Saturday, March 1, 2014

Day in the Life

The mills of the gods grind slowly,

           but they grind exceedingly fine
-17th century German Proverb
(trans. Longfellow)
Forty years ago I was hitch-hiking down to Mexico via California and going through Ukiah I got a ride with a broken-down old hillbilly in a similar rusty Chev pickup.  It seemed I had to come stay with them at his com-yune and meet the pastor who was a real firebrand.  Years later I regretted my refusal because I could have dined out on the story for the rest of my life.  But my instincts had been correct; I was good-looking then, slim, fit, and clean-limbed; hardly even had to shave.  And the pastor was Jim Jones who didn't trust anybody; man nor woman until he had bedded them. And so the rational mind is betrayed by the rest of the body.  Mine would have been too if it had been some hippy in a Kombi van because everybody knew most of those places were chockers with drug-addled girls who went swimming in nothing but hair all over the place.
But all I ever got from the alternative rides -never even an offer of a place to 'crash' – was silent disapproval or some not-too-friendly tirade about our disparate trips. Obviously being clean cut I was some loyal running dog of the fascist pigs, too fresh and out of uniform to be a narcotics agent but definitely not part of the new wave of  self-indulgent naifs who would bring on the Age of Aquarius. We were all arrogant and highly sensitive about our personae at that age.  I was guilty of the same hubris and had wanted to distinguish myself from all the useless, inarticulate, hollow-chested freaks and used car dealers; which is to say almost everybody by then had grown hair and was advertising themselves as a beautiful soul.  I imagined I had one of these too.  But as Ken Kesey had ominously warned the other free spirits on his psychedelic bus tour  in Tom Wolfes' “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; “You're either on the bus or you're off it.”  

So everybody stuck to the script rather than endure the grim alternative; no more easy girl-flesh, no more adrenaline rushes barrelling along erratically with Ken's ridiculous con-man come Thor-hammer- throwing 2IC at the wheel, no more group stone parties,  and no place in that whole paranoid, vibrant adventure world of the avant-garde; blowing the minds of the uptight yokels and confounding the cops.  From that first summer of love I had always been off  the bus, not on any moral grounds, just that it was so pat and contrived as to be pathetic.  Friends who lived in communes in those days have their fond memories, and a not-so- fond common thread in their reminiscences is endurance of petty tyrannies.

Today I have a very full schedule.  I snatch a few handfuls of grass, throw it in for the guinea pigs, and drag my bony old backside, braces and white beard onto the seat of a rusty Isuzu diesel pickup truck and head off rattling towards town. Normally I use it to do my used oil collections from a couple local restaurants. I convert the stuff to biodiesel, and of my many hobbies it's probably my only contribution to the commonweal as only my wife still works. Can work.  The first stop is an MRI scan at the local hospital to determine whether surgery can undo some of the damage caused by a lifetime of farming and hard blue collar work.  Then I have an appointment to convert our local MP,  an ex-pastor, to environmentalism.  This is not a certainty, for a Tasmanian Liberal member that would be the political equivalent of cyanide; like Jim Jones' trusted and heavily-armed catamites forced on the whole Jonestown community, screaming children included.  And now it's me behind the wheel, and so fares the human grist as the world turns ever back on itself,  consuming youth, diversity and enthusiasm;  ever  generating the same old.   And I am really not looking forward to it; this is another man who is definitely on the bus and doesn't want to get off  and miss out - there is belonging, status, validation, not to mention great money and benefits.  I understand his predecessor called it the 'gravy train.'
And I rattle along hand in hand with hypocrisy, specifically the biofuel revolution driving my aging ute.  Every couple weeks my wife and I use a 200 litre drum made from  worn-out restaurant oil. Peak oil has come and gone and if every other small family in the developed world is using fossil fuel at the same rate, the planet will be scratching long before any major improvement comes to lifestyles in the developing world.  Here its only a freebie for a few under-employeds; all the takeways in Burnie could barely supply ten or fifteen families.  In poorer countries it would be clarified and resold until it was all consumed.   But well-meaning EU legislation has mandated a  percentage in commercial motor fuel.  So Indonesia is being scalped of its primary forest for palm oil plantations, many of those developments are on impossible ground purely to get logging access and the CO2 emissions from the burning forest in the dry season equal or have equaled a third  of western industrial output, choking the Malaysians and Singaporese.   Some of the blends I get  here have palm oil -from Wilmar International, a successful multinational founded by nice,ordinary, folksy, people who have discovered a way into the ranks of the super-rich by destroying the earth.   And George Bush bought swing -state Iowa with a subsidized ethanol-from- corn scheme that would free America from its dependence on the middle east.  Bottom lines were a mere 10 or  15% energy gain after fossil energy inputs and riots in Mexico when the price of maize doubled.  Enough corn to fill your SUV for a weekend outing could feed a Mexican family for a year.  Its like 'The Cars That Ate Paris' but unseen – our beloved freedom machines are eating the world however powered.  

