books, environment  Comments Off on Arcology
Mar 092011

When I was a boy my family used to joke that crows didn’t fly in Vestavia. Our suburb, like so many others, had a knotty system of streets that made direct travel impossible, and zoning that made driving a necessity. My high school was less than 2/3 of a mile direct distance from my house, but it was a two-mile drive down a road that became pretty backed up around 7:45 AM. Of course nobody rode the bus. Suburban living allowed my brother and I to go to a good school, live in a big house, and play in the woods frequently as we grew up. It also used a lot of gas.

I recently finished reading Green Metropolis [Amazon] by David Owen, a book that I enjoyed in part because it told me so many things I already agreed with. Cities are often derided for being big and dirty, and this is true, but because of their size, their dirtiness per capita is substantially less than that of the suburbs. Owen models his argument off New York City, noting that its residents use less electricity per year than people living in any other part of the country, and produce greenhouse gases at a rate 67% less than the national average. Large multi-unit buildings use heat more efficiently than drafty, oversize suburban houses, and small apartments discourage tenants from acquiring (or keeping) junk they don’t need. Mixed-use neighborhoods encourage people to do much of their travel on foot, and public transport combines with the sheer inconvenience of using a car to discourage driving.

The American environmental and conservative movements may seem to have little in common, but both romanticize a life close to the land and far from the city, albeit for different reasons. Their mutual straining has, without question, been environmentally ruinous, producing the unsightly sprawl that swaddles cities like Atlanta and Washington D.C. like a spreading tumor. The result is misery and waste: hours of productivity lost to endless commutes, acre upon acre of ugly strip malls moated by asphalt, and vast quantities of duplicated infrastructure tea-partying suburbanites don’t want to pay taxes to maintain. All this so people can work two jobs to pay off mortgages they can’t afford for drafty, energy-inefficient houses much larger than they need and enormous water-sucking, pesticide and fertilizer-coated lawns they won’t even let their children play in anymore because of skin cancer and chemicals and sexual predators.

Owen shares my skepticism of popular idiocies such as ethanol, a technology that still consumes more energy than it produces and is only likely to work if we tear up the suburbs that made it necessary in the first place and repurpose the land for agriculture. He also justly ridicules much so-called “green” architecture and LEED certifications that don’t accurately measure a building project’s environmental costs. As he notes, environmental assessments of buildings rarely acknowledge that windows are inherently wasteful of energy, or that elevators are one of the world’s most efficient forms of mass transit.

Yet, there is much to criticize in Owen’s work as well. He derides the phenomenon of tiny “urban” cars, and in the case of New York alone that might be justified. But such vehicles may be helpful, perhaps even essential, to re-urbanizing areas like Atlanta, where lack of efficient public transportation and an unfavorable climate would make city living unbearable for much of the year. Owen acknowledges that efficient cities like New York often came to be that way due to geographical accidents, which does little to guide us towards solutions that might allow us to recentralize America’s sprawled-out suburban dystopias. Although Owen easily enough points out the factors that made city living seem unappealing to him, he has trouble converting that recognition into recommendations that make cities more palatable to the suburbanites who fled them long ago.

The simple fact is that New Yorkers don’t use less energy or produce less greenhouse gas because they’re uniquely virtuous. They’re energy-efficient because they’re forced to be that way by the nature of the place where they live. No quantity of “green” appliances, extra insulation, solar panels, or corn ethanol will ever suffice to make suburban living efficient enough to challenge the environmental benefits mandated by city living, even if every household in America was convinced to adopt all these measures. Our national addiction to cars and big houses will be the ruin of any plan for energy independence or sustainability. Any comprehensive plan for meeting these goals will require some degree of re-urbanization (or de-suburbanization), and that means finding some way to make city living more appealing, more economical, and more convenient than it currently is. That’s a hard sell, and Owen knows it, but he doesn’t seem to have any idea how to close the deal.

Jul 262008
The gaming internets were buzzing the last few days about a widely-publicized report from Toward Freedom that civil war and ongoing militia activity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have in part been fueled by the demand for coltan, a source of the tantalum powder that is necessary for capacitors in consumer electronics. Of course, this isn’t a new issue, just a new press release, in which the Playstation 2 in particular is singled out as a cause of conflict. This would be an excellent reason to dislike gaming consoles were it not inflammatory nonsense.

