Archive for the ‘Business’ Category
And no, not another 9/11 post. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments on those, there’s a even a few I haven’t responded to. Granted, I don’t get around to responding to every comment, but I try to respond to many or most of them. I get a lot of international comments, not terribly surprising, I’m a rare breed in the USA, an intellectual. I’ve known that since the 80s when we met some German brothers in New Zealand. Later they hitchhiked across the USA and visited us in California. One of their questions was, where are all the intellectuals? I couldn’t say.
I digress, the topic of today’s blog, fracking. Fracking is a method of drilling oil out of low grade oil deposits like oil sands and oil shales, of which the USA has in abundance. During the last gas crunch a few years ago, some wags tossed fracking around as a solution to our oil problems. The Bakken Formation was a favourite example. Experts in the field pointed out that we were decades away from being able to commercially exploit these deposits in a large way. My own considered opinion was that the experts were right.
Well, apparently I was wrong. So were the experts. The technology is here, now. Fracking wells have become commercially viable, and are sprouting up all over the place. It’s entirely possible that in a decade or less the US could produce its own oil, or even become an oil exporting nation again. This is a pretty big change from the peak oil scare a few years back, apparently peak oil has been put off a few more decades. This is all good, right?
No, not necessarily at least. There’s three points that make this an interesting topic, the first of which is, who knows? This is a wonderful example of how things can change very quickly on the world stage. For decades the exploitation of oil shale and oil sand deposits have largely been a pipe dream. They aren’t any more. This is a huge change. And when the equation changes, all sorts of things can fall out. So this is an important development that might change everything, so people should be aware of it.
Secondly, even if fracking really does produce copious amounts of oil and natural gas, the environmental consequences appear to be non-trivial. Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing, which basically is pumping heated fluids into the ground to fracture rack and allow oil and gas to flow out. Um, what heated fluids? And um, isn’t there groundwater down there? Who knows, and yes. This is why fracking has been outlawed in a few minor jurisdictions. Like Queensland, Quebec, France, and several US states. At best it’s safe to say there are future unknown costs, possibly significant, due to environmental concerns.
Lastly, are there geopolitical implications? Yes, yes there are. One would think it would be a good thing, but anything is possible. My fear is that this will fuel American militarism abroad for a few more decades. And at our current rate of enemy creation, that means we will be at war with the entire world in a few decades. Yeah, that will work out well.
(The above image is of the burning Piper Alpha oil platform. It’s claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit. It was a disaster that was a classic disaster, a whole string of events led up to it, and it’s a study in disaster prevention to this day. A bunch of guys died. I chose it to illustrate that the exploitation of oil and gas involves costs, sometimes very human ones.)
Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich explains the problems with the economy in less than 2 minutes, 15 seconds. With illustration even, check it out here: The Truth About the Economy in Two Minutes. I highly recommend watching it now, especially as I will be discussing it in this post.
Basically his point can be summed up in far less than two minutes. Since around 1980, the rich in the USA have gotten richer, while the middle class has lost ground. So while the USA has far more wealth than it had in 1980, all the new wealth is concentrated in the hands of the very rich. And they have increasingly used this wealth to buy influence in congress, get their taxes lowered, and play the average American off against each other by placing the blame on poor people, immigrants, liberals, conservatives, whatever.
I don’t see anything wrong with his analysis. It’s a breath of clear air in a dank cave, that’s for sure. The current debt ceiling limit debate is a wonderful example of how political theatre has replaced real debate on the real issues. Almost everything I read about the “debate” has been stuff and nonsense. Neither “side” want to talk about the two biggest contributions to this mess: Our insane military spending and the insanely low taxes on the rich. Until and unless these are addressed, the whole debt situation is just going to get worse and worse.
Both “sides” of the “debate” use different, equally idiotic, talking points. The right loves to blame poor people, immigrants, and sick people for all our nation’s woes. And of course still sticking to the utterly demolished argument that giving the rich tax beaks will magically create jobs. And the left, among much irrelevance, often likes to claim that the debt is no big deal, and that the $400 billion a year in interest on the national debt is trivial. I’m pretty sure $400 billion a year could finance all sorts of things far more useful to the average American than paying bankers ever more money.
Although the point needs to be made, if the government was spending all this money on things that would eventually create wealth, the debt wouldn’t be such a big deal. Things like education, health care, and the nation’s infrastructure. This is how the government used to spend money, and up until the mid-seventies it made the USA the envy of the world. Since then spending on things like education and infrastructure has died the death of a thousand cuts, American’s public education is among the worst in the industrialized world, and the nation’s infrastructure is falling apart. Not to mention a national health system that is a sick joke. France spends about 11% of its GNP on health care, and provides everyone in France with what is widely regarded as the best health care in the world. The USA spends about 16% of its GNP on health care (the most in the world) and has a health care system that is dead last in the industrialized world. Yes, one has to go to second and third world countries to find worse health care than in the USA.
