The Geopolitics of Energy: A Systems-Thinking Approach  

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Jeff Vail has posted a copy of his ASPO USA presentation on geopolitics and peak oil - The Geopolitics of Energy: A Systems-Thinking Approach

I think that this concept of “Energy Geopolitics” is extremely broad and complex. As a result, it’s necessary to take a systems-thinking approach, addressing the issues of complexity and feedback loops head-on. My goal here is, in only 10 slides, to start with the sources of geopolitical conflict and tie them up into a coherent model of a system of geopolitical disruption to energy and resource supplies. ...

2. The character of our energy demand also exacerbates geopolitical problems. As we pass peak oil, reduction in oil consumption will increase the inelasticity of remaining demand as we choose to cut the most elastic demand first. This tightens the system: all actors will take increasingly extreme measures to ensure supplies to meet their increasingly inelastic demand.

3. There are a number of catalysts to geopolitical conflict. First, there is the division between State and Nation. Where, especially in post-colonial and globally networked environments, the demands of the Nation and the desires of the State don’t line up, there is conflict. Likewise, there is conflict where there is disparity between the demands of State and Non-State groups such as religious sects, or ideological or affinity groups. There is also conflict between the “Legal” owners of a resource and those who claim “Moral” ownership. Consider, for example, an Ijaw villager in the Niger Delta region. He sees that his land, and the land that his people have occupied as long as anyone can remember, is now being exploited by a foreign oil company. He feels that he has moral ownership to this land and this oil. He isn’t concerned that, because the British amalgamated 250+ distinct ethnic groups into the colonial construct of the Nigerian state over 100 years ago, there is a legal structure in place that gives ownership to a distant government that is then leased to an IOC. Instead, this disparity between moral and legal ownership drives conflict.

All of these sources of conflict fall under the general heading of “Mutually Exclusive Overlap.” When the minimum demands of groups A and B can’t be simultaneously met, this situation perpetuates conflict, causes sides to dig in, escalate the conflict, and choose to use violent means to forcibly meet their minimum demands. We certainly see this today in regions such as Iraq and Nigeria.


4. Additionally, in a world of dwindling resource supply, actors must make tough choices: do they accept reduced supply or fight to maintain current levels of consumption? Generally, actors will seek to secure their slice of a shrinking pie.

This creates a resource insecurity issue, and harkens back to the old (but increasingly new again) economic philosophy of Mercantilism. These mercantilist tendencies manifest in a number of ways. One is pipeline mercantilism. There is this tendency to accept without qualification the assertion that oil and natural gas are globally fungible commodities, but in reality there is a certain element of fixedness of resource flows introduced by the sunk cost in energy infrastructure. Actors seek to ensure that this infrastructure, these pipelines, direct resource flows toward their markets. Another mechanism of mercantilism is the long-term, bi-lateral supply contract coupled with aid deals. This is a favorite of China and India of late. And finally, if these fail, there is always military adventurism. This is something that we already see in the headlines: Iraq and the Georgian conflict just to cite two obvious examples. However, this has the potential to spread to many more areas: the Spratly Islands, Ethiopia’s Ogaden province, North Africa (with increasing Russian influence), and the dark horse, the Arctic.

5. In a sense, the Nation-State conflict and the mercantilism/resource insecurity issues both become issues of a changing military landscape: a shift in power relationships and a democratization of the state’s traditional monopoly of the use of violence (at least in theory). This evolution in military tactics is exacerbating the geopolitical threat to energy supplies (spreading understanding of targeting methodology that leads to selecting energy infrastructure targets as critical nodes capable of inducing cascading failures, recognition of the increasing ROI of energy targets as energy becomes increasingly scarce, network-innovation advantage held by decentralized adversaries, innovations in modern “swarming” and “guerilla” tactics, etc.).

So, simultaneously you have a situation where disenfranchised groups of all stripes have an improved ability to challenge established power structures militarily AND a situation where the increasingly preferred and effective means of doing so is to directly disrupt energy supplies.

These tactical developments certainly aren’t new—the graphic above shows a swarming situation encountered by Alexander the Great over two millennia ago, but it is resurgent.These military developments really close the circle, taking discrete causes of geopolitical tensions and wrapping them up into a system of geopolitical feedback loops disrupting resource supply. ...

7. So here’s the dramatic graphic. The right side of civilization’s oil supply curve will not look like the left. Peak oil is dramatic enough in suggesting that the right side might look as bad as the left, but my argument is that geopolitics will actually make it look significantly worse.

Is this an over-dramatization?

My answer: IF peak oil is a problem, then geopolitical feedback loops will make it worse. If we find a suitable energy substitute to continue fueling global economic and population growth indefinitely, then neither peak oil nor geopolitical feedback loops will pose a real challenge to humanity. The danger presented by geopolitical feedback loops is that, while we may understand the geological and economic nature of peak oil, we may persist in underestimating the problem if we fail to understand that geopolitics are not a separable set of phenomena, but rather are the inextricable result of geologically-driven scarcity.

So where are we now on this graph? As we’re all well aware, there is legitimate debate about the exact timing of peak oil. There’s debate about not just the timing but also the very existence of peak energy. But geopolitical feedback loops aren’t driven by the date of peak. Rather, they’re driven by the transition point from accelerating supply growth to decelerating supply growth, and there can be little doubt that we’ve passed that point.

What about the sharp cliff at the end of the geopolitical curve? Shouldn’t geopolitically determined supply mirror the gradual tail-off of the classic peak oil production curve? Not necessarily. While we’ll never run out of oil, it is certainly possible that we run out of the necessary geopolitically-permissible environment and level of economic complexity necessary to produce, export, or import oil in any substantial quantity.

8. I think it’s tempting to think of these phenomena as a bunch of conceptually and geographically separable problems. However, my argument is that this is a global feedback system (conflict in Nigeria increases scarcity which, in turn, drives energy targeting choices in Mexico, which further invigorates the conflict in Nigeria). As long as there is increasing global scarcity, there will be increasing catalyst for localized geopolitical problems even in regions that have not yet peaked.

This is a critical concept because events in regions that are clearly out of control—like Nigeria—are substantially impacting the geopolitical environment in formerly very stable areas like Scotland and Canada. Just a few years ago that might draw laughs, and I’m certainly not suggesting that we’ll soon see hoards of Picts and Scots wielding bucklers and swords advancing on York. But what I think is not questionable is that increased scarcity due to events in Nigeria are exacerbating the very real tensions around resource nationalism that already exist in places like Scotland. ...

Regardless of whether you think that the problem of geopolitics can be “solved” or not, here is the key take-away:

Our energy future is not controlled solely by the comparatively straight-forward issues of geology, economics, and technology, but also by the much less concrete limiting factor of geopolitics. Oil supply under geopolitical reality will always be less than what is geologically, economically, and technologically possible. How much less? I don’t know—but I think it will be a significant and ever increasing difference. If you aren’t planning for this kind of uncertainty beyond the issues presented by economics and geology, then you aren’t prepared.

Scottish Power to lead the surge towards tidal power  

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Bloomberg reports that Scotland is proposing large financial incentives for tidal power generators - Scottish Power to Spend $184 Million on Tidal Power. More at the FT.

Scottish Power Ltd., Iberdrola SA's U.K. unit, plans to invest more than 100 million pounds ($184 million) in tidal power as the utility develops energy production that doesn't add to carbon-dioxide emissions.

Scottish Power is studying two sites in Scotland and another in Northern Ireland for deploying underwater turbines capable of generating a combined 60 megawatts of electricity, enough for more than 40,000 homes, the Glasgow-based company said today in a statement. It will install as many as 20, 1- megawatt turbines at each site, following a year of testing.

Europe's utilities are racing to develop new forms of energy production to harness natural sources of energy, including the wind, waves and solar rays. The technologies are more costly than conventional power production, and are subsidized by governments. They don't emit carbon dioxide, and avoid emission-permit costs.

The planned turbines use the Lanstroem technology that has undergone four years of testing in Norway, developed by Hammerfest Stroem AS, a company owned by Scottish Power, StatoilHydro ASA and Hammerfest Energi. Planning applications may be made in summer next year, and generation may start from 2011.

Just one of the sites, the Pentland Firth, may have potential tidal energy to meet one-third of Scotland's power requirements, the company said. The area includes the stretch of sea between the Orkney Isles and mainland Scotland.

The Crown Estate, which owns rights to the resources of the U.K. continental shelf, said it's seeking expressions of interest for use of the Pentland Firth and plans to allow more than 700 megawatts of power-generation capacity to be built there by 2020. There may also be opportunities for demonstration sites elsewhere, it said in a presentation on its Web site today.

Big Brother Is Watching Your Car  

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The Australian has an article on a planned increase in automated traffic surveillance - Privacy concerns on speed cameras.

CRIMTRAC's planned automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) system could become a mass surveillance system, taking as many as 70 million photos of cars and drivers every day across a vast network of roadside cameras. State and federal police forces want full-frontal images of vehicles, including the driver and front passenger, that are clear enough for identification purposes and usable as evidence in court.

"All vehicles passing through a fixed or mobile ANPR camera will have the data recorded and available for interrogation," CrimTrac told the Queensland TravelSafe inquiry into the use of ANPR for road safety. "Existing camera applications, such as Safe-T-Cam, red light and speed cameras could be upgraded where necessary to provide constant live streaming to a central database. National connectivity would be achieved through secure digital networks for fixed cameras. Law enforcement agencies would also use mobile units."

