Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Litigation Systems: IP or Open-Source?
Neo-Chiefdoms or Big Men Networks?
Readers may also find my Litigation Checklist to be useful.
Monday, May 18, 2009
In the first post in this series, I introduced the general notion that renewable energy requires an up-front investment of energy, and that this may dramatically impact our ability to transition to a renewable-energy economy because the transition effort will initially exacerbate the very energy scarcity that is its impetus. Beyond this general notion that the transition to renewables first requires exacerbating our current energy scarcity, the time that it takes a renewable source of energy to return the up-front energy invested in it becomes especially critical. Here’s a quick example (for the simplicity of these examples, I'm assuming that 100% of energy requirement is up-front with no maintenance requirement):
Let’s say you want to transition 1 million Barrels of Oil Equivalent per year (mBOE/y) of current global energy to a renewable source this year. If this renewable source (a concentrating solar power plant, for example), has an EROEI of 20:1, and will generate for the full-power equivalent of 40 years, then it will take roughly 2 years for the solar plant to return the energy invested in it. Over the course of 40 years it will generate 40 mBOE, and it will take the equivalent of 2 mBOE of energy invested up-front to enter operation. While this return-on-investment seems excellent, this up front investment of 2 mBOE is still very significant—it is an increase in global energy consumption roughly equal to the decrease caused by the current economic crisis—but the reward of a mBOE of renewable generation capacity every year for the next 40 years seem well worth the price. With this kind of EROEI, a transition to a renewable energy economy seems feasible, and it may be possible to affect such a transition quite quickly.
What happens if the EROEI of that renewable is actually only 4:1? Now it takes 10 mBOE to bring this renewable capacity into operation, and you won’t pay this back for ten years. In the meantime, where are we going to find an extra 10 mBOE beyond what we currently need to fuel our economy? The answer is that, of course, we won’t. We’ll instead reallocate our existing energy supply, displacing the most highly elastic 10 mBOE in demand. Prices will spike. And this is only to create 1 mBOE of renewable capacity each year. That’s enough to compensate for a decline rate of about 1.2% in global oil production—far lower than most post-peak projections, and less than ½ of 1% of total global energy use. Of course, renewables with an EROEI below 4:1 would present an even less feasible scenario.
This is an extremely simplistic example intended only to introduce the problem (more detailed examples will follow), but it highlights two issues:
First, the type of net-energy barriers illustrated by these examples only become an issue when significant amounts of renewable capacity are in the pipeline at once. If we continue to bring insignificant amounts of renewable energy online each year (compared to what will be needed to affect a transition within a few decades, or to keep pace with fossil-energy descent), then the impact of the up-front energy investment will be similarly insignificant. This may seem like a tautology, but it explains one important point: this “renewables hump” is a novel issue lurking below the surface of current discussion precisely because we have not yet encountered it with current renewable energy projects—and we won’t until we begin a serious effort to transition to renewables. At that point, failure to understand this problem may be catastrophic.
Second, EROEI--how we measure it, and what its true value is for a given technology--is critical to the feasibility of any transition to renewable energy. If EROEI is high enough, then it is possible to rapidly transition to renewable energy sources and get ahead of the peak oil (and peak fossil fuels in general) decline curve, especially because renewables will soon be able to provide enough energy to bootstrap their own production to a significant degree. However, lower EROEI values will make transition increasingly challenging, and below some threshold a low net-energy value will render transition entirely impracticable.
In order to facilitate a transition of our civilization to renewable energy, renewables must offer more than a high EROEI ratio alone. Time to pay back energy invested also becomes critical, as does generation/production life after payback—these figures must be considered separately and in unison. Consider, for example, the difference between two renewable sources, both with an EROEI of 5:1, but one with a lifespan of 10 years and another with a lifespan of 50 years. The 10-year option may appear inferior, but it represents a payback time of only 2 years—this means that the renewable can begin to bootstrap the energy for its replacement at a much more rapid pace, making it far more scaleable from a net-energy perspective. Conversely, the 50-year option won’t pay back its initial investment for 10 years, making it much more difficult to scale rapidly enough to address time-critical issues such as peak oil without an increased (and likely impractical) up-front investment of energy. To consider the mechanics of transitioning to renewable energy, we must be aware of all these measures: EROEI ratio, payback time, production/generation lifespan.