So it doesn’t really matter whether or not they raise the debt ceiling. Until we have a government that puts the needs of the nation and its people ahead of the needs of the hyper-rich … we’re all screwed. Don’t hold your breath.
(The above image is of a huge German tank that the Nazis were working on during World War Two. It would have been essentially invulnerable to other tanks and artillery. Unfortunately it would have been a sitting duck for aircraft … and completely unable to cross rivers. This is the kind of nonsense militaries’ come up with when they have too much money. The current US military being no exception, maybe some blog posts on that will come down the pike.)
I was wondering the other day how much human activity is altering the plant, erosion specifically was what got me looking into the subject. I mean, humans have converted vast amounts of forest and prairie into farmland or worse, and erosion rates must have gone up significantly over normal background rates of erosion. Well, turns out geologists have calculated that the global erosion rate is about 10 billion tons of sediment moved from mountains to sea every year. Since the onset of agriculture, this has risen to about 28 billion tons per year. And we also move tens of billions of other material around in the form of mining, concrete production, etc. There’s not any question that humans are now the dominant force shaping the very surface of the Earth by a huge margin. The numbers a so huge that geologists are seriously considering defining the human era as a whole new geological era, the Anthropocene Epoch.
Then there’s the impact of humans have on the atmosphere. Let’s look at volcanoes. Every year volcanoes erupt and dump copious amounts of CO2 and SO2 (sulphur dioxide) into the atmosphere. Humans? We dump about 100 times and five times respectively as much CO2 and SO2 into the atmosphere every year as volcanoes. This is not chicken scratch. In fact the amount of CO2 released by humans and absorbed by the oceans has increased ocean acidity by 25%. This is a huge increase, and has changed the geological processes on the ocean floor in ways we don’t begin to understand.
Let’s just look at it from an energy standpoint. The heat energy released by the Earth every year is well understood. It’s about 44 trillion watts a year. This is what powers volcanoes, earthquakes, and plate tectonics. Human activity is about 16 trillion watts per year. Yes, human energy output is now about 1/3 the energy output of the Earth itself! And if it keeps doubling every 34 years, the current rate of increase, by about 2060 humans will be generating more energy than the Earth! Puny my ass.
It gets worse. As CO2 builds up in the atmosphere it increases the greenhouse effect, IE it traps more of the Sun’s heat on the Earth, warming the crust, the oceans, and the air. If the CO2 in the atmosphere doubles, it will add about 1300 trillion watts of heat energy to the Earth every year! That’s about 28 times the energy the Earth generates every year. And we’re well on the way, humans have increased the CO2 in the atmosphere by about 40% so far with no end in sight. Humans are literally cooking the planet’s crust, atmosphere, and oceans. Literally.
And these are just the big picture items. Little picture items, though the term is misleading, include deforestation, habitat destruction, over-fishing, and groundwater depletion just to name a few. Then there’s the dizzying array of chemicals we make and dump. Any of these could fill volumes with their effects, at least their known effects. My point here is very simple, humans not only are having a huge impact on the nature of our planet, we have no clue what the end results of these will be.
We are deliberately and literally geoengineering our planet, our only planet, with little to no understanding of the long term consequences of our actions. This is why the aliens haven’t contacted us yet, and this is why I question the idea that humans are an intelligent species. We are transforming the globe in ways we don’t even begin to understand, in the name of greed, ideology, and religion.
This isn’t going to end well.
(The above image is a NASA image and is being used legally, essentially it’s a Public Domain image as long as it is used in such a way that does not imply that NASA is endorsing a product or service. NASA does not endorse Doug’s Darkworld. It’s the decline of the Aral Sea in central Asia, once the world’s fourth largest lake. It’s now about 10% of it’s former size, entirely due to human activity and the results have been catastrophic. Lastly, much of the information on this post came from Our effect on the earth is real: how we’re geo-engineering the planet.)
Part of the reason my blogging has slowed down recently is that so much of what is going on today makes me mad. So I decided to vent about it, maybe it will be cathartic, maybe it will just make me madder. In no particular order, and in no way comprehensive, here are ten things I spend my time seething about. Be warned, I may use some harsh language as the situation warrants.
1. The rich are ass raping us all, and tens of millions of Americans are clamouring for more. The rich have been getting richer in the USA since the 1970s, while the middle class has slowly and steadily lost ground. This is not debatable. They’ve moved our factories to foreign lands, slashed their taxes, taken over our government and mainstream media, and stolen trillions from the public till. And most Americans are so brain-washed and propagandized that they blame immigrants, liberals, conservatives, atheists, shriners, whatever. Anyone but the people who have actually gotten us into this mess.
2. The debt, an extension of number one. The Federal government has been running in the red a record breaking 33 months now. State and local governments are no better. How in the name of God did the richest country the world has ever seen run up debts so insane that there is no conceivable way to ever pay them off? The infinite greed of the rich and the apparently infinite stupidity of the great unwashed masses is my guess.
