Recycle the Skyline

Obviously, we need to be wary of multinational alternative energy companies tied to the old neoliberal globalization model of resource extraction. We need to radically overhaul the energy infrastructure and construct vast systems of solar panels and wind turbines. However, we need a shit ton of minerals to do this.

Under the current model, solar panel production piggybacks off the mining and trading infrastructure of the fossil fuel industry. Basically, solar panel production is only possible through the continued production of oil and gas and involves other forms of heavy resource extraction. But we don’t have to rely on this pipeline to create the solar panel infrastructure we need. Sustainably, it doesn’t even make sense to mine for Coltan and rare earth minerals to create solar panels. A critical component for solar panel construction is quartz,  the most abundant mineral on the planet. And due to natural erosion processes, sand itself could be used to construct them.

Let’s go back to the Law of Conservation of Matter. All of the minerals, fuels, and resources that have been extracted over the centuries have been used to create everything from Iphones and laptops to cars and skyscrapers. All of the matter we need is already within our reach.

In America’s sacrifice zones, some of the poorest cities have resorted to selling off scrap metal to make up deficits. In Camden, New Jersey the scrap metal business is the second most profitable industry behind the open air drug markets. Cargo ships from all over the world come to Camden’s port to be loaded with copper, concrete, and other metals that have been harvested from the guts of the city. While this process tragically shows what poverty has done to our cities, we can flip this to reflect a positive implementation of the same idea. If we construct a similar process with other cities we will have enough materials at our disposal to create solar panels.

We can de-urbanize the environment while simultaneously building alternative energy structures. But instead of scrapping the dilapidated and impoverished parts of cities, we should primarily focus on the edifices of bourgeois power. The City of New York is currently constructing the largest apartment complex in the city on 42nd street and Eleventh Avenue. The absurdly named Sky building will house 1,175 housing units complete with two large pools, a putting green and a cafe. Upon its completion, Sky will join One57 and 432 Park Avenue as the largest and most expensive residential buildings in the city.

Our method to create so-called sustainable cities should focus on dismantling and breaking down the material structure of these skyscrapers, luxury condos, and bureaucratic office buildings for the creation of a new green energy infrastructure focused on reviving blighted communities. Eric Sanderson argued that ideally cities should incorporate 80% green space consisting of parks, plazas, community gardens, and forested paths with all man-made structures built around these central features. We can switch up our values, where anthropocentric modes of living become second to ecological systems. We  should prioritize greenery over the gray corporate landscape of human structures.

In essence, breaking store windows on 5th Avenue and setting fire to Time Square has a purpose. The anger expressed during rioting demonstrates a deep psychological rejection of the dominant patriarchal worldview. The entire Earth has been enclosed by this violent mentality that sees ecosystems, flora, fauna, and traditional human communities as subjects to be conquered and controlled. We need to reorient our values to an ecological-working class perspective that puts environmental systems and blue collar culture above that mainstream paradigm that places man over nature. Imagine the new structures we could create, which would essentially cause a total restructuring of our economy as well as the very ways we relate to each other as a species. Granted, this seems pretty radical but not as radical as decimating indigenous communities on far away continents to rape the land of resources we don’t even need.

Warning: Austerity may be Disguised as Sustainability

Climate Change has become a mainstream issue on the left in recent years. While Republicans continue to be beholden to the oil industry, Democrats and other liberals have formulated plans to address the existential crisis facing the planet. Despite this flicker of hope, upon listening to the rhetoric coming from celebrities, entrepreneurs, and activists in the environmental movement, it seems sinister intentions lay beneath their veil of concern. As a movement that has historically represented white upper-class yuppies, it should come as no surprise that the policies and solutions they lay forth will inevitably affect poor people. I’ve written about this issue before, commenting on what I find as bourgeois individual solutions to a collective problem.

Sustainability has become the staple buzzword of the mainstream environmental movement. From the top-rated green universities to the largest environmental NGOs and even your neighborhood composting program, eco-friendly folks centralize sustainability as the primary action people can take to curb their carbon footprint and do their part to avert climate catastrophe. With global temperatures expected to rise to 4 degrees, dramatic weather events exploding across the world, and seemingly zero-hault expected from both the military-industrial complex as well as the mass extractivism of the major fossil fuel companies, the task at hand seems incredibly daunting.