Now that the problem has been more clearly defined, the future course of this series will make more sense. In the next post I will look at problems in EROEI measurement methodology, and discuss both the potential to address system-boundary issues and the challenges posed by our inability to precisely measure EROEI. In the following two posts, I will analyze the possible EROEI measures for current renewable energy options presented by solar and wind energy. I will also discuss the transition potential presented by these technologies. If I have time, I will also look at the EROEI for geothermal, tidal, nuclear (with a discussion of the issue that fission reactors are non-renewable, and that so-called "fast-breeder" reactors have yet to be proven), and biofuels. More likely, however, I will skip these later renewable options for the moment to continue with this series as a whole, and revisit them individually at a later date...
Sunday, May 17, 2009
Here's a Table of Contents for the series:
Emergence 1: Fundamentals
Emergence 2: Weak vs. Strong Emergence
Emergence 3: Emergence and Collapse
Emergence 4: Strong Emergence and Entropy
Emergence 5: Emergence Facilitated by Social Structure
Emergence 6: Learning from the Structure of Our Brains
Emergence 7: Global Workspace Theory
I've been promising that I'll explain why the study of emergence is relevant to the creation of sustainable, resilient communities. I'll get to that (promise), but first a few concluding thoughts on emergence.
Right now I'm reading Rupert Sheldrake's "Morphic Resonance," which is fascinating not because it explains emergence at all, but because it highlights just how fundamentally incomplete our understanding of our world still is. I've long argued that there are at least two remaining "great" mysteries that modern science has no viable explanation for: morphogenesis (how one cell turns into such different, complex, and specific forms), and consciousness (an example of emergence). Sheldrake's book is fascinating because it shows just how fundamental these two gaps in our understanding are. We don't understand almost everything with a few minor holes. Rather, we fool ourselves into thinking we understand almost everything despite the fact that these two gaps arguably swallow up any confidence that we deserve to have in any of our "conclusions." Sheldrake's discussion of morphogenesis demonstrates that we may have causation completely wrong--not a minor affair, that causation thing. Our failure to understand consciousness, is also a failure to understand causation.
That said, accepting that we don't know how consciousness (or other forms of strong emergence) "work," I think we can gain a great deal of practically applicable lessons from their study. It's actually a bit like the practice of the occult--you don't need to know exactly how or why something works to understand that "from certain actions, certain results tend to follow." The first lesson of our failure to understand emergence and morphogenesis is that we really don't know why anything happens, and that when we think we "know" the cause of something, it's just ignorance. We should instead focus more on the occult mindset:
From certain actions, certain results tend to follow.
Here's a corollary: From certain structures, certain results tend to follow.
If you haven't guessed on my argument for the relationship between emergence and "rhizome" (scale-free self-sufficient, resilient, sustainable human communities) yet, you probably can now, but I'll explain what I'm thinking regardless:
In civilizational structures, one attribute is the ability to effectively coordinate and communicate. Hierarchy is one structural solution--the division of labor and responsibilities allows for extreme specialization and expertise, as well as the ability to manage far more information and knowledge than any one person can possibly be aware of, let alone be proficient at recalling and using. However, hierarchy also has structural side-effects: devaluation of the masses, massively inefficient information processing "overhead" (middle-management, management, and "the rich"), and most importantly it suffers from the Problem of Growth--the need to perpetually grow and intensify that makes it fundamentally unsustainable. In contrast, rhizome leverages scale-free self-sufficiency, non-hiearchal organization, and peer-to-peer communication to attempt to coordinate and communicate effectively without suffering from the symptoms of hierarchy.
The question, however, is whether rhizome can coordinate and communicate effectively given the vast quantities of information and specialized knowledge that exist today in order to achieve an acceptable quality of life? I think the answer is yes based on pure P2P network theory, a reprioritization of the value/quantity/type of material goods we expect to consume, and a shedding of the huge information processing burden of hierarchies. However, I've always had a hunch that there was a more fundamental strength of rhizome as an organizational form. The real purpose of this series on emergence is to explore the potential to leverage strong emergence to make "rhizome is to hierarchy" like "the human brain is to a computer."
Borrowing from the "from certain actions, certain results follow" mantra, it seems like a reasonable hypothesis to me that human communities structured more like the human brain (or other examples that lead to strongly emergent phenomena) will themselves produce strongly emergent phenomena, whereas our current civilization (crude analogy, but structured more like a computer) will not.
What could these phenomena be on a civilizational scale? First and foremost, I'd say it's what Jung called "synchronicity." We didn't and still don't have a means to explain this phenomena, and many will dismiss it as mystical thinking, but given our total lack of understanding of the basis for strongly emergent phenomena like consciousness, why not? Other possible examples include such similarly "new-agey" things as spiritual awakening, evolutions/leaps in consciousness, etc.
