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Friday, July 29, 2005

Creationism, or how I learned to start worrying and love science.

I had occasion today to wonder whether creationism is gaining ground in the modern world. A student in one of my classes had a creationist textbook. That’s the best way to describe it – it was glossy, thick, had a great deal of diagrams, tables and all of the end matter you would expect in a university textbook. But this was not material that would be taught in any university in this country.

As I leafed through it I was thinking to myself “What are you going to say if asked whether you believe it or not?” I didn’t come to a conclusion and didn't have to put my position. Partly because there was so much that needed to be refuted.

I think that is one of the reasons that the current resurgence of creationism is so hard to combat. Although individually many of the claims that are made may be relatively easy to disprove there’s such a weight of fraudulent science behind the subject now, that anybody who would wish to refute it would find themselves engulfed in tendentious rubbish.

So we leave well enough alone. And it is a rare person that has the required knowledge to be able to effectively demolish some of the more slippery fantasies. And like weeds in a garden these ideas grow wild, taking root wherever they find a foothold.

The larger question to ask is why do these ideas show such apparent virulence? The assumption has been in modern society (which has benefited so much from the advances of science), that belief in the creation as espoused in the bible was a quaint relic of by-gone days. But now it appears that creationists are trying to do to science what science once did to religion. It pokes and prods at what has effectively become the orthodoxy, attempting to validate beliefs that people have held for countless generations and playing on the suspicions people have about scientific explanation.

And what does it all matter anyway? So what if a few poor, misguided souls eschew the scientific method and centuries of accumulated reasoning? Surely it makes no difference if they believe the earth came into existence 6426 years ago on October 23rd.

There are two things that I would point out. The first I have already mentioned – if you want to go back to ascribing the properties of the universe to supernatural causes, perhaps you should hand in your cell-phone and stop driving a car and so on. No one doubts that science has provided the theories and ideas to create wonderful devices and to make incredibly accurate predictions of physical phenomena (maybe I shouldn’t say no one), and yet they have no qualms about rejecting the concomitant deductions that would refute creationism. If you are too lazy or stupid to follow through how people have come to understand the world around them in scientific terms, it is disingenuous to deny the validity of it.

Secondly, we are entering an age when it is going to become even more vital than previously that people approach the conditions of their life on earth as rationally and with as much rigour as possible. We are not going to be able to face up to the realities of energy decline if we allow ourselves to be guided by woolly-headed fantasies of intervention and incomplete understandings of natural history.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Death (of oil) and Taxes

I got sent this link today (pdf file - about 750kb). A thorough, rational appraisal of the different methods of assessing EUR and the date of peak oil. Best of all he is a fellow New Zealander, and therefore a top bloke.

Now for the taxes part...

We are two months out from a general election here in NZ, and while it doesn't attract the same febrile panegyrics and excoriations as an election in the States, there is the usual amount of obfuscation and bribery.

The central issue (it must be the central issue because that is what the two main parties are telling us) this time around is tax. The incumbent Labour party has had the good fortune to hold power during a period of particularly sunny economic weather for the country; high commodity prices for our agricultural produce, a good immigration rate and relatively beneficial exchange rates. They have been running a reasonable surplus, which they have been using to retire debt and save for a rainy day.

The opposition party, National, led by the former Reserve Bank governor (our version of Alan Greenspan) have promised that they will give all and sundry a tax break. This tactic was partly inspired by a dead-fish budget which had been rumoured to include tax relief, and which has now been dubbed the chewing gum budget because it offers the average wage earner 70 cents or so a week in three years time.

Now, I don't really care who gets into government, but I really do hate to see a former central banker lying through his teeth about economic matters (you'd think I would have got used to it by now). He knows perfectly well that whatever surplus is present at the moment is going to evaporate in the face of a falling exchange rate, rising energy costs and the end of the bull market in property.

And he may well say that neither he nor anyone can say exactly what will happen in the future, and he may spin some supply side fairy-tale about tax cuts stimulating the economy, but he cannot deny the demographic reality we face. Like all western nations, New Zealand is staring down the barrel of increased social security (particularly health) costs, as the baby-boomers reach retirement age.

The amount of shortfall we are facing would shock some people, I would have thought, but the message is just lost in the noise. So I have to sit here and watch political parties that are dominated by that very same generation argue over whether we should have one last hurrah now or wait to spend it all later. It makes me sick.

Interestingly, two well respected commentators have expressed the opinion that whoever does get into government may well have really lost as we confront the reality of stormy economic times. Racing for second place, as one of them put it.


