Putting the life back in science fiction


A Bright and Shiny Future. With Mirrorshades

More avoidance.  I was going to write about the IEA’s 2017 World Energy Outlook (Vox article).  Or I could write about The Grauniad’s seven megatrends that could beat global warming” article.  Or I could write about the bright and shiny, 100% electrified future that seems to be the major global bankwagon that people like the IEA are now jumping on.  But that would be avoiding the real work.  Continue reading

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Water, salt, sediment, and power. And the future

Well, I finally finished reading Mark Reisner’s Cadillac Desert (Amazon link), and I highly recommend it, if you haven’t read it already, even though the original text was written in the 1980s.  For those who haven’t read it, the thumbnail is that it’s a muckraking history of water works in the US, primarily in the western US in the 20th Century.  The reason I strongly recommend it is not just for what Reisner got right (or apparently got right), but also what he got wrong, like his prediction of the huge water crisis of 2000.

I’m not going to do a book review here.  Rather, I’m going to talk about some of the things I got out of it, including how hard it is to predict when water crises will hit.

Continue reading



Fun read about California water politics
January 12, 2016, 8:00 pm
Filed under: economics, Real Science Content | Tags: ,

I’m getting an education in California water issues right now, courtesy of a blog, On the public record, which was “outed” in an recent article in the Los Angeles Times.

“On the public record” is written by a mid-level bureaucrat somewhere in one of California’s water agencies. Except for her gender, that she went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and has at least two degrees, she’s so far remained anonymous (no small feat). She’s been blogging for about seven years, calling it as she sees it.

This blog is a real education for me in how California water politics, regulation, and economics work, and it’s well written too. If this is something you’re interested in, check it out.



Next up, the ammonia economy?

This is another spun-off “strange attractor” from Antipope. It had nothing to do with the thread it was on, but the topic is interesting enough–if you’re into futuristic science fiction–that I wanted to summarize it here.

The basic idea is using ammonia as an alternate, carbon-free fuel. This isn’t as weird as it sounds, and there are a bunch of industrial efforts out there that might well project us into an ammonia age rather than a hydrogen one. Unfortunately, ammonia isn’t a panacea, so switching from fossil fuels to ammonia synthesized using solar or wind energy won’t be problem free. For those looking for dramatic conflict, ammonia has it.

Anyway, the fundamentals. Ammonia is NH3. If like me you’re lazy, you can go to Wikipedia’s article on energy densities, and find out that liquid ammonia has about 11.5 MJ/L of energy, slightly better than compressed natural gas (9 MJ/L) and liquid hydrogen (8.5 MJ/L), and less than propane (25.3 MJ/L) or gasoline (34.2 MJ/L), among many others.

As for making NH3, right now we make it in huge plants using the Haber-Bosch process, which makes ammonia using natural gas. Nitrogen is ubiquitous as N2 in the atmosphere, but N2 is a very stable molecule, and it takes a lot of energy to break it and turn it into NH3. Still, people are looking for better ways to do it. NH3 Canada is developing a miniature ammonia synthesizer that’s about four cubic meters in size and can produce 500 liters of ammonia per day, with each liter of ammonia taking 2 liters of water and 7.5 KWhrs of electricity to produce it. As a comparison, the average US home uses 909 kWhr per month or about 30 kWhr per day, which is about what it would take to make a gallon of ammonia using NH3 Canada’s technology. If it works.

To save you the math, that’s about 30% conversion efficiency, which isn’t bad. Ammonia synthesis could be used to store electricity from, say, wind turbines. The nice thing about NH3 Canada is that they want to use small units and stack them in banks, while the older technology uses huge furnaces to get efficiencies of scale.

What can you do with ammonia? You can actually mix it with gasoline and use it to run your car, if you get the mix right, and other researchers are working on creating engines that can run on pure ammonia. While there’s less energy in ammonia than there is in propane, it can be handled similarly. Pure (anhydrous) ammonia is fairly dangerous stuff, but then again, so is liquid hydrogen, and so are giant batteries if they’re fully charged. Energy density makes things dangerous.

