Monday, 7 October 2013


Basically, I have writers block. I have several posts in various stages of writing, one titled 'Thinking about sustainability from the triple bottom line approach' which is almost finished, 'Abundance long after the fall' which is just sets of notes and a handful of others. But I lack the ideas, motivation, time and inspiration to either start or finish them. So I'm changing from weekly posting to whenever I have something (I will still be posting on Mondays).

Part of it is probably that as my parents say I 'lack life experience'. That came from when my Twin and I where talking about peak oil with them and some worse possibilities, when they, to paraphrase, spoke from experience (several recessions) and said 'people adapt and get by'. Basically people muddle through and generally come out the other end, that's what their experience has been. The only time my Dad's mentioned the 70s oil crisis was when I talked to him about the possibility of global food shortages this year, his reply was it be like the 70s and people would just use less (in this context waste less food and eat less meat). He then went on to say when the next oil crisis hits the same response will likely happen again, people will adapt; drive less and use more public transport (already happening), he did acknowledge that it would have been better to keep all the changes from the 70s. I haven't lived through a recession (luckily Australia was largely untouched by the GFC) or any sort of crisis, so I just take their word for it and as a consequence I don't have as much stuff to write about and the required insight I feel I need.

For my long-term plan, that's not really a problem. My long term plan is to basically in about 10 years, once I've got my degree, enough experience to be a professional engineer (instead of just a graduate engineer) and a solid grasp of engineering via practice to start writing about engineering and peak oil. It's an area (one among many) which I feel isn't looked at that much in very deep technical ways, note I'm not including petroleum engineering but the other disciplines (the ones my degree has some founding in) of mechanical and electrical. I'll also look at others as I research/interact/study with those disciplines (aerospace, naval, mining, chemical, agricultural, industrial etc). That's the long term plan, short term is to change from weekly posting to whenever I have something.

Also after reading this I realized that a huge amount of what I've written has probably been interpreted in completely different ways from what I meant because of basic differences in what words mean, as well as not expressing all the important details. In the context of the link above, when I asked what socialism was people just said it was helping the poor (technically right) and so I internalized it as a political platform in favour of things like public housing, redistribution of wealth and other such stuff. It made some things confusing, like calling communism socialism (I assumed it was just the right calling the left communist) but overall it seemed consistent and the ideological components were things I'd never heard of. So quite easily a lot of what I've said has been misinterpreted without me realizing both from the inherent ambiguity of words and my own lack of knowledge of some very complex terms and ideas.

The main example I can think of was when talking about Australia's political system. One of the details I forgot to mention was that one of the reasons our system is designed to be extremist and/or mass movement proof is that one of the original design principles of our government was to allow (mentioned here) England to maintain rule over Australia. In those days the most likely mass movements would have been for independence and secessionist's would have been seen (by the English anyway) as extremists. By not mentioning that I probably made it sound like the designers were noble and forward thinking, when they were probably as conservative and corrupt as other founders were and just had the additional advantage of taking pieces from other working democracies around the world (our system of amendments to the constitution come from Switzerland) instead of having to design a system from scratch. It was just a choice made for short term reasons that turned out to be a good long term decision, the invention of the secret ballot was apparently similar.

The difference in interpretation is fairly important. Put it like this, in America it can be considered a bug that the two parties are similar, in Australia that's more or less what's supposed to happen. Think of how preferential voting works, it allows like minded parties to exist and not completely steal votes off each over, but instead share voters, compulsory voting simply reinforces this and makes the most likely result centrist. The fact that Labor is centre-left, while the Liberal's are centre-right and thus have a fair amount of overlap (both support mixed economies but lean one way or another), is a sign that our system is working the way it was designed to, even if the original rational of preventing us from separating from England is meaningless now. Interestingly enough, this also allows flexibility in the parties approaches, the best example is the carbon tax. The Liberals, being centre-right, leans more towards market based approaches while Labor, being centre-left, leans more towards government based action, yet the carbon tax, which is a market based approach is a supported by Labor and the opposing Liberal idea is direct action, a government based approach.

