Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Waiting for those Benevolent Aliens............

One of the prevalent and pernicious variations on the belief that technology will save us is the belief that we will soon make contact with an intelligent extraterrestrial species that will teach us magical secrets and technological wonders that we will use to avert the disasters looming ahead of us. And like all variations on the belief in salvation through technology this simply is not likely to happen. If we bank on that, like mid-lifers planning our retirement around winning the lottery, we are planning on having to live through the worst case scenario of all these future crises.

I am by no means challenging the assumption of other intelligent life in the universe. In fact I fervently adhere to that belief. For some it takes a fundamental refocusing of their belief system to step away from the belief that man is the center of the universe, that man has some special dominion over all the other living species on this planet, that man can do with this planet, and any other part of the universe we manage to reach, whatever we wish. Our species has no special place in the overall scheme of things. Our sun is a minor star in a remote corner of an unspectacular galaxy, one of billions in the vast universe. A growing array of mathematical models suggest that life is probably ubiquitous throughout that universe, possibly existing on billions of planets. We still have not disproven the existence of life elsewhere in our own solar system. It is the ultimate in species chauvinism to believe that, with all of that life, we should be the only intelligent species that exists. The fact we haven't made contact with other intelligent life does not mean that it is not out there.

We are just now developing and enhancing the technology that allows us to determine from earth the chemical constituencies of distant bodies, stars, planets and moons. We are doing so in the hope that we can identify distant planets with the chemical makeup capable of supporting life. The chemical markers we will be looking for have been present on earth for billions of years for any intelligent species out there to have detected. Our sun is a relatively young star. Any intelligent life around a much older star, which is most other stars, could have reached our level of progress millions, even billions of years ago. Assuming that there must be other life and other intelligent species elsewhere in the universe our life-capable planet has in all probability already been detected long, long ago.

In just a century we have progressed from the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk to sending a Voyager spacecraft out of our home solar system to venture slowly across the galaxy. Growth in knowledge is exponential. Imagine what progress we may have made in another thousand years. Now imagine the progress an intelligent extraterrestrial species could already have accomplished if they are millions of years ahead of us in intellectual development.

If we were to receive from outer space a signal that we could clearly identify as being of intelligent origin, whether or not we could understand that signal, it is critical to remember that that signal could have left its planet of origin as much as millions of years ago (the distance in light years from earth to the point of origin of that signal). The species that sent it, whether intentional or accidental, were already at the stage of technological development we achieved in the early 20th century, a short century ago, as long ago as that signal was transmitted.

Radio signals have been leaving earth now for a century. That means that any potential intelligent species on any planet within 100 lightyears distance is able to receive those signals, just as we are constantly monitoring the sky with SETI. They know that we are here, even if they do not understand those signals.

Soon after the development of radio the ability was developed to jam radio signals. The use of this technology has helped dictatorial governments prevent their citizens from receiving radio and television signals from outside the country in order to control the information their populace receives. Once it was understood that radio signals were leaving our planet and emanating out into space an interest developed in using jamming-type technology to block or mask those radio signals leaving earth in order to control what messages extraterrestrial intelligent life might intercept.

It is probable that any intelligent species elsewhere in the universe that develops radio technology will sooner or later want to and eventually succeed in blocking radio signals escaping from their planet's surface. This probably means a period of a century or less when accidental, uncontrolled radio signals would be released into space from any species going through a process of technological development. Once the ability to jam or control outbound radio signals is developed that species may or may not decide to allow any signals to exit their home planet and those allowed are probably going to be designed to be heard by prying ears.

A century of unblocked radio signals may seem like a very long time, significantly longer than the average human lifespan. But it is the blink of an eye in astronomical terms. The potential for us to receive uncontrolled or accidental radio signals from an extraterrestrial intelligent species will depend heavily on a number of lucky factors. The most important of these is that such a species must be in that period of social evolution and technological development where radio transmission has recently been developed. But they must have been at that stage of development at a point in our past equivalent to the distance in lightyears their planet is from earth. For us to receive such a signal today from a planet 1 million light years away that species must have been at a level of technological development equivalent to 20th century earth 1 million years ago.

Any extraterrestrial intelligent species that went through the development of radio longer ago than that will have likely already developed the technological ability to block and control those radio signals before we ever began listening for extraterrestrial radio signals. That does not mean that we will not receive a radio signal from them. What it does mean is that any signal received will be controlled and intentional.