The Greatest Race

I had occasion to moan about Formula One the other night. I had seen a quick news item on the TV about one of the Grand Prix. They made a point of mentioning the fact that Michael Shumacher was 4th. They didn’t tell us who was third.

It has become clear this season, that while Michael Shumacher may be a good driver, and I concede that he may still be the most naturally talented driver on the track, it makes very little difference if your car is slower than the rest.

For those of you not familiar with the circumstances, The F1 changed their rules on how cars could be designed and built before this season and Ferrari, Shumacher’s team, got caught on the hop. So now he looks like just another of the also-rans.

It’s interesting to me that for the last 6 years Michael Shumacher was lauded as some Olympian god of Motor Racing. His step back from the podium has exposed the verisimilitude of ascribing so much to an individual.

Those who follow racing closely (I am not one of them) would surely acknowledge that any victory is a team effort, that designers, mechanics, pit crews etc, are as vital as the driver. But those people are anonymous, they are not given enormous sponsorship deals, they are not assailed by the press for interviews. To the general public, weaned on TV coverage and disconnected from the day to day operation of a formula one team, they barely exist.

Formula one is an object lesson in the dangers of elevating individuals above the team. I think it is also a metaphor for much of what passes for culture in the western world. We heap fame and fortune on a small number of people in lieu of praising the efforts of groups and teams.

We will likely suffer in the long run for our inability to subordinate the cult of the individual. Great problems are never solved by a single person. And energy depletion is the greatest of problems. A transition to a lower population and lower energy use is something that must, if it is to succeed, be approached as a society wide project.

I alternate wildly between believing that this is something that we can achieve, as a species, and believing that we inherently contain the seeds of our own destruction, that our hubris will lead us to disaster. But I am confident that we will be worse off if we cannot agree to work together.

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Monday, July 25, 2005

New Chapter

I've just added a new chapter to my novel, the 6th so far.

Check it out, you may even enjoy it.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Fuel Riots - coming soon to a town near you

Yemen has been the latest country to have to endure fuel riots. Also living through the sharp edge of the onset of peak oil are Nicaragua and Indonesia. If we combine that with the unrest in Bolivia over the sale of natural gas assets, throw in The Nigerian delta for good measure, and of course Iraq, we are up to 6 hotspots in the fire-front of oil depletion.

Out of interest, while finding the hyperlinks above I typed 'fuel riots' into Google. Many of the stories were about Yemen, but there were also stories about Iraq, Nigeria and others from the last 7 years. when do we expect to see Los Angeles, or London.

We have just had another rise in the price of fuel here in New Zealand. We are now combatting a falling exchange rate, which will mean that contracts that have been hedged will become much more expensive when renewed.

We are also dangerously close to power blackouts, as it seems are California, and England.

Also of note has been the story of bomb labs being uncovered in Saudi Arabia.

I get the feeling that peak oilers are sensing some kind of tipping point. I know that many of us in this community constantly feel like there is a tipping point just around the corner (and I readily admit that wide scale disruption in SauSaudi Arabia is my favourite hypothesis) but it also seems like the weight of evidence is slowly shifting.

What does everyone think?

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Monday, July 18, 2005

Populating the Future

It is becoming increasingly obvious that human activity is straining the ability of the earth’s environment to cope. World leaders are slowly accepting the reality of anthropogenic climate change, among the many environmental threats facing us. Environmental organisations and scientists are increasingly people who have known about environmental destruction for their entire working lives, and their audiences are often people who have been instructed in these same lessons since birth.

But there is one issue that is supposedly well understood, but very seldom articulated: population. Put quite simply, rising populations cause environmental harm. Rising populations that are experiencing rising per capita environmental impact rates cause even more harm.

We can chase our tails over the reduction of greenhouse gases, over deforestation, over coral reef destruction as much as we like. Unless we can either reduce our population or our per-capita impact, we are living on borrowed time.

To put it quite simply the population living on the earth at the moment is living well beyond the ability of the earth to sustain us in the long run. We are existing in the early stages of what is known as overshoot. We have overshot the carrying capacity of the earth and our population levels will eventually correct to reflect this. (Estimates have been done of the long term carrying capacity of the earth, and best estimates suggest a value of around a billion people)

Think of any resource that is vital to our survival: We are using it unsustainably. Water in aquifers is being depleted, farmland is losing precious fertility, weather patterns are becoming more violent and forests are being felled far above replacement rates. We have been able to do this because we are able to use fossil fuels as a substitute – and there is no way of using fossil fuels sustainably.

In the long run the environment of the earth will no longer be able to sustain our current lifestyles and population levels.