David Vaile, executive director of the University of NSW's Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre, warned that the ANPR "could become the next Access Card".

"As a public surveillance system that could be linked to facial recognition, this has enough technology behind it to impinge on everybody's daily life," Mr Vaile said. "CrimTrac has told us there will be 5000 cameras around the country, overwhelmingly in populated areas, taking some 70 million photos every day. There'll be maybe 1000 cameras in downtown Sydney, close to that number in Melbourne, perhaps 100 or so in Brisbane. If you use the main roads, you're likely to be snapped several times a day, and all those photos and any related data will be held by CrimTrac for up to five years."

Mr Vaile said it was false to represent the proposal as number plate recognition: "It's a photograph-all-drivers system."

Does thinking globally require unpleasant action locally ?  

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The Economist has an interesting article on the tradeoffs between local and global action on the environment, using renewable energy powered aluminium smelters in Iceland as an example - Testing metal. Whether or not we could do without making more aluminium is a question left unexamined (though I'd suggest if we recycled all of it, at some point we wouldn't need to make any more).

There are currently three aluminium smelters in Iceland, with a fourth under construction and others planned. Iceland is one of the world’s top ten producers, despite having no bauxite (the main ingredient) and a population of barely 300,000. Aluminium has a huge share in the economy, accounting for 37% of exports in the early part of this year, compared with just 10% in 1995.

This investment boom is driven by one thing alone: cheap, clean power. Aluminium smelting is a very power-hungry business. Indeed, electricity accounts for such a high proportion of costs that it is worthwhile shipping the raw materials to a spot with cheap power, such as Iceland, and shipping the finished aluminium on again to consumers elsewhere.

Iceland has lots of rivers, and sits atop a volcanic ridge. Its electricity comes almost entirely from hydropower and geothermal plants. There are plenty of rivers left to dam, and lots of subterranean steam to tap. Local power companies have even started building power plants solely to cater to new smelters. Electricity consumption has more than doubled in recent years; Iceland now uses more power per person than any other country in the world. And consumption will only grow as more smelters are built.

But some Icelanders are beginning to have doubts. A planned expansion of the oldest smelter, near Reykjavik, was defeated in a local referendum last year. Saving Iceland wants to call a halt to all such projects. But the prime minister, Geir Haarde, argues that the protesters do not reflect the views of most Icelanders, especially in the smaller and more remote communities in the north and east of the country, who welcome smelters and the jobs they bring.

Others believe that Iceland has a moral obligation to use its plentiful clean energy for the benefit of the planet. If the aluminium is not made in Iceland, the theory runs, it will be made somewhere else, using much grubbier energy. Smelting has grown rapidly in China in recent years, for example, fuelled by coal-fired power. Were it not for Iceland, China would presumably be making even more aluminium. Iceland, in other words, should sacrifice its own landscape for the good of the planet.

Saving Iceland denounces that formula as a false dichotomy. If everyone lived more modest lives, it says, we would not need so much aluminium in the first place. But that sounds like wishful thinking. It might not be too much of a sacrifice for extravagant Westerners to drink fewer fizzy drinks from aluminium cans, and to take fewer flights in aluminium planes. But it is hard to believe that consumption of aluminium will fall any time soon, given the growing demand from developing countries.

What is more, even if more aluminium is not really needed, there are plenty of other good uses to which Iceland could put its green power. There is already talk of locating data centres there. What could be worthier than helping to keep the internet running? And if electricity is going to be made anywhere, it might as well be made where it does the least damage to the environment.

On the other hand, the damage to the environment from a new dam must seem enormous if you happen to live at the bottom of the valley being flooded. Not many people live anywhere in Iceland, it is true. But the few that do probably value the preservation of their immediate surroundings more than an intangible and, in the grand scheme of things, tiny contribution to the health of the atmosphere.

“Think globally, act locally” is a classic environmentalist’s rallying cry. But what should the green at heart do when the two are at odds?

Petrol Price Tracker  

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Google has released an iGoogle gadget that tracks petrol prices - iGoogle: Petrol Price Tracker. I'm not sure if it works outside Australia, but it seems to work fine for Sydney. As they say in the video, you are better off cycling, walking or taking public transport - but if you have to drive, this will help make it less expensive.

Before you fill your next tank, scan local petrol prices from your desk! With price data compiled by Motormouth twice daily (in selected areas), you'll no longer need to drive around town to search for the best deal.

To add this gadget to your iGoogle homepage, simply click the button above and follow the steps to find the cheapest petrol near you.

Masdar: A Glimpse Of The Future  

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Plenty has a look at the planned middle eastern ecopolis of Masdar (which just bought into a Finnish company making low speed wind turbines) - Über green Masdar City the United Arab Emirates, a glimpse of the future.

Imagine a city whose residents have kicked the fossil fuel habit and rely solely on sun and wind for electricity. Cars are banished; instead, people walk, bicycle, and zip across town in underground, electric-powered pods.

If that sounds like science fiction, think again. In February, builders broke ground on Masdar City, a planned $22 billion zero-waste, zero-carbon community in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Located on the shores of the Persian Gulf, the project is set to be completed in 2016. Abu Dhabi, capital of the UAE, is behind what is the world’s most ambitious “eco-city” project to date. Masdar’s 50,000 residents will push the boundaries of green living, starting with its first inhabitants, 100 alternative energy postgrads at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology who will arrive in September 2009. Powered by renewable energy, the city will recycle all of its garbage and much of its water, and grow organic produce. “We’re simply taking a very bold step,” says Masdar chief executive Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber.

Masdar is one of several efforts to create sustainable communities in response to the threats posed by climate change. A low-carbon city is being built on Dongtan, an island off Shanghai, and Iceland, Norway, Costa Rica, and New Zealand have pledged to rid their economies of carbon. Masdar, however, is the most far-ranging development planned yet. It’s also the first undertaken by a major oil producer.

Oil has made Abu Dhabi fabulously wealthy—it holds nine percent of the world’s proven reserves. But that resource will run out. So the emirate is looking to cleantech industries to help wean it off its fossil fuel dependency and create new jobs. “If it’s a business someone is developing for 2015, we don’t want to be in it,” says Homaid Al Shemmari, associate director at Mubadala, a government-owned development company that oversees the project. “We’re looking way, way into the future.”

Planners are already integrating that kind of foresight into the fabric of the city. A canopy of thin-film solar panels will provide shade and half the city’s electricity. Wind turbines and waste-to-power plants, which use garbage as fuel, will dot the landscape. In the nearby desert, a 500-megawatt power plant will capture solar energy. Instead of photovoltaic panels, mirrors and lenses will concentrate the sun’s rays, utilizing heat to power steam generators. Hot water may come from “evacuated thermal tubes,” pipes filled with fluid and heated by sunlight; or from drilling thousands of feet underground to use the earth’s warmth to heat water.

Most of that water will come from desalination, an energy-intensive process in which seawater is converted to fresh water. Desalination provides most of UAE’s water supply, which helps explain why the country has the highest per capita carbon footprint in the world. But in Masdar, solar energy will power desalination. Conservation efforts are also part of the program: Recycling 80 percent of water and employing technologies like a leak-detection system are important steps for meeting the goal of 21 gallons of water per person daily (the national average is currently 143).

Perhaps the biggest experiment of all is the plan to make Masdar car-free. Planners hope shaded alleyways will encourage city dwellers to travel on foot. Residents will also get around by electric-powered light rail, and “personal rapid transit systems”— six-passenger, electric-powered pods that will run underground and deliver riders to roughly 1,500 stations throughout the city.

Were The Founding Fathers Of The United States Anarchists ? Is Britain A Gigantic Hedge Fund ?  

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There seems to be a lot of use of the "D" word (depression, as in "great") going around in the media lately, and the political scene seems to be taking on a distinctly 1930's tinge lately as well. Once again, its time to veer off-topic to see what some of the more outspoken members of the media have to say...

I'll start with Guy Rundle at Crikey, who has a pair of entertaining columns up - No one expected this, no one.

Absolutely no-one expected this. No-one. Even those who were arguing against the vote -- economically right-wing Republicans, and left Democrats, and their supporters in the op-ed columns -- were doing so in a spirit of bearing witness in the face of noble defeat.

Half an hour after the vote went down, the Republicans came out for a presser to blame ... house speaker Nancy Pelosi, for giving a partisan speech -- a pretty standard turkey slap of the Republicans, deregulation etc etc -- that had so angered their wavering renegade members, that they had voted against. This is pissweak -- either they think the bill was worthwhile, and should have taken Pelosi's party-line slap -- or they always intended to play politics with it, and undermine the Democrats de facto leadership role in this.

The accusations prompted the bill's principal pilot, Barney Frank to new heights of drawled sarcasm: "there's 12 Republicans who are putting feelings over country, holding out because someone said something they didn't agree with ... give me their names and I will go and be uncharacteristically nice to them," to big laughs.

What was the way ahead now? Boehner was asked. He simply didn't know. Neither did Republican Senate minority leader John Gregg, who had assumed the bill would be up for the Senate on Wednesday. Congress members are desperate to get out of Washington and back to their districts to campaign -- so that they can pretend that they're outsiders and mavericks, unassociated with Congress and if you send me to washington, (for the 17th time), I will clean up the ... etc.

