Yes, We Have No Bananas  

Posted by Big Gav

The Guardian reports that a worldwide banana famine may be approaching. Australian customers had a taste of a banana free world last year after a cyclone destroyed the banana plantations and it was bitter indeed (it even resulted in higher interest rates, if I could be allowed to play with the largest lever of fear going - by the way, did anyone out there get my "Wisdom of Crocodiles" reference the other day ?).

It is a freakish, doped-up, mutant clone which hasn't had sex for thousands of years - and the strain may be about to tell on the nation's fruitbowl favourite. Scientists based in France have warned that, without radical and swift action, in 10 years' time we really could have no bananas.

Two fungal diseases, Panama disease and black Sigatoka, are cutting a swath through banana plantations, just as blight once devastated potato crops. But unlike the potato, and other crops where disease-resistant strains can be bred by conventional means, making a fungus-free variety of the banana is extraordinarily difficult.

Emile Frison, head of the Montpellier-based International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain, told New Scientist magazine that the banana business could be defunct within a decade. This doesn't just mean we will be eating aubergine splits and that future govern ments may be mocked for policy melon skins. The banana, in various forms, is the staple diet for some half billion people in Asia and Africa.

Almost all the varieties of banana grown today are cuttings - clones, in effect - of naturally mutant wild bananas discovered by early farmers as much as 10,000 years ago. The rare mutation caused wild bananas to grow sterile, without seeds. Those ancient farmers took cuttings of the mutants, then cuttings of the cuttings.

Plants use reproduction to continuously shuffle their gene pool, building up variety so that part of the species will survive an otherwise deadly disease. Because sterile mutant bananas cannot breed, they do not have that protection.

Commercial banana plantations were devastated in the 1950s when Panama disease slew the dominant variety, the Gros Michel. A resistant variety, the Cavendish, filled the gap. But only massive amounts of fungicide spray - 40 sprayings a year is common - now keep Sigatoka at bay, and a new version of Panama disease cannot be sprayed. The Amazon banana crop has been devastated by the fungi, and accord ing to Mr Frison, some parts of Africa now face the equivalent of the Irish potato famine. ...

The Daily Terror has taken a break from thrashing the terrorist bogeyman today and jumped across to instill some green fear instead - I've got to say their sub-editors need to get their act together - this article would be far better titled "Hell And High Water" than the rather drab "Frightening reality we face".
SYDNEY is looming as one of the world's major climate change casualties, with temperatures expected to soar 50 per cent higher than the average rise forecast for the entire planet. For the first time, Australian scientists have charted in detail the impacts on the nation's largest metropolis of man's insatiable demand for energy and burning of fossil fuels.

The Daily Telegraph today exclusively reveals the landmark CSIRO report commissioned by the State Government which - for the first time - specifically details the impact of climate change on NSW. It paints a picture of a city baking under average temperatures almost 5C higher than now - which will kill 1300 people a year - and one battered by extreme winds and permanent drought.

NSW Premier Morris Iemma said the report's findings were alarming. "This might sound like a doomsday scenario, but it is one we must confront,'' Mr Iemma said.

And it will put pressure on Prime Minister John Howard to commit to the same tough targets set by NSW - to reduce greenhouse gases 60 per cent by 2050.

Our dams will be drained of water as the city plunges into a virtually permanent dry spell and evaporation rates increase by 24 per cent. The frequency of droughts now average three every decade. By 2070 there will be only one year out of 10 that is free of drought.

The bleak assessment suggested Sydneysiders would have to reduce water consumption by 54 per cent for the city to remain sustainable within the next 20 years. Extreme weather events, including 110m storm surges by 2100, will devastate the coastline as well as property. Bushfire frequency will almost double, with rainfall expected to be reduced by up to 40 per cent.

The Sydney Morning Herald is a little less breathless in delivery.

The results are part of a CSIRO report commissioned by the NSW Government and authored by CSIRO researcher Ben Preston.

Dr Preston predicts temperatures will continue to rise causing drought, flooding and heat waves. "What's important for people to understand is that this is not simply a lot of hand waving. There's quite a bit of scientific research and effort both within Australia and internationally that goes into producing these estimates," Dr Preston told ABC Radio. "And the problem there is that future climate change is already built into the system.

"So the warming we've been experiencing in recent years is really a function of greenhouse gases we emitted a few decades ago. Although there's a promise that large-scale reductions in future greenhouse gas emissions on the international basis will forestall ... large-scale warming by the end of the century, we've already sort of committed ourselves to additional warming and downstream climate change and consequences over the next few decades."

He said that, while past climate change was "natural in origin", the world's population is now living a "climate of our own making". "We have to look at this as sort of long-term preventive care for the environment," Dr Preston said. "Reducing emissions over the next couple of years isn't going to prevent any sort of climate catastrophe from occurring over the near term."

But all measures to combat climate change must go forward, which mean burning fewer fossil fuels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Age has a report on a weatherman's view of the forthcoming IPCC report.
The job of Australia's most senior weatherman is not so much to forecast weather as to explain it, to political leaders and other policy makers. In the superheated climate-change debate, it is a job Geoff Love approaches with infinite care. "I interpret the science," says Dr Love, the head of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. "If the bureau gets perceived as an advocate (of a particular line), or as a sceptic, we lose influence."

In the next few weeks, the Director of Meteorology is anticipating spending a lot of time explaining the scientific process behind the declaration by a United Nations scientific panel this Friday that the impact and cause of global warming is unequivocal — it's dire, and it's man-made. "People will wriggle and squirm who don't like that outcome. But I think anybody who is in conventional science with a reasonably open mind will say the case is pretty well made by a number of very good scientists, I think quite rigorously," he says. "Some of these changes in climate can be explained in no other way."

Dr Love is in Paris this week to participate in the final scientific plenary session that will give line-by-line consensus to the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the end of a six-year review of the state of the planet involving 2500 scientists and drawing on more than 6000 published papers.

The report will attribute climate change squarely to human activity and the release of greenhouse gases, says Dr Love, secretary of the IPCC until becoming Bureau of Meteorology director in 2003. "These statements will, I suspect, draw the most attention and the most political heat."

Agence France Press notes:
Billions of people will suffer water shortages and the number of hungry will grow by hundreds of millions by 2080 as global temperatures rise, scientists warn in a new report. The report estimates that between 1.1 billion and 3.2 billion people will be suffering from water scarcity problems by 2080 and between 200 million and 600 million more people will be going hungry.

The assessment is contained in a draft of a major international report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to be released later this year, Australia's The Age newspaper said. Rising sea levels could flood seven million more homes, while Australia's famed Great Barrier Reef, treasured as the world's largest living organism, could be dead within decades, the scientists warn, the newspaper said. The Age said it had obtained a copy of the report, believed to be one of three prepared for release by the IPCC, which is highly regarded for its neutrality and caution.

Some 500 experts are meeting in Paris this week ahead of the release on Friday of the IPCC's first report since 2001 on the state of scientific knowledge on global warming. ...

