Nuclear Flip Flop  

Posted by Big Gav

Just a short post tonight - there is lots of fresh stuff in the link bucket though.

George Monbiot has a look at energy efficiency for buildings and dredges up a great quote from Tony Blair about nuclear power from the memory hole.

In Germany there are now some 4000 homes built to the “passivhaus” standard. A passivhaus is a house without radiators, fan heaters, stoves, air conditioners or any other kind of heating or cooling device. The only heat it requires is produced by sunlight coming through the windows and by the bodies of the people who live there. A study of over 100 passive homes showed they had a mean indoor temperature of 21.4 degrees during the bitter German winter. That’s 2.4 degrees warmer than the average British home.

All that distinguishes them from other houses is that they are built properly. They are airtight (the air which enters the house comes through a heat exchange system) and have no “thermal bridges” – material which can conduct heat from the inside of the house to the outside. The windows are matched carefully to the volume of the house. Because they have no active heating systems, they are not much more expensive to build than ordinary houses. A development of 20 homes in Freiburg, with a measured energy saving of 79%, cost just 7% more than a typical building of the same kind.

I fail to see why the passivhaus cannot become a universal standard. But this standard – like all those the government might propose – will be a waste of time until our building control officers are forced to do their jobs properly. What is the point in investing in nuclear power, or any other generating technology, if we can’t sort out something as simple as this?

The New Statesman reveals that in 1988, when Tony Blair was shadow energy secretary, he launched a passionate attack on the Conservatives’ climate policies.

“What is unbelievably depressing about the government’s response,” he said, “is that they see, in the evidence about greenhouse gases, not an opportunity to promote environmental concern but a chance to make the case for nuclear power. ... Having made a big issue of the greenhouse effect, it became clear that energy efficiency was the best way to deal with it, but … the government’s position has been characterised by a malign reluctance to have anything to do with the notion of energy conservation.”

What better description of his own legacy could there be?

This little video may get a laugh or two as well (via GristMill).

Fortifying The Gulf of Mexico  

Posted by Big Gav

Rigzone has a report on preparations for the coming hurricane season in the Gulf of Mexico.

Still bloodied from last year's hurricane season, the energy industry is building up its defenses in the Gulf of Mexico for another round with Mother Nature.

Hurricane season begins Thursday, and federal officials report that 22 percent of crude oil production and 13 percent of natural gas production in the Gulf is still derailed.

Consumers are going into storm season with gasoline costs already approaching the prices seen after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita wrecked rigs and closed refineries. So if the Gulf is hit again with hurricanes, prices could be pushed even higher.

Though it's impossible to "hurricane-proof" a platform or pipeline, people in the industry appear to be hellbent on trying to do a better job at prepping for the upcoming storm season than they did last year.

They are looking for ways to reduce the enormous amount of lost production that occurred last year and which set off spikes in energy prices.

Companies are scrambling to lock in contracts for tug and helicopter services, and squirrel away extra valves, meters and piping needed to make fast post-hurricane repairs.

Dave Roberts at Grist gloomily notes that "Peak oil will not help us in the climate change fight" (in spite of the fact that the real solutions to both are the same - unfortunately peak oil has a medium term anti-solution - coal - which means accelerated global warming).
On Oikos, David Jeffrey wisely and succinctly diagnoses the problem:
It seems to me that the current international negotiations about climate change are the ultimate prisoner's dilemma. It is in each nation's best (economic) interests to have each other country do something about limiting greenhouse gas emissions, but not do something themselves.

This is equally wise and equally succinct:
To speculate about the way forward, the glimmers of hope seem to me to be:

* National action will become less important as local, state and regional governments and communities take bolder measures;
* International aid will be increasingly targeted at clean energy, helping to restrain emissions growth in developing countries;
* There will be modest technological advances which help decouple economic growth from emissions growth.

This, however, I do not agree with:
But ultimately I think our biggest saviour may just be peak oil. ... At current [oil price] levels, a whole range of alternative energy sources become commercially viable.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: Peak oil is not going to vouchsafe clean-energy outcomes. Peak oil's primary short-term effect will be to sharply increase demand for coal. Coal to make electricity. Coal to make ethanol. Coal to make heating oil and diesel. Coal, coal, coal.

It might solve the energy-supply problem, but as far as global warming is concerned, coal is death.

Australia, of course, may as well be called coal country. Anglo American and Shell are now looking at building a coal to liquids plant in the Victorian brown coalfields. This plant also got a mention in Brian Toohey's weekend column in the Financial Review ("Nuclear cause runs out of steam") which panned the prospect of nuclear energy (of course, as its the AFR there were 3 pro-nuclear articles scattered through the rest of the paper) and instead promoted efficiency and conservation, geothermal power (though GeoDynamics doesn't seem to be making much progress lately) and IGCC coal fired plants.
Prospects for the vast brown coal resources in Victoria's Latrobe Valley to host a $5 billion synthetic diesel and electricity project have soared.

Anglo-Dutch oil major Shell has thrown its money and technology behind the project, the Monash energy project near Traralgon, in a global alliance with the project promoter, South Africa's Anglo American.

Shell and Anglo have formed the alliance to pursue "clean" coal conversion energy opportunities and have nominated the Monash project as their leading candidate.

Formation of the alliance comes ahead of an expected mid-year decision to first build a $300 million to $400 million demonstration unit for the Monash project, one that is promoted as being clean because carbon dioxide emissions are to be captured for injection into exhausted Bass Strait gas reservoirs.

The demonstration plant would help to commercialise technology that would produce low-emissions diesel and electricity from brown coal, with Anglo holding a brown coal exploration licence that sits next to the conventional Loy Yang power station and that straddles the Hyland Highway, 200 kilometres east of Melbourne.

If the process proves viable, a $5 billion energy complex could be built within a decade. Its diesel and other liquids production of more than 60,000 barrels a day would be bigger than the fast-falling liquids production from the ExxonMobil/BHP Billiton Bass Strait oil and gasfields of 50,000 barrels a day.

Back to Dave from Grist, he had an excellent article recently at TomPaine on the alt fuels distraction.
In the next 50 years, give or take, those of us in the United States will face two challenges. We must wean ourselves off of oil and we must cut our carbon-dioxide emissions by around 60 percent. Either would be difficult in isolation; together, well ... imagine patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time, only with trillions of dollars and millions of lives at stake. And with one arm tied behind your back.

What's the best way to meet these challenges? If you were the proverbial Martian, visiting our planet to dispassionately assess our options, what would you find most promising?

Would it be nuclear power? "Clean coal"? Ethanol? You'd only decide on those options if you happen to be an uncommonly gullible Martian (or one in the pay of big industry—but more on that later).

Substantially increasing the amount of electricity we get from nuclear power would mean building dozens of expensive new plants, none of which would be completed for at least 10 years. Each would be a huge risk for investors and virtually uninsurable without government assistance—and once it had run its course, would cost a fortune to decommission. Each would produce tons of waste—when we don't even know what to do with the waste we already have—and each would produce fissile material that could fall into the wrong hands. By some estimates, the CO2 emitted in the full lifecycle of a nuclear plant—taking into account the oil burned mining, transporting and processing uranium, not to mention constructing the plants themselves—would be only a third less than that released by a coal-fired plant.

Burning coal releases CO2. To avoid climate catastrophe, "clean coal" plants would have to sequester their CO2 emissions underground. This technology is speculative, untested and at least 10 years out.


Our Martian would probably suggest we focus first on reducing our energy use—and might be delighted to discover several simple, at-hand ways to do so. Some low-hanging fruit: boost energy efficiency standards for cars, appliances, industrial equipment and buildings. Institute "feebates," which would tax the purchase of fuel-inefficient vehicles and apply the revenue to rebates on fuel-efficient vehicles. Mandate that all government purchases—of vehicles, buildings, appliances, or anything else—be tied to strict energy-efficiency requirements. Pass a federal renewable portfolio standard, mandating that the feds get a certain percentage of their energy from renewable sources.

And if our Martian wanted to get a little bit more ambitious, he might emphasize these broader policy and technological initiatives:

• Quit subsidizing fossil-fuel industries. Period.

• Impose a gas or carbon tax. It would put uniform pressure on the market to reduce oil consumption, without favoring any particular alternative. (The impact on low-income Americans could be offset with reduced payroll taxes.)

• Encourage density by reversing land-use policies at all levels of government that subsidize road-building and sprawl at the expense of compact, walkable, mixed-use communities served by effective public transportation.

• Drop perverse agricultural subsidies that overwhelmingly favor petro-heavy industrial agriculture and long-distance food transport at the expense of organic farms and local food systems.

• Scrap electricity-market regulations that virtually mandate centralized power production at large, inefficient plants (by some estimates, up to two-thirds of energy is wasted en route to end users); instead, encourage decentralized production from small-scale, site-appropriate sources.


Finally and most significantly: it's the money, stupid. Scratch the surface of each of the elite's favored alternatives and you'll find an industry with political connections and the financial clout to shape public dialogue. The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry front group, has openly established an organization designed to push pro-nuclear talking points into the public sphere—it's already paid off in the form of an influential op-ed in The Washington Post . Ethanol has even more friends. Legislators from agricultural states love it; corn brokers like Archer Daniels Midland love it; automakers who want their products to look greener love it; the oil companies that will eventually own and run ethanol refineries and stations love it. And coal—well, even kids love coal!

The Herald today has a mildly surprising report titled "High-rise residents big energy guzzlers". My initial response was "no way" - apartments have to be a lot more energy efficient than air conditioned McMansions out in the burbs.

When I considered the amount of energy wasted in common areas (certainly my building has a heap of bright, non compact fluorescent, lights burning 24 hours a day plus a lift which no doubt chugs through the power too, not to mention electronically operated doors, security cameras etc etc - so maybe the balance is closer than I realised).

I would bet apartment dwellers are much more likely to use public transport and less likely to own cars though.
FLAT dwellers are the city's biggest energy guzzlers, says an official study that casts doubts over whether the State Government should review its policy to increase energy-saving targets for high-rise apartment blocks.