But philanthropist Andrew Forrest from the rich man's forum in Davos has announced an initiative to turn Pakistan's brown coal (too dirty for power generation) into diesel fuel and bring their indentured labour market out of the dark ages.  Two and a half tonnes will make a barrel of diesel.  It isn't really a new idea, the nazis were forced into every option to drive their war machine and the cost of the coal is in the digging but from that 2.5 tonnes of coal I calculate 6 tonnes of CO2 emitted to produce the drum of diesel and that's before you burn the motor fuel.  If you can't do the maths and chemistry you are just another dumb munchkin, however wealthy.  And thus each animalcule of our exponentially growing population has an overlay of an exponentially- growing carbon footprint as conventional petroleum supplies are exhausted.  
Maybe there is a better source of biofuel in algae, which I had doubted on the grounds of having to maintain pure cultures of some high yielding variety.  But recent work shows that by limiting sulfur you can get an oil content up to 40% of dry weight, and that in particular gives me cold chills like when someone is  walking on your grave.

The guinea pigs are another of my world-saving experiments. They are an important protein source in South America, eat grass, birth huge, fully-furred young, are plump, tender and utterly delicious, and double their numbers every four  months.  I have done a guinea pig calculation for humanity.  At an economically essential 2% growth rate we double every forty years leaving standing room only on the planet, one human per square meter of solid ground in 11 doublings, a little over 400 years.   Or maybe they are referring to GDP, but in an age of desperate inflation- inspired capital allocation that would mean you aren't even running fast enough to stand still; unless you are happily in the Chinese camp with whole suburbs of empty but presently appreciating apartments and shopping centres.  Guineas are similarly capable of overrunning the world; all within a human lifetime even if you start from scratch with my own little flock.  They have really taken off in the trouble spots of Africa – unlike a pig or a goat, they can be tended easily by the youngest children, slain in meal-sized increments saving on refrigeration, and a family can grab their daughters, throw the pots and guinea pigs into a bag and make off into the bush at a moments notice.  The bad part is that they (guineas) can chew their own allotted square metre to the dirt in a day or two and not only have I  grown attached to them but their conversion ratio of grass to flesh is pretty poor.  It just takes too much energy to keep those tiny bodies warm, and too much of my time and energy finding grass for them.  Fish or reptiles have to be a better bet.

So what is our delegation going to say to our MP?    Agreement beyond basic topics probably isn't necessary, we won't change anybody's mind.  Will I have to explain the absurdity of exponential growth with the above 'reductio ad absurdum'?  There is the refugee question - the voters want the boats stopped.  But did anyone enlarge the debate to  garner votes with a political beat-up of the vaunted 'front door' with 60% fraudulent student visas and 40 % fraudulent skilled migration? God knows how many business migrations are dubious; people like Marcos' crony Cojuango, having helped rip the heart out of the Philippines was welcomed locally to spend his millions ostensibly putting our donkeys to work - suing journalists takes lots of legal representation.  Will desperate people willing to spend all they have in the world and brave death to get here make better citizens than the sharks and the weasels?  There was silence on that front because this is about big business- migration agents,  tourist enterprises, airlines, serious and dubious educational institutions and iron ore magnates seeking to construct their empires with cheaper, more desperate employees than are locally available.  And they are available.  I had intended to FIFO a bit myself just before I got hurt, but demand for older guys like me was underwhelming.  They get hurt easily and compensation costs drive up premiums.  But are foreigners actually better?  My son was on one of those jobs constructing giant tanks for tar sands oil in Canada. They had replaced a Chinese contractor who had decided to put the top on before the circular walls went up.  It is held up by columns anyway and that gives you a free run underneath but surprisingly there was a windstorm and a dozen or so got killed, thereby bolstering their traditional role in building our nation.  It had taken a less romantic turn more recently; instead of self-sacrifice, demand drove development and housing prices way above the grasp of the locals in Vancouver and Toronto.  