3. The Pentagon. There was a reason the founding fathers were adamantly opposed to a standing army. Armies get involved in politics, and then get the country involved in wars. All of which costs the country blood and money. And it just keeps getting worse, while tens of millions of Americans regurgitate the crap that our legions overseas are fighting to “defend our freedoms.” No, they are fighting and dying to make the rich richer and create endless new enemies for the USA. Frankly the US army needs to be disbanded it’s so out of control.
4. The historic last flight of the space shuttle. Good riddance. The space shuttle was one of the biggest boondoggles in history, it should never have been built in the first place, and it most certainly should have been canned after the first one blew up. Yet Americans are celebrating the lives lost and the billions wasted on this flying cash cow.
5. Iran is going to have nukes soon! Yes, another right wing think tank claims that Iran is going to be building nukes soon! Yes, the exact same claim that has been made by Israeli and American war mongers since the 1980s! Yes, for nearly thirty years Iran has been “just about to” build nuclear weapons! Meanwhile Israel and the USA have massively increased their war spending, including the creation of an Israeli nuclear arsenal. The USA spends more money on air conditioning for its troops in Iraq and Afghanistan than the entire Iranian military budget, yet we are supposed to quail in our boots because Iran might someday acquire a few fifties era nukes?
6. Casey Anderson. A woman was acquitted of a terrible crime in a fair trial … and millions of Americans are braying for her blood. Literally. How does this make them any different than stone throwing Muslims? It doesn’t.
7. Health Care. France spends 11% of its GNP on health care, and provides everyone in France with cradle to grave health care of the highest quality. The USA spends 16% of its GNP on health care and provides its citizens with the worst health care in the industrialized world. Anyone who isn’t mad about this is a fool.
8. Fucking the globe. From climate change to deforestation to over-fishing humans are making widespread and unprecedented changes to the surface of our fine planet. Humans are now the greatest force for change operating on the surface of the Earth in numerous realms, in most cases either ignorant of what the end result will be, or worse, deliberately proceeding even though our best minds say the end result will be catastrophic. Collectively we are no smarter than ants.
9. Religious nuts. Even the Romans understood: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” – Seneca the Younger (4 B.C. – 65 A.D.) And here we are two thousand years later blowing each other up, destroying the planet, and breeding like rabbits because people think it’s a great idea to do stuff because of what someone’s imaginary friend said. Jesus wept.
10. We’re all little better than monkeys. Yes, science has now shown that our brains are hard wired to be stupid. When most people are confronted with logical and scientific evidence that refutes some stupid idea they have, it reinforces their beliefs! This wouldn’t be such problem if our leaders weren’t all too eager to promote dumb fuck ideas because it makes them richer and more powerful.
In conclusion, speaking globally, this isn’t going to end well. Speaking locally, despite a missing lime and a recalcitrant pull tab, it’s going quite well and will end up nicely. And when I wake up, maybe the last 31 years will have all been a nightmare. A man can dream.
(The above image is of a painting made in 1562, so it’s currently Public Domain under US copyright law. I expect that to change soon as corporations twist the law to their own purposes. It’s titled “The Fall of the Rebel Angels” by Pieter Brueghal the Elder. I believe it’s self evident why I thought this was an appropriate image for this post.)
No, I didn’t fall off the face of the Earth, nor did I go to North Korea. Just a combination of personal stuff and utter dismay at the state of the world. However, two recent comments left on previous posts made me think, and both deserve a considered response. See how diplomatic that sounded, one can learn a lot by watching the current actor in the White House. Also I wanted to say a few things about this terribly sad story: Microwaved Baby. The comments people have made about the story are particularly interesting.
First though, a comment left on my post “Why Not Invade North Korea?” It’s actually one of my older posts, I could make even more cogent arguments today about the folly of invading North Korea. However, in response to my post, I recently got this comment:
“It’s not about the threat to the US; it’s about NK’s threat to HUMANITY.
Millions dying there per annum; disease, starvation, all manner of depraved sub-animalistic goings on… cannibalism. Even the ‘mere’ relentless indoctrination of so many with a fascist, anti liberal / Western / democratic ideology is dangerous far beyond the need hypothesize about expunging it.
Isn’t this the kind of thing the ‘world police’ are meant keep off of our planet’s streets?
Oh. Yeah… my bad. North Korea DOES have WMDs but not oil / resources, so of course that grants them dispensation from being invaded. What was I thinking — d’oh! =P”
Well then, that settles it, North Koreans are the bad guys so we should just invade and “fix” it. Well, the esteemed author of said comment is certainly an extreme example of confirmation bias in action, I know there’s no argument I can make that will shake their world view. Invading other countries, even countries on the far side of the world, because of our moral and ethical superiority is the crusader mentality illustrated. Again, people who maintain that crusades are acceptable are espousing an ideology, simplistic as “good vs evil” is as an ideology. People making ideologically based arguments, like ones making religiously based arguments, are pretty much immune to reasonable argument. In fact reasonable argument actually can strengthen people’s contravening beliefs, go figure.