The Minister for Planning, Frank Sartor, is expected to announce within a fortnight whether the Government will heed calls from the building industry for the target not to be lifted from July 1.

The Herald revealed this month that the Government was reviewing its plan to force developers of new housing to improve energy efficiency - by 40 per cent, instead of the current target of 20 per cent for flats and 25 per cent for houses - as part of the BASIX scheme.

While the industry is happy for the house target to be increased, it says lifting the apartments target would push the price of units too high because it costs more to install energy-saving measures in flats.

But environmental groups and urban planners say units must be included in energy- and water-saving efforts because they will make up two-thirds of the city's new housing in the next 25 years.

Their conviction is strengthened by a Department of Planning and EnergyAustralia study that shows high-rise buildings emit more greenhouse gases per dwelling and per person than smaller blocks of flats, townhouses or detached homes.

High-rise apartment blocks emit 10.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, compared with nine tonnes for detached homes and 5.1 tonnes for townhouses.

When divided by the average number of residents in different types of housing, flat-dwellers came out the highest energy offenders - 5.4 tonnes of greenhouse gases a person, compared with 2.9 tonnes for residents of detached homes.

The report, published on the department's website, says electrically heated swimming pools and inefficient lighting and ventilation systems in common areas were found in many of the apartment blocks audited.

"With more thoughtful selection of common area technologies, many high-rise buildings could enjoy large energy and greenhouse savings," it said.

The director of the Total Environment Centre, Jeff Angel, said developers should spend less on apartments' fit-outs rather than scrimp on energy-saving measures.

He also encouraged the use of cogeneration plants in new apartment blocks, which work by taking the heat created by a power generator and using it for extra energy supply.

The Herald also has a report on a UN plan for China and India to slash their energy use. Why the world's biggest energy consumer wasn't mentioned is something of a mystery.
The three-nation report, led by the World Bank and the UN Environment Program, said many banks had overlooked chances to boost their profits by lending to help businesses cut energy waste while oil prices hover at around $US70 a barrel.

"Cutting energy waste is the cheapest, easiest, fastest way to solve many energy problems, improve the environment and enhance both energy security and economic development," said Robert Taylor, a World Bank energy specialist who led the study.

Cost-effective retrofits in buildings and factories could reduce energy use by at least 25 per cent in China, India and Brazil, it said of the four-year study. The conclusions were likely also to be true of other developing nations.

Cutting energy waste would save hundreds of millions of dollars, cut noxious air pollution and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases released by burning fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas.

China, India and Brazil are home to almost 2.6 billion people, about 40 per cent of the world's population. Their energy use and emissions from fossil fuels, widely blamed for global warming, are set to double by 2030.

Many scientists say that rising temperatures could wreak havoc with the climate, bringing more heatwaves, floods, desertification and a gradual rise in world sea levels.

Measures to offset waste include retrofits for buildings and factories, such as higher efficiency lighting or air conditioning systems, better boilers or waste heat recovery systems.

Bloomberg reports that GE is forecasting a big jump in sales to China this year based on increased demand for clean(er) engines and wind turbines.

As a side note, I've been given a large number of compact fluorescent globes over the past year or so - some bright spark worked out that RECS credits could be obtained by handing out energy efficient devices, so there are stalls set up in the mall next to my office handing out globes (and water efficient shower heads) on a regular basis.

The main problem with these traditionally has been the office style feel of the fluorescent light they emit, which isn't all that pleasant, even if you have an energy efficiency obsession like me. The latest batch were GE's "Entice - warm white" (this isn't product placement, just a genuine observation - I'm sure GE does plenty of evil things as well as good things), which seem to produce light with similar characteristics to an ordinary incandescent globe - much easier on the eyes and pleasant to look at. I've got to say their marketing is rubbish though, as I was going to adorn this with a picture but I can't even find a reference to the product online, let alone a decent snapshot - the viridian business wave still has a long way to go it seems...
``Our business could double again in China in the next four or five years,'' Immelt said after signing an agreement to help China meet environmental targets.

Immelt is tapping China, which has six of the world's 10 most polluted cities, to expand sales of products such as wind turbines and fuel-efficient locomotives that cut emissions. China will spend 1.5 trillion yuan ($186 billion) in the next 15 years to increase renewable energy use to 15 percent of total supply, the government said in November.

GE's clean technology agreement with China covers conversion of coal to gas, wind energy, jet engines that have lower- emissions and use less fuel, power-efficient railway locomotives and water desalination.


All of GE's energy-related divisions are expanding, driven by alternative sources such as wind turbines, John Krenicki, chief executive officer of GE Energy, said in an April 5 interview.

Some analysts expect GE to benefit from environmental concerns about burning fossil fuels, along with rising prices for oil and natural gas. ``The global push to reduce fossil fuel-derived electricity with alternatives such as wind, solar, coal gasification and nuclear power should benefit GE,'' New York-based Citigroup analyst Jeffrey Sprague wrote in a March note.

The World Bank says six of the world's 10 most-polluted cities are in China and estimates environmental damage and health problems cost the world's fastest-growing major economy more than $54 billion a year. General Electric is the world's second-biggest company by market value, behind Exxon Mobil Corp.

China received the first shipment of liquefied natural gas, a cleaner-burning alternative to the coal that powers as much as 70 percent of the nation's energy needs, from Australia's North West Shelf last week. The North West Shelf Venture will supply China more than 3.3 million metric tons, or 50 cargoes, of LNG annually under a 25-year, A$25 billion ($18 billion) agreement.

I noticed today that peak oil prophet T Boone Pickens made US$1.4 billion last year (nice work if you can get it) - obviously being ahead of the peak oil curve has been more than a little lucrative for some.
James Simons earned an estimated $US1.5billion ($2billion) in 2005, the most of any hedge-fund manager, followed by Boone Pickens at $US1.4billion, according to Institutional Investor's Alpha magazine. The average pay of the top 26 earners rose 45per cent in 2005 to $US363million, the magazine said.

Hedge funds returned 9.2per cent last year, double the Standard & Poor's 500Index and about the same as in 2004, according to Chicago-based Hedge Fund Research. "At the moment it is absolutely a paradise for the greedy folks who run these things," said John Gutfreund, former chief executive officer of Salomon Brothers and president of Gutfreund & Co in New York.

The impending merger of the ASX and the SFE leaves Australia with a lack of choice in markets to trade on. A new contender is about to be set up though - the guy behind it all doesn't exactly sound like your stereotypical pillar of the financial sector though.
Unconventional, creative and hailed as a brilliant strategist, Brian Price is behind a deal to establish a new derivatives exchange, writes Matt O'Sullivan.

Brian Price knows a lot about greed and revenge.

He thrived amid the "gangland warfare and manic chaos" of the trading floor of the Sydney Futures Exchange in the 1980s.

He wrote about it in the original story for Robert Connolly's 2001 film, The Bank, the tale of a young market trader who seeks revenge for the repossession of his father's farm.

Now the hedge funds manager and "market-risk strategist" for some of this country's richest individuals is behind a deal to establish a commodities and energy derivatives exchange for the Asian region in Sydney.


The prospect of a new exchange has received a lukewarm response from some market participants, who point to the collapse of the Australian Derivatives Exchange after just 11 weeks of operation in 2001.

But Price rebuffs this. "They tried to build the Panama Canal once and 100,000 people died, and they came back 20 years later and built it," he says. "Ours is a different business model, a different strategy, a different time."

Advances in front-end technology — notably broadband whereby markets can be accessed from home — have opened the door to a wide range of investors. "Computer technology has made it phenomenally more achievable," he says. "I can't think of any businesses in the world that have changed this substantially."

Price, born in Canada, is a veteran of the derivatives market. He was there at the beginning when in 1984 he first walked into the chaos of the SFE's trading room floor for Trans City Holdings.

In 1989, Price left the floor to establish Standard Options, effectively a hedge fund that would later become Iron Mountain.

But he's not your typical corporate type. He'd favour a counter meal at a pub near his office over a long business lunch, and it's no surprise that a man who describes himself as a "moderate socialist" lists the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Colombia and Rwanda as places he has visited because "that is where humanity really is".

TreeHugger reports that "An Inconvenient Truth" is off to a good start at the box office.
We don't expect a film based on a slide presentation to outdo Hollywood summer blockbusters at the box office, but we're happy to see that An Inconvenient Truth is doing very well so far: "On Wednesday an inconvenient truth was the #11 movie in the country despite being in only 4 theaters, earning $78,994 ($19,749/theater). The #10 movie was showing at 1,265 theaters, earning 117,000, or $92/theater."

With all the media attention surrounding the movie comes the inevitable ad hominem attacks by industry hitmen who can't seem to touch the science so they attack the messenger. This is followed by all the armchair climate "experts" who think they can argue against the scientific consensus and the real experts because they've seen a 1-hour special on TV or heard somewhere that it was just a warming cycle.

For some reason, these people seem to think that the thousands of people who spent almost every day of their lives for decades learning about, studying and experimenting on the subject haven't tested and rejected these theories (by using the peer-reviewed scientific method, something that, unfortunately, isn't imposed on "experts" from industry-backed think tanks when they write articles, do interviews, speak on the radio, cherry pick facts that seem to support their claims, etc).

Are there many possible causes to global warming? Sure. It could be a natural warming cycle, or have something to do with the sun, or whatever.

But it isn't a faith issue. You don't get to pick the most convenient explanation and then reinforce that belief by looking for other people or groups that have been saying the same thing.

It's a scientific issue. We need to look at the empirical data. The people who are doing that are climate scientists (and scientists from other domains as well), and they tell us that the problem is caused by the billions of barrels of oil, the billions of tons of coal and the billions of cubic meters of natural gas that we've been burning since the industrial revolution. They might not have the big marketing and PR budgets that their opponents have, and it's hard to convince people with nuanced and cautious explanations filled with jargon (much easier to cut through the information-overload with one-liners like "It's a hoax! A natural warming cycle! Carry on..."), but nobody on this planet is better equipped than them to study this problem, so if we don't listen to them, we might as well be rolling dices.

