Tuesday, May 31, 2005

oil's end
It looks like some mainstream news sources are beginning to pick up on the impending oil crisis. The AP's Matt Crenson posted a story a few days back. He writes,

And then it really will be all downhill. The price of oil will increase drastically. Major oil-consuming countries will experience crippling inflation, unemployment and economic instability. Princeton University geologist Kenneth S. Deffeyes predicts "a permanent state of oil shortage."

The basis for this pessimism is something called "Hubbert's peak." As Crenson explains, a Ph.D by the name of Marion King Hubbert predicted in 1956 that U.S. oil production would peak in 1970. Shell, his employer, was livid and scoffed at his prognosis, but Hubbert was right. Oil production in the U.S. peaked 35 years ago and has declined ever since. If Hubbert was correct about U.S. oil supplies, then logically there must be a Hubbert's peak for world oil production as well. As David Goodstein writes in Out of Gas, world oil discoveries peaked decades ago, and the rate of new finds has slowed to a crawl. It is likely that we have made our last big discovery of an oil field like Ghawar in Saudi Arabia.

Most people aren't terribly concerned about the peak because they assume the crisis will hit us when we actually run out of oil. This reminds me of Jared Diamond's speculation in Collapse about what was going through the mind of the person who cut down the last tree on Easter Island in the South Pacific. It's cute, but of course the societal crisis occurred as soon as the islanders realized they were permanently running out wood. What will probably happen in the present-day is that oil companies and oil producers will collude for as long as possible to prevent independent observers from figuring out that world oil production has peaked.

But once that cat has clawed its way out of the bag, it may trigger a financial crisis that will make the Great Depression look like a bad night at the slots machine. Every aspect of contemporary mass urban civilization -- from the Eisenhower Interstate system to Wal-Mart to grocery store chains and down onto petrol-products like plastic bags and pharmaceuticals -- depends on the abundance of cheap gas. If petroleum is not replaced by a source of cheap, renewable energy sometime in the next ten or twenty years, modern civilization as we know it may collapse, triggering an epic and bloody decline in the human population of this planet.

Of course, not everyone is so pessimistic. Some assume that human beings, being the ingenious creatures that they are, will invent their way out of this dilemma, either coming up with a new source of energy (like fusion) or discovering new sources of oil, like the oil-shale that litters the Western U.S. My money is on a massive, solar-based energy project. Goodstein describes this "photovoltaic device" in Out of Gas. Using superconductive materials now used only in spaceflight, the sun could be harnessed to provide enough electricity for the entire world:

However, the scale of what is needed is breathtaking. Using present-day PV technology, in order to replace all the power generated from fossil fuels, an array spread over more than 200,000 square kilometers would be needed. That's an area roughly half the size of California. All the PV's made up to now would probably cover fewer than 10 square kilometers.

Now I'm no physicist, but I don't understand why Goodstein is not more excited about this than he is. If we've got the technology, then all we need to do is either produce PV's on a massive scale or improve the technology. The world certainly has no shortage of empty, useless desert terrain, whether it's in Arizona, Mongolia, or Libya. In fact, if Goodstein is correct, even using today's technology, we could conceivably provide enough electricity via PV's to industrialize the entire world, right up to the absurdly lavish lifestyle we live here in the U.S., replete with air-conditieners, iceboxes, and inter-continental jet travel.

But we won't get there with the current leadership in charge of things. Bush and the hopelessly deluded petrol-philes in Congress seem to believe that drilling for the piddling amount of oil located in the Alaskan wilderness will be enough to get us out of this mess, when what is needed is someone like Jack Kennedy to tell us we're going to the moon. Every day that passes without a serious effort to find alternative sources of energy is a wasted opportunity. The Bush administration is terrific at that sort of thing.

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Friday, May 06, 2005

Bankrupt media: Exhibit A
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you have heard many a blogger bloviate about the media, which they derisively call the "MSM" (that's Mainstream Media for those of you who don't read blogs two hours a day). Some of this is pure sophistry, Monday morning quarterbacking, and jealousy, but some of it sticks. The charge with the most stickiness is this one: journalists have stopped telling us the truth in lieu of umpiring disputes between two sides that are treated as equal. Now, I'm sure journalism is hard work and everything, and I'm sure a lot of writers do their best in the time they have, but there is no excuse for this kind of nonsense.

Michael Crowley's profile of lobbyist Jack Abramoff is lucid and witty, and paints a very unflattering picture of both the man himself and beltway politics. Unfortunately, Crowley refuses to arbitrate between the claims of Abramoff and his defenders and those who have indicted him. Abramoff is at the center of the Tom DeLay ethics scandal, but it is never quite clear in the article what exactly Abramoff has been charged with. Crowley quotes some people saying Abramoff is guilty, and then quotes Abramoff and others saying he isn't. The reader is not left with any idea of who might be right. And it isn't just a matter of Crowley not being willing to act as the judge in the Abramoff trial -- he doesn't even give the reader the background information necessary for informed speculation, you know, "this is legal and that isn't" and that sort of thing. Crowley writes:

His friends maintain that Abramoff will be vindicated. ''I don't know what it is that he is supposed to have done that is supposed to have been illegal or wrong,'' Norquist told me. ''I understand that there's a lot of money here, and more than people are used to. But that's different from some broken law.''

You see the problem here? I have no idea whether Jack Abramoff did anything that broke the law, even after spending half an hour reading Crowley's article. Similarly, most normal people had no idea whether John Kerry shot himself to win a medal (he didn't) or whether Al Gore claimed he had invented the Internet (he didn't) or whether Weapons of Mass Destruction were the main rationale for war with Iraq (they were). The reason for this confusion is not that the facts are so terribly complicated, but that no one in the media wants to risk pissing off powerful partisans to tell the truth. So instead of truth-telling, we get wishy-washy observation and referreeing, and total avoidance of taking a stand. As Rob Cordry, the fake reporter for the joke news program The Daily Show, once said, "Far be it from me to stand between the people talking to me and the people listening to me."

Far be it indeed.

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Thursday, May 05, 2005

Knowing things helps you avoid stupid comments
Little Green Footballs posts this picture of a Hamas campaign blimp under the headline "Suicide Blimp," and then leaves it esssentially without commentary. Readers are supposed to understand that this blimp is advertising suicide bombing for the deranged Palestinian masses or something, and we're all supposed to get a kick out of how superior we are and marvel at the righteousness of Israeli expansionism. Except that if LGF could read Arabic, he might notice that the balloon calls for "change and reform," not suicide bombing, which is exactly the sort of behavior we should hope for out of Hamas. The fact that they are contesting elections instead of carrying out terror operations is a positive sign. LGF's post is emblematic of all the stupid commentary floating around the Internets about the Middle East, most of it based on about two seconds' worth of knowledge cribbed from Dan Pipes. And if you really want to make yourself sick, read the comments section, where the racist LGF braintrust says things like "The IDF has F-16I's These poor suckers have .... hot air baloons. I think we can extrapolate to the societies, can't we?" (For the uninitiated, the IDF is the Israeli military). As I've said before on a number of occasions, the degree to which the radical right in America has attached itself to the most extreme Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza is astounding.

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