So, what solutions do eco-liberals suggest to combat such overwhelming circumstances? Recycle! That’s right, if we establish recycling programs in major cities and suburban communities than we can significantly lower human contribution to climate change. The only problem with this is that most consumables are not recyclable. For this to actually work, we’d need to revamp the entire production process. Another solution is energy efficiency. Remember to use LEED-certified light bulbs and to unplug all electronics! Even if they’re off, plugs drain a miniscule almost non-measurable wattage of electricity from the circuits. Nevermind that your local mall uses 4000 times that amount of electricity. Other solutions range from driving exorbitantly expensive hybrid cars made from coltan mined in the Congo to reducing the amount of water you use in the shower. We engage in these frantic obsessive activities to build the illusion of ethical contribution. Notice how all of these solutions target consumers, off the assumption that we can continue to live with the same standard of living as long as everything is labeled “green.” These individual contributions affirm the selfish notion that they’re doing their part while doing nothing to stem ecological devastation from the larger extractivism driven by corporate institutions. As stated by cpsoeller’s Iron Law of Sustainability, the more a society discusses sustainability, the less sustainable that society. Hunter-gatherer cultures did not have a term for sustainability. It was simple just the way they lived.

In the Western industrial context, sustainability means energy austerity. You can’t save the world by unplugging your refrigerator yet these are the very solutions mainstream environmentalists peddle to poor and working class communities.  These eco-conscious yuppies are totally divorced from the social and economic realities of everyday people so they are oblivious to the ways in which their “solutions” actually sound like austerity. So much focus goes into curbing individual habits instead of challenging larger institutions that their commitment to battling environmental catastrophe sounds disingenuous.

Take the California Water Crisis for example. The combination of climate change in conjunction with heavy resource extraction struck California with one of its worst droughts in years. Governor Jerry Brown announced the first ever rationing program after revelations that the state only has a year’s worth of fresh water left.  The rhetoric sounds familiar with Brown emphasizing that all Californians will have to make do with using less. However, the big agricultural giants are strangely exempt from this rationing program leaving the burden to fall upon small farmers and predominately Hispanic communities. Even though Big Agro accounts for 80% of the state’s water consumption, they were given a free pass to continue draining California of the last of its life force. In fact, evidence suggests that the extractivist mentality of agriculture, oil and gas businesses led to California’s current drought crisis even though there were many signs in the past decade that this would spell doom for the region. Now, poor families are forced to “live within their means” or move out of the state because aggro-business profits are more important than life. And this is all committed under the guise of sustainability. Nothing could be further from the truth plus it exposes the liberal environmentalists as racist ignoramuses that are totally disconnected from working class experiences.

As sustainability becomes a hip new trend with twenty-somethings, universities seek to cash in on this golden opportunity. College sustainability programs represent hipster capitalism at its worst. With so much focus on energy efficiency and recycling, the school effectively shut out debate over systemic economic factors contributed by the school’s financial investments. Even though the current student-led Fossil Fuel Divestment movement coalesced to address this concern the main focus still revolves individual consumption habits. Granted, some schools like the University of Edinburgh have a more intersectional approach to their movement linking ecological devastation, economic austerity, labor and feminist issues together. Students there even occupied the university finance building to directly confront and call out the bourgeois forces pulling the strings at the school. However, movements like Edinburgh’s are the exception, not the rule.

American university movements still seem beholden to the financial sector, not seeking to offend potential “allies” working in college finance departments. In Carlisle Pennsylvania, for example, Dickinson College has a cozy relationship with the US Army War College and its investment portfolio is supplemented with hordes of contracts with the Defense Department as well as the top fossil fuel giants. Given that the Pentagon uses 400,000 barrels of oil a day, any support of the US military through financial grants goes against the college’s mission of sustainability. Like plenty of other universities, Dickinson is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2020, which is a pipe dream. The obsession with obtaining carbon neutrality obscures the insane logic behind such a move. Its impossible to offset pollution. Just because a school invests in renewable energy and grows its own food does not offset the energy consumption used by the college nor the pollution emitted through its transportation infrastructure.  As long as  a university maintains investments in environmentally exploitative business ventures, it will continue to be culpable in the destruction of the planet. Dickinson, in fact all American colleges and universities, should follow the Edinburgh model and adopt direct action tactics under the banner of a radically diverse movement.

The fossil fuel divestment movement is part of the anti-austerity movement and until white eco-yuppies figure that out they’ll continue to support half-assed measures in an attempt to save the civilization that brought about this ecological crisis in the first place. On top of this, these “solutions” are marketed as the ideas of highbrow suburban entrepreneurs when in fact many of these innovative techniques are actually centuries old. In that late 1970s, the radical black liberation group, MOVE, preached an ecological lifestyle. They wore their hair in braids, walked around naked and recycled excess food scraps back into the garden from which they came. That’s right, black people pioneered composting. Now its exclusively the domain of bourgie white hipsters. Yuppie environmentalists appropriated the sustainable practices of black and indigenous societies into white culture so they can be mass marketed as consumer lifestyles. Just as every major industry profits of the global drug war, every major industry profits from the destruction of the planet. It is absolutely impossible to make capitalism sustainable, let alone “environmentally-friendly.” Yet, the message from the mainstream environmentalists seems to support continued military imperialism through organizations such as the Center for Climate & Security that seeks to unite military leaders and security professionals to create a climate-resilient world. The heaviest polluters in the world want to be in charge of handling security issues as the world undergoes catastrophic climate change? We have a term for that: ecofascism.

