Archive for the ‘environment’ Tag

Canada Free Press – What A Joke!

Every now and then, I stumble across someone (usually an intellectually-barren right winger) who cited http://www.canadafreepress.com to support an argument. Even more amusing is that occasionally people seem to think that writing for this blog is some kind of journalistic credential.

When your tagline is “Because without America there is no free world…” I have to wonder what the “Canada” part is all about. CFP started as a print paper in Toronto, a right wing free birdcage liner, but it’s now rarely about Canada, and more a haven for American conservatives, and frankly, not good ones. There used to be a comedic value to it, but even that’s gone. Now it’s just… well… I can’t describe it. So let’s look at one of their articles, about the evil (well, if you grossly misinterpret it) UN Agenda 21) and its impact on the military, by Dr. Ileana Johnson Paugh. The article is here. Read carefully, because some of the hilarity is subtle.

The good doctor’s article is based on a US government directive about sustainability and designs for military bases – to make them more “walkable”, something that’s been, as I understand it, an urban planning concept for a long time. Most military bases I’ve been on aren’t, don’t offer much in the way of incentive for transit or ride share, and are thus often traffic nightmares. A base I spent a lot of time on has three gates fed by a series of collector roads, and it’s not uncommon to spend 15-20 minutes or more trying to get out at the end of the day, sitting in traffic. To travel a kilometre or two. That’s a lot of cars idling for no good reason. But I guess, if you’re a right wing moron, that’s not a big deal.

She wastes little time to turn an architect’s report on the community around the US Air Base at Aviano into a snipe at Italy – suggesting “they can defend themselves”. Which, of course, they do, which a fairly large and well-equipped military. I’m not entirely sure who or what the US base at Aviano defends Italy from, and would guess it primarily serves US and not Italian interests.

I particularly love this paragraph:

The military leadership explains that transit-oriented development reduces traffic congestion and accident rates while encouraging walking, bicycling, and overall healthy communities. This is a ridiculous excuse since a soldier, by definition, has to be healthy and fit in order to serve in the military. Walking and biking actually increase accident rates of hit and run. There are retirees, even young ones, who are handicapped, and biking and walking is not an option for them. We have thousands of soldiers who have returned from Iraq and Iran with severe, life altering disabilities.

I literally cannot make any sense of this. Where to begin? First, military communities don’t just include “soldiers”. Bases employ civilians. Military families use their facilities as well. And ultimately, that soldiers have a fitness standard that the general public doesn’t has pretty much nothing to do with this. Increased rates of hit and run? Okay, whatever. Conveniently, the Good Doctor offers no statistical support for this, and I somehow don’t think it’s particularly important. Biking and walking aren’t an option for lots of people, sure, but nothing in the ideas of better urban planning makes it impossible. Thanks to not right wing people, after all, we have laws about making sure that we accommodate disabled people. Of course, if you’re a certain class of conservative, you think those laws are an encroachment on your civil liberties and free enterprise, but we’ll try to leave Paultards out of this, shall we? I also love she says soldiers “returned from Iraq and Iran”, to help build the case that on basically the entire subject matter of this post, she has absolutely no idea what she’s talking about. Iran? Really?

Another gem of a paragraph:

Because of drastic cutbacks in the military for cost-saving reasons, at a time when the world threat to our country is at an all time high, we do not have money to refurbish and modernize the military capability. We let soldiers fight in Afghanistan and Iraq with scarce resources and protection, having to duct-tape their body armor to non-armored vehicles in order to provide some level of safety.

Well, “we” sent soldiers to fight a way in Iraq without proper equipment because there wasn’t enough of it to go around. By invading Iraq, Afghanistan was neglected with victory declared early, and it was allowed to fester. And the war with Iraq was totally unnecessary. By the way, which political party has members that actually voted against better equipment for soldiers? Ooops.

The military is more concerned with rules and regulations, like a soldier being licensed properly to drive an un-armored SUV through a war zone. Those who make ill-conceived rules from the safety of their offices in Washington, D. C. do not worry that this soldier might be blown off by a roadside bomb because his vehicle is not armored.

