There's something happinin' here. What it is ain't exactly clear. Theres a man with a gun over there, tellin' me I got to beware. I think it's time we stop! Children, what's that sound? Everybody look, what's goin' down. - Buffalo Springfield "Stop! Hey, what's that sound?" 1966By James Kunstler on 17 May 2010 in Kunstler.com - (http://kunstler.com/blog/2010/05/something-happened.html) Everybody in the world is broke, except for maybe Lloyd Blankfein, and he may not end up broke so much as broken -- by a political meat-grinder that is revving up to turn the world's woes and swindles into a new kind of Long Emergency sausage, to be distributed among the roiling, angry masses as a synthetic substitute for nutriment. Call it a synthetic non-collateralized political obligation.
Image above: A seemingly endless coal train winding its way through the American landscape. From (http://www.enviromedia.com/enviroblog/?tag=leaded-gasoline).
By Richard Heinberg on 4 May 2010 at RichardHeinberg.com - (http://richardheinberg.com/216-chinas-coal-bubble-and-how-it-will-deflate-u-s-efforts-to-develop-clean-coal)
The conventional wisdom in energy-and-environment circles is that:
China’s economy, which is growing at a rate of eight percent or more per year, is mostly coal powered today and will continue to be so for decades to come. Coal is cheap and abundant, and China uses far more of it than any other nation. The country is trying to develop other energy sources fast—including nuclear, solar, and wind—but these won’t be sufficient to reduce its reliance on coal. That’s one of the reasons it is important for the U.S. to develop “clean coal” technology, which China can then begin to adopt so as to reduce the horrific climate impacts of its coal-heavy energy mix.
Most of this conventional wisdom is correct, but some of it is plain wrong—so wrong, in fact, that environment-, economic-, and energy-policy wonks are constructing scenarios for the future of U.S. and world energy, and for the global economy, that bear little or no resemblance to the reality that is unfolding.
Let’s see if we can sort what’s right from what’s not, and see also if doing so can help us paint a more accurate picture of where China, and the rest of the world, are actually headed.
It is true of course that China’s coal consumption is enormous and growing, and that coal is the basis of the Chinese economy, fueling over 80 percent of electricity generation. China’s coal output grew an astonishing 28.1 percent from first quarter 2009 to first quarter 2010, to over 750 million metric tons consumed in just the past three months. But this is a situation that is patently unsustainable—not just because of the carbon emissions it entails, but because China simply doesn’t have enough coal to continue growing its consumption much longer.
Start with the stats and do some simple math. China is now mining and burning over three billion tons of coal per year. If the nation’s coal consumption grows at, say, seven percent per year, that means consumption will double in ten years (its annual growth rate was actually over nine percent in one or two of the last several years, implying a doubling every eight years—but let’s be conservative and assume seven percent growth). In that case, by 2020 China would be using about six billion tons per annum.
It takes some reflection to come to terms with the enormity of these figures. In 2000, China’s coal consumption was only marginally higher than that of the U.S. Today, a decade later, it is three times U.S. consumption. (It is worth noting that the U.S. has double China’s coal reserves.)
Combine unprecedented consumption levels with furious growth rates and you quickly arrive at absurdities and impossibilities. As in, it won’t happen. The wheels will fall off the wagon first.
There Are Limits
It takes infrastructure to mine and use coal. Rails and rail wagons, plus trucks and roads, are needed to move coal from mines to power plants. Then there are the mines themselves, as well as the boilers and turbines that actually produce electricity. (In this essay we will not further consider the vital importance of coal to China’s steel industry, and the necessity of steel for manufacturing and economic growth in general.)
China is building all of these at a frenetic pace—but the relentless math of exponential growth is starting to hit home. Doubling small levels of production and consumption is relatively easy in practical terms, but, as quantities expand, the task balloons. China accomplished an amazing feat by adding almost two billion tons per year of coal production and consumption capacity and transport infrastructure during the past decade. Adding another three billion tons per year of capacity during the next decade would be—well, nearly twice as big a feat. Imagine building mining and transport infrastructure three times the size of the entire U.S. coal and rail industries in just ten years. That’s what it will take for China to maintain seven percent growth rates.
It takes other resources to consume coal; crucially, water is needed to run coal power plants. A typical 500-megawatt coal-fired power plant uses about 2.2 billion gallons of water each year to create steam for turning its turbines—enough water to support a city of 250,000 people. In recent months droughts have wracked huge sections of China, idling hydroelectric dams and stoking demand for coal. If the droughts recur and worsen (as climate-change scenarios suggest), at some point nuclear and coal power plants will be forced to shut down as well, leading to the kinds of electricity supply problems that are already plaguing Pakistan and dozens of other nations, where the lights are off for hours each day even in the largest cities.
