29 December 2009

Dwindling Trust

Just about every day a new scandal hits, from toxic drywall to contaminated food to clothes that leave burns and rashes on our children. A quick skim of just TODAYS articles reveals some very interesting items. Tylenol that was contaminated with a chemical called 2,4,6-tribromoanisole has been recalled after causing stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Cocaine users all over the US are coming to hospitals with flu-like symptoms and autoimmune problems because their drugs were cut with a horse dewormer known as Levamisole. RC2 has been slapped with $1.25 million dollar fine for importing Thomas The Train Engine toys with lead levels exceeding federal standards in 2006 and 2007 (after settling a class action lawsuit for the SAME problem back in 2006). This is just in todays headlines.

The next bite of food we take may poison us. The next can of Salmon Surprise we feed our cat could kill it. The next t-shirt you put on could burn you. This is the state our country has come to. We cannot trust the very things that are meant to keep us alive.

22 December 2009

Peak Everything?

An interesting book caught my eye today, called Peak Everything. Society has talked, and joked, about Peak Oil for decades since M. King Hubbert put the idea forward in 1956. He predicted a peak in oil in the 1970's. Now many educated individuals, which we would label experts, are applying this model to other resources.

There are many indications that we have reached or are nearing a peak in gold, natural gas, helium, electricity, fresh water, aluminum, copper, and other metals.

Let's get something straight right now. The idea of a peak does NOT refer to a depletion of a resource. What it describes is a tipping point, where the remaining resources are more costly and more time consuming to reach, extract, and process, at which point supply cannot meet demand.

Not every deposit of a natural resource is created equal. Oil is an easy one to use for examples. There are many grades of oil, from sweet light crude to heavy crude. The lower the grade the harder and more costly it is to refine. Most of the light sweet crude deposits are gone. Oil is also located in many places, from extremely hospitable climes such as southern California, to extremely harsh climes such as northern Alaska and Siberia. Harsher climates, and more remote locations, mean higher costs and longer transport times.

What it comes down to, in a nutshell, is that we can only dig something out of the ground so fast, and no faster. THIS then is the peak. The point at which we can't dig any faster, but demand continues to increase. As the cost of extraction and processing climbs, and the pace of extracting and processing slows, the price increases rapidly. This mechanism will actually slow consumption due to higher prices, but will restrict access to those who have the economic means. Gas will become a luxury. And if this model holds true resources that we take for granted, like fresh water, may become a luxury as well.

21 December 2009

ELE

Also known as an Extinction Level Event. These events are, for the most part, measured on a scale that spans generations rather than a single human lifetime. However two scenarios can have a more rapid impact. The first is a massive volcanic eruption, known as a flood basalt. Enormous amounts of lava cover the landscape, as much as 1.5 million square kilometers, to a depth measured in thousands of meters. With our modern monitoring equipment, it's likely that we would know well in advance if such a large scale event were going to take place.

The second scenario is one we envisioned often as kids, the asteroid hitting the Earth and wiping out the dinosaurs. WOOSH! BAM! A fiery column rises from the Earths crust, millions of gallons of seawater turn to steam, hurricanes sweep across continents, tsunamis thousands of feet high race across the globe, the sky grows dark, and another ice age begins. Totally unthinkable!

And yet, it's not. There is strong evidence that an asteroid impact contributed to at least one of the Big Five major extinctions. A single object of sufficient size would end most life on earth. A smaller object would simply annihilate a continent, or wipe out the coastlines of several continents, and cause planet-wide changes in the weather and average temperatures. Another option would be a comet or asteroid that calved, causing multiple strikes of various sizes.

We live on an island, as the saying goes, and we are stuck here. Interstellar travel is still the stuff of dreams. Our ability to monitor the heavens is far from sufficient to warn us of an impending strike. There is simply too much space to monitor. Even if luck allowed us to spot an incoming object, what would we do? There really isn't any publicly known strategy for shoving aside an asteroid. Various governments may have ideas, but at the current rate of off-planet development and exploration it is doubtful that any feasible technologies exist.

The human race is young. We have not experienced any ELEs in our written history. To think that such a thing could never happen is folly.  To leave ones survival to the hands of fate is ridiculous. True, in such a scenario there are many people who would perish regardless of their preparations, but we cannot know where such conditions will exist. Perhaps North America will be flattened, but maybe it will be Antartica, or an oceanic strike could wipe out coastlines but leave the interior of contintents intact. To be prepared is the only logical choice, just in case fortune smiles.