The Washington Post has a very long look at the climate skeptics in "The Tempest", part of their special on "The Threat of Climate Change" (they also have a special on oil and gas prices just so they have something for everyone).
Let us be honest about the intellectual culture of America in general: It has become almost impossible to have an intelligent discussion about anything.

Everything is a war now. This is the age of lethal verbal combat, where even scientific issues involving measurements and molecules are somehow supernaturally polarizing. The controversy about global warming resides all too perfectly at the collision point of environmentalism and free market capitalism. It's bound to be not only politicized but twisted, mangled and beaten senseless in the process. The divisive nature of global warming isn't helped by the fact that the most powerful global-warming skeptic (at least by reputation) is President Bush, and the loudest warnings come from Al Gore.

Human beings may be large of brain, but they are social animals, too, like wolves, and are prone to behave in packs. So when something like climate change comes up, the first thing people want to know is, whose side are you on? All those climatic variables and uncertainties and probabilities and "forcings" and "feedback loops," those cans of worms that Bill Gray talks about, get boiled down to their essence. Are you with us or against us?

Somehow Hitler keeps popping into the discussion. Gore draws a parallel between fighting global warming and fighting the Nazis. Novelist Michael Crichton, in State of Fear , ends with an appendix comparing the theory of global warming to the theory of eugenics -- the belief, prominently promoted by Nazis, that the gene pool of the human species was degenerating due to higher reproductive rates of "inferior" people. Both, he contends, are examples of junk science, supported by intellectual elites who will later conveniently forget they signed on to such craziness.

And Gray has no governor on his rhetoric. At one point during our meeting in Colorado he blurts out, "Gore believed in global warming almost as much as Hitler believed there was something wrong with the Jews."

When I opine that he is incendiary, he answers: "Yes, I am incendiary. But the other side is just as incendiary. The etiquette of science has long ago been thrown out the window."

In a media-saturated world, it's hard to get anyone's attention without cranking the volume. Time magazine recently declared that Earth looks like a planet that is sick (cover headline: "Be Worried. Be Very Worried"). Vanity Fair published a "worst-case scenario" photo illustration of Manhattan drowned by an 80-foot sea-level rise, the skyscrapers poking up from what has become part of the Atlantic Ocean. That's not inconceivable over the course of many centuries, but the scientific consensus (IPCC, 2001) is that by 2100 sea level will have risen somewhere between three and 34 inches from its 1990 level.

The news media -- always infatuated with doom (were it not for the obvious ramifications for ratings and circulation, the media would love to cover the End of the World) -- struggle to resist the most calamitous-sounding climate scenarios. Consider the January 2005 survey of thousands of climate change models that showed a very wide range of possibilities. One model at the very extreme had a worst-case-scenario warming of 11 degrees Celsius -- which is nearly 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

"The world is likely to heat up by an average of 11ÂșC by the end of the century, the biggest-ever study of global warming showed yesterday," the London Evening Standard reported online. This would cause "a surge in sea levels threatening the lives of billions of people."

Wrong, but whatever.

The skeptics feed on alarmism. They love any sign that global warming is a case of mass hysteria. Someone like Myron Ebell, an analyst at CEI, freely admits that, as an advocate in a politicized battle, he tries to make "the best case against alarmism." Everyone, on both sides, is arguing like a lawyer these days, he says. "What is going on right now is a desperate last-ditch Battle of the Bulge type effort by the forces of darkness, which is relying heavily on the lockstep/groupthink scientific community."

The president's science adviser, John Marburger, thinks the politicized debate has made it almost impossible to talk sensibly about the issue. "There seems to be the general feeling that somehow the administration doesn't feel that climate change is happening," he says. "That's completely wrong." The administration just doesn't think the problem can be solved with the "magic wand" of regulation.

Marburger recently declined to go on "60 Minutes" to address allegations that federal scientists were being muzzled and government reports rewritten by the White House to minimize concerns about global warming. "In general the public discourse on this has gotten completely off the track, and we're never going to straighten it out on '60 Minutes,'" Marburger says.

This issue forces Americans to sort through a great deal of science, technology and economics, all of it saturated in divisive politics. Many Americans haven't really tuned in. A Gallup poll in March showed that global warming is far down the list of concerns among Americans -- even when asked to rank their environmental worries. More Americans were worried about damage to the ozone layer. No doubt some people have the two issues confused. Both involve air, and emissions of some kind, and some worrisome global effect. But the ozone issue, while hardly solved, has at least been seriously addressed with a global ban on chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

Climate change takes place on time scales of decades and centuries. In a 24-hour information society, it is hard to keep the year 2100 in mind. But these changes are happening at a geologically rapid pace. For roughly the past 10,000 years, since the end of the last Ice Age, human beings have enjoyed a relatively stable, comfortable "interglacial" period, during which they've invented everything from agriculture to moon rockets. Nomadic bands of hunters and gatherers have given way to more than 6 billion people, largely urbanized and energy-hungry. Pressure on ecosystems is immense. Biologists warn of a "sixth extinction" -- the sixth mass extinction of species since the rise of multicellular organisms about 600 million years ago. The most recent mass extinction, 65 million years ago, was apparently caused by a mountain-size object striking Earth. Human civilization, in this view, is like an asteroid hitting the planet.

The expansion of human civilization is an experiment on a global scale: What happens when a species obtains not only intelligence but technology? Do intelligent, technological species tend to survive for a long time -- or bring their environment crashing down around them?

Back to TreeHugger, they also have a review of a documentary on the ANWR called "Oil On Ice".
We've just watched Oil On Ice, an excellent documentary about the Arctic Wildlife Refuge (a topic we've covered in the past), why it's important to protect it and why it doesn't make much sense to go drill for oil there. The film covers 4 main issues: Communities that live in the area, the wild lands of the Refuge, the wildlife (and what a wildlife!) and energy. W

e quite enjoyed the discussions about solutions and the explanations about how some common sense investments in current technologies could improve our energy efficiency significantly (after all, it's easier to use less energy than to find new one) and save a lot more oil than could ever come out of Alaska. It also shows some of the effects of global warming on the arctic ("global weirding", as Lovins call it) and debunks some claims by Exxon about the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The DVD features bonus interviews with Carl Pope of the Sierra Club and Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute.

As I've thrown in a number of links to articles on modern video games in recent days, here is some more grist for the mill - Nuclear dispute is basis for Iranian computer game and Baghdad, USA.

And to close, I'm happy to note that the 100,000th visitor here has passed by today - glad to see so many people found my rantings of interest (well, except for those who came here via Google and felt entirely unsatisfied with what they found)...

Ethanol and Peak Food  

Posted by Big Gav

With rising demand for ethanol and other biofuels, and sugar prices already showing what this means for food prices in the future once oil depletion kicks in, more and more people are noting that this is going to result in problems (exacerbated by soil depletion, rising fertiliser costs and the lack of new arable land to expand agriculture into).

Tom Whipple's latest peak oil article considers the issue of "Ethanol and Peak Food"

No sooner had the high-gas-prices frenzy on Capitol Hill died down than a new obsession emerged— ethanol. Everywhere one looked, there was ethanol. If you live in an "over-ozoned, non-attainment" region, then every gas pump you visit has the words "10% ethanol" affixed. Television ads, magazines, and newspapers are filled with pictures of corn-yellow SUVs filled with motorists happy in the knowledge that their vehicle can run on good old American grown E-85 (85% ethanol- 15% gasoline). Their fuel dollars are staying right here in the USA and are not filling the coffers of foreign potentates.

Last Sunday, the Washington Post, which is in charge of keeping the nation's capitol up to date on all sorts of things, ran a major "A" section story on the ethanol craze sweeping the nation. From sea to shining sea, everyone from Microsoft's Bill Gates to New York 's Governor Pataki was building or announcing new ethanol plants. Rural America will soon be awash in them.

Across the farm belt everyone was getting rich making fuel from corn. Iowa wants ethanol to replace 25 percent of the state's gasoline consumption and General Motors pledged to build 400,000 more E85 capable cars this year. Farm state Congressmen are smiling as the century old problem of agricultural overproduction seems to be coming to an end. Corn prices are markedly higher. Agribusiness profits are soaring.

One searches the Post story in vain, however, for the downside to all this euphoria. As anyone who has followed the issue is well aware, there is a major debate going on about whether or not the production of corn-based ethanol takes more energy than it produces. If it does, then ethanol from corn is a giant loser for everyone but the farmer and the agribusinesses. There is also the fact that while ethanol burns cleaner than gasoline, it only produces about 70 percent of the energy and therefore gets 25-30 percent less mileage. If ethanol and gasoline are selling in the vicinity of $3 at the pump, then, in reality, you are paying $4 a gallon in comparison to sticking with plain old gasoline.

Finally we have the big question. As America is going through 500 million gallons of motor fuel per day, how much of this can safely be replaced by sharing our food with our fuel tanks?

A few days after the Post story, the answer came with a thundering crash when Canada 's National Union of Farmers issued a report on the world grain situation. The first sentence says it all: "The world is now eating more food than farmers grow, pushing global grain stocks to their lowest level in 30 years".

If the first sentence didn't get your attention, the second one says: "Rising population, water shortages, climate change, and growing costs of fossil fuel-based fertilizers point to a calamitous shortfall in the world's supplies in the near future."

There is a lot more detail, but the conclusions are the same— worldwide food production is on the downswing.

Kurt Cobb is also thinking about the subject, and bids welcome to "The newest guest at your dinner table: your car" (quoting Pimental unfortunately, whose credibility isn't entirely untarnished when it comes to his specific claims about the EROEI of biofuels, even if the gist of his argument about the problems with them is correct).
The growing drive for energy "independence" coupled with heavy subsidies has led to a scramble to build biodiesel and ethanol plants across the United States. "I wish that ethanol and biodiesel would save us," Pimentel said at a conference entitled "Peak Oil and the Environment" held in Washington, D. C. recently. Unfortunately, green plants collect relatively little solar energy, he explained. Less that 0.1 percent of the sunlight that falls on plants gets converted into usable energy. That compares with about a 20 percent conversion of sunlight to energy by photovoltaic cells.