And so, partly due to these factors, but primarily because most of the highways, shopping malls, and appliances that the Chinese people are likely to need for a while have by now already been built, China is entering a period characterized by what are called “saturation effects,” which will result in significant slowdowns in key industrial energy consuming sectors of the economy. China’s infrastructure boom that has driven so much of energy demand growth in the past decade has probably peaked, so that growth in cement and steel demand will soon taper off. While the nation’s stimulus package, representing 40 percent of GDP, has extended the party, it will play out over the next year or so and probably can’t be repeated.
But that still leaves a smoldering question: can China’s coal industry continue to supply domestic demand with even modest rates of growth going forward, declining perhaps to something more on the order of two percent per year?
If It’s Not There, You Can’t Burn It
According to the World Coal Institute, China has reserves totaling a little over 110 billion tons. That’s almost 37 years’ worth of coal at current rates of consumption (i.e., three billion tons per year). But to assume that China won’t have coal supply problems until 37 years have passed is also to assume two absurdities: that Chinese demand, production, and consumption of coal will remain constant; and that after maintaining this steady rate of extraction and consumption for 37 years, China will one day suddenly discover that its coal has run out.
In the real world, China’s demand for coal is expected to grow. Adding ten percent annual consumption growth to the forecast would yield a reserves lifetime of only 16 years. While a sustained rate of growth this high is extremely unlikely, the principle is worth keeping in mind.
Also in the real world, production profiles plotted over time assume the shape of a distorted bell curve that starts at zero and ends at zero, with a peak somewhere in between. We know this is true for coal extraction because several regions in the world have already seen a peak and substantial decline of extraction rates, while no region has so far managed to maintain a high, steady rate of production (or a growing rate of production) until reserves suddenly reached exhaustion. This means that China’s coal production will peak and begin to decline significantly sooner than reserves-to-production ratios (37 at steady rates, or 16 with ten percent annual growth) would suggest.
Could China increase its coal reserves? In principle, yes. Reserves are defined as the portion of the total coal resource base that geologists believe can be mined economically. New mining technology and higher coal prices could impact those estimates. However, the overwhelming trend globally is for reserves to be downgraded to mere resources as geologists take into account more restrictions on the amount of coal that is practically recoverable—restrictions like location, depth, seam thickness, and coal quality. It is this general trend that causes some analysts to doubt China’s official reserves figure of 187 billion tons (which is notably higher than estimates published by World Energy Council, World Coal Institute, and others): the coal is certainly there, but—like the great majority of coal elsewhere in the world—most of it is probably destined to stay right where it is.
In my 2009 book Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis, I surveyed four studies forecasting the timing of the peak of China’s coal production. At one extreme, a 2006 study by Energy Watch Group of Germany used a reserves figure of 62.2 billion tons to forecast a peak of production for 2015, with a rapid production decline commencing in 2020. At the other extreme was a 2007 study by Chinese academics Tao and Li published in Energy Policy, which used the Chinese government’s official coal reserves figure of 187 billion tons to arrive at a peaking date between 2025 and 2032.
None of these forecasts envisioned the rapid growth in Chinese coal production that has actually occurred over the past few years. This predictive failure could be interpreted in one of two ways: it suggests either that China’s coal reserves are larger than previously estimated, thus permitting a higher sustained rate of extraction; or that Chinese officials have forced extraction rates to the absolute maximum level sooner rather than later in order to support economic growth, thus hastening the production peak—which could therefore possibly occur even before the earliest forecast date (2015).
Economic growth requires energy, and China needs economic growth to maintain domestic political stability and international competitiveness. If there’s not enough coal to support the nation’s energy growth, then other options must be considered.
China is developing alternative energy sources; can these be brought on line fast enough to make a difference? Let’s do some numbers. China aims to have 100 gigawatts (GW) of wind power capacity by 2020, and the nation’s leaders plan to expand installed solar capacity to 20 GW during the same period. These are truly astonishing goals, and, if China even comes close to accomplishing them, it will become the world’s renewable energy leader. But there is a problem: total Chinese electricity generation capacity is 900 GW currently; with seven percent growth, that means the nation’s electricity demand in 2020 will be something like 1800 GW. Wind and solar together would supply less than seven percent of that. The only thing likely to boost that percentage much would be a dramatic reduction in growth of energy demand to, say, two percent annually.
