Under A Green Sky  

Posted by Big Gav

"The Clean Slate Report" has a post on the potential for smart grids to power the retirement of a large number of existing power plants. They identify peaking plants as the likely candidates, which isn't so great from a global warming point of view (where killing off coal is most important), but might be highly beneficial as natural gas depletion kicks in.

A report to be released next week by the Brattle Group bodes well for all of the smart grid companies lining up for IPOs.

Tallying the energy savings from demand response programs, taking out a conservative five percent of the load, Brattle estimates that 38 gigawatts will be retired, or just under 400, 100MW peaking plants. Moreover, Brattle estimates that these efficiencies are ‘in the realm of possibility’ over the next five to 10 years. On a net present value basis, over 20 years, Ahmad Faruqui, principle of the Brattle Group and the report’s author, estimates value generation of $35 billion from not having to operate existing or build new plants. Faruqui says his study’s findings, which he has been delivering in Washington this week, are generating a lot of discussion. “It almost requires a new way of thinking. Basically, a lot of power plants will not be needed anymore.”

Tom Konrad has a look at taking global warming driven sea level rises into account when investing - time to go long dike builders !
Since people tend to deny ideas that are just too scary, a consequence of global climate change that I expect most investors are under-prepared for is a massive (15+ foot rise) in sea level rise due to the melting of either the Greenland or West Antarctic ice sheet. From casual conversations, I note that Al Gore got a lot of flack for even bringing up this possibility in "An Inconvenient Truth"... despite the fact that he was careful not to do more than raise the possibility, as opposed to predicting it.

We don't know if those ice caps will melt suddenly, or, if they do, when it will happen. We do know that their melting has accelerated in recent years, and I believe that society has massively underestimated the danger, because a 15 foot sea level rise (let alone a 20 or 40 foot rise) is just too horrific for most people to think about. Given our propensity towards psychological denial, I feel confident that the markets are underestimating the chances sea level rises large enough to seriously disrupt large coastal cities. Note that I'm not saying we will see such a sea level rise in my lifetime; rather that the probability of such a rise is currently underestimated by most market participants, and that this complacency is likely to be reflected by a relative overvaluation of investments which stand to lose from such a rise, and an undervaluation of investments that might gain. ...

On Earth Day, Marc Gunther reported on an idea to come out of a Goldman Sachs conference on the business of climate change: dikes. If sea levels were to rise even a foot over the next couple years, that would require massive new barriers to protect existing structures from the ravages of the sea. The companies who build those dikes are likely to profit handsomely as soon as the need is recognized. I'm not an expert on the construction industry, but my impression is that it is fragmented and most of the companies are privately held. However, makers of the equipment and materials necessary for shoreline reinforcement may be easier to find, such as companies in the cement industry such as Cemex (NYSE:CX.) Another likely beneficiary a dike building boom would be Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT), given their leadership in earth-moving equipment. CAT has the added benefit of being a company which is actively lobbying for meaningful greenhouse gas regulation, which I pointed out in my article on blue chip companies involved in alternative energy. ...

Alex at WorldChanging has a review of paleontologist Peter Ward's book Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future, which looks at the link between past mass extinctions and global warming.
Scientists are telling us that we need to rapidly and substantially reduce our ecological footprint -- think one planet, three decades. We're optimistic that such a transformation is possible, Because we focus on solutions here, we rarely think about, much less report on, what might happen if we fail to miss that mark.

True insight into our day, into what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called "the fierce urgency of now," demands knowing the stakes for which we're playing. It requires knowing what awaits us if we fail. In this regard, Worldending has it's place, especially when it helps us grasp a possible future which cuts against the grain of our expectations.

That's why paleontologist Peter Ward's Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future is a worldchanging book: not because it points the way to a solution, but because it provides a new and insightful resource for thinking about the true magnitude of our climate crisis. This is an important piece of green futurism.

We still carry in our minds a popular conception of mass extinctions as the product of asteroids -- a group of grazing dinosaurs in a prehistoric swamp looking up as a gigantic ball of fire comes screaming out the sky to cause them a Very Bad Day. We still, as it turns out, live in a cosmic shooting gallery. What we're less familiar with is the threat of a disastrous climate meltdown. But the climate has collapsed in the past, and it hasn't been pretty. ...

WorldChanging also has a post from the "Advancing Sustainable Prosperity" conference in Boston.
The information the panel shared was dizzying from an investor's perspective: clean technologies have accelerated rapidly over the last four or so years to become a $70 billion market worldwide, according to Kenneth Locklin of Clean Energy Group (a trade group representing power generators and distributors advocating for sustainable energy generation, that has worked closely with CERES on its Investor Network on Climate Risk), and current growth rates this will get close to $100 billion by the end of 2007. This year biofuels are one of the most exciting investment arenas, Locklin said, displaying a graph showing skyrocketing amounts of ethanol production.

Michael Leibreich of New Energy Finance looked at the same data on the clean energy market from a slightly different perspective -- beginning with some humor. "Is it fair in year seven of the century to identify what the investment opportunity of the century will be," he asked, and with tongue firmly in cheek, prognosticated the next 90-odd years worth of "investments of the century":

* Clean tech
* Nano tech
* Biotech
* Intergalactic space travel tech
* Immortality tech ("...will be particularly big mid-century")
* Military and security tech ("Always big, but particularly good in the 21st century")
* And finally, towards the end of the century: Making tools in bits of flint tech

Moving on to a candid assessment of clean energy market dynamics, Leibriech suggested that right now the sector's action is mimicking the frenzy of the dot-boom of the late 1990s, and that some of the results are likely to be similar. "This is the transformation of the energy industry," he said, but "these kinds of increases can't go on forever." And while there will be investors who win out in the cleantech-boom, the likely bust to follow will create "quite substantial losers."

Leibriech's message, from an investing perspective, essentially seemed to be that investors should diversify their portfolios, and not bank on just one part of the clean energy/clean tech sector. And since this gathering is all about advancing sustainable prosperity in all senses of the s-word, that's fine.

But from what I understand, ethanol -- which the market is currently in love with -- is a pretty shaky biofuel to pin our hopes on this far north (kind of like shipping 30-pound bags of dog food across the country for free was a shaky dot-com business plan). It takes a lot of energy to grow corn, our primary ethanol feedstock, and the Big Ag interests protecting corn subsidies are both entrenched and powerful. Do we want depend on the kinds of market dynamics and insider politics that led to some phenomenally bad business in the late 1990s -- and profound financial and professional losses for many people around the turn of the century -- to get us off dirty energy as fast and painlessly as possible?

Simon Robinson's "Big Biofuels Blog" has a post on Brazil deregulating transgenic ecualyptus trees for biofuels and paper production. Who the hell created transgenic eucalyptus trees - aren't the things tough enough already !
Brazil has granted a licence for a firm to plant transgenic eucalyptus trees on its territory. The trees will be modified to make it easier to extract ethanol from their wood... according to a post in Spanish on Ambientum.

Work on the modification was carried out by researchers at the University of North Carolina by Vincent Chiang, according to Ambientum.

Alt Energy Stocks has a roundup of the week's best cleantech articles, pointing to an ethanol conspiracy.
On Tuesday, Tyler Hamilton at Clean Break informed us that solar growth was expected to shine strong. The numbers are very impressive indeed, but it could be argued that a lot of that future growth is already priced in many of the more high-profile solar plays.

On Wednesday, Mike Millikin at the Green Car Congress told us that California would sue if the EPA was too slow on awarding it the waiver it needs to implement its climate change bill. Suffices to say that the precedent in this case is not in the EPA's favor.

On Thursday, Rob Day at Cleantech Investing (for the record, this is hands down one of my favorite blogs in the cleantech space) went over the Q1 2007 numbers for cleantech investing. Very interesting yet concise comparison of the various organizations that compile data on VC and cleantech.

On Friday, Sebastian Blanco at AutoBlog Green discussed the latest ethanol conspiracy theory in the cleantech world. While I have no doubt that Big Oil will fight tooth-and-nail to preserve its monopoly over liquid fuels, especially in the automotive market, I'm always reluctant to label academics 'corrupt' unless I see hard evidence...but I may be naive. See also this post by Mike Millikin at the Green Car Congress for further criticisms of the Stanford study.

On Friday, Simon Robinson at The Big Biofuel Blog informed us that CBOT was launching small corn contracts suitable for smaller players who want to trade electronically. This is an interesting step and may provide retail investors with a good opportunity to play this very interesting angle of the ethanol story.

On Friday, the Clean Slate Report told us all about the new economics of the smart grid. We at AltEnergyStocks.com are big believers in the future of energy efficiency and believe that there will be good investment opportunities in this space. See the recent piece on the Comverge IPO by The Motley Fool for an idea of the opportunities related to energy efficiency and smart grid.

GreenBiz has a post on the promise of green nanotech.
Among the many promises of nanotechnology are the ability to eliminate waste and toxins from production processes early on, to create more efficient and flexible solar panels, and to remove contaminants from water.

But researchers and environmentalists have long cautioned that working with molecular-scale materials offers unforeseen threats to humans, animals and the planet. Today, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnology released a report, "Green Nanotechnology: It's Easier Than You Think," which outlines the ways to harness nanotech's power to reduce pollution, conserve resources and, ultimately, build a "clean" economy.

The report is based on discussions with scientists, policymakers, lawyers, and NGO and industry representatives. It explores the benefits of linking nanotech with green chemistry and engineering, which aim to minimize environmental impacts through resource-conserving and waste-eliminating improvements in processes and products.