It would be foolish to deny the destructive effects of coltan demand, of course. Although the civil wars in the DRC had political origins, the conflict was sustained in part by demand for this mineral resource. Neighboring countries used militias in the DRC as proxies to ensure access to coltan, which they then sold to a number of foreign companies, which then resold it to various manufacturers, including many American makers of capacitors. Prices for tantalum spiked significantly in the years 1999-2000, providing an even stronger incentive for the DRC’s neighbors to seize its rich reserves of coltan. Conflict and deficiencies in infrastructure have at times limited industrial mining of coltan, meaning that it is often mined using less safe artisanal techniques, and often by children. While many responsible companies have taken steps to ensure that they do not use any coltan illegally seized from the DRC, monitoring any supply chain of this kind is very difficult and there are strong incentives for bad actors to lie. Moreover, the greatest damage was done by the ’99-’00 price spike; adopting supply controls now can’t undo what happened. The Toward Freedom article attributes the spike (and ongoing demand) to the Playstation 2. This is at best a highly selective interpretation of history.

Consider that as of 2007, the total number of cellular phone subscriptions worldwide was estimated at 3.3 billion, while the total number of PS2s sold to date is something like 150 million. According to statistics found at the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association website, the number of cellular phone subscriptions in the United States in 2000 was more than 100 million. By 2003 the number of cell phone subscriptions in the United States alone exceeded the number of Playstation 2 units sold worldwide in the entire production run to date. Keep in mind that those cell phone users are changing their phones regularly: the number of used and discarded phones in the United States (which has a low cellular penetration rate) substantially exceeds its human population. As such, we should expect that the actual number of cellular phones used by human beings since their introduction is significantly higher than the number of subscriptions, perhaps by a factor of two or more. Why blame game consoles for the coltan demand, then, rather than the far more prevalent cellular technology?

Of course, the demand for coltan doesn’t end with game consoles or cellular phones. Tantalum is used in virtually every modern piece of electronics equipment, including pagers, laptop computers, digital cameras, and inkjet printers, as well as artificial joints, film, and various tools. Why blame game consoles for the ongoing conflict when their sales and usage are completely dwarfed by these other applications? The turn of the century saw a massive expansion in the use of all manner of electronics, all over the world. All of these factors contributed to the tantalum price spike. Yes, the 2000 shortfall of PS2s played a role, but the 6-fold change in price that year could not have happened without an existing huge demand for phones and laptops, and serious structural problems in the tantalum market.

How, then, did this conflict come to be known as the “Playstation War”? Reporter John Lasker doesn’t provide any answers. He certainly doesn’t quote anyone on the subject and it’s not clear to me that the words “Playstation War” were used in reference to this conflict at any point before he did so in this article. In a fit of fairness late in the piece, Lasker acknowledges that the spike in tantalum prices that provided incentive for neighboring countries to interfere in DRC affairs was the result of multiple concurrent technology booms, but any good journalist knows that readers remember the lede. I don’t know why Lasker made the choice to put the console reference so high up in the story, but doing so was inflammatory, irresponsible, and counterproductive.

The world does not have vast and plentiful reserves of tantalum, and existing electronics that contain tantalum are, in general, not properly recycled. Continued strong demand for consumer electronics and the still-increasing penetration of cellular phones in the global market are combining to bring the price of tantalum back up. Thus, a rejuvenation of resource warfare in central Africa is becoming increasingly likely. The best defense against this scenario is for consumers to keep strong pressure on manufacturers and regulators to prevent “blood coltan” from making its way into consumer goods. The typical purchaser of a cell phone doesn’t know anything about tantalum or its uses, and in fact the typical American probably couldn’t tell you what continent the DRC is on. Awareness, then, is a precious commodity, especially for an advocate-journalist. However, awareness is diminished when you make game consoles into a scapegoat.

Even if you manage to heighten awareness of mineral wars in Africa with a piece like this, no good is done if the reader doesn’t make the proper connection with his own life. Can you imagine a person reading the lede paragraph on his laptop or cell phone and cursing those darn gamers for carelessly supporting resource wars? I can imagine nothing else. Calling the conflict a “Playstation War” allows the non-gaming reader to shift the blame onto those darn gamers and ignore his own contributions to resource scarcity and conflict.

Are gamers to blame for the sustained conflict in the DRC? Sure they are — to precisely the same degree as anyone who owns a cell phone, laptop, digital camera, artificial joint, anti-lock braking system, etc. All of us should try to be conscious of the origins (and destinations, you non-cell-phone-recycling jerks) of the materials in our electronics, and pressing the companies that make them to ensure that our sale price doesn’t subsidize war in Africa. Inordinately emphasizing the importance of game consoles in the financial origins of war in the DRC, however, lets non-gamers think they are off the hook, and amounts to little more than blaming the “other” for the sins of all. A putatively progressive organization like Toward Freedom should be capable of recognizing that, and ought to feel ashamed at having done so.

