Whats the deal with energy?

August 8, 2008 at 11:55 pm (Culture, science-ish, Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Its clear that our civilization needs energy, and it needs it fast. Thomas Homer-Dixon has called energy the ‘Master resource” in his new book “The Upside of Down” , meaning that it is the keystone to all other resources and functions. A high energy cost, as we have seen so clearly in 2008, leads inevitably to higher costs for EVERYTHING.  The good thing about higher energy costs, for those of us who accept basic science at least, is that higher costs for traditional oil leads inevitably to more money flowing into alternative energy research and exploration.

Energy is essentially ‘fungible’ which means essentially that one source is as good as another. Once reduced to electricity, coal power is as good as hydropower is as good as zero point energy (if it were viable). The only difference in standard economics is how much it costs to produce.

This is an example of the “Invisible hand” of economics, leading us inexorably to the promised land.  High energy prices give people an incentive to create energy. If they believe that, with capital investment, they can create a technology or process that will produce energy marginally more effectively or cheaper than others, they will invest. Global capital, despite the insistence of Marxists everywhere, does not have a plan or an agenda. It merely seeks to use wealth to create more wealth. If money can be made selling ice-cream to Eskimos, they will invest. If money can be made selling rebellion, they will be more than happy to fund it.

Figuring this out is essential to changing the direction of this massive ship called western civilization. Whatever is to be done, it MUST be made to pay. No amount of moralizing or anxious hand-wringing will change that.

With this in mind, its clear that any reimagining of the future must include a balance sheet.  Society will gladly stop using oil if a way to produce energy is found that is markedly cheaper.

Part of the answer is merely education. In truth, we are paying much more for oil than the price that appears at the pump or on your electrical bill. The Institute for Analysis for Global Security has analysed the real cost of oil. The U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations is well aware of the hidden costs. In the preceeding analysis, the authors focus largely on security concerns, including the massive cost of the gulf war ($3 trillion) needed to secure future oil deliveries. Economists call these bills ‘externalities‘, but in any sane public policy debate they need to be brought forward and put front and center.

There are other externalities though, not figured into those estimates. Things its very difficult to put a price tag on. The mass of carbon dumped into the atmosphere is one such cost. How much DOES a 1 degree rise in global temperatures cost? As difficult as it is, putting a price tag on the damage done goes a long way to changing activities done by individuals and corporations. Even if the price tag is somewhat arbitrary, anything that moves the equilibrium price is something that is changing consumer behavior.

The Kyoto Protocol, specifically the carbon trading market it seeks to set up, is one example of putting a price on the externalities associated with carbon heavy activity. Unfortunately there seems to be some signs that the market is being exploited by unscrupulous developers, as detailed in the Mother Jones article “Turning Carbon into Gold“.  (*Surprise! People try to take advantage of shit. Who would have thought? -ed)

In fact, the reality that people are ‘turning carbon into gold’ as Mother Jones alleges, is a positive sign. What it indicates is that there IS money to be made in carbon reduction. The strength and health of the economy is measured by the flow of wealth. If viable business can operate trading carbon reduction, and if this puts substantial downward pressure on carbon emissions, then it is a success. Many have stated the futility of the protocol, that its net effect will be minor at best. This might be true. It is also commonly heard that without the U.S. on board with Kyoto, its a useless piece of paper. However, as the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies correctly points out, it doesn’t matter. The countries that have ratified it include some big economic players, and its true purpose is to set up the market. The United States is eventually going to have to come on board, and when they do they will be taking advantage of a system with the bugs worked out in this round of the UN Framework on Climate change, of which Kyoto is just a part.

These markets though, are just beginning to take effect.

Overall, the cost of energy is still rising, and Kyoto will in the short term put upwards pressure on energy prices (pdf). Upwards pressure on energy prices, as discussed above, makes the logic of capital look for alternative energy sources.

Oilsands, mining an energy future.

Unfortunately, ‘alternative’ does not necessarily spell ‘better’. The strongest argument to that effect is the Alberta Oilsands development.

Alberta Tarsands

Alberta Tarsands

All across northern Alberta are hydrocarbon laden sands –  oil sands or tar sands – also called bitumen in the industry. They sit just below the surface, and so, the cheapest and easiest way to extract them is to just roll off the topsoil (overburden) and dig out the greasy compacted sand. According to some estimates, the development of the oil sands could take away up to a quarter of the SURFACE AREA of Alberta, were they fully exploited.

One reason estimates of the remaining oil reserves vary so widely, is the disagreement over which oils to include in the ‘census’. Non-traditional reserves like that of the oilsands pushes the proven reserves up drastically. Oilsands became commercially viable at around $40 a barrel, everything over that is gravy. Including a lot of other sources, like oil-shales and coal in the u.s., pushes the available oil up even higher. When energy is priced at over $100 a barrel, there are a lot of sources that start looking attractive.