Why are soldiers “licensed” to drive UP-armoured (not “un-armoured”) SUVs? In the case of some places, because they’re less conspicuous and easier to maneuvre around cities. Big convoys of armoured vehicles are juicy targets. Consider the attack on the Rhino Bus on October 29, 2011 in Kabul, Afghanistan. It was a big, heavy, armoured vehicle, and a vehicle-borne IED destroyed it and killed all its occupants. It was a clear, significant target. SUVs disappear into traffic, theoretically. Why are they “licensed”? Because they have to pass a driving test that’s a little more than what most people do – how to drive evasively, and maneuvres that increase the safety of the driver and their passengers. Not just anyone should be thrown keys and told to have at it.

“Which would you rather have? Would you rather spend $4 billion on Air Force Base solar panels, or would you rather have 28 new F-22s or 30 F-25s or modernized C-130s? Would you rather have $64.8 billion spent on pointless global warming efforts,  or would you rather have more funds put towards modernizing our fleet of ships, aircraft and ground vehicles to improve the safety of our troops and help defend our nation against the legitimate threats that we face?” (Sen. James Inhofe as quoted by Caroline May)”

I like the solar panels thing. I recently read an article about the US Marine Corps using them on FOBs in southern Afghanistan, saving massive amounts of fuel that would be needed for generators to power the installation. Not only does using less fuel save money, and hey, it’s good for the environment (particularly relevant when the US military is under fire for the air quality on their bases, generator emissions are not exactly good in that sense) – but it saves lives potentially because less fuel consumption means less convoys to transport fuel, means less vehicle movement on the roads, regardless of whether the vehicles are armoured or unarmoured.

Yet we spend billions to needlessly restructure military bases into global environmentalism compliance. It is more important for our executive branch to “sustain” the so-called endangered environment, and please the environmentalist wackos, than to defend our country.

Actually, as I understand it, the directives apply to new base construction and chages thereto. Environmental compliance not only is good for the entire world, it saves money, and in most cases, if you look at what sustainable communities are actually about, it makes them more pleasant places to live. Saving money on defence facilities (the massive of cost of which she references in her article, oddly enough!) leaves more money available for defence, or whatever else. There’s literally nothing bad I can see about that, at all. Unless, like The Good Doctor, you want to make a series of arguments from ignorance to hear yourself speak.

On Nuclear Power

With the recent developments at the Fukushima I & II plants and apparently I just read another plant, lots of discussion unsurprisingly about nuclear energy. I’ve found the subject fascinating since I was a kid and first saw the National Geographic article about the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Disaster of April 26, 1986.

I grew up on the other side of Toronto from Pickering, which is home of the eight-reactor nuclear power station. Just east of Pickering sits the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station which houses another four reactors. So I was even more fascinated. Being the geek that I often am I studied a fair but on how nuclear power works, the risks and so on. I even considered a fee years ago going back to school to learn to be a nuclear operator at one of those plants. I’ve worked with a couple of them through the military and learned even more specifics about how it works.

So here’s my opinion on the matter. Nuclear power obviously has risks – when accidents happen they are spectacular. But they are also extremely rare. The Level 4 accident at Fukushima for example is only the third major accident in something like 40+ years of civil nuclear power production, the others being of course Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. TMI was really fairly minor, because even though the core was destroyed during the incident, relatively little radiation escaped into the environment, and the long term effects were fairly minor.

Chernobyl is the usual point of reference for nuclear accidents employed by anti-nuclear folks, but the reality is that it is a rather far-fetched comparison. When I had someone really explain to me what caused the catastrophe at Chernobyl, and why it’s basically impossible to have something like that happen at any modern Western-designed plan (or any of the new Russian designs either), I come to realize that I still see no problem with nuclear. Well, that’s not true. There are problems, but the risks are manageable.