Feb 242008
Virgin Atlantic pulled off an interesting little stunt the other day. They flew a Boeing 747 across the Atlantic. Well, that’s not so interesting. What’s interesting is that one of its four engines was fueled by biodiesel—in this case a mixture of oils from babassu nuts and coconuts. Ultimately, this act barely addresses any of the questions surrounding the future of our transportation system. But even though it’s just a stunt, I don’t disapprove, because I think it’s important to raise people’s awareness of the monumental challenge we are going to face in this century, one that has profound implications for our ongoing prosperity and the global economy.

Like I said, the trip itself accomplished little. As a practical matter it established that at least some biofuel blends remain liquid enough to use as fuel at temperatures and pressures experienced by airplanes. The concern in this case isn’t just that the biofuel will turn into a solid or a gel; it’s also a possibility that a biofuel could remain liquid but become too viscous for efficient jet engine operation. Fortunately, that didn’t happen (the other three engines had conventional jet fuel in case it did).

However, that’s about it. We have no particular reason to believe that the existing tracts of babassu and coconut will provide sufficient fuel to replace the hydrocarbon uses of airplanes. The current batch was produced in such a way that it didn’t interfere with food production, but hey, it only powered a quarter of a single transatlantic flight. Does the world produce enough babassu nuts and coconuts in a year to supply fuel for a single day’s worth of flights? This is a pervasive problem with the biofuels approach. The most optimistic estimates about switchgrass ethanol suggest that it would replace no more than 30% of current petroleum use. That means we are going to have a serious problem.

The increasingly global nature of the economy means that many goods travel a very long way. The raw materials must be shipped, often to a factory in a different country. Once assembled, the manufactured goods must be shipped to the US, often overseas. Once they reach the US, they must be distributed, a process that sometimes involves rail but always involves an 18-wheeler or panel truck at some point. This is a lot of shipping, and the feasibility of biofuels to replace the energy source at any point is completely unproven. I don’t think anyone doubts that biodiesel can power a ship if you have enough, but there’s no evidence that we can produce enough. Even if we manage to produce sufficient yields of biofuels they may be significantly more expensive than the present plentiful oil. Of course, they will eventually become more economical than oil, but this will not be through any virtue of their own.

Supplies of oil will become increasingly tight. In the past, spikes in oil prices were driven by speculation or market interference by OPEC. But within the next few decades we will start to see oil prices rising because of supply scarcity. And because the resource is not renewable, once those prices start going up they will never go down until demand collapses. What this means is endless inflation. Oil permeates our economy. It provides the raw materials for our goods from drugs to sneakers, and the for the plastic in which those goods are encased and protected. It provides the energy and lubrication for the machines that transport those goods to our markets, and for the machines that carry us from our widely distributed homes to those markets and back. Parts of the markets themselves are constructed from materials made from oil and they were built by machines that ran on petroleum. The effective price of goods will be inflated at every single one of those steps.

This will murder the economies of developing countries. The only way to keep prices down at US destinations will be to either re-industrialize America or treat already underpaid workers in foreign countries even more terribly than they already are. Neither bodes well for these developing countries. Stagnant economies will only add to the damage likely to result from global warming, resulting in enormous instability. Stagflation on a global scale will pound the last nail into the coffin of the already-tenuous pax Americana unless we do something.

The Virgin flight is valuable because it emphasizes the need to plan for petroleum scarcity now. Scrambling to replace oil once we’re past peak production is a fool’s game. Biofuels such as those used in this stunt will probably not be the answer, but we cannot even know that without further research. Research money from DoD, USDA, and DoE should be funneled into this field now to establish the most viable means of replacing petroleum and mitigating demand. Otherwise the global economy will run aground when the great oil tide recedes, with all hands lost.

Feb 142008
There’s a deeply disturbing article up at Best Life (hat tip to J. Jacquet of Shifting Baselines, check her page for a nifty link to ORV Alguita‘s blog) about the pervasive presence of plastics and plastic waste products in the ecosystem, particularly in the ocean. I can’t really add anything to the description of the disaster: the article and Alguita blog do a more than sufficient job of that. The problem is daunting, and seemingly insoluble. The particles that cause the most danger are too small to be sifted from the sea, and the use of plastics themselves is pervasive in society. What can we do to fix this mess?

Much like the global-warming problem, two main steps must be taken. Less plastic needs to go into the environment, and we need to be taking plastic out of it as well. Reuse and recycling of plastic are good ideas that will eventually be forced on us anyway by the disappearance of readily-available petroleum. More effective means of recycling will be a must as the supply of raw materials becomes more constrained and expensive. In addition we will likely be forced to complement and then replace the existing petrochemical syntheses and their products with alternate methods and end-products. These should be designed with an eye to biodegradability, either on their own or with the addition of some non-toxic catalyst.