The report focuses on four areas where nanotechnology can benefit from and improve environmental concerns:

* Creating new nanotechnology-enabled products and processes that are environmentally benign - or "clean and green";
* Managing nanomaterials and their production to minimize potential environmental, health, and safety risks;
* Using nanotechnology to clean up toxic waste site and other legacy pollution problems;
* Substituting green nanotechnology products for existing products that are less environmentally friendly.

"We think the United States is on track to be a global leader in green nanotech," said David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. "The country's research and development portfolio should be directed toward this goal. We believe green nanotechnology can not only help protect the environment but also be a source of American jobs and company profits in the future."

The Christian Science Monitor has an article considering the question "Is China outdoing US in curbing carbon ?".
If the United States starts charging people and businesses for the greenhouse gases they emit but China does not, America's economy could fall behind its fast-growing Asian competitor. It's a crucial issue now bogging climate-change legislation on Capitol Hill. No lawmaker wants to push through laws that are likely to raise US energy costs and hand an advantage to global-warming scofflaws.

"I will not support major legislation imposed upon the American economic system ... unless and until we have brought the Chinese on board," said Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, who serves on the committee that would move global-warming legislation, in a hearing last month.

But new evidence suggests that, despite a fast-growing economy that could make it the world's largest carbon-dioxide emitter as early as this year, China may be getting on board. In a bid to cut energy costs, boost energy security, and reduce air pollution, it could be essentially creating the largest greenhouse-gas-reduction plan on the planet.

Indeed, if the nation's leaders follow through, it may be the US playing catch-up with China – not the other way around. "You hear people in Washington saying we can't do anything if China doesn't do anything to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions," says Ned Helme, president of the Center for Clean Air Policy (CCAP), a Washington think tank. "But that's basically a myth. China is really doing quite a lot, not under treaty but on their own."

Make no mistake, China's greenhouse-gas emissions are projected to increase rapidly through 2020. With its roaring economy and demand for coal-fired power, China will surpass the US as the largest producer of greenhouse gases sooner than expected, perhaps this year instead of in 2010, International Energy Agency officials said this week.

Yet China's rate of growth in emissions could slow thanks to sweeping reforms, started in 2001, to slash energy use at cement, steel, and paper factories, and for automobiles, Mr. Helme's group reported this week. Those reforms are on track to cut 168 million tons of greenhouse gases by 2010, says the CCAP. ...

The BBC reports on solar loans lighting up rural India.
More than 100,000 people in rural India have benefited from an innovative loan scheme that helps families buy home solar power systems, the UN has said. The $1.5m project, led by the UN Environment Programme (Unep), supports Indian bankers who offer finance to people who want to purchase a unit. The sunlight-powered systems are used to light homes and shops instead of expensive and polluting kerosene lamps. Officials hope to expand the scheme to Tunisia, China, Ghana and Indonesia.

Since the project began in 2003, there has been a 13-fold increase in the number of the solar power units being financed within the scheme's pilot area in southern India. A system capable of powering two to four small appliances, or lights, costs about $300-$500. Before the UN project was set up, purchases were predominately cash only - making the devices too expensive for most people. ...

Project workers have credited solar powered lighting with helping schoolchildren achieve higher grades, and better productivity for cottage industries. There are also health benefits associated with making the switch. The majority of homes in rural India are poorly ventilated, leaving the occupants exposed to harmful particles emitted by the lamps. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, the UN says a single wick lamp each year burns about 80 litres of kerosene, which produces more than 250kg of carbon dioxide. An estimated 100 million families in India use kerosene lamps.

The Australian reports on Kevin Rudd's plan to subsidise energy savers in Australia.
LABOR has moved to pre-empt Howard government spending on the environment in next week's budget with its own $300million subsidy plan to help install solar power, water tanks and energy-saving measures in homes. And in the process Kevin Rudd has broadened Labor's definition of struggling families, with the scheme open to families earning up to $250,000 a year.

Low-interest loans of up to $10,000 would be provided to install solar panels, solar-powered or high-efficiency gas hot water systems, roof insulation, awnings and home audits of energy use to help reduce power costs. The money would also provide for water-saving initiatives such as rainwater tanks and recycling systems for so-called grey water, such as from washing machines.

Loans would be paid back according to a family's capacity to pay and repayments would amount to no more than 2per cent of income. They would be paid back through the tax system, although families could opt to get the loan from a bank that offers carbon credits. The details are yet to be finalised but Mr Rudd said yesterday that in some cities, such as Sydney, families were struggling on $200,000.

(Take a deep breath those of you earning less than $200k - Sydney real estate is as overpriced as any in the world, but I doubt anyone earning that much is going to starve any time soon).

The SMH reports that green groups are formulating an anti-coal plan.
Environmental groups and the NSW Greens will hold a summit in Sydney today, aiming to develop a campaign to stop any proposed expansion of the state's coal industry. The Greens said Premier Morris Iemma wants to expand the coal industry, particularly in the Hunter region, despite the climate change crisis.

Attendees at the summit, including Greenpeace, The Wilderness Society and the Nature Conservation Council, are expected to approve a joint statement to Mr Iemma requesting a meeting over the issue. "It's criminal that at a time when the government should be moving towards a massive expansion of renewable energy it plans to ratchet up the coal industry instead," Greens MP Lee Rhiannon said. "NSW Labor's continued affair with the coal industry flies in the face of clear evidence from the scientific community that coal is a key climate change culprit."

The SMH also has a report on the massive subsidies currently enjoyed by fossil fuel industries in Australia.
Fossil fuel-burning industries receive up to $10 billion a year in taxpayers' money, a study has found. The University of Technology Sydney analysis of energy and transport subsidies released today said 96 per cent of those government funds went to coal, oil and gas companies in 2005-06. The remaining four per cent, or $330 million, went to the renewable energy sector, the university's Institute of Sustainable Futures said. ...

In light of its findings, author Dr Chris Reidy questioned the willingness of federal and state governments to curb greenhouse gas emissions caused by fossil fuels. "The energy and transport sectors are responsible for almost 70 per cent of Australia's greenhouse gas emissions and these emissions are increasing rapidly," Dr Reidy said. "It is in these sectors that action to combat the impact of climate change are most urgently needed but currently subsidies are preventing a shift to clean energy solutions." ...

"By removing subsidies for fossil fuels and instead supporting renewable energy and energy efficiency we could level the playing field and reduce our greenhouse pollution," Greenpeace energy campaigner Mark Wakeham said.

Grist notes that US summer driving season is approaching and that US gasoline stocks are at the lowest level in almost 2 decades.
Gasoline supplies right now are plumbing historic lows, just as May and the "summer driving season" are about to roll around. This fact has the industry types at the WSJ's Energy Roundup abuzz with predictions of $4/gallon gasoline, should the inevitable disruption (refinery fire, hurricane, Iran war) occur. As in years past, areas with higher cost gasoline, mostly the blue states along the oceans and Great Lakes, will see the highest prices.

Some hope that record margins (known as "crack spread," heh heh) will lead refineries to crank up gas production, but in any case, there's dangerously little slack in America's dangerously-tight gasoline supply chain. Blogger Robert Rapier points out that gasoline supplies right now are lower than they've ever been (at least since current records began, in 1991), besides a few Labor Day weekends when supplies are drawn down after all that summer driving.

I never quite understood the concept of a "summer driving season," anyways. Why waste a glorious summer day cooped up inside a car stuck in traffic? This summer, let's all escape gloomy gas prices and have a Summer Walking Season instead.

Red Herring has an article on a solar silicon production process exhumed by SRI.
It started with a chance conversation between two scientists. Now it might lead to the revival of a technology that could help ease the growing pains of the solar energy industry. Scientists at SRI International, a Menlo Park, California-based nonprofit research institute, have dusted off an old technology to make solar-grade silicon more cheaply, updated it, and licensed the technology to three Asian companies. SRI says pilot plants could be up and running in 18 months.

The discovery could be just what the solar power industry needs. Although solar energy is often viewed as the golden child of cleantech—and saw 30 percent growth in 2006—its growth has been hampered by a shortfall of solar-grade silicon, the critical material used to make photovoltaic cells. As a result, contract prices of polysilicon—high-purity silicon used to make solar cells—have more than doubled, putting the squeeze on solar cell makers.

The new technology is actually an old technology developed in the labs at SRI, whose inventions include everything from the computer mouse to malaria treatments. Larry Dubois, SRI’s vice president of the physical sciences division, learned of the decades-old research only recently when he was chatting with lab scientist Angel Sanjurjo. “I said, wow, this is a great breakthrough and could have a real impact on the market,” Mr. Dubois says.

Of course, SRI isn’t the only one working on alternative, cheaper processes for making solar-grade silicon. Some companies are working with dirtier, lower-quality silicon normally used to make aluminum and other metal alloys. Others still are experimenting with different fertilizer factory waste products and even algae as silicon-starters. Meanwhile, large producers are expanding capacity, with new factories expected to go online starting at the end of the year. ...

SRI had better work fast. Industry watchers expect the silicon supply to triple by 2010.

The Energy Blog reports that Phoenix Motors is going to develop a plug-in Version of its Sports Utility Truck.
UQM Technologies, Inc. announced today that it has completed an agreement with privately held Phoenix Motorcars, Inc. to collaborate on the development of a plug-in hybrid model of a sport utility truck currently produced and sold by Phoenix as an all-electric vehicle.

The Phoenix Sport Utility Truck is a five-passenger dual cab pickup truck measuring 194 inches in length with a wheelbase of 108 inches. The vehicle has an independent torsion bar and double wishbone front suspension, rack and pinion steering and a 1/2 ton payload carrying capacity. The plug-in hybrid model to be developed will include a small gasoline fueled internal combustion engine, a UQM(R) PowerPhase 100 propulsion system and NanoSafe(R) lithium titanate batteries from Altair Nanotechnologies, Inc.

