand miles away, and officially red flag health danger from vehicular-generated ozone, surrounded by normally long-lived vegetation more than half of which has died in the 13 years I’ve lived here, it is damned hard to believe that our effects are not becoming irreversible.
13 July 2006
“Don't forget to send me your supporting data on the limitations to agricultural fuel production.”
I was initially going to respond that I did my calculations 30 years ago, when I was working full time on closely related issues, with good access to the very best data, and have had no reason to doubt my conclusions in the interim. However, since I did not do a good job of publication, and all too few seem to realize or believe in the inherent limits, including the should-have-been president, I am going to do a bit of more serious rooting in the dusty files.
To begin, the 23 June 2006 Science has a few pages (312:1743-48) of good feedback to a ‘what-me-worry?’ article they published on 27 January. I’ll get to some selected quotes, but before I forget, I came up with an appropriate analogy while on my before-the-worst-heat bike ride, to whit: agriculture in America is run like an engine at redline, with full nitro boost, without ever pausing for maintenance.
Soil erosion is but one of the consequences, like most of the rest, devilishly difficult to calculate effectively. After serious inquiry in the ‘70s, I remember my own conclusion for Iowa as roughly 7 tons per acre per year, versus about 1⁄2 ton of soil production. That gave a lifetime of 2-300 years for some of the most productive land in this country, without concern for other, often subtle, plant nutrients that are disappearing faster. Conditions have not improved in the interim. Among other considerations, from the train window 2 years ago, we saw that measurements were being made consistently only in the most carefully managed land, with easy evidence being the farmers caring enough to do contour plowing. Current loss estimates are almost surely underestimates. Similarly, when I worked with tracking back system level, embodied energy inputs, for such things as transportation of fuel and products, and construction of machinery, I found that most analysts grossly underestimated effective secondary costs for agriculture.
When trying to calculate yields, particularly of natural systems or even grass based alternatives, another problem arises. Measurements are almost universally of “peak standing crop”, made once yearly, for the convenience of the measurers. It’s an expensive process, and thus minimal effort gets put into it. This misses ephemeral production that takes place as part of natural cycles.
More generally, there has never been a really focused, well-funded effort to find out what total production is. When I was trying to do one without much support, I found that virtually all the published work on total forages (defined as non-crop, non-wood output from farms, range, and forests available to livestock, understanding that there has been every effort to get as much as possible utilized from every surface) eventually referred back to numbers produced by one guy in the USDA, T.C. Byerly. I tracked him down, and found that he derived his estimates by totaling grain consumption by animals, which was more or less monitored by the gov’t, as were livestock numbers, and then figured the difference needed to support that many animals from the nutritional requirements for the animals, assuming that to be from the forage they consumed. With several levels of quotation between, those then extrapolating forage production from government publications into energy or related output have assumed that the original data was from field measurements, not a sharp pencil in a literal back room, as is the truth of the matter. But even at best, forage versus livestock relationships assume sustainable use, which is not necessarily a valid one in current practice (to be generous).
Turning to those contemporary numbers, Conner and Mínguez (Science 312:1743) argue, “It requires production equivalent to 0.5 ton of grain to feed one person for one year…”, and then, while underestimating typical American vehicle fuel consumption, conclude, “The required 1400 liters of ethanol would be produced from 3.5 ton grain (2.48 grain/liter), requiring an agricultural production seven times the dietary requirement for one person…major reliance of biofuel, even for private motoring alone, would place an additional demand on agricultural production greater than would providing an adequate diet for 9 billion people by 2050.” Bad grammar and misuse of significant figures aside, they also note that agriculture has difficulty adequately providing for 6 billion, and finish, “Anything but a marginal contribution from biofuel would pose a serious threat to both food security and the natural resource base of land, soils, and water.”
Then, Brower (Science 312:1744) says “…(A.J. Ragauskas et al., 27 Jan., p. 484) presents as it most important datum, 1020 joules per year of sustainable biomass energy…” Relating that to energy consumption, with an assumption of 400 million kilowatts of electrical power, which equals 1.3x1019 joules per year, and a generation efficiency of 33%, “…the corresponding demand on biomass energy would be 0.38x1020 joules per year.” Thus, the biomass, even given optimistic assumptions about convertibility and with nothing subtracted for embodied energy in manufacturing or the inevitable ‘unexpected’ environmental consequences, could provide only 40% of current electrical demand, even if it was used for nothing else. Davison et al. respond with more hand waving about technologies that do not and are not likely to exist. Other authors chip in with a few of the reasons for long and short term problems with any form of monoculture, and provide some additional quibbles with the numerology of fantasies about biomass.
I found the crux of my own calculations in Yorks, T.P. 1980 FRODAS: An Integrated Resource Data Analysis System for the Forest/Range. Washington, DC: USDA Forest Service, Range Management. 121 pp. (preprint). This was a distillation of an effort by more than 100 scientists to define national productivity and condition of forests and rangelands, with possible outcomes from improved management. On pages 33-34, the report suggested a current yearly production total of 450x106 tons of herbage and browse, and 220x108 cubic feet of net wood growth, after natural losses, from forests and rangelands under all ownerships, public and private (and noted then-current annual wood harvests were 400 x108 cubic feet!). With 37 pounds per cubic foot as an average for dry-weight wood growth increment, the wood component of biomass accumulation totaled 410x106 tons. Conversion to metric equivalents, and 4.2 kcal/g combustion heat value for herbage and 4.6 kcal/g for wood, yields an overall total of 3.4x1015 kcal as the energy content for annual accumulation of non-agricultural biomass in the U.S.
Given the vagaries of such massive calculations, and that calculated output did not include increments of growth of sizes between that consumable by cattle and 5" d.b.h, nor was the study run through internal-error-corrected revisions, the total “… is remarkably close to the independently derived sum of 4.5x1015 kcal by Pimentel et al. (1978. Science 194:149-155). This represents an average photosynthetic fixation efficiency of approximately 0.1 percent.” Sounds like inefficient use of insolation, but it’s a net that integrates a whole lot of factors, which solar cell manufacturers don’t have to bother with in their calculations, including being self-sustaining. I went on in 1980, “Pimentel et al.’s assumption that agricultural lands had roughly twice the biomass output of other lands gives a grand total of 13x1015kcal, some 25% less than the energy value of current annual fossil-energy use in this country.” I will keep digging for other cross-confirmations, which I know I also made, in addition to intensive retesting of Pimentel’s assumptions (including through direct conversational questioning of him) and calculations.