Removing the existing plastic from the environment (and mitigating the damage from future releases) is a significantly greater challenge. Even if we managed to clean up the gyres in some way, degraded plastic appears to be a ubiquitous presence in the water and soil. Supposing that we managed to clean up all that was visible we would still be leaving a substantial fraction behind in the form of highly-degraded particles. It is unlikely that we will ever be able to clean it all up using conventional means. What we really need to do is to enable some creature or set of creatures to digest the stuff.

This would not be a small challenge: even natural polymers are notoriously hard for most creatures to digest. However, as I commented in the Orgel post, we know of bacteria that can digest petrochemical waste products. Given sufficiently masticated plastics, it should in principle be possible, perhaps through directed evolution, to develop proteins appropriate to degrade the polymers and digest the subunits thus produced. The natural solution to the degradation of cellulose as a food source involves perhaps as many as 200 species of bacteria and protozoans; it is unlikely we could produce anything nearly as efficient with a single microbe. However, it may be sufficient to produce just a rudimentary digestive reaction. Once that is good enough for plastic digestion to get started, efficiency is likely to evolve on its own, since the ability to utilize such a food source could constitute a significant selective advantage. Obviously one would want to use an obligate anaerobe or perhaps some kind of plankton for this purpose, to diminish the chances of a “gray goo” problem.

Given a few million years or so, it’s likely that microorganisms will evolve that can digest plastic, or help some other organism digest it (as in the case of termites). Regrettably, we do not have millions of years to solve the problem. Of course we should try to come up with some mechanical means of harvesting the larger chunks of plastic from the ocean, but in the absence of significant penalties for dumping, on an international level, such steps will only provide temporary amelioration. Moreover, they will constitute only a partial solution to the problem. In this case, it may be wise for us to try and give evolution a nudge in whatever way we can, lest the prediction of a ‘plasticene’ geological stratum come true.

Policy and the law of prudence

 environment  Comments Off on Policy and the law of prudence
Oct 152007
The one thing I find most infuriating in debates about anthropogenic warming is the inevitable point in the conversation when the denialist states that we shouldn’t do anything because we aren’t really sure that humans cause global warming. If you point out to him that the vast majority of scientists believe the evidence supports this conclusion, he will either point out that scientists 30 years ago were wrong about something relating to climate (the “global cooling” gambit), or that people have been wrong about things before (“everyone believed the earth was flat”). Both these points are irrelevant: forecasting technology has improved vastly, and it was not scientists who believed the earth was flat (most educated people knew it to be a sphere), but backwards hicks like himself. But there’s a more important point to be made: when it comes to policy decisions, it doesn’t matter whether we cause global warming or not.

In the first case, most of the things we need to do about climate change are just plain good ideas, whether the earth is warming or not. We need more efficient ways to grow and transport our food. We need to end our dependence on the finite resource of fossil fuels. We need to make our cities better filters of their own pollution. We need better water management. We need to end suburban sprawl. We need to control the global population of human beings. It doesn’t matter whether our planet is warming, cooling, or staying the same: almost all mitigation policies make sense in any context. For policymakers to sit on their hands and ignore these steps is inexcusable, regardless of their belief in anthropogenic warming.

When it comes to emissions caps, however, the typical denialist will draw his line in the sand. Why ruin the economy if we aren’t sure that warming is our fault? Leaving aside the fact that economic forecasts are at least as unreliable as climactic ones (and therefore just as bad a reason to make decisions), there is a very good reason to alter our policies to eliminate emissions of all kinds. This is the law of prudence: If you don’t know how it works, don’t mess with it, especially if you’re stuck with it.

You don’t try to jack around in the engine before you board your passenger flight to Miami. You don’t screw with the wheels before you get into a roller coaster. Why not? Because you don’t know how it works, and once you get on that thing you can’t get off. The same principle applies here. We’re stuck on this planet; we can’t leave and start over. If we ruin it, we will all die. Thus, if you truly believe that our best scientists really don’t know enough about this planet to say how its climate system works, then your only rational choice is to minimize our impact on that system.

Denialists love to argue that we’re uncertain about climate change as if ignorance is a reason for inaction, but this does not follow. Inaction is a decision, and it is the wrong decision to make when faced with uncertainty. When ignorant of an essential system’s mechanics, we do not want to damage it, and that means not screwing with it. The reduction of all forms of pollution (including carbon) as rapidly as possible is the best decision we can make if we’re unsure of what’s going on with our environment. If, as is the case, we suspect or believe that our actions are outright harmful, then elimination of emissions is the only reasonable option.

You’ll hear the uncertainty argument again; in fact, you’ve probably already heard it once today if you’ve had a discussion about Gore’s Nobel Prize or the environment generally. Uncertainty is always used as an justification for inaction, but it actually supports the opposite.

For Blog Action Day