It should not be difficult, relatively speaking, to determine if any extraterrestrial signal received is accidental or intentional. The accidental will clearly stand out as a radio signal but may prove impossible to interpret and understand, like an early broadcast of Amos and Andy or an evening news broadcast. The intentional signal, on the other hand, just like the plaque attached to Voyager, will be meant to be understood by alien species outside the planet of origin. It is likely to be pictorial and/or scientific in nature. If it is not directed at an alien species known to exist but rather meant for any intelligent species that might receive it, it will probably contain information that is believed by its senders to be universal, information like the periodic table, universal physical laws, astronomical data, etc.

If, on the other hand, it is directed at a know alien species, a species from which the originating species has already detected radio signals, any message directed at them will probably be designed to be understood by that species alone. It may echo back information they have gleaned from previous radio signals from that species, very possibly in the language and context of that species to whom their message is directed. In other words, if there is an intelligent species out there that has picked up radio signals originating from here on earth, any directed response they would transmit toward us may very well come back to us in English, or French or Russian or any of the other earth languages that have left this planet as radio signals. They may transmit back to us, as Carl Sagan suggested in Contact, the first television image that left this planet, that being Adolf Hitler opening the Olympic games in 1936 Berlin.

There is another important factor for consideration, however. Trust! When we are aware or suspicious that someone is monitoring our communications and we are uncertain of their motives and intentions - such as in the case of spying whether industrial, political or military - one consistent tactic is the leaking of misinformation or disinformation. This has been done most effectively by we humans during wars, hot and cold. It should not be assumed, therefore, that any radio communication picked up from an alien species has been sent with good intentions. If they are aware we are aware of them they will want to determine our intentions and motives and decide whether we can be trusted or should be feared. They are not going to begin intentional communication with the formula for a new energy source or the blueprints for a fantastic new machine using a previously unrecognized or untapped energy source.

Any extraterrestrial species that has been monitoring radio signals (which includes television) emanating from earth will not have been seeing a very flattering picture of our species. Our news and TV programming tends to largely focus on our darker side; wars, murders, violence, crime. Should an advanced extraterrestrial species volunteer any technology or knowledge to us, and I am at a loss to understand why they would, it is not likely to be of the type that would enhance our ability to make war nor help us further destroy the environment of our planet.

It is far more likely that any intelligent species out there that has become aware of us and has been intercepting our radio signals will now be in an observe-only status, continuing to monitor our radio signals without making themselves known to us. And they are likely to stay in that mode until they determine that we have in some way resolved or lived through the current tumultuous period of human development. They will likely want to see if we can advance beyond our warlike tendencies and whether we can learn to live within the limits of our environment. It may take a very long time, centuries perhaps, before they see a satisfactory outcome of either of those.

One of the incredible ironies is that what signals any alien species may pick up from earth represent the lowest, basest picture of our species. Through that they get to see us at our worst. They are receiving what passes as entertainment and mass media, sensationalized journalism. They have no access to print media, to books that represent the highest expression of human wisdom, or to the internet with its constant search for truth and representation of and support for alternatives. They would have no way of knowing, through what communication they can intercept, that there is wisdom in our species. What a shame.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

GMOs are N O T the Solution to the Current Global Food Crisis

In the current game of political football, as the world's leaders meet to discuss the means by which the current global food crisis might be solved, there seems to be a growing momentum building around support for a solution based on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The suggestion is that the world's industrial seed companies (e.g. Monsanto, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland) should develop new genetically modified strains of food crops able to produce higher yields in the face of shifting global climates brought about by global warming.

Haven't we been here before? Aren't GMOs a major part of the reason we have gotten to this point?

The Green Revolution of this past half century came about as a response to the last global food crisis. It was centered on the use of high-yield GMO seeds, the liberal use of soil and water polluting artificial fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, large-tract, mechanized, industrial agriculture, high density irrigation using mechanical pumps and water drawn from both increasingly polluted surface water and and dangerously over extracted groundwater sources, an energy-intensive global food distribution system. It was based on the industrial production of food and the building of a global industrial dependence through the supplying of food to the world's poor, rather than supplying to them the ability to produce their own food. And ultimately it created the current global food crisis through allowing, even encouraging, a tripling of the world's population from a little more than two billion to the current 6.6 billion with a new U.S. (300 million people) added to the population every year.