The situation with nuclear power is similar: China has 11 atomic power plants now and is in the process of building 20 more, with a target of 60 GW of generating capacity, or possibly more, by 2020. But this will supply only between three and five percent of total electricity demand, depending on energy demand growth rates.
The conclusion is unsettling but inescapable: China’s reliance on coal cannot be significantly reduced as long as its demand for electrical power continues to grow at anything like current rates. And even if energy demand growth tapers off and alternative energy sources come on line quickly, the country’s ability to supply enough coal domestically will still be challenged.
Imports Can’t Make Up the Difference
China has been self-sufficient in coal until recently (importing some coal but exporting just as much or more), but supply problems over the last couple of years have led to burgeoning imports and shrinking exports. If Chinese coal mines can no longer cover the nation’s demand, why not just expand imports still further to make up the difference?
China will import 150 million tons (Mt) of coal this year, twice what it imported last year. That’s not much, if we think of it as a percentage of the nation’s total coal consumption. But that 150 Mt represents over 60 percent of the total exports of Australia, the world’s top coal exporter. This means if Chinese imports double again next year—not an unrealistic scenario—China will need to import more coal than Australia can currently provide. One more doubling of import demand and China will be wanting to import 600 million tons per year, about the total amount of coal exported by all exporting nations last year.
Can Australia expand its coal production? Yes, it can and no doubt will. Likewise Indonesia and South Africa. But will any or all of these countries be able to grow exports fast enough to keep up with Chinese demand? Again, expansion will be limited by infrastructure requirements—ships, ports, trains, and rails. It takes time to build all of these. By the latter decades of the 21st century, Australia could be the world’s biggest coal producer, even though that nation’s coal reserves are smaller than those of the U.S., China, or India. (How can this be? It would simply occur as a result of the latter high-consuming nations gobbling up their own reserves so quickly and so soon; Australia has been a fairly minor producer up to this point.) But that will do China little good over the next decade or so, if its domestic coal production peaks and goes into steep decline.
China’s increasing reliance on coal imports is not good news for India, Europe, and other coal importers. India burns 500 Mt of coal per year and is facing growing problems with its domestic mining industry. The solution appears to be, unsurprisingly, to import more coal. India wants to grow its economy at seven percent annually, just as the Chinese are doing, and India’s economy is just as coal-dependent as China’s.
Until recently, coal has been a resource used mostly in the country of origin. Internationally traded coal was a fairly small percentage of the total amount consumed globally—a situation quite different from that with oil, over half of which is exported from the country of origin. However, there is an increasing trend toward the development of an integrated global coal market—and it appears that trend is about to go into overdrive.
This means that if Chinese and Indian demand for coal imports pushes up the price for export coal (as it almost certainly will, and probably quite dramatically), the result will be higher coal prices everywhere—even within nations that are self-sufficient in the resource. After all, if a coal mining company in the U.S. can get twice the price for its product by selling it abroad as opposed to selling it domestically, won’t it opt to export? Unless governments implement export curbs or domestic price caps, the international export price of coal will end up being the domestic price for countries everywhere.
Yet if coal prices go too high, that will cause demand to fall, as potential coal buyers choose other energy sources or simply do without. The result will be the same kind of volatility in coal prices as we have seen in oil prices over the past few years. That price volatility will undermine energy markets in general, and poorer nations that use coal will consistently be outbid.
Implication for the U.S.: Forget “Clean Coal”
Now: what does any of this have to do with “clean coal” technology?
Also known as Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS), “clean coal” is touted as the solution to one of the biggest conundrums facing industrial civilization in the 21st century: how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and thus prevent catastrophic climate change, while maintaining growth in energy supplies and therefore in economic activity. Since nobody in a position of authority can seemingly figure out how to maintain economic growth while cutting coal out of the energy equation globally, and since nearly everyone assumes coal will remain cheap and abundant far into the foreseeable future, the obvious answer to the dilemma is to find a way to continue burning increasing amounts of coal while keeping the resulting CO2 from going into the atmosphere.
We know this can be done—on a small scale. All of the elements of the technology are already working in various pilot projects. Oil companies already inject carbon dioxide into oil wells to increase production. Pipelines, compressors, pumps—none of these requires quantum physics.