Just quickly though I would point out that his argument has two fatal flaws. The first is that it completely ignores the role the west played in both creating, and maintaining, the North Korean regime. Even more fatal, is the fact that nation building crusades as the gentle commenter is suggesting, rarely work and frequently make things much worse!
Moving right along, in response to my recent post “Socialism for the Rich Illustrated,” someone left this comment:
“When you give money to the rich, they INVEST it.
Expecting to make a profit.
No matter why, the money still goes into the economy.
I agree that we must have greater quality, but basic economics teaches that that will be at the cost of having lesser overall wealth.”
Sigh. When the rich get richer, even if their ever increasing pile of money is technically still part of the economy, so what? In fact that’s the problem, the rich have so gamed the system that all their money does is sit at the top and suck up more money. Which is exactly what I was illustrating with the empty store front above, this rich fellow is not investing his wealth in the economy, his store is just sitting there empty making him money from the public trough!
Secondly, economics is not a “zero sum game.” At least not since Sam Adams a few hundred years ago. If you take a thousand unemployed people, build a factory, and put them to work, you are creating wealth. A healthy civilization like the Romans for example, sets up laws and regulations so that the rich are encouraged to invest in the economy in ways that create wealth. And then there’s the opposite approach, illustrated above.
Lastly, the sad case of the microwaved baby. And equally sad, how many of the comments were eager to rush to judgment and subject her to all sorts of hideous torments. Right, and it’s Muslims that have a violent culture? This “microwave her” attitude is like, the opposite of civilized. This is because simply don’t know yet what actually happened. The fact that the police have charged her means nothing.
Take a socially isolated women taking care of small children 24/7 and you already have a recipe for mental breakdown. Add another layer of mental illness like depression or postpartum psychosis, and bad things can happen. Or even add a controlling abusive husband who didn’t want another daughter and made damn sure his wife got the message that she had to “get rid of the problem.” This sort of thing does happen in the west, yes, it really does. Until far more background information is available, I’m not going to even guess at how culpable she is.
Yes, possibly she is just a psychopath who was getting rid of an annoyance, but those types of cases are far more common in Hollywood movies than in real life. I’m betting it will turn out she was in a pretty horrible place to have done such a thing. And one even has to wonder if there are other possibilities. Like her other small children did it while she was distracted for a moment, imagine what a mind messing nightmare that would be for a mom to deal with. To make my point obvious, the fact that so many people are willing to suggest horrible punishments for this women even before her trial, or even the facts have been made public, shows that the sort of toxic misogyny that we are so quick to condemn in other cultures is not so deeply buried in ours.
(The above image is North Korea’s redoubtable leader, Kim Jong-il, looking at things. In this image he’s looking at a piece of plywood. Democratic leaders have to shake a lot of hands, despots have to look at a lot of things. Mr Kim can go anywhere and look at anything he wants in his country, I’m sure that beats shaking a bunch of sweaty hands in shopping malls every day. Another reason dictators shun democratic reform I suppose. I got it from this fine aptly titled site: kim jong-il looking at things.)
Well, no rapture. No surprise. It really is dismaying how people can believe prima facie nonsense in this day and age. It’s especially galling because so many Americans, especially the ones who fall for this kind of crap, have an especially high opinion of America and Americans. A country where tens of millions of people think the Earth is a few thousand years old or that evolution is “just a theory.” And don’t even get me started on people who think the Moon landings were hoaxed. Our educational system as once the envy of the world, it’s rapidly becoming the laughing stock of the world.
Moving right along, I think it’s clear at this point that Obama is going to get reelected. No one in their right mind is going to run against him, so its going to be a very amusing election. Especially the Republican primaries, a collection of, well, political suicide bombers like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich squaring it off. They might as well skip any actual pretense of debate and settle the issue mud wrestling. Hell, I’d pay to see Sarah and Newt go at it in a mud pit. On the plus side, I won’t have much to blog about since Obama’s inexorable progress will be painfully obvious to all. I wonder if peeps will be dancing in the streets the second time he gets elected? (Of course by then public displays of affection towards our Dear Leader may be mandatory.)
The economy still sucks. Tushima is still a disaster. The Gulf Oil Spill is still wreaking an unsung toll. Iraq is still a bloody mess, Afghanistan a repeat of Vietnam … without even the option of carpet bombing the Taliban’s cities because they don’t have any. Egypt is still a mess becasue Mubarak’s cronies throwing him and him alone to the wolves was not exactly the democratic revolution the people of Egypt struggled for and deserved. Libya is now effectively two states, with NATO bombing here and there. The totalitarian governments of Syria and Yemen are slaughtering people in the street, Syria’s may survive, Yemen’s is looking more doubtful. Bahrain is still a brutal mess. Pakistan gets more unstable every day. And the rest of the world is looking on and trying to stay out of the scrum … or see how they can benefit from it. See, more information about the state of the world in one paragraph than in an entire year of the New Yorker.