The Energy Blog also has a post on a "Sustainable Fuel for the Transportation Sector" (H2CAR) proposed by Purdue University scientists. I first saw this on "Free Energy News" and I have more than a few doubts about it (both from a practicality point of view, and because it seems to rely on some dirty energy sources, and lastly because you'd be better off producing electricity from the renewables component and powering an EV transport system instead of producing hydrogen), however it is another example of how we could potentially solve the problems posed by peak oil. The Engineer Poet has more criticisms at The Oil Drum.
Purdue University scientists Rakesh Agrawal, Navneet Singh, Fabio Ribeiro, and Nicholas Delgass have proposed a hybrid system of hydrogen and carbon that can produce a sufficient amount of liquid hydrocarbon fuels to power the entire U.S. transportation sector. The H2CAR process uses carbon produced by biomass and hydrogen supplied from carbon-free energy. The following is summarized and paraphrased from the online publication of their report cited above.

The process has several advantages:

* The land area needed to grow the biomass is <40% of that needed by other routes that solely use biomass to support the entire transportation sector.
* Prior known processes were estimated to be able to produce 30% of the United States transportation fuel from the annual biomass of 1.366 billion tons, while the H2CAR process shows the potential to supply the entire United States transportation sector from that quantity of biomass.
* The synthesized liquid provides H2 storage in an open loop system.
* Reduction to practice of the H2CAR route has the potential to provide the transportation sector for the foreseeable future, using the existing infrastructure.

In their proposal, the primary purpose of either coal or biomass is to provide carbon atoms needed for the production of liquid hydrocarbons. Thus, the goal is to accomplish the complete transformation of every carbon atom contained in either of the feed stocks to liquid fuel by supplementing the conversion process with a carbon-free energy source. They propose to generate H2 from a carbon-free primary energy source such as solar, nuclear, wind, etc. and then use it to supply the hydrogen atoms needed for the chemical transformation.

TreeHugger is wondering why the New York Times is burying articles explaining the deficiencies of hydrogen cars.
Wind Turbines and Hydrogen cars, the match made in heaven and the most deceptive and manipulative picture in the New York Times. It is one of a series of hydrogen vehicles ogled in the the paper today. What is really fascinating is the editorial bias shown by the print editors, who chose not to run two very well written articles, available online, that point out the problems with hydrogen. Jim Motavalli writes a Q and A that explains where hydrogen now comes from (Natural Gas) and how it is shipped (with great difficulty) and how ultimately the only way to make it efficiently is with nuclear power, which Amory Lovins describes as "aspirational."

Far more devastating is Don Sherman's " At Milepost 1 on the Hydrogen Highway", covering much of the same ground as Jim Motavalli but in greater detail: "Hydrogen proponents promise a future of placid (and carbon-free) travel punctuated by occasional stops to replenish our tanks as conveniently as we fill them today. They champion an America laced by a hydrogen highway, dotted with service stations that offer safe, affordable refueling. Perhaps clean restrooms will be part of that future, too."

However there are a couple of small problems. Of the fifty million tons of hydrogen produced annually, fully a quarter of it is used to refine oil, and as the quality of crude oil deteriorates, it needs more hydrogen. 95% of the hydrogen made in the United States is created from natural gas, through a process called steam reforming, which creates 350 million tons of carbon dioxide per year.

Hydrogen does not travel or store well because its small molecule can leak out of the smallest fissure, and special pipes are needed- "While it is possible to deliver hydrogen in pipes used for natural gas, a well-known risk is hydrogen embrittlement — the tendency of hydrogen atoms to infiltrate the surface of welded or heat-treated steel, which can result in cracks and leaks."

The Bush Administration's goal of replacing fossil fuels with hydrogen will require 90 million tons of it a year. "Electricity from solar cells and wind turbines can also be used to electrolyze water to hydrogen and oxygen without undesirable byproducts, though it would be a considerable undertaking. The Energy Department estimates that meeting the country’s needs would require more than 160,000 two-megawatt wind turbines."

Leaving nuclear power the only option. "The Energy Department is promoting a Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative aimed at demonstrating the commercial feasibility of new nuclear plants that produce hydrogen using high-temperature-electrolysis processes. Such methods are under study in national laboratories. The Energy Department expects that the most promising approaches will be ready for commercial-scale demonstrations by 2020."

Sarah at WorldChanging has a post on the winners of Metropolis Magazine's next generation design awards.
Every year, Metropolis Magazine runs a competition for emerging designers focused on utilizing innovative design as a tool to address and promote "activism, social involvement and entrepreneurship." The competition selects a new theme each year to narrow the scope and sharpen the competitors' imaginations. This year, designers were required to address Energy -- "its uses, reduction, consumption, efficiencies, and alternatives."

Only one entry won the $10,000 grand prize, but Metropolis also publicized a strong list of runners-up, whose projects are well worth knowing about. (One runner-up comes from Worldchanging's own Dawn Danby and two of her colleagues from the Bainbridge Graduate Institute. Their project, Beeline is "an online virtual marketplace/transportation coordination system that connects local growers and retailers.")

The winning team, a San Francisco-based design collective called Civil Twilight, landed the grand prize with a project called Lunar-Resonant Streetlights -- streetlights specially designed to "sense and respond to ambient moonlight, dimming and brightening each month as the moon cycles through its phases." The lights would replace standard bulbs with LEDs and a photosensor, which work together to reduce energy consumption by creating only as much light as is needed according to the natural illumination of the moon. They also minimize light pollution by "utilizing the available moonlight, rather than overwhelming it," bringing stars back into the urban skyscape. It's a brilliant integration of a high-tech design and an ultra-low tech natural resource.

Civil Twilight's entire portfolio consists of projects that find a graceful and fruitful interrelationship between the natural and the constructed or technological. One of these is an adaptive reuse project employing mycology (or mycoremediation) to convert condemned wooden buildings into compost, and the building site into a garden plot. No demolition necessary.

Another building-related runner-up addressing land restoration and preservation in dense urban areas is Israel-based Geotectura's "i-rise" project, a "vertical, multi-story residential unit with an integrated infrastructure for generating renewable energy, collecting rainwater and treating liquid and solid waste based on zero-environmental impact technologies." The i-rise is a prefab structure with a very small footprint and the ability to be moved easily without scarring the land beneath. Its internal functions run in an efficient, mechanistic way, building sustainable systems into the home rather than tacking them on according to the wishes (and extra expenditures) of the residents. Geotectura's piece aims to address not only the ecological integrity of housing, but also the economic and social stratifications that emerge from the architecture of a neighborhood.

There are more than a dozen other inspiring projects from the 2007 Next Generation. Take a look at the list and find out what's possible when you combine good design, great imagination, and a healthy dose of competition.

"The Sietch Blog" reports that the Bush Administration is to push (once again) for more oil drilling off the coasts of Alaska And Virgina.
In what may become the next in a series of knuckle-headed moves, Bush’s Interior Department has finalized a plan to expand the areas that oil companies are allowed to drill. Areas off of Alaska, Florida and Virgina, some of them fishing regions, are to be opened up to massive oil exploration in the hungry attempt to maintain our “addiction to oil”.

Drilling had been banned in most of these areas previously, but in January, Bush lifted the bans in the central Gulf of Mexico and in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. The removal of the ban makes most of the Gulf south of the Florida panhandle open for drilling.

The 5.6 million acres opened up in Alaska is the home of endangered whales and the worlds largest sockeye salmon run. Estimates put the oil under these federal waters are about 200 million barrels of oil, and about 5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The US currently uses about 20 MILLION barrels of oil A DAY, in 1998 (last numbers I could find) we used 21.34 tcf/year (that’s trillion cubic feet) of natural gas. Meaning that this reserve would have less than half a years worth of oil, and natural gas. ...

Renewable energy like wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal should be our top priorities. Long after the paltry amount of oil in these regions has been pumped out, the wind will continue to blow, the sun will continue to shine. If the president really wants to build something in these regions why not a nice wind farm? I guess his “addiction to oil” comments in the state of the union can be lumped together with is other lies (”mission accomplished”, “Iraq has weapons of mass destruction”, “we do not tortue”, etc).

Some US politicians are also trying to pass a bizarre energy related law that outlaws foreign energy cartels. I boggle at the lengths some people will go to to avoid converting their economies to run on (local) renewable energy sources...
The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously voted Thursday in favor of the so-called "NOPEC" legislation to allow for criminal prosecution of countries that organize energy cartels and manipulate the prices of natural resources. The bill is the latest version of similar legislation that has failed to make its way through Congress in several attempts since 2000. In 1979, a federal court ruled that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries' pricing decisions are the result of "governmental" rather than commercial actions designed to protect the sovereignty of foreign governments.

The NOPEC bill, sponsored by Senator Herb Kohl, D-Wis., would allow U.S. law enforcement agencies and the federal government "to begin legal proceedings against any foreign power, including the member nations of OPEC, for conspiring to fix prices and artificially decrease the volume of available oil." The bill would enable actions to be taken against such nations or their agents by freezing or confiscating U.S.-held assets of foreign governments. The legislation does not address gas specifically, but instead addresses "a confederacy of oil-exporting countries, as a result of which (oil) reserves were artificially and critically cut and prices inflated on fuel."

But Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of Russian State Duma International Affairs Committee and Russian gas giant Gazprom, has expressed concern that the bill's language leaves plenty of room for the United States to take action against other energy-resource fronts.

UPI also reports on fierce rearguard actions against the new Iraqi oil law. A more comprehensive explanation of this theft of Iraq's oil is available here.
Discussions turned contentious among the more than 60 Iraqi oil officials reviewing Iraq's draft hydrocarbons bill last week in the United Arab Emirates. But the dispute highlighted the need for further negotiations on the proposed law that was stalled in talks for nearly eight months, then pushed through Iraq's Cabinet without most key provisions.