Now, there are four options open to us. First, we can attempt to reduce population. This will require a Herculean effort, and one that most cultures not only shy from but actively loathe. We currently see in the US the possibility of long standing rights to access abortions being reversed. The catholic church refuses to bend on the issue of contraception. In any case, such efforts are like trying to restrain a galloping horse with dental floss. Until populations actually experience a shortage of the necessaries of life they will continue to grow.

Secondly we can attempt to lower per-capita environmental impact. Some people around the world consider that their personal impact on the environment is small, but it is easy to forget that there is a certain basic impact that is unavoidable. Everybody requires an amount of water, productive land and other natural resources to survive. Many people in the world already exist at or near this minimum, so we can’t expect them to lower their standard of living. Western nations are quite simply unwilling to face the prospect of a lower impact on the environment in any serious way. This is because, in despite of the small superficial things we do or say that we do, the reduction of per capita impact in any serious way would mean a reverse to the economic growth that we take for granted.

Some will argue that we have been able to achieve economic growth through increased productivity and the growth of the service sector, rather than increasing use of resources. These are beguiling arguments, but fail to recognise that while that may be true in individual countries, for the world as a whole growth means increased impact on the environment – more trees felled, more fossil fuels burnt, more land cultivated.

While the global economy exists in its current form there is no possibility that we can face up to the difficulties of shrinking environmental impact. In any case, very few people actively strive for a reduction in their living standard. Those that do are often marginalized or ridiculed.

So, our third option is to try to a bit of both of options one and two. You can see the difficulty there, I’m sure.

Option four is to do nothing and let nature takes its course. I am quite sure that this is what we will do, given the inherent unpalatability of the other three options. What might this mean for us? Well the first thing is, when we can no longer increase the amount of fossil fuel we use, and when we have destroyed the forests, fisheries and farmland of the earth, the population at the time will start to learn some very bitter lessons about natural population fluctuations.

Whether we can use our much vaunted intellect to engineer a soft landing rather than a population crash remains to be seem. But I think the fate of bacteria in a petri dish bears thinking about.

Bacteria put into a virgin environment perfect for their growth will very quickly start reproducing at an exponential rate. They grow until they fill then environment entirely, at which point they start to become subsumed in their own waste products. This leads to a very steep reduction in population.

Like the sound of that?

Novel Blog

I have decided to start adding my half finished novel to the web via this blog. It is very much a work in progress, but I would be interested to hear opinions, criticism etc. I am partly doing this to motivate myself to work harder on it. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Economists and Peakniks

I read a discussion today on the gulf that exists between economists and peak oil scientists. The thrust of the poster’s argument was; if we can be reasonably sure that oil is going to decline in supply, why isn’t this being priced in now? It isn’t yet, it was argued, so the theory must be flawed.

Putting aside the details of the rate of decline and the current and future price expectations used in the article, we are dealing with an issue of how do we explain any price in a market. This is, after all, what economics is trying to do.

The lengthy thread that followed the article illustrated very nicely the issues involved. No two posts were identical in their import: None of the many posters, be they engineers, businessmen, economists, peak oil sympathisers or anonymous cowards, used the same methodology for analysing the problem.

Some talked of the rational economic actor, hoarding oil now for when it will be scarce in the future. Some talked of meta-stable bands, and discontinuous pricing functions. Yet others talked of the opacity of information. Reading the thread could make you feel, as one poster admitted, “dense”.

I don’t think anyone should feel uninformed for having not understood the arguments put forward. It would make sense that something as complicated as a commodity market would require a complicated explanation. The core issue is: are the movements of markets strictly explicable by economic theory?

Mathematicians will tell anybody who is interested that there are relatively simple formulations that can produce insolubly complex outcomes (the basis of chaos theory) and physicists will cheerfully admit that there are limits to our understanding of both microscopic and macroscopic systems. Yet an economist will have an explanation for systems that are every bit as complicated as fluid motion or strange attractors.

Despite economics having a nobel prize to award every year, there is a qualitative difference between the analysis it uses and the methods of science. Economic predictions are ethereal things, not to be absolutely relied upon, certainly open to debate. They make interesting newspaper articles and they make for good small talk: They say that growth is going to…” But they are not infallible, rigorous or sometimes even very testable. Economists are not able to perform true control experiments, or view their test subjects in splendid isolation.

And there’s the rub – economists are an integral part of the system they are studying. A physicist’s announcement to the world that he thinks a particle will follow a certain path has no earthly bearing on the outcome of the experiment. But the Chairman of the Federal Reserve is often credited with moving markets simply by his economic prognostications. Economics is quite simply not a science. Its predictive power is weak and its assumptions often unrealistic.