Back at The Age, there is also a report that Oil Search will soon decide the future of the PNG gas pipeline, which seems unlikely to go ahead (which will probably turn out to be a bad thing for Australian east coast gas consumers later on.
Oil Search is expected to announce the fate of its troubled $8 billion Papua New Guinea gas project on Thursday, with a host of analysts suggesting it will end up on the shelf.

Fat Prophets analyst Gavin Wendt said while takeover speculation continues to surround Oil Search, an expected announcement on Thursday is likely to involve the future of the PNG Gas Pipeline. "There was a lot of takeover talk last week ... but I think an announcement on the future of the pipeline is the most likely thing in my book," Mr Wendt said. "Oil Search is increasingly looking outside the original plan of sticking the gas in a pipeline and bringing it to Australia and I think that is looking more marginal all the time. They are looking for a major project partner to look at other options, which may involve setting up a refinery business in PNG in itself and it has Japanese partners looking at that already. The other option is looking at an export business, setting up an LNG refinery and that could be something that is on the cards."

I see "The Power of Nightmares" is on TV tonight again - well worth a watch for those who haven't seen it and want some historical background for the politics of fear we've been intensely subjected to these past 4 years.
Should we be worried about the threat from organised terrorism or is it simply a phantom menace used to stop society from falling apart? This three-part documentary series explores the possibility that the threat of a hidden and organised terrorist network is an illusion. At the heart of the story are two groups, the American neo-conservatives and the radical Islamists. Both were idealists formed by the failure of the liberal dream to build a better world.

These two groups have changed the world, but not in the way either intended. Together they created today's nightmare vision of an organised terrorism network - a fantasy politicians found restored their power and authority in a disillusioned age. Part one of the program looks at the origins of the neo-conservatives and the radical Islamists in the 1950s. The rise of the politics of fear began in 1949 with two men whose radical ideas would inspire the attack of 9/11 and influence the neo-conservative movement that now dominates Washington.

Both these men believed that modern liberal freedoms were eroding the bonds that held society together. The two movements they inspired set out to rescue their societies from this decay. But in an age of growing disillusionment with politics, the neo-conservatives turned to fear in order to pursue their vision, creating a hidden network that only they could see, run by the Soviet Union.

The TV news tonight led with the CSIRO's climate report, but it followed a report on the David Hicks case, which seems to be getting more and more attention as the election season approaches. I haven't really followed this one - by and large I suspect its just more "Power of Nightmares" bollocks, though I guess Gerard Henderson's fevered rantings that Hicks was Osama's right hand man (rather than the nutty loner with an obsession for armed adventure he appears to be) could actually be true. Either way he should be given a prompt trial and either imprisoned for any acts he committed or let go, not left to rot in a US detention camp.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) says the Australian Government has requested an independent assessment of the mental health of Australian Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks.

The DFAT statement contradicts earlier comments by Attorney-General Philip Ruddock, who said Australia would not be requesting an independent evaluation because it was likely to be turned down by the United States Government. DFAT says the request has been made but initial US advice suggests independent mental and physical health care is not usually permitted in Guantanamo Bay.

The move comes after Labor and the Democrats today called on the Government to insist on an independent assessment. Those calls followed comments by Mr Hicks's lawyer, David McLeod, that he believed his client's condition was deteriorating.

In other developments:

* Democrats Senator Natasha Stott Despoja says the Federal Government will suffer at the election if it does not allow David Hicks to be examined by a team of independent medical experts. (Full Story)
* Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks's father, Terry, believes his son has been in solitary confinement for 10 months because he spoke with Australian Government officials about his treatment. (Full Story)
* There are new calls for the Federal Government to insist on an independent assessment of David Hicks's mental health. (Full Story)
* Terrorist suspect David Hicks has urged the Federal Government to get him out of Guantanamo Bay. (Full Story)
* United States military lawyer Colonel Moe Davis has denied reports in the Australian media that Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks is in a bad physical and mental condition. (Full Story)


In other local news, the energy suppliers association (ie. a grouping of large coal fired power stations) released a report saying we have to stay with (thus far non-existant) "clean" coal and nuclear power, prompting widespread outrage and mockery. Maybe a counter-group should claim we will be completely dependent on "free energy" by 2050 as an equally rational alternative. And then we can all look at the practical option - converting to wind, solar, tidal and geothermal energy along with a smart grid...
The Federal Government has been urged to give little weight to a report by the power-generating industry that warns of a huge jump in the cost of electricity. The study predicts power would become twice as expensive if greenhouse gas emissions are cut by a third in the next 25 years. The report, commissioned by the Energy Supply Association of Australia (ESAA), says the cheapest way to reduce emissions is by using clean coal, gas and nuclear technologies.

But Dr Mark Diesendorf, a senior lecturer in environmental studies at the University of New South Wales, says the findings reflect the vested interests of the association's members, who own most of Australia's coal-fired power stations. "The ESAA model has several very absurd assumptions," he said. "For example, it assumes a very high growth in the demand for electricity. It assumes a very limited role for efficient energy use, which is the most cost-effective and the fastest kind of greenhouse response strategy."

The Greens agree the report is self-serving. Greens Senator Christine Milne says renewable energy is ready to go and more cost-effective in the long-term. "The only reason they're more expensive than coal at the moment is the coal industry has had 100 years of polluting the atmosphere for free," she said. "Let's put a price on carbon, let's have a national reduction emissions target, introduce a greenhouse gas trading scheme and then we'll see on a level playing field the renewables really surge."

Senator Milne says renewable energy needs to be embraced before investment dries up.

Warren at TreeHugger has a look at adoption of GreenPower in NSW (which is getting plenty of TV advertisment attention in the leadup to the state election).
Coal production and use is a very significant contributor to Greenhouse Gas concerns. Unfortunately for Australia it remains a millstone around the country's neck. And the reason is easy to see. We are the world’s largest exporter of the stuff and have been for about 20 years, in fact it is our single largest export, worth over $24 billion AUD. And at home it provides a source of fiscally cheap electricity. But ever so slowly it is dawning on people that it's environmentally very costly. Could this be why in recent weeks the state of NSW has been carpet bombing TV screens with commercials for their Green Power scheme, with a young girl cavorting beneath wind turbines. Since it was first introduced back in 2003 as “a world-first” in greenhouse gas reductions, the program is said to have cut GHG emissions by 31 million tonnes, or as they say, equal to “taking 7 million cars off our roads for a year.”

At this time NSW gets about 6% of its electricity from renewables. The plan now is to get the state to the point where 15% of electricity is renewably generated by 2020, assuming the goal of 10% by 2010 can be first achieved. Mandatory targets have been proscribed for energy retailers, but the person on the street is also encouraged to purchase ‘GreenPower’ from their provider, or change to another provider who offers a better deal. The website is quite clear to follow. But will it be enough? In 2004 the Australian Greenhouse Office reported that NSW had shown just a 1.2% reduction in GHG emissions since 1990. Yet the same government behind the GreenPower push has been actively pursuing yet another coal mine for the state. Well, it was until a few months ago, when a court ruled against it on climate change grounds.