Tariq Shafiq, one of three authors of the law, said he attended the Dubai summit "reluctantly," at the request of Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani. "I thought it would help," Shafiq said, hoping all Iraqi sides in the debate over its oil law would meet and iron out their differences. "Apparently it did not."

Petroleum Intelligence Weekly reports talks in Dubai led to "heated exchanges." Instead, the voices of those who disagree with the law or, like Shafiq, oppose what it has become since the initial draft and how it was kept from the public, were not given part of the platform. "Had there been genuine interest in having consensus," Shafiq said, "the two differing parties should have sat -- not publicly in front of the television -- to discuss with an open heart how you can reach a compromise. But this apparently was not their aim."

Most of the law, which is better referred to as a regime, or a set of interworking laws, has yet to be finalized. But the main sticking points have the central government and Kurdistan Regional Government at loggerheads still. Although the Bush administration, led by former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and now U.N. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, praised passage of the framework law when Iraq's Cabinet approved it late February, it doesn't quite qualify as one of the benchmarks he has set for success in Iraq.

"To give every Iraqi citizen a stake in the country's economy, Iraq will pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis," Bush said in a national address Jan. 10.

Saudi King Abdullah has declared the US occupation of Iraq illegal. And he's Bush's best friend in the region...
The Saudi monarch has made a forceful appeal for Arab unity, denouncing US policy in Iraq and the embargo imposed by western nations on the Palestinians. At the Arab League summit in Riyadh, King Abdullah described the US presence in Iraq as an illegitimate occupation. Correspondents say he is seeking to show a measure of independence from Saudi Arabia's ally, the United States. Arab leaders are meeting to relaunch a plan for peace with Israel that they first endorsed five years ago. ...

The Saudi monarch insisted said the "real blame" for Arab woes lay with squabbling Arab rulers, who could only prevent "foreign powers from drawing the region's future" if they united. "In beloved Iraq, blood is flowing between brothers, in the shadow of an illegitimate foreign occupation, and abhorrent sectarianism threatens a civil war," said the king.

US military experts are saying (to deaf ears) that Iraq will be worse for the US than Vietnam.
As fighting in Iraq enters its fifth year, an increasing number of experts in foreign policy and national strategy are arguing that the biggest difference may be that the Iraq war will inflict greater damage to U.S. interests than Vietnam did.”
“It makes Vietnam look like a cakewalk,” said retired Air Force Gen. Charles F. Wald, a veteran of the Vietnam War. The domino theory that nations across Southeast Asia would go communist was not fulfilled, he noted, but with Iraq, “worst-case scenarios are the most likely thing to happen.”

Iraq is worse than Vietnam “in so many ways,” agreed Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., a retired Army officer and author of one of the most respected studies of the U.S. military’s failure in Vietnam. “We knew what we were getting into in Vietnam. We didn’t here.”

Also, President Richard M. Nixon used diplomacy with China and the Soviet Union to exploit the split between them and so minimize the fallout of Vietnam. By contrast, Krepinevich said, the Bush administration has “magnified” the problems of Iraq by neglecting public diplomacy in the Muslim world and by not developing an energy policy to reduce the significance of Middle Eastern oil.

The Observer has a review of a book called "The Lucifer Effect".
Philip Zimbardo's The Lucifer Effect is a formidable and chilling study of the atrocities that were perpetrated at Abu Ghraib, says Edward Marriott

On 28 April 2004, the American news programme 60 Minutes II broadcast photographs taken in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The images, picked up immediately by the world's media, have since become scorched on our consciousness: naked Iraqi prisoners stacked in a human pyramid, presided over by grinning US soldiers; a female soldier leading a naked Iraqi around by a leash; other Iraqis forced to simulate fellatio; a hooded inmate balanced on a cardboard box, electric wires attached to his fingers.

One of the stunned Americans watching 60 Minutes II back in 2004 was eminent psychologist Professor Philip Zimbardo, in Washington that night on business. Zimbardo, more than anyone else in the country, had been there before. In 1971, as a young psychologist at California's Stanford University, he had conducted an experiment into the psychology of imprisonment, dividing a group of undergraduate students into 'guards' and 'prisoners'. That August, Zimbardo witnessed levels of cruelty he'd never have predicted or imagined. Within no time, liberal undergraduates became sadists, tormenting prisoners, even forcing them, in an uncanny premonition of George W Bush's Iraq 33 years later, to simulate sodomy with one another.

After six days, Zimbardo called a halt to the experiment. Although the 'guards' knew the 'prisoners had done nothing criminally wrong to deserve their lowly status', he writes in his new book, 'some ... were transformed into perpetrators of evil'. The experiment taught him that 'most of us can undergo significant character transformations when we are caught up in the crucible of social forces'.

It is to answer the question of 'how good people turn evil' that Zimbardo has written The Lucifer Effect, a formidable piece of research into the nature of evil and the systems and situations that foster it. Zimbardo, who grew up in poverty in the South Bronx and, as a child, witnessed how a harsh environment can breed cruelty and abuse, has come to some chilling conclusions. Far from the Abu Ghraib atrocities being the work of a handful of bad apples, or 'rogue soldiers', as General Richard B Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it, Zimbardo argues that they were the result of an entire 'bad barrel', going right to the top. ...

And to close, some pictures of the petrol truck explosion that has crippled some major roads in San Francisco.

A Billion Seeds Of Light  

Posted by Big Gav

The Guardian reports that Britain's Millennium Seed Bank Project has banked its billionth seed.

The chancellor, Gordon Brown, hailed the historic significance of a tiny African bamboo seed today as he helped mark a landmark for a major conservation project.

The seed will be the billionth to be placed in the Millennium Seed Bank - an ambitious project to protect plant species across the globe from the threats of climate change and over-harvesting. It is thought that 60,000-100,000 plant species are under threat worldwide, and the seed bank is designed to provide insurance againt their loss in the wild so they are always available for use in medicines, crop improvements and building materials, among other things.

Today's presentation of the specimen was, said the chancellor, "one of the most important events" to have happened at 11 Downing Street in years. The landmark seed, collected in Mali, west Africa, from the African bamboo oxytenanthera abyssinica, will be formally entered into the Noah's Ark-style bank next month. Over-harvesting and the loss of its natural habitat has led to the species - used to build houses, furniture and baskets and in wine-making - becoming endangered in the region.

The Millennium Seed Bank Project (MSBP) was set up by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit to deal with this type of issue. It now has the largest wild seed collection in the world, with seeds from more than 18,000 species spanning 126 countries, and works with organisations across the world to try to ensure species survive in their natural environments. By 2010, when the project's current funding runs out, 10% of the world's wild flowering plant species or the equivalent of 30,000 species will be banked. If more money can be raised, the project aims to have 25% of species stored by 2020.

WorldChanging has a post on seedPOD: A "Wikiseedia" for the Future of Food and Farming. See the original for more and links.
Many people advocating a bright green future also strongly support local food systems. But learning what's local and eating accordingly in the 21st century will be a lesson in perennial change, because as the climate changes, agricultural zones shift, and that means what's local now may not be the same stuff that will grow well in your region in ten or twenty years. What's more, in some regions of the world where subsistence agriculture provides a living for large numbers of people, fair, sensitive and smart help adjusting to new realities will need to be provided.

seedpod.jpg We recently were asked to imagine how new models and designs might help us address critical food-related sustainability issues. We chose to tackle this thorny problem of farming and gardening in a changing climate. Here it is, a speculative anticipation of what a model for tracking and trading local knowledge about farming and food in an open, global network might look like. We call it seedPOD. Think of it as a gedankenexperiment, an imagined toolkit to keep seeds moving, farmers thriving and communities fed in the face of massive environmental change. Perhaps it will trigger some interesting thinking out there: at very least, we hope you find it briefly diverting.

SeedPOD includes programs both online and on-site which allow farmers to share their own observations of their land and crops, to advise one another on cultivation strategies for introducing a "new native" species, to save seeds and preserve biodiversity, and to establish a community of peer teachers who can guide each other through the adaptation process.

Citizen Science

Changes in agricultural zones will likely occur faster and more widely in coming years. Before scientists can publish peer-reviewed research or governments can announce official responses, farmers will be developing appropriate solutions on the spot, by necessity. It only makes sense to network those farmers to better distribute their solutions and make them widely accessible.

Fortunately, the rate of Net access distribution around the world may be rising almost as fast as the rate of change in agricultural conditions. By connecting large numbers of participants in both the Global North and Global South, SeedPOD becomes the virtual laboratory in which mass collaboration can yield quick conclusions.

Collaborative Online Agricultural Resource

In tandem with the online exchange, seedPOD will host an open archive of resources which can be augmented and developed through the discoveries made by citizens and farmers. We call it Wikiseedia -- a collaborative, free online agricultural encyclopedia.

Wikiseedia will be presented and continuously translated into a multitude of languages, and SeedPOD will also work to install community internet hubs and wireless versions where access is scarce or nonexistent, so that rural farmers in the developing world can take advantage of these tools, too. Trained scientists will be able to check in on Wikiseedia and the online citizen science lab to gain the most current agricultural information available for inclusion in longer-term research, and to participate in the collaborative editing process, as well.

Think of it as something akin to the Open Architecture Network, for agriculture, bringing together great existing efforts (like the Honey Bee Network) and best practices (like greenbelt efforts in the Sahel) with a platform for sharing undiscovered or newly invented innovations.

Indeed, in an ideal world, such efforts in all disciplines, from architecture to farming to public health to ICT4D, would have such collaborative repositories of knowledge, and all of the efforts would be interoperable and easily dovetailed, so that a person working in a specific context could easily learn how to find and use detailed knowledge from a number of disciplines and projects.