But back to the issue of synchronicity--so what? The partial and short answer is that I think it could have a huge impact on the ability of human civilziation to coordinate and communicate. Need information about how to build X, how best to organize Y, or the optimal design improvement for Z? Our current civilziational solution is to leverage a massively burdensome information processing system (the "market," academia, government, etc.) to poorly communicatge this information. What if just "came to you," or you happened to meet the person you needed to in order to get that information? Some will think this is crazy, but it seems intuitively reasonable to me. I'll leave it at that for now--a very fuzzy example to be sure--but ask this: We should at least consider the possibility that human potential under a rhizome form of organization would be fundamentally different and superior to human potential under our current system. After all, the brain is fundamentally superior (though also different) in its information processing potential than a computer. Take imagination, for example, compared to the computer's ability to merely execute code and retrieve stored data. What is the equivalent of "imagination" for economic and political coordination?
Food for thought... I'll be shifting my attention for the next few months on developing my litigation checklist, though I'll keep posting on civilization, sustainability, and networked communities.
Monday, May 11, 2009
Much modern political commentary focuses, in one form or another, on our failure to reign in the growth of government--whether it's spending, taxes, debt, invasion of our private lives, etc. This is certainly more frequent on the conservative/libertarian side of the political spectrum, but equally relevant is the lack of discussion of this trend on progressive/liberal side of the spectrum (where the discussion tends to focus on the same trend, but in multi-national corporations, finance, the rich, etc.). Unconsciously, it's really all discussing the same issue, and while I think it’s a start to recognize that government (or corporations) needs to get smaller (at least if we want to move toward sustainable and resilient increases in freedom, opportunity, and median per capita happiness, as opposed to the opposite direction), this realization must be paired with an understanding of the source of the Problem of Growth. It isn’t this administration, or these politicians. No election results will reverse the trend. No new political platform of any party or politician within the system will lead to solutions. The source of the problem is instead a fundamental attribute of our *system*.
Our government is a centralized hierarchy, on two levels (here I'm referring to government and the organizations that seek to come to power within it, not American federalism). Such hierarchies engage in what anthropologists call peer-polity interaction–in other words, they need to grow, or be out-competed for resources by peers that do. This is true of what some call “national” economies, of political parties, of agencies, etc. It’s a structural attribute, and can only be changed by changing the structure.
Even if, theoretically, a political party could win elections on a platform of reducing the size, scope, and intensity of government; actually deliver on those promises; and then hold on to control of government long enough to make this a trend (doubtful, in my opinion), it would be a mistake to think that this would actually impact the problem you focus on in your post. This is because the fantasy that Nation-States within a global Nation-State system are the only game in town. The Nation-State, predicated on the theory of absolute sovereignty over some Cartesian territory, is already a relic of the past, and we increasingly hold on to this guise only out of populist political expediency while our actual institutions move toward a Market-State. But most significantly, the crumbling of the Nation-State is increasingly leading to a system without true sovereignty–our world is increasingly defined by overlapping power networks: “Nation-States,” multinational corporations, trans-national black-market and gray-market networks, cross-border cultural affinities and religious identities, etc. This is why politicians cannot “solve” the problem of government growth by merely reducing the size and scope of our notion of “government”–with sovereignty of government over physical territory modest and quickly eroding, government itself is but one “peer” in the peer-polity competition between these many competing powers. Even if you could reduce “government,” without addressing the source of the Problem of Growth the end result will only be the imposition of the same growth-derived problems from another source.
Readers may also find my litigation checklist of interest.
This post is the first in a series on structural problems of transitioning to renewable energy. Broadly labeled “The Renewables Hump,” this series will address net energy, scalability, bootstrapping, and time-frame considerations involved in such a transition.
The requirement (and problem) of up-front investment.
To the extent that America (and the world in general) is concerned with energy scarcity at all, there is a pervasive belief that, over the coming decades, we will overcome these challenges by gradually transitioning to a renewable-energy economy. We know that fossil fuels won’t last forever. We know that it is possible to generate renewable energy from sources such as the sun, the wind, waves, and geothermal heat. And then, as a civilization, we tend make a huge leap, arriving at what has largely become an article of faith: we will transition to these renewables as the basis of our future civilization.