At the meeting we mentioned the refugees and yes, regardless of our member's own feelings he is representing 80% of the populace who want the boats stopped.  I think a similar number want the right to have help ending their own lives if it becomes unbearable.  He is not representing them on that one or abortion.  It is just so one-sided; those of us on the other side of the equation would be happy just to be left alone to mind our own business, he and his can do as they please without upsetting my sensibilities.   Which is really what its about.  Some poor wavering young woman is convinced to give birth and the 'right to lifers' cheer another victory for  life and morality and move on.  She never hears from these folks again when it comes to the nitty gritty of child-rearing for the rest of her oppressed and unhappy life.

But that's the trouble with the right, they always are.  There seems to be some flaw in brain chemistry that can rationalize a pat hypothesis in each little mental box; happily churning through the limited data mercifully free of any embarrassing connections.  Take the arts-  political careers need a lot of props and a sure-fire one is stoking the fires of public indignation.  Yes artists do get the odd contract for public art but is this a shocking waste of public funds?  If you ask anybody they will say 'a lot of the time.'  But it happens to be a highly competitive tender for a specific amount of money; right in line with market-based ideology.  And we get burned by that occasionally right across the board.  Any commissions I ever had must have paid $20 an hour maximum for a very limited period while (connection!) anyone in the political class can receive up to hundreds of thousands of dollars per annum and a wonderful stipend for life after a relatively short period of service that passes on to surviving partners, all on the public tick; no pre-election tenders to the electorate, no indignant finger pointing, no Work Choices legislation for these people.  A normal person might see some incongruity in that and feel ashamed to open their mouth.  

So the world has moved on but it's as if nothing has changed – there is some natural hierarchy of entitlement for the privileged.  Every climber is on a par with the genuinely wealthy; like in a 13th century feudal society.  God made the rich and/or finagled business success/electoral victory for them and he made the poor to fetch and carry; part of the natural order even as the planets wheel in the heavens.   Like the incredible parental leave scheme.  My own wife had two babies and simply quit her job (teaching) for a while.  Maybe they would take her back, maybe not, they got delivered for free, there was an ongoing universal minor benefit for the kids and that was it.  
In industy they insist on picking winners, favouring grandiose schemes with potential photo ops; generally promoted by con men  and they are generally wrong.  After squandering millions of taxpayer dollars on the MIS schemes and the pulp mill it all turned to crap and in the meantime virtually all the small sawmillers, me included were forced out of the industry.  North Forests said I was finished on the freehold, and to get anything from forestry, even access to pull waste out of the clearcuts you had to jump through hoops.  You could tender for 2nd rate wood occasionally against the set rates for top grade wood for your crown-allocated competition but only in a recession when no-one else had any market would they offer you quality sawlogs.  It wouldn't do to upset the logging schedules and leave it stand for a while nor were there any public tears from paid mouthpieces or compensation on my own exit or similar.

So moral hazard around here isn't something to be shunned; if it doesn't involve underage girls  it's embraced and publicized on the candidate's CV.  We have thrown a billion dollars down the rathole in the last decade on Forestry Tasmania, the primary forest is virtually finished, but their accounts list dirt access roading through the desolation as a compensating asset.  That and so many more millions of public dollars wasted is flaunted as 'fighting for  the coast' or 'making jobs, jobs, jobs.'