There are two hitches: the difficulty of scaling up such an enterprise, and its impact on electricity prices. As many analysts have pointed out, the sheer size of the proposed operation—if deployed nationally in the U.S. alone, let alone the entire world—will be mind-boggling. And the costs of all those pipelines, pumps, compressors, and new coal gasification power plants (these are needed because it’s really difficult and expensive to add CCS onto existing pulverized coal burning power plants) add up quickly and steeply. Every energy analyst agrees that this will boost the cost of electricity.
Still, the scheme might just barely work—as long as coal prices remain constant.
However, add much higher coal prices to the equation and the result is electricity costs that will significantly dampen economic growth, make other energy sources comparatively more economically viable—or both. Conclusion: “clean coal” is an idea whose time will never come.
Now, there are other reasons for assuming that U.S. coal prices will be higher in a decade or so than they are now. Official estimates of U.S. coal reserves are probably inflated, and domestic supply problems could start to appear sooner than most energy analysts are willing to admit. Moreover, America’s coal transport infrastructure could be hobbled by higher diesel prices if world oil production goes into decline soon (as increasing numbers of analysts foresee), since transport costs often account for the lion’s share of the delivered price of coal. But even if we ignore those looming systemic limits and consider only the implications of China’s growing demand for coal imports, it’s clear that U.S. coal prices can go nowhere but up. The only thing likely to keep them from doing so would be a collapse of the Chinese—and the global—economy.
China: Leading the Global Economy…Into the Ditch
Some commentators are concerned about China’s economy for reasons that have nothing to do with coal. The prime example: it would appear that Beijing has a problem with over-reliance on property development as an engine of domestic economic growth. One of those sounding the alarm on this score is hedge fund manager James Chanos, founder of Kynikos Associates Ltd.; he says China is “on a treadmill to hell,” and that the nation is “Dubai times a thousand.” He has also been quoted as saying, “They can’t afford to get off this heroin of property development. It is the only thing keeping the economic . . . numbers growing.”
A bursting of China’s property bubble could collapse the nation’s economy quickly and soon. But it is essentially a problem of money, and money is a creation of the human mind. Currencies can be reformed; banking systems can be reorganized. Such things are painful and take time, but they are certainly possible—and historic examples are numerous.
Energy is different. Without energy, nothing happens. Transport systems stall; building construction and manufacturing cease. The lights go out. You can’t make energy out of nothing and you can’t call it into existence with computer keystrokes, as bankers can do with money. Generating electrical power requires physical resources, infrastructure, and labor. And so there are natural limits to how much energy we can summon for our human purposes at any given time.
China has become a great manufacturing powerhouse largely because it was able to grow its energy supply quickly and cheaply. And so China’s contribution to the world economy is to this extent a function of China’s contribution to world energy. One significant gauge of this link is the fact that Chinese coal production represents more than double the amount of energy contributed to the world economy as compared to Saudi Arabia’s oil production (1,100 million tons of oil equivalent vs. 540 Mtoe.)
If China faces hard energy limits, that means its economy is living on borrowed time. That also means the world as a whole confronts energy and economic constraints that are harsher, and closer, than we are being told.
Forever Blowing Bubbles?
High coal prices and “clean coal” don’t mix. China’s insatiable hunger for more coal will drive up coal prices everywhere. China can’t keep up coal-powered industrial expansion for much longer, nor can the global economy accelerate without the engine of China. The evidence on these scores couldn’t be clearer: the numbers we have discussed are fairly uncontroversial, and the math of compounded steady growth is easy. Still, none of these realities has entered our public discourse. This fact in itself is really peculiar and disturbing. We are participating in a slow-motion train wreck, yet all we can manage to discuss is the quality of the food in the dining car.
Maybe this is because acknowledging the train wreck would require us to confront a slew of contradictions at the core of the entire modern industrial project. Without clean coal, there is no solution to the climate crisis—unless we are willing to contemplate giving up economic growth. But further growth may be unattainable anyway, as the world approaches fundamental resource limits. Nobody wants to think about these things, much less talk about them. Not China’s leaders, nor economists elsewhere, nor many environmentalists, nor politicians, nor journalists.
But we can’t wish these limits away. Impossible things (like unending economic growth) won’t happen just because people want them to. And awful things (like the wreck of the China train) won’t be averted just because acknowledging them makes us uncomfortable.
There are of course steps that Chinese officials—everyone, in fact—could take to make the situation better. We should be developing and deploying renewable energy as fast as possible, with a wartime mentality in terms of priority and commitment. And we should be planning for the end of growth, indeed for economic contraction. These things will be difficult, there’s no getting around it. Still, they are possible in principle. But we will fail for sure if we remain sunk in denial and do not even make the effort.