Let’s thank the radicals for morphing Occupy Wall Street into the anticapitalist anti-racist movement that we call Black Lives Matter. This current social movement represents exactly the type of mindset activists of all stripes need to adapt. Notice how as much effort is going into discrediting the Toms of the black middle class and faux allies of the political leadership class as is going into dismantling institutions of white supremacy. Your rank-and-file Black Lives Matter activist is not calling for electing anybody or advocating for a particular reform. They are calling for an end to mass incarceration, a permanent end to the racialized caste system that has been at the foundation of American history. Why do white environmentalists struggle so much with creating a similar radically intersectional approach to climate change? In December of 2014, a BLM rally gathered in New York’s Union Square just a few feet from a Climate Change rally organized by a different organization. Despite opening a dialogue between the two rallies and the climate activists’ insistence at cooperation, they did not march with the Black Lives Matter protestors when the time came.

The environmental movement let itself become institutionalized. The People’s Climate March, while an excellent opportunity to radicalize newcomers, was still sponsored by the industrial elite. BP was allowed to march with the indigenous peoples they helped decimate. And environmental celebrities like Al Gore and Bill McKibben still peddle the myth that there is nothing inherently wrong with capitalism that can’t be fixed with a good election. Enough of the bullshit. If this crisis is half as bad as these celebrities make it out to be, then we need to totally remake society from the ground up or else risk a century of resource wars and neofeudalism.

Earth and Life

Earth day is this week, but what do people really mean when they say, “Earth”?  I think we can all agree that the Earth is composed of a hydrosphere, a lithosphere, an atmosphere, and a biosphere all interacting in a vast, interconnected system.  Now I ask:  how are the “different” spheres really “separate” from each other?  Because, aren’t animals, plants, bacteria, and fungi all partly composed of water?  For example, humans are made up of about 60-70% water, by mass.  In addition, aren’t skeletons and teeth made out of minerals (e.g. apatite)?  Also, don’t all organisms (bacteria, fungi, plant or animal) need certain geologic nutrients like zinc, sulfur, calcium, phosphorous, etc. to live?  Don’t individual organisms need to have air or dissolved oxygen in their respiratory organs at all times they are alive?  And it’s obvious that humans have lots of their own biologic tissue (cells) but don’t we also have billions of bacteria living and dying within our bodies as they perform all sorts of useful tasks like helping us digest food and helping our immune systems?  The answer to all these questions is:  YES!  Look this all up if you don’t believe me.  Now, isn’t it obvious?  Animals have a hydrosphere (water in tissues), a lithosphere (skeletons, nutrients from plants), an atmosphere (air in lungs, oxygen in blood), and a biosphere (cells, and a bacterial ecosystem).  Plants also have a hydrosphere (water in tissues), a lithosphere (nutrients from soil), an atmosphere (carbon dioxide in tissues), and a biosphere (cells, fungi on roots or trunk, and a bacterial ecosystem).  I ask again, how can the four spheres on Earth really be “separate” from one another?  It’s all the Earth and it’s all interconnected in one vast system.  In addition, it is important to note that plate tectonics and volcanism are integral to how the atmosphere and biosphere function and evolve over geologic time (hundreds of millions of years).  What this all means is that the Earth must resemble the Earth at all scales from the cellular to the global biosphere; otherwise, how could it be the Earth?  Everything on Earth or from Earth is the Earth!  Astronauts are obviously bringing their bodies (water, nutrients, bones) into space so they are literally extending Earth into space.

Now, this is a much different view of Earth and life then what we are taught in school.  Modern industrial humans have a secular cultural mindset or “story” that tells them that life is just a struggle for the Earth’s resources and you are separate from everyone else and everything else.  You are just a separate being struggling against everything else so you can get enough resources to survive and reproduce and there is no higher purpose to it all.  Really? That’s it?  Wow, it’s no wonder that this cultural mindset results in the trashing of the entire Earth (global pollution, ecosystem destruction, etc.), as this same cultural mindset pressures people to trash their own minds, bodies, and communities with anxiety, stress, insomnia, substance abuse, 60-80 hour work weeks, racism, greed, addictions of all sorts, etc.  Remember:  everything on Earth is the Earth!  If you trash one thing, you trash it all.  I don’t think many people realize that their own minds and bodies are types of environments, and that they are allowing them to be polluted.  It seems like the time is right for a new cultural mindset, don’t you think?  Are there really thousands of isolated social and environmental problems today that each require a separate yet super-complex solution? Or is there just one major problem underlying them all?  I think that problem is that many people don’t really understand what they are, who they are, or what they are a part of.  They are perpetually insecure and life is never just good enough on this planet.  They require perpetual “progress” and they are perpetually fearful of the “outside” world.  As a result, they are always afraid of everything.  If you are afraid of everything, then you attempt to control everything (we use technology, laws, and rules), but the end result of that process would be total control:  totalitarianism.  How do you have freedom when your society has total control over everything?  Technology, laws and rules are very useful in certain situations, but taking all of these things to the extreme would be kind of dumb, right?