Seed Collection and Savings Banks

Probably the least hypothetical component of the seedPOD toolkit, seed banks already exist all over the world as preventative measures against the loss of barnyard biodiversity. The model collided with future scenarios with the announcement of plans to build a huge doomsday seed vault near the Arctic Circle which would be more secure and stable than existing banks -- able to withstand the more catastrophic possible outcomes of climate change (or war or asteroid impact).

SeedPOD seed banks will be a network of living facilities (rather than sealed vaults) where seeds can be deposited as they become threatened, or taken and planted where they couldn't previously have grown. Though seedPOD is primarily citizen driven, this will be one place where staff will be employed to catalog and archive records of the flow of seeds through the bank, and the locations from which they originate and to which they go. By supporting the existing, highly-stressed seed bank organizations around the world, creating such a network also meets the purpose of preserving existing seed collections.

Innovation Pipeline has a post on Solar’s Next Dimension. They also have posts on the DOE solar energy competition (Sun and Games) and producing ethanol from manure (Cow Power).
Jud Ready, a senior research engineer at Georgia Tech Research Institute, says the team’s goal is to harvest more sunlight with cells shaped like blades of grass. These cells could also mean lighter systems with less space requirements than traditional photovoltaic systems.

The 100-micron-tall cells are built out of millions of vertically aligned carbon nanotubes. Researchers grow the carbon nanotube “towers,” then coat them with cadium telluride and cadmium sulfide, which serve as the p-type and n-type photovoltaic layers. Because the 3D design permits better absorption, the coatings can be made thinner. That boosts efficiency.

There are now supply shortages in the solar market. That has fueled investment. According to a report by research firm New Energy Finance in London, VCs and private equity firms put more than $2.2 billion into clean-energy companies in the first quarter of 2007. That’s a 58 percent increase over the same period the previous year. Solar and biofuels technologies attracted the most capital, garnering $514 million and $205 million, respectively.

The 3D design was described in the March 2007 issue of the journal JOM, published by the Minerals, Metals and Materials Society. The Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Air Force Research Laboratory, NewCyte and Intellectual Property Partners sponsored the research.

There will be challenges scaling the manufacture of these cells. But one has to believe that receiving photons in 3D is just as enlightening as seeing in 3D.

TreeHugger has a post on some research at Purdue university to improve cellulosic ethanol production. They also note Canada has now banned incandescent light bulbs, as part of an otherwise ineffective environment policy.
Researchers at Purdue have found that when cornstalks are processed to produce ethanol, their particles undergo a change that has not been seen previously. This could pave the way for a viable method of large-scale ethanol production from cellulose. Cellulosic ethanol is better than other current ethanol production processes, because it puts less pressure on food prices. Michael Ladisch, co-author of the research, said, "Cellulosic ethanol would allow industry to expand beyond the limits brought about by corn's other uses, like sweetener production." Previously, cellulosic ethanol has been rather hard to produce, but this research should allow a more economical method to be developed. "This study will help us translate science from the lab to an industrial setting and will help produce cellulosic ethanol economically," Ladisch said. The image shows a cornstalk after the pretreatment developed by the team. The pores on the surface have been opened up, allowing more surface area for the ethanol production process to occur.

Victoria is encouraging companies to explore for geothermal power sources.
Exploration permits have been granted to six companies which will spend more than $77 million over five years looking for "hot rock" or geothermal power sources in Victoria. The permits, the first to be issued in the state, grant exploration rights to an area spanning 80,000 sq km across Victoria's southern region including Melbourne's surrounds.

Energy and Resources Minister Peter Batchelor announced the recipients on Thursday and said more environmentally friendly forms of energy must be found if Victoria was to meet its targets to reduce greenhouse gas. "It is vital we explore all means of producing electricity in a more sustainable way and geothermal offers that potential," Mr Batchelor said. "Geothermal energy sources in Victoria have scarcely been explored, but there is a growing awareness of their potential."

Geothermal energy produces electricity not from coal or gas but from the naturally occurring hot rocks and water reservoirs located deep beneath the earth's surface. The water is piped through a hole drilled into the hot rock resulting in steam, which is used to drive an electricity-generating turbine before it is injected back into the ground.The technology is in use in more than 70 countries, and Mr Batchelor said it was particularly suited to Victoria. "Victoria has a real advantage over other Australian states in the development of this energy source because of the compact nature of the state and the proximity of potential energy sources to the power grid and prospective markets," he said.

The Australian has some semi-coherent notes on the climate change debate in Australia, even if they can't help themselves with various bits of ritual greenie bashing.
LAST month, federal Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd made his landmark commitment to an Australian target of 60 per cent cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This week, the Australian Greens announced an 80per cent target. Friends of the Earth opted for 95 per cent, while the crowd from Beyond Zero Emissions are, as the name implies, not only campaigning for no greenhouse emissions at all but presumably some as yet unspecified technology to pull them back from the atmosphere.

The official line coming from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is that developed countries will need to reduce emissions by 40 per cent to 90 per cent by 2050 to avoid dangerous temperature increases. As a result, wherever you position your activist flag on climate change, there is always somebody ready to outdo you. The accelerated mainstreaming of the public debate on climate change and the growing acceptance of the need for substantial policy reform are driving a new type of competitive environmentalism.

Not used to being listened to, the activist movement has found itself redefining its role and its relevancy in a political space it once had all to itself. The role of activism is, by its nature, much more political insurgency than conventional warfare, aiming to widen or drag the debate in new directions. ...

The political arm of the activist movement in Australia is the Greens. Until now they have pulled a primary vote approaching double digits federally and nearly 30 per cent in inner-city Sydney and Melbourne. They have held a genuine mandate from a section of Australian society who like having a rabble-rousing party that says the unsayable. In 2003, the Greens opposed the war on Iraq when Labor would not. They were the first to voice concern over the treatment of now convicted terrorist David Hicks.

It is a bitter irony, then, that the greatest threat to their political survival comes not from outside but from within their own back yard. The debate over climate change is morphing from a scientific issue to a global political and economic restructuring, and moving so fast and getting so big that it is sucking the oxygen out of the Greens' political space. ...

On Tuesday, senator Christine Milne launched the Greens' clearest counter-strike to Labor. Their new policy document Re-energising Australia is lightweight by conventional standards but a tome for the Greens. The report is overtly focused on policies and objectives that differentiate the Greens from Labor, and in the process points out that Labor's policy platform on climate change is much more threadbare than the party would care to admit.

Labor's 60 per cent target is not based on any research or analysis but simply imported from Europe, a dangerous practice given the latter's contrasting problems over energy security and high energy prices.

The Greens not only set a higher 80 per cent greenhouse reduction target (1990 baseline) by 2050 but a 30 per cent target by 2020, something that Rudd has to date baulked at for entirely practical reasons. They even dabble in tax and industry policy, suggesting carbon tax revenue be used to reduce payroll tax and rebuild manufacturing through an unspecified mix of tax breaks, subsidies and trade sanctions.

Of course, these targets are to be achieved without access to nuclear power or clean coal, an eye-watering concept for business and the energy sector, but then they're not really the target market.

The Greens also make a big deal of the link between banning old-growth logging and climate change. They know just how tender this issue still is within Labor following the disastrous foray into forestry policy by former Opposition leader Mark Latham in 2004. His promise to protect old-growth forests cost Labor two seats and gave it nothing. Opposition environment spokesman Peter Garrett hasn't even been to Tasmania yet.

"The public debate has moved massively in the last 12 months, which is why we have the Howard Government and Labor now talking about climate change," Milne says. "All we are getting from the major parties is, from the Government: 'We can't afford to do it because of the economy' and from Labor: 'We want 60 per cent cuts', but then no coherent policy program to get there or to address oil depletion."

The radioactive Rodent has announced his plans for building nuclear reactors and uranium enrichment facilities around the country, with an accompanying "education" campaign and some hot air about trying to find some non-existant people with the requisite skills, along with participation in some pie-in-the-sky future reactor program. Presumably they'll be paying some of our hard earned tax dollars to build these things as no commercial enterprise is ever going to be able to justify doing it...
Prime Minister John Howard today promised to remove all excessive restrictions on mining, processing and exporting of Australian uranium as a possible step to embarking on domestic nuclear power generation.

Mr Howard said expert advice to the government clearly showed Australia was giving up a major economic opportunity as a result of the excessive barriers on uranium mining and export. He said a key theme of that advice was that Australia should do what it could to expand uranium exports and remove unnecessary barriers that were impeding efficient operation and growth of the industry. "In light of the significance of global climate change and as the world's largest holder of uranium reserves, Australia has a clear responsibility to develop its uranium resources in a sustainable way - irrespective of whether or not we end up using nuclear power," he said in a statement. ...

The government will move to remove unnecessary constraints on expansion of uranium mining, such as overlapping and cumbersome regulations relating to the mining and transport of uranium ore. It will also make a firm commitment to Australia's participation in the Generation IV advanced nuclear reactor research program.

Mr Howard said the government would develop an appropriate nuclear energy regulatory regime including measures to govern any future potential nuclear energy facilities in Australia. The government will also move to lift skills and technical training to address for a possible expanded nuclear energy industry and embark on enhanced research and development. It will also embark on an information campaign to explain to the nation what needs to be done and why.