So what's the problem? The problem is that the Green Revolution was and continues to be dependent on the constant availability of cheap energy, especially cheap oil. GMOs are a high-tech solution to a natural problem. And high-tech means high energy consumption.

A problem cannot be its own solution. We cannot solve the current global crisis caused by the Green Revolution by doing more of the same. Those high yields on which the Green Revolution was based come at the expense of tremendous loss of life-supporting topsoil through erosion and overcropping, and the irreversible destruction and drawdown of both surface water and groundwater (aquifers) sources. It has led to the unsustainable destruction of forests critical to the planet's ability to balance the climate, and critical to the planet's water cycle, atmospheric cycle and carbon cycle. To seek to solve those problems with even more industrial agriculture and even higher yields, which will undoubtedly require higher uses of petrochemicals and water and the higher loss of critical topsoil, is no solution at all.

Most importantly, the Green Revolution was, as mentioned above, dependent on abundant cheap energy. A key part of the reason the current crisis has developed as that the world's oil supplies are declining at a rate that has pushed us toward various alternative fuel sources. The most critical of those, of course, is biofuels which have directly contributed to the current, escalating global food crisis. To move forward into a future that will be even more deprived of the cheap abundant energy on which the Green Revolution depends with a strategy that will perpetuate that agricultural need of cheap, abundant energy is taking the crisis of today, pushing it out a couple of decades and transforming it from a crisis into a catastrophe.

The Green Revolution has already allowed - almost demanded - the global human population to push into serious overshoot. There is not enough global agricultural capacity to support the present global human population, let alone the additional human population that would result from a second Green Revolution. To attack the current global food crisis without also addressing the very sensitive and complex problem of human overpopulation and the need for global population control is to offer no solution at all.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Peak Oil Choices

Life is choices. Choices must be made. Those we do not make, those we choose not to make, those we opt to ignore, those of which we unaware, often for reasons of chosen ignorance, are often made for us, by default. Those choices we choose not to make we have no control over. The outcome is decided by someone or something else. It's like an election. The old saying is - and I am not trying to quote but to paraphrase - if you choose not to vote don't complain about the results. Your vote is your entry fee for the right to complain. You get the government you don't bother voting for.

The approach of peak oil has brought with it a wide array of choices that had to and have to be made. Most of us in the peak oil movement are well aware of many of these choices, are making them at the personal level, are involving ourselves with the process of making them at the local community level. Through key web sites and organizations like ASPO we are attempting to get those national and international choices made. But it is a tremendously difficult task, like changing the course of a runaway ocean liner or stopping a runaway train. The end result of the inaction is that many of those choices are being made by default, by nature.

The biggest problem is getting decision makers - those who have to make the right choices - to understand what peak oil really is and what the implications of peak oil are on our global society. Peak oil is many things but it is not about running out of oil. The mainstream media seem to, for some reason, be very slow (unwilling?) to understand this. They continue to define peak oil as running out of oil and, as a result, characterize peak oil pundits as fringe wackos. If, indeed, peak oilers were defining peak oil as running out of oil that would be a fair criticism. Lew Rockwell, for another example, defines peak oil as the point where all of the oil has been found and irreversible decline starts. That's a little closer but still not a clear understanding of peak oil. All in the peak oil movement understand that discoveries will continue well after peak oil but that those discoveries will be fewer, smaller and far more difficult and expensive to process. The reality is we will probably never run out of oil.

Peak oil is not about your cost of gasoline as such. We will reach a point where whatever oil is left is so energy-expensive to extract and process that it will take more energy to turn it into fuel than the energy we get from the fuel produced. At that point it will simply be left in the ground.

Peak oil is about the rate at which what oil, in its various forms, does remain can be extracted and processed. The global human population currently uses somewhat more than 86m barrels of oil or other liquid hydrocarbon fuel every day. We do not extract that amount of oil and have not done so for over three years. The difference between what oil is being extracted and what liquid hydrocarbons are being used is being made up from alternative sources such as; tar sands, oil sands, coal to liquid, gas to liquid, methane to liquid, bio-fuels and from drawing down strategic petroleum reserves.

At the moment there is still a small buffer in all liquids, being liquid crude and the alternatives listed above. But that buffer is paper thin and global consumption has, for these past three years, been growing faster than the alternatives can fill the gap. That problem has been masked so far by a small amount of demand destruction as more and more "users" are priced out of using petroleum products by the rapid run-up in prices over these past three years. This demand destruction has been most apparent and most damaging in poor third world countries, many of which can no longer afford the importation of any gasoline. A thriving black market has developed in many of these situations where fuel is smuggled into the country and sold at ridiculously high prices to those few customers who are still prepared or need to buy fuel at whatever price.