What is the point of life, then?  Were you really born just to out-compete everyone else for the Earth’s finite resources? To consume vast amounts of these resources (materialism/consumerism), and to just complain about it all (“work’s such a drag” or “my car sucks” or “my phone sucks”), and then die?  I don’t think so, I mean, how is that not a pretty lame way to live?  Regardless of your opinion on materialism/consumerism, many resource geologists over the decades including M. K. Hubbert, Walter Younquist, and Colin Campbell have pointed out that materialism/consumerism as a way of life is inevitably screwed no matter what you think of it because of geologic depletion problems.

Is life really supposed to be just a struggle for resources?  Or does the Machine (industrial culture) and its high priests and priestesses (neoclassical economists) just benefit from us thinking about life in that way?  Gotta go out and compete against everyone else for those scarce resources:  jobs, cars, houses, and spouses, right?  Wow, I really don’t buy that mindset as the best way to organize a society or a local community or to live a life.  I am calling the Machine out on its bluff:  I think it’s full of chickenshit bullshit.

Go outside at some point and observe a tree for a while.  Are you and the tree struggling/competing for resources (survival of the fittest)?  No!  You need the tree’s exhaled oxygen to live and the tree needs your exhaled carbon dioxide to live.  You are both working together and it’s all interconnected!  Even within individual species, many of the individual organisms form cooperative communities (human villages, packs of wolves, ant colonies, etc.).   So the statements “survival of the fittest” or “life is a struggle/competition” just depend on how you are looking at the situation; they depend on your frame of reference, and they depend on your mindset.  This goes for the human economy too.  A lot of very different industries work together as oppose to compete:  geologists and engineers in the mining industry mine the materials to make a computer and the engineers of the computer industry sell their computers to the geologists or engineers so they can better mine or recycle more materials!  They are all working together, it is not all just a competition!  Even within individual industries, like the computer industry, there is much cooperation between companies (e.g. they are using each others gadgets to develop new gadgets).

I think life can only be thought of as a perpetual struggle or competition if one has a fear of death.  Death of organisms, death of species, death of planets, death of stars…. But wait!  Most of the matter you see around you, including yourself, was created by the deaths (supernovas) of super-massive stars eons ago.  From death arises life!  It is the balance of nature.  It is the way of nature, and there is nothing to fear from it.  If you fear death then you fear life.  Ironically, it seems as if the “life is a struggle to avoid death, life is a competition” viewpoint taken to an extreme pushes humans to go to war, to cheat, to steal, to lie, so that everything we do in our lives seems to become a battle against someone else or something else.  We battle our own minds (anxiety, stress), we battle each other (verbally, legally or with physical weapons), and we battle the biosphere (pave it over).  Perpetual war at all scales of reality.  How is that not a stupid way to use the gift of life?

If so, why not have a different view of life?  If you have a personality that is naturally resistant to peer pressure (I think most people have this ability at some level), then why not take your ability all the way to its zenith?  Resist the underpinnings of the industrial culture mindset!  Most of it is a bunch of BS, anyway (though, there’s some good stuff in there too, to be sure).  We don’t really owe anything to industrial society because industrial society could not exist without Earth!  We owe everything to Earth.  The exponential growth industrial economy is going to die at some point (and is slowly dying now) because of either peak resources or runaway climate change, so why cling to it out of fear of change?  It served its purpose and now it’s time for it to go; it’s really very simple.  From death arises life.  A sustainable society of some sort will inevitably arise in it’s place, so we might as well get started on building that society sooner rather than later.

You can think of life on Earth as a bunch of “separate” organisms struggling for resources, as an endless competition with no real purpose, and as a perpetual battle at all scales of reality.  On the other hand, you can also think of all the life on Earth as a beautifully interconnected system that is working together towards some higher purpose (evolving).  The first viewpoint is responsible for a society that works against nature at every scale and is killing the very life-support systems (e.g. climate, biosphere, healthy mental state) it depends on for its survival.  I don’t think it takes a genius to figure out what kind of culture/society the other viewpoint will create.  Science tells us that in order to truly understand “reality” we must not project human “feelings” onto the reality “outside” of us.  But how the hell are the statements:  “survival of the fittest,” “life is just a competition for resources” or “life really has no higher purpose” not just projections of human insecurity emplaced on the infinite beauty of nature?  Evolution is a scientific fact, but there are many ways to interpret that fact, and I think I’ve made my choice of interpretation pretty damn clear.

