The Wall

iu.jpegThis was a little harrowing to read. Not in the way that Cormac McCarthy is harrowing to read – the writing is of a completely different stripe, but on some level just as bleak.

John Lanchester has appeared here previous, and i’m a big fan of his journalistic writing. He has great way of explaining complicated issues. His prose is rather functional, direct. Sometimes things feel a little too lightweight, but maybe that levity shows how easily an abhorrent situation can be normalised.

The Wall is set in a near future Britain, a time where sea levels have risen and a ‘fortress mentality’ has taken over the land. A time when ‘The Others’ seek to gain entry, to seek sanctuary in a chaotic world.

It feels very now. It feels like a slap in the face. A glance around the next bend to reveal a car crash in progress, and not enough time to react. A time when:

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

Worth reading. It was hard enough to put down that i tore through it in a couple of hours.

Parting Shot

Umberto Eco died today. Over the years he’d entertained and bemused me in unequal measures. It always felt as though he was on a perpetual search in his works of fictions for the appropriate follow up to Name of the Rose. A case of ‘peaking too early’ perhaps?

His more scholarly, but entertaining nonetheless, writings existed in a tradition of european intellectualism that was not always accessible to me – the layers of meaning, playful exploration of ideas across languages, epochs, civilisations… i’ll miss the erudition he so obviously enjoyed displaying.

Today is a good day to remind small-minded england of the great european tradition of intellectualism, of thinking, and of the “european experiment” which has sought to bring peace to so many people. Here is an extract from Eco’s essay on Ur, or eternal, Fascism:

7. To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia. But the plot must also come from the inside: Jews are usually the best target because they have the advantage of being at the same time inside and outside. In the U.S., a prominent instance of the plot obsession is to be found in Pat Robertson’s The New World Order, but, as we have recently seen, there are many others.

Fuck your special pleading. Fuck your culture of entitlement and greed. Fuck your appeals to xenophobic instincts. Fuck your attempts to enshrine diminished empathy in law. And most obviously: fuck you dishface.

Darkest Green?

(via Jim Grisanzio)

[Don’t watch that if you have any form of new year blues / uncertainty about the future. It is dark. Very, very dark. Really.]

Hard to work past the doom, and follow up on the feedback loops. Looking into just one of them is daunting. Methane levels are indeed rising, but finding evidence that would indicate a massive outgassing (from either the arctic or the siberian permafrost) is difficult.

My sense is that the truth lies somewhere between “extinction by mid-century” and “if we recycle and change the lightbulbs it’ll be fine!” To me collapse still seems inevitable, and i say that because the scale of climate change is going to make recovering from each disaster increasingly difficult.

Obviously we can’t continue to exceed carrying capacity, with the resource depletion that that entails, but given everything that we’ve “locked-in” in terms of changing the composition of the atmosphere, a simple collapse of capitalism isn’t going to magically push the planet into recovery… and may in fact make things worse for a while. Managing the decline of nuclear is a good example of that. We’d better hope that all the plants can be peacefully brought to an idle in the absence of external infrastructure. The Fukushima experience doesn’t really indicate that is a realistic expectation.

Edit: sourcing for a lot of the claims in the above talk can be found here.

From Brokdorf to Fukushima

A long and interesting piece in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists on the nuclear phase out in Germany. Along with being a good summary of the what, when, where, who, and why, there is this:

What is remarkable about these early events is that the opposition to the Brokdorf and the Wyhl projects did not explicitly target nuclear power per se, or even focus on particular issues of nuclear power, such as reactor safety or waste disposal (Radkau, 1983: 458). Instead, the early opposition movement largely developed in response to the nontransparent and authoritarian style in which the federal government pursued its big-industry projects, exemplified by excessive use of police force.

Which should probably have parallels in Japan, not so much with excessive use of force, japanese police tactics are more subtle, and one might say insiduous, but the “nontransparent and authoritarian” part is spot on.

It is clear at this point that nuclear is not a cheap, risk free, ‘too cheap to meter’ supply of energy, and the discussion really needs to move on to why national governments are so enthralled with the interests that would like to pretend otherwise.

ps. arrived back from Japan last weekend, but my brain has only just turned up. It seems to be taking longer and longer for it to make the journey across Siberia…


There is a confrontational piece in the New York Times, written by marine ecologist Roger Bradbury, that states rather plainly:

IT’S past time to tell the truth about the state of the world’s coral reefs, the nurseries of tropical coastal fish stocks. They have become zombie ecosystems, neither dead nor truly alive in any functional sense, and on a trajectory to collapse within a human generation.


Overfishing, ocean acidification and pollution have two features in common. First, they are accelerating. They are growing broadly in line with global economic growth, so they can double in size every couple of decades. Second, they have extreme inertia — there is no real prospect of changing their trajectories in less than 20 to 50 years. In short, these forces are unstoppable and irreversible.

In short, coral reefs are doomed, and given our trajectory and inertia, there is nothing we can do about it. This has been a reasonable assumption for many years. For much longer than i’ve been blathering on about human nature, and the established order of capitalism, the writing has been on the wall. We could change, but it’s not in our short term interest to so do, and as a race we’re driven by short term, selfish interests.

Bradbury goes on to make the case that resources (research money) are being wasted on studying how badly the bodies will be mangled after the car crash, when we should be focusing on how to carry on driving. Obviously he doesn’t put in such terms, but you get the idea.

Others have taken him up on this, but seem more interested in apportioning blame than anything else.

Still.  We’ve killed off an entire global ecosystem.