But spot shortages are starting to occur in the rich, developed countries as well, including U.S., Britain, Germany, France, Japan, Canada, Australia and more. Gasoline shortages in developing nations such as China and India are also common occurrences as growth in demand far outstrips the development of the infrastructure needed to satisfy this demand. The frequency of shortages will undoubtedly increase. The global liquid fuels supply, because of the paper thin buffer, is susceptible to significant disruption from previously insignificant events. Every hiccup in Nigeria, Qatar, Venezuela or any other producing and exporting nation, the falling off the exporter list by countries like Indonesia, Mexico, possibly Venezuela, Russia and others throws a major monkey wrench into the global oil market and sees a major up-tick in spot market prices which may, over the course of a week, climb by more than what the average global price of oil oil was ten years ago or less.

One of the most economically disruptive impacts of the choices not made in the face of peak oil - more often exactly the wrong choices made - will be the death of globalization. Globalization has been the driver behind economic growth and expansion throughout the developed and developing world over these past several decades. China, India and other Tiger economies have been, much to the chagrin of a large portion of the population in the older economies of the "developed" world, the greatest beneficiaries of globalization. While the older economies have remained relatively static - these economies have seen a shift from a production to a service economy rather than real growth - with "real" growth (when there is growth at all) of only a couple of percentage points, the economies of China, India and other developing economies have grown at double digit rates, often exceeding twenty percent in good years.

But the mechanics of globalization are driven by cheap oil and its derivative fuels. It depends on the massive and rapid movement of goods over thousands of miles by ships, airlines, trains and trucks, all of which run on liquid fuels derived from oil. All of these forms of transport are under serious threat from rapidly rising oil prices. Airline companies are having to take a number for the line-up at bankruptcy court. Trans-oceanic shipping is teetering on the brink with shipping costs doubling or more because of fuel costs, especially for the long list of products where energy and shipping cost are a major cost component (in many cases more than 25% of the overall product cost before the price run-ups began). Rail lines and carriers, particularly in North America, have been shrinking and consolidating for years and no longer have the financial vitality to absorb these rapidly rising fuel prices. Independent truckers, which now represents the bulk of overland transport in North America, has absorbed so much of the cost of rising fuel costs that they can no longer stay on the road (as they slide ever closer and ever quicker toward bankruptcy), even if they could charge surcharges for fuel costs.

As I detailed in Peak Oil, Deglobalization and Ecolomics many outsourced industries that are being hit hardest by rising fuel prices are beginning to repatriate their operations closer to their markets. U.S. steel imports from China have, over the past year, declined by 20% while U.S. domestic steel production is ramping back up and has increased by 10% during the same period. Much of the production and assembly of goods that had been outsourced to China and other Tiger economies is being repatriated and ramped up in Mexico, the closest source of cheap labour for the manufacture of goods for the American consumer.

But these simplified repatriation decisions that may seem to make good economic sense in a business-as-usual scenario are not, as I detailed in the above article, are not good decision or choices in the face of peak oil. They simply move the energy consumption of the manufacturing processes from one location to another but are still built around an unchanged model of centralized production of goods moved by a hopefully-viable distribution system to the markets and consumers. Moving production to Mexico is definitely not wise in the long term. Mexico's domestic oil production is plummeting, by as much as 20% or more each year, and that poor country will soon find itself a net importer of oil if there is much effort to move outsourced American industry from China to Mexico.

Repatriating outsourced industries from the developing world to the developed world and doing so without redesigning the processes to be less energy-intensive and converted to decentralized processes that produce right in the consuming market, wherever it may be, simply defers the eventual and necessary industrial response to peak oil. Very soon there will not be enough liquid fuels being produced globally, from whatever source, to satisfy total global demand. Very soon the industrial model is going to have to be changed, choices - correct choices - are going to have to be made, to cope with the reality that there is not enough fuel being produced globally to support the present model that relies on centralized, mechanized production and long distance distribution by liquid-fuel-dependant transport infrastructure.

The choices we have neglected to make, for whatever wrong-headed reason, have been made for us. We are no longer in control of the rules of the game. that's the price of choices not made.