I wanted to mention Pakistan in a bit more depth. There’s been a lot of hostile talk about Pakistan in the USA, about how they aren’t a good ally, and they may have even known about OBL’s location. All possibly true. Then there’s reality. In reality, Pakistan is far more fractured and power is far more diffuse than in the USA. It takes a long time to forge a nation out of nothing, and Pakistan has had less than a century as a nation under conditions that make the United State’s infancy look like a romp in Disneyland. Secondly, aside from understanding what a mess Pakistan is, more importantly, they only joined the USA’s war against the Taliban because of threats and bribes. Pakistan was the Taliban’s best friend, for perfectly reasonable geopolitical reasons. So basically the USA is in the position of a bully who with a combination of threats and bribes forced Pakistan into a war not only against its best interests, but into a war against elements of its own society. To then blame the Pakistanis for being less than enthusiastic participants in the mess we made is, well, ignorant. We’re lucky they’ve cooperated as much as they have, we should be counting our blessings.
Lastly, as far as I can tell, the western cabal’s control of the mainstream media gets more pervasive and more subtle every day. Not that it was ever easy to figure out what was going on, but more and more huge numbers of people think they are tuned in … and they aren’t. This isn’t going to end well.
(The above image is being used legally under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Credit and copyright: Syriana2011. It’s an image of protesters in Damascus this spring. It’s obviously been photo shopped, since none of the thousands of Muslims in the image is engaged in violence.)
Well, as was obvious almost immediately, the nuclear power lobby and their supporters went into overdrive to downplay and obfuscate the seriousness of the Fukushima crisis in Japan. No, this isn’t another Chernobyl. And World War Two wasn’t the same as World War One, that doesn’t mean World War Two was no big deal either. I’ve even read commentaries claiming Fukushima “proves” that nuclear power is safe. My jaw drops on that one, the Fukushima crisis isn’t over yet, so how the hell does this prove nuclear power is safe? Until the plant is safely brought back under control, and that may take up to a year, it’s a little premature to claim that this crisis is even over, let alone claim that Fukushima is no big deal.
The biggest lie I see about nuclear accidents is ones revolving around the death toll. By focusing entirely or almost entirely on how many people died, it’s easy to make nuclear power look safe compared to say coal power. There are two things horribly deceptive about this argument. For one thing it relies on the lowest possible estimates for deaths caused by nuclear accidents, often even limiting it to the people directly killed on site! It’s debatable how many people were killed by Chernobyl, maybe a few thousand, maybe many more, but focusing on this single statistic obscures the bigger picture. What about the people who got cancer but didn’t die? What about the hundred thousand people who were rendered homeless by Chernobyl? What about the area the size of Rhode Island (or Lancashire) that was rendered uninhabitable by Chernobyl? And what about the incredible cost of accidents like Fukushima or Chernobyl? Can a fire at a coal power plant bankrupt a nation?
And speaking of coal power plants, the claim is often made that we have a choice between coal power plants and nuclear power plants. To say this is oversimplification would be unfair, this is simply regurgitated energy industry propaganda. The energy industry has done a fabulous job convincing people that the only way to provide power in the modern world is giant power plants and their attendant giant electrical grids. Conservation, energy efficiency, distributed power generation, etc. are all simply dismissed as hippie nonsense. If this were really the case, the energy industry wouldn’t need tireless propaganda for their cause, and more importantly, it completely obscures the massive public subsidies that the energy industry has enjoyed for decades. From the Rural Electrification Act to the development of nuclear power itself the energy industry has enjoyed generous public subsidies. Not to mention that the health costs of both coal and nuclear power are simply dumped on the public. Anyone who says coal and nuclear plants and centralized power are the “only option” is missing a big part of the picture.
Then we come to the amazing amount of misinformation spread about radiation itself. Mostly through conflating various types of radiation, and by claiming that “radiation” is normal and that a little bit more won’t hurt. Yes, we live in a world where there is a lot of radiation, it’s unavoidable. What the “it’s all OK” people deliberately ignore or don’t mention is that fallout is not normal. Fallout is radioactive particles that get released into the environment. And yes, the radiation produced by fallout is trivial. What they don’t mention, is that if the fallout gets incorporated into bodily tissue, it is horrifically non-trivial. It’s like if someone was shooting at you with a BB gun, close your eyes and you would be safe. If however they could insert that BB gun inside our body at shoot at point blank range at various organs, the results would not be pretty. This is the difference been the radiation one receives on a plane flight and the radiation one receives by ingesting fallout, same “radiation,” wildly different consequences.