The last point is fairly important since I feel there are some very important points I should talk about, but due to what they are and insufficient knowledge, understanding and so my ability to clearly explain them on my part any misinterpretation could easily change what I mean entirely, such as the when I talk about current civilization but don't necessarily include the growth part. The important points all come back in one way or another to my feeling/instinct that all the thinkers in the overshoot/ sustainability sphere (and this includes me) have all missed at least one major trend, fact, insight etc, though the minimum is more like 5 missed things. Like how renewable energy  is actually driving down electricity prices, due to solar there won't be summer peak in Australia in a decade or so is one cause, or the fact that new renewables are cheaper than new coal plants while also causing coal plants to work less. Just reflect on that, without a carbon price unsubsidized wind is 14% cheaper than a new brown coal plant, the description of brown coal I've heard is dirt that can be burnt, it is dirt cheap ($4 a ton or so) and yet wind is cheaper while large scale solar isn't far behind, this is a monumental change. And solar has disadvantages, PV cells can use low grade silicon, a partnership between ANU and origin energy just made a solar cell that needs 10% of the silicon while the silicon can be low grade and radiation damaged (these ones, though I got the details here). But the supply chains are appropriated from other sectors, such as computers which require high quality silicon, also this affects the glass, if it was optimized for PVs about 15% more light would be let through. However despite this they won't be able to save our current industrial society, but they will improve the one that follows. What I mean by that phrase is probably fairly ambiguous (to any one reading).

To put that in context, if the energy problem was the only crisis (it's not) facing industrial civilization, then the path we're on now will solve it and deliver sustainability. Not without some crises and hardship, but on it's own it isn't something on the scale of the fall of Rome and with it all but a few surviving fragments of classical civilization. It even makes climate change a threat of a different nature, it's inevitable that Australia will stop burning coal well before the massive reserves are anywhere near depleted and so it will be burnt overseas if at all. So not all the fossil fuels in the ground will necessarily be burnt, brown coal doesn't really have an export market and probably isn't worthwhile shipping. All the oil may be burnt, because it's hard to replace transport, but for electricity any scramble to shore up supplies in the future will be renewables because they're cheaper and easy to use. Now you could bring up that renewables are subsidized currently, except they receive less than fossil fuels, or the lack of rare earths and limits to mining, expect that Japan just found a huge reserve of rare earths and solar doesn't use rare earths. Just a quick aside about mining, first using sea mining isn't a good idea for iron, aluminum, copper or most other common metals, but rare earths are far more valuable and you only require small quantities so its a good way to go (also that reserve is way better than normal ones, less radioactivity), secondly this book mentions that we are nowhere near the entropic limits to mining, partly because mining projects are optimized around money (Net Present Value) rather than energy, and thirdly recycling is far cheaper in energy and capital terms but takes more labor (perfect for future societies) while not being utilized to its fullest extend, recycling of rare earths is only just starting. A better criticism would be to talk about powering transport and such, since mostly petrol does that (but not coal) and for electrification electric cars get a lot of focus, unfortunate since there not where to start (trains and ships are due to their size and energy efficiency). 

That specific point is also built into a really obvious point. Historical analysis is all well and good, but it assumes that this time around your dealing with something which has enough in the way of similarities that comparisons can be made. So you could have a pattern repeat a 100 times, it's reasonable to assume that that cycle will repeat, but if something fundamental has changed then chances are that cycle won't repeat (though it could have similarities). It also requires that the right parallels are drawn, most people use Greek democracy as what ours is based of but wisely Western civilization choose to base it's democracy of Rome's model (by way of Machiavelli) which is why it's far more stable (Greek democracies were short lived and unstable). There's an obvious difference this time round, we're the first technic civilization and so won't respond in the exact same way and our problems won't follow the same pattern as previous civilizations. They'll probably have many similarities though. One difference is the point above and while that doesn't avert all the problems and stop some sort of crisis, it's a big enough difference. So at some point I'll look at how current technic societies differ from non-technic and where they're similar (both have cities, literacy, hierarchies etc) along with the different kinds of technological process (along a specific line).

But I'm not going to touch those topics in any substantive way until I've gotten better at writing and have gained some experience in the technical world (and thus where we differ) that I can draw upon. Besides, what I've written up to now is more an experiment and there to simply get my ideas down, I already think a fair bit of what I've written is wrong. In ten years when I have the experience I might choose to go down a completely different path, I might have a completely different view, or something could have happened by then. It is the future, all we can do is guess, but plans are nice things to have.

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