This means that biodiesel and ethanol production facilities end up being voracious though hidden guests at the world's dinner tables. Humans get 99 percent of their food from the land and only 1 percent from the oceans, according to Pimentel. (This is in part due to the collapse of the world's fisheries brought on by new forms of industrial fish harvesting and by high demand for seafood.) The more that we demand from the land in the way of fuel, the less that will be left over to eat, and the catch from the oceans is unlikely to make up for this loss.

Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute and author of the recent book Plan B, spoke at the same conference. He said that as long as oil remains above $60 per barrel, it will be profitable to produce fuel from crops. "The price for oil is becoming the floor for agricultural crops," he explained. "We're setting up a competition between service stations and supermarkets. The prices of agricultural commodities will be determined by their fuel value." (my emphasis)

If oil prices remain high or even rise, they would continue to put upward pressure on grain prices. This could lead to political instability in countries such as Indonesia and Mexico which rely heavily on grain imports, Brown said.


Many other biofuels perform even worse. Pimentel and his co-author Tad Patzek determined that it takes 45 percent more energy in the form of fossil fuels to turn switchgrass into liquid fuel than that liquid fuel returns in energy. The results for wood biomass, soybeans and sunflowers were 57 percent, 27 percent and 118 percent, respectively. In short, we are currently subsidizing the production of biofuels with fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas which provide the heat and electricity to process those biofuels.

So, given all of this, what is driving the biofuels market? The simple answer is money, said Pimentel. For instance, U. S. government subsidies mean that companies producing corn ethanol receive payments totaling $7 per bushel of corn processed. The corn farmers alas receive less than a 2-cent per bushel subsidy related to ethanol production.

Pimentel offers a simple test for whether ethanol producers really believe their own hype. If ethanol offers such a magnificent energy gain, then why don't ethanol plants run on ethanol instead of coal and natural gas? Not surprisingly, this question has so far been met with dumbfounded silence.

Finfacts in Ireland says that the "Growing use of corn for conversion to fuel may push up world prices of food" (may ?).
The US, the world's largest exporter of corn, will use as much or more of the grain for conversion to ethanol in 2007 than it will sell abroad, according to estimates by the Department of Agriculture (USDA).

As gasoline prices rise, farmers are diverting more of their output to producing fuel rather than food or feedstock for animals. The new estimate highlights the growing competition between food and fuel that could push up the price of food globally. .

The USDA says that about 55m tonnes of corn will be converted into ethanol, compared with exports averaging 40m-50m tonnes over the past 15 years. This would be up from an estimated 41m tonnes last year - a quantity of corn that could feed 131m people for a year. The US accounts for 70 per cent of world corn exports.

"This year looks like being the first time ever that as much or more corn is converted into ethanol than exported. If oil prices stay high, it will propel this trend much further," USDA economist Keith Collins, said in an interview with the Financial Times.

Some of the older articles on this topic include George Monbiot on "Feeding Cars, Not People", Richard Manning on "The Oil We Eat" and WorldChanging's series of "Postcards From The Global Food System".
The Road From Green Revolution to Fatal Harvest

There are so many criticisms around the current global food system that for a while I started wondering if in fact it had already collapsed and I was studying a post-apocalyptic food system.

The difficulty with data around the food system is a little like data around climate change, only much more fragmented and fast-moving. If a group of scientists make a claim, it's fairly easy to find a Bjorn Lomborg-type claiming it ain't so, you're just fear-mongering. Discerning the truth of what's going on with the global food system at the numbers and science level requires a lot of time and energy. There is contradictory information and all of it cannot be right. At the end of the day it boils down to epistemology and axiomatic truths, and a choice needs to be made as to what we are willing to accept as legitimate data.

In trying to discern patterns in the mass of data it seemed to me that there are two broad schools of dueling, wheeling thought, with a host of lesser and emerging schools emanating from them. The first is the modern Green Revolution. The second, simultaneously representing an older form of agrarian logic and a response to the Green Revolution, can be dubbed (perhaps unfairly) the Fatal Harvest School.

The Green Revolution took hold and changed the face of agriculture through the 1960s and 1970s, although its origins lie in the early twentieth century. Until the 19th century food production grew by expanding cultivated land area. If you wanted to grow more food then you had no choice but to put more land under cultivation. A key technological advance -- synthetic ammonia -- changed this age-old truism.

The modern fertilizer industry came into being in 1909, with the synthesis of ammonia by Fritz Haber. This discovery had little agricultural impact at first; during the two world wars production of ammonia was diverted to munitions instead of farming. Following the end of the Second World War, however, the ammonia industry turned to producing ammonia for the rapidly growing fertilizer industry, contributing to dramatically increasing crop yields. Norman Borlaug, known as the “father of Green Revolution”, in his survey, “The Green Revolution: Its Origins and Contributions to World Agriculture” (B. 2003) explains that change in hard, cold numbers,
“US maize cultivation led the modernization process. In 1940, US farmers produced 56 million tons of maize on roughly 31 million hectares, with an average yield of 1.8 t/ha. In 2000 US farmers produced 252 million tons of maize on roughly 29 million hectares, with an average yield of 8.6 t/ha.”

The Green Revolution coupled developments in fertilizer synthesis with the breeding of more robust and fast growing seed varieties...

A much more recent post from WorldChanging on agriculture is "Green Water and Sustainable Agriculture".
If green is the new black, then water is the new oil. With climate change threatening harsher droughts and water scarcity facing nearly 60% of humanity, water is critical to any vision of sustainability.

Water scarcity is a major issue for rainfed agriculture, which uses 75% of all agricultural water. Rain-fed agriculture is at the mercy of two things: rain and the capacity of soil to capture and store that rain. While farmers can't do much to make it rain, they can do a lot to retain rainfall in the soil. The rainfall that infiltrates and remains in the soil--also called green water--is the largest fresh water resource and the basis of rain-fed agriculture.
Green water is a very important resource for global food production. About 60% of the world staple food production relies on … green water. The entire meat production from grazing relies on green water, and so does the production of wood from forestry. In Sub-Saharan Africa almost the entire food production depends on green water (the relative importance of irrigation is minor) and most of the industrial products, such as cotton, tobacco, wood, etc.

Payments to farmers in the developing world are one opportunity to improve water management, while at the same time alleviating poverty and ensuring the flow of ecosystem goods and services like flood control and healthy soil. Modest measures like mulching, conservation tillage, and small-scale water harvesting can increase infiltration by as much as 2-3 fold. Other methods include terracing, contouring and micro-basins that also increase green water and reduce run-off. You'd think that development agencies would be clamoring to invest in these simple but effective techniques, but...
Chris "The Feral Metallurgist" Shaw has an article up on the process of enriching uranium.
From the orebody to the reactor, uranium begins its journey conventionally enough. Like other metallic mining operations, the wanted mineral is carefully separated from the natural matrix. When the separation has been achieved to the level of purity that is practicable in an outback processing plant, the uranium oxide "yellowcake" is now concentrated enough to be conveniently transported away. Radiation levels of yellowcake are tolerable with respect to its relatively small quantity. Steel containers provide adequate short-term shielding.

The opposite might be true of the plant tailings, which although weaker in radioactive mineral, are now cast upon the surface of the land in very large amounts. Here I yield to the wisdom of the environmental scientist to inform us what is or is not tolerable.

Only a small portion of natural uranium has the ability to detonate the process that generates uranium heat energy. Seven atoms in every thousand are subtly different to their brothers. In my naive way, I will tell you that those seven atoms have the potential to release some of the energy that went into the creation of the heavier elements, in old stars, so long ago.

In that distant past, unstable transitory atoms were far more plentiful. By gathering remnant transitory atoms together in greater abundance, we can re-create those energetic times once again, if only for a brief while, in the heart of a reactor...

Common Dreams has an article on "The Value of George Orwell".
George Orwell remains a valuable writer, though he died in 1950. He was a man who was an active participant in his times, and since the new century appears to be going down the same road as the last one, we can still learn from him.

His essay "Politics and the English Language" ought to be read by every journalist and by everyone who reads journalists or listens to the babble on television.

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity," he wrote. "When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.

"In our age, there is no such thing as 'keeping out of politics.' All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia," Orwell wrote. Earlier in the essay he had said, "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible."

Our time and his time remain the same. We invade a sovereign nation based on lies, destroy its infrastructure, depose its government and kill 30,000 of its people, and we call that "spreading democracy" or "defending freedom."

The phrase "war on terror" is a phony metaphor. We are not at war. Ninety-nine and 99/100ths percent of the American people are living the same way they've always lived...

Australia's second military intervention overseas this year, in East Timor, has been dominating the news over the past few days (narrowly shading volcanic eruptions in Indonesia and sweeping away the nuclear power brouhaha). Wayne Madsen has a tinfoil explanation of what is going on - which stretches even my credulity.
May 25, 2006 -- More on East Timor's "sudden rebellion." According to Australian sources, East Timor's long sought independence is in severe jeopardy as a result of collusion between the United States, Australia, Indonesia, and the World Bank under pro-Indonesian president Paul Wolfowitz. More astounding are reports that Indonesian intelligence has thoroughly penetrated the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), by using blackmail techniques involving pedophilia and bribes. These techniques have also been used to target former Australian and U.S. ambassadors and other diplomats and military personnel assigned to Indonesia. Wolfowitz is a former U.S. ambassador to Indonesia.

Australian sources report that Woodside, Australia's largest oil and natural gas company, has been playing hardball recently with East Timor's government over disputed oil blocks in the Timor Sea. Woodside has also been active in oil deals in Iraq's northern Kurdistan region, a major reason for Australia's troop deployment to that war-torn nation.