So clearly there is a gulf between the scientists working on peak oil and economists who are suspicious of the veracity of their claims. Economists say: “Your evidence doesn’t fit with what my model says should happen.” Peak oilers say: “The problem ain’t with my evidence buddy!” There are two competing ideologies at work, and no mean feat to reconcile them. Economics is guilty of masquerading as a predictive science, but peakniks must also admit that the uncertainty that surrounds peak oil bedevils their cause.

There is no accuracy attached to the arrval date of peak oil, but it is certain that oil production will peak at some point. That much only those most distantly connected to reality can deny (and yet they do). It remains to be seen whether it is in fact possible to successfully transition away from oil (and fossil fuels in general) in a manner that is orderly and equitable. This is what both sides of the debate should be focussing on, and this is the area that both can actually contribute most to.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005


I’m a newbie blogger, but there are a few things that immediately stand out about the blogosphere. The first is just how many blogs there are. The volume of type and graphics is staggering. It is the most significant written representation of ordinary people’s lives in human history. Never before have so many been able to say so much so easily. Gone are the constraints of geographic location and the harsh realities of commercial publishing.

And what’s everybody writing about? Well if we discard the blogs being used as a front for commercial enterprises (mostly porn), and discount those that simply re-post articles from mainstream news, we find one very clear trend. Blogs tend to reflect people’s quotidianal concerns, activities and obsessions. From the barely coherent ramblings of half literate teenagers, to the witheringly funny send-ups and put-downs, people are making good on the old maxim ‘write what you know’.

You might be thinking, “here comes a lecture on how little everybody knows.” Well, I do mention complaining about ignorance in the title bar, so you could be excused for thinking that. But this once, in the glow of new blog-hood, I am going to refrain from lashing out at the ordinary blogger.

Most blogs, and certainly the best ones, are quietly uplifting in their reflection on the small struggles and triumphs of life. The best bloggers have the facility to make you both care about them and to laugh at them.

But it quickly becomes apparent that for every well-crafted rumination, there are any number of lunatic ramblings. The internet has given people a chance to let loose ideas that would otherwise have remained sequestered in feverish cortices. Why is this?

I think that the key functional element of posting on the internet is that you are not in physical proximity to the people you are “talking to”. Where once people might have thought “I don’t think it’s a good idea to express my belief in [insert implausible codswallop]” for fear of being ostracized, both socially and physically, they now need fear nothing. Comments posted on the internet have nothing of the visceral disappointment associated with a face-to-face denunciation, and no matter how brutal a put-down is, it loses all of the implied threat it contains when typed into a computer.

Ideas, memes if you prefer, are therefore released into a network made up of people unburdened of their social reticence regarding unjustifiable surmises and suppositions. The longer this network produces this mental noise, the more normal it seems. The extreme oddity of what sometimes passes for information on the internet makes everyday life seem desperately pedestrian.

Some people, it seems, are so deceived by this more vivid version of reality that they implicitly come to believe that there must be more to the real world than they have been led to believe. After all, this is the thought pattern that underlies belief in religions as well, so why should we not expect to find a religion of fabulous exaggerations existing in cyberspace?

I have no difficulty with every individual cleaving to their own beliefs, but I will make my stand here and now: If your beliefs lead you or others to disaster then you must repudiate these beliefs. If a man walks off a cliff believing that gravity doesn’t apply to him and breaks his back, then he deserves no sympathy if he continues to believe he can defy gravity. If he convinves others to do the same then he is a criminal.

I think it is important to say here that while that may sound like a totally illiberal, mean spirited injunction against people’s inherent mental freedom, I do truly believe that everybody is entitled to believe whatever they like. But I believe that we are entering an era of our history where many of our most deeply held beliefs will be challenged, frayed, shredded and eventually exterminated. And so I caution all you bloggers and blog followers to examine very carefully the utility or otherwise of your beliefs. For example; is a belief in horoscopes adding anything to your life? Is prohibition of birth control fair in a world of limited resources? Do you really think that secretive elements of the government are trying to poison the population by spraying substances from commercial airliners? Sheesh!

Well, I’m sure you get the picture. So good work to all those bloggers who are keeping it real. And to those dwelling in the unreal, snap out of it, or prepare to be snapped.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Brother, can you spare a calorie?

I saw a documentary a little while ago, Super Size Me, by Morgan Spurlock, in which, at one point, several people were asked in a vox-pop what a calorie actually is. None of them could answer the question. The most common answer was ‘something to do with fat?’ I am not pretending that this should be taken to mean that no-one understands what a calorie is. One of the experts interviewed on the film, a nutritionist I think it was, could provide the textbook answer of ‘one calorie is the amount of energy required to raise one litre of water one degree centigrade’.