The other way that nuclear industry apologists deliberately understates the risk from fallout is that they make the claim that it’s so widely distributed in the environment that the dose anyone gets is small. While this is sort of true, it completely ignores the way fallout in the environment get concentrated in the food chain. Sure, there’s very little fallout on that grass. Then however the cows eat that grass, and a small amount of radioactive fallout gets concentrated and becomes dangerously radioactive milk or meat. In fact there are all sorts of ways radioactive fallout can get concentrated in the food chain, many of them no doubt as yet unknown. This especially goes with the release of fallout into the sea, this is simply a complete unknown at this point. Don’t worry though, the risk is so small that our government is going to protect us by not even bothering to test for it. Phew, see, no problem.
Which leads to another point. It’s so easy to hide the damage caused by this sort of event. Let’s think about this. Governments and the nuclear industry have incredible incentive to downplay the consequences of Fukushima. Combine this with the fact that the actual risks of this, increased cancer rates in decades to come, are going to be very easy to conceal and obfuscate and deny. Pretty sure any poli-sci freshman can give many reasons why governments lie through their teeth in situations like this. This is just how human institutions work, especially today when the mainstream media is owned lock, stock, and barrel by these very same interests that have reason to lie. Is this proof that they are lying or that the consequences of Fukushima are extremely serious? Of course not, but it’s definitely proof that people need to take government, industry, and media “expert’s” pronouncements of safety with an extremely large dose of salt.
Lastly, a related point that Fukushima illustrates. Nuclear waste. There are decades worth of nuclear waste “stored” at Fukushima, under circumstances that are hardly safe. This is the most toxic waste humans have ever produced, and it’s going to remain dangerous for thousands of years. The fact that the fawning corporate media never even mentions this issue anymore is proof that they are simply shills for big energy and big government. I mean, passing their negative costs onto society is standard procedure for big business, but in this case they are passing the costs on to countless future generations. This should be factored into arguments about how “safe” and “practical” nuclear power is, but instead it simply gets ignored. I’m sorry, but ignoring the nuclear waste issue in the discussion of nuclear power makes about as much sense as ignoring a lump in your breast or testicle in a discussion about your health.
In summary, am I saying that Fukushima is a mind numbing disaster that’s going to kill huge numbers of people and proves that nuclear power is insane? Not at all. I’m saying that Fukushima is a serous disaster of yet untold proportions, and it’s very much proof that the whole issue of nuclear power needs to be publicly debated. And I’m also saying that anyone, government or otherwise, who claims Fukushima is “no big deal” is at best premature in their pronouncement, and at worst simply lying. No one knows the future scope of the Fukushima disaster, especially since the reactors and nuclear waste storage pools won’t be brought under control for months at best. This could still get a lot worse before it gets better. Sadly, I’m betting on worse.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and its use here in no way interferes with the copyright holder’s commercial use of the image. And yes, I’m kinda skirting the boundaries of copyright law here, but since I’m plugging their show, I hope that in the extremely unlikely event that a CBS corporate copyright attorney sees this blog, they can overlook this copyright violation. At worst, they can tell me to remove the image. Credit and Copyright: CBS. Anyhow, I digress. I chose this image for several reasons, the main one being that it illustrates that the comfortable post World War Two fantasy that most Americans have been living in is rapidly drawing to a close, and Fukushima and its attendant costs and disruptions to the world economy are one of the factors driving this sea change. Wealth can only be funnelled upwards while costs are passed onto the public for so long before the whole rotten edifice collapses of its own weight. And also because it as a really good TV series and I highly recommend it to my readers.)
“Oh, meltdown. It’s one of those annoying buzzwords. We prefer to call it an unrequested fission surplus.” — C. Montgomery Burns
Sigh. Nuclear power. One can read opinion pieces all over the map about nuclear power, from Ann Coulter’s “radiation is good for you” to more sober analysis. Basically, if someone wants to believe this accident is no big deal, there’s plenty on the web to reinforce their beliefs. If one wants to go the other extreme, there’s stuff out there as well. The bottom line is that us sheep will never really know the full story, both because there are so many unknowns that no one knows, and the flood of conflicting opinion and information. However, this doesn’t mean that we should just throw up our hands in despair, there’s still wiggle room for thoughtful analysis. So, in my usual rough order, my current thinking on this unpleasant situation.
The first thing is that like the gulf oil spill, the powers that be have tremendous incentive to downplay this situation. More incentive really, we are talking about one of the world’s most important centres of finance and industry, not just some gulf coast fishermen and tourist traps. This means that it is a given that governments and the media are going to show a strong “everything’s OK, move along now” bias, they have to. Now this isn’t evidence that things are worse than they say, since they are going to downplay the situation no matter what, it just means that we shouldn’t simply take their word for it that this is no big deal. A codicil to this point is that it’s not over yet. IE, anyone who is now saying, everything’s OK, is considerably jumping the gun. The goddamn damaged nuclear power plants are yet to be brought under control, and the final cost is anyone’s guess, it’s way to early to assess the final impact of this disaster.