If you think that creating a sustainable society and a better life for yourself is just too hard for whatever reason, then do you not realize that you are just being imprisoned by your own mental chains?  Break the chains.  If you want a practical way to slowly extricate yourself from this unsustainable and insecure culture, read this book:  http://www.amazon.com/Early-Retirement-Extreme-Philosophical-Independence/dp/145360121X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1429571645&sr=8-1&keywords=early+retirement+extreme.  This book basically lays out a way for an individual to break out of the materialism and consumerism ideals that permeate every aspect of our culture.  If you are truly enamored by our current culture and are perfectly happy with your life, then that’s fine too.  I just personally think a lot of people are “faking” it.  I know I was at one point.  Definitely take some time to make sure you aren’t faking it.

And just one more point about changing your mindset:   do people really think they need to memorize 5,000+ tips or facts on how to live a happy life or to be a good person?  What’s with all these endless books about 500 tips to ace the interview or 500 tips to ace your marriage?  How does any of that make any sense?  I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast this past Saturday.  I think all it really takes to be truly happy and to be a good person is to change your viewpoint on what life is really all about.  If you are unhappy, change the way you think about life in general, stick to some general, fundamental principles and all of the infinitely complex external details of your life will crystallize together into a pretty good, but not perfect, life.  That’s how the Earth did it.  Just four fundamental spheres:  the hydrosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere interact as one to create all the beautiful complexity you see around you.  Simply amazing.

So, that’s my manifesto on Earth and Life.  Welcome to the planet, folks!

Oh, and that reminds me to ask:  what would the Earth be without the Sun?  Without sunlight?  How are they really “separate” things? And what would the Sun be without….  Hey, wait a minute…

Musings on Complexity: Interconnections Abound

Albert Einstein, in his theories of special relativity and general relativity, speculated that space, time, energy, matter and forces were not in fact “separate” entities in the “Newtonian” universe, as was commonly believed at the time.  He theorized that space and time were inseparable (spacetime) and energy and matter (E=mc²) were equivalent and that these “things” were all tightly coupled together with gravity. The theory was proven correct by subsequent experiments. Everything is interconnected! Truly one of the greatest discoveries of all time (uhhh… spacetime?) However, what is even more interesting to me is that these discoveries at the time and even today were and are described as COUNTER-INTUITIVE in most physics books.

Aaarrggh!!! What arrogance! If you read about tribes of hunters and gatherers, you’ll find that many of them believed that everything: humans, animals, plants, wind, water, Earth, the stars, and even time were all interconnected in a vast cosmic web:  oneness.  Ohhhh, how BARBARIC! What a PRIMITIVE idea! Hmmm, is relativity really counter-intuitive, or does it just seem that way because of the cultural baggage that gets packed into our brains by mass society?

Here we are in 2015 with many global problems, and what is our technocratic and “advanced” society trying to do to solve them? Do we really want to fully control our planet, and solve all social, ecological and environmental problems with measurement and technology? How could that not end up as totalitarianism? Even if we could theoretically have total control; practically speaking, how many problems today were caused by previous so-called “solutions”?  There’s been a lot of unintended consequences stemming from “solutions”.  How do we solve that problem? Our society is trying to quantify and control the infinite complexity of the universe! How could this possibly end well!? Do many scientists, engineers, economists, and other social scientists truly understand the implications of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem in mathematics? He proved that mathematics can never be both complete (every statement can be proved true or false) and consistent (can only the true statements be proved?)! This theorem has huge implications for quantitative science and for a society trying to quantify everything! If you think all of this is over your head, IT IS NOT! Here, if I have one grain of sand and another grain of sand, that makes two grains of sand, right? 1+1 = 2.  That’s true. Well, in reality, aren’t grains of sand composed of silicon and oxygen atoms, which are each composed of other particles down to the quantum level? 1+1 = 2 is quite a simplification!  How do you “objectively” apply that simple mathematical statement to extremely complicated reality?  I can’t believe our “advanced” culture does this with humans and social systems! 1 human + 1 human = 2 humans, right? WHAT!? We just reduced the infinite complexity of a human being to a SINGLE DIGIT!  Not to mention reducing the infinite complexity of a human relationship to the number 2.  Ohhh, I guess a human being is just another bit to be input into the computer to solve a problem, right!? Just another statistic!? That reminds me of that “Feel Like a Number” song by Bob Seger…

But C-Rock!!!! What you write here is heresy! How are we supposed to solve all of the world’s problems if what you say is true!? Aren’t computers and genetic algorithms and artificial intelligence going to save the world!? Oh my…. well, I personally believe each of us knows very deep down the difference between right and wrong, and how to live a good life. I mean, really, are another 100 exabytes of external data really going to make a difference for you in order to make the “right” decision?

