The Collapse Of Complex Societies  

Posted by Big Gav

Decaying infrastructure - be it pipelines, sewers or the electrical grid - seems to be the topic-du-jour in the US lately. Is this a sign that the point of limiting returns has been reached and collapse has beugn ? I think probably not - its more likely to be the result of a lack of investment exacerbated by an ideological rigidity that eschews public investment. That said, a steep post peak oil production decline curve, combined with a shortage of skilled workers and an aging population could make the task of renewing all this infrastructure from the "great society" years much more challenging than it should be.

A pipeline shuts down in Alaska. Equipment failures disrupt air travel in Los Angeles. Electricity runs short at a spy agency in Maryland.

None of these recent events resulted from a natural disaster or terrorist attack, but they may as well have, some homeland security experts say. They worry that too little attention is paid to how fast the country's basic operating systems are deteriorating.

"When I see events like these, I become concerned that we've lost focus on the core operational functionality of the nation's infrastructure and are becoming a fragile nation, which is just as bad — if not worse — as being an insecure nation," said Christian Beckner, a Washington analyst who runs the respected Web site Homeland Security Watch (

The American Society of Civil Engineers last year graded the nation "D" for its overall infrastructure conditions, estimating that it would take $1.6 trillion over five years to fix the problem.

"I thought [Hurricane] Katrina was a hell of a wake-up call, but people are missing the alarm," said Casey Dinges, the society's managing director of external affairs.

British oil company BP announced this month that severe corrosion would close its Alaska pipelines for extensive repairs. Analysts say this may sideline some 200,000 barrels a day of production for several months.

Then an instrument landing system that guides arriving planes onto a runway at Los Angeles International Airport failed for the second time in a week, delaying flights.

Those incidents followed reports that the National Security Agency (NSA), the intelligence world's electronic eavesdropping arm, is consuming so much electricity at its headquarters outside Washington that it is in danger of exceeding its power supply.

"If a terrorist group were able to knock the NSA offline, or disrupt one of the nation's busiest airports, or shut down the most important oil pipeline in the nation, the impact would be perceived as devastating," Beckner said. "And yet we've essentially let these things happen — or almost happen — to ourselves."

The Commission on Public Infrastructure at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, said in a recent report that facilities are deteriorating "at an alarming rate."

I suspect one sign of a collapsing society is an increase in corruption. Greg Palast has a report on the emergency plan for the flooding of New Orleans.
DON’T blame the Lady. Katrina killed no one in this town. In fact, Katrina missed the city completely, going wide to the east.

It wasn’t the hurricane that drowned, suffocated, de-hydrated and starved 1,500 people that week. The killing was done by a deadly duo: a failed emergency evacuation plan combined with faulty levees. Behind these twin failures lies a tale of cronyism, profiteering and willful incompetence that takes us right to the steps of the White House.

Here’s the story you haven’t been told. And the man who revealed it to me, Dr. Ivor van Heerden, is putting his job on the line to tell it.

Van Heerden isn’t the typical whistleblower I usually deal with. This is no minor player. He’s the Deputy Director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center. He’s the top banana in the field — no one knew more about how to save New Orleans from a hurricane’s devastation. And no one was a bigger target of an official and corporate campaign to bury the information.

Here’s what happened. Right after Katrina swamped the city, I called Washington to get a copy of the evacuation plan.

Funny thing about the murderously failed plan for the evacuation of New Orleans: no one can find it. That’s right. It’s missing. Maybe it got wet and sank in the flood. Whatever: No one can find it.

That’s real bad. Here’s the key thing about a successful emergency evacuation plan: you have to have copies of it. Lots of copies — in fire houses and in hospitals and in the hands of every first responder. Secret evacuation plans don’t work.

I know, I worked on the hurricane evacuation plan for Long Island New York, an elaborate multi-volume dossier.

Specifically, I’m talking about the plan that was written, or supposed to have been written two years ago by a company called, “Innovative Emergency Management.”

Weird thing about IEM, their founder Madhu Beriwal, had no known experience in hurricane evacuations. She did, however, have a lot of experience in donating to Republicans.

IEM and FEMA did begin a draft of a plan. The plan was that, when a hurricane hit, everyone in the Crescent City would simply get the hell out in their cars. Apparently, the IEM/FEMA crew didn’t know that 127,000 people in the city didn’t have cars. But Dr. van Heerden knew that. It was his calculation. LSU knew where these no-car people were — they mapped it — and how to get them out.

Dr. van Heerden offered this life-saving info to FEMA. They wouldn’t touch it. Then, a state official told him to shut up, back off or there would be consequences for van Heerden’s position. This official now works for IEM.