At the moment, with roughly 4200 joules per kcal, the total from my 1980 biomass estimates would convert to 5.4x1019 joules, which is certainly within the ballpark of the totals being bandied about now. Thus, they continue to reflect my conclusion back then that if the administration’s (or other) magicians could carry 100% of the net photosynthetic fixation in this country across into fuel, there still wouldn’t be enough to equal even current, let alone growth-projected, American fossil fuel use, even without worrying about the rest of the consequences of doing so. The factor of 2 greater that Ragauskas et al. came up with for biomass would not fix this basic problem, especially given the need to use biomass for food and fiber (including structural fiber).
After sending the numbers off, which is what Bill wanted, I started speculating that I might be more likely to get funding to expand my dissertation separation work, since I was postulating getting both food and fiber from biomass. But I dumped that from realizing that unexpected problems always arose from trying to push the land harder; nature had had 4 billion years to try out alternatives. No matter how I extrapolated, there was a wall. If only we could start accepting that, and work with, not against nature!
I simply don’t understand how Americans can docily accept so many other limits, like from stupid vehicles and related use patterns, and the speed limits, danger, and congestion that come with them, yet refuse to even conceptualize the positives that could come from accepting and working with more important and fundamental ones. Maybe, for a start, we should accept 40 mph as the ultimate…the speed at which we still can see…and optimize for it. Or slower.
Appearing as among the most valuable among my pile of references is an obscure one by G.J. Lawson, T.V. Callaghan, and R. Scott (1980. Natural vegetation as a renewable resource in the UK, from Merlwood Research Station, Grange-over-Sands, Cumbria), who reported, “The energy trapped in the annual production of British vegetation is 3260 PJ (33.7% of the UK primary energy demand…” and that “only some 0.1% of solar radiation reaching the earth’s surface is utilised by plant life (Hall 1979).” These are numbers pretty similar to my own conclusions. H. Lieth and R. H. Whittaker, eds. (1975. Primary productivity of the biosphere. Springer-Verlag, NY) present a variety of data emphasizing the importance of temperature and moisture availability in determining production in relation to solar inputs.
G.C. Szego and C.C. Kemp (1973. “Energy forests and fuel plantations”. Chemtech, May, 275-283) reported estimates of solar energy conversions of 0.2 to 1% for agriculture and managed forests, with a mean of 0.3%, but these leave aside the issue of fossil subsidies to achieve that measured productivity. That issue is one where one can get arguments all over the map, but few honest ones that suggest much, if any surplus is gained if all the inputs are adequately traced. It has been one thing to manage to turn gasoline or diesel conveniently into food or fiber, which is hardly without problems of its own, but quite another to try to turn fuels from the ground into more energy. The principle may be that one can change their form, but not get them to reproduce.
Once again, the cleanest data consistently supports my contention that the level of current American fossil energy use is unsustainable, unapproachable by renewable means, and not suitable for imitation elsewhere. Its system level costs and perturbations reflect their more immediately obvious problems, as would any other alternatives, no matter how clever they may initially seem (e.g., nuclear and hydropower). Nature had 4 billion years to find optimum, provably sustainable energy use levels and mechanisms. We should start respecting them.
3 July 2006 At the Utah State U. library after a 2 week train trip to and along the West Coast. Riding the local bus today was a step up over personal cars, from not having to have responsibility for dealing with all the other potentially deadly fools on the road, but a long way down from the rails, being noisier, jerkier, more unnecessarily lit, and over-air-conditioned on this bloody hot day. On campus, I was again noticing, beyond the ridiculously and uncomfortably refrigerated buildings, their hundreds and hundreds of utterly useless midday lights. I still think a full person’s salary, and then some, could be paid by just tracking down turning the latter off.
8 June 2006
Wondering again at my inability to get a decent return from my abilities and experience. Once again proving quickness in getting to the heart of issues, my wife was expressing wonder at a morning newspaper article about European nations having a difficult time with the issue of CIA flights and temporary prisons for “extraordinary rendition”. I replied straight off that one must consider their perceptions at that time of the US, and the realities of the folks who were making the decisions. The US in 2001 had a longstanding respect worldwide for its self-sacrificing helpfulness (e.g., the Marshall plan) and questing for true justice, especially after leaving Vietnam. We were hit with a horror that elicited both deep sympathy and shared fearfulness for what might be coming next. For an airport functionary in let us say Poland, when asked before the Iraq invasion to allow a CIA plane to pass through on a no questioned asked basis, just why should he or she not have? There was no reason for them to believe what was being done was actually happening, any more than for passengers on those first two planes headed for the twin towers. They just had no reason for conceptualizing that Americans would or could stoop so low. Now, given America’s ongoing immense power and current insanity at the top, their governments cannot afford to be properly apologetic.
Few still get it, all too few, as indicated by the obtuseness of the ongoing article writing, and worse, what is allowed to continue happening at the highest political levels. The vast majority does not have the sophistication, including the historical background, to understand the arguments, especially since there has been such an overlay of uncontested bullshit layered upon them. America’s leadership is one of a paper thin veneer of Christianity and patriotism over rich scions who were personally protected from seeing any consequences of violence, have no serious appreciation of history or alternative points of view, and can therefore regress to Old Testament vengeance as if it were equal to the carefully considered, immensely more difficult, patient justice envisioned by the constitutional framers. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove, Wolfowitz, et al. have never personally encountered what they are perpetrating, even at the most initial levels (all having actively avoided combat exposure themselves), nor do they have the least appreciation for what their cosseted ignorance means to what this nation previously accomplished in the world, and might have continued to accomplish, even in its often stumbling way, for ourselves and others.
I am not only intelligent and educated enough to see through them (if not enough to be able to do something useful to stop them), but I have also experienced first hand, several times, what unrestrained police power can do when it is mistaken, as it inevitably will be, given the immediately scary pressures, as seen realistically from their side, in a difficult and sometimes deadly dangerous profession, and their status as human. These are among very pressing reasons for the development of the concepts of “innocent until proven guilty” and trial by peers before condemnation. Standing backed up against a wall, faced with a dozen cops with their guns drawn, because they have mistaken one for a recent murderer on the run, is an intensely good way to appreciate a country run by those who do not allow killing without that trial. I have personally been in that very situation, and can assure readers that it is most educational, especially when considering the escalating use of blowing away suspected terrorists from a convenient distance, as with bombs and rockets from aircraft. It is amazingly easy to get the wrong person. That was not the only time.