I’m sick of all these damn measurements we make on everything. No wonder so many people, even in wealthy countries, are anxious, depressed, and confused, including myself at one point, before I realized it was all bullshit. Grade point averages, wages, net worth, age, prices, hours, minutes… good grief!  Well, these things do have their uses but to obsess over them as our society does is pathetic. The infinite beauty of life, of the universe, reduced to mere numbers. Yikes!  Putting a price on an ecosystem; on a human life? That’s progress? The benefits of our scientific and other kinds of progress are impossible to deny but the costs of progress are truly astronomical, and Earth has already begun instituting bankruptcy proceedings against our society in the form of climate change, fossil fuel depletion, and the depletion of high-grade mineral ores.  The growing Permaculture movement gives me hope that many people are finally starting to sense and do something about all of this on an individual level.

I don’t buy the whole measurement and price scheme thing (total technological and economic control) as a solution to everything and I’m someone who reads the World Almanac, chock full of data and numbers, for fun almost every day! I’m obsessed with data and numbers! Oh yeah, and I’m a scientist (geologist) as well! HAHA! I guess the econ-techno-totalitarian control freaks will have to send me away if I keep writing about this stuff! Ahh! One of our own is turning against the Machine, gotta keep him quiet! Thankfully, though, many of us live in democracies (imperfect ones) and I am far from the only scientist or engineer raising these questions.  Philosophers and other social scientists have always brought up these questions but they get drowned out by our society’s tendency to focus mostly on the progression of economics, science, and technology, which is unfortunate.

Alright, you can probably get a lot of people with a PhD in either physics, economics, philosophy, computer science, or psychology etc., to tell me that I’m being naïve, that I don’t know what I’m talking about, and that I don’t know “how the world really works.” Yeah, but do they know everything? Type the word “complexity” into Google Scholar and you’ll get 4,120,000 results.  Wow, the study of complexity is complex!  Do they really know everything about complexity and how it affects their disciplines?  I sure don’t with geology.  Unintended consequences abound. Oh, and just a head’s up, never tell an Earth scientist that they “don’t know how the world really works.”

So what does all this mean for us? It means freedom! Think for yourself!  Be your own philosopher. You intuitively know the Golden Rule(s), you intuitively know what you want out of life, you intuitively know which technologies seem “right” or “OK” and the ones that are disturbing, and you intuitively know the things required to build a trustful, local community.  All of those timeless proverbs can’t all be wrong, can they?  I may not know everything or if the things I do know are truly right, but the one thing I do know for sure is that everything is interconnected in an infinitely beautiful cosmic web, and you know what?  That’s good enough for me.

Suggested Readings:

1984 George Orwell
Brave New World Aldous Huxley
Peeking at Peak Oil Kjell Aleklett
Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering The Planet Ugo Bardi
Overshoot: The Ecological Basis For Revolutionary Change William Catton, Jr.
Ishmael Daniel Quinn
Energy and the Wealth of Nations Charles A.S. Hall and Kent Klitgaard
Ascent of Humanity Charles Eisenstein
Complexity: A Guided Tour Melanie Mitchell or any other “systems thinking” book

The Scale of Extraction

Mining makes up a small percentage of world GDP and an even smaller percentage of the labor force, so it is mostly “out of sight, out of mind” as an industry.  Look at the pictures below, however, and it will no longer be out of sight!  Though, I can’t say the same for out of mind…

Click on the pictures to view them or right-click them and open them up in a new tab.  All pictures were taken from Google Earth.

Below is the Bingham Canyon copper mine in Utah, USA, and the downtown portion of Boston, MA, USA for size comparisons.  If you look carefully you can make out a landslide in the pit.  The landslide is almost as big as the financial district of Boston!

Bingham Canyon Mine and Boston

Below is the Mission copper mine in Arizona, USA and downtown Boston.

Mission Mine and Boston

Below is the Chuquicamata copper mine in Chile.  It looks like downtown Boston can fit right into the pit, with room to spare!

Chuqui Mine and Boston

Below is an entire copper mining complex consisting of the Chuquicamata mine and the Radomiro Tomic mine in Chile.  The complex includes leach pads, smelters, equipment storage areas, and waste rock piles.  The entire complex is as long as Manhattan.  The waste rock pile or leach pad (looks like a hand fan) in the top of the image covers a larger area than does downtown Boston.  That’s a big pile of rocks!

Copper Mining Complex Chile and Manhattan

Below is the Yanacocha gold mining complex in Peru.  It is almost as long as Manhattan, and definitely wider.