So I asked him what happened as a result of making no plans for those without wheels, a lot of them elderly and most of them poor.

“Fifteen-hundred of them drowned. That’s the bottom line.” The professor, who’d been talking to me in technicalities, changed to a somber tone. “They’re still finding corpses.”

The CSM has an article on proposals for increasing the efficiency of the grid in the US.
Long accused of dragging its feet on raising energy-efficiency standards for products, the Bush administration has proposed its first such standard.

Its proposal attracted little attention, since it didn't mean better dishwashers or more fuel-efficient cars. Instead, it deals with transformers - those ubiquitous gray canisters that hang from utility poles and could save the nation billions of dollars if they were upgraded.

The question is how extensive the upgrade should be. Besides saving an estimated $9 billion in electricity costs, the Bush administration standard, unveiled Aug. 4, may also eliminate the need to build 11 new power plants over a 28-year period, the Department of Energy (DOE) reports. They would also reduce pollution and boost the reliability of the nation's electric grid.

But instead of celebrating the proposal, energy and environment advocates say DOE has opted for "a very weak proposal" - one that fails to save additional mountains of energy and pollution that a slightly tougher regulation would achieve for about the same cost. The tougher standard would save much more than the DOE proposal over 28 years - about 120 billion kilowatt hours of electricity - or enough energy to power 10 percent of US households for a year, they say.


Transformers are the first such proposed standards to emerge. And that may be a good thing - because the nation's electric grid, and particularly its transformers, are under more stress than ever.

Though the recent heat wave didn't cause large-scale blackouts as feared, a slew of smaller outages popped up across California and other states, many attributed to overheated transformers.

In late July, nearly 1,400 transformers blew in Northern California, leaving more than 1 million people without power, local news media reported.

Big transformers at power plants convert electricity to high voltages for efficient transmission over long distances, then smaller neighborhood distribution transformers reduce it back to levels safe for home use.

Higher-standard transformers are more expensive, heavier, and cost more to install, but also bear up far better under peak loads and make the grid more reliable, analysts say. That's good, because the nation could see a significantly higher rate of older transformers failing than in years past, says Alison Silverstein, a power industry consultant.

BP has cut oil production from Prudhoe Bay down to 90,000 bpd after another problem, this time a broken compresser.
BP PLC said Wednesday that oil production at its Prudhoe Bay oilfield in Alaska, already running at half capacity due to pipeline corrosion, has been cut by 90,000 barrels per day (bpd) for several days due to a technical fault.

A company spokesman said output at the biggest oilfield in the United States had been reduced to 110,000 bpd after a natural gas compressor in Gathering Center 2 failed. "We anticipate that fixing the compressor will require several days," said BP spokesman Daren Beaudo.

Prudhoe Bay had previously been pumping about 200,000 bpd, around half its normal output, after serious corrosion in a pipeline led BP to shut down the eastern half of the field earlier this month.

Joel Makower at WorldChanging has a post on The New Energy Companies - it seems everyone is getting in on the act.
One of the more noteworthy aspects of what has come to be called "the clean-tech revolution" is that industry sector lines are blurring. It's no longer just oil, gas, coal, and utility companies that qualify under the "energy company" moniker. As the world's energy choices diversify, so, too, has the number and nature of companies jumping in. There are now "energy companies" emerging from a variety of decidedly non-energy sectors, from electronics to chemicals to aerospace to ag.

Consider Dupont, which just announced a $50 million expansion of a facility to manufacture materials for solar panels -- specifically, the panels' protective backsheets. This is hardly the first big energy bet for Dupont, the company who's tagline was, famously, "Better Living Through Chemistry." For example, it boasts an entire division making "more powerful, more durable, and more cost-efficient fuel cell materials and components," as the company puts it. In May, Dupont Fuel Cells introduced components that provide direct methanol fuel cells -- the kind that someday will power laptops and cell phones -- with improved overall power performance and longer run-times. Another big chem company, Dow, boasts the world's largest fuel cell project, a partnership with General Motors, in which GM aims to prove the viability of hydrogen fuel cells for large industrial power. GM is powering fuel cells with hydrogen created as a co-product at a Dow facility in Freeport, Texas. Meanwhile, 3M, the maker of Post-its and Scotchguard, similarly has a fuel cell division, developing membranes and other component parts.

I've written on several occasions about GE, which already is the largest U.S. wind turbine manufacturer, and which also is engaged in manufacturing solar, fuel cell, coal, nuclear, and other energy technologies.

Who else is in the energy business? There's aircraft maker Boeing, which recently signed a multi-million dollar contract to supply concentrator solar cell assemblies to an Australian solar company. Owens Corning, best known for its pink building insulation, recently introduced a new "single-end roving and knitted fabric," WindStrand, which could enable lower costs and higher performance for wind turbines.