Added to the complexity, is that it's the Jewish new year holiday of Rosh Hashanah, when we commemorate God's reneging on every promise to His people, and devout Jewish congressmembers -- or those with devout Jewish communities in their districts -- have announced that they won't be doing politics until it's over tomorrow sundown. Since Barney Frank, chair of the Senate Housing subcommittee, whose been putting this bill together, is one of their number, that puts an immediate 24 hour crimp in the thing.

As the deal went down, so did the Dow. With a two hundred point fall on the books by late morning, as the vote started to fail it fell another five hundred points , before recovering ever so slightly and then falling again. There was a stampede of money towards US Treasury bills, whose yield fell to near zero ... and Campbell's stocks, which had the second biggest rise of the day. T-Bills and canned goods.

At 3.30pm, President Bush spoke to the assembled press, very briefly, in the middle of an official greeting of the Ukrainian President, who must have been fighting the urge to run and call his broker. Bush's mumbled vacuities didn't reassure anyone. ...

Their political task now is to sheet home the blame to the Republicans as wreckers -- Boehner's remark about people turning against the bill because of Pelosi's speech is a godsend to them, as Frank clearly realised. John McCain is also jammed up by the failure of this vote, since he'd basically attached himself to it.

"I dived in and suspended my campaign," old walnuts said before the vote failed.

Snorting and smirking he said that "my opponent said that he was monitoring the situation" surrounding it with tiny air quotes.

He's looking bloody silly now, and Obama's prudence is paying off -- he, once again, looks presidential, demanding that Congress get it together, McCain looks chaotic.

After the vote, a Republican House member made things worse trying to pull Walnuts out of the fire, saying Senator McCain's campaign suspension "had brought this issue to the attention of the American people..." Yeah, because no one had been paying any attention to THE COLLAPSE OF THE AMERICAN FINANCIAL SECTOR before Johnny crashed in.

In a coffee shop near the Capitol building, the vote had the same effect as a hurricane, prompting strangers to talk to each other.

"You gotta put your money in silver and gold," said one guy at the counter. Another snorted.

"Silver and gold? Guns and food man, guns and food."

Someone rushed in -- "I just heard that ATM's will be shutting down by this evening," he said breathlessly. Everyone looked at each other, and went back to their coffee, the TV. And then a couple of people quickly paid their cheque and quietly slid out...

At a quarter to five, after the market had closed 777 points down -- spooky -- Treasury secretary Henry Paulson addressed a press conference outside the White House and said, well nothing, what could he say: "I will be continuing to work with Congressional leaders to get a deal they can all support..."

He sounded hoarse like he'd spent the past 72 hours on the phone -- or the past three shouting at people.

The principal question: "Was anything resembling his plan dead in the water?" ... he stonewalled. And then let slip: "Our banking system has been holding up very well, considering the pressures."

Read that again -- he's actually saying the whole banking system could go. Not "our system is solid" but "it's holding up very well".

Rundle has another column asking rhetorically if the founding fathers of the US were anarchists (my guess is probably not, but then I've never studied the Federalist Papers) before launching into a distinctly marxist celebration of the distant sight of the final crisis of capitalism hoving into view - A political and cultural crisis of capitalism.
The final act of Monday the 29th of September ... was a press conference by Walnuts McCain himself in Des Moines, Iowa.

He'd put it off for a long time – so long, that CNN just played footage of tech setting the white balance, holding up a sheet of paper to the cameras, as they droned on about the day's events. It had a weird performance art quality, as if Laurie Anderson had taken over the airwaves. Eventually he hustled on like he was powerwalking, flourished a single sheet of paper and began:
I worked hard to bring everyone to the table .......we improved it greatly...our leaders are expected to leave partisanship at the door...Senator Obama and his allies in Congress infused the process with partisanship...Now is not the time to fix the blame, now is the time to fix the problem...

Good old John, the chuzpah kid – now is not the time for partisanship, especially from that partisan c-nt Obama – the old showman still got it. He gave the statement and then he hustled out as fast as he came in, not taking a single question. So, the whole Republican ticket is now off limits to actual scrutiny.

He had no choice but to do all that, because the silly boob had made a statement practically claiming credit for the whole bailout just before jumping on a plane at the exact moment the bailout went kablooey – and landed to find that his last statement zinging around the wires was a statement on his personal responsibility for the failed deal that may have killed America.

Obama didn't do a specific press conference, but he didn't need to – he gave two great speeches with a half-dozen zingers in each that the cable networks were more than happy to excerpt. They were old stuff --- "I think John McCain just doesn't get it" – but they were delivered with more authority than there'd been for a while. Most importantly politically, he took on the presidential voice urging everyone to "stay calm" and work through it – pretty much the stuff the President should be saying, if America currently had a President.

For those of you who missed the morning edition, and haven't had a chance to read the news before this bulletin: EVERYTHING IS F-CKED! CONGRESS DIDN'T PASS THE BAILOUT BILL, DEFEATING IT 228 TO 205, AND THE MARKET FELL NEARLY 800 POINTS! NO-ONE KNOWS WHAT THE HELL'S GOING ON, OR WHAT TO DO NEXT!

Okay, where were we? Ah yeah, collapse of America. People thought it could be over as night came down. But of course we live in a global society, so nothing is insulated. For it was morning in East Asia, and everything started tanking there too, falling by the requisite 5%. This fed back into the evening news shows, to create a fresh round of panic, disguised as earnest discussion.

By that point, any hope of sensible discussion had departed as the evening discussion shows took over. It is the particular tragedy of the US that its discussion programmes have become dominated by a particular type of telepopulism, in which various hosts – Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck are the most prominent examples – present themselves as the unmediated voice of the people against a monolithic political class.

This has always been tiresome, but now it's starting to look ridiculous and noxious. It is part of the dominant political fantasy of American life – that government is, in the last analysis not a part of society, but a necessary evil, like an annual colonoscopy, to be despised, loathed and feared.

This mood took hold of America in the late 1970s, with Ronald Reagan humming the tune, as everything was going wrong for the country. Reagan and his supporters, taking up the themes of the failed Goldwater campaign of 1964, suggested that government was "the problem" and linked that theme to the American Revolution, effectively portraying the founders as a bunch of anarchists.

But the whole point of the American revolution, at least in terms of ideals, was not minimal government per se – it was virtuous government. The core of it was that there were good and bad governments, and you could judge them based on the principles they were founded on.

The weird thing is that survives to a degree. Watching Congress today, I didn't see caricatured, crony government, even though it was obvious that those voting the bill down would be members from both sides in danger of losing their seat. I saw complex, detailed arguments, the clash of ideas about what should be done, about what was happening, about different models of reality.

In effect, the TV pundits were the least intelligent thing going on, with their failure to get behind one or other model of reality, with its consequent course of action, one idea of what is going on.

Man oh man, this ain't the dumper – that will be the next one, in around 2017 – but it's starting to feel really, really big. What anyone in the know in the US is scared witless about, in the developing stockmarket tank, is the 401(k) situation. 401Ks are basically super funds, built evenly by employee and employer contributions, as in Australia.

Unlike Australia, employees still have little control over their 401ks, which can be regularly raided and ruined, even though hundreds of millions depend for their old age on them utterly.

The 401ks are all invested by various pension funds in the stock market – not in crazy stocks of course. In stable blue chip things, like Washington Mutual, or Wachovia or.....So the short point is that if the market tanks to the degree that 401ks slide through the floor, then this economic crisis will become a social and political one as people, faced with the prospect of lifelong penury and no reward for decades of work, will simply be disabused of any notion that the system has any legitimacy whatsoever.

That is already starting to happen, and to a degree, the general political cynicism is the beginnings of a more mature political push-back – which may or may not bloom in full – but which is being sold down the river by the Democrats and Republicans' acceptance of a deal that everyone calls "rotten", "the worst possible deal", "something I would normally never vote for". Etc.

But here is what is really, really important to understand about this current event is that this is not merely a financial system crisis – that is a mere ripple of a much deeper problem. Desperate to gain some political capital out of this, the right have been suggesting that the problem is over-regulation, which is mad. But no less illusory is the centre-left assertion that the problem is simply one of lack of regulation, and that if a proper framework could be put in place everything would be all right.

For the great truth of this mess is that the folks who designed the deregulation were, in a narrow sense, right -- if their goal was to give western capitalism another lease of life. What the market faced in the US at the end of the 90s, was a crucial lack of things to invest in, for the free money sloshing around the markets. By 2001, the dotcom bubble had burst and you couldn't shove $X billion into Ewidgets.com, and so there was a desperate need for another object that would keep the circus going. Mortgage backed securities was it – bricks and mortar, which looked like the most concrete investment was actually the most abstract, the notional capacity of people with no-deposit mortgages to repay.

Crazy, but what could you do? For the bitter fact is that without these pseudo-investments, the West is running on fumes. As China and the East roars ahead in classical 19th century high capitalist mode, the West runs on financial services, and rents – such as intellectual property, and debt and debt and debt.