To me, that difference even applies to situations like yet another in the morning newspaper, of a baseball player dropped by his team the day after a search of his home for steroids. Yes, those drugs are a bad thing, but where’s the trial before the punishment? It’s out of control, and we will all eventually reap the consequences of living without genuine justice.
There is risk, of course, in allowing the lack of immediacy inherent in questing for justice and more near certainty of guilt before response. But there is also a difference between some risk and virtual certainty of abuse and error. To me, this is part of what Christ was questing for, and more clearly, this nation’s founding crew, along with the philosophers they understood. It is one thing for Israel to use simple vengeance, given their bloody Old Testament, or the Muslims, with their equally bloody and even more misogynist Quran, but another for Jeffersonian America (at least in ideal, if not execution). None of those, of course, are without their merciful or more meditative portions, but there remains no excuse for more than putative Christians.
Funny that I wrote the above words before hearing news that US aircraft had taken out yet another high-level theoretical enemy in Iraq. Weird that it’s all these trained lawyers are obviating all rule of law by returning to the crudest form of response to violence, more of the same. It usually winds up being inappropriately targeted, even if it occasionally gets one right, and eventually coming back to haunt all around. The one with the biggest stick wins is not a sustainable philosophy. This is not to say that the more civilized forms of response are not without error, distortion or inappropriateness in practice. They still grossly favor the rich, and even for them sometimes misfire. However, there is something to be said, even amidst appropriately general hopelessness, for at least trying for improvement, for more care in accurately identifying the right target, which takes time and effort, including giving that target the chance to fully and publicly respond, and to administer only then punishment in proportion to what damage has been done by that person.
1 June 2006
Was out looking again at the deteriorating decks around our home, which are approaching 30 years old, and thinking about trees and the way we treat them. These decks were built from pieces of redwood up to 6 meters long. The trees must have been huge, and hundreds of years old. But, like the cedar shake roofs of the same vintage that my neighbors have been replacing, most people would consider this deck wood only worth throwing away. Last fall, I worked over our own cedar roof, cleaning out the moss and debris that had filled each gap, and adjusting ones that moved or had obvious breaks. No leaks this past winter. The worst I’ve seen of the neighbors’, beyond their laziness in not being willing to clean what they had, was the quality of the asphalt underneath, which like most American house construction, was of both shoddy quality and application. So their still good wood gets tossed, and replaced by more asphalt, that won’t last nearly as long or insulate as well as the original combination.
I just can’t feature destructively killing more old growth trees for my own minor problem of deterioration at edges, or shipping what isn’t wasted immediately around just to last another trivial fraction of the years it took to produce it. Despite the poor treatment of the deck, once one skims a couple of millimeters off, the wood is in good shape – except at most boards’ ends, and where the foolish nails (the worst possible fasteners) were driven, along with too many areas of the shorter, but wider joists underneath. Wood, even when dead, needs to flex and move with changing temperatures and humidity. Too few contemporary construction techniques allow it to meet its needs, including spacing and angles to drain water effectively. Unfortunately, the alternatives to wood for decks are grim, too, not to mention a lot uglier, and in my experience, slipperier.
But then I glanced at the ship models on our living room mantel, of some of the most beautiful constructs in human history, the clipper ships, which tragically made our deck seem long lived. Built from the largest, most perfect of trees, they lasted at most a few voyages before the stresses they faced made them broken, waterlogged, and worthless. They, of course, weren’t as silly as the warships, from the days of the Greeks on, again made from the very largest and best of trees, but built just to destroy others like themselves.
My wife then reminded me of past diatribes against fireplaces built on outside walls, which through history have thrown away so much more of the heat from wood than they needed to, and steamships and wood-fired locomotives running over wooden ties, which melted American and other forests anywhere near them.
It isn’t just petroleum and coal that we’ve pissed away, with the best going first. We don’t seem to have learned much along the way, either, with what little is left of the world’s forests – and other combustibles – going away at seemingly ever increasing speeds.
31 May 2006
At a job interview yesterday, for a position managing a study of development impacts on a piece of property near Lost Wages, Nevada, I was asked what I thought about dealing with developers in our local area. I responded that development impacts were controlled in the bedrooms and maternity wards, people hadn’t a clue about what exponential growth means, that at current growth rates this area would be exploding from 100,000 to 2,000,000 in a century, and with that density coming, nothing we could do protectively would matter very much. The answer was in the hands of politics and religion, not science. Nevertheless, I would continue to work to protect what small areas that I could.
I should have added that reducing energy intensity would concurrently reduce both individual and total impacts, but I probably didn’t need to, since exploding populations overwhelm all else. Particularly depressing for me at the moment are people like Vladmir Putin, where human populations are actually falling, trying to reverse that instead of celebrating it like they should. An order of magnitude fewer humans than we now have might be sustainable, if they also reduce their energy intensiveness. Given the grim concrete block reality for 10 million in Moscow, it is hardly surprising that they are voting for less in the future. Putin, like other thievish leaders, isolates himself from both direct contact with what the world has become for most (humans, animals, and plants) and from serious thought about an environmentally feasible future.
Infinite human population growth is an insane and ignorant fantasy. With what we have learned, life could become better, in all senses, if there were fewer of us. It cannot become better with more. The Club of Rome was right, but missed that visible pollution and resources were not the only limits, and so some of them thought they had erred. Where they really failed was to add in the importance of biodiversity, and invisible pollutants like CO2, along with simple heat. Of course, given what is happening in China, and with buildups of other hard pollutants (like pesticides and medicines) in “unexpected” places, the Club folks original conclusions may have been enough; their time scale has just stretched a bit because of unanticipated (and sadly temporary) wisdom (not least restraints in population growth rates) in response to some of the most egregious industrial insults and the ‘energy crisis’ of the 1970’s.
The very first thing that needs be done is to concentrate the excessive breeders into a limited area. You want lots of kids? You, and they, get to stay with your own ilk, not mess up the rest of us, and you don’t get support of any kind from us, especially not the ability to take away from what we are more wisely sharing when the grimness you are creating catches up more obviously to you.