How will we prioritize this transition among competing economic desires? How will we pay for it, both in terms of financing and the up-front energy cost of most renewables? How do our assumptions about the availability of fossil fuels going forward affect this transition? Does renewable energy technology provide sufficient net-energy returns to make this transition practical? How will this transition be organized and implemented?
There are many answers to these (often unasked) questions: the market will take care of it, government subsidies and incentives will pave the path, technology will improve, etc. These are all fine theories, but it is important that we must recognize them as exactly that: possible, not certain, outcomes. The purpose of this series is to examine the actual process of transition. Specifically, I hope to take a system-wide perspective to identify systemic choke-points and externalities that may result from efforts to take existing renewable energy programs and technologies—currently comprising only a very small portion of our civilization’s energy production—and scale them up to meet the majority of our global energy needs.
One focus will be on the systemic impacts and cascading effects of one simple reality: renewable energy sources tend to require an up-front investment of energy, and then pay-back that investment (plus, hopefully, a significant surplus) over a period of time.
The simple fact of the matter is that renewables, much more so than most fossil-fuel based modes of energy production, require primarily up-front investment (of both money and energy—to the extent that we should consider there to be any real difference between the two).
So what? Here’s the quick outline of why this matters: We are currently in a climate of energy scarcity, and this will likely get worse in the future. If you want to increase the amount of energy derived from renewable sources (and thereby help to ameliorate the energy scarcity), you need to first exacerbate that scarcity to use some of our available energy as an up-front investment in these new renewables.
It's also worth addressing one concern raised previously on this point by readers: the difference between electricity generation and the overall energy requirements of our civilization. Right now, electricity is only a portion of the total energy consumed by our civilization. And of that portion, the majority is generated by burning fossil fuels like coal, and, arguably, nuclear. However, the renewables that are generally seen as the key to our society's energy transition (solar, wind, tidal, geothermal) all produce electricity. This electricity can be used to substitute for liquid fuels consumption (either directly through electric motors and heating or indirectly through conversion to hydrogen, etc.). In a post-peak fossil fuel scenario, a continuation of our society's energy consumption can only be maintained by substituting for the declining production of fossil fuels (first oil, then gas, then coal and fissile-materials used in nuclear energy, probably roughly in that order). Shortfalls in fossil fuel production can be substituted with electricity (or a derivative such as hydrogen) or biofuels.
Biofuels have demonstrated very poor EROEI, have a nasty habit to conflict with food production, are highly susceptible to weather changes (whether or not caused by global warming), and appear highly dependent on soil fertility that is currently maintained by massive inputs of iNPK fertilizers that will themselves become a serious resource constraint in the future. The prospects for transitioning the majority of global energy use to a "sustainable" biofuels foundation are, in my opinion, unlikely at best, catastrophic at worst. However, I will address this option toward the end of this series.
Renewable electricity generation, however, shows more promise, at least superficially. Most serious policy discussions, environmental groups, and viridians (what's I've elsewhere called "Roddenberrys"--those who think the continuation of our current civilizational trajectory is possible through green technology) are counting on the use of renewable electricity generation to 1) replace fossil fuel derived electricity, and 2) provide a renewable, green source of energy to substitute for increasing portions of all other current energy consumption (e.g. liquid fuels). My main focus will be on examining the practicality of this path.
So, returning to the question posed above, because of the up-front investment required by renewable energy options, if you want to increase the amount of energy derived from renewable sources (and thereby help to ameliorate the energy scarcity), you need to first exacerbate that scarcity to use some of our available energy as an up-front investment in these new renewables. How much such investment, how much exacerbation of current energy scarcity, is practical? Whether or not this amount of additional energy draw is practical is largely a factor of how much is needed to affect any significant degree of transition within the necessary timeframe (e.g. to keep pace with fossil fuel decline rates). How much up-front energy investment is needed, I will show, is a factor of the true EROEI of these renewable technologies and the mechanics of net-energy scalability. Those will be the topics of the next several posts in this series...