Another thing to keep in mind is that there’s no such thing as a “safe” amount of radiation. And by radiation I mean radioactive particulates tossed into the air by fires and explosions at the plants. Fallout basically. This is basically highly toxic dust that remains toxic for decades, though it does get less toxic over time. And unfortunately it is dust that gets concentrated in unpleasant ways in the environment, from animals grazing on radioactive grass to collecting in the ventilation systems of ships and buildings. And if it gets incorporated into an animal’s (or person’s) tissues, it continues to poison them for years or decades. Now maybe only modest amounts of fallout will ultimately be released in this accident, in which case, phew, we dodged a bullet. The point I am making is that pound for pound radioactive fallout is easily the most dangerous pollutant mankind makes. It’s been estimated that about 500 tons of cobalt could be used to make nuclear weapons that could destroy most life on Earth. I’m not saying that’s a possibility, but as a counterpoint to the argument so many people make about how dangerous coal power is as well. Yes, there are terrible costs to coal power, but is there any way to destroy the human race with 500 tons of coal?
So how bad is it? Is there any way for us to know? Well, actions speak louder than words. The US Navy for example is pulling the nuclear aircraft carrier George Washington out to sea to avoid fallout. And it’s considerably further from the reactors than Tokyo. The fear is that the ship could become permanently contaminated by sucking fallout into its ventilation system. The buildings in Tokyo don’t have the pulling out to sea option, so let’s hope the fallout doesn’t get that bad. It’s bad enough that they warned that Tokyo’s tap water is unsafe for babies to drink. I also find it a little disturbing that they Japanese government dramatically raised the level of radioactive contamination a person must get before decontamination is mandatory. And to me possibly most disturbing at all, a German bond rating company will no longer rate real estate bonds in Tokyo … because it is simply impossible to to assign value to real estate in Tokyo. All of this adds up to … I am not reassured.
A couple of old friends of mine reviewed the videos of the various explosions at the nuclear plant, one of whom whom worked in the nuclear industry his whole life, the other an engineer. The nuclear guy is the guy who pointed out to me that the promise of “clean” nuclear fusion plants is a lie, that a hydrogen fusion plant would have similar if not worse nuclear waste problems than a conventional fission plant. One has to remember that the whole nuclear industry is built on lies and prevarication, but that’s a topic for another post. In any event the nuclear fellow thinks that the biggest explosion was definitely a criticality event, so some sort of partial meltdown at least occurred … and released God knows how much fallout. On the plus side he doesn’t think it poses much danger to North America, but it’s the danger it presents to Tokyo that should concern us all. And again, so far I am not reassured.
Lastly, I should point out something that is also getting short shrift by the media, the nuclear waste issue. When a nuclear plant is refuelled, the old fuel rods are stored on site in what are basically swimming pools. This is because no one has ever figured out a way to properly and permanently store the rods. And these rods are basically just as dangerous used as when brand new, IE they still retain most of their radioactivity. And if not stored properly (say the water drains from the pool) they most certainly can go critical and create huge amounts of fallout. My point here is that decades worth of these used rods are in temporary storage at the plant (not to mention nuclear plants all over the world,) vastly more nuclear material than is inside reactor cores. And unlike reactor cores, there’s no containment vessel around them! This is literally insane, and it’s one of the things the mainstream media has obligingly ignored for the past few decades. We’re passing a terrible problem onto future generations so that we can enjoy the benefits of “clean” nuclear power now. Yeah, coal fired power plants kill a lot of people, but at least when the plant is closed it no longer poses much health risk. The health risked posed by nuclear power will be around for thousands of years, so it’s a little disingenuous to claim nuclear power is safe when it poses a risk of future Chernobyls generations into the future even if every nuclear plant on the planet was closed tomorrow.
I’m not saying that nuclear power is a bad idea, I’m saying that building nuclear power plants (and storing their waste) where they present a danger to great cities is clearly insane. Chernobyl only required evacuating Pripyat, a city of 50,000 people. If Tokyo or other major Japanese cities have to be evacuated, the cost to Japan will be incalculable, and the cost to the world will be non-trivial. I hope nothing of the kind happens, but until the Fukushima plant is safely shut down and brought under control, it’s premature to be claiming that nuclear power is safe. And even when it is, the topic is debatable. “See, it was only a minor disaster after all” isn’t really a very convincing argument.
And speaking of still unfolding world wide disasters, my next post, Libya … where Obama has bravely led Nato crusaders to achieve, well, who knows. The USA has gone from starting wars on false pretexts to just starting the war and hoping to come up with a convincing pretext later. Historically, these sorts of random military adventures don’t go well.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. I don’t know who holds the copyright, but I got it from this site. It’s an image of Pripyat, the abandoned city near the Chernobyl nuclear plant. I chose it among millions of Pripyat images on line because of its ominous sombre feel. That’s the power plant in the distance. For a motorcycle tour of the region, click here: KIDDofSPEED.)