On a quite different topic, reading through a stack of the Economist magazines, and noting how various folks make pots of money, made me realize that one reason I haven’t, and tend not to be able even to think seriously about doing so, is that money itself is an imaginary commodity, and that I am in fact more of a scientist than I sometimes think I am. Imaginary substances do not obey laws of the kind that biological, chemical, and physical systems must. Being imaginary, they don’t have to. Therefore, they are not amenable to the same kind of study or understanding. Money (and therefore economics) is a branch of religion, not science. The closest it comes is under psychology, but as with religion, the pursuit of money does not have an encouraging place.
The above is both perversely funny and true, but that doesn’t help me in finding more, despite my intelligence. Valuing and placing my services effectively have not gone well, and worse, have few visions. I do understand, provably (although even most contemporary scientists disbelieve), far better than most how the underlying, real world works, including how humans interact with it. Still seems that such understanding ought to have value to humans, including being worth some money. But how, and where?
24 May 2006
Having had to abandon my morning walk because a mental midget was dribbling and spraying toxins along the road, where he himself never walks, but so many others do, and bike, and run, pumping more air, and thus even more deadly stuff into themselves if it is present – so I keep trying to put the needed message across, more succinctly, to reach more of those who need it.
There are only two classes of pesticides and herbicides: those that are illegal now, and those that will be. Poisons are poisonous, by definition. Living organisms are too similar structurally for there to be perfect targeting by chemical action of ones that we do not like. The only people who genuinely benefit from their use, except in dire and rare emergencies, are those who profit from them financially, and who do not ever encounter what they purvey. What makes the problems from them worse is that more often than not, because of the way their vapors drift (including for weeks after the initial application), neighbors and passers-by, along with shorter creatures like children and pets, receive larger doses than those who deserve to be poisoned through ignorance and carelessness. Chemical sprays are like barking dogs and petroleum engines, in that the noisy and dangerous end virtually always points furthest away from the owner or user. Killer chemicals, however, tend to last longest.
Twenty years ago, I asked a distinguished gentleman who raised wheat on ten thousand acres in eastern Washington why he was not turning to “no-till”, when he clearly had an erosion problem. He replied, “It takes more chemicals. I’ve been farming for fifty years now, and there hasn’t been a single one that, if used widely enough or long enough, hasn’t had to be taken off the market, as too dangerous to keep using. Why start?” He is still correct. What kills one organism will always be found to damage others, in destructive ways that may take a while to find, but that does not mean it isn’t happening.
They aren’t just absolutely always dangerous. For farming in general, over longer periods of measurement, crop losses to insects and weeds have remained higher for those who rely on chemicals than for those who do not. For those not in agriculture, there are fewer excuses for even trying them.
Admittedly, I am unusually sensitive to them. My lungs were first damaged by working in a chlorine factory to help pay for my college education. They try to close down when I encounter the chemically sticky forms of chlorinated compounds, which include most pesticides and herbicides. Because I forcefully learned to detect them by smell, I notice them in small quantities, even before they have a chance to act, and remain aware of them wherever they are likely to be dangerous.
I also studied them and their consequences closely while getting graduate degrees in chemistry and toxicology, and then while working for the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Academy of Sciences. What I learned from documents held back from, or too difficult to understand by, the general public made me even more afraid of them.
A few people make a lot of money from these chemicals, enough to cover the facts about their dangers with lies, at least for a while. The truth with come out eventually, but at the moment, the lawn chemical industry makes more than two billion in profits, while the EPA’s entire budget is less than one billion, with a few other, more immediately deadly, items on their agenda. Is it any surprise that regulations are weak? Or that since two of the most likely cancers from the compounds present in lawn chemical mixes are in breasts and brains, with its all too ubiquitous applicators, suburban Cache Valley has unusually elevated occurrences?
I cannot understand why anyone would take chances with expensive and surely deadly materials. If people have a problem with plants they do not like, most of the worriers have two good hands and two good eyes. They should get off their fat butts and use those hands and eyes. Not only would they not have to poison themselves, their children, and their neighbors, but also their own butts would be less fat.
It takes my wife and I less than an hour a week of healthy light exercise to keep our half-acre freer of dandelions, bindweed, and truly noxious weeds than any place nearby, including where owners rely upon deadly chemicals. We also have legitimate flowers arising naturally in places that those who rely upon broadcast poisons cannot have them. If one picks dandelion greens (and flowers) off, a bonus arises. Each plant may resprout a few times, increasingly weakly, but its root is doing what expensive (and bloody noisy) “aeration” machines do. Taproots do the job better, because the pioneer plants that have them, many of which many think of as weeds, leave a core of fertilizer from those roots behind, after opening up deeper soil than grasses can alone.
Of course, we do not mow the way others do, either. Grass root networks tend only to be as deep as their tops are tall. Shallower roots mean less competitive ability, greater likelihood of disease, and higher water demands. Our lawn stays greener longer, with a trivial fraction of the water demand required by buzz cut folks, and has less problems with unwanted invading plants and insects. We do also have a variety of trees for shade, albeit ones struggling with the valley’s pervasive air pollution, including drifting herbicides. The greater the diversity, the fewer the problems with true weeds, and the less the need even for supplemental fertilizers.
For anyone who cares about anyone else, there are no valid excuses, ever, for broadcast use of either pesticides or herbicides, especially routinely. Neither can be made safe, in any sense of that word. Following label directions merely minimizes obvious damage. The ones still sold legally simply have not been studied carefully enough to find the rest of the booby prizes that inevitably will follow their use. There never will be one without “unexpected” consequences. This situation can never change, because we and other organisms we like are living creatures, and have too much biological and chemical overlap with those we do not like.
This directly applies to insects like mosquitoes, where I have all too regularly encountered idiotic “abatement” folks, literally using what were rightfully called nerve gases when they were created, poisoning blindly and without warning along roadways where those insects do not hang out anyway, but where people do try to live, walk, and drive. The result, like the spraying for “weeds” along those same roads, is not just worse than unnecessary. The uncontrolled toxicity they are spreading brings with it more of what was not wanted in the first place, because more useful, naturally competitive species are always damaged, over time, including helpful predators, than are the disliked ostensible targets. As part of this, like similarly overused antibiotics, compounds that should be reserved for emergencies selectively evolve resistance among the most dangerous organisms. When we really need these defenses, they may no longer be useful.
The whole tale of woe is far longer than reasonable column space allows. Among the rest is that some of the worst part of the overall tragedy finds among the worst offenders schools, churches, and local governments, the very organizations we expect to know more and to be responsible for protecting us.