Jerome a Paris at the European Tribune reports that there is "No technical limitation to wind power penetration" - at least some investment bankers live in a real world when it comes to realistic energy sources to fund in future (with wind likely being the single largest energy source in a few decades time).
One of the main arguments against wind power is that it is intermittent and thus unreliable because not always available when needed. A corollary is that it is usually stated (and I've used these numbers myself in earlier diaries) that wind power will not be able to provide more than 20% of power - or that beyond that number, its costs rise significantly.

Well, the National Grid, the entity which manages the electrical grid in the UK, is providing some interesting commentary in a special report about the long term outlook of their job, as posted here: National Grid 2006 Great Britain Seven Year Statement.
The output of some renewable technologies, such as wind, wave, solar and even some CHP, is naturally subject to fluctuation and, for some renewable technologies, unpredictability relative to the more traditional generation technologies. Based on recent analyses of the incidence and variation of wind speed, the expected intermittency of the national wind portfolio would not appear to pose a technical ceiling on the amount of wind generation that may be accommodated and adequately managed.

The Europeans also understand just how much money can be saved on fossil fuel imports by adopting renewable energy solutions - no more steady drip of money offshore...
A binding European Union target to buy 20% of all energy from renewable sources by 2020 would cut the region's fossil-fuel costs by about $96 billion a year, according to figures from an EU official.

Achieving that target would curb demand for fossil fuels by about 250 million metric tons of oil equivalent a year, said Fabrizio Barbaso, the deputy director general of energy and transport at the European Commission, the EU's regulatory arm. Barbaso was speaking at the European Renewable Energy Policy Conference in Brussels. There are about 7.1 barrels in a ton and the price of oil today is about $54 a barrel. It will be an „uphill battle,” to prompt many EU members to agree to binding targets, because they are on average about a third of the way to the 20%, Jorgen Koch, an energy official in Denmark and former director of the International Energy Agency in Paris, told the conference.

To help cut emissions and boost energy security, the European Commission January 10 proposed a binding target of getting a fifth of its energy, including transport energy, from renewable sources by 2020. That includes a binding target to boost use of so-called biofuels to 10% of vehicle fuel consumption by that year. Achieving the 20% target would cut greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 900 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent a year, Barbaso said. ..

The New York Times has a pair of reports on Silicon Valley's War On Big Oil - "Tech Barons Take on New Project: Energy Policy" and "Silicon Valley Rebounds, Led by Green Technology" (also noted at The Energy Blog).
President Bush set broad goals last week for the adoption of alternative energy. Hoping to take on the role of filling in the details is an unlikely group: Silicon Valley’s technology investors.

These venture capitalists, backers of giants like Google and Genentech, have traditionally been free-market advocates, favoring ideas and innovation over government intervention. Now they are heading to Washington on a crusade to influence energy policy because they have a big stake in the outcome.

The investors in recent years have poured billions of dollars into alternative energy start-ups in areas like solar and wind power or the production of fuel for cars from feedstock and crop waste. Many of these projects, they say, could stall without subsidies or government mandates for greater energy efficiency.

These barons of the new economy are not new to politics, though their interest in energy places them in a powerful spotlight. And it puts them in conflict with the oil and gas industries, which are more politically potent and have far deeper pockets.

“It’s very different from the business world, where you come in with a good idea and leave with a deal,” said Mark Baldassare, research director for the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan research group. The question, he said, is whether venture capitalists “have the patience to be part of the political process.”

The venture capitalists say they have earned political credibility through their track record of creating jobs and technological change. However, if they are to translate their formula for innovation successfully to the world of energy, they say, they need the government to be, in effect, an investment partner.

The message to politicians is that “you have to create a playing field to make it possible for us to back these companies,” said Nicholas Parker, chairman of the Cleantech Group, a research and trade organization representing venture investors in alternative energy.

With President Bush’s State of the Union address emphasizing alternative energy, and with the ascension of Democrats, who are less aligned with oil interests than the Republicans, the time might seem right for Silicon Valley to speak up.

Mr. Baldassare and other political analysts said the venture capitalists could become a powerful part of the realignment of energy politics. They are lending a new voice to the debate, one that politicians are likely to listen to given the investors’ reputation as smart backers of next-generation companies.

“They’re responsible for huge chunks of economic activity,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization, noting that the investors are also major potential donors. “If they choose to get the ear of Congress, they can do it more and more, and they’re just waking up to that.”

"Inside Greentech" notes the home of venture capital is making moves to make it easier to connect renewable energy sources to the grid (again, also noted at The Energy Blog).
In a move that could have national implications, the California Independent System Operator (California ISO) has filed with its regulator for approval of a new financing model to make it easier for clean energy companies to connect to the grid.

The ISO wants the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to approve a financing plan that would lower the up-front costs required today from energy producers for transmission lines.

If the new payment mechanism is approved and implemented, it would be a first-of-its-kind removal of a huge financial barrier that has hindered development of wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable energy resources across the country, the ISO said.

Unlike natural gas-fired power plants that can usually be built relatively close to existing high-voltage facilities, renewable generation is often built in remote areas. "Wind turbines, large solar power plants and geothermal resources all need to be built close to their natural fuel sources," said California ISO President and CEO Yakout Mansour.

"We don’t have a choice as to where these natural resources are located," said Rich Ferguson research director for the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies. "If we’re going to use these assets to offset less environmentally friendly types of power generation, we need to be able to build the transmission lines that reach those remote locations."

WorldChanging has a post on "Jeff Christian and the Zero-Energy House" (its important to remember the cheapest and cleanest energy source is energy efficiency).
Jeff Christian directs the Buildings Technology Center at the Oak Ridge National Labs. Over the last four years he has conducted research on five prototype houses that cost between 60 cents and one dollar a day in energy costs to operate. The talk was part of the Weston Global Distinguished Lecture series sponsored by the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (Disclaimer: I am pursuing my graduate degree there). The 3-hour long seminar that he delivered is available on the web as both slides and video (Zero Energy Series pt 1 & 2).

David Zaks: Jeff, why don't you tell me a little bit about what you do.

Jeff Christian: The Oak Ridge National Laboratory is a multi-disciplinary laboratory, and as far as energy efficiency, is the largest of the national laboratories in the country working on all aspects: transportation, industry, utilities and buildings. In the buildings area, there are about sixty of us that are working on various aspects of buildings everything from individual components, residential buildings, commercial buildings, combined heating and power, pretty much the whole gamut. As far as sponsorship, historically, most of our work is with the Department of Energy, although when it comes to buildings, it is the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy that comes out of DoE. The Building Technology Center is an interesting concept in it is a user facility, so it houses some fairly expensive pieces of equipment for making measurements on new roofs, walls, foundations, and appliances and heating and air conditioning equipment. We invite manufacturers, individuals and entrepreneurs to come in to use these facilities and the idea is not "we work for money" but we want you to come in a collaborate with us and the idea is that they wouldn't have to invest in expensive research equipment, we would have that and be able to work with them to help. The underlying theme is energy improvements in the improvements of buildings, or components of buildings.