Most opponents of nuclear energy demand clean, renewable energy as an alternative. The problem is that there currently exists no such technology, except hydroelectricity which still has its share of environmental impacts. Wind and solar energy are simply not able to meet base load requirements so it is more useful to compare nuclear energy to those sources. In particular coal is what I would happily see replaced by new nuclear plants. I suspect that burning massive amounts of coal causes much more damage to human health than nuclear even accounting for accidents. Coal-fired plants spew a myriad of pollutants into the air, including mercury, other heavy metals, and of course greenhouse gases. The industry’s defense of “clean coal technology” is just a classic greenwashing case.

So let’s consider the main problems of nuclear energy, though I’m not going to be able to go into much linked detail because I’m punching this out from my iPhone, I just want to prompt some thought and maybe a little bit of discussion.

The main problem that gets highlighted, of course, is the possibility of catastrophic accidents. Modern containment designs abate the risk of the kind of disaster that happened in Chernobyl. In Japan, even though the outer structure has been destroyed, the actual vessel containing the fuel is intact, though some fission products have escaped. It of course remains to be seen what the final outcome is. The fact is that disasters of this magnitude are very rare and health concerns need to be weighed against what fossil fuels do, not against theoretical clean alternatives which do not yet exist.  The reality is that both Three Mile Island and what’s been happening in Japan so far seems to show that good containment structures work.  The reason Chernobyl was such a disaster had to do both with some major design flaws in the reactor itself, and a complete lack of any sort of containment.  When Chernobyl’s operators, who were conducting an unauthorized test of the reactor’s behaviour at very low power, set the conditions for a dramatic excursion, there was nothing at all to have any chance of containing the massive steam explosion they created.  One could argue that even if there was, it may have been blown apart anyhow, but then we still have to default to the point that what they were doing, which caused the disaster to begin with, was not normal operation.  Wikipedia has a very thorough article about what happened at Chernobyl which explains it well.  My friend Jeff, a nuclear operator at Pickering NGS, explained it well to me though, and I’ll try to summarize it.  Basically, what they wanted to do was see how the cooling system would react to the reactor running at very low power.  To do so, they added a large amount of “reactivity poison”, essentially a substance that absorbs neutrons, the “bullets” which actually split uranium atoms in the reactor.  They then got a call to power up Reactor 4 from the grid control station, and to do so they had to pull every single one of the control rods (which are sort of like the brakes on the reactor) completely out of the core in order to get it going.  Normally this never happens – but because there was so much poison in the core they had to literally pull out all the stops.  Problem is, as the neutron absorber does its job eventually it become saturated, which is precisely what happened – the reaction sped up at an alarming late, and when the operators dropped in all the control rods in a panicked effort to shut down the reactor, a design flaw in the rods actually sped it up, making the reactor jump far beyond its capacity, vaporizing all the coolant and creating a massive amount of steam under pressure that heavily damaged the fuel channels and then caused a second, massive explosion that blew the top off the reactor somewhat like a champagne cork.  It spiraled through the air and crashed back down, smashing the core, which was starting to melt down already.  Then all the graphite moderator started to burn. And so did the roof of the reactor building, as it was made with bitumen.

Much was learned regarding the design flaws, and the reactor design was massively improved with retrofits.  Some RBMK-type reactors still operate in Russia, but only with some major improvements from lessons learned after Chernobyl.

See why something like that isn’t likely to happen again?

The second common concern is about waste. Yes. Nuclear reactors produce ware in the form of spent fuel and also various other forms of low level waste. But the volume of spent fuel is a lot less than many people think. The plant I used to work very close to, Pickering, has been around for something like 35 years. All of the spent fuel it has consumed in its entire life is stored on site.  First it’s cooled for a few years in a massive pool, then it’s put into “dry cask storage containers” which can be stored in outdoor compounds indefinitely.  As for LLW, most of it can be simply landfilled in specially designed facilities.

There is of course a need to have a long term repository for waste storage, but things like salt caves and other deep repositories will work reasonably well especially given how well we can pack the stuff – with technologies like vitrification.