I have trouble imagining Woodside playing this sort of energy geopolitics game for some reason (though the specific points about them operating in the Timor Sea and Iraq made above are correct) - they seem to have had enough trouble in Mauritania just dealing with the local government without trying grander operations like fomenting rebellion in Timor, especially given the weak hand the East Timorese government has been dealt - and the idea that potential deals for Woodside were behind our part in the Iraq invasion seems even less likely - while I'm someone who believes the invasion was totally about oil, I tend to think Australia's role is more due to the government's desire for an enduring US security blanket, along with delusions of imperial grandeur, than a predatory desire to acquire oil rights for our companies).

Crikey has an alternative explanation.
Much has been written in recent days about the complex army/police/political divisions in East Timor. But there are other reasons for the recent violence in East Timor which are not being addressed. These speak of a government which has consistently failed to appreciate the needs of the people. Remote, imperious and at times almost embarrassingly out of touch, it has walked the state to this point and now conveniently is waiting for others to enter and clean up the mess.

Simple reason first. Approximately 96% of young adult Timorese males are unemployed. In Timor, disaffected youths hang about on virtually every street corner. During 2004-2005 numerous incidents of "gang warfare" occurred, centring on the activities of so called martial arts groups where young men flocked for want of anything better to do. The government was conspicuous in its absence of any commentary in relation to the security risk that this situation posed. The Minister for the Interior, Rogerio Labato, stated that all those who demonstrated should be viewed as criminals and if necessary shot on sight.

More complex reasons look at police impunity, increasing government authoritarianism, the erosion of civil liberties such as the right to protest and increasing allegations of police brutality, to name just a few of the live issues in East Timor.

The essential collapse of the justice system and the decision to make Portuguese the official language are inextricably linked. The implications of the decision on the part of the then provisional government were not initially fully grasped. Aside from the distance it created between Timor and its Australian neighbours, it effectively created a two-tier society: 87% who could not speak Portuguese were effectively excluded from government while the remaining 13% (US Department of State figures, September 2005) representing the remains of the colonial elite and the diaspora who now held almost complete control. ...

Venturing back towards tinfoil territory, those of you who follow Mike Ruppert's version of peak oil theory over at FTW might be familiar with Gary Webb, who wrote the "Dark Alliance" series of articles that linked the CIA, the crack cocaine epidemic and the Nicaraguan Contras (the topic that seems to have been FTW's original focus). The comments in that RI piece on video gaming I threw into the mix yesterday noted that Gary's last article was also on this subject.
For anyone who hasn't seen one of these games--known as first-person shooters--here's the gist of them. You're placed in a combat zone, armed with a weapon of your choice and sent out to find and kill other players. Knife them, club them, blow them apart with a shotgun, set them afire, vaporize them with a shoulder-launched missile, drill them through the head with a sniper rifle--the choice is yours.

Depending on the game, blood will spray, mist or spout. Sometimes your kills collapse in crumpled heaps, clutching their throats and twitching convincingly. Sometimes they cry in pain with human voices. Their bodies lie there for a while, so you can feed off them if necessary, restoring your own health. Then you can grab their weapons and set off to find another victim, assuming you don't get killed first.

It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but among young men it's far and away the most popular genre of computer game. Some psychologists and parents worry that such games are desensitizing a large, impressionable segment of the population to violence and teaching them the wrong things. But that depends on your point of view. If, like the U.S. Army, you need people who can become unflappable killers, there's no better way of finding them.

It's why the Army has spent more than $10 million in taxpayer funds developing its very own first-person shooter, and why the Navy, the Air Force and the National Guard are following suit. For anyone who thinks kids aren't learning playing shooter games, read on.

Back to slightly more standard fare, while I'm aware of the volume of money that the resources boom has sent washing through my hometown, this report left me aghast for more than one reason - I can vaguely understand places like Dubai foolishly burning some of their enormous wealth by building indoor ski slopes, but I never thought I'd see such a thing in Australia - its not even that long a flight to the local ski fields (plus I've met Steve Pretzel and he didn't seem like a maniac)...
Ski enthusiasts could be taking to the slopes in Perth if the dream of two businessmen becomes a reality.

The $45 million West Coast Snowpark project is the brainchild of Nick Forster and Steve Pretzel. Mr Forster said a feasibility study for a snow dome last year had been positive and further studies would now be carried out.

The pair believe Perth's distance from traditional snowfields and its climate make it an ideal location for a snow dome. "Our research indicates there are more than 50,000 snow-sport enthusiasts living in Perth," Mr Forster said. "These people regularly travel across the country or across the world to participate in the sport they love and would surely welcome the opportunity to have a world-class indoor facility in the Perth metropolitan area.

"Can you imagine how refreshing the ice-cold snow park would be on a baking hot Perth summer's day?"

I linked to "The Power of Nightmares" yet again on the weekend and noticed that there is an interesting Q&A session with Adam Curtis up now.
Why did you omit the economic element - oil, trade, globalisation, privatisation etc. The crucial project of imperialism.

Shosh Morris, London

I think this is a serious and important criticism. To put it at its simplest it says that the neocons are being used. That their ideas and their myth of America as a revolutionary force that can spread democracy and freedom around the world are a convenient disguise for a much more ruthless and anti-democratic exploitation of the world.

My problem with it as an argument is that it is itself based on a simplistic ideology that doesn't fully explain what is happening.

Underlying the argument is what some people call a "vulgar Marxism", the belief that business and corporate interests shape the world and that all ideas and political ideology are just froth on the surface that disguise the real, hidden forces underneath.

The neoconservatives and the Islamists believe the complete opposite - that ideas can fundamentally change the world. In the neoconservatives' own words: "Ideas do have consequences."

I don't believe either of these positions. I think the reality is far more complex - that ideas do have widespread effects but not in the way those who developed them necessarily intended. They are taken up, used and distorted by many other forces which include business and corporate interests.

But the essential point is that it is not business that leads the way. And in this area in particular I do think that the ideas had a primacy.

The reality is that both the neoconservatives and the Islamists became powerful and influential because of the power of their ideas and I wanted to make a series of films that explained the roots of these ideas and how they were taken up, simplified and distorted.

This was the focus of the programmes, and I made them this way because very few people know anything about the history of these ideas and I thought it was important to tell that history from the point of view of those involved and to critically analyse the development of their ideas.

I think it may well be true that there is a synergy, a fit, between the neoconservatives' particular individualistic version of democracy and the neo-liberal economic policies that suit American business interests but I really don't think that is what is driving the neo-conservatives.

As I said in the films I see them as the last political idealists - they are driven by an extraordinary and epic vision of transforming the world which reflects America's own revolutionary history as much as it does its capitalist economics.

Do you believe it possible that the American Neo-Cons engineered the 9/11 atrocity as a catalyst for their program?

Cliff Babbs, Daventry


Is it possible that the ideology of radical (political) Islam has a better chance of succeeding where it failed in the 1980s now that the West has responded as it has to the perception of its threat in Afghanistan, Iraq etc?

James, London

I can only repeat what I said in my previous responses on this site. I think one has to be very careful about this.

The films showed that Islamism is not a new phenomenon. Its trajectory in the 1980s and 90s is that of rise and fall. It tried to create a pan-Arab revolution and failed because it couldn't inspire the masses.

The answer is that no-one knows whether the war on terror is re-creating mass Islamism and giving it a new revolutionary appeal, or whether it is actually fuelling a more nationalist opposition that uses an Islamist rhetoric - as seems to be happening in Iraq.

The problem is that it is so dangerous to report anything in Iraq, that everyone - both pro and anti - project what they want to see onto the insurgency.

Yet again our perception of reality is being driven by political fantasies rather than an accurate understanding drawn from reality.

Planet Of Slums  

Posted by Big Gav

Both William Gibson and WorldChanging point to an interesting, and long, interview with Mike Davis at BLDG BLOG on his book "Planet of Slums" and various other topics.

Having reviewed that book for the Summer 2006 issue of David Haskell's Urban Design Review, I won't dwell on it at length here; but Planet of Slums states its subject matter boldy, on page one. There, Davis writes that we are now at "a watershed in human history, comparable to the Neolithic or Industrial revolutions. For the first time the urban population of the earth will outnumber the rural."
This "urban" population will not find its home inside cities, however, but deep within horrific mega-slums where masked riot police, raw human sewage, toxic metal-plating industries, and emerging diseases all violently co-exist with literally billions of people. Planet of Slums quickly begins to read like some Boschian catalog of our era's most nightmarish consequences. The future, to put it non-judgmentally, will be interesting indeed. ...

BLDGBLOG: So it's more a question of how to study the slums – who and what to ask, and how to interpret that data? Where to get your funding from?

Davis: At the very least, it’s a challenge of information. Interestingly, this has also become the terrain of a lot of Pentagon thinking about urban warfare. These non-hierarchical, labyrinthine peripheries are what many Pentagon thinkers have fastened onto as one of the most challenging terrains for future wars and other imperial projects. I mean, after a period in which the Pentagon was besotted with trendy management theory – using analogies with Wal-Mart and just-in-time inventory – it now seems to have become obsessed with urban theory – with architecture and city planning. This is happening particularly through things like the RAND Corporation’s Arroyo Center, in Santa Monica.

The U.S. has such an extraordinary ability to destroy hierarchical urban systems, to take out centralized urban structures, but it has had no success in the Sadr Cities of the world.

BLDGBLOG: I don't know – they leveled Fallujah, using tank-mounted bulldozers and Daisy Cutter bombs –

Davis: But the city was soon re-inhabited by the same insurgents they tried to force out. I think the slum is universally recognized by military planners today as a challenge. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there’s a great leap forward in our understanding of what’s happening on the peripheries of Third World cities because of the needs of Pentagon strategists and local military planners. For instance, Andean anthropology made a big leap forward in the 1960s and early 1970s when Che Guevara and his guerilla fighters became a problem.

I think there’s a consensus, both on the left and the right, that it’s the slum peripheries of poor Third World cities that have become a decisive geopolitical space. That space is now a military challenge – as much as it is an epistemological challenge, both for sociologists and for military planners.