In the end, only ignorant or careless humans spray chemicals that kill, except during the direst of emergencies. No pesticide or herbicide stays just where it was intended to, or ever works without deadly surprises somewhere in the system. Applicators protect themselves somewhat, and retreat for somewhere else, leaving what they did for downwinders to breathe, making the rest of us suffer their worst consequences.
17 May 2006
"Toys", ATV users call them. These ugliness creators don't just leave noise, death, and fumes behind. The plant nearest dead center is dyer's woad, a serious invader to Utah's rangelands. The power of words is an interesting one, remembering a lecture once where the computer consultant worked on how much better life could be if programmers called "bugs" their true name of "mistakes", which would make them more worth fixing. This, in turn, takes me back to something C.S. Lewis put into That Hideous Strength", when he suggested that the greatest evil is hatched in rooms filled with laughing men. Small engines can make big problems, routinely contributing to degradation of quality of life, from the tooth-rattling drone of a neighbor's utterly unnecessary lawn mower, to examples like this one. Bigger engines just make bigger impacts. None are funny.
I did a distillation a few years ago of a study of the relative impacts of various forms of land use, especially comparing the differences that result from adding energy, in this case considering only surface area required by different classes of users per unit of time: . The complete presentation remains more formally scientific than most are willing to put up with, but hopefully less opaque than most, and remains available on line. It adds some detail about just how different people with machines are from those who do not have mechanical assistance.
What was not yet fully realized then, and is accessible to anyone, is the question of equality itself. Is it for humans, as the Founding Fathers believed, or is it supposed to include machines? The creeping inclusion of vastly more powerful inanimates is too often overlooked in the inevitable confrontations, when a seemingly ever more rapidly expanding human population is confined within an absolutely fixed land area.
By adding fossil-fueled mechanization, any single human requires at least 10 times the area per unit of time, because they go so much further so much faster. The larger, heavier, and more powerful the machine, the greater the difference -- even without considering related impacts. To me, this makes humans with and without machines unequal, in all possible ways.
If discussions over land use, recreational and otherwise, began with this basic inequality, asking how much the difference is could have a very different resolution for conflicts. Just take it back to humans having equal access, to an equal amount of land.
The handicapped always come up in response. In the first place, almost all of America is heavily roaded, so most of the country is already easily accessible by machine. For the small parts that are not, some are out of reach to any but the most hardy, so the more handicapped among us are simply just a bit more limited in their access. Having been at times handicapped (e.g., from skiing errors), I have full sympathy with those who remain so, but there can never be complete equality in all aspects. The differences in access among human capabilities remain far smaller than between those who are mechanically assisted and those who are not.
Further, the number has never been studied in detail, but I am willing to bet that there are now more Americans who have limited physical capabilities because they did not bother to exercise than there are who became handicapped for reasons not within their possible control. Allowing people with machines to have unlimited access to the land exacerbates future limits on their access, but those future limits are their own fault, so no sympathy should be wasted there. The message needs to become more clearly stated: “get out and walk now, or you won’t be able to walk later.”
The bigger message is to reevaluate what equality of access means, what equal itself means. If it is for humans, it is a very different question than for humans plus machines.
The equality question applies just as certainly on roads as off. Humans with and without machines are inherently unequal, but so are most machines. My 2,300 pound, carefully designed, built, and maintained true sports car can stop (or perform any other vital control maneuver) in less than half the distance of a large SUV, which rarely carries more useful loads, yet weighs three times as much, is half again as likely to initiate an “accident” because of its lack of potential control, does 3 times the damage when it hits anything (including roadways), always uses nearly 3 times the fuel, and thereby emits 3 times the pollutants. Yet, my car is treated as if it were equal regarding its threats to others (and usually worse by the police or other bystanders, because it looks fast). Wrong again.
These questions are not just rhetorical, comfort, or safety related. Underlying them is that all energy release is equal, if all its parts are included. The more energy let loose, the greater the disturbance, and other costs, locally and worldwide. It does not matter what the source was, but just how much. 'Alternative fuels' are a classic chimera. If people on this planet want sustainability, or even survival in significant numbers, they have to accept the truth that there are limits on the amount of energy that can be used.
Equality of access should become a central issue for energy itself. Understanding how impacts radiate out from energy use is a great place to start dealing with fundamental limits, which should be becoming increasingly apparent, but keep getting covered up by short sighted, greedy, or simply ignorant fools. It’s not really so hard to do more with less; I can testify from a lifetime of personal experience that quality of life can improve, markedly, by doing so. Enlightened self interest: improve the potential for others’ lives, and your own, at the same time!
10-16 May 2006 “Osinski used the word terroir: in an oyster, as with wine you should be able to taste the place it came from; in this still living creature you will find the water and the food it ate—these living, fragile, hand-made creatures tasting wonderfully of the health of the planet.”
Bill Buford. 2006. ‘On the bay: building a better oyster’, in The New Yorker, 10 April, p.39.
I’ve long been fascinated by bison, from many levels. Not least is the part of me that is still a food technologist concerned with various aspects of quality. What we eat becomes a part of us, making the old saw that “we are what we eat” at least partly true. It is more than just the chemical composition of any food that applies, because how food is raised, the whole scheme from its food (vegetables and grain ‘eat’, too), through its transport, preservation, and cooking, also affects our lives, directly and indirectly.
We are what we experience, not just what we are made of, featuring those elusive words quality and health. Among other things, bison have offered hope of a better life for the planet as well as ourselves. No large system can long survive fossil fuel and chemical intensive, therefore soil, water, and air destroying, or genetically manipulated in ignorant ways, contemporary agriculture. Bison need none of those things to survive or to produce a surplus for us, if we just give them enough room, and allow them and their supporting vegetation to recover from 150 years of gross misuse.
This does not imply that bison cannot, and are not, being compelled into the same mistaken pattern that distorted cattle into the unhealthy mess that they have become. Bred for convenience in handling, eating inappropriately in huge, tightly packed prisons, not surprisingly they are turning out an inferior product in every possible way. But for bison, repeating that tragedy could still be averted. But, as usual among humans, the greedy and the lazy are trying to breed bison "selectively" so that they "won't be so troublesome", and feeding them grain in small paddocks "to improve their flavor". I am once again reminded of the line from King Lear, "in trying to better, oft we mar what's well."