17 December 2009

Case Study: Portland, OR Water Contamination

Several weeks ago, here in Portland, the water distribution system was compromised when it was found that the number 3 water reservoir in Washington Park was contaminated with E. Coli bacteria. A large portion of west Portland was affected. Restaurants closed, and residents were instructed to boil all tap water for at least one minute before use, with this restriction remaining in effect until the following day. Within several hours of this announcement all publicly available bottled water had been purchased.

Whether the contamination was accidental or deliberate does not appear to be known, but the duration was mercifully short. Distribution centers would most likely have more goods on hand. Extra effort would allow swift delivery of needed supplies, perhaps at a higher price. But the supply chain can only accelerate so much before output is maximized. Furthermore it takes time to increase the capacity of any system, be it production, shipping, or storage. How long would such an event have to last before demand outstripped supplies?

Our standard of living is based on an intricate dance of static systems (water, power, sewer, tellecommuncations, roads) and dynamic systems (shipping, trucking, trains). Some elements of each system can be replaced by the other. For example bottled water may no longer arrive at the stores (trucking), but as long as our water distribution system is intact the peoples needs will be met (water). But reverse the scenario and we find limitations, which may lead to civil unrest, riots, and eventually death. One need only look to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to know that any major compromise to our infrastructure, even on a local level, will result in tragedy.

16 December 2009

Domino Effect

Some food for thought. For the first time in the history of humanity, we are now in the interesting, and possibly doomed, position of having a global society. No nation stands alone. Events anywhere in the globe can send shockwaves through the worlds economy. Wars on the other side of the planet can change your life in significant ways, even if your own country isn't involved.

Even more interesting is the fact that the world is now extremely interconnected when it comes to natural resources. With current technology we can move an orange grown in Spain to Mozambique in a timespan measured not in days or weeks, but in hours, if we so choose.

In the "civilized" world, most of what we buy and/or consume is not grown or made anywhere near us. Our clothes, our appliances, our cars, our furniture, is shipped from somewhere else, often from outside the country. Even the food we eat isn't typically grown near us. It comes from some other area of the country, or some other country altogether. It arrives by ship, train, or truck.

Lifestyles in the First World have become outsourced. Little of what we possess is actually FROM our own country. Our existence depends on a chain of supply that spans the globe. If a single link in that chain fails, what happens next?

15 December 2009

Nuclear Winter

It's a term most people have heard at least once, although they may not know the actual definition. It has nothing to do with radiation from nuclear blasts. The world has already experienced a similar phenomenon once in recent history, when Mt. Tambora erupted on April 5th, 1815, causing what is known as a volcanic winter.

The basic premise states that in the event of a nuclear war the resulting fires would eject enough soot and smoke into the stratosphere to significantly reduce the amount of sunlight which reaches the Earths surface. The reduction in sunlight would lead to lower temperatures and shorter growing seasons, resulting in famine. The eruption in 1815 led to what is often called "the year without a summer," and included widespread famine and significantly colder temperatures. New York recorded frosts in mid-summer, and New England, New Foundland, and Labrador had snowfall in June of 1816.

While mankind has done much to reduce nuclear armaments, there are new contenders in the atomic arena who seem eager to utilize the power of the atom for their own gain. The US and the USSR muddled through the Cold War without anihilating each other, but we now face the possibility of a new arms race amongst the Asian and Middle Eastern nations. Nuclear Winter remains a distinct possiblity, a brutal consequence to add to the list of the results of nuclear war. Another volcanic eruption of massive proportions may trigger a volcanic winter as well, although perhaps with modern monitoring equipment we will have enough advance warning to prepare for such a disaster.

Fragility of Civilization

Our civilization has lasted quite a while, at least from our perspective. We've come a long way from living beneath whatever overhang we could find, and killing other animals with a pointed stick. Make no mistake, we ARE animals. We're smarter (perhaps), we have opposable thumbs (not quite a unique trait), and we can make complex sounds with our vocal apparatus (an advantage that some biological anthropologists claim is responsible for our rise to greatness).

For all that, civilization is fragile. A combination of factors, or even a SINGLE factor, can undo everything.

The Straw That Broke The Camels Back

An appropriate metaphor for the current state of the world.