For twenty five years, the US has been starving its public sector of investment – investment that would have created jobs and real growth and lowered overall costs – and allowed the rich to shuffle money into luxuries and useless services and waste, as the society decayed around them. To keep that running there was no choice but to keep coming up with increasingly unreal financial instruments, to give the illusion that a real economy was at work.

But there is no way to avoid what is now obvious to many people – the big sectors of the economy are not private products, they are social products – hence the need to keep them going, even when the morons who run them screw it up. The great great result of this crisis, is that hundreds of millions of people have now begun to understand this. Effectively what we have seen is the first glimpse of the shores of socialism. It may take another decade or two – and another two crises each worse than this – to get there, but we are on the way.

In the wake of this crisis, blame is being sheeted home to the average person, who is apparently running up too much debt. Well, mercy, what a surprise, it's the people's fault. Let's face it, people only consent to this crappy society because of what they can rack up on debt. If you're going to spend forty years of fifty hours a week – your whole one life on Earth – in the same office, doing crap you don't want to do, damn right you want a frikkin flat screen TV at the end of it. And to eat out. And drink stupid overpriced cocktails in awful resorts.

The short point is that if we close down easy credit, the rationale for Western capitalism collapses instantly. Because the rest of it is so godawful, that without rewards, no one would put up with it. Hence the need, over the last eight years, to keep it all bubbling, at any cost.

This is not an economic crisis, this is a political and cultural crisis of capitalism, and if you don't understand that, well, you're a financial journalist.

That is the meaning of what happened today.

Ya es da dia!

Also at Crikey, Alan Kohler (who I doubt is any form of marxist at all) is talking about a new "new deal" and a "greater depression" - The end of triumphalism.
At Business Spectator and Eureka Report we are increasingly being asked whether the big four banks are safe -- not to invest money in their shares, but for deposits.

Our answer, of course, is that they are -- they are four of only 18 AA-rated banks in the world -- and will probably come out of this crisis stronger and with more market share than when the malaise started, but the question is being raised.

The fact is that this is a crisis not just in the United States, but in the western world.

Excessive consumption and debt in the west, basically riding the triumphalism that followed the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 and Operation Desert Storm in 1990, has destroyed the equity of a financial system that knew no restraint in stoking that excess.

We were all, perhaps, uneasy at the time, as we watched the profits of banks and investment banks explode, along with the salaries of those who ran them, but we were along for the ride ourselves -- enjoying the rise in superannuation wealth that came from investing in the banks.

And then the boom was super-charged by China’s emergence from the shadows and the deflation it exported to the rest of the world through low labour costs.

The low inflation, low interest rates and high commodity prices supported by China combined with a burst of consumerism and a housing bubble in the west to create an explosive mixture that has now gone off.

The consumers and home borrowers who fuelled the boom have now turned on their partners in excess -- the bankers. It seems likely their anger will be formidable, made all the more so by a deep sense of shame.

The regulation that followed the collapse of Enron, focused mainly on the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, will come to look like a curtain-raiser.

Whether there is a Greater Depression or not, there is likely to be another New Deal imposing strict controls on the financial sector that will last a generation.

Jerome a Paris, on the other hand, does have a distinctly left wing tone to his remarks at The Oil Drum (not sure what this has to do with energy - it may have been more appropriate at Kos) written before the bailout collapsed - Some lessons from Bailout Week.
While I still haven't seen the details of the now apparently agreed bailout as I write this, it is rather unlikely that the final version is going to be very satisfactory and that the following notes will be contradicted by the final result:

* the consequences of the financial crisis are so dire that the lesson here should not be that a bailout is necessary (it is, at this point) - but to acknowledge that the financial sector has the power to hold the rest of the economy to ransom during both good times and bad times and thus that it need to be emasculated so that we never get again to the stage where a bailout is necesary. The lesson is that the financial world cannot behave responsibly, if left to its own devices and thus should not be left to its own devices;

* another is that the main argument to give financial markets a free hand - that they have created so much growth and prosperity - needs to be called for what it is: a lie. Not only the so-called prosperity of the past year was highy unequally shared (see the next point), but it was not even real, as the income and profits of the good years are now dwarfed by the losses of today. Arguments about growth need to be dismissed by a reference to the "full cycle", ie the prosperity of the recent past can only be accepted as real if it wasn't a capture of the prosperity of today and the near future. If the forthcoming growth and GDP numbers are dismal, this should be seen as a direct proof that the growth of the past was nothing but, and that the policy prescriptions focused on financial profit are abject failures;

* as the bailout calls for yet another transfer from poor to rich, it is worth noting that even in the good years, the vast majority of the population saw very little of the then much touted prosperity: incomes were stagnant or declining, while benefits declined, and healthcare and energy costs skyrocketed. Thus, current policies seem focused, at all times, on maximising the income of the few rather than that of the general population;

* the next conclusion is that our political systems are completely geared towards fulfilling that last goal: politiicans of all stripes are supporting the bailout despite massive protests by their constituents, just like they supported financial deregulation, labor market "reform", "free" trade, the tax race to the bottom and other similar policy prescriptions in the past. Politicians are supported in that by a media system that brings to the fore pundits that are fully aligned with these prescriptions, and creates an incestuous class of insiders who, as it were, tend to peronally benefit directly from the overall winner-takes-all policies put in place;

* the quasi-unanimous support of the Serious People for the bailout, or at least their inability to point out that the current crisis was the invitable conclusion of the policy framework pushed by the neolib cabal shows how successful they have been at killing alternative ideas as fringe or absurd or dangerous, and suggests that there still is an ideologial vacuum; alternative ideas are not "there" enough to be taken seriously despite the ongoing reality, and I'm not sure they will until the current elites are completely pushed out;

* given that staying in power and doing whatever it takes to achieve that goal is their main competence, I fear that we're going to be pushed into ever more dangerous brinkmanship, as the McCain campaign has amply demonstrated in recent days. They will not leave without a fight, even if reality is overwhelmingly against them, and I expect obfuscation, distraction and worse to be used to deny or avoid that reality. Quite frankly, the alternative now, just like in the 30s, is either a full break from the past (a new "New Deal") or a move towards fascism and war - the latter being our current elites' only chance of holding onto power.

The question therefore is: will the new President, and the new Congress, be part of the problem or part of the solution? With respect to Obama, I'm willing to suspend judgement given the requirements of campaigning in today's environment. But with respect to Congress, many future members are already in now, and their performance, frankly, is not encouraging. what will it be?

In other words: nothing short of a revolution will do. Can it still be a peaceful, democratic one?

Bill Bonner at The Daily Reckoning - NAM (not a marxist - though he does read "Liberation" every day apparently, so you never know) is declaring laissez faire dead as well, though with rather less glee than Jerome.
Meanwhile, over on this foggy island, the government is preparing to nationalize another major bank - Bradford and Bingley. Nervous savers are taking their money out of B&B, leaving the firm dangerously short of cash, says the FT.

But it didn't take a genius to see that there would be Hell to pay. That's what always happens when you reach the top of a credit bubble. People may spend more than they earn for years; eventually they reach the point where they can't go on. And lenders and investors inevitably go overboard too. They're so eager to earn a fee, they stop worrying about whether the loan will ever be repaid.

But the geniuses didn't see it coming. They were too impressed by their own theories and their own financial models...and their own multi- million dollar bonuses.

It fell to us here at The Daily Reckoning - poor, neglected, lonely as we are - to fly the "Crash Alert" flag day after day...and to say the obvious to anyone who would listen: "this too shall pass."

And now, according to the New York Times, it is passing:

"The End of Euphoria," the Times puts it. "Bill comes due for excesses of past 15 years."

But where's the surprise? Mr. Market always has a surprise in store. And he always brings it out when you least expect it.

So far, the surprise is that the financial sector has been hit harder than expected. Each time an institution goes bust, the feds react with more money and more credit. Each time, stocks rally and word goes out that the crisis is over.

Then, another institution goes belly up. And now Warren Buffett is apparently on the phone - according to our sources at the Financial Times - warning Congress that if they don't take action on the bailout plan things could get a lot worse.

Yes, that is all part of the program too. When people get the bill for their own mistakes they naturally want to pass it off to someone else. Who better than that chump of last resort - the taxpayer? The bill for the Paulson bailout plan could come to $1 trillion. At least, that's the estimate of Ken Rogoff, a Harvard economist. Let's see, that's about $12,000 for every family in the country. Yet, who complains? Where are the riots? Who's got a spare $12,000 to send to the feds so they can pass it along to Wall Street?

It doesn't seem to matter to anyone...people figure it's all "funny money" anyway. And they worry that if it's not forthcoming, well...maybe Warren Buffett is right. And maybe Paulson and Larry Summers (opining today in the Financial Times ) are right too - maybe the bureaucrats will do such a good job of managing this program that it will make a profit. Which gives us an idea: why not take TARP - as the program is called - public? Give public officials an opportunity to make some money for a change...let them put their own money into the rescue plan, along with the taxpayers' money.

Let's see what the prospectus will say: 'Firm will buy up Wall Street's mistakes at above-market prices; later, when all this blows over, these 'assets' will be sold back to Wall Street.'

Let's see how much of his own money Hank Paulson would bet on this business model!