Not too many people are impressed by the plans of the out of touch and arrogant Rodent and his crew, who Rudd accurately labelled as "scared of the future".
The Wilderness Society (TWS) said an expanded nuclear industry would leave a dangerous legacy for future Australians. "The Prime Minister has said he wants to develop a nuclear industry but what he isn't saying is that Australia is being lined up to become the world's nuclear waste dump," TWS campaigns director Alec Marr said today. "Mr Howard's plan to enrich uranium is scandalous and would result in toxic waste that remains deadly for 4.5 billion years. "A nuclear industry in Australia, including increased uranium exports, will create vast new amounts of toxic waste that will be deadly to humans for as long as 250,000 years," he said.

Meanwhile Labor are trying to have their cake and eat it too by voting to allow new uranium mines even if they are currently holding the line against enrichment and nuclear power.
KEVIN Rudd has won his party's support for an expansion of uranium mining, arguing that some nations have to use nuclear power because they do not have the rich range of energy alternatives that Australia has at its disposal. ...

Environment spokesman Peter Garrett said he was “unapologetic” about his opposition to nuclear power and the risks of nuclear energy were greater than the benefits. He dismissed the proposition that nuclear power could be enlisted to deal with climate change. “Is the only way to meet this challenge it to create more nuclear waste?” he said

Mr Rann said the existing policy had not restricted uranium mining and when the Olympic Dam expansion was finished it would be the largest mine in the world, producing more uranium than all of Canada. He said a change was critical to the integrity of Labor policy and decisions should be made on facts and science not on emotion. South Australia was enjoying a minerals prospecting boom with a six-fold increase in mining exploration, which would lead to thousands of jobs.

WorldChanging has an interesting post on sustainable farming called Duck Rice.
We can learn a lot from the past about how we might develop sustainable practices for the future. After reading the Worldchanging article on terra preta, I was reminded of the story of Duck-Rice. The name might trigger associations with varieties like Golden Rice -- the high-nutrient concentration food developed a few years ago through genetic engineering. But this new rice is not a result of looking toward 21st century science and technology; it emerges from a thoughtful integration of tools long existing in the natural world.

Japanese farmer and entrepreneur, Takao Furuno, developed Duck-Rice as an integrated bio-system which eliminates the need for fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides by incorporating duck-raising into organic rice cultivation. The approach is now being replicated with substantial success all over South East Asia as an effective way to boost farmer incomes, reduce environmental impact and improve food security. It is a hybrid of the traditional farming practices of Japanese Rice Farmers and Furuno's own experimentation. The operations simultaneously raise Aigamo ducklings, Loaches (a species of fish), rice, and Azolla -- a nitrate-fixing species of aquatic fern. The Aigamo ducklings provide integrated pest management (IPM) services, replacing pesticides and herbicides by naturally controlling predaceous pest populations and digging up or eating competing weeds. The Loache and Aigamo duck waste, combined with the nitrate fixing properties of Azolla, increase soil nutrition, maintaining levels of productivity comparable to conventional farming operations without the need for costly synthetic fertilizers. The Azolla can later be harvested for animal feed.

A normal organic rice farm would require significant human labor to keep weeds down and maintain soil health, but the ducklings' natural movement aerates the soil and strengthens rice stalks, leaving the farmer with considerable time to invest in other income-producing activities. The alleviation of human effort supported by the process allows farmers to diversify their product base to include organic rice, fish, duck meat and eggs, thus reducing their vulnerability to external shocks such as price fluctuations, and potentially creating price premiums from attractive organic food markets.

Furuno himself rotates the duck-rice system with vegetable crops, allowing him to maintain a highly productive operation on a small plot of land in Japan. There is also some evidence that this form of rice cultivation neutralizes a significant amount of the green house gas emissions that rice paddies produce -- an estimated 12% of global anthropogenic methane output.

While Green Revolution methodologies have the potential to bring advantages to farmers whose traditional practices suffer in the fact of industrial agriculture, Duck-Rice demonstrates that through careful management of complementary species, farmers can gain a natural economic advantage and establish a more environmentally-responsible farming.

Gar Lipow at Grist has a detailed post on Feeding the world sustainably.
Agriculture for food and fiber represents another significant category of environmental impact. Before we worry about how to farm, we should consider how much agriculture we need. If you read the technical news, when this subject comes up it always centers on how to increase food production for a hungry world.

This is completely misleading. There is enough food produced (including meat and fish) worldwide not just to feed everyone on the planet, not just to make everyone fat, but to make everybody morbidly obese. Counting grain, beans, roots, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and other plants and fungi (not including animal feed), plus livestock, dairy, fish, eggs, and other animal products raised for human consumption, we produced nearly 2,800 calories per person per year in 2001 -- including 75 grams of protein. 2,200 calories per day is generally accepted as the average needed to keep a person healthy -- neither losing nor gaining weight. 56 grams of protein is the U.S. RDA for adult men. ...

How big an increase do we need to keep up with population growth? According to the U.S. Census[4], if you assume the same production with projected increases in population we will still average ~2,500 calories per person per day in 2010, ~2,300 per day in 2020. Without no cultivation of more acreage or increase in production per acre, we then approach absolute scarcity, falling to 1,900 in 2050. We need no increase in total food production before 2020, and only a 21 percent increase by 2050.

Moreover, in one sense the problem of getting that increase is already solved.

I'm going to suggest reasons to go beyond plain old organic farming in a moment. But it turns out that even conventional organic farming could feed more people than our current industrial system. ...

We have by no means begun to tap the potential of what sustainable agriculture can do. While current sustainable low-labor no-till techniques will meet our needs in the long run, it is important to gain resource efficiency in agriculture comparable to that of biointensive techniques without the waste of valuable human labor.

Environment News Service has n unusual article on Ecuador's offer to not develop an oil field and thus save the Amazon from further destruction - for a price.
The government of Ecuador will wait up to one year to see if the international community offers to compensate the country for not developing a major oil field in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon, Energy Minister Alberto Acosta says. The area of lush, primary rainforest shelters a unique diversity of animals and plants.

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and his government say that if the international community can compensate the country with half of the forecasted lost revenues, Ecuador will leave the oil in Yasuni National Park undisturbed to protect the park's biodiversity and indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation. "The first option is to leave that oil in the ground, but the international community would have to compensate us for immense sacrifice that a poor country like Ecuador would have to make," said Correa in a recent radio address. President Correa estimates the compensation figure at around US$350 million per year.

"Ecuador doesn't ask for charity," said Correa, "but does ask that the international community share in the sacrifice and compensates us with at least half of what our country would receive, in recognition of the environmental benefits that would be generated by keeping this oil underground."

The government's offer is in response to intense opposition to oil development in the area from Ecuador's vocal environmental and indigenous organizations who urgently strive to keep this continous primary rainforest intact. The oil fields, known as Ishpingo-Tiputini-Tambococha, ITT, are the largest untapped oil fields in Ecuador. They have been estimated by Ecuador's government and analysts to contain 900 million to one billion barrels of oil equivalent, about a quarter of the country's known reserves. ...

Ecuador is a country of 13 million people, more than half of whom live in poverty. The government claims that oil revenue is necessary to meet the development needs of its citizens. These revenues account for around 40 percent of the federal budget every year.

Ecuador is burdened with over 15 billion dollars of external debt, including substantial amounts owed to the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank - more than enough to cover Ecuador's ITT compensation offer.

Yasuni National Park protects one of the most biologically rich regions in the world, including a large stretch of the world's most diverse tree community and the highest known insect diversity in the world. It is one of the most diverse places in the world for birds and amphibians.

Queensland power firm Pulse energy has signed a lucrative deal with the Chinese.
Pulse Energy on Thursday signed a $312 million agreement with the Chongqing Coal Group to build and jointly own and operate four clean energy power plants at coal mine sites in China. The agreement involves the development of four 60-megawatt power stations in Chongqing that will use technology developed by the CSIRO to burn low concentration vent air methane to produce clean energy.

Pulse Energy business director Damien Weis said the deal provided the company with further growth opportunities. "We are in a great position to capitalise on the enormous clean energy opportunities in China," Mr Weis said. "The Chinese government has introduced legislation that requires power grid operators to purchase electricity generated by approved clean energy facilities."

The Energy Blog has a post on a New Zeraland company and their process for producing ethanol from carbon monoxide. This isn't a panacea but just another example of converting waste products into fuel.
A New Zealand company, LanzaTech, based in Auckland, announced that it had developed a fermentation process in which bacteria consume carbon monoxide and produce ethanol. Khosla Ventures has invested $3.5 million in the company to establish a pilot plant and perform the engineering work to prepare for commercial-scale ethanol production.

LanzaTech's innovation lies in using a bacterium to produce ethanol not from a carbohydrate, but from a gas, carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is a waste product of a number of industrial processes, including the production of steel.

This technology could produce 50 billion gallons of ethanol from the world's steel mills alone, turning the liability of carbon emissions into valuable fuels worth over $50 billion per year at very low costs and adding substantial value to the steel industry. The technology will also be a key contributor to the cellulosic biofuels business as it can convert syngas produced through gasification into ethanol.
"We have proven in our laboratories that the carbon monoxide in industrial waste gases such as those generated during steel manufacture can be processed by bacterial fermentation to produce ethanol. Garnering the financial and strategic support of Khosla Ventures is a significant validation of our approach, and we welcome Khosla Ventures Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Doug Cameron, to our Board of Directors," said Dr. Sean Simpson, Chief Scientist and Founder of LanzaTech.

Their bacterium is described as seven nongenetically modified, non-pathogenic bacteria, isolated from natural environments that produce novel bioproducts via small scale fermentation.

LanzaTech New Zealand Ltd. is a privately held company, founded in 2005, whose mission is to enable industries that produce high volumes of carbon monoxide containing flue gases to become the lowest cost, highest volume producers of fuel ethanol.