Monday, May 04, 2009
9. I'll also be working on building a web-based litigation checklist.
Sunday, May 03, 2009
In Greece, bloated pension obligations and government salaries have led to the brink of a debt default, and have forced the EU to attempt to bail out Greece (to save their own cost of borrowing), requiring "austerity measures" in exchange. This is a fine example of the ongoing decline in the Nation-State system. The Nation-State is a construct whereby a theoretically contiguous "nation" provides the constitutional and moral justification for a political "state" to govern it, and in exchange that state provides for the needs of its constituent nation (producing a reflexive entity, the Nation-State). In Greece, the state made lots of promises about the welfare of its constituent nation, but now can't keep them. The nation was happy to cede control to the state in exchange for it keeping these promises, but how happy will it be to do so if the state isn't keeping up its end of the bargain, and instead imposes "austerity measures"? Of course, as long as the global economy and economic "pie" continued to grow thanks to an increasing supply of cheap, high-quality energy, this was rarely an issue. However, what will happen as this trend reverses? What happens to the state as it must now increasingly provide less to its constituent nation? In extremely simple terms, this is the basis for the current and accellerating decline of the Nation-State... Greece is just a canary in the coal mine, and will most likely be propped up by the rest of the EU and community of other Nation-States who don't want to deal with the underlying cracks in their system. Much like environmental and energy issues that are now global, not regional in scale, however, these rescue efforts will not work on a large scale, and the time is coming when the Nation-State system will fall appart with increasing speed. I think we will continue to cling to the notion of the Nation-State for decades to come, but the will be increasingly hollow constructs. Watch what happens in Greece for a prelude of how this may play out.
In Arizona, the US state has passed a law attempting to crack down on illegal immigration by forcing police to stop and question anyone who they suspect of being an illegal immigrant. In Arizona (on the Mexican border, and a key hub for illigal immigration from Mexico after the US border patrol focused on the California and Texas sections of the border), this essentially means stopping people who look Hispanic and asking them for ID. While it's clearly an inflammatory law (and the Pima county sherriff, where Tucson is located, has already refused to enforce it), almost all of the debate over the issue misses the key ingredient of understanding the constitutional nature of the Nation-State.
First, I should point out that I used to live in Arizona, I'm a huge fan of the Tucson area, and I often joke that Arizona is one of the strangest mixes in the US--traditional hispanic communities that have existed since before there was a USA, liberal college communities, strongly right-wing business interests, xenophobic and racist religious communities, snowbirds (people who go there from the colder northern states in the winter), and new-age/"hippy" communities. It's a bag of mixed nuts, which produces some wonderful and repulsive features simultaneously--the Tucson area and the southern part of the state tends to be more "left" nuts and the Phoenix area and northern parts of the state tend to be more "right" nuts, but it's always a bit crazy.
Arizona is a classic location on the blurry margin of the theoretically "cartesian" Nation-State. It used to be indian country. Then it was Mexico. Then it was the US. Its populations have blended together, and demographic trends have ebbed and flowed. Now, however, it is within the cartesian boundary of the US Nation-State. Of course, none of this changes the fact that much of its population has ties to communities in Mexico, and that the regional economy is better seen as an Arizona/Sonora nexus, overlapping with Arizona/California, overlapping with Arizona/New Mexico/Colorado/Utah, etc.
The debate in Arizona, and the larger US immigration debate, are really debates about how to deal with the decline of the Nation-State. The reactionary community wants to shore up the artificial boundaries and concept of the Nation-State, and make sure that the State provides for the needs of its constituent Nation, primarily by excluding immigrant laborers from taking jobs that the "American" nationals want, and from letting American manufacturing and other jobs leave the bordrs of the American state. Of course, there are two key flaws in this view--one, that there is no such thing as an "American" nation--we're a blended amalgam that retains strong ties to many other sources of loyalty beyond the American state (religions, homelands, etc.), and two that the American state can no longer provide for the continual, real, and relative gains in the wellbeing of this ficticious American nation for the same reasons that Greece can't. The alternative is to move toward either the Market-State (as advocated by Philip Bobbitt) where the state defines a market and people and capital of all nations flow freely through its doors, or (as I've advocated) a reconceptualization as a set of overlapping networks of scale-free self-sufficiency that don't depend on some state superstructure for basic needs (what I've called Rhizome). The business desire to let cheap Mexican labor into the US, for example, is a position of the Market-State, whereas the recognition that access to and interaction with diverse cultures without clashing state ideologies is more a position of Rhizome.
The fundamental problem in this debate is that the political structure where it is playing out is a captive of the Nation-State concept. Politicians have to pretend that there is a coherent Nation serving as the constitutional justification for the American State, and that this State is capable of providing for the needs of that Nation. Neither is true, but they maintain this charade to get elected, and then have to pander to this base. For this reason, the immigration issue will not be resolved until we begin to honestly address the flaws in this Nation-State structure. Until that happens (and I'm not holding my breath), the situation will only escalate...