No, they're not likely to take TARP public. Too bad. We'd love to sell it short. Too bad also because it would nice to give Mr. Market a chance to sort this out himself. He'd probably mark down stocks, derivative financial assets, bonds and houses - fast. But so what? "Liquidate the farmers...liquidate labor...liquidate the railroads...liquidate investors..." - in 1929, that was US Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon's idea of how to let Mr. Market handle a financial crisis. Let it be! Let Mr. Market do his savage cleaning work. Then, the economy can begin to grow again - on a healthier base.

But that's not going to happen. Once again, the fix is in. This one bigger than any before...

"We must regulate," says Dominique Strauss-Kahn, director of the IMF (perhaps forgetting that Fortis was regulated by hundreds of bureaucrats in dozens of different countries....).

"The time has come to save capitalism from the capitalists," writes Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago.

Thank God for the bureaucrats. The economists. The Wall Street pros. Now, they're going to "rescue" us...

But wait a minute......wasn't it the US government that set up Fannie and Freddie with an implied guarantee?...wasn't it the SEC that was set up to regulate Wall Street and prohibit the sale of slimy "investments?"...weren't these same economists the ones who thought the U.S. financial system was the best in the world...because it was so "dynamic...inventive...and flexible?"...isn't it the Fed itself that has been lending money below the inflation rate since 2002? And wasn't that the major source of "liquidity" that created such a huge credit bubble?...and wasn't Hank Paulson the head man at Wall Street's most go-go firm when all this stuff was going on? Do you remember hearing him warn investors or lawmakers that the whole Vesuvius of hyper-credit was going to blow up? We don't...

Yes, dear reader, as predicted in these pages...we are witnessing an epochal shift - from capitalism to socialism...from markets to politics...from subtle swindle to naked larceny...from white collar grifters to stick-up men...from slick fraud to brute force.

And then...who will rescue us from the rescuers?

Of course, last time we slipped into a great depression, we saw the rise of the far right as well the left - something which seems to be underway in central europe already. The Australian reports on the Austrian elections - Far-Right surges ahead in Austrian election (the SMH was briefer and blunter - Fascist gains in Austria). You'd hope they would have learned from their mistake last time, but apparently history is like some cranky old-timer that keeps on repeating itself.
THE Far-Right has made a grand return in Austria, emerging from yesterday's elections as the second biggest parliamentary bloc, according to preliminary results. The two parties that campaigned on an anti-immigrant and anti-EU ticket have captured about 29 per cent of the vote, pushing the country's conservative party into third place.

Heinz-Christian Strache and his Freedom Party of Austria, who were accused of xenophobia and waging an anti-Muslim campaign, won 18 per cent - a rise of 7 per cent compared with the previous elections. Mr Strache's former mentor, Joerg Haider, won 11 per cent of the vote with his new party, the Alliance for the Future of Austria. ...

A throaty roar filled the Freedom Party's election tent in Vienna when the results flashed up on a screen. The crowd - mainly young and middle-aged men drinking beer - punched the air in triumph. ...

Mr Strache has attacked the EU with a tirade against "the capitalists and the neo-liberals" who, he said, were turning common people into "slave workers of the globalisation insanity of the European Union".

His Vienna rally was marred by a violent confrontation between hundreds of his left-wing opponents and his extreme far-right supporters, some of whom were jackbooted skinheads. The police intervened when the groups threw bottles at each other.

John Gray at The Guardian says "The global financial crisis will see the US falter in the same way the Soviet Union did when the Berlin Wall came down. The era of American dominance is over" - A shattering moment in America's fall from power.
Our gaze might be on the markets melting down, but the upheaval we are experiencing is more than a financial crisis, however large. Here is a historic geopolitical shift, in which the balance of power in the world is being altered irrevocably. The era of American global leadership, reaching back to the Second World War, is over.

You can see it in the way America's dominion has slipped away in its own backyard, with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez taunting and ridiculing the superpower with impunity. Yet the setback of America's standing at the global level is even more striking. With the nationalisation of crucial parts of the financial system, the American free-market creed has self-destructed while countries that retained overall control of markets have been vindicated. In a change as far-reaching in its implications as the fall of the Soviet Union, an entire model of government and the economy has collapsed.

Ever since the end of the Cold War, successive American administrations have lectured other countries on the necessity of sound finance. Indonesia, Thailand, Argentina and several African states endured severe cuts in spending and deep recessions as the price of aid from the International Monetary Fund, which enforced the American orthodoxy. China in particular was hectored relentlessly on the weakness of its banking system. But China's success has been based on its consistent contempt for Western advice and it is not Chinese banks that are currently going bust. How symbolic yesterday that Chinese astronauts take a spacewalk while the US Treasury Secretary is on his knees.

Despite incessantly urging other countries to adopt its way of doing business, America has always had one economic policy for itself and another for the rest of the world. Throughout the years in which the US was punishing countries that departed from fiscal prudence, it was borrowing on a colossal scale to finance tax cuts and fund its over-stretched military commitments. Now, with federal finances critically dependent on continuing large inflows of foreign capital, it will be the countries that spurned the American model of capitalism that will shape America's economic future. ...

The fate of empires is very often sealed by the interaction of war and debt. That was true of the British Empire, whose finances deteriorated from the First World War onwards, and of the Soviet Union. Defeat in Afghanistan and the economic burden of trying to respond to Reagan's technically flawed but politically extremely effective Star Wars programme were vital factors in triggering the Soviet collapse. Despite its insistent exceptionalism, America is no different. The Iraq War and the credit bubble have fatally undermined America's economic primacy. The US will continue to be the world's largest economy for a while longer, but it will be the new rising powers that, once the crisis is over, buy up what remains intact in the wreckage of America's financial system.

There has been a good deal of talk in recent weeks about imminent economic armageddon. In fact, this is far from being the end of capitalism. The frantic scrambling that is going on in Washington marks the passing of only one type of capitalism - the peculiar and highly unstable variety that has existed in America over the last 20 years. This experiment in financial laissez-faire has imploded.While the impact of the collapse will be felt everywhere, the market economies that resisted American-style deregulation will best weather the storm. Britain, which has turned itself into a gigantic hedge fund, but of a kind that lacks the ability to profit from a downturn, is likely to be especially badly hit.

Chalmers Johnson has an article at TomDispatch on another great rip-off of the American taxpayer - the Iraq War. From Tom Engelhardt's introduction - Tomgram: Chalmers Johnson, The Pentagon Bailout Fraud:
Let's start with the money the Bush administration has already thrown at the war in Iraq. According to the June congressional testimony of William Beach, director of the Center for Data Analysis, the war has cost $646 billion so far. The new defense budget for 2009 tacks on another $68.6 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan in the coming year. However, military expert Bill Hartung of the New America Foundation puts a conservative estimate of the costs of a single week of the Iraq War at approximately $3.5 billion (or about $180 billion a year).

In other words, the war in Iraq will cost far more in the next year than the Iraq portion of that $68.6 billion Congress is about to pony up in the defense budget, and so will be funded, as has long been true, through supplemental war bills submitted by the Bush administration (and then whatever administration follows). In other words, sometime in 2009 the direct costs of the war the Bush administration once predicted would cost perhaps $50-60 billion in total will stand at more than $800 billion, or $100 billion above the cost (if all goes well, which it won't) of the bailout of the financial system now being proposed in Washington.

Estimates of the true long-term costs of the President's war of choice, including payments of health care and veterans benefits into the distant future, soar into the budgetary stratosphere. They range from the Congressional Budget Office's $1-2 trillion to an estimate by economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes of up to $4-5 trillion. So we're talking somewhere between one-and-a-half and seven bailouts-worth of taxpayer dollars flowing into the morass of disaster, corruption, and carnage in Iraq.

And here's another curious bit of information: Just the other day, the website ThinkProgress pointed out a strange glitch in Iraq planning. The Bush administration, deep into negotiations with the Iraqi government, evidently managed to wheedle an extra year's time for the prospective withdrawal of American combat troops from Iraq; its negotiators pushed the date from 2010 -- the year suggested by both Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- to 2011. According to Maliki in an interview with an Iraqi TV station, this change came from the administration's concern over the "domestic situation" in the U.S. (that is, the needs of the McCain campaign).

"Actually," said Maliki, "the final date was really the end of 2010 and the period between the end of 2010 and the end of 2011 was for withdrawing the remaining troops from all of Iraq, but they asked for a change [in date] due to political circumstances related to the [U.S] domestic situation so it will not be said to the end of 2010 followed by one year for withdrawal but the end of 2011 as a final date." So we're talking about another perhaps $150-180 billion in 2011 -- or approximately the full suggested initial payout in the Washington bailout plan of at least one key Democrat. This gives the phrase "presidential politics" new meaning. Now, just imagine for a moment the situation we might be in if there had been no Iraq War. We could have bailed ourselves out many times over.

As Chalmers Johnson, author most recently of Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, the final volume of his Blowback Trilogy, has pointed out for years, the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex, and America's wars are in the process of bankrupting us. How strange then that, as he indicates below, no one in the mainstream even blinks when a staggering new Pentagon budget sails through the House of Representatives and then, by voice vote, through the Senate just as negotiators in Washington are scrambling to find a similar sum to deal with a catastrophic financial meltdown; nor does anyone in the mainstream bother to make any connection between that budget and the funds we don't have available to use elsewhere, or between the looting of Iraq and the looting of our financial system (and, in both cases, of course, the looting of the American taxpayer).