BLDGBLOG: What kind of imaginative role do you see slums playing today? On the one hand, there's a kind of CIA-inspired vision of irrational anti-Americanism, mere breeding grounds for terrorism; on the other, you find books like The Constant Gardener, in which the Third World poor are portrayed as innocent, naive, and totally unthreatening, patiently awaiting their liberal salvation. Whose imaginination is it in which these fantasies play out?

Davis: I think, actually, that if Blade Runner was once the imaginative icon of our urban future, then the Blade Runner of this generation is Black Hawk Down – a movie I must admit I’m drawn to to see again and again. Just the choreography of it – the staging of it – is stunning. But I think that film really is the cinematic icon for this new frontier of civilization: the “white man’s burden” of the urban slum and its videogame-like menacing armies, with their RPGs in hand, battling heroic techno-warriors and Delta Force Army Rangers. It’s a profound military fantasy. I don’t think any movie since The Sands of Iwo Jima has enlisted more kids in the Marines than Black Hawk Down. In a moral sense, of course, it’s a terrifying film, because it's an arcade game – and who could possibly count all the Somalis that are killed?

BLDGBLOG: How are these shifts being accounted for in the geopolitical and military analyses you mentioned earlier?

MIKE DAVIS: The problem that military planners, and some geopoliticians, are talking about is actually something quite different: that’s the emergence, in hundreds of both little and major nodes across the world, of essentially autonomous slums governed by ethnic militias, gangs, transnational crime, and so on. This is something the Pentagon is obviously very interested in, and concerned about, with Mogadishu as a kind of prototype example. The ongoing crisis of the Third World city is producing almost feudalized patterns of large slum neighborhoods that are effectively terrorist or criminal mini-states – rogue micro-sovereignties. That’s the view of the Pentagon and of Pentagon planners. They also seem quite alarmed by the fact that the peri-urban slums – the slums on the edges of cities – lack clear hierarchies. Even more difficult, from a planning perspective, there’s very little available data. The slums are kind of off the radar screen. They therefore become the equivalent of rain forest, or jungle: difficult to penetrate, impossible to control.

I think there are fairly smart Pentagon thinkers who don’t see this so much as a question of regions, or categories of nation-states, so much as holes, or enclaves within the system. One of the best things I ever read about this was actually William Gibson’s novel Virtual Light. Gibson proposes that, in a world where giant multinational capital is supreme, there are places that simply aren’t valuable to the world economy anymore – they don’t reproduce capital – and so those spaces are shunted aside. A completely globalized system, in Gibson's view, would leak space – it would have internal redundancies – and one of those spaces, in Virtual Light, is the Bay Bridge.

But, sure, this is a serious geopolitical and military problem: if you conduct basically a triage of the world's human population – where some people are exiled from the world economy, and some spaces no longer have roles – then you’re offering up ideal opportunities for other people to step in and organize those spaces to their own ends. This is a deeper and more profound situation than any putative conflicts of civilization. It is, in a way, a very unexpected end to the 20th century. Neither classical Marxism, nor any other variety of classical social theory or neoliberal economics, ever predicted that such a large fraction of humanity would live in cities and yet basically outside all the formal institutions of the world economy.

Davis has another pair of interviews at TomDispatch - "Turning a Planet into a Slum - Humanity's Ground Zero" and " The Imperial City and the City of Slums" (Robert Neuwirth also follows the development of slum world, with a blog called "squattercity").
TD: It occurs to me that, in Baghdad, the Bush administration has managed to create a weird version of the urban world you describe in Planet of Slums. There's the walled imperial Green Zone in the center of the city with its Starbucks and, outside it, the disintegrating capital as well as the vast slum of Sadr City -- and the only exchange between the two is the missile-armed helicopters going one way and the car bombs heading the other.

Davis: Exactly. Baghdad becomes the paradigm with the breakdown of public space and ever less middle ground between the extremes. The integrated Sunni/Shia neighborhoods are rapidly being extinguished, not just by American action now, but by sectarian terror.

Sadr City, at one point named Saddam City, the Eastern quadrant of Baghdad, has grown to grotesque proportions -- two million poor people, mainly Shia. And it's still growing, as are Sunni slums by the way, thanks now not to Saddam but to disastrous American policies toward agriculture into which the U.S. has put almost no reconstruction money. Vast farmlands have been turned back into desert, while everything focused, however unsuccessfully, on restoration of the oil industry. The crucial thing would have been to preserve some equilibrium between countryside and city, but American policies just accelerated the flight from the land.

Of course, Green Zones are gated communities of a kind, the citadel within the larger fortress. You see this, too, emerging across the world. In my book, I counterpoised this to the growth of the peripheral slums -- the middle class forsaking its traditional culture, along with the central city, to retreat into off-worlds with themed California lifestyles. Some of these are incredibly security conscious, real fortresses. Others are more typical American-style suburbs, but all of them are organized around an obsession with a fantasy America, and particularly the fantasy California universally franchised through TV.

So the nouveau riche in Beijing can commute by freeway to gated subdivisions with names like Orange County and Beverly Hills -- there's a Beverly hills in Cairo too, and a whole neighborhood themed by Walt Disney. Jakarta has the same thing -- compounds where people live in imaginary Americas. These proliferate, emphasizing the rootlessness of the new urban middle class across the world. With this goes an obsessiveness about getting things as they are in the TV image. So you have actual Orange County architects designing "Orange County" outside Beijing. You have tremendous fidelity to the things the global middle class sees on television or in the movies.

"Sectarian violence" is one of those euphemisms which tend to gloss over the nastiness of what is going on - "ethnic cleansing" is another description that may be more appropriate (of course, regular readers would know that I'd be more likely to term this stuff counter-insurgency operations, in line with the "Salvador Option" theory).
The flight of the middle class started about six months after the invasion in 2003 as it became clear Iraq was becoming more, not less, violent. They moved to Jordan, Syria and Egypt. The suicide bombing campaign was largely directed against Shias who only began to retaliate after they had taken over the government in May last year. Interior Ministry forces arrested, tortured and killed Sunnis.

But a decisive step towards sectarian civil war took place when the Shia Al-Askari shrine in Samarra was blown up on 22 February this year. Some 1,300 Sunni were killed in retaliation. [...]

Every community has its atrocity stories. The cousin of a friend was a Sunni Arab who worked in the wholly Shia district of Qadamiyah in west Baghdad. One day last month he disappeared. Three days later his body was discovered on a rubbish dump in another Shia district. "His face was so badly mutilated," said my friend, that "we only knew it was him from a wart on his arm."

Since the destruction of the mosque in Samarra sectarian warfare has broken out in every Iraqi city where there is a mixed population. In many cases the minority is too small to stand and fight. Sunnis have been fleeing Basra after a series of killings. Christians are being eliminated in Mosul in the north. Shias are being killed or driven out of cities and towns north of Baghdad such as Baquba or Samarra itself.

Dujail, 40 miles north of Baghdad, is the Shia village where Saddam Hussein carrying out a judicial massacre, killing 148 people after an attempt to assassinate him in 1982. He is on trial for the killings. The villagers are now paying a terrible price for giving evidence at his trial.

In the past few months Sunni insurgents have been stopping them at an improvised checkpoint on the road to Baghdad. Masked gunmen glance at their identity cards and if under place of birth is written "Dujail" they kill them. So far 20 villagers have been murdered and 20 have disappeared.

John Robb at "Global Guerillas" tends to follow the development of what Mike Davis called "autonomous slums" outside of the global economy, as these are the breeding grounds for the organisations that he studies. When the "autonomous slum" is in a region embroiled in a resource war and occupied by foreign troops (or at least propped up by foreign military forces or aid), these organisations tend to get called "terrorists" - when the slum is simply mired in poverty and the region doesn't have critical resources, the organisations are more likely to get classifed as "organised crime" - but it all boils down to pretty much the same thing.

While I don't tend to follow GG closely, a few interesting posts in recent weeks include - Electricity and Militias in Iraq, Iraq is a major reason for high oil prices, Brazil's PCC vs. Sao Paulo's Police and Shell Refuses to Meet MEND's Demand.
Finally, the major media has picked up on what I have been saying for years. The initial domino that drove oil to its current high level was the loss of Iraqi production. The ongoing attacks in Iraq have stripped 1.6 m barrels a day from the market. For an inelastic oil market beset by rapid growth in demand (both China and the US), this was a huge shock.

Further, the loss of production in Iraq is a demonstration (on a global scale) that guerrillas can produce sustained systems disruption -- the rapid open source evolution of my global guerrillas. This has immediate implications in Nigeria. It also generates fears that the same methodology could be applied to Saudi Arabia, the BTC pipeline (Caspian oil), and Russia (both Gazprom and Transneft). For a market caught on knife's edge of demand and supply, this is pure poison.

NOTE: This is exactly the opposite of what the US thought it was going to do in Iraq (it may not have been the primary reason for the invasion, but it was clearly in the ballpark). The US administration clearly saw the tightening of supply brought on by the rise of Chinese demand. Iraq was the only major global producer underperforming due to political problems. The invasion of Iraq was in part a way to remove the limitations of sanctions on the country and turn it into a major global supplier through western investment. If it had succeeded, Iraq would be producing 3.5 m bpd of oil today with an outlook of 5-7 m bpd by 2010. As a result, the price of oil would be closer to $30 a barrel today than $70. It is also important to note that the first targets secured by US forces in Iraq were the oil production system (which was mostly accomplish by day ~5 of the invasion).

I'm not sure if John simply isn't aware of peak oil or doesn't believe in it, but in the medium term I'd agree with his analysis - if Iraq was fully exploiting its oil reserves (see my post on "The Greatest Prize of All" and its predecessors) then supply would have done much better at keeping up with demand (which would actually have been a worse outcome, from both depletion and global warming points of view).