Back to the bee colony collapse disorder subject for a moment, I quite liked this comment by Ellen Anderson at Casaubon's Book, which talks about the French experience with pesticides and bees. This seems to fit with the fungus (really a microsporidian protozoan) theory I linked to yesterday - the bee immune system is compromised and they became prey to a range of problems.
Mystery Disease? Sounds a lot like poison to me. The real mystery is why we are sitting by like timid dummies while the big corporations spin this one. Cell phones? Really?

I am a beekeeper in Central Massachusetts who read about Colony Collapse in February. Something in one of the reports reminded me of a description of how termites are said to be killed by a new class of pesticides known as neonicitinoids. I went to my local farmers' coop, picked up labels from the various insecticide bottles and Googled the ingredients with 'honeybees,' 'sublethal' and 'organic.' A product called 'Merit' containing the neuro-toxin 'Imidacloprid' came up as a soil treatment for fruit trees. Other products with other cute names were being advertised for use on turf to kill grubs (also earthworms.) The labels promise that all sorts of insects, including adult japanese beetles will be controlled for 12 months (read systemic.) Visit your local Walmart and garden center and you will find it on all the shelves. They sell more of it every year according to the Bayer Corporation. You remember Bayer, right? They gave us aspirin and other less pleasant products in WW I and WW II. More recently, BayerCropScience has given us the gift of genetically modified rice. You may have read about it.

'Merit' 'Gaucho' 'BayerAdvanced' 'Admire,' 'Gaucho,' 'Genesis,' 'Platinum,' 'Provado,' 'Leverage,' 'Actara' are catchy little trade names for Imidacloprid, a systemic insecticide that was banned in France after beekeepers staged an angry protest in Paris. Bayer CropScience paid many millions to the french beekeepers and voluntarily withdrew the product without admitting that it was the culprit. Vive La France! They take their food seriously. Shame on us. Shame on the EPA. Shame on the media for not even mentioning the history of the peoples fight against Imidacloprid in France. The more stories I hear about the mystery disease the sillier they get. Soon the media will begin to snicker at all of the alarmists who worry about GMO's and cell towers. They will sigh, continue to wonder and finally forget about it. Already some are beginning to talk about how we can survive without bees as though it were just another problem like surviving without oil.

Imidacloprid is the most likely culprit in CCD, even thought there may be other contributing factors. This is the same class of stuff some of us put on our dogs and cats to kill fleas and ticks (see Fipronil and Frontline.) It is much less toxic to mammals than to invertebrates. ( I confess that the ticks at my place have tempted me to put it on my own neck.) Yesterday, I overheard a salesperson in the coop suggest to a customer that he put some on his chickens. What a wonderful idea. We can have it for breakfast in our locally produced eggs. This morning The Weather Channel carried a Bayer advertisement for Merit calling out to those of us who are "sick and tired of all those bugs." If Imidacloprid were being discussed as a cause for CCD, you can be sure that the Weather Channel would be a little more concerned about those ads. That is why it is hardly ever mentioned by name. Instead, the generic term 'pesticide' is used in news discussions of CCD.

In fairness, defenders of Imidacloprid say is that it is less toxic to humans than the Lindane that it replaces. Also, this is the only chemical known to kill the wooly adelgid that attacks canadian hemlocks. But many home gardeners are aware of Lindane's danger using it carefully if at all. And, even it there is some role for Imidacloprid, there is no excuse for mixing a persistent neurotoxin into our food supply and placing it in the hands of unsuspecting or careless homeowners.

The Merit label I saw carried no warnings about bees even though there is no question that a sufficiently large dose of Immidacloprid is known to kill honeybees. This fact is not in any dispute. The question really is whether there are low, sub-lethal doses that do kill the bees. Bayer says there is no proof of this. They cannot find any traces of the stuff in the dead bees. (Actually, they cannot even find the bees.) Consider, however, the following. The graphic on the Merit label illustrates how the product travels up from the roots into the branches. Bayer claims (and studies confirm) that it is present in blossoms and pollen and that it persists in the soil for at least one year. So the bees do get some of it. If it will kill a really tough Japanese Beetle for 12 months is it really sensible to think that it wouldn't kill a honeybee, known to be sensitive to the drug? Consider also Bayer's own account of how termites are killed by Imidacloprid: the termite's immune system is compromised by the neurotoxin so that it becomes susceptible to the viruses, bacteria and fungi that are normally present and controlled. In other words, their immune systems collapse. If, by chance, the termite is not killed outright, when it flies away from its nest, Bayer's ads say that it will not be able to find its way back. Sound familiar? Sound like colony collapse disorder?

Jeff Vail has some follow up comments on Jevons Paradox after his recent post on the topic at The Oil Drum.
Probably the greatest conclusion that I draw from the debate is that Jevons’ Paradox, like all other “real-world” economic phenomena, is incredibly complex and interconnected, and cannot easily be reduced to a “this is a good idea” or “this is a bad idea” dichotomy. Not coincidentally, this was exactly the point that I was trying to make by highlighting the “shadow rebound effect” caused by Jevon’s Paradox, but I ended up learning about several additional unanticipated effects as well.

So what are my conclusions about the validity of efficiency policy in light of a full consideration of Jevons’ Paradox? My ultimate conclusions—though this is a bit out in left field—is that our economic system has grown too complex for us to accurately implement policy with a full understanding of all effects of that policy. The system is simply too complex, too non-linear, and as a result I have to question the rationality of economic policy in the first place. Anyone who says that they understand how the economy works is flat-out lying. We have lots of theories. They work sometimes. But as the debate on Jevons’ Paradox, and the nesting Matryoshka dolls of paradoxes that spin off from Jevons’, we are not capable of identifying and accounting for all the ramifications of any economic policy. We are often unable to even predict the big-picture direction or impact that will be the result of a policy. What to do? The only proposal that seems rational at this point is to advocate a reduction in societal complexity. That is, unfortunately, the very policy choice that stands the least chance of ever being implemented in our current political system.

So from a policy perspective, what do we do? Does efficiency legislation or rule promulgation make sense? To reduce energy consumption, probably not. To enhance resiliency to systemic shocks, probably not. To reduce the vulnerability of critical sectors of our national, social, or personal economies—probably. This seems to be the most valid rational to back efficiency. If we, as individuals, enhance our energy efficiency in core areas of energy use (areas we can least afford to do without), we are more resilient to future scarcity. The same is true on a larger scale—this is probably the most valid reason to support electrified rail, for example.

The ultimate take-away that I hope most people gained from the essay on Jevons’ Paradox is that simplistic answers or solutions, and simplistic models of our predicament in the face of Peak Oil, are the most likely to be wildly inaccurate. Our predicament is highly complex, but that in no way justifies ignoring the complexity and arriving at policy choices based on simplified, and inaccurate, economic models.

Saudi Arabia has reportedly foiled an Al Qaeda attack on oil facilities.
After barely rising in earlier trading, crude-oil prices were recently nearly $1 a barrel higher on the Nymex, pushing $66. It seems traders may have thought again about the size and sophistication of an alleged foiled al Qaeda plot to attack oil fields in Saudi Arabia. The alleged plotters “had reached an advanced stage of readiness, and what remained only was to set the zero hour for their attacks,” Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Mansour al Turki told the Associated Press. “They had the personnel, the money, the arms.”

Crude-oil prices at first yawned at the report, but then the market seemed to do a double-take, according to Masood Farivar at Dow Jones Newswires. “The fact that [the plot] was advanced and sophisticated is very, very big,” a broker told Farivar.

And the threat to Saudi oil facilities is not new; last February the Saudis foiled a direct attack on an oil-processing facility at Abqaiq, possibly “the single most vital cog in the world petroleum system,” The Wall Street Journal wrote. Al Qaeda has called for attacks on Saudi oil facilities, to keep pressure on the Saudi regime and to threaten global oil supplies. Today’s foiled plot may be a sign the terrorist group isn’t giving up any time soon.

It appears Rosie O'Donnell is leaving her TV show after floating 911 conspiracy theories and pondering a Gulf of Tonkin style incident to trigger an attack on Iran. I'm sure these events aren't connected though. USA Today has some highlights:
• She compared fundamentalist Christians to Islamic extremists: "Radical Christianity is just as threatening as radical Islam in a country like America where we have a separation of church and state."

• Called for the impeachment of President Bush: "I think we should do it so the world knows that the nation is not standing behind this president's choices; that the nation, a democracy, feels differently than the man who is leading as if it was a dictatorship and that we represent this country; he does not lead as a monarch."

• Suggested the British intentionally caused the crisis with Iran: "There were 15 British sailors and marines who apparently went into Iranian waters, and they were seized by the Iranians. And I have one thing to say, Gulf of Tonkin. Google it."

• Claimed that the World Trade Center's Building 7 was brought down by explosives on 9/11: "I do believe that it is the first time in history that fire has ever melted steel. I do believe that it defies physics for the World Trade Center Tower 7 … which collapsed in on itself. It is impossible for a building to fall the way it fell without explosives being involved. … World Trade 1 and 2 got hit by planes; seven, miraculously, the first time in history, steel was melted by fire."

• Defended shock jock Don Imus: "What's the next step ... your job is going to be taken away if you think or say something that America doesn't like?"

Past Peak notes that Iraqi blogger Riverbend is giving up and leaving the country.
Iraqi blogger Riverbend, writing about the wall that's being built around a "Sunni" area in Baghdad, and about the wreckage that is Iraq today. It's heart-breaking:
The wall, of course, will protect no one. I sometimes wonder if this is how the concentration camps began in Europe. The Nazi government probably said, "Oh look — we're just going to protect the Jews with this little wall here — it will be difficult for people to get into their special area to hurt them!" And yet, it will also be difficult to get out.