Its interesting watching the fault lines start to appear in popular culture as well - amply demonstrated by this new Linkin Park video I noticed at the gym today. I'm not sure embedding these ideas into the younger generation's heads is such a good idea (though maybe I'm being hypocritical - I used to watch Rage Against The Machine when I was younger) - wouldn't a bright green future be a better alternative for everyone...

Solar Panels In Japan  

Posted by Big Gav in , , ,

TreeHugger reports the Japanese government is offering new incentives for builders to include solar panels in new buildings - Japan To Subsidize Solar Panels For Your House.

80 percent of newly-built homes will be equipped with solar power systems by 2030? Sounds good to me. Japan plans to provide a subsidy of about 200,000 yen (just under $2,000) to households that buy a solar power system to promote its use and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Nikkei. The subsidy represents 10 percent of the cost of a standard solar power system, which is about 2 million yen:
The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry hopes the subsidy will help stimulate mass production of such solar power systems and lower costs. The subsidy payment could be introduced as early as the current fiscal year to end March 2009, it said. Home-use solar power systems in Japan now generate a combined total of 1.4 million kilowatts of electricity, the daily said.

In June, the government set a target of boosting solar power generation by 10 times from current levels by 2020 and 40 times by 2030. ...

Last month, AIST announed its new flexible CIGS Photovoltaic Cell with an energy conversion efficiency of 17.7%, noting that the growing concerns about environmental problems and increasing crude oil prices has led to an increased interest in power generation using renewable energy such as photovoltaics and other new energy resources.



The New York Times reports that new PV panel owners best beware, as they are becoming increasingly popular with thieves as well - Solar Panels Are Vanishing, Only to Reappear on the Internet. If your solar panel was a blogject it would be quite handy to have it report its new location when it makes its way onto someone else's roof via eBay...
Solar power, with its promise of emissions-free renewable energy, boasts a growing number of fans. Some of them, it turns out, are thieves. ...

Police departments in California — the biggest market for solar power, with more than 33,000 installations — are seeing a rash of such burglaries, though nobody compiles overall statistics.

Investigators do not believe the thieves are acting out of concern for their carbon footprints. Rather, authorities assume that many panels make their way to unwitting homeowners, sometimes via the Internet.

Last November, someone tried to sell solar panels stolen from a toll road in Newport Beach for $100 each on eBay. Detectives from the local police department entered the bidding and won the panels, which were worth nearly $1,500 apiece, according to Sgt. Evan Sailor, a Newport Beach police spokesman.

Ride To Work Day  

Posted by Big Gav in

While it doesn't make much difference to me (I ride to work pretty much every day), Australian readers might like to note that October 15 is national ride to work day.



Eldritch Journal says that if the cyclist population reaches critical mass then a New World Order will be born.
Community planners, municipal officials, and business owners tend to get fixated on the notion that "If we build it they will come/behave/do/act…". Meanwhile, many New Urban/anti-sprawl advocates focus on "If we stop it they won't come/behave/do…"

Stated another way, they (and we) often subscribe to a mechanistic view of (those other) human beings as mere automatons responding to environment (in this case infrastructure). But as most of us know intuitively, there can be safety in numbers – i.e. when more people choose a particular activity/behavior, not only does it become more acceptable socially, but it can actually make the activity/behavior safer for participants regardless of infrastructure. This recent study demonstrates it applies to bicycling:

http://www.livescience.com/health/080905-bike-accidents.html

Does this mean infrastructure doesn't matter? Can we afford to forget about bicycle lanes and paths, sidewalks and pedestrian crossings, or the "Elephant in the Drop Off Zone"? Should we stop giving our elected officials and public servants (ahem) extra-real-hard spankings when they forget about "habitat for humanity" and choose instead to make the world as convenient as possible for the resource-gobbling species homo automobilicus?

Absolutely not! What it does mean is that we should encourage our fellow citizens to stop waiting for infrastructure, stop making excuses, and git their dang butts on the saddle. We got a New World Order to make – one we-the-people will CREATE by showing up with two wheels…and two feet.

Bailout Plan Falls Overboard  

Posted by Big Gav

I must admit I was rather surprised to see that the US bailout / handout plan for the banks was rejected by the US House of representatives - though it appears it was as much a strange outbreak of Republican spite (at least that's how the mainstream media is spinning it) as it was a sign of a populist uprising - House to meet Thursday after rejecting bailout.

In a stunning vote that shocked the capital and worldwide markets, the House on Monday defeated a $700 billion emergency rescue for the nation's financial system, ignoring urgent warnings from President Bush and congressional leaders of both parties that the economy could nosedive without it. The Dow Jones industrials plunged 778 points, the most ever for a single day. ...

Republicans blamed Pelosi's scathing speech near the close of the debate — which attacked Bush's economic policies and a "right-wing ideology of anything goes, no supervision, no discipline, no regulation" of financial markets — for the vote's failure. ...

Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the whip, estimated that Pelosi's speech changed the minds of a dozen Republicans who might otherwise have supported the plan.

Frank said that was a remarkable accusation by Republicans against Republicans: "Because somebody hurt their feelings, they decided to punish the country." ...

With their dire warnings of impending economic doom and their sweeping request for unprecedented sums of money and authority to bail out cash-starved financial firms, Bush and his economic chiefs have focused the attention of world markets on Congress, Ryan added.

Glenn Greenwald was pretty surprised by the outcome, having just blasted Congress for being a bunch of corrupt, complicit and morally destitute sheep - Bailout follows the 10 normal principles for how our government functions.
The word being used most frequently to describe the bailout package that is about to pass is "extraordinary." That adjective may apply to the amounts of money being transferred from taxpayers to Wall Street, but the process by which this is all happening is anything but "extraordinary." All of the "principles" that drive how our Government functions in general -- what explain the last eight years at least -- are perfectly evident in what has happened here:

(1) Incredibly complex and consequential new laws are negotiated in secret and then enacted immediately, with no hearings, no real debate, no transparency. Nancy Pelosi has praised herself for decreeing that the new law will be online for 24 hours before Congress votes on it -- a full 24 hours for the American public to understand and assess a law that forces them to subsidize Wall St.'s losses in a way that may impact them for decades, if not generations. The most significant and consequential pieces of legislation over the last eight years -- the Patriot Act, the various expanded surveillance laws, the Military Commissions Act -- were the by-product of identical anti-democratic processes.

(2) Those who created the crisis, were wrong about everything, drive the process. Experts who dissent from the prevailing Washington orthodoxy, particularly ones who were presciently warning about what was happening, are simply ignored -- systematically excluded from the process. Professor Nouriel Roubini:
It is pathetic that Congress did not consult any of the many professional economists that have presented -- many on the RGE Monitor Finance blog forum -- alternative plans that were more fair and efficient and less costly ways to resolve this crisis.
Last week, Hank Paulson -- who bears responsibility for the crisis in numerous ways -- demanded that $700 billion be transferred to him in order to purchase toxic assets from his Wall St. friends, and while there was much howling of outrage in many quarters, no other framework was ever considered.

(3) Public opinion is largely ignored, as always, and public anger is placated through illusory, symbolic and largely meaningless concessions. Much is being made over the allegedly strong oversight provisions to limit the Treasury Secretary's power, accomplished through the creation of two oversight panels -- one that is composed of 5 administration officials (including the Treasury Secretary himself, the Federal Reserve Chairman and the SEC Chairman -- the definitive foxes guarding the hen house), and another that is appointed by Congress but which -- as is true for everything Congress touches -- has little real authority over what is done.

Identically, executive compensation limits -- used to bestow the plan with its populist bona fides -- are minimal and extremely limited. Worse, the public is being told that the financial services industry must pay for any losses to the Treasury still outstanding after five years, but the bill requires nothing of the sort, simply requiring that the president "propose" a plan for recoupment, not that Congress enact any such plan.

And, most of all, while not as absolute as it was in the original Paulson proposal, the Congressional plan still vests extraordinarily vast and centralized power in the Treasury Secretary -- just as Paulson demanded. As the NYT put it this morning: "During its weeklong deliberations, Congress made many changes to the Bush administration’s original proposal to bail out the financial industry, but one overarching aspect of the initial plan that remains is the vast discretion it gives to the Treasury secretary."

(4) The Government begins with demands for absolute power so brazen and absurd that anything, by comparison, seems reasonable. Thus, the law that will be passed does improve on the original Paulson Plan in certain ways -- equity shares under some circumstances, some oversight provisions and mild home-owner protections -- and people thus end up grateful for what is, by any measure, an extreme outcome, all because it's not quite as extreme as what the Bush administration began by demanding. ...

(10) Whenever you think that the Government has done things so extreme that it can't top itself -- torture, theories of presidential lawbreaking, a six-year war justified by blatantly false pretenses -- it always tops itself. On top of the massive debt under which the country was already drowning, another $700 billion is now being added in order to save the nation's richest individuals from the consequences of their own recklessness, allowing many of them not only to remain enriched, but become further enriched, all while basically ensuring that the Government is incapable of spending any money for years, if not longer, on programs designed to improve the lives of the vast, vast majority of its citizens -- the same citizens who are forced to fund this bail-out. That seems hard to top, but the only thing certain is that they will find a way to do so.

Turning Rubbish Into Biogas In Sweden  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

TreeHugger has a post on the expanding use of biogas in Sweden - From Kitchen Scraps to Biogas - Stockholm Embraces Garbage Disposals.