Shouldn’t somebody have to fucking pay?

“Sorry about that, we’ve destroyed the ecosystem… to whom do we write the cheque?” Not entirely sure that moves things forward. Back to Bradbury:

Coral reefs will be the first, but certainly not the last, major ecosystem to succumb to the Anthropocene — the new geological epoch now emerging.

The naming of the epoc feels like an appropriately hubristic climax to our age. The consequences of our prolonged war on the ecosystems that support (not serve…) us might well be coming around to extract their own price. It’s always dangerous to extrapolate climate from weather, but there is increasing statistical evidence that the climate is being thrown into a more extreme and chaotic state. If this is indeed the case we’re in for a pretty rough ride. Given how far we are over carrying capacity, anything that interrupts the crop cycle of the major landmasses is going to cause real problems.

The collapse of fisheries as reefs die. Massive algae blooms at the poles as ice is lost. Equatorial dead zones. Drought in the amazon basin. Desertification in China. Throw in a few multi-year droughts, ‘one in a thousand year’ flood events, above normal hurricane / typhoon seasons, and pretty soon were reeling. Our much vaunted adaptability has bought us this far, far enough to rip our ecosystem to shreds.

We might have pushed the system up to the cliff edge, but we’re far from in control of the rocks it’ll hit on the way down…

Love A Good Graph!

The following two graphs drifted across my internet horizons yesterday.

The first show the spot price for electricity in Germany four years ago (2008):

Note the trough over night, matching limited demand, and how things ramp up to 9am, then stay at that level until starting to decline in early evening.

The second graph is the same spot price earlier this month:

Again the trough over night and the peak up to 9am. However, things then get very different! After 9am the price collapses back to the 4am level, and doesn’t start to rise again until 5pm.

What explains this difference? In the time between these two graphs ~20Gw of solar power have been installed. On a sunny day, or at least a day on which it is sunny where solar is installed, power is generated cheaply enough to make it impossible to charge more.

As noted in the original article:

But there is one further salient feature in the comparison of the chart from 2012 with the one from 2008. Last week, the spot price did not dip below 35 euros per megawatt-hour, whereas prices started at 20 euros – nearly half as expensive – four years ago. Over a 24-hour period, the price of power on the spot market is indeed lower today than it was back then, but how do we explain the nearly doubling of power in the middle of the night? Given that baseload demand has hardly changed, it must be assumed that power companies are charging more in times of lower demand now that they cannot make their old profits during daylight hours.

Which makes it pretty clear that the market still isn’t really working. My question would be: how long until renewables (and presumably storage) make uneconomic to continue to burn things to generate power? If i was running a conventional power company, with a large investment in machinery required to put geology into the air, i’d be nervous

[Most of the obvious rebuttals to statements about this not being feasible are answered here. Spot prices (current and historical for europe are available here.]

The big question is why this isn’t happening in other markets? All the talk of Japan suffering power shortage during the hot summer days seems to be babble that could be addressed, at least in part, by installing gigawatts of solar / wind. The sooner they get started the sooner they be shot of Tepco!

Thinking Little

When this:

“There’s a crisis of western capitalism, which has gone geriatric. The dynamic capitalism, with its energy, innovation and sheer greed for growth has moved east.”

— Meghnad Desai, emeritus professor LSE

is the good news, it’s easy to get a little despondent. Even my terminally optimistic friends (…) seem to think that we need to bounce off the bottom… admittedly before then resuming our glorious ascent toward becoming beings of light.

It’s a shame Tainter is such a dull read.

“The advantage of the Anglo-Saxon model is clear. It encourages innovation, it is versatile, and it promotes individual freedom,” says Mr Yao. “But its disadvantages are equally clear. It is very fluid, it is cruel to employees, and it brings large destructive forces when economic downturns come.” He favours a Nordic system of high taxes, relative equality and less boom and bust. But in Asia, only Japan and South Korea come anywhere close to that model.

Another reason to watch my current favorite TED talk:

China has built a machine to produce fast growth in a poor country. But there is no guarantee its system will be able to match western living standards without a radical overhaul.

There is very little question in my mind that the planet lacks the resources to support the chinese population at current western standards of living. The uncomfortable truth is that it won’t just be them rising, it’ll be us sinking to meet them somewhere in the middle. Or war.

All this, and more, can be found in the FTs ‘Capitalism in crisis’ series. Which to be honest is rather disappointing, amounting to a lot of hand-wringing, and not really daring to think anything radical. Years from now people will still be putting down challenges to western democracy and capitalism with the same tired old Churchill quote…

Pretty Desperate

From an AP piece:

Radioactive debris from melted fuel rods may have seeped deeper into the floor of a Japan’s tsunami-hit nuclear reactor than previously thought, to within a foot from breaching the crucial steel barrier, a new simulation showed Wednesday.

Emphasis mine. Note that they don’t actually know where the fuel has actually gone:

Some experts have raised questions about achieving the “cold shutdown,” which means bringing the temperature of the pressure vessel containing healthy fuel rods to way below the benchmark 100 Celsius (212 Fahrenheit). They say the fuel is no longer there and measuring the temperature of empty cores is meaningless, while nobody knows where and how hot the melted fuel really is.

Which all probably means that the reactor vessel is cooling down nicely due to the absence of any fuel. 30cm of concrete doesn’t fill me with great confidence. Didn’t the Russians end up mining under Chernobyl and pouring a new concrete slab?

It’s hard not to get the impression that Tepco is still winging it, and that this saga is a long way from over.