Fission reactors using uranium aren’t the be-all and end-all of the technology. There are other fuels – particularly thorium – and designs, and eventually there might be commercially viable fusion reactor design. Canada was involved in research into a project called Iter, but pulled out which is too bad. That has a lot of potential.

So in summary, nuclear isn’t so bad in comparison to realistic alternatives but you need to do a bit of homework to understand it first.

On My Views Of The Future

I think this may go a number of places and be interesting to try to tag when the time comes. I have a myriad of things running through my mind today, none of any real coherence but perhaps interesting fodder for the odd person who stumbles upon this blog. Let’s see what happens with it.

While I’m not a whinging hippie granola eater I am a fairly environmentally conscious person in many ways – I actually do try to make choices in my life that are sustainable – or at least more sustainable among other options. At the same time, I am a middle class North American and like the rest of us I live well beyond reasonable means. I can admit that. I enjoy a standard of living that most people on this planet not only do not, but cannot, because there simply aren’t the resources to allow it to happen.

There are numerous interesting writings on the topic of sustainability that I’ve read, and being interested in history I have always been fascinated by the fates of fallen civilizations. It was because of this that my friend loaned me Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, which talks about the factors in the collapsing of various civilizations. Diamond is cautiously optimistic in his writing at the end of the book, though I think it might be at least partially attributable to the grim outlook one is forced to consider.

Among the civilizations discussed are the Greenland Norse, the Maya, Easter Islanders, and various Polynesian societies, and a group of five factors in collapses are identified – most of which concern use of resources, or availability thereof. These are real crises to consider.

The rather pessimistic (some might even say nihilistic) side of me is inclined to believe that no matter what choices we make we are still basically doomed to a collapse. There are so many reasons to think so, sadly.

It makes me think of the scene in The Matrix when Agent Smith is describing his contempt for humanity and its similarity to virii for consuming all available resources and moving on. It is a sadly true statement in most cases.

I remember learning about Malthus in high school, probably in math class when we learned about exponential growth. His observation is that while the carrying capacity of the earth grows geometrically population grows logarithmically (or exponentially, or whatever it is), meaning we outstrip our ability to provide food for ourselves rapidly.

And food is but one resource.

We seem to have an uncanny ability to misuse other resources like freshwater, without which food production becomes rather difficult too.

When I lived in the Toronto area I was always rather staggered by the endless surge of growth in suburban sprawl, much of which was being built over some of the most fertile soils in Canada, land which is best suited to growing food. When I was a kid what was around much of where I lived was farms – mainly growing corn and some wheat, barley, and so on, also fruits and vegetables. The last time I was back there, the farmland was all sprawl, all tiny houses packed on tiny lots, full of commuters. And this is an expanding trend.

We are consuming non-renewable resources are unsustainable rates and not even really managing renewable ones now – things like soil fertility and erosion control are also huge problems that we are only now beginning to get a handle on and what’s fascinating is the role that played in many civilizations in Diamond’s book.

Then there’s the economy and the state of affairs of the middle class especially. I’ve been mystified by this for a long time, and have a privileged position from my day job of seeing what the financial position of the average middle
class family is. It’s terrifying.

Even when I was a kid – not long ago – I grew up in the 1980s and I am just coming up on 31 years old now – it seemed like the idea of a two-income household wasn’t a necessity. It was entirely possible for a couple to raise a family on the man of the house’s salary. When I was a kid not many of my friends’ mothers worked anything like a full time job. Many worked part-time, including my mother, but only to an extent that it didn’t interfere gravely with looking after my sister and I. I didn’t know anyone well who was in any sort of “daycare” that I can think of – the whole concept was pretty foreign to me.

Today however that seems an impossibility. Having two incomes seems a necessity to be able to enjoy the kind of quality of life we grew up with. I have friends with kids who spend so much money on childcare that I actually fail to see why they bother to both work – one parent could stop working and look after the kids and the resulting pay cut it seems wouldn’t be huge. The idea of working just to pay for the childcare necessary to be able to work seems just idiotic.