Previously, a high annual fee discouraged apartment dwellers from thinking about owning a garbage disposal - municipal engineers were worried about gas build-up in sewer lines and other blockages from running liquid garbage through regular pipes. So only about 40 apartments in the entire city went through the expensive hassle of getting and owning a garbage disposal. In the U.S. 50 percent of ALL homes have a disposal - it increases a home's water consumption and electricity usage and forms more of a burden to municipal sewage treatment. Why are the Swedes encouraging it, then? They want to mine the waste stream for biogas.

An increase in organic material in Swedish sewage lines is now considered a positive, so the fee for the garbage disposals reduced by more than half to U.S.$65 dollars - purchase and installation of a machine will still cost around $800.

In Sweden there's a national goal of 35 percent of waste material being composted or by 2010. That may be a tough goal to reach as many people toss everything into the trash, knowing that most of it gets burned in large incinerators Sweden invested in in the 70's and 80's. One study showed Swedes tossing 225 pounds of edible food each year.

By using garbage disposals, Stockholm Water reckons they can turn that waste into methane gas. Scores of methane stations dot the Swedish roadsides and methane is used in many city buses - though Volvo discontinued its dual methane/gas powered car two years ago. Stockholm Water has now tested the pipes, so to speak, and determined that the system can absorb a lot more of the waste stream in the municipal system and turn it into methane gas, so that an even larger goal recommended by the Green party could be reached. The Greens say 70 percent of the waste stream could be either composted or turned to biogas by 2015. Today Stockholm Water can produce 8 billion cubic meters of methane, though just half of it goes to vehicles.

Last year demand for methane rose 18 percent, but in Stockholm it rose a full 40 percent. Stockholm can't make enough of its own biogas currently, and imports from nearby municipalities. Sweden's Environmental Protection Agency lists biogas as the most environmentally friendly vehicle fuel - there's even the biogas-powered train.

Cleantech Bubble A Red Herring  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

CNet's GreenTech blog has a post on the belief that there may be a bubble forming in cleantech investment - Clean-tech bubble talk is a red herring.

It's fashionable these days to ponder whether there's an investment bubble in clean tech. But I believe this discussion obscures a bigger problem for the clean-tech crowd: not enough money.

A panel of venture capitalists at the Technology Review EmTech 2008 conference on Thursday took the bubble question head on. The response from investors tends to be nuanced: no, there isn't a bubble, but there are some silly company ideas getting funded.

Before I delve into the details of the bubble debate, let me say that focusing on venture capital deals is a myopic view of the market that could ultimately give the "clean-tech revolution" a bigger black eye than just a few failed start-ups.

Clean-, or green-tech, venture capitalists will tell you times have never been better if you judge by the number of business plan proposals crossing their desks and their ability to raise funds. Many an entrepreneur and investor sees energy and environment as a ripe area for technology innovation.

What worries me is whether the hundreds of newly formed energy tech companies will have enough capital to actually succeed--and change the world as they all set out to do.

Insiders have been fretting about the dreaded funding gap, or "Valley of Death," for years. It's the stage a company must cross to take its technology to commercial scale, such as building a manufacturing plant. In energy-related businesses, it usually take lots of money.

Now the financial crisis could actually make that gap tougher to bridge, given the difficulty in the public markets and the projected cost of an anticipated Wall Street bail-out plan.

Spending hundreds of millions of dollars for say, a solar manufacturing facility, is outside the range of most VC funds. To some extent, project finance can fill in the gap, said CMEA Ventures investor James Kim.

"But if that doesn't happen, you will have all these great energy technologies which are ready to be deployed at a large scale and they have nowhere to go," he said during the panel.

Hedge funds have invested in some of these late-stage funding deals, but turmoil on Wall Street could tie their hands. Loan guarantees from the federal government are possible. But the prospect of a $700 billion Wall Street bail-out puts the availability of those funds--or some massive government-led energy initiative--into question.

A business model around private equity companies, such as the Carlyle Group and Hudson Clean Energy Partners, to invest in energy is clearly taking hold. But Kim notes there are limitations: private equity firms don't jump in unless they are sure a clean-tech company's product will work. ...

The good news is that energy is an issue that transcends today's crisis. That means that the ultimate customers of green-tech products--be it a utility, corporation making a green building, or consumer--are not going away. ...

Venture capitalists will generally tell you that the energy business is so big and the problems--whether it's energy security, cost, or climate change--are so acute, it's hard to see the few billion dollars a year going to clean tech as overly exuberant, particularly when viewed over the long term.

A Nation Powered By Waves  

Posted by Big Gav in , , , ,

I like to think I'm pretty bullish about the potential of ocean energy, but the guys at Carnegie Corp are thinking a lot bigger than I am, claiming that Australia has a resource base of 171 GW of wave power and that it could provide 35% of our power needs in this report from the SMH - Nation could be powered by waves: report.

Clean power developer Carnegie Corporation says more than a third of Australia's base-load power needs could be economically generated by wave technology, according to a report commissioned by the company.

The report, compiled by RPS MetOcean, says that Australia has a potential near-shore wave energy resource of about 171,000 megawatts (MW) - four times the country's total installed power generation capacity, Carnegie said.

"This report further supports Carnegie's view that Australia has the world's best wave energy resource - a resource we hope will be utilised through technologies such as CETO for base-load power generation," managing director Michael Ottaviano said in a statement.

CETO technology uses submerged units anchored to the sea floor that move with the motion of passing waves, driving the pumps which in turn pressurise seawater that is delivered ashore through a pipeline. The high-pressure seawater is used to drive hydroelectric turbines and generate base-load electricity.

Carnegie said a "conservative" ten per cent of Australia's calculated near-shore wave resource is estimated to be economically extractable. This means that around 35 per cent of Australia's current power usage could be met by harnessing wave energy, the company said.

Darwin To Host Inpex LNG Plant  

Posted by Big Gav in , , , , , ,

The Australian reports that Japanese company Inpex has decided to build its LNG export facility for the Ichthys field in the Browse Basin in Darwin instead of in Western Australia - Northern Territory wins $24bn Japanese gas plant.

ONE of the biggest private investments in Australian history was clinched yesterday when Japanese gas giant Inpex chose Darwin harbour as the site for a multi-billion-dollar LNG plant that will process eight million tonnes of gas piped from the Browse Basin off the northern West Australian coast.

The announcement that Inpex planned to pipe gas 850km across the Timor Sea in favour of processing the LNG at a hub in the Kimberley ended months of competition between the Northern Territory and Western Australia. The deal cements Darwin's status as a major industrial and commercial centre, but WA's loss was greeted with bitter disappointment by the Kimberley's Aboriginal Land Council, which had pinned its hopes on the plant as a way of out of poverty for remote-living indigenous people.

Inpex's Japanese president Naoki Kuroda, announcing the deal in Darwin yesterday, said that at the expected gas processing rate of 1.6 million tonnes of LNG per annum, the plant would produce the equivalent of 50 per cent of Australia's current [LNG] production.

Mr Kuroda said the NT Government had been able to provide certainty for the $24billion investment, with the Japanese Government pushing to meet a tight deadline to guarantee the security of Japan's future gas supply.

Federal Minister for Resources and Energy Martin Ferguson said yesterday the project was "potentially the biggest investment in Australia's history" and would cement Australia's world standing as an "energy superpower". "It will prove to be side-by-side with the expansion of the Olympic Dam in South Australia," Mr Ferguson said.

Arctic Ice: Fastest August Retreat in History  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

TreeHugger reports that the Arctic narrowly missed beating last year's record low sea ice levels - but made a determined effort in August nevertheless - Arctic Just Witnessed Fastest August Ice Retreat in History.

While we may have narrowly avoided setting a new record high in Arctic ice loss this year, it look as though we may have still hit a dubious milestone: achieving the fastest rate of melting during a four-week period in August than at any time in recent history. Between August 1 and August 31, sea ice declined at a rate of 32,700 square miles per day compared to a rate of roughly 24,400 square miles per day last year. The historical average for that period is 19,700 square miles per day.

As Matthew noted in a recent post, we barely missed passing the record set last year. According to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), sea ice covered around 4.5 million square kilometers at its lowest point on September 12; by comparison, sea ice covered 4.1 million square kilometers the same time last year.

Not that we should consider this temporary reprieve an auspicious sign. The BBC article Matthew cited quoted the NSIDC's Walt Meier as saying: "(...) so people might be tempted to call it a recovery, but I don't think that's a good term, we're still on a downwards trend towards ice-free Arctic summers." Indeed, most climate scientists still believe that, if present trends continue, all arctic sea ice will be gone by the end of the century.



The Next Internet: The Internet Of Things, Smart Grids And Environmental Monitoring  

Posted by Big Gav in , , , ,

Internet pioneer and Google evangelist Vint Cerf has a blog post on the expansion of today's internet to include the "internet of things" Bruce Sterling spends a lot of time talking about and the provision of the environment monitoring and "smart grid" features we need to optimise our (clean) energy acquisition and usage - The Next Internet.