Of course, ammonia has many other uses. We all know of it as a cleaner and fuel, and it used to be used in refrigerators before people switched to the much more efficient and dangerous CFCs [but see comments]. But it’s primary use is as a fertilizer and to make explosives, including gunpowder. Industrial nitrogen fixation underlies Big Ag all over the world, and it also underlies industrial warfare. Without huge amounts of gunpowder, things like machine guns don’t work, because there isn’t enough ammunition to make them fully functional killing machines.

Similarly, without huge amounts of nitrogen, the huge amounts of corn, wheat, and soy that are required to feed all seven billion of us wouldn’t exist. Some calculate that at least a third of us wouldn’t exist without fixed nitrogen in our food. The US has taken full advantage of this, and forcing huge supplies of cheap food on the world has been a major part of our foreign policy since the Eisenhower Administration. It was one way of beating communism, and protecting our high-yielding corn from things like being pirated by the Chinese is a matter of national security today.

I’m not a huge fan of Big Ag, even though I’d probably be dead without it. Still, if we want to switch from fossil fuels to renewables, adapting and expanding our existing fixed nitrogen infrastructure is a lot easier than trying to build the infrastructure needed to handle hydrogen.

That’s the good part. There are some downsides.

One is that when you burn ammonia in an engine, it produces NOx, which is a major source of air pollution. This can be fixed if there’s a catalytic converter on the exhaust pipe. I suppose, if you’re powering agricultural equipment, it might be possible to capture the NOx, convert it to nitrate or urea, and use it as fertilizer on the fields, thereby getting a second use from the fixed nitrogen.

One big problem with an ammonia economy is the same problem with renewables, which is that you’re capturing energy from the modern sun, and that’s all you get to play with. Fossil fuels use fossil sunlight from the last few hundred million years, and that’s a lot more energy. There’s no fossil ammonia, so we’d be stuck working in a lower energy environment. Currently, industrially fixed nitrogen takes about 1% of the global energy supply, but that’s a fixed 1%, and if it’s used for other purposes, people can starve. We’d have to ramp up NH3 production to store captured renewable energy, not depend on what’s already being made.

Still, I can envision a world where giant farms host an overstory of huge wind turbines, all hooked up to ammonia synthesizers. The farmer uses the ammonia to run his equipment, then uses nitrates captured from the exhaust to fertilize his fields. Aside from the scale and all the problems with nitrogen runoff and pollution, this isn’t a bad setup.

There are some interesting follow-ons.
–One is politics. If most of the world switches to synthesizing ammonia from sunlight or wind, the countries that depend on petroleum exports are out of luck. The only parts of the Middle East that would continue to matter to the US (and possibly China and Russia) are Egypt and Israel, due to the Suez Canal. This means that the burgeoning crises in the region would have to be dealt with semi-regionally, if at all. And that’s bad for all those refugees. Russia is likely to be a hold-out in switching off fossil fuels, since they get so much power from oil and natural gas, but switching to ammonia would change international politics as much as did the switch to using oil in the early 20th Century.
–A second issue is fertilizer. It is feasible to synthesize huge amounts of ammonia, but other elements are essential for plant growth, and the world is starting to run short of minable phosphorus. We may well have phosphorus wars in the future, but the simpler solution is to recycle sewage and manure onto fields. This has all sorts of public health and disease vector implications, but it will keep people from starving And there are menu implications–you want to eat raw salad from a field that receives sewage? It’s a common practice in the developing world.
–A third issue is air pollution. I can easily see people using ammonia to power things like home generators in areas where the power grid is failing, but if these machines don’t have decent filters on their exhaust, they will put out a lot of air pollution. The resulting smog will degrade the performance of any local solar panels, but it might be simpler than investing in huge batteries and a smart grid to provide power when the sun doesn’t shine.

And who will control the ammonia? A nitrogen-based economy has less energy than does the current oil-based economy. Energy becomes power when it is scarcer, even more than it is currently. Right now, we’re seeing how Big Oil distorts politics all over the world. Small ammonia generators, like the NH3 Canada machine, change the current game that is dominated by a few huge producers, because they mean that small-scale producers can make small amounts of fuel, at least in the short term. Probably this means that the advantage shifts from those who produce ammonia to those who build ammonia synthesizers and can best ship the ammonia from producers to consumers. Over time, I suspect that a few big ammonia producers will dominate the industry in any one area. They will be, quite literally, power brokers.