Of course our meeting was cordial and between time and diplomacy we didn't get to any really unpleasant questions:  If there is a sanctity in human life do the drowned qualify? Or the murdered family members of asylum seekers or even our own heroes of past wars?  My father's platoon on Okinawa in three months took as many casualties as Australia in Afghanistan to date.  He never even got to know most of their names before they were dead or shipped out for good and the US Army and himself  inflicted far worse on the Japanese; especially at the end -  his job was to clean up the beaten stragglers after they had blasted the main Japanese defensive line along the spine of the island from Shuri Castle to smithereens and rolled them up from the flanks.  The Japanese were starving and huddled in their caves along the last rocky beach on the way to the capital, waiting to be incinerated.  He had a POW to interpret so they knew they could walk out, or at least it would have had to be a  good gamble, but for most of them there was no sanctity in their lives, the only remaining human worth was a last  'banzai' for the emperor.   Sometimes a surviving officer would march his men out, relieving them of the dishonour of personal surrender as best he could, then go back inside and there would be a shot.  

We like to think it was a war of heroes, but what does that mean when life expectancies in combat of say machine gunners or second lieutenants was measured in minutes?  It was a war of attrition and it was about resources.  And what kind of candy-arses have we become?  Considering the rate we are divesting those resources, the sacrifices were surely in vain; it couldn't have disappeared any faster if we had lost the war.  Secret ongoing negotiations with our trading partners should move things along even more smoothly.  Natural gas is sold off and shipped out as fast as it can be drilled, uniquely amongst our peers we have virtually no domestic reserves.  Civilization itself depends on gas: agriculture is now dependent on nitrogenous fertilizer which we buy from India; made with Australian gas.  Chalk up yet another own goal, and no matter how fast we expand resource sales,  employment will not keep up with the demands of our own exponentially expanding population because a relative inverse of the same thing relentlessly depresses our job market.  Rio Tinto is going to driverless trucks and big companies are moving any labour-intensive production offshore.  

Regarding the Malthusian dilemma our MP rounded on me.  “Are you going to stop people from breeding?”
Obviously I am not.  Luckily for us in the western world my father's generation was called to inflict death and destruction and its over in the main for maybe another generation if our kids are as lucky as we were.  But the maths of population growth and the chemistry of soil depletion isn't rocket science.   We have also squandered and surpassed peak phosphorous which has horrendous implications for future food supply and I have faint hopes that universal education might convince more people to limit their families.  It won't be enough.  Of so many elected representatives in Canberra only Kelvin Thompson dares mention the elephant in the bedroom- the population factor is the driving force of the ongoing trainwreck that will ensure future resource wars, weather disruption, a series of ecological collapses and the final climate disaster that will see us off the planet.

How can I say this with so much certainty when so many of our best and brightest  like Ian MacDonald and Tony Abbot and all the Howard dinosaurs are climate 'sceptics'?   Well, I trained as a physicist and still am nowhere near being qualified on that one.  So by rights I should also be in the ranks of the sceptics and I don't know, but I'll go with the previous head of CSIRO who said, ”I don't know, but I have confidence in the industry and integrity of my colleagues who have spent lifetimes running the numbers through super computers.”  
And I have also worked in the mining industry.  Its in the Bakken oil that's sidelining the Saudis for the moment; its in the black, greasy shale basement underlying the Tarkine. Its in our 100 million year perfectly reasonable bone- headed behavioural DNA that says 'bog in' and grab what you can today because someone else will step up to take it otherwise.  And thus it is written in stone that the lowly pond scum; having waited patiently over 200 million years for its own day in the sun  will triumphantly cover the dead, stinking, anaerobic sulfur-starved, seething oceans; 30 meters higher than now on an ice-free planet.  And that's the reset button which will re-sequester all our carbon as it sinks to the bottom unmetabolized with its 40% oil content.  There  it will lie for half a billion years along with the world's topsoil and glacial till to be incorporated in the future great deposits of anthropogenic oil; a bonanza for our successors; be they ants or megarodents.