I wondered to myself if you had asked these same people, or in fact anybody, what energy is, whether they could give a reasonable answer. Can I give a good answer? Is the question even fair? Energy is one of those concepts that we take more or less for granted, if we even think about it at all. How would you describe energy to a child, or a visitor from mars?

Would your definition concur with those of the Oxford paperback dictionary?

1. The capacity for vigorous action; 2. Force or vigour of expression; 3. The ability of matter or radiation to do work because of its motion, its mass, or its electric charge; 4. Fuel and other resources used for the operation of machinery etc.

I suspect that a lot more people would give a definition akin to the first of those listed above, as in ‘he has a lot of energy’ (meaning he has a lot of capacity for action, vigorous or otherwise). But obviously that is not what we are supposed to understand by the nutritionist telling us that an item of food has 100 calories – after all a donut has no capacity for action.

Rather the calories some of us worry about are best described by the third definition above – The ability of matter to do work. By eating the donut we harness the chemical energy stored in it and convert it into work – motion and heat primarily.

That leads us to the one truly important thing about energy: energy is conserved. This means that in a closed system (and the only truly closed system is the entire universe) the amount of energy is constant. Energy is being converted from one form to another all the time, but the total amount of energy is constant. It’s also worthwhile to note that energy is to all intents and purposes the same thing as work and is also commensurate with heat. It is even basically interchangeable with that other great constant of the universe, mass, thanks to Einstein’s famous equation E = MC2.

If you are still feeling in the dark as to what energy actually is, then you are most certainly not alone. From the preceding paragraph you might get the feeling that everything in the world is energy. After all, if mass, heat and work are just energy, what’s left? Nothing really. Energy is literally, to use a clichéd phrase, ‘the fabric of the universe’. Modern physicists have many different and esoteric ways of describing the warp and woof of this ‘fabric’ but none can get around the fact that energy is not able to be described in terms of anything more basic. Energy is just as it is.

One of the curious paradoxes about this situation is that even though we seem to be forbidden from understanding what energy actually is, we have become very skilled at manipulating it.

All life must use energy to sustain itself. Life may well have got its energy in the very beginning of prehistory from subterranean volcanoes. The sun, however, has been the primary source for the vast majority of the energy used by life on the planet.

The sun’s immense fusion reaction (turning mass into energy according to E = MC2) has provided enough energy for a huge variety of life to evolve to exploit it. The most basic type of life is an autotrophe – an organism that harnesses all of its energy from the sun; plants using photosynthesis, for example. A heterotrophe harnesses the energy gathered by autotrophes by consuming them (think of a cow nibbling grass) and some heterotrohes consume other heterotrophs. Life in this way can be thought of as a pyramid with a transfer of energy up the levels.

And who should sit at the top of the pyramid but human beings. Our ingenuity and a great deal of good fortune has meant that we use more energy than any other species on the planet. But if you stop to think about this you might wonder, how can we use more than the plants that absorb all that energy from the sun? After all, we don’t consume all of the plants on the planet. There are two words that will explain that situation: fossil fuels.

By the use of fossil fuels we are tapping into solar energy that was harvested by tiny organisms millions of years and then stored by the restless movement of the earth’s crust. You could regard it as inevitable that a species like us would evolve to exploit this incredible resource. It was a niche just waiting to be discovered, and once it was found and put to use it allowed our dreams to become reality. Our dominion over the earth has spread as our population has grown in step with our energy use. Fossil fuel energy and its products now so subsume our culture that life without them would be, to the average 21st century human, more or less inconceivable.

So, those people that were asked on that New York street what a calorie was may never have given much thought to the true nature and import of the word energy. The calories that a hamburger contains are an absolute given for them. When they are hungry they eat, and perhaps they will assiduously count the number of calories that they consume. But it troubles them little to consider the intricate web of energetic dependences that brought their hamburger into being. It would be the last thought on most people’s minds that their meal owes its existence in part to the energy gathering ability of prehistoric algae.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Welcome One and All!

This is my maiden post to The Back Slope. It seems to be going all right so far, right?

A friend of mine once said that he thought I would pay to see my self published, but he didn't reckon with the power of the blog.

I will keep this short for the moment but I thought you might like to know what I intend to cover in this blog.

Well... I have listed my interests in my profile, so that should give you a good idea to start with. I am particularly interested in the growing dysfunctionality of western economies. That may sound like a pretty heavy topic, but I don't intend this to be a doom-laden denunciation of modern life (at least not just for the sake of scaring you ;-)

But I do want to share with anyone who is interested information and opinions on the course of life in the 21st century. Check out the links to get a feel for where I am coming from and I will see you back here as often as time allows.