After the bitumen is dug up, it must be cooked, in a process that is very ‘dirty’, both figuratively and literally. Processing the oilsands into usable oil is very carbon intensive, and it despoils the land on a scale that industrial civilization has only heretofore imagined in our apocalyptic nightmares.

Post apocalyptic nightmare or the new face of Alberta? Both?

Post apocalyptic nightmare or the new face of Alberta? Both?

Newly discovered coal and oil bearing shales in the United States will require much the same activity to wrench out their black gold.

Methyl hydrates

Around every continental shelf, far out to sea, past even the quickly growing forests of drill rigs, is a frozen slushy-mud buried under the seabed. In this mud is the reason we have a climate and Venus has an opaque oven. Frozen methane, mixed in with water and assorted other hydrocarbons. Methyl Hydrates frozen on the shelves constitute an enormous amount of energy, and an enormous store of carbon. At $140 oil, with the fungible nature of energy, they are an almost irresistible treasure. If we begin tapping these sources, the sky is the limit as to how much carbon we can release.

Of course, someone is already trying.

Japan will begin test drilling and extracting methyl hydrates — natural gas trapped in frozen water — in March. If the technology to harvest and utilize natural gas is successful, it could transform the face of the energy industry by making a globally abundant form of natural gas available to countries currently dependent on imports.” -Offnews.info

Energy Future

As mentioned above, there are many estimates of the amount of oil remaining. The evidence available seems to indicate that there is in fact a staggering amount. The problem it, it is all VERY DIRTY. It is not an oil collapse which is most dangerous in the long run, it is an unlimited supply. It makes the search for “REAL alternative energy sources all the more pressing. In the next decade or so, we will be building a new infrastructure to transition away from the standard oil economy into something new. It is vitally important then, that renewable green energy sources are found and developed.

Here is a researched presentation I gave detailing one possible alternative energy source:



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Whats the deal with the Trojan War, anyways?

May 29, 2008 at 5:57 pm (Culture) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


 (The walls of Troy, Present day, unearthed and partially reconstructed)

In the English speaking world, Homer is probably second only to Shakespeare for pure gravitas in any mention. Homer has become a part of our culture, a shared language of poetic allusion to inform any discussion. But was there actually a Trojan War? Did the Heroes really stand and fight and die at Ilium? WTF is Ilium anyhow?

When one begins to look into this absolute mess of literary tradition, one discovers that a lot has been written on it, much of it contradictory, most of it apocryphal. For example, it is claimed that ‘Homer’ did not in fact exist, and that the entire thing was written by a completely different guy who happened to be named Homer. A great deal of ink is spilled arguing such minutia, which I will not bother to repeat here.

(A bust of Homer. His name means “blind” in Greek)

Here it is merely my intention to cut through the overgrowth and get to the basics, which will mostly involve my choosing between various strands of long traditions.

The Power of Oral Tradition

There is a great tradition in preliterate societies of people being able to carry a massive amount of information in their heads. The recitation of huge passages of epic tales is common, in fact de rigeur in almost every society in the world that does not possess a strong written tradition. . An interesting feature of these Oral Traditions is that the entire passage can in fact be memorized without error. This has now been proven substantially in widely surveyed surviving traditions such as the Irish Celtictradition in which their ‘bards’ can still recite long passages of old epics. They use various tricks and mnemonics to achieve these feats of memory. Oral poems, or passages based on oral tradition, tend to be highly repetitive, rhythmic and highly patterned. Poetry, it turns out, has a special place in human tradition in that it was our trick to remember long strands of data. The poetic form is usually the earliest form available because it is the form in which people were able to memorize the work.

(Oral Tradition was strong all over the world in pre-literate societies)

It is due to this long Oral Tradition, which was very strongly present in the Greek society, that we owe such a long preservation of the Homeric Epics. It is in part due to this preservation ability of poetry that we are able to be reasonably certain that at least part of the Epics legacy dates back to roughly the time they claim to speak of.

Homer was faithfully repeating what he heard, and what the hearer heard, down through the ages.

Can we trust Homer?

There are other techniques too, which scholars use to date material. One of these is word choice. In the Homeric Epics, there is much talk of Bronze Age technology, whereas the Greeks were well into the Iron Age when the poems were finally written down (and frozen forever). Archaeology then not being nearly what it is today, any authors creating new passages would have unconsciously included mostly iron age references.

Likewise, cities and lands are mentioned in the Bronze Age epics which had long since ceased to be inhabited by the Iron Age. In fact, MOST of the information in the Iliad (Homers work on the Trojan War) should have been lost because after the Trojan war (as we shall see) the Greeks lost a great deal of their culture and aspects of civilization.

So, we can be reasonably certain that at very least the story itself dates back in its kernel form to the events it purports to describe.