Of course maybe I don't know, but science is really all we have; public funding pays dividends and introduces an objectivity missing when the money comes from the coal or petrochemical industry.   And even scientists don't bite the hand that feeds them. Our representative thought perhaps climate change science could also be skewed on the other side by alternative energy money.  But there isn't enough of that and probably never will be because the wind and sun aren't easily monopolized by corporate giants.
In North America engineers get a fraternal iron ring made with steel from the Tacoma Bridge that famously destroyed itself in the wind.  But if you want a more recent disaster- a confluence of corporatism,  sloth, ignorance, arse-covering and accountant-driven shortcuts,  you needn't look beyond the Fukushima disaster which could still take out civilization all on its own.  Dud reactors lined up like shooting gallery ducks on a beach along a fault line, built by, sold to and managed by sycophants, chauvinists and fools.  The very idea of building a water-cooled reactor is insane.  When something goes wrong, steam becomes a potent metal oxidizer due to heat and high pressure, more like nitric acid, releasing scads of highly explosive hydrogen gas to prevent any cooling water being pumped in (if you even have pumps) and eventually blows the hell out of the containment facility.   So that's how it happened, and back in the fifties and sixties the hype was that such an incident wouldn't happen once in 500 years.  Since then we have had closer to one in fifteen.  

The ocean can dilute the groundwater coming from the melted cores, still somewhere down there burning its way to China -oops-Brazil and polluting the Pacific. But rather than do something about spent fuel rods, it was cheaper to store the thousand plus tonnes of spent fuel rods in EACH of the uncontained and who knows how badly damaged cooling ponds, high up in the broken buildings.  Only one of those need drain or fall or boil dry, and it will burn chemically, in the air – and whether or not the atomic fires light up again,  no one will be able to get close to the others.  In the southern hemisphere we might have a few years to compose our irrelevant obits. Because in the short time remaining for the northern hemisphere they won't have the time, ability or incentive to decommission Indian Point, Hanford etc. and something like 37 similar reactors world-wide of that type alone with similar storage problems that must be managed for generations.   With the doomsday clock ticking only seconds to midnight it wasn't a 1950's style cataclysm of assured global destruction by two crazy world-dominating hegemons we ought to have worried about; the end will arrive boring and banal, business as usual.  Uh.... what's the bottom line here?

So underground storage was another missed Australian opportunity.  Of course nobody wants the stuff rolling through town on its way into our own backyard but the bad news for nimbies is that its a small world and its already there.   Better it was safely buried at the bottom of the garden than washing it off the caulies.  We shouldn't get all moral about it either; we were hot to dig it up and sell it off in the first place making jobs jobs jobs and incidentally astronomic corporate profits and out of self- interest we elected the cowboys we knew were going to do it.
There is a risk abatement strategy called 'the precautionary principle' that essentially means you  don't trust in statistics, Panadol, God or even your GP when you are cutting off your whatsis.

So how is this for objectivity.  I invested in uranium shares a month or so after the tsunami when their prices had melted down by half.   I should have waited longer, the Japanese had lied, it was a lot worse than anyone let on and I could have got them at half that price again. Even so  this was the best investment opportunity I had ever seen since before the property boom in Queensland.  My wife was furious.  I tried to explain there was NO RISK but it fell on deaf ears; she didn't think that was the point.    Quite simply if it is dealt with successfully, existing reactors under construction plus the end of the soviet nuclear arms reduction will create huge shortages of uranium.  If the unthinkable happens my losses will be immaterial and anyway, I have subscribed to a news feed that will get me out a few days before it sinks in, for what that will be worth.

And there is one more risk.   I intend to add to my (very profitable) position at the next broad share market decline.  But maybe a light will come on in the collective human mind, there will be a worldwide move to intentional population control instead of relying on the traditional four horsemen of the apocalypse.  We will stop uranium mining, and embrace renewables.  We might even replace coal-fired generators with  thorium reactors.  Australia would be perfectly placed to design, build and supply these making jobs, jobs, jobs.  The technology worked back in the fifties, and the half-life of the stuff is the present age of the universe.  We have a huge sand mining industry where it is an unwanted byproduct.  It is ALL fissionable without enrichment as opposed to uranium which only contains about .5%  fissionable U235. Thorium cannot melt down and run away, there is enough to supply base load power forever, radioactive waste is relatively minimal with a short half-life.  And it cannot be weaponized which is why it was rejected in favour of uranium reactors.   So are we going to do it?  Does a bear sh** in the forest?  You can bet on it, but that's about all the dumb bastards will ever get up to.


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