Still, switching to ammonia could slow down global warming, because the great advantage of NH3 is there’s no carbon emission from using it. It beats things like bio-diesel and biomass cold. Unfortunately, we’re seeing increasing methane emissions from the Arctic, so even if we get civilization’s carbon emissions under control, we may be passing the tipping point as you read this. We’ll see.

If you want to write a SF-thriller set in the next few decades, you could do worse than to power the world with ammonia, and make the Politics of N a centerpiece of the story. After all ammonia isn’t just a fuel, it’s a cleaner, fertilizer, and a refrigerant. Who wouldn’t want to get rich off it? Something to think about.



Tragedy of the…um, what?

This is a short post inspired by a comment train on Charles Stross’ Antipope.

The question at the time was whether Nobel prizes are sexist, with more women than men getting the award. My anecdote was about the late Dr. Elinor Ostrom, who received the 2009 Nobel Economics prize for her work showing that Commons could indeed work. I discussed this a couple of years ago in a post about whether to markets could be managed as commons, which was a topic I was playing with at the time.

The previous posts lists eight principles that Dr. Ostrom found worked to allow members of a commons to successfully manage that commons. This goes against the idea of the Tragedy of the Commons (Wikipedia article link). I hear this most often referred to today by people who refer to the idea as a reason why commons should be privatized and market forces should be used to manage them, because otherwise they’re doomed. This isn’t quite what Hardin meant, and later on, he noted that he should have called it “The Tragedy of the Unregulated Commons.”

Getting at the question of whether the economics Nobels are sexist, I’d point to three lines of evidence:
1. To date, Dr. Ostrom is the only woman who has received an economics Nobel.
2. As I recall from the references, she caught a lot of flack when she received the award. She was derided as a sociologist, not a real economist, and some said that there were other men who were more deserving who were overlooked that year.
3. More to the point, men in particular still refer to the tragedy of the commons as if it’s a real thing. When confronted with Ostrom’s work, they insist that they mean something that’s real, which is a common defense against any such attack.

Here’s the thing: everyone agrees that unregulated commons can be looted. But this statement is also true for any unregulated market (think illegal drugs, human trafficking, poaching…), and it’s true for unregulated capitalism (think illegal drugs, human trafficking, poaching…). If we’re going to use the term “Tragedy of the Commons” as if it’s real, I’d argue that it’s only fair to talk about “The Tragedy of Capitalism” and “The Tragedy of Markets” as the reason why we should manage as many common resources as commons, rather than having them under private, inequitable control that runs them into the ground for the profit of the few. It’s just as true.

However, I don’t expect anyone to be fair, so the better option is to realize that the Tragedy of the Commons is a term that needs to be retired. The reason for retiring it is that self-regulated commons can work very well. Properly designed and regulated commons are a perfectly reasonable management system for everything from community forests to large scale groundwater basins, and eliminating the “TotC” phrase from our vocabulary frees us up to explore these management options where they’re appropriate. Given how important things like groundwater management are for keeping civilization running, I’d suggest that every good management system should be an acceptable option for managing them, and that includes commons.



American Brontosaur

I haven’t posted recently, because I’ve been busy with a book and life throwing things at me. Anyway, as part of research for the book (which explores the idea of what the deep future looks like if severe climate change comes to past and humans don’t go extinct), I wanted to find out how much energy the average American currently uses. So I did the usual Google Search, and tripped over Cecil Adams’ 2011 Straight Dope column about whether Americans use more energy than a blue whale (which was asserted in a 2009 New York Times article). He (actually his brainy assistant Una) cranked the calculation and came up with the basic answer of “no.” Just for thoroughness’ sake, I decided to replicate part of it.

It turns out that, in 2012 (according to <a href=”https://flowcharts.llnl.gov/energy.html”>LLNL</a&gt;), the US used 9.71 quadrillion BTUs of energy (quads), of which 4.17 quads were actually used for something and 5.56 quads were lost in the system. As of December 31, 2012, there were 312.8 million people in the US. Grinding the numbers out, converting BTUs per year into watts and assuming that the population was constant throughout 2012, I got that the US generated about 10,378 watts per person, of which about 4,457 watts was used, 5,943 watts were wasted.