The electronics companies have long been in the energy biz. Fujitsu, Hitachi, Kyocera, Sanyo, Sharp, Siemens, and Toshiba are among the many firms in that sector making solar cells, fuel cells, components for wind turbines, and control technologies that make all of these things work more efficiently. Sharp, for its part, is the world's largest maker of solar cells and modules.


And then there are the IT companies -- the nice people who brought us the Internet and the personal computer, among other things. For several years, they've been investing in ways to improve the electricity infrastructure to make it more efficient and reliable. After all, the new "smart grid," in which homes, businesses, and appliances "talk" to one another to determine whether and when to power up or down, will require switches, routers, and sophisticated software -- the same things that run the equipment used to transmit and receive this blog. The fusion of info tech with energy tech has led IBM and Cisco, among others, to develop products and technologies to help deliver energy more efficiently.

Who else could become an "energy company"? Almost anyone who makes metals, plastics, advanced materials, or coatings. Software companies, who may write the code that weaves the cacophony of energy producers into a harmonious system. Big-box retailers, whose spacious, flat roofs could collectively become solar farms for the surrounding community. And, by extension, big real estate developers -- of malls, warehouses, industrial parks, and other large complexes -- creating microgrids of solar, wind, geothermal, fuel cell, and other energy sources. Some of these players already are emerging, with many more still to come.

It may not be long before we're asking, "Who's not an energy company?"

Bruce Schneier logs the latest unnecessary freak out over security - this time bacuase an airline passenger dropped his iPod into the toilet.
It all started when I got out of my seat to go to the bathroom. I went to the bathroom, washed my hands, and returned to my seat. A little while later the two stewardesses on the flight crossed each other in the aisle. They had a quick conversation that I was in earshot of.

"I locked off the front lav. There's something in the toilet that's preventing it from flushing. Run some water and see if you can clear it." My face immediately turned red. The seat cover! I thought. It must have been too big to flush! I should have thrown it out!

I was so embarrassed. I tried to act normal ... I took a sudden interest in the contents of the seat pocket in front of me, acted nonchalant and all. I watched as the stewardess got on her hands and knees in the lavatory and did unfathomable dirty work.

Sometime later, I decided it would be best if I forgot the whole thing happened, so I went to put on my headphones and drown myself in iPod music. But ... no iPod. I panicked, checked my other pockets. Where was it? Not under the seat, not in the pockets, not ... anywhere. I looked up to the stewardesses. One of them had run past me in a decent clip. She was carrying a green handbook. She brought it to the other stewardess. They flipped through the handbook, read a page, then made a call. The other stewardess had retrieved a blue metal box and was removing some equipment from it.

I put two and two together. I knew what had happened.

So I walked up to the stewardesses, both clamoring over the handbook, and tapped one on the shoulder.

"So, I had an iPod before I went to the bathroom, and now I don't. I think I know what's in the toilet."

We had a quick conversation. I told them, "You don't have to call the TSA or anything, it's just my iPod." They said, "Oh, but we already did."

Tim Burrows has a review of tonight's Four Corners special on global warming - "Prime Minister needs more evidence" (I'd suggest calling it "The Rodent and the Time Machine").
Perhaps the most interesting segment of the program, at least for those familiar with the climate change debate, were the segments with John Howard (Australian Prime Minister). He was to my mind somewhat uncomfortable during the interview sessions. During the final clip, he stated that he "wanted to see the evidence" that significant emissions cuts (60% by 2050) were required before implementing a carbon trading system.

I'm not sure what he is looking for. A message coming out of a time machine? "Greetings from 2050. It's really hot here".

The Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) has hundreds of scientists working to produce reports that are peer reviewed and dissected to produce some of the most thoroughly reviewed pieces on climate change and its impacts. As Tim Flannery says they are "as dry as dishwater", but they represent the best understanding of climate change science that is available. They are also now very clear in their language.

The National Academy of Sciences of just about every nation on earth has agreed that significant cuts are required.

I could go on. I ask again - what evidence is he looking for?

It sounds like Tim Flannery needs to work on his motivational skills, with Crikey reporting that his latst talk on global warming had people contemplating leaping from the balcony.
im Flannery’s keynote address to the Melbourne Writers' Festival on Friday night at the Melbourne Town Hall must have left more than a few punters feeling decidedly blue. The vision he paints of the coming impacts of climate change is at times little short of apocalyptic.

Yet Flannery’s vision is no exaggeration. And given the stakes, there would be something obscene about soft-pedalling his message just to make our Friday evenings a little cosier, our sleep a little easier. And so, as in his book The Weather Makers, Flannery pulled no punches.