A dirty little trade war

Much of the information scholars can glean about the Trojan war places the actual event at around the 12th Century B.C.E., or perhaps in 1250 B.C.E. if we believe Herodotus (there are worse mistakes one could make than believing Herodotus, The father of History). And it was probably fought not as a battle to save a petulant princess as Homer describes (every good story needs a princess in distress?) but rather as a trade war against a power that was blocking the expansion of a Greek Empire. The City of Ilium sat near the modern day Bosporus in Asia Minor, the passage between the Aegean sea (that of the Greeks) and the Black Sea. The areas to the north of the Black Sea held a lot of trade value that the Greeks would have wanted access too. In fact we find records of their actively trading with the northern Black Sea area.

Ilium, called Troy, was a Hittite outpost that guarded the passage way and probably either extracted a large toll, or prevented Greek seafaring traders from going there altogether.

(A map showing the relative locations of Troy, the Hittites, and Greece (or Mycenae)

The primary Greek Kingdom at this time was known as Mycenae. They had, some time previously, cast off the shackles of another Kingdom (based in Crete) and were expanding in power and trade all along the coasts of the Aegean Sea. As the above map demonstrates, the only trade route through the narrow passage in the north of modern day Turkey was directly past Troy (also known as Ilias or Ilium). It becomes necessary then, for further expansion, for the Mycenaeansto get through to the rich trade lands in what is now the Crimea of Russia.

There are other echoes of this Greek desire to trade in the north, recorded in mythical form in the Epic of Jason and the Argonauts, who go searching for the golden fleece (rich wool trade) in the same area.

The Trojan War was probably fought for economic purposes, not for the dramatic one used by Homer to build a story.


Hienrich Schliemanns Destructive Search for Troy

When Heinrich Schliemann, a man recognized widely as the Father of modern Archaeology, went looking for the historic Troy, he used Homers Epic as his guide. He was looking for a massive, well defended city situated at or close to the narrows. Schliemann could not have found his city, however, were it not for the (again oral) traditions of the people in the area.

When asked where Troy was, they pointed him towards a giant hill that was somewhat further inland than one would expect. It turns out that the coastline had gone out quite a bit since the time of the Trojan war, mostly due to deposition of soil over the centuries. Nevertheless it was there, right where tradition said it would be. Schliemann, who was basically making up archaeology as he went along, managed to slice right THROUGH most of the layers of Troy including the one we now suspect as being contemporary to the Trojan War story. In finding Troy, he managed to destroy much of it.

 (Several layers of Troy, superimposed)

It turns out that there had been and continued to be continuous occupation of the site for quite a long time. Sites dated from before Homeric Troy, straight through the Greek period and into the Romans. The last occupation of the site was a Roman town, also named Ilium.

The site seems to have been routinely sacked, at various points in its history. A fate not uncommon for a rich city.

Schliemann discovered not one, but many Troys built on top of each other. In discovering them, he managed to wreck much of the city he was looking for.

After the Trojan War

The aftermath of the Trojan war was not kind to the people of Mycenae, or to Greeks in general. It would seem from records (Homer himself records huge tallies of the number of ships and supplies each Greek Kingdom sent to aid the cause) that the Greeks over extended themselves. Immediately after the fall of Troy (a war that took many years to completely, the Greek kingdoms begin to fall into disrepair. A vast dark age begins to settle over the once prosperous Greeks.

A dark age so deep that they actually forget how to write, ceased living in cities, and almost (except for homer) forget that the whole thing happened at all. A blackness fell on western civilization (at the time, the Greeks were pretty much it).There are Egyptian, and some Greek, records of raider sea barbarians ravishing the Mediterranean at this time. Some scholars have suggested that these “sea people” are the dispossessed Greeks, seeking treasure as their home cities collapse under the economic strain of a long and unproductive war.

Luckily for them, and for the west in general, many centuries later the Greeks managed to pull themselves out of this collapse and ignite a new torch for civilization. The period before the Greek Dark Age is usually referred to as Archaic Greece, the period after is the Classical when much of what we now think of as Greece became fruitful. In the later, Classical period, was Periclean Athens, the works of the great philosophers, and the eventual writing down of the surviving Homeric Epics. It is interesting to note that what we have of the Homeric Epics is not the complete ‘set’. Much was lost and either not written down, or did not survive.

As far as ‘written down’ goes, the Greeks were the only known people to have invented a written language twice. The second time at the beginning of the classical period.

The Mycenaeans, for their efforts, were eventually conquered and enslaved by the Spartans. The Spartans being a tribe of Doric Greeks who had survived during the dark ages in the hinterlands of Greece and finally invaded the now crumbled remains of an ancient Mycenaean Kingdom, whose Oral Epics they then began to venerate and call their own.

Sparta then, centuries later, itself fell to an even more backwater cities inspired by the Greeks to Empire, the Romans.  And so it goes.

(Sparta in ruins)

Although they eventually sacked the city, the War with Troy proved to be too much for the fledgling Greek Kingdoms, and they fell into catastrophic decline.





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