A sub-case for quality is safety. We has a previously trusted purveyor send a gift of roast bison to recent hosts of ours. The meat arrived warm, when it was supposed to be still frozen. They were rightfully worried, afraid to eat it. Yes, the Vikings carried smoked meats with them on extended voyages, as have other explorers, and Europeans still sell and consume large quantities of similar products that never see refrigeration at all. Unfortunately, in neither case was the product ever frozen, which greatly extends shelf-life—until the product is thawed, at which time its deterioration rate dramatically increases over a never frozen item—nor were/are the products shrink wrapped in air-tight plastic. The problem there is the plastic’s creation of an anaerobic environment. That, under proper conditions (extremely cool) resists oxidation, and thus helps extend more optimal texture and taste. However, if temperatures rise, anaerobic conditions raise the possibility for the growth of the deadliest of food borne diseases, botulism, unless the meat has been treated with nitrates or nitrites, and/or large quantities of salt and/or sugar, which is why sausage, ham, and bacon traditionally have been.
Nitrogen compounds, used to excess, do have a variety of problems associated with them, from toxicity to some infants to chicanery in making old meat look fresh, and they do change flavors (albeit not always deleteriously). However, used properly they protect especially effectively against botulism’s development. Proper refrigeration, of course, can be even better, especially if one wants to have a roast taste like a roast, not ham. Best is the combination.
Cooking or smoking alone, at reasonable temperatures for a satisfying product, is insufficient security without considerable salt, sugar, nitrates, or constant refrigeration. That's why canned meat, which is taken to temperatures high enough to be stored uncured and without refrigeration, tastes like it does. Clostridia are tough bugs.
I’m frankly surprised that cases haven’t been reported yet, what with some “health” folks campaigning against nitrates, and assumptions that plastic is protective (which in many ways it is, but imperfectly). The probable individual risk is indeed numerically quite low for a few hours of moderate warmth from a cooked and smoked product, especially when compared with daily hazards like automobile travel, and lower still when one takes care to sniff before using the food for any purpose, since meat made hazardous by Clostridium botulinum, the organism that makes the worst toxins, will almost certainly smell putrefied, ammoniac. But care with foods is not present at every step or situation, and individual risk is multiplied by the number served, and therefore for suppliers.
Even if the warm delivered product was not unsafe, its eating quality was at least reduced by its inappropriate treatment. The effect might be so subtle as to be unnoticeable, but such insults tend to be cumulative. A useful analogy might be regularly washing cars, which improves neither their life nor their performance. Yet, such additional care does tend to reflect into other aspects, and occasionally reveals potential or actual problems during the process itself, which do improve both, as well as overall satisfaction, if the auto is worthwhile in the first place. Care in any aspect of a business, or other relationship, is usually reflected in others, directly and indirectly.
This particular case is also typical of my often sad experience with the bison industry, which should have been, growing far more rapidly than it has. Food is probably the most competitive field of human business endeavor, where making even trivial mistakes echoes widely. Folks simply walk away from products that they have problems with, and the less familiar the product, the further away they go. The bison industry has consistently refused to pay for qualified help (from repeated personal experience), and so makes mistakes that they don’t need to, thus losing customers that were cautiously approaching in the first place. By growers holding on to their “independence”, pennies have been saved, but thousands of pounds lost.
Absolute food safety is a chimera, of course, as became clear for me close to the end of 5 years in grad school when seeing an electron microscope photo of a seemingly clean and perfectly polished stainless steel vessel. That photo revealed that the surface was criss-crossed with zillions of scratches, each plenty wide enough to shelter bacteria. In the end, as with handling to optimize taste, we just have to try to do our best. In most cases, we are not yet coming close. One hundred years after the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, which followed Upton Sinclair’s revelations in The Jungle, tins of processed meat still don’t yet even carry pull dates, or where they were produced.
More than thirty years ago, 3M came out with inexpensive little “tell tale” strips that could be applied to refrigerated or frozen products, which would monitor and leave a permanent record of any temperature mistreatment. Widespread use of same could notably improve both safety and final taste. What became of them? I suspect the food industry didn’t like what they saw when they tried them, and instead of dealing with the plethora of problems that the strips would almost certainly suggest, they simply killed the messenger. So our food remains less safe and less tasty than it should and could be.
Processing and distribution remain the simpler parts of the overall story. Raising the animals, or the vegetables and grain, are even more difficult to do right, yet affect the quality even more, not just of the food, but for the planet that provides for both the product and ourselves. Bison may have have lost many of their capabilities through damage to the environment they knew so well how to utilize and help maintain, through human destruction of their evolved genetics and the organisms they worked together with. But they are still far more capable than our domestic alternatives of becoming a sustainable food source, with superior table quality. They quickly become neither when kept in small paddocks; selectively bred for docility (or any other characteristic momentarily convenient to us); or ‘finished’ on trucked in grains. They could become, instead, more like what they were if we cared enough to help them regain lives like they had before such short-sighted ideas became so common. We all would benefit.
Then, too, as with the oysters, most parts of our world have been so heavily damaged by human carelessness and outright stupidity that the taste and other qualities of most foods brought to our tables are at the least not as good as they should be, and most often a lot worse. From an ugly world, we get ugly food.
3 May 2006
Two weeks ago, my immediate neighbor chose to have a company come and spray his property heavily with a mix of herbicides, pesticides, and inorganic fertilizers. Such is common in suburban America; driving into town in my convertible brings encounters with long stretches of odors similar to what should more likely expect from a Rust Belt moribund chemical factory superfund site. However, this habit is faced with what was best expressed by a farmer friend of mine. He works 10,000 acres in eastern Washington, and when I asked, given his problems with soil erosion, why he did not embrace no-till, although that requires more chemicals.
He replied, “over the 50 years I have been farming, there has been no chemical, if applied widely enough or long enough, that has not been proven to have some negative effect that is bad enough to force it to be removed from use. The only question about new materials is when and how their problems will appear, or be found.”
The underlying problem is that to kill any species by spraying requires chemical activity, and that living systems are more similar than chemists or synthetic biologists would like. What does in one will inevitably harm others. Effects on non-target species are often extremely subtle at first, can take considerable time to develop (often many years), and even then will often difficult to pick out among the many other insults of contemporary life. More practically, the lawn chemical industry has profits exceeding $2 billion per year, while the regulating EPA has a total budget of around $1 billion, with quite a few more immediate and simpler to prove threats to deal with. None of these problems make the issue less important to those, human or otherwise, who suffer the chemically and physiologically inevitable effects of herbicide and pesticide use, especially when those powerful killers are widely broadcast for essentially trivial purposes, like eliminating a few dandelions, which take only a few minutes of health-promoting work to physically remove, if one dislikes their presence.