More in line with the slum world theme is John's latest post Primary Loyalties in Basra (I might note that I absolutely disagree with Huntington's theories and tend to regard them as base propaganda - Barnett is a lot more interesting but I've noted before that I don't entirely agree with his conclusions either - partly because as a non-American I have a more jaundiced view of American exceptionalism).
There are two working assumptions for the global fragmentation we are seeing. One is that we are involved in a clash of civilizations (Huntington) and the other is that disconnectedness is driving discontent (Barnett). Neither survives a review of the facts.

Iraq provides a good test case. While Iraq's initial plunge into civil war appeared to center around a clash of civilizations (Sunni vs. Shiite) it is rapidly devolving past that to smaller groups with more cohesive primary loyalties (gang, mosque, tribe, family, etc.). The rise of intense inter-tribal warfare in Basra between Shiite militias/tribes/families is an example of the granular nature of the level of fragmentation we are seeing. With nearly hourly assassinations, no-go zones for police, the proliferation of antagonistic militias, and ongoing attacks on British troops (including the Mogadishu like event that occurred when a British helicopter was shot down) Basra is likely the most unsafe place in Iraq today despite the lack of any meaningful Sunni insurgency.

The other assumption, that a lack of connectivity is the source of problems, fails to account for the rapid proliferation of crime due to improved inter-state connectivity between Iraq and its neighbors. This transnational crime, from drugs to oil bunkering, is fueling the growth of militias and guerrillas throughout Iraq. This would be impossible without improved connectivity. Further, the radical growth in automobile ownership and telephone usage due to Iraq's rapid globalization has enabled high levels of maneuver and coordination among anti-state groups, making them much more effective. It has also provided a mechanism by which the most effective weapon in Iraq was built and rapidly improved upon: the IED and the VBIED. Finally, this new connectivity also allows funding to flow into Iraq from a vast number of sources. We are now in a world where even a small group of individuals can act like nation-states to underwrite the activities of guerrilla groups that represent their interests.

Take what you want from this example, but it's clear that rapid connectivity is a source of the problem, due to the high degree of leverage provided by the global platform. Further, this platform makes it possible, nay probable, that small groups will use it to advance their own interests (well below the civilization level).

The classic vision of the uncontrollable slum city is Mogadishu in Somalia (which, as Mike Davis noted, is probably etched into a large proportion of the population's brains via Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down"). Fighting in Mogadishu has surged again in recent months - with the battle lines seemingly drawn between Islamists of some sort or another and a loose coalition of warlords calling themselves the "Anti-Terrorism Alliance".
Islamic militiamen have taken key points in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, as fighting intensifies with their rivals, a secular grouping of warlords. Militiamen loyal to the Islamic Courts have isolated the warlords in the north and south of the city in fighting that claimed at least 30 lives on Thursday.

The latest upsurge in violence comes despite a truce agreement between the two groups 10 days ago. More than 140 people died in eight days of fighting earlier this month.

In the latest fighting, the two sides pounded each other with heavy machine-gun fire, rockets, artillery and mortars as fighting spread from the north of the city to the south. "There are so many people dead, I saw nearly 30 dead and over 40 wounded," K4 resident Abdifatah Abdikadir told Reuters news agency. "People are being carried on wheelbarrows to the hospital with broken limbs and gunshot wounds. It's going from bad to worse."

Anti-Terrorism Alliance member Ibrahim Maalim told Reuters: "The fighting is very heavy... I have never seen such a heavy exchange. Mogadishu is blazing with fire."

There is a school of thought which thinks that Somalia is yet another country suffering from "the curse of oil" - this article, which seems to date from the early 1990s when the US intervention was underway, provides some background on what has been going on in Somalia (Chevron and ConocoPhillips are reportedly still waiting for the country to stabilise enough so that they can resume exploration - and may be for some time).
Far beneath the surface of the tragic drama of Somalia, four major U.S. oil companies are quietly sitting on a prospective fortune in exclusive concessions to explore and exploit tens of millions of acres of the Somali countryside.

That land, in the opinion of geologists and industry sources, could yield significant amounts of oil and natural gas if the U.S.-led military mission can restore peace to the impoverished East African nation.

According to documents obtained by The Times, nearly two-thirds of Somalia was allocated to the American oil giants Conoco, Amoco, Chevron and Phillips in the final years before Somalia's pro-U.S. President Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown and the nation plunged into chaos in January, 1991. Industry sources said the companies holding the rights to the most promising concessions are hoping that the Bush Administration's decision to send U.S. troops to safeguard aid shipments to Somalia will also help protect their multimillion-dollar investments there.

Officially, the Administration and the State Department insist that the U.S. military mission in Somalia is strictly humanitarian. Oil industry spokesmen dismissed as "absurd" and "nonsense" allegations by aid experts, veteran East Africa analysts and several prominent Somalis that President Bush, a former Texas oilman, was moved to act in Somalia, at least in part, by the U.S. corporate oil stake.

But corporate and scientific documents disclosed that the American companies are well positioned to pursue Somalia's most promising potential oil reserves the moment the nation is pacified. And the State Department and U.S. military officials acknowledge that one of those oil companies has done more than simply sit back and hope for pece.

Conoco Inc., the only major multinational corporation to mantain a functioning office in Mogadishu throughout the past two years of nationwide anarchy, has been directly involved in the U.S. government's role in the U.N.-sponsored humanitarian military effort.

Conoco, whose tireless exploration efforts in north-central Somalia reportedly had yielded the most encouraging prospects just before Siad Barre's fall, permitted its Mogadishu corporate compound to be transformed into a de facto American embassy a few days before the U.S. Marines landed in the capital, with Bush's special envoy using it as his temporary headquarters. In addition, the president of the company's subsidiary in Somalia won high official praise for serving as the government's volunteer "facilitator" during the months before and during the U.S. intervention.


But the close relationship between Conoco and the U.S. intervention force has left many Somalis and foreign development experts deeply troubled by the blurry line between the U.S. government and the large oil company, leading many to liken the Somalia operation to a miniature version of Operation Desert Storm, the U.S.-led military effort in January, 1991, to drive Iraq from Kuwait and, more broadly, safeguard the world's largest oil reserves.

"They sent all the wrong signals when Oakley moved into the Conoco compound," said one expert on Somalia who worked with one of the four major companies as they intensified their exploration efforts in the country in the late 1980s.

"It's left everyone thinking the big question here isn't famine relief but oil -- whether the oil concessions granted under Siad Barre will be transferred if and when peace is restored," the expert said. "It's potentially worth billions of dollars, and believe me, that's what the whole game is starting to look like."

Although most oil experts outside Somalia laugh at the suggestion that the nation ever could rank among the world's major oil producers -- and most maintain that the international aid mission is intended simply to feed Somalia's starving masses -- no one doubts that there is oil in Somalia. The only question: How much?


Begining 1986, Conoco, along with Amoco, Chevron, Phillips and, briefly, Shell all sought and obtained exploration licenses for northern Somalia from Siad Barre's government. Somalia was soon carved up into concessional blocs, with Conoco, Amoco and Chevron winning the right to explore and exploit the most promising ones.

The companies' interest in Somalia clearly predated the World Bank study. It was grounded in the findings of another, highly successful exploration effort by the Texas-based Hunt Oil Corp. across the Gulf of Aden in the Arabian Peninsula nation of Yemen, where geologists disclosed in the mid-1980s that the estimated 1 billion barrels of Yemeni oil reserves were part of a great underground rift, or valley, that arced into and across northern Somalia.

Hunt's Yemeni operation, which is now yielding nearly 200,000 barrels of oil a day, and its implications for the entire region were not lost on then-Vice President George Bush.

In fact, Bush witnessed it firsthand in April, 1986, when he officially dedicated Hunt's new $18-million refinery near the ancient Yemeni town of Marib. In remarks during the event, Bush emphasized the critical value of supporting U.S. corporate efforts to develop and safeguard potential oil reserves in the region.

In his speech, Bush stressed "the growing strategic importance to the West of developing crude oil sources in the region away from the Strait of Hormuz," according to a report three weeks later in the authoritative Middle East Economic Survey.

Bush's reference was to the geographical choke point that controls access to the Persian Gulf and its vast oil reserves. It came at the end of a 10-day Middle East tour in which the vice president drew fire for appearing to advocate higher oil and gasoline prices.

"Throughout the course of his 17,000-mile trip, Bush suggested continued low (oil) prices would jeopardize a domestic oil industry 'vital to the national security interests of the United States,' which was interpreted at home and abroad as a sign the onetime oil driller from Texas was coming to the aid of his former associates," United Press International reported from Washington the day after Bush dedicated Hunt's Yemen refinery.

In his interviews, Mike Davis mentioned the war as video game syndrome that has become prevalent (for those of us in the West anyway) since the first Gulf war. Video games have been in the propaganda flow a bit this week, with the ABC's Media Watch looking at a bizarre controversy over a mashup of some "Team America: World Police" audio over some video game called "Planet Battlefield" in a segment they called "Video Game Jihad".

While I tend to regard a lot of propaganda coming out the Pentagon and posturing neo-conservative politicians and thinktankologists as detestable, I'm not entirely sure this particular dude is entirely the innocent he claims to be, so they probably could have found a better piece of fluff to poke fun at - like any random Zarqawi story for example...
Urban legends gain popular acceptance because they tap into our deepest fears. And after September 11, what could be more terrifying than a clever terrorist plot?
Tech-savvy militants from al-Qaeda and other groups have modified video war games so that US troops play the role of bad guys in battles with heavily-armed Islamic radical heroes, US Defence Department officials told Congress.

— The Daily Telegraph, Militants use games to recruit, 6th May, 2006

But that unnerving quote about the infidels caught the attention of lots of readers - because they'd heard it all before.
I was just a boy when the infidels came to my village in their Blackhawk helicopters. The infidels fired at the oilfields and they lit up like the eyes of Allah. Burning oil rained down from the sky and cooked everything it touched. I could only hide myself and cry as my goats were consumed by the fire of black liquid death.

— Scene from "Team America: World Police"

Yes that wannabe Jihadist is a puppet.