In the next decade, around 70% of the human population will have fixed or mobile access to the Internet at increasingly high speeds, up to gigabits per second. We can reliably expect that mobile devices will become a major component of the Internet, as will appliances and sensors of all kinds. Many of the things on the Internet, whether mobile or fixed, will know where they are, both geographically and logically. As you enter a hotel room, your mobile will be told its precise location including room number. When you turn your laptop on, it will learn this information as well--either from the mobile or from the room itself. It will be normal for devices, when activated, to discover what other devices are in the neighborhood, so your mobile will discover that it has a high resolution display available in what was once called a television set. If you wish, your mobile will remember where you have been and will keep track of RFID-labeled objects such as your briefcase, car keys and glasses. "Where are my glasses?" you will ask. "You were last within RFID reach of them while in the living room," your mobile or laptop will say.

The Internet will transform the video medium as well. From its largely programmed, scheduled and streamed delivery today, video will become an interactive medium in which the choice of content and advertising will be under consumer control. Product placement will become an opportunity for viewers to click on items of interest in the field of view to learn more about them including but not limited to commercial information. Hyperlinks will associate the racing scene in Star Wars I with the chariot race in Ben Hur. Conventional videoconferencing will be augmented by remotely controlled robots with an ability to move around, focus cameras and microphones, and perhaps even directly interact with the local environment under user control.

The Internet will also become more closely integrated with other parts of our daily lives, and it will change them accordingly. Power distribution grids, for example, will become a part of the Internet's information universe. We will be able to track and manage electrical power demand and our automobiles will participate in the generation as well as the consumption of electricity. By sharing information through the Internet about energy-consuming and energy-producing devices and systems, we will be able to make them more efficient.

A box of washing machine soap will become part of a service as Internet-enabled washing machines are managed by Web-based services that can configure and activate your washing machine. Scientific measurements and experimental results will be blogged and automatically entered into common data archives to facilitate the distribution, sharing and reproduction of experimental results. One might even imagine that scientific instruments could generate their own data blogs.

These are but a few examples of the way in which the Internet will continue to surround and serve us in the future. The flexibility we have seen in the Internet is a consequence of one simple observation: the Internet is essentially a software artifact. As we have learned in the past several decades, software is an endless frontier. There is no limit to what can be programmed. If we can imagine it, there's a good chance it can be programmed. The Internet of the future will be suffused with software, information, data archives, and populated with devices, appliances, and people who are interacting with and through this rich fabric.

Bruce himself has a post on work being done at HP on environmental monitoring - The Central Nervous System for the Earth.
(((Man, this one's right out of the Bright Green playbook. Cram too-cheap-to-meter nano-scale environmental sensors into every handheld on Earth. Then network them.)))

(((The head of this lab was here at Picnic doing his elevator pitch, and I don't think he's kidding. Even if one guy in a hundred is carrying a ful-scale environmental lab in his pocket... and actively measuring, uhm, chem/bio, temperature, vibration, sound, magnetic fields, radiation, humidity and weather conditions... "all so cheap as to be basically free"... well, that would make the 20th century look as crude as the world before germ theory.)))

"Avoid catastrophic failures through early monitoring... instrument the facility with a nervous system."

"Safety, health, optimization, intelligence."

Those who buy hybrid vehicles are not going back to SUVs  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

BusinessWeek has an interesting article on tensions within OPEC between producers who want maximise income from the declining fields now (while they still can) and the Saudis (whose reserves will last longer and thus want the rest of the world to avoid kicking the oil habit just yet) - Saudi Oil, OPEC's Ire.

t happens almost like clockwork. A few days before the end of every month, marketing executives from Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia's national oil company, ring up the likes of ExxonMobil (XOM) and Royal Dutch Shell (RDS), sounding them out about the oil they need and the price they would be willing to pay. The Saudis crunch the numbers, set a price, then call the global customers back to see how much they'd be willing to buy. By the 10th of the following month, customers—there are about 80 in all—are told how much crude they'll actually get.

It's all part of an elaborate dance that goes on continually at OPEC's biggest producer. While the cartel may set production quotas for each member, the Saudis and a few other top suppliers frequently exceed those limits in order to meet world demand. And these days, the dance looks more like a tug-of-war, as the Saudis and their allies in the organization seek to contain crude prices while Iran and others want to keep them as high as possible. Saudi relations with OPEC "depend on where prices are; when prices are too high [the Saudis] side with consumers," says Vera de Ladoucette, senior director of consultancy Cambridge Energy Research Associates in Paris.

The tug-of-war is a key factor in the extraordinary volatility in prices lately. After soaring to $147 per barrel this summer, crude plummeted to below $90 in early September. On Sept. 22 it jumped again to $130 as traders scrambled to cover short positions and fretted about the U.S. economy, then fell to $107 as those pressures eased.

Why wouldn't the Kingdom want to squeeze the maximum out of customers? The Saudis have long memories and recall how high prices can cut into consumption; it happened in the 1980s and it's happening again now. Any threat to oil's leading role as a source of energy is a big worry for a country that sits on reserves of some 260 billion barrels. "We are concerned about the permanent destruction of demand," says a senior Saudi official. "Those who buy hybrid vehicles are not going back to SUVs."

OPEC hardliners such as Iran and Venezuela, by contrast, have less oil in the ground and are running short on cash, so they're more interested in maximizing revenues today.

Hedge Funds and Economic Terrorists  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Chris Cook (of Market 3.0 and the Iranian oil bourse fame) has an interesting article in the Asia Times - Oil market collapse waiting to happen. Does physical oil really get traded in Yahoo chat rooms ?

The New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil market price has become almost entirely irrelevant in the real world of physical and forward oil trading, which largely takes place, believe it or not, in Yahoo chat rooms. While NYMEX members still provide a massive pool of trading capital or "liquidity", the inconvenient truth is that oil market pricing power has moved across the Atlantic to the price of North Sea crude oil.

The price of North Sea (Brent) crude oil is now the direct benchmark for over 60% of global crude oil pricing, and, through the mechanism of massive "arbitrage" trading between Brent and WTI, it also constitutes an indirect benchmark for most of the other 40%.

Most people - including virtually all mainstream press reporters - believe that it is the price of futures contracts that is used as a benchmark. In fact, it is the reported "spot" market price of "dated" Brent/BFOE (see below) cargo transactions that constitutes the direct and indirect benchmark for most global oil transactions. The massively traded ICE Futures Europe Brent/BFOE Crude Oil contract is merely a financial bet on these underlying prices, and these financial contracts are settled in cash, not oil.

For many years, the production of the Brent oil field has been in decline, and the production of other North Sea oil fields has therefore been amalgamated with it to ensure a sufficient number of transactions to give a credible benchmark price.

We now see four fields - Brent, Forties, Oseberg and Ekofisk ("BFOE") - together supplying the BFOE "Brent" contract whereby 600,000 barrel "cargoes" of these qualities of oil may be bought and sold forward for eventual physical delivery.

The problem is that even this extended North Sea BFOE production is still only running at less than 70 cargoes per month, which is a total monthly production of little more than 40 million barrels. Even at $150 per barrel that represents a value of only $6 billion, and at current prices less than $4 billion.

Sitting on this base of physical trading is an off-exchange complex of price risk consisting of the simple forward BFOE contracts themselves, a host of derivative contracts, and an increasing number of "structured finance" transactions. It is estimated that in total, some $260 billion was recently invested in oil markets one way and another, and this pool of funds was superimposed as an inverted pyramid of risk on this relatively tiny base of physical crude oil.

Could these transactions have been instrumental in causing an oil market speculative bubble?

The answer is obvious: of course they could, and in all likelihood, they did. Unfortunately, because the transactions directly affecting the BFOE price took place off-exchange, not only does no regulator know, but none is in a position to know. Worse than that, even if regulators did know, there are no agreed market regulatory standards to enforce, and any offenders are for the most part smugly immune from enforcement action in offshore jurisdictions in any case.

As I pointed out to the Treasury select committee, to blame national regulators, such as the FSA in Britain and CFTC in the US, for problems of a global marketplace does not help, other than in providing a useful scapegoat. This is because the problem lies both in the global scope of the market and in its conflicted structure, where the interests of trading intermediaries or middlemen are diametrically opposed to those of end-user producers and consumers of oil and oil products.

In the absence of a new approach to market structure we will inevitably see repeats of the recent spike in oil prices as waves of hot money swill in and out of the market. In my opinion, that will inevitably lead, sooner rather than later, to a market meltdown - similar to the literally overnight collapse of the tin market in 1985 from $800 to $400 per tonne.

The conventional wisdom is that the "central counterparty" clearing houses of futures exchanges, which guarantee the performance of transactions, backed by a pool of capital and margin, are a strength of these markets.

In my view, they also constitute a single point of failure, where oil price risk is concentrated in exactly the same way that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were massively exposed to house price risk.

I made a presentation a couple of years ago in Lausanne to an audience of high-level security experts at a seminar covering the subject of economic terrorism. This fascinating seminar covered the subject of the susceptibility of global markets and commerce to acts aimed at causing economic destruction, rather than physical destruction and death.

I pointed out that current levels of gearing and risk, and the concentration of risk in single points of failure, together mean that the only difference between "economic terrorists" and proprietary traders such as hedge funds is motive. The former would destroy a market deliberately: the latter by accident.

While the oil market survived the recent storm surge of money, the inevitability of future waves of speculative money sweeping into the market, mean that an oil market meltdown is an accident waiting to happen.

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