But amid all of the talk of melting ice sheets and Arctic pack ice, rising seas, drowning polar bears, fatally confused bird life and monster storms, he seemed to leave scant room for hope. During the Q&A session at the conclusion of his speech, one audience member jokingly remarked that her friends were considering leaping from the balcony.

I’ve followed Tim’s work since the publication of The Future Eaters 12 years ago. A passionate discoverer and documenter of nature and natural history, he’s a great communicator, too. But with such a profoundly disturbing issue as climate change, the difficulty lies in startling people out of their reverie without turning them into despairing balcony jumpers. It is a difficult balance and -- eloquent as he was -- I don’t know that he struck it on Friday night.

This is not to take away his due. Tim Flannery’s is an important voice of warning that has helped greatly in shoehorning climate change onto the mainstream agenda. This was, after all, the ultimate reason for his appearance at the town hall. Perhaps in the end, it is only his job to deliver the bad news, uniquely placed as he is at the, er, coal face of nature’s continuing decline.

I'm predicting a fresh outbreak of violence in Chad sometime soon, after reports that the Chadian government has kicked Petronas and Chevron out of the country for not paying their taxes. Can't have that sort of bolshie behaviour from a third world country, now can we ? Or is this just another example of the revival of resource nationalism ?
Chad's president on Saturday ordered oil companies Chevron Corp. and Petronas to leave the country, saying neither has paid taxes and his country will take responsibility for the oil fields they have overseen.

In remarks on state-run radio, President Idriss Deby gave the companies — part of the African country's oil production consortium that is led by ExxonMobil — a deadline of just 24 hours to start making plans to leave.

"Chad has decided that as of tomorrow (Sunday), Chevron and Petronas must leave Chad because they have refused to pay their taxes," Deby said in a message broadcast on state-run radio.

Deby said Chad, which is one of Africa's newest oil producers and is setting up a national oil company, would take over the oil fields that have been overseen by the American and Malaysian companies and account for some 60% of its oil production.

Mark D. Boudreaux, a spokesman for ExxonMobil, told The Associated Press by e-mail that neither his company, nor affiliate Esso Chad has been asked to leave the country.

If the two companies are evicted, Chad could seek help from China, which has taken an active interest in Africa in its search for raw materials like oil and metals.

Of course, its possible President Deby may simply come to a sticky end - when I visited reddit today the top rated tales were about the untimely demises of whistleblowers about NSA wiretapping and an investigator looking at vote rigging in Florida. I'm always amazed at just how many people unfortunate enough to learn things that someone would rather keep hidden are soon found deceased - I wonder if accountants have nightmares about doing the books for companies that turn into the next Enron ?
Is someone murdering people who know too much about NSA wiretapping overseas?

Two whistleblowers — one in Italy, one in Greece — uncovered a secret bugging system installed in cell phones around the world. Both met with untimely ends. The resultant scandals have received little press in the United States, despite the profound implications for American critics of the Bush administration.

Last month, Italian telecommunications security expert Adamo Bove either leapt or was pushed from a freeway overpass; he left no note and had no history of depression. Last year (March, 2005), Greek telecommunications expert Costas Tsalikidis met with a similarly enigmatic end. Both had uncovered American attempts to eavesdrop on government officials, anti-war activists, and private businessmen.

The Bove case relates to the long-standing controversy over the CIA's kidnapping of cleric Abu Omar, who was flown to Egypt and tortured. The post-Berlusconi government of Italy is attempting to arrest and try all of the CIA personnel involved. Bove used mobile phone records to trace more than two dozen American agents.

Bove had also revealed that his employer, Telecom Italia, had allowed illegal "spyware" — undetectable wiretaps — to infest Italy's largest communications system. His testimony helped to uncover the unsettling relationship between SISMI chief Marco Mancini and Telecom Italia head Giuliano Tavaroli. (Mancini, recently arrested by Italian investigators, has also come under some suspicion for his possible role in the strange affair of Major General Nicola Calipari, killed by American troops in Iraq.) In the 1990s, Bove had received wide praise for helping to secure convictions of two bosses in the Camorra, Naples' answer to the Sicilian Mafia.

The case of Costas Tsalikidis — an engineer for Vodaphone, Greece's top telecommunications firm — offers a similar picture. Tsalikidis discovered an extraordinarily spohisticated piece of spyware within his company's network. The Prime Minister and other top officials were targeted, along with Greek military officers, anti-war activists, various business figures — and a cell phone within the American embassy itself. This page gives a full list of the targets, very few of whom could be considered as having even a remote connection to terrorism.


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