The situation is even worse than it appears, since those who use the chemicals may well be less exposed to them than their neighbors. This is a straightforward consequence of how they disperse, rising very slowly enough into the atmosphere that local wind currents will carry them across property boundaries before the bulk of the chemicals rise even to the height of human noses and the lungs and bodies those poisons will enter.
I happen to be exceedingly sensitive to them, both in being able to smell them and becoming quite sick (e.g., burning eyes, breathing difficulties, and nausea) from their effects. I can smell them for weeks after their application, with my nose being an accurate detector of their danger, and literally gag if I try to enter stores that purvey them in bags. Noticing their presence began with having worked in a chlorine factory, where one quickly learned to both detect and fear, with good reason, the smallest quantities of materials that carry similar smells. That awareness, and the illnesses that follow not being able to get away before even small exposures build, have been confirmed by my own and so many others' scientific work, published in the most reputable journals, in dispersion and environmental consequences of air pollution and related disturbances, paralleld by studies of chemical activity on humans.
For the latter, it should suffice to note a comparison with the current rising interest in the dangers of trans-(hydrogenated)-fats in the diet. I stopped eating them voluntarily in 1973, based on their own chemical structure and related manufacturing issues that seemed likely to enhance their integral dangers. The story of tetraethyl lead is also most relevant, where the known cause of deaths of thousands was actively hidden from public view by its corporate manufacturers during the years that the compound was added to gasoline.
As the farmer stated, for lawn chemicals, it is not a question of whether they will be proven dangerous, it is only when and how that danger becomes most obvious. At the moment, from the numbers that I have seen, some intentionally kept secret, and others so because people refuse to look, breast and brain cancer appearance strongly correlates with likelihood of exposure. These are otherwise anomalously high in routinely poisoned suburban. This is true for domestic animals as well as humans. Among the victims are counted my own dog and the previous owner of my car, also a long time friend.
For nature, the situation is even more complex, but the likelihood that they are harmless is even smaller.
There are few absolute certainties in science, but one is that like antibiotics, all pesticides and herbicides, however derived, have value only in emergency situations, and then only if applied with the highest level of caution, including over the least possible area. Any other use will not only be proved deleterious at some serious level, eventually, and the wider the use, the quicker the negative impacts. Compounding those problems is loss of effectiveness by inevitable target responses, which will also contribute to making that initially valuable product unavailable for future emergencies. Profitable and seemingly easy are not the same as intelligent.
On a more modest note, our unpoisoned, unfertilized, unwatered, and unmowed (albeit trimmed from time to time with a scythe, and hand weeded with an investment of less than an hour a week) grassy patch left over from past owners looks more green and inviting than any neighbor’s deadly fluorescent sward of artificial Astroturf, supports at random several species of flowers that others have to effortfully nurture in gardens, and has so far this spring given us six delightful servings of morels, which we knew to be safe to eat.
Intentionally applied poisons are only part of the ironies of contemporary suburbia, of course. These supposedly quiet retreats are nearly constantly beset, especially during waking hours, with fumes and noise from huge vehicles, and a plethora of other fossil powered erstwhile tools, routinely overlain by insanely shrieking backup beepers, and punctuated with repair folks' nailguns or distorted bass from teenaged 'music'.
Almost all machines have their exhausts pointed away from those who use them, and thus directly towards neighbors’ ears, eyes, and lungs. The resulting cacophony, which I have measured to routinely exceed that of the busiest central city streets, is paralleled by insults to the eyes and sleep from grossly excessive lighting, continously on or flashing, that is almost never useful to human eyes, but also invariably pointed away from its perpetrators. So are their incessantly barking dogs, who do not orient towards their “owners”, however much they deserve complaint from those jailed (caged) or chained creatures, but their noisy end is always outward, towards the innocent as well as towards those who disturb them.
Because the perpetrators can mentally ignore what they do in all of this does not keep it from affecting them, too. We all wind up a lot less healthy and a lot less happy than if more care and consideration, and a lot less wasteful stupidity, was being practiced.
20 January 2006
I was awake all too early this morning, at 4 AM, with one of the subjects rattling about was having looked through a Flying magazine yesterday, and wondering just how many folks can afford to do that kind of stuff, as a percentage of the population, and how. The romance of being aloft still fascinates, no matter how tempered by the knowledge of wastefulness and restraints on its freedom in contemporary skies. But thinking about it led to thoughts of income distribution and how to present it, especially given my hubristic comments about my capabilities.
A morning’s work searching for data, and recasting it into a hopefully more meaningful format, came up with this Income by Gender graph, with dashed lines indicating where the halfway points in the U.S. population occurred (half make more, half make less). That comes at less than $15,000 for women, and less than $25,000 for men, with these numbers likely to be generous, since the lowest earners tend to be missed by government statisticians. Congress critters, lawyers, and such like, let alone even more inequitably paid executives and pro athletes, are invisible and off the high end of this scale with more normal people by comparison. Aircraft ownership is clearly beyond possibility for all but a trivial fraction of the population, although taxes on all contribute greatly to its existence. It isn't just airplanes that ought to be the issue from this, though...since the 50% breakpoint within the population is half what one would expect from the more commonly published average, or even median, income, numbers which are so heavily skewed by what the very rich skim, or gouge, from the rest of us.
Yes, I still would love to fly, but it's an open biplane that remains in my dreams, not the latest fuel-thirsty, overweight speedster. At least it's somewhat more doable, if I cared enough to do more than read and dream about it. After I wrote that line, a bald eagle passed my window. My view is nice, but his or hers is better. On the other hand, against our snowy background, even with the thermostat set at 65 F, I'm warmer, and thankful for that.
18 January 2006
I don’t have to attend the meeting of the our neighboring town's Planning and Zoning Board tonight to know what is going to happen. They will approve the breakup of the last remaining open space on their benches, and turning it into 1950’s style suburbia, a form of development rightfully being condemned wherever genuine planning for a livable future is being considered. Aside from the more general issues of outdated growth management, which there was no time to go into, after I testified at the concept plan for the first of the blockbuster subdivisions about how lives would be with absolute certainty lost from the additional traffic, which has no realistic second outlet other than a road that at anywhere near reasonable costs cannot be made safe for additional use, and my wife outlined the tax differentials that additional suburbs create, the head of the board said, “we have accepted that there will be growth, and we are willing to pay the costs.”