The Wall is the latest effort to further break Iraqi society apart. Promoting and supporting civil war isn't enough, apparently — Iraqis have generally proven to be more tenacious and tolerant than their mullahs, ayatollahs, and Vichy leaders. It's time for America to physically divide and conquer — like Berlin before the wall came down or Palestine today. This way, they can continue chasing Sunnis out of "Shia areas" and Shia out of "Sunni areas".

I always hear the Iraqi pro-war crowd interviewed on television from foreign capitals (they can only appear on television from the safety of foreign capitals because I defy anyone to be publicly pro-war in Iraq). They refuse to believe that their religiously inclined, sectarian political parties fueled this whole Sunni/Shia conflict. They refuse to acknowledge that this situation is a direct result of the war and occupation. They go on and on about Iraq's history and how Sunnis and Shia were always in conflict and I hate that. I hate that a handful of expats who haven't been to the country in decades pretend to know more about it than people actually living there.

I remember Baghdad before the war — one could live anywhere. We didn't know what our neighbors were — we didn't care. No one asked about religion or sect. No one bothered with what was considered a trivial topic: are you Sunni or Shia? You only asked something like that if you were uncouth and backward. Our lives revolve around it now. Our existence depends on hiding it or highlighting it — depending on the group of masked men who stop you or raid your home in the middle of the night.

On a personal note, we've finally decided to leave. I guess I've known we would be leaving for a while now. We discussed it as a family dozens of times. At first, someone would suggest it tentatively because, it was just a preposterous idea — leaving ones home and extended family — leaving ones country — and to what? To where? [...]

So we've been busy. Busy trying to decide what part of our lives to leave behind. Which memories are dispensable? We, like many Iraqis, are not the classic refugees — the ones with only the clothes on their backs and no choice. We are choosing to leave because the other option is simply a continuation of what has been one long nightmare — stay and wait and try to survive. [...]

The problem is that we don't even know if we'll ever see this stuff again. We don't know if whatever we leave, including the house, will be available when and if we come back. There are moments when the injustice of having to leave your country, simply because an imbecile got it into his head to invade it, is overwhelming. It is unfair that in order to survive and live normally, we have to leave our home and what remains of family and friends... And to what?

There may have been people in the White House and the Pentagon who actually believed that US troops would be greeted as liberators and accepted as the new de facto rulers of Iraq. Or maybe the game plan has always been to create such chaos that Iraqis would eventually demand partition of their own country. Or — perhaps most likely — both, with various factions working at cross-purposes. In any case, I think we need vehemently to resist the notion that if only the US had done this or that thing differently — short of immediately pulling out after the fall of Saddam, something that was never in the cards, just look at the enormous US embassy under construction in Baghdad — it all could have ended well. There isn't some "right" way to invade and occupy a nation of people who do not want you there. The problem isn't that the invasion was done wrong. The problem is that the invasion was done at all. And every day that US troops remain in Iraq, the failure and the unimaginable suffering only deepen.

The Guardian has an interesting article on the construction of the American police state - "Fascist America, in 10 easy steps (via Cryptogon).
From Hitler to Pinochet and beyond, history shows there are certain steps that any would-be dictator must take to destroy constitutional freedoms. And, argues Naomi Wolf, George Bush and his administration seem to be taking them all.

Last autumn, there was a military coup in Thailand. The leaders of the coup took a number of steps, rather systematically, as if they had a shopping list. In a sense, they did. Within a matter of days, democracy had been closed down: the coup leaders declared martial law, sent armed soldiers into residential areas, took over radio and TV stations, issued restrictions on the press, tightened some limits on travel, and took certain activists into custody.

They were not figuring these things out as they went along. If you look at history, you can see that there is essentially a blueprint for turning an open society into a dictatorship. That blueprint has been used again and again in more and less bloody, more and less terrifying ways. But it is always effective. It is very difficult and arduous to create and sustain a democracy - but history shows that closing one down is much simpler. You simply have to be willing to take the 10 steps.

As difficult as this is to contemplate, it is clear, if you are willing to look, that each of these 10 steps has already been initiated today in the United States by the Bush administration.

Because Americans like me were born in freedom, we have a hard time even considering that it is possible for us to become as unfree - domestically - as many other nations. Because we no longer learn much about our rights or our system of government - the task of being aware of the constitution has been outsourced from citizens' ownership to being the domain of professionals such as lawyers and professors - we scarcely recognise the checks and balances that the founders put in place, even as they are being systematically dismantled. Because we don't learn much about European history, the setting up of a department of "homeland" security - remember who else was keen on the word "homeland" - didn't raise the alarm bells it might have.

It is my argument that, beneath our very noses, George Bush and his administration are using time-tested tactics to close down an open society. It is time for us to be willing to think the unthinkable - as the author and political journalist Joe Conason, has put it, that it can happen here. And that we are further along than we realise.

Conason eloquently warned of the danger of American authoritarianism. I am arguing that we need also to look at the lessons of European and other kinds of fascism to understand the potential seriousness of the events we see unfolding in the US.

1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy

After we were hit on September 11 2001, we were in a state of national shock. Less than six weeks later, on October 26 2001, the USA Patriot Act was passed by a Congress that had little chance to debate it; many said that they scarcely had time to read it. We were told we were now on a "war footing"; we were in a "global war" against a "global caliphate" intending to "wipe out civilisation". There have been other times of crisis in which the US accepted limits on civil liberties, such as during the civil war, when Lincoln declared martial law, and the second world war, when thousands of Japanese-American citizens were interned. But this situation, as Bruce Fein of the American Freedom Agenda notes, is unprecedented: all our other wars had an endpoint, so the pendulum was able to swing back toward freedom; this war is defined as open-ended in time and without national boundaries in space - the globe itself is the battlefield. "This time," Fein says, "there will be no defined end."

Creating a terrifying threat - hydra-like, secretive, evil - is an old trick. It can, like Hitler's invocation of a communist threat to the nation's security, be based on actual events (one Wisconsin academic has faced calls for his dismissal because he noted, among other things, that the alleged communist arson, the Reichstag fire of February 1933, was swiftly followed in Nazi Germany by passage of the Enabling Act, which replaced constitutional law with an open-ended state of emergency). Or the terrifying threat can be based, like the National Socialist evocation of the "global conspiracy of world Jewry", on myth.

It is not that global Islamist terrorism is not a severe danger; of course it is. I am arguing rather that the language used to convey the nature of the threat is different in a country such as Spain - which has also suffered violent terrorist attacks - than it is in America. Spanish citizens know that they face a grave security threat; what we as American citizens believe is that we are potentially threatened with the end of civilisation as we know it. Of course, this makes us more willing to accept restrictions on our freedoms.

2. Create a gulag

Once you have got everyone scared, the next step is to create a prison system outside the rule of law (as Bush put it, he wanted the American detention centre at Guantánamo Bay to be situated in legal "outer space") - where torture takes place.

At first, the people who are sent there are seen by citizens as outsiders: troublemakers, spies, "enemies of the people" or "criminals". Initially, citizens tend to support the secret prison system; it makes them feel safer and they do not identify with the prisoners. But soon enough, civil society leaders - opposition members, labour activists, clergy and journalists - are arrested and sent there as well.

This process took place in fascist shifts or anti-democracy crackdowns ranging from Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s to the Latin American coups of the 1970s and beyond. It is standard practice for closing down an open society or crushing a pro-democracy uprising.

With its jails in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, of course, Guantánamo in Cuba, where detainees are abused, and kept indefinitely without trial and without access to the due process of the law, America certainly has its gulag now. Bush and his allies in Congress recently announced they would issue no information about the secret CIA "black site" prisons throughout the world, which are used to incarcerate people who have been seized off the street.

Gulags in history tend to metastasise, becoming ever larger and more secretive, ever more deadly and formalised. We know from first-hand accounts, photographs, videos and government documents that people, innocent and guilty, have been tortured in the US-run prisons we are aware of and those we can't investigate adequately.

But Americans still assume this system and detainee abuses involve only scary brown people with whom they don't generally identify. It was brave of the conservative pundit William Safire to quote the anti-Nazi pastor Martin Niemöller, who had been seized as a political prisoner: "First they came for the Jews." Most Americans don't understand yet that the destruction of the rule of law at Guantánamo set a dangerous precedent for them, too.

By the way, the establishment of military tribunals that deny prisoners due process tends to come early on in a fascist shift. Mussolini and Stalin set up such tribunals. On April 24 1934, the Nazis, too, set up the People's Court, which also bypassed the judicial system: prisoners were held indefinitely, often in isolation, and tortured, without being charged with offences, and were subjected to show trials. Eventually, the Special Courts became a parallel system that put pressure on the regular courts to abandon the rule of law in favour of Nazi ideology when making decisions.

3. Develop a thug caste

When leaders who seek what I call a "fascist shift" want to close down an open society, they send paramilitary groups of scary young men out to terrorise citizens. The Blackshirts roamed the Italian countryside beating up communists; the Brownshirts staged violent rallies throughout Germany. This paramilitary force is especially important in a democracy: you need citizens to fear thug violence and so you need thugs who are free from prosecution. ...

While the Bush administration and its works are by and large evil, most of America still manages to be good in spite of them. I'll close with an entry from the new Long Now blog on the world's largest sundial (which I'm sure will reassure those of a doomerish disposition who worry that we may not be able to tell the time after the collapse). But the sundial is French you say ? Sure - but the Long Now concept is still a great idea.
This past September the French army installed 600 one meter square reflective panels in the shape of Roman numerals on the sands of Mont Saint-Michel, a small rocky island off the coast of Normandy. The island’s 150-foot abbey spire cast a shadow three quarters of a mile long that swept across the numerals, making the timekeeper the largest sundial ever constructed, beating out Jaipur, India’s Samrat Yantra.


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