DZ: Last month we reported that in the next 10 years all new houses in the UK are going to be zero-carbon. How close is the US to this kind of goal. What is it going to take to get there?

JC: At this point, I think we are quite a long ways away, but I am part of a program called Building America, and that is a major theme coming out of the Department of Energy where they have set as a goal, and the year of attainment is something like the year 2020 that we would have zero-energy buildings and the technical definition of that is quite precise and you would have expected energy services, so we aren't talking about radical lifestyle alterations to get there. We have been progressing towards zero-energy and we have committed ourselves and Congress and the people who fund us that we will make gradual improvements as the years go on. We are not working with a very isolated group, major builders who are building 50,000 houses a year embrace our participation. We help them get to the Energy Star level, and if they weren't doing it, why not? Today, we are at somewhere between 30-40%, from our base code-built house in 2004, cost effectively. It is great to be able to find a market where people demand these type of houses from their builders, is what really has to happen, although there is clearly some research and development that needs to be there to do this on a cost effective basis. ...

Dan at The Daily Reckoning has some notes on the Scottish power crisis.
--Energy rationing. Energy famine. Are they even possible? It's almost unthinkable in our bright, shiny, well-lit modern world that we'd have to get along without electricity. But it seems to be happening more and more often in densely populated urban areas that rely on centrally generated and distributed power. This time, it's Scotland.

--The latest power crisis in Europe started, apparently, with a busted conveyor belt at a coal-burning power plant in the city of Longannet. The Scottish Parliament is considering a new law that would allow that same plant to burn natural gas in order to meet base-load demands. Since when did it take an act of Parliament to keep the lights on?

--What's strange about the situation in Scotland is that the country appears to have plenty of energy generating capacity. It's just that it doesn't have much margin for error. And that's the key risk in most of the world's current power systems. When electricity is centrally generated and distributed, you naturally have energy "choke points" at which supply can be disrupted. And then when it gets dark, it stays that way until the sun comes up.

--"The problems began last September when safety at the Hunterston B power station in Aryshire revealed higher-than-expected levels of cracking in the station's boiler tubes. It has been shut ever since, leaving Scotland's power supply dangerously exposed," reports the Scotsman.

--If it's just a one-off freakish conveyor belt accident, we don't see any reason to lose sleep at night or turn the air con off. But the closer you look, the bigger the problem appears.

--"But behind this [latest problem], experts warn, lies a wider, more systemic, problem which will only exacerbate our energy worries in the future. Currently, Scotland's energy needs still largely rely on fossil fuels. Even by 2010, 45% of our energy will come from oil, coal, and gas. Nuclear will provide a quarter, as will wind. The remaining 5% will come from hydro power," the article continues.

--The problem-which a new primary school student would figure out quickly-is that energy needs everywhere are going up while fossil fuel supplies everywhere are not. Australia is not Scotland, of course. Scotland has haggis and St. Andrews and kilts and lots of fresh water. Australia has pies and high fashion t-shirts and Bondi beach and lots of coastline... and lots of coal. Provided Australian conveyor-belts don't break, a major breakdown in Australian power-generation is avoidable, right?

--Well, mostly. Australia has plenty of fuel to turn into electricity. But beyond that, there are still problems. That fuel (coal) burns dirty. And then there is the unavoidable problem of a fragile transmission grid. Victoria's recent blackouts are evidence of that. And there is the fundamental question of storing or efficiently transmitting electric power. On that score, we posted a chart over at the mother ship showing, in almost embarrassing fashion, how inefficient and wasteful energy generation and consumption is in America. Over half of the electricity generated at the source is wasted before it ever lights up your television at night.

--Granting that it other places might be more efficient than Team America, there is still this unavoidable reality: the current power system that relies on fossil fuels to generate electricity for distribution over a grid is barbarically inefficient and increasingly unreliable, given the lack of investment in the grid itself and the rising economic and environmental cost of fossil fuels.

--Not that we have a master plan for something different, better, more efficient, and cleaner. But we do know a company who's helping Europe move to a different, better, cleaner and more efficient way of getting electric power. This way does not rely on centralized electric generation. You basically put a power plant in your basement. Watch this space for details (and no, it's not a nuclear power plant, in case you were wondering.)

My bet is that he is talking about a combined heat and power (CHP) company, which is a great opportunity for now - but in the long run beware of natural gas depletion (of course, as Keynes said, "in the long run we're all dead")...

The Australian has a Philip Adams article on "Water and Wind" which sounds too good to be true, but is definitely something I'd like to see proved one way or the other.
FOR all sorts of personal and political reasons, Max Whisson is one of my most valued friends. We first made contact at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, when this most ethical of men was a principal guardian of our Red Cross blood supply. More recently he's been applying his considerable scientific skills to the flow of another precious fluid. Water.

Does this country face a more urgent issue? Will the world have a greater problem? While we watch our dams dry, our rivers die, our lakes and groundwater disappear, while we worry about the financial and environmental costs of desalination and the melting of the glaciers and the icecaps, Max has come up with a brilliant and very simple idea.

It involves getting water out of the air. And he’s not talking about cloud-seeding for rain. Indeed, he just might have come up with a way of ending our ancient dependence on rain, that increasingly unreliable source.

And that’s not all. As well as the apparently empty air providing us with limitless supplies of water, Max has devised a way of making the same “empty” air provide the power for the process. I’ve been to his lab in Western Australia. I’ve seen how it works.

There’s a lot of water in the air. It rises from the surface of the oceans to a height of almost 100 kilometres. You feel it in high humidity, but there’s almost as much invisible moisture in the air above the Sahara or the Nullarbor as there is in the steamy tropics. The water that pools beneath an air-conditioned car, or in the tray under an old fridge, demonstrates the principle: cool the air and you get water. And no matter how much water we might take from the air, we’d never run out. Because the oceans would immediately replace it.

Trouble is, refrigerating air is a very costly business. Except when you do it Max’s way, with the Whisson windmill. ...

The secret of Max’s design is how his windmills, whirring away in the merest hint of a wind, cool the air as it passes by. Like many a great idea, it couldn’t be simpler – or more obvious. But nobody thought of it before.

With three or four of Max’s magical machines on hills at our farm we could fill the tanks and troughs, and weather the drought. One small Whisson windmill on the roof of a suburban house could keep your taps flowing. Biggies on office buildings, whoppers on skyscrapers, could give independence from the city’s water supply. And plonk a few hundred in marginal outback land – specifically to water tree-lots – and you could start to improve local rainfall.

This is just one of Whisson’s ways to give the world clean water. Another, described in this column a few years back, would channel seawater to inland communities; a brilliant system of solar distillation and desalination would produce fresh water en route. All the way from the sea to the ultimate destination, fresh water would be produced by the sun. The large-scale investment for this hasn’t been forthcoming – but the “water from air” technology already exists. And works.