Just when I thinks the news can’t get any worse, it does. Actually, I always know things can get worse, I’m just a bit dismayed that my predictions of doom and gloom are bearing fruit from unexpected quarters. And by that I mean the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. This is already one of the largest earthquakes in history, and the most destructive earthquake in Japan in nearly a century. This was badly timed to say the least. I’ve been doing a lot of reading, and here are a few points of interest, thoughts about the quake, global implications, etc.
First, Japan is an organized an efficiently run country, right, so at least the rescue and rebuilding and all that will go smoothly, and they were well prepared? Well, sort of. My readings have indicated that Japan has one of the world’s best government bureaucracies. And by that I mean like all well run government agencies, they are really good at covering up problems and shifting blame. And they don’t have a good track record for honestly either, especially when it comes to nuclear releases. My point here? Take anything the Japanese government says with a grain of salt. Like any other government when they need to, they will lie. (Not putting them down though, in fact Japan has practised sustainable forestry and agriculture for centuries, nearly 80% of Japan is forested, something no other industrialized country can claim. That’s fodder for an upcoming blog.)
And how the hell did a bunch of nuclear power plants fail? Aren’t they designed to withstand earthquakes? Well, yes. Just not this earthquake. Nuclear power plants are designed to (hopefully) withstand a major quake, like a 7.0 or something. This quake was around 9, one of the largest quakes in history. And the cost to make a nuclear power plant able to withstand a 9.0 magnitude quake would be ridiculous, if it could even be done. Basically by building nuclear plants in Japan they were betting they wouldn’t have a quake like this in the lifetime of the plants. They lost the bet.
So what’s the worst that could happen? Something as bad or nearly as bad as Chernobyl is possible. The fact that they are evacuating huge numbers of people alone says that. Chernobyl killed over a hundred, certainly gave thousands cancer, and likely in the final analysis will have caused hundreds of thousands of cases of cancer. Then there’s the plain economic damage from abandoned cities and towns and lost agricultural land. Yes nuclear fallout is the gift that just keeps on giving. For generations. And this wouldn’t just be confined to Japan. Measurable (and thus cancer causing) fallout could easily reach the USA west coast, I mean, Japan sent balloon bombs to the West coast in World War Two, that’s just the way the wind blows. Sigh. Is this disaster an argument against nuclear power? Yes, yes it is.
Now globally, what are the implications of this earthquake? There’s two areas of concern here. The geophysical and the economic. The geophysical first, could this be a harbinger of things to come? There have been a lot of quakes lately, what’s up with that? Statistically, nothing. There’s big quakes all the time, usually they hit remote areas because most of the world’s population is very concentrated. There’s been a bit of bad luck lately in that some big quakes have struck areas were a lot of people live, but these things happen. Still, humans have made some enormous changes in a very short time geologically speaking in terms of how weight is distributed on the Earth’s surface. Think massive erosion, countless trillions of tons of soil have been eroded off deforested mountains the world over and washed into the oceans. Add to that cubic miles of ice melted from ice caps and glaciers the world over in recent decades. So maybe we are in for more quakes as the earth “settles” so to speak. Global rattling, great.
That’s pretty speculative. The economic news, well, that sucks. Japan is one of the world’s largest economies, so this is going to hurt. Tens of billions of dollars in real damage. Real damage in that real things were destroyed, infrastructure, farms, homes, businesses. Printing money won’t replace these, actual wealth has been destroyed. Then there’s further pressure on already shaky global food supplies. In and of itself this might not be a big deal, but in combination with other economic disruption running through the world today, this quake and tsunami is a body blow the world’s economy didn’t need. And by other economic disruption, I mean events in Libya and the Middle East. Just look at Libya, for one thing their imports and exports have dropped to zero. That’s going to hurt any business that had dealing with Libya. Then there’s refugees flooding into neighbouring countries, they have to be fed and housed. Then there’s the just plain loss of wealth because people in Libya aren’t working. And what’s playing out in Libya is also going on in a half a dozen other countries throughout the Middle East in one fashion or another. Not to mention ongoing war in a few countries, the west is pouring a lot of wealth into Bush’s foreign adventures still.
I wrote most of this last night. This morning I see there’s been another explosion at an afflicted reactor in Japan. And the rebels recaptured a city in Libya. I should mention that at this point, almost no matter what happens in Libya, it’s going to cause global problems for years or decades. If Qaddafi wins, great, Libya is a pariah state with an ongoing insurgency. Yeah, the world needs another one of those. And if Qaddafi loses, rebuilding Libya into a modern state and undoing the damage wrought by the rebellion will take years at best.
Sigh. So since things might get worse before they get better, my next post will be a helpful guide to surviving the coming appocalypse, whatever shape it may take. Suggestions welcome.
(The above image is Public Domain under US copyright law, having been created over a century ago. It’s titled “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” and was created by Hokusai. It’s not a tsunami though people often assume that. The reasons I selected it for this post seem pretty self evident to me, so I’ll let people guess. My heart goes out to the people of Japan, I can’t imagine what they are experiencing.)