That's a scene from "Team America: World Police" an animated satire made by the creators of South Park.

On a tinfoil note, RI also took a look at video games and propaganda this week - say it ain't so Bono !
"North America's getting soft, patron, and the rest of the world is getting tough. Very, very tough. We're entering savage new times, and we're going to have to be pure and direct and strong, if we're going to survive them." - Videodrome

Perhaps you've seen this:
Venezuela lawmakers blast video game

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- A U.S. company's video game simulating an invasion of Venezuela is supposed to hit the shelves next year, but it's already raising the ire of lawmakers loyal to President Hugo Chavez.


Pandemic describes Mercenaries 2: World in Flames as "an explosive open-world action game" in which "a power-hungry tyrant messes with Venezuela's oil supply, sparking an invasion that turns the country into a war zone." The company says players take on the role of well-armed mercenaries.


Lawmaker Gabriela Ramirez said "Mercenaries 2" gives a false vision of Chavez as a tyrant and Venezuela as being on the verge of chaos. She said the game could be banned under a proposed law aimed at protecting Venezuelan children from violent video games.

"Pandemic has no ties to the US government," says Greg Richardson, the firm's vice president of commercial operations. That's the sound of hairs splitting. Pandemic Studios is a Pentagon subcontractor through the aegis of the "Institute for Creative Technologies," launched by the US Army in 1998 with $45 million as a go-between with the entertainment and gaming industries. Pandemic is the developer of military training simulations such as Full Spectrum Command, commercially available as Full Spectrum Warrior for gaming on Playstation and XBox. ("A quantum-leap forward in battlefield simulation" says Game Informer. "Enlist Now" for updates.) "Within days of its release" in 2004, "gamers figured out the cheat code to unlock the Army-only version hidden on the commercial discs, featuring less flashy graphics but smarter opponents." (Gee, how careless can the Army get?)

The Pentagon is co-parenting Pandemic with its unlikely - or possibly inevitable - same sex sugar daddy: U2's Bono. His Elevation Partners spent $300 million last November to bring the Studio together with Bioware "to create the world's best funded and largest independent game development house." Now there's a cause.

Back to Media Watch, they also had a segment this week on "Video and Propaganda" in Iraq (no real news here, just another example of the murkiness and artificiality of much of the information coming out of that unfortunate place, particularly in the Murdoch press).
Of course there's more to this propaganda war than simply the Islamists versus the rest.

And nowhere is the struggle to interpret events more critical than in Iraq.

Because it's too dangerous for journalists to get out and check the facts for themselves, the media is forced to rely on interpreting third hand accounts, internet announcements, videos and propaganda.

Untangling the motivations of those who provide this information is difficult.

Many readers were absolutely horrified and repulsed by this story on the front page of The Australian...

Back to the slum theme, I lived and worked in Hong Kong for a while in the mid 1990's before the handover to China and was always semi-fascinated by the slums there (while the infamous Walled City of Kowloon had been knocked down by then there were still plenty of places that were eye opening for someone from the suburbs of a mid sized Australian city - plus I lived in the infamous Chung King Mansions while I was there, which was every bit as much an eye opener). This reminiscing is a long winded way of linking to this set of photos I came across a few days ago, which look at some apartments in one of Hong Kong's oldest public housing estates.

I'll close with a traveller's tale from Billmon, who has finished his work at the World Economic Forum and embarked on the train trip from Cairo to Luxor.
Every since I was a small boy, and used to spend hours pouring over maps of faraway places and dreaming about the treasures hidden there, one of my dreams has been to take a train down the Nile, into the heart of Africa. Riding first-class to Luxor on the Egyptian national railway isn’t quite the same thing, but it’s close enough, and that’s what I was set to do after I left Sharm el-Sheikh and the World Economic Forum behind. Last Tuesday, however, my dream was almost shattered, probably beyond repair, because of a large red spot on the corner of a $10 bill.

It would have been entirely my fault. For once in my life, I forgot the traveler’s gold rule: cash is king. And because I forgot, I arrived at the Cairo train station Tuesday morning with only twenty Egyptian pounds (or about $3) in my pocket – 47 less than the price of a first-class ticket to Luxor. And that almost kept me from going to Luxor at all.


Along the way, though, we had to deal with Cairo traffic, which is to traffic what Iraq is to nation building -- with the added distraction that Egyptian pedestrians are utterly fearless when it comes to wading out into a major arterials, and utterly indifferent to any problems this may cause for the drivers bearing down on them. Egyptians in general don’t so much walk as glide (those ancient tomb painters knew their subjects) and watching a bunch of them weave their way among the cars zinging past is enormously entertaining, like watching a enormous chorus line do the cha cha.

But I wasn’t in the mood for it, just as I wasn’t very receptive to my cabbie’s efforts to educate me about what’s wrong with Egypt, Mubarak, the Israelis, the Palestinians and his mother, who kept him from seeking a better life in America when he was young and had the chance. He was, in short, the kind of cab driver who simply will not shut up, and while his political views where intriguing, (he was convinced the Jews control everything, but that was OK by him because he hated the Palestinians even more) I was more focused on my watch, and on my chances of making my train – the last express train until after sunset.

Making the trip south in the dark, of course, would have eliminated the entire point of taking 10 hours to go someplace a jet could take me in less than two. I wanted to see Egypt – the Egypt of brick villages and irrigation canals, of narrow strips of green stretching to the dust-yellow edge of the desert, of date palms and donkey carts and slender minarets pointing the way to paradise. I admit, watching such things flash by from the window of a train is a weak cousin to genuine adventure, but at this point in my life that’s what I am – a weak cousin. And it was my only chance of getting a good look at one of the most fascinating countries in the world.


We finally arrived in the automotive mob scene in front of Ramses Station (if Cairo is chaos, then Midan Ramses, the traffic circle beside the station, is chaos cubed. I’d made it, with an hour and 15 minutes to spare. I paid the cabbie (another 60 pounds gone) and climbed out into the swirling humanity of downtown Cairo. No worries. I had plenty of time to buy my return ticket on the overnight sleeper train, grab some cash out of an ATM, and then make my way over to the regular ticket counter and reserve a first-class seat on the 11:00 train.

I had no problems booking and buying my return ticket – they even took VISA. Of course, like everything in Egypt, it took about three times longer than my worst-case estimate when I stepped in the door. But no worries, I still had 50 minutes. So I picked up my bags and struggled over to one of the white uniformed tourist police (in my experience, the most useful, and underpaid, members of the Egyptian security apparatus) and asked him to direct me to the ticket counter.

“And where are you going, sir?”

“Luxor, on the 11 o’clock train.”

“Ah, next tourist train at 11:30, sir.”

“Is it running late?”

“Oh no sir. Eleven tonight sir.”


I should stop and explain that following the terrorist attacks of the late 1990s (one hill over from the Valley of the Kings, a tour group was systematically hunted down and slaughtered in 1997) the Egyptian government decreed that tourists could only ride first class and only on certain guarded trains. I’d thought that my train was one of them.

He must have seen from the look on my face that I was feeling rather deflated.

“You have hotel in Cairo? Go wait, come back tonight.”

Or, the cop told me, I could catch a tourist train at seven the next morning. But that meant I wouldn’t get to Luxor until late Wednesday night – cutting my time there from three days (one of which I planned to spend recuperating) to two. I’d also have to find a hotel in Cairo and, for the second day in a row, haul my ass our of bed at the crack of dawn to make a run for the train station. In theory it was feasible, but I had an intuitive feeling that if I went down that path, my chances of actually catching a train would start to slip away.

“But I have to be on the 11 o’clock train.” I told the cop. “I have to meet friends in Luxor! Very, very important I be there on time.” (I’ve always been proud of my ability to think – and lie – on my feet.)

I did this particular train trip back in 1993 (a few years before I made it to Hong Kong).

While Billmon's quest is motivated by a noble desire to explore a fascinating country, mine was rather more crass - after enduring my first winter in London I simply wanted to see the sun again. In a caricature of Australian backpackerdom, I was drinking in some pub in Earls Court (possibly the Prince of Teck, I'm ashamed to admit) a week before Easter with an equally disgruntled friend and we decided to find a cheap flight to a warm country that wasn't full of Catholics (and therefore mostly closed for the holidays).

We walked down Earls Court Rd and into the first bucket shop we came across, which happened to be owned by an Egyptian and specialised in cheap fares to Egypt. At the time, fares to Cairo were very cheap, as the civil war in the Islamic world between fundamentalists and the rest had just gotten started (see The Power of Nightmares for details).

While we were dimly aware of the troubles (there had been some killings of foreigners and the rebels had warned that they would attack any tourists who came to the country - see here for a good history of what went on), we both took the view that only the unlucky get blown up and it was the best time for the extremely cost conscious (as we were back then) to visit.

A few days later we made it to Cairo (after almost missing a connecting flight from Paris, having fallen asleep during an 8 hour layover at Charles de Gaulle - those cheap flights are usually cheap for several reasons). As Billmon notes, it is quite a fascinating place. We went ultra lightweight (no luggage except passports, underwear and tootbrushes - fresh clothes to be purchased as we went) which made travelling around pretty easy. Cairo itself had strict security - soldiers on every corner and the mostly empty tourist restaurants had well fortified entrances. We went out to a market on the outskirts one day and the surrounding area looked like it had been the scene of a brief tank battle - lots of damage everywhere.

But, as fortune favours the foolhardy (something I've tested on a number of occasions - but particularly frequently that year), no harm came to us and we never saw any hint of trouble.

The trip to Luxor on the train was pretty boring as I recall - we did it second clas - there were no restrictions on when and how foreigners could travel at that stage - and the thing that most amazed me was that we paid about $2 for the ticket for the 10 hour trip (hotel accomodation was also incredibly cheap if you bargained, as all the hotels were empty).

As I recall Luxor itself is unexciting, and the Valley of the Kings didn't do much for me either. Karnak Temple at night was fantastic though - and back in Cairo the Pyramids definitely make a trip to the country worthwhile...


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