Gist has an interview with one of the best global warming commentators, Ross Gelbspan.
Perhaps the most rewarding moment I witnessed at Sundance last week, after watching several post-screening Q&A's with Everything's Cool directors and stars, came on my last night in Utah.

They'd just finished the film's only screening in Salt Lake City, and the packed house had nearly all stayed for the rap session, armed with questions about the future and what they can do. The theater managers had to ask them to wrap up the Q&A more than once, and even when they finished, the audience poured out into the lobby, where they swarmed the directors and stars for advice and clamored for the free CFLs and handouts on what they can do to stop global warming. Theater managers didn't know what to do -- they kept pushing the swarm back into the lobby, and there was another film screening right behind it.

A mother and daughter skipped gleefully toward the exit, the mother waving her ticket stub, signed by government whistleblower Rick Piltz, featured in the film. She called out to a friend that he should get his signed by another of the film's stars -- Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ross Gelbspan. These guys were rock stars here.

I got a chance to sit down with Gelbspan, author of Boiling Point and The Heat Is On, and his wife Anne between the numerous Everything's Cool screenings. Gelbspan talked a bit about getting the message out through film, public opinion, American journalism -- and about what really needs to be done.

What do you think about the ability of film, specifically Everything's Cool, to make a difference in societal opinion on climate change?

I think it's a great compliment to An Inconvenient Truth because An Inconvenient Truth doesn't have any sympathetic characters you get involved with, and even Al isn't that much of a character in the film. It's Professor Gore telling you about how the climate systems work. It's a very good film, but there's nobody to relate to.

And here you have four or five really engaging people to relate to, and I think that gives it a kind of personalness that An Inconvenient Truth doesn't have. So for that reason I think it's very good. If it gets picked up commercially, here's the question for me: They have one scene in there of me doing a phone radio show, and it's after Katrina, and the interviewer is asking me on this radio show if I think Katrina is a triggering event. In other words, is this going to create a big upsurge on climate change? I said in the interview, "Gee, I have no idea, I thought the 35,000 heat deaths in Europe the summer before was the trigger, and that didn't do anything."

Maybe a film like this could be a triggering event. Part of the reason I think that is that having been working on this stuff for 10 years, global warming is really a moving target, and notions that were outrageous or just off the radar screen six, seven years ago are now conventional wisdom. And it's changing so fast that you just don't know what's going to work. I really do believe that rapid social change can happen as unexpectedly as rapid climate change. I think of the wall in Berlin coming down in two years, I think of apartheid being overthrown in South Africa very quickly. You know, as the film made clear, you've got thousands of groups all over the country working like earthworms on this issue, what is it going to take to catalyze a real movement that comes up out of that? If the film could end up playing that kind of role, that would be wonderful. But I don't know. I just don't know.

One of the things that I enjoyed about the film is that it chronicles some of this public opinion shift. How have you seen public opinion shift in the years that you've been covering climate change?

I think that there's a huge shift that hasn't caught up with Nordhaus and Shellenberger yet, and that shift is media coverage. And media coverage is much stronger now than it was when they were doing their surveys and polls. Climate change is really in the news much more frequently now than it has been for the last seven or eight years. I still think the media really is not at all up to speed in terms of the imminence, and the magnitude, and the gravity of this stuff, but at least it's in the vocabulary. I think the combination of Katrina and An Inconvenient Truth and that all began a wave of media coverage. You really see climate change in the papers every few days now.

Overall, how would you rate the quality of news coverage of climate change?

It's underestimating. The reality is that the climate is changing so much more quickly than the scientists thought even five years ago. One scientist told me we're seeing impacts now that we didn't expect to see until 2085, and the pace of this stuff is just blindsiding everybody in the scientific community. The newspapers are reporting it as yet another issue, like health care and budget deficits. So I don't think the press is giving it its due, but it is more frequently acknowledged and mentioned in the press. And so that's a hopeful sign.

One of the things I enjoyed most in the film is when you say that it's not worth going on TV to debate it -- you quote James Hansen in saying that he's not going to debate it. But then it shows you going on TV to debate people. Do you still see a reason to debate? Where are you on that these days?

I don't debate skeptics anymore, no.

At what point did you decide you were done with that?

In that same segment, even then I was on my way to Fox TV to debate a guy from ExxonMobil, or from one of the fronts for ExxonMobil. And what really struck me was this whole notion of keeping it cast as a debate is their central strategy. They don't care if they win or lose the debate, because as long as it's presented as a debate, the public can shrug its shoulders and say, come back and tell us what you know when you really know what you're talking about. For that reason, I just won't skeptics anymore, the same way Hansen won't. I will really debate people on what we should be doing about it. And that's really important.

Are you hopefully that there will be any changes as far as that in mainstream media?

I hope so. I don't know. I'll tell you an interesting story. [In the film] they spent some time on this op-ed I did after Katrina, ""Katrina's Real Name Was Global Warming." About two months later there came to town a group of German news editors from very high profile publications -- Der Spiegel, German Public Radio. They asked if they could meet with me to discuss journalistic issues on this stuff. The woman who was organizing their tour gave them copies of this op-ed. So we're in the middle a great discussion, talking about journalism issues and climate and two editors held up this op-ed, and one of them said to me, "No disrespect intended, Mr. Gelbspan, but we have no idea why the hell you wrote this. There is nothing new. You're not telling us anything new at all. Why did you waste the newsprint on this thing?" And I said, "Welcome to my world." There's just no debate in other countries about this stuff. The debate is really on the policy side, how do we get these huge 70 percent reductions without threatening our economy, which is where the debate should be.

Do I see this happening in [U.S.] journalism? I certainly haven't seen it fast enough, and I think the journalists are really betraying their responsibility. I think they're really betraying their trust by not getting off their asses and finding out where the weight of opinion lies, and not being suckered into a false sense of balance. ...

Jeremy Leggett has an article on post peak food production (even though I'm a heretic on the subject of a post peak energy crisis - at least in countries smart enough to put renewables infrastructure and a mostly electric transport system in place - I think a low fertiliser and low pesticide agriculture system is still one that is worthy of a lot of thought)
The tipping point of global oil production will be accompanied by a dire energy shock, and we will have to redefine the concept of farming.

On Friday and Saturday last week, a potentially historic meeting took place in the rather unpromising location of the CIA, otherwise known as the Cardiff International Arena. Britain's organic farming community gathered en masse for the annual meeting of the Soil Association, and their theme was peak oil and farming in the post-petroleum era. Organisers and peak-oil whistleblowers alike thought that perhaps this was the first time an organisation in a critically affected sector has held a conference on the theme of peak oil.

If the peak-oil proposition is correct, the tipping point of global oil production will happen - largely unexpectedly - in this decade or early in the next, accompanied by a dire energy shock. The people in the room will be in the front rank of those first affected. They can also be in the vanguard of those who can offer a proactive vision of what a survivable post-shock future could look like.