If he, in his patriarchal tones, can honestly say that, he simply does not understand what those costs are. That ignorance is directly related to inadequacies in the educational system, which the legislature and the school boards are doing nothing to address. That is teaching mathematics in a generally useful way, and about what exponential growth means in its particulars. What’s happening locally is only a microcosm of the problems that will continue to beset states, nations, and the world until that concept is fully understood, across all levels of the population.
At a previous meeting, I was made fun of by the developer when I made my predictions about the roads, because I was not a “traffic engineer”. What I am is a Ph.D. scientist with more than 25 years of professional experience in looking carefully at the world, with the perspective of turning what I see into relationships that can be expressed first mathematically and then translated even more meaningfully to other humans. Traffic engineers are folks who say that another traffic light will only cost roads users about one minute. A scientist is one who takes that observation, and then asks, what does that minute mean to lives? If a person uses the road twice a day, that seemingly little minute adds up each year to more than 12 hours of stinking annoyance, added to one’s contingent of unnecessary suffering, along with thousands of tons of pollutants from the additional idling and acceleration of mass. The 12 hours required by the traffic light for the projected subdivisions will apply to every user of Main Street, not just its residents. Building more 1950’s style, purest sprawl subdivisions is a solid vote against a more rational transportation system, and for more of all the problems that go with it, from increasing pollution from many sources to horrendous deaths on the highway.
Another of those overlooked relationships is that in the month of September 2001, more Americans died on our highways than in the World Trade Center. Why can’t we get our priorities straight? And yes, I do live away from town, but I now drive less than 5,000 miles a year, in a vehicle that gets more than 25 real (not theoretical) miles per gallon, with a lot more pleasure from doing less of it than others get from their time on the road.
Evasion of responsibility for thinking about longer term consequences of choices was endemic in this morning’s newspaper. Our community was by no means alone in the villainy of simplistic approaches. Two neighboring entities were voting to rescind already trivial taxes on natural gas, as if recent price increases were not the consequence of the supply not having been exceeded by demand, with less than no chance of the situation getting better over time. This, at a time in midwinter in a cold climate when almost no buildings in the county are not wastefully, grossly overheated, with inadequate insulation, and people dressing like it was Miami. Think the resource is infinite folks, especially when the human population is reproducing at an insane rate, and far larger populations than our own are starting to compete for what remains?
Meanwhile, the state legislature is concentrating their debate in their thankfully limited session around micromanaging education content, attempting to mandate the teaching of superstition in the name of science, instead of applying useful science to the problems of the people that they are representing. Of course, most legislators at whatever level are lawyers, with no concept themselves of what exponential growth means, as they continue to make and allow huge handouts in the form of deductions and exemptions to taxes and insurance payments for large families, while they continue to subsidize, by holding down fuel taxes, the immense additional damage that larger vehicles do to roads, air, and other drivers, not to mention everyone’s time.
Doubling vehicle size more than halves traffic flow rates, and increases accident probabilities. It’s physics, and unavoidable, just like “accidents” becoming more common when the weather gets bad and bigger tires can no longer even partially compensate for additional weight. Current taxes on fuel, relative to the price of vehicles or housing, are less than 20% of what they were in the 1950’s, when fuel waste was already egregious, and so were its health consequences, as well as the impact of wasteful use on future supplies, and the tax rate was not high enough to restrain the waste or its effects on the population. The sucking dry of American supplies is what we are finally starting to feel now, even with most of the costs of imported fuel still being passed on to future generations, instead of being borne by the current lot.
But, we live in a society that wants things just like they are, even if how they’ve become was possible only for a small fraction of the world’s population, and for a short period of time. So, when reality hits, it’s beginning to hurt. Just as the Limits to Growth people predicted 40 years ago, that time is now. Anyone who thinks that it’s going to get back to how it was, or that “business as usual” can continue unimpeded by consequences of energy waste, is kidding themselves. Legislating against restraint or conservation, and continuing to build as if limits do not exist, merely hastens and deepens the consequences, just like shopping at Waldemart. Slightly lower prices now, by trading paying for bunker fuel for exports from slave quality labor in China instead of supporting living wages and environmental protection for American workers, with increased profits only for a rarified few, is a recipe for eventual economic disaster. It’s just one more skein in a chain of troglodyte refusal to see how pieces fit together, and what they mean.
So the locals are being stupidly short-sighted, again, with this set being especially annoying personally, because some direct consequences are going to appear literally in my backyard (from the presently little-used, but already routinely deadly, road that blindly goes down an 11% slope, with a 270 degree turn at the bottom, where my backyard begins with a sharp 10 foot drop off). Unfortunately, short-sightedness is pervasive. It remains depressing, but I am glad to be getting old, and for having what I had, much of which younger folks will not be able to enjoy. I can also be satisfied that, while I wasn’t perfect, my own actions and choices at least will have contributed far less than most Americans to the problems that younger folks will have to endure, and even to passing along some of the remaining beauty that remains among the increasing mechanized chaos and the rest of human-induced hideous clutter.
16 January 2006
“Tolkien…spent enormous amounts of effort trying to create language that was aesthetically and morally more pleasing than that of everyday. He would surely have agreed entirely with Lewis (and with their other contemporary Orwell) that although foolish thoughts give rise to foolish language, a feeble or perverted language, or rhetoric within that language, makes it difficult if not impossible not to have foolish and perverted thoughts.” Tom Shippey. 2000. 'Orcs, wraiths, wights: Tolkien’s images of evil'. p. 188 in G. Clark and D. Timmons, eds., Tolkien and His Literary Resources. Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut.
The context of the quote is the development of a faded, wraith-like state. It’s extrapolation to a world with a limited vocabulary, of TV and hostile rap/hip-hop, should be obvious. This is more insidious, pervasive and deadly than issues like pornography, about which would-be religions get so exercised, even in its all too common interface with violence – unless it, too, has a too-limited vocabulary, which most does.
Vocabulary can be seen as a form of focus. Learning more tends to broaden horizons, I initially thought, but then came up with William F. Buckley remains among the examples of the rich retaining blinkers despite erudition, and he is far from the worst. No simple answers, volume infinity, but the observation about language still retains utility in suggesting a general skewing of likeliness. Most science can do little better.
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