So Cecil (actually Una) was basically right in saying that Americans used about 11 kilowatts of energy per capita per year. According to what they found in their research, a hundred ton blue whale used about 65 kilowatts. So if this mythical average American isn’t consuming the energetic equivalent of a 100 ton blue whale, then, we’re sort of vaguely equivalent to a 15 to 20 ton blue whale (they exist too–they’re called calves).

While I was wallowing around, try to find the appropriate whale equivalent for this average American, it dawned on me that there’s a whole other class of critters that large: sauropod dinosaurs. Of course, they’re extinct, so their current metabolic rate is zero. However, it’s not entirely silly to postulate that they had whale-like metabolisms back when they were alive. We don’t know how much the large sauropods weighed either, but Brontosaurus (yes, I know it’s Apatosaurus, I’ll get back to that), is thought to have weighed in between 15 and 20 tons, if you believe Wikipedia.

In other words, the average American uses as much energy as an average brontosaurus.

Now, of course we can argue that Apatosaurus is not the right sauropod, that due to some metabolic model or reconstructed weight or other, another sauropod is a better metaphor than ol’ bronty. It’s an understandable but unwinnable argument, because the energy use of the average American is kind of a goofy concept too. A big chunk of that energy is used (and lost) transporting stuff around supposedly to benefit us, but we never see it. It is also averaged across everything from the energy use of a bum on skid row to that of a jet-setting star, and it’s a very uneven distribution. What does average mean? Who’s average? Whatever it means, the average human working an eight hour office day works pretty well on somewhere around 75 watts (resting metabolism), so we average Americans are using something like the energy of 150 humans just sitting around doing paperwork.

So, let’s just say that we are, on average, the brontosaurs of the energy world, use an outdated dinosaur name as a metaphor for how much energy we consume. We’re not the biggest energy uses by country, but we’re pretty close.

Now you might think that this energy use means we’re going to go extinct like the brontosaurs, because such energy consumption isn’t sustainable. I think the truth is a little different. As humans, we can live on 75 watts, even 250 watts if we’re working hard and not sitting around. It’s our culture that constrains us to act like brontosaurs, and I’m pretty sure our culture is going to have to change radically if it doesn’t want to disappear. Ultimately, it’s a question of identity: when it’s no longer possible for us to be American brontosaurs, will it still be possible for us to be Americans, or are we going to have to find, join, or develop other cultures that are more energy efficient? Who can we be in the future? That’s one of the questions I’m working on.



Are Markets Commons? Perhaps they should be managed that way?
December 19, 2013, 9:38 pm
Filed under: commons, economics, Speculation, sustainability | Tags: , ,

This isn’t my original idea. I’m reading John Michael Greer’s The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered (Amazon link), and he makes the assertion that a free market, “in which buyers and sellers are numerous enough that free competition regulates their interactions,” is a form of commons, a resource that should ideally be free to all in a society. He goes on to point out that this is in contrast to those who think that all commons should be eliminated in favor of private ownership. The issue he’s getting at is that free markets cannot exist without regulation, something recognized even by Adam Smith, who noted in the Wealth of Nations that “people of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or some contrivance to raise prices” (reference).

I can see a long argument about how true this is, because it’s a provocative concept. Markets and commons are traditionally diametrically opposed in capitalist thinking, it’s hard to consider that they have anything in common. I’m happy to have that discussion, but there’s another related issue that, to me, is even more interesting: Can markets be managed as commons?

We don’t have any data on this, but the late Elinor Ostrom won the 2009 Nobel in economics for her studies of how commons are successfully managed. She found, through studying both successful commons (water districts, community forests, and the like) and unsuccessful commons, that there were eight “Design Principles” that distinguished the successful commons from the failures (Amazon link to reference).

Here are Dr. Ostrom’s eight design principles, as rewritten by David Sloan Wilson in The Neighborhood Project (Amazon link). I’m using Wilson’s version since it’s more general than the original.

1. Clearly defined boundaries. Members of the group should know who they are, have a strong sense of group identity, and know the rights and obligations of membership. If they are managing a resource, then the boundaries of the resource should also be clearly identified.

2. Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs. Having some members do all the work while others get the benefits is unsustainable over the long term. Everyone must do his or her fair share, and those who go beyond the call of duty must be appropriately recognized. When leaders are accorded special privileges, it should be because they have special responsibilities for which they are held accountable. Unfair inequality poisons collective efforts.