Discussion ranged across many potential impacts and implications. Let me choose just two: the number of farmers, and where they farm. So oil-dependent is modern industrial agriculture, and so relatively few are the people employed in it, that we will need to redefine the very concept of a farmer after the peak hits us. Today our typical farmer might tend 500 acres with tractors and other expensive bits of oil-addicted kit. But in the post-peak era - with the oil price sky high, and oil supplies fast-shrinking and therefore probably rationed - our farmers will need to be tending an area of maybe one-tenth the size, using more human labour and strategic use of a tractor powered by something other than petroleum, plus good old-fashioned draft animals. Many more people will need to be working the land if we are to feed ourselves. When the collapsing Soviet Union turned the oil taps off on Cuba, 15-25% of the population had to take to the fields in some form or other. (The good news is that they succeeded, to the extent that nobody starved.) Today in the UK, 1% of us farm. In 1900, before mass addiction to oil, fully 40% did.

We will need to be farming in the cities and towns as well as the countryside. The conference heard encouraging stories of urban farming in Cuba, and how surprising amounts of fruit and veg can be grown on astonishingly small areas of land in cities.

Who is planning for this kind of counter-intuitive impact? Not governments, for certain, and very few individuals and organisations. There are oases of foresight. In the US, the City of Oakland has a target of growing 30% of its own food within the city boundaries by 2020. In the British Isles, community-level responses are underway in Kinsale, Totnes and other towns. The list is not long. Most people and institutions are either unaware of the coming tsunami, or in denial.

However, as became clear over the two days of discussion, there is much that organic farmers are doing that moves us away from oil and other fossil fuels. And there are many ideas on offer for what more could be done. As the director of the Soil Association, Patrick Holden, put it: "What I have found is that the prospect of developing a strategic plan to do everything we can to equip ourselves for a post-fossil fuels age is, strangely, an inspirational proposition." ...

For those hankering to review some depletion model mathematics, Mobjectivist has a World Forecast Update.
...After the solution of the differential equations, the result gives P(t), the yearly world-wide production of oil assuming an initially finite resource and impending collapse.

I post this as I listen to author Dilip Hiro discuss his latest book ("Blood of the Earth: The Battle for the World's Vanishing Oil Resources") on Laura Flanders' Air America radio show. I really could not follow too much of what he said because of a hyper-speedy Indian accent (somewhere in there I heard a mention of "Hubert's (sic) curve"), so I suppose I shouldn't feel bad if I lose somebody due to too much math in my own posts, ha ha. Must ... try ... to ... concentrate. Apparently Chomsky likes the book.

TreeHugger has a look at Newsweek's "Efficient Seven" - energy efficiency techniques.
We’d all love a bunch of heroes to ride into town and save us from our dilemma’s. Although Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and their buddies are no longer available to perform such a service, Newsweek’s International edition reckons there might other heroes up to the task - seven energy efficiencies. They note that the International Energy Agency (IEA) figures on a 50% surge in energy demand through to 2030, while citing the example of a German hotelier who embraced energy efficient and realised a 60% return on investment. The article then proceeds to spell out the case for the following cast of characters:

1. Insulation (36% of the world’s energy is said to be used for heating and cooling),
2. Compact Fluoro Lighting (moving to all CFL’s by 2030 would negate the need for 650 power plants - Philips last month announced they were phasing our incandescents), 3. Heat Pumps (Japan in offering subsidies has seen 1 million installed in past couple of years for heating water)
4. Industrial Manufacturing (Inefficient factories consume about a third of all the world’s energy, but producers like BASF have cut €200 million a year and nearly half their CO2 emissions through factory redesign and energy synergies),
5. Green Driving (save 6 % in fuel use by keeping car tyres properly inflated. Drive a diesel - 40% better mileage than petrol. If one third of US cars were diesel the US would no longer need to import the equivalent of 1.5 million barrels of oil a day),
6. Buy a Better Fridge (looking at actual energy use costs rather than purchase price could save 43% in total. Govt supported appliance energy labelling helps purchasers make such informed decisions) and finally
7. Energy Service Contracts (infrastructure providers don’t charge customers for installation but take a cut of the energy savings their clients make.

Amory Lovins’s ancient and beloved ‘negawatts’ idea shows that utilities spending money on energy demand, through helping customers instal the likes of CFLs and insulation saves them millions in having to cough up big bucks to create new supply. While none of these heroes are indeed new, that Newsweek cares to share them with their readers indicates that acceptance something needs to be done and done soon is, at least, most encouraging.

Past Peak points to a WSJ / Rigzone article on the collapse of Mexico's largest oil field, Cantarell - 25% in a single year. Jonathan (unlike the subbies at The Terror) can write a good headline - "The Way Of The Ostrich" gets my award for best of the day.
Daily output at Mexico's biggest oil field tumbled by half a million barrels last year, according to figures released Friday by the Mexican government. The ongoing decline at the Cantarell field could pressure prices on the global oil market, complicate U.S. efforts to diversify its oil imports away from the Middle East, and threaten Mexico's financial stability.

The virtual collapse at Cantarell — the world's second-biggest oil field in terms of output at the start of last year — is unfolding much faster than projections from Mexico's state-run oil giant Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex. Cantarell's daily output fell to 1.5 million barrels in December compared to 1.99 million barrels in January, according to figures from the Mexican Energy Ministry.

Mexico made up for some of the field's decline. Mexico's overall oil output fell to just below three million barrels a day in December, down from almost 3.4 million barrels at the start of the year. It marked Mexico's lowest rate of oil output since 2000.

Mexico's troubles at Cantarell mirror the larger problems in the global oil market. Many of the world's biggest fields are old and face decline, which can be sharp and sudden. Like other big producers, Mexico is struggling to make up the difference because new big fields are in harder-to-reach places like the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

The field's decline is expected to continue, if not worsen, this year, according to most estimates. That will subtract valuable oil from the world market, which is under pressure from rising demand by growing economies like China and India. It also means less oil headed to the U.S. from Mexico, which has long relied on Mexico as one of its top-three oil suppliers.

"This is bad news for Mexico. The field is declining faster than even the government's pessimistic scenarios," says David Shields, an oil industry consultant in Mexico City who has been warning about Cantarell's collapse for the past two years. [...]

TPM reports that new US Senator Jim Webb is still waiting for a response from Condoleeza Rice and others about his questions about invading Iran.
A couple weeks ago, Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) asked Secretary Condoleeza Rice if the administration thought President Bush had the power to take military action against Iran without permission from Congress.

She deferred an answer, saying, "I'm really loathe to get into questions of the president's authorities without a rather more clear understanding of what we are actually talking about. So let me answer you, in fact, in writing. I think that would be the best thing to do."

Well, it's been two weeks, and Sen. Webb is still waiting. So he's asked again, in a letter sent to Rice yesterday. To help speed a response, he even suggested the range of answers she might provide: "This is, basically, a 'yes' or 'no' question regarding an urgent matter affecting our nation’s foreign policy."