Yanacocha Gold Mining Complex and Manhattan

Below is an iron ore mining complex near Hibbing, Minnesota, USA.  It is also almost as long as Manhattan.  I have little doubt that some of the iron from this mine made it into the infrastructure of Manhattan.  In fact, it looks as if they are mirror images of each other:  flip the mine over and out pops a city.

Minnesota Iron Mine and Manhattan

Finally, here is an industrial agriculture mining complex in a northern section of Texas, USA.  You may not think of this place as a mining complex, but here, industrial agriculture is “mining” topsoil and fossil groundwater.  In other words, these farms are eroding topsoil faster than it can be replenished and pumping out groundwater much faster than the aquifer below is recharged, and let’s not even get into fossil fuel and fertilizer use.  The state of Rhode island is given as a size comparison to this particular industrial process.  Manhattan and downtown Boston are also included, but they are obviously dwarfed by industrial agriculture.  Agriculture can be done sustainably (and a good amount of it already is) but as long as energy and water are considered “cheap” it will also be done unsustainably in marginally arable places like the one pictured below.

Industrial Agriculture and Rhode Island

Even though mining is a small part of the world economy its environmental impacts are obviously enormous.  Also, the rest of the industrial economy can’t operate without mining so it is ignorant to think that just because it is a small part of the world GDP, it is relatively unimportant.  It is easy to think of the economy just in financial terms, but, as these pictures show, there is a physical economy hidden beneath the cloak of finance.

Petroleum: The Market’s Greatest Illusion

How much value should one put on a gallon of crude oil?  Who knows…

Well, there is this interesting idea:

Buckminster Fuller wrote in his book, Critical Path: “the brilliant Denver, Colorado oil geologist, Francois de Chardenedes … regarding the amount of energy employed as heat and pressure, for the length of time initially that it took nature to photosynthetically process Sun radiation into the myriad of hydrocarbon molecules that comprise all the vegetation and algae … a large percentage of which Sun-energy-nurtured-and-multiplied molecules are ultimately processed into petroleum.

The script of de Chardenedes’ “Scenario of Petroleum Production” makes it clear that, with all the cosmic energy processing (as rain, wind and gravitational pressure) and processing time (paid for at the rates you and I pay for household electricity), it costs nature well over a million dollars to produce each gallon of petroleum.”

This means that if humanity, instead of nature, wanted to “produce” (i.e. create) an energy source with the qualities of oil, it would also cost us a helluva lot of money!  Remember, we extract oil, we do not produce it.  Also, remember why we use oil despite its well publicized bad aspects:  (1) it is energy dense (2) it is easily transportable (3) it is easy to store (4) we can make many different products out of it, other than fuel, and (5) it is already there, we don’t need to grow it like biofuels.  It is an outright fantasy that oil companies (financed by debt) can extract oil for just a few tens of dollars a barrel and say that they are “producing” a product with all of these qualities.  Yet our culture accepts this fantastic illusion quite readily.

Now, Buckminster Fuller had a unique if not controversial way of looking at things, but this idea seems plausible, if it isn’t, it’s still interesting.  I can’t find Francois de Chardenedes’ work online but we can perform a quick back of the envelope calculation to see if his findings were reasonable.  Let’s say it takes 1 kWh of energy per day to create the algae/plankton, bury a few pounds of it, and heat it up to generate a gallon of petroleum. These biologic materials need to be buried and “cooked” for say, a period of 100,000 years (petroleum is generated over geologic timescales, so this estimate is very generous).  At $0.10 per kWh, the production cost would come to $3,650,000 per gallon.  A barrel (42 gallons) would cost $153,300,000 to produce.  Hmmm… YIKES!

1 kWh is not a lot of energy.  It is 0.4% of the average American’s daily energy use (including residential, commercial, industrial and government energy use).  Though at a rate of 1 kWh/d it does add up to a lot of energy over geologic timescales.  Therefore, let’s say we way overestimated the energy needed to make a gallon of petroleum, and it only takes 1 kWh per year over 100,000 years to produce it (0.0027 kWh/d, a total of 100,000 kWh).  It would still cost $10,000 to produce a gallon of petroleum.  A barrel would cost $420,000 to produce.

It seems the drive I took the other day that consumed 1 gallon of gas really should have cost me at least $10,000+ or even $3 million, not $2.90.  Holy crap! It’s a trap!  That’s quite a distorted economic incentive. The fact that people in OECD countries reduce their demand for oil when the price of a gallon of oil reaches $2.38 ($100/bbl) should provide some food for thought.