3. Collective-choice arrangements. Group members must be able to create their own rules and make their own decisions by consensus. People hate being bossed around but will work hard to do what we want, not what they want. In addition, the best decisions often require knowledge of local circumstances that we have and they lack, making consensus decisions doubly important.

4. Monitoring. Cooperation must always by guarded. Even when most members of a group are well meaning, the temptation to do less than one’s share is always present, and a few individuals might try actively to game the system. If lapses and transgressions can’t be detected, the group enterprise is unlikely to succeed.

5. Graduated sanctions. Friendly, gentle reminders are usually sufficient to keep people in solid citizen mode, but tougher measures such as punishment and exclusion must be held in reserve.

6. Fast and fair conflict resolution. Conflicts are sure to arise and must be resolved quickly in a manner that is regarded as fair by all parties. This typically involves a hearing in which respected members of the group, who can be expected to be impartial, make an equitable decision.

7. Local autonomy. When a group is nested within a larger society, such as a farmers’ association dealing with the state government or a neighborhood group dealing with a city, the group must be given enough authority to create its own social organization and make its own decisions, as outlined in items 1. and 6. above.

8. Polycentric governance. In large societies that consist of many groups, relationships among groups must embody the same principles as relationships among individuals within groups.

What’s interesting about these rules is that, superficially, it looks like these would be great rules for free markets as well. Look at the complaints such rules would solve:

— markets should have boundaries. People get really uncomfortable when everything is for sale, whether they want it to be or not. There’s a general idea that some things should not be for sale, while markets are the appropriate venue for other things. Similarly, not everyone wants to participate in “the marketplace” and the outsiders resent being forced in.
–Markets should be fair, the fabled level playing field. Most would agree that people should get special privileges only so that they can exercise special responsibilities, not because they have special connections. Similarly, corruption and gaming the system should be punished.
–Collective decision making. This one is tough, because everyone wants to constrain the fat cats, whether or not they’re in the market. Still, there are many complaints about top-down rulemaking, and with good reason. This is not to say that markets are all good at self-governing (and here I’m thinking about the body-counts in illegal drug marketing disputes), but to the extent that a market is self-governing, having rules that everyone agrees are fair is not a bad thing.
–Monitoring: this one is a no-brainer. Corruption kills markets, and they always need to be monitored to avoid people gaming the system. Interestingly, monitoring in commons can come either from within, from people hired to monitor the system, or from outside officials. Any and all of these can work, depending on the circumstances.
–Fast and fair conflict resolution: this one is another no-brainer. Things work best when disputes can be settled fairly and quickly, either be a tribunal within the market, or by higher authorities, so long as judgement is fast and fair.
–Local autonomy. This can be somewhat problematic when you think about Wall Street, but it’s the flip side of having collective decision making within a market. If the authorities are going to let a market make their own rules, they need to let the market govern itself. Note, however, that authorities can be intimately involved in both monitoring and conflict resolution, so long as the market grants that this is their legitimate role in the market.
–Polycentric governance: This is the idea that the relationship between individuals and a markets is mirrored between markets within a greater market, if such a hierarchy exists. I’m not sure how this might work, but it does embody the same ideas of group decision making (on the level of member markets), monitoring, fast and fair dispute resolution, and so forth. That’s not a bad way to handle commerce on a large scale.

To me, this is the bigger point: even if markets aren’t exactly commons, it certainly looks like the principles that lead to successful commons might lead to successful free markets. Additionally, it’s not particularly driven by any market ideology: both progressives and libertarians could agree on these design principles. Even the big government proponents tend to agree (in my experience) that the best regulations are the ones that people think are fair and fairly enforced. Trying to get such regulations written can be very difficult, but it’s often a major goal of regulation. What also makes this interesting is that, if you accept that markets may be commons, it’s possible to have a free market under a wide range of conditions—so long as the market is properly monitored and managed according to rules.

A truly free market won’t work, but a market commons may well be viable. What’s sad is how far Wall Street currently is from most of these design principles. Perhaps our financial markets are a lot less successful and sustainable than we might wish for? Perhaps they need (shock, horror) more regulation, not less, to last?

What do you think?