And to ensure that the administration got the message that Webb remained interested, he also asked the question of Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte during this morning's hearing. ...

Another US Senator, Russ Feingold, has made a statement at a committee hearing declaring that US troops should withdraw from Iraq within 6 months.
Our founders wisely kept the power to fund a war separate from the power to conduct a war. In their brilliant design of our system of government, Congress got the power of the purse, and the President got the power of the sword. As James Madison wrote, “Those who are to conduct a war cannot in the nature of things, be proper or safe judges, whether a war ought to be commenced, continued or concluded.”

The President has made the wrong judgment about Iraq time and again, first by taking us into war on a fraudulent basis, then by keeping our brave troops in Iraq for nearly four years, and now by proceeding despite the opposition of the Congress and the American people to put 21,500 more American troops into harm’s way.

If and when Congress acts on the will of the American people by ending our involvement in the Iraq war, Congress will be performing the role assigned it by the founding fathers – defining the nature of our military commitments and acting as a check on a President whose policies are weakening our nation.

There is little doubt that decisive action from the Congress is needed. Despite the results of the election, and two months of study and supposed consultation -- during which experts and members of Congress from across the political spectrum argued for a new policy -- the President has decided to escalate the war. When asked whether he would persist in this policy despite congressional opposition, he replied: “Frankly, that’s not their responsibility.”

Last week Vice President Cheney was asked whether the non-binding resolution passed by the Foreign Relations Committee that will soon be considered by the full Senate would deter the President from escalating the war. He replied: “It’s not going to stop us.”

In the United States of America, the people are sovereign, not the President. It is Congress’ responsibility to challenge an administration that persists in a war that is misguided and that the country opposes. We cannot simply wring our hands and complain about the Administration’s policy. We cannot just pass resolutions saying “your policy is mistaken.” And we can’t stand idly by and tell ourselves that it’s the President’s job to fix the mess he made. It’s our job to fix the mess, and if we don’t do so we are abdicating our responsibilities.

Tomorrow, I will introduce legislation that will prohibit the use of funds to continue the deployment of U.S. forces in Iraq six months after enactment. By prohibiting funds after a specific deadline, Congress can force the President to bring our forces out of Iraq and out of harm’s way.

This legislation will allow the President adequate time to redeploy our troops safely from Iraq, and it will make specific exceptions for a limited number of U.S. troops who must remain in Iraq to conduct targeted counter-terrorism and training missions and protect U.S. personnel. It will not hurt our troops in any way – they will continue receiving their equipment, training and salaries. It will simply prevent the President from continuing to deploy them to Iraq. By passing this bill, we can finally focus on repairing our military and countering the full range of threats that we face around the world.

There is plenty of precedent for Congress exercising its constitutional authority to stop U.S. involvement in armed conflict.

In late December 1970, Congress prohibited the use of funds to finance the introduction of United States ground combat troops into Cambodia or to provide U.S. advisors to or for Cambodian military forces in Cambodia.

In late June 1973, Congress set a date to cut off funds for combat activities in South East Asia. The provision read, and I quote:

“None of the funds herein appropriated under this act may be expended to support directly or indirectly combat activities in or over Cambodia, Laos, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam by United States forces, and after August 15, 1973, no other funds heretofore appropriated under any other act may be expended for such purpose.”

More recently, President Clinton signed into law language that prohibited funding after March 31, 1994, for military operations in Somalia, with certain limited exceptions. And in 1998, Congress passed legislation including a provision that prohibited funding for Bosnia after June 30, 1998, unless the President made certain assurances.

TomDispatch has an article by Calmers "Sorrows of Empire" Johnson on "Empire v. Democracy - Why Nemesis Is at Our Door".
The dream of the Bush administration -– eternal global domination abroad with no other superpower or bloc of powers on the military horizon and a Republican Party dominant at home for at least a generation -- long ago evaporated in Iraq. A midterm election and subsequent devastating polling figures tell the tale. The days when neocons, their supporters, and attending pundits talked about the U.S. as the "new Rome" of planet Earth now seem to exist on the other side of some Startrekkian wormhole.

And yet the imperial damage remains everywhere around us. Give the Bush administration credit. They moved the goalposts. They created the sort of dystopian imperial reality (as well as a mess of future-busting proportions) that a generation of relative sanity might not be able to fully reverse. The facts on the ground -- the vastness of the Pentagon, the power of the military-industrial complex, the inept but already bloated Homeland Security Department (and the vast security interests coalescing around it), the staggering alphabet (or acronym) soup of the "Intelligence Community" -- all of this militates against real change, which is why we need Chalmers Johnson.

Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, the final volume of his Blowback Trilogy, is about to storm your local bookstore (and can be pre-ordered at Amazon now). It is a reminder of just how far we've moved from the sort of democratic America that the President is always holding up as a model to the rest of the world. As with Blowback and The Sorrows of Empire before it, Nemesis, Johnson's grand, if grim, conclusion to our American tragedy, is simply a must-read. While you're waiting for the book to arrive in your hands, you can get a little preview of its themes below. Tom

Empire v. Democracy
Why Nemesis Is at Our Door
By Chalmers Johnson

History tells us that one of the most unstable political combinations is a country -- like the United States today -- that tries to be a domestic democracy and a foreign imperialist. Why this is so can be a very abstract subject. Perhaps the best way to offer my thoughts on this is to say a few words about my new book, Nemesis, and explain why I gave it the subtitle, "The Last Days of the American Republic." Nemesis is the third book to have grown out of my research over the past eight years. I never set out to write a trilogy on our increasingly endangered democracy, but as I kept stumbling on ever more evidence of the legacy of the imperialist pressures we put on many other countries as well as the nature and size of our military empire, one book led to another. ...

I had set out to explain how exactly our government came to be so hated around the world. As a CIA term of tradecraft, "blowback" does not just mean retaliation for things our government has done to, and in, foreign countries. It refers specifically to retaliation for illegal operations carried out abroad that were kept totally secret from the American public. These operations have included the clandestine overthrow of governments various administrations did not like, the training of foreign militaries in the techniques of state terrorism, the rigging of elections in foreign countries, interference with the economic viability of countries that seemed to threaten the interests of influential American corporations, as well as the torture or assassination of selected foreigners. The fact that these actions were, at least originally, secret meant that when retaliation does come -- as it did so spectacularly on September 11, 2001 -- the American public is incapable of putting the events in context. Not surprisingly, then, Americans tend to support speedy acts of revenge intended to punish the actual, or alleged, perpetrators. These moments of lashing out, of course, only prepare the ground for yet another cycle of blowback. ...

A World of Bases

As a continuation of my own analytical odyssey, I then began doing research on the network of 737 American military bases we maintained around the world (according to the Pentagon's own 2005 official inventory). Not including the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, we now station over half a million U.S. troops, spies, contractors, dependents, and others on military bases located in more than 130 countries, many of them presided over by dictatorial regimes that have given their citizens no say in the decision to let us in.