I made the decision long ago I would be “child-free”. I have never had any interest whatsoever in having children, and despite the claims of some that “that will change”, it has never wavered and I am confident it never will either. I may eventually wind up eating crow but I find that prospect unlikely indeed.

I smirk and feel old when I look at teenagers and young people today and wonder if I was that ignorant and idle when I was their age – if I acted as stupidly as so many of them. I guess I may have and that of me my elders may too have thought if that is the future of our species, we are doomed.

That is the view nevertheless I cannot help but hold – that there are few generations left for us perhaps before our species manages to consume all the readily accessible resources and prosper out of existence as a civilization. It is then an interesting thought experiment to consider what will happen when cheap oil and gas are gone, when we realize we’ve landfilled so much of rare resources. In fact I wonder if in a few generations we will be mining in some form these dumping grounds to scavenge whatever might be extracted and reused.

I wonder what of this I’ll be around to see in the next 50 or 60 years that conceivably I will live given the best estimates we have – what the world I will leave will be like. I wonder how long we will be able to live the way we do now.

The interesting thing is that I’m calling this pessimism and it all sounds negative but I don’t feel bad in any way about it – it’s not depressing or anything, it is just the reality of our species.

A Bit Of A Ramble

I’ve spent the last view days working more than anything else, and as a result I haven’t really felt like I’ve had a lot to say. I’ve spent most of my time and effort on Twitter, which hasn’t been much to begin with, doing battle with creationist fools, which seems to be something I rather enjoy, but in a strange way. Strange because I’m truly horrified both that people can be as ignorant as they are, but moreso that they may actually wind up with influence.

They confound me for the simple fact that anyone can be so stupid – and yet -they simply refuse to see the facts before their eyes, jumping from silly fallacy to silly fallacy without any thought.

What I’ve really contemplated lately, though, is the idea of liberalism and something I’d not heard of until Rand Paul’s emergence in the Kentucky Senate race down south, the idea of “paleoconservativism”. I think I’m trying to understand how people like Dr. Paul can be tagged as libertarians, when they seem to abide an astounding amount of government interference in certain aspects of society.

I for a while thought I was something of a libertarian. At least in the broad view, I like to think that the government should have a pretty minimal role in my life. I’d like to think that only where the free market, the entrepreneurial spirit fails that government has a role to play. There’s a number of places that markets don’t work optimally – roads and other public works, defence, that kind of thing. For those things, obviously, we need a tax system and everyone to pay in to make sure that market failures are addressed.

I’ve realized since having those ideas that the free market is indeed not totally workable, because the cost structures that exist in the market in its current form do not work. I came to realize this when I started to take more interest in the environment, something I think that was first cued when I was living in Costa Rica and the idea of trading carbon credits was getting going. The whole concept which is now morphed into the idea of “cap and trade” and various other names seemed to have originated there, insofar as I never heard of it anywhere else. Costa Rica was trying to use the idea of selling what are now known as “carbon offsets” to raise capital to preserve its own forests.

The problem as I learned about it is that markets do not adequately incorporate some costs into production. For example, the cost of disposal of a product at the end of its useful life, the cost of the impact of pollutants released during manufacture, transportation, etc. These sorts of real costs with real impacts are not actually built into pricing and therefore not taken into account by the market in setting allocations.

This is something I think we’ll need to get a good handle on in order to actually improve our ability as a civilization to live more sustainably. The fact that we cannot reckon costs effectively is the main reason we make what are essentially poor decisions about how we use resources. This is something that will take innovation to address.

Back, briefly, to these so-called libertarians before I get onto the whole matter of environmental economics.

The whole concept of libertarianism is that the role of the state in the lives of free people should be as little as possible. I’ve always understood this to mean that there should be as little government as possible, and that its power and influence should be extremely limited.