Fossil fuel subsidies? I don’t know… It seems we are subsidized by fossil fuels.  Which is way worse; as we are entrenched by our society’s fossil fuel inertia.  To give you an idea of this, to de-carbonize 12 TW of fossil fuel power out of 15 TW of total world power, would require the world to build a 1 GW nuclear power plant or equivalent renewable power plant every 3 days for the next 99 years.  12,000 nuclear power plants.  The world currently has ~440 nuclear power plants and many are old.  This sounds expensive, and this is assuming that world power use does not increase over the next 99 years.  However, the simple cost analysis in this post showed that petroleum is way more “expensive” than we think and suggests we should do whatever it takes to move to alternatives ASAP, without even stopping to argue about climate change.

Anyway, I think all of this endless arguing about the oil price slide and whether “Peak Oil” is debunked is a waste of time.  I am guilty of this myself.  By reading more, I have come to realize, as have many others, that peak oil is just a symptom of a larger and more fundamental problem with our culture.  I can’t pinpoint it right now but these questions may shed some light on it:

How much energy or resources does one require in order to live a “good” life? To be happy?

What is the real cost of non-renewable energy or other non-renewable resources? How do depletion problems over time periods of decades factor in?  What about climate change or ecosystem destruction?

How much is the real cost distorted by a culture bent on endless consumption of non-renewable resources to increase its status and wealth?  What is wealth?

Will technology save us from depletion problems, climate change, and ecosystem destruction? How can it if all of the technology that has ever been invented just got us to the point where we are now, asking these questions?

How do we enable the developing world to develop western consumption-heavy lifestyles on only renewable energy and renewable materials? We are having some substantial difficulty doing just that ourselves for any number of technological, economic, political, or social reasons.  On that note, what does sustainability really mean?

I heavily advise taking your savings from this period of low oil prices to invest in energy conservation, solar panels, a hybrid vehicle, a good commuting bike, or something along these terms.  Do not be fooled by the petroplex illusion.  I was for a while, but it is possible to wake up from “the Matrix” (and it’s fun!).

That fact that there are many people in America who still cannot afford these “green” technologies (including a nice bike!) even with our GDP of $17 trillion, is troubling.  This fact is obviously evidence that the free market is distorted for any number of reasons (duh!), but, in my opinion, it is mostly distorted by our individual limits of understanding complex systems (such as our own economy).  It’s possible that our Geodestinies, like Peak Oil, are still far into the future, but we are getting closer to them with every commodity super-cycle that comes to pass.  My advice for the future:  tread lightly.

Happy Holidays!

The End of The Stone Age

According to Wikipedia, the Stone Age ended around 8,000 to 4,000 years ago (6,000 – 2,000 B.C.).  However, looking at these images below may make one think otherwise, right?

Stone Age
Clockwise from top left. Sunrise gold mine in Australia (Wikipedia), limestone quarry in Italy (Michael J. Zirbes), sand/gravel pit in New Jersey (Google Earth), Chuquicamata copper mine in Chile (Google Earth).

We still live in the Stone Age! We still live in the Bronze Age!  We still live in the Iron Age, Coal Age, Oil Age, Gas Age, and the Atomic Age!  In fact, given the billions of tons of soil, rock, minerals and fossil fuels that we move or extract each year, it seems as if humanity is living in these “ages” more than ever before.  Our current civilization has not moved past these ages, we have just added onto them with our technological advances.  We must remain humble, however, as these technological advances are the very reason why we are now even more inextricably linked to the materials of Earth than in all of human history.

Humans have created millions of amazing machines and other objects by extracting and cleverly rearranging naturally occurring elements from the Earth’s crust.  We even have technology (nuclear reactors) that can create elements from other elements (e.g. Americium in your smoke detector).  But come on! How do we get off saying that the Stone Age has ended?  Take a look inside your home or office and try to find something comprised of raw materials that do not include something taken from the Earth (soil nutrients, rock, minerals, fossil fuels, etc.).

Even if we develop asteroid mining operations in the future (it will be very difficult and expensive to do, I imagine) we will still be in a type of Stone Age (The Space Stone Age?).  Consequently, to think of ourselves as “above” or “past” the “primitive” Stone Age is quite arrogant and ironic, in my opinion (I know not everyone thinks that, but it seems to me that many do).

Historians and archaeologists in the year 3000 may look back and laugh at how we viewed our technological progression through history:

Speaker at a  future history/archaeology conference: “The people of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries actually told themselves the Stone Age ended 4,000 years before, even as they were blowing through the Earth’s ancient endowment of fossil fuels, metal ores, and topsoil in a matter of centuries.”

(Audience bursts into laughter)

“During this time period, some of these societies even described themselves with such words as ‘post-industrial’ or ‘sustainable’.”

(Audience falls out of their seats, tears of laughter streaming down their faces)

“While I must sincerely thank our ancestors for all of the wonderful technology they invented and their advancement of scientific knowledge, I have to ask:  did they really have to strip the Earth’s crust clean to do it? And did they have to do it with the hubris of saying they were past the Stone Age? I mean, really, what were they thinking?”