As but one striking example of imperial basing policy: For the past sixty-one years, the U.S. military has garrisoned the small Japanese island of Okinawa with 37 bases. Smaller than Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands, Okinawa is home to 1.3 million people who live cheek-by-jowl with 17,000 Marines of the 3rd Marine Division and the largest U.S. installation in East Asia -- Kadena Air Force Base. There have been many Okinawan protests against the rapes, crimes, accidents, and pollution caused by this sort of concentration of American troops and weaponry, but so far the U. S. military -- in collusion with the Japanese government -- has ignored them. My research into our base world resulted in The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic, written during the run-up to the Iraq invasion.

As our occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq turned into major fiascoes, discrediting our military leadership, ruining our public finances, and bringing death and destruction to hundreds of thousands of civilians in those countries, I continued to ponder the issue of empire. In these years, it became ever clearer that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and their supporters were claiming, and actively assuming, powers specifically denied to a president by our Constitution. It became no less clear that Congress had almost completely abdicated its responsibilities to balance the power of the executive branch. Despite the Democratic sweep in the 2006 election, it remains to be seen whether these tendencies can, in the long run, be controlled, let alone reversed.

Until the 2004 presidential election, ordinary citizens of the United States could at least claim that our foreign policy, including our illegal invasion of Iraq, was the work of George Bush's administration and that we had not put him in office. After all, in 2000, Bush lost the popular vote and was appointed president thanks to the intervention of the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision. But in November 2004, regardless of claims about voter fraud, Bush actually won the popular vote by over 3.5 million ballots, making his regime and his wars ours.

Whether Americans intended it or not, we are now seen around the world as approving the torture of captives at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, at Bagram Air Base in Kabul, at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and at a global network of secret CIA prisons, as well as having endorsed Bush's claim that, as commander-in-chief in "wartime," he is beyond all constraints of the Constitution or international law. We are now saddled with a rigged economy based on record-setting trade and fiscal deficits, the most secretive and intrusive government in our country's memory, and the pursuit of "preventive" war as a basis for foreign policy. Don't forget as well the potential epidemic of nuclear proliferation as other nations attempt to adjust to and defend themselves against Bush's preventive wars, while our own already staggering nuclear arsenal expands toward first-strike primacy and we expend unimaginable billions on futuristic ideas for warfare in outer space.

The Choice Ahead

By the time I came to write Nemesis, I no longer doubted that maintaining our empire abroad required resources and commitments that would inevitably undercut, or simply skirt, what was left of our domestic democracy and that might, in the end, produce a military dictatorship or -- far more likely -- its civilian equivalent. The combination of huge standing armies, almost continuous wars, an ever growing economic dependence on the military-industrial complex and the making of weaponry, and ruinous military expenses as well as a vast, bloated "defense" budget, not to speak of the creation of a whole second Defense Department (known as the Department of Homeland Security) has been destroying our republican structure of governing in favor of an imperial presidency. By republican structure, of course, I mean the separation of powers and the elaborate checks and balances that the founders of our country wrote into the Constitution as the main bulwarks against dictatorship and tyranny, which they greatly feared.

We are on the brink of losing our democracy for the sake of keeping our empire. Once a nation starts down that path, the dynamics that apply to all empires come into play -- isolation, overstretch, the uniting of local and global forces opposed to imperialism, and in the end bankruptcy.

History is instructive on this dilemma. If we choose to keep our empire, as the Roman republic did, we will certainly lose our democracy and grimly await the eventual blowback that imperialism generates. There is an alternative, however. We could, like the British Empire after World War II, keep our democracy by giving up our empire. The British did not do a particularly brilliant job of liquidating their empire and there were several clear cases where British imperialists defied their nation's commitment to democracy in order to hang on to foreign privileges. The war against the Kikuyu in Kenya in the 1950s and the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956 are particularly savage examples of that. But the overall thrust of postwar British history is clear: the people of the British Isles chose democracy over imperialism.

In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt offered the following summary of British imperialism and its fate:
"On the whole it was a failure because of the dichotomy between the nation-state's legal principles and the methods needed to oppress other people permanently. This failure was neither necessary nor due to ignorance or incompetence. British imperialists knew very well that 'administrative massacres' could keep India in bondage, but they also knew that public opinion at home would not stand for such measures. Imperialism could have been a success if the nation-state had been willing to pay the price, to commit suicide and transform itself into a tyranny. It is one of the glories of Europe, and especially of Great Britain, that she preferred to liquidate the empire."
...

And to close, here's an article on the ever expanding reach of big brother from Cnet - FBI turns to broad new wiretap method. Its amazing just what a large impact oil dependence (given that I view this as the driving force behind American policy since world war 2 finished) has when you look at the bigger picture...
The FBI appears to have adopted an invasive Internet surveillance technique that collects far more data on innocent Americans than previously has been disclosed.

Instead of recording only what a particular suspect is doing, agents conducting investigations appear to be assembling the activities of thousands of Internet users at a time into massive databases, according to current and former officials. That database can subsequently be queried for names, e-mail addresses or keywords.

Such a technique is broader and potentially more intrusive than the FBI's Carnivore surveillance system, later renamed DCS1000. It raises concerns similar to those stirred by widespread Internet monitoring that the National Security Agency is said to have done, according to documents that have surfaced in one federal lawsuit, and may stretch the bounds of what's legally permissible.

Call it the vacuum-cleaner approach. It's employed when police have obtained a court order and an Internet service provider can't "isolate the particular person or IP address" because of technical constraints, says Paul Ohm, a former trial attorney at the Justice Department's Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section. (An Internet Protocol address is a series of digits that can identify an individual computer.)

That kind of full-pipe surveillance can record all Internet traffic, including Web browsing--or, optionally, only certain subsets such as all e-mail messages flowing through the network. Interception typically takes place inside an Internet provider's network at the junction point of a router or network switch.

The technique came to light at the Search & Seizure in the Digital Age symposium held at Stanford University's law school on Friday. Ohm, who is now a law professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Richard Downing, a CCIPS assistant deputy chief, discussed it during the symposium.

In a telephone conversation afterward, Ohm said that full-pipe recording has become federal agents' default method for Internet surveillance. "You collect wherever you can on the (network) segment," he said. "If it happens to be the segment that has a lot of IP addresses, you don't throw away the other IP addresses. You do that after the fact."

"You intercept first and you use whatever filtering, data mining to get at the information about the person you're trying to monitor," he added.

On Monday, a Justice Department representative would not immediately answer questions about this kind of surveillance technique. (Late Tuesday, the Justice Department responded with a statement taking issue with this description of the FBI's surveillance practices.)

"What they're doing is even worse than Carnivore," said Kevin Bankston, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who attended the Stanford event. "What they're doing is intercepting everyone and then choosing their targets."

2 comments

Anonymous   says 1:39 PM

The other documentary by Adam Curtis that is a must see is "The Century of the Self". Bit Torrent versions are available. This predates "The Power of Nightmares".
SP

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