So, then, in my estimation, a libertarian should be pro-choice, since the government shouldn’t have an role interfering with one’s own body. It should be pro-equal marriage , or if not, then it should not allow for the existence of laws which discriminate in any way against those who are unable to marry – no tax advantage, no preference in treatment at all at law should be abided by them. As for immigration – given that it is a function of the free labour market, libertarians should find themselves unable to justify a large state apparatus set up to fight “illegal” immigration. After all, the reason that migration happens is simple – supply and demand for labour. Where better jobs exist at better rates of pay, labour will move to maximize their utility.

Funny enough, this sort of stuff doesn’t seem to make sense to a lot of supposed libertarians, many of whom thus wind up in the “paleoconservative” column instead.

What I’ve come to realize in considering these things is that, as I’ve stated before, I don’t think I have a specific spot on the political spectrum. I’m generally a fiscal conservative (which is different than being a conservative, most of whom seem to be remarkable non-conservative), while thinking that broadly there’s no need for government to intrude into social issues, save to address market failures. I see no reason, for example, for government to oppose the idea of equal marriage, when marriage to me is simply a legal/social arrangement for a couple. What really matters when gay couples are fighting for equal status is the impact that the relationship has on things like access to their loved ones in hospital, division of property on the breakdown of relationship, and various other common law concepts. I couldn’t care less if religions oppose the idea. Sadly, we haven’t reached a point in society where we can look back at religion and wonder why we bothered, but I hope within my lifetime that will be the case.

So what do I think government should be able and stand ready to do? Address market failures – things like making sure that the true costs of goods brought to market at clear and reflected in the process that allows us to make decisions. I think we’ve not done particularly well with this as a society, yet – but not for lack of trying. In some ways, we have. When I get an oil change for my car, for example, I’m charged a fee which goes toward making sure the oil is disposed of properly, and to address pollution issues (at least, that’s the explanation for it – and whether these work in practice is somewhat the issue I’m trying to explore).

We have a variety of laws now that require better stewardship from industry, but they don’t necessarily work well. And there’s constantly political pressure to overturn them, to limit them, to make them toothless. Consider the law in the US which is going to cap BP’s liability for the disaster they’ve created in the Gulf of Mexico at $75MM, a paltry amount given the amount of damage that the Deepwater Horizon disaster is going to deal to the environment and the economy of several states by the time it’s done. There’s no way that will likely even begin to address the mess.

We have examples of the cost of not looking after these externalities everywhere. Near where I live now a massive project is underway to clean up the Sydney Tar Ponds, a vast amount of waste from coke ovens and a steel mill. This site, on a tidal estuary, is contaminated with a myriad of chemicals, and the mess was made worse by the fact that even when people realized the problem nothing was done, and according to some sources, it seems as though more waste from other sources was just dumped there. Near where I used to live in Peterborough, Ontario, sits the Deloro Mine Site, a gigantic nightmare – a mix of arsenic laced mine tailings, combined with radioactive waste from uranium refining, all sitting at the headwaters of a river which supplies drinking water to a numer of communities. In the case of Deloro, the owners of the site are corporations now long gone, and the government is holding the bag.

These sorts of scenarios are not rare, not isolated. We haven’t created an effective way to deal with them, to force business to reckon the cost of their impact on the environment. This to me has become something I think has to be a priority for government – moreso perhaps than anything else. We’ve done so much damage, mostly from ignorance, to our own surroundings, and we have to find ways to alleviate the problems.

What staggers me, then, is seeing so many people in denial of this whole situation. Watching people try to deny climate change is as staggering as watching people try to deny evolution. They want people to think that it’s a myth, a hoax, something designed only to make someone an obscene amount of money or something.

Like evolution, climate change is just reality. There is no evidence to suggest that it’s anything but real. As much as some would like for climategate as it was called to have proven that it was nonsense, they were not so lucky.

I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that these groups overlap either. If you’re irrational about one particular thing I guess it’s only natural to be deluded about a variety of things. If you’re going to buy into one insane concept, why not go full bore.

Again, this is the way I come to realize I’m just not conservative. I don’t get how people come to think that government shouldn’t interfere in business but can intrude in private lives. It seems that to so many conservatives there is some desire to be free of government but no problem with religions controlling people’s lives. That just drives me around the bend.