China’s economic bubble in some ways represents a microcosm of the entire industrial period—itself a relatively brief era of urbanization, fossil-fueled expansion, technological innovation, and unprecedented explosion of consumption. China has taken only two or three decades to accomplish what some other nations did over the course of a couple of centuries. This suggests that, for that country, implosion may come just as quickly.It is all a remarkable spectacle. Sit back, watch, and marvel if you wish. But know one thing: unless we collectively wake up, engage the brakes on this runaway train (and here I am speaking not just of China), and start discussing how we will adjust to the end of economic growth as we have known and defined it, none of this will end well. .
Fabrizio Gallanti of Abitare shows some of the more interesting ones; some have been turned into restaurants, used for making wine, and even a sustainable eco-resort.
There is even a non-profit organization dedicated to their preservation and adaptation - Concrete Mushrooms.The purpose of Concrete Mushrooms is to understand and develop the bunkers as assets for Albania. The founding principles of the project are: 1. A critical approach to these bunkers as symbols of xenophobia in order to invert their meaning and change then into symbols of hospitality. 2. The preservation of the bunkers in terms of their link to the memory of an important period of the Albanian history. 3. The recognition of the bunkers as a resource instead of as a burden. 4. The promotion of a sustainable eco-touristic sector in Albania. Image above: A concrete bunker hotel room in Albania with a drop-dead gorgeous view. From GreenDiary.com By Desh on 22 October 2010 in GreenDiary.com - (http://www.greendiary.com/entry/video-concrete-mushrooms-project-transforms-deserted-bunkers-into-eco-hostels) Two Albanian graduate students of Politecneco di Milano, Elian Stefa and Gyler Mydyti, under the guidance of architect Stefano Boeri, hit upon an idea to convert the deserted bunkers across Albania into appreciable tourist destinations. The transformation will allow trekkers a shelter in the shape of these hostels, dubbed as Concrete Mushrooms. Other possible transformations include info points, kiosks, gift shops and cafes. Well, while it will promote eco-tourism, it lets the dwellers peep into the glorious past of Albania. Thus, the project involving the rejuvenation of 750,000 abandoned concrete bunkers aims to preserve the Albanian history via these memoirs. Video above: Concrete Mushrooms Preview - Albania's 750,000 inherited bunkers. From (http://vimeo.com/6710102) .
Abercrombie voted for a ban on cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of detainees; against Bush's Iraq war surge; and in favor of withdrawing most US troops from Iraq by April 2008.
But Abercrombie's seat (one of only two Hawaii holds) sits empty, leaving Abercrombie's own colleague, former Congressman Ed Case (Hawaii Second District 2002-2007), to battle against fellow Democrat Colleen Hanabusa, president of Hawaii's State Senate and Republican candidate Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou.
Besides Case, Hanabusa and Djou, there are 11 other candidates running in this special election, but they are effectively shut out of the discussion simply by virtue of not having the money or media attention required to win an election. Nobody is talking about GOP candidate Charles "Googie" Collins or Democrat Rev. Vinny Browne.
Instead, all eyes are focused on the three-way split among the two dueling Democrats and Djou, a snappy, young father of three with good posture and a Colgate smile, who is reportedly leading the race in a poll taken last week showing Djou with 36 percent support over Case (28 percent) and Hanabusa (22 percent).
There continues to be much talk of behind-the-scenes wrangling and a desire for one of the Democrats (fingers point mostly at Hanabusa) to step aside and prevent Djou from winning the seat in Obama's home district. However, no such luck. Earlier last week, Hanabusa held a news conference to say she's in this until the end and she's in it to win.
The glare from what most certainly was Djou's Waikiki-wide smile just off camera was almost blinding.
Barring salacious revelations, grave missteps or a surprise withdrawal by any of the candidates in the final days before all mail-in ballots must be returned (this election is mail-in only), there is little reason to expect any significant change in their respective positions. If Case and Hanabusa do split the vote, they will ensure Hawaii's next member of Congress will be Charles Kong Djou, a lawyer, captain in the US Army Reserve and former campaign co-chair for Rudi Giuliani's 2008 presidential campaign.
In half a century of statehood, Hawaii has had only two Republican members of Congress and two Republican governors. Should Djou win, it will be touted as a major victory for the GOP. Just imagine Sean Hannity gloating that voters in Obama's home town elected a Republican.
Concern in Washington is so high that the president himself has recorded a robo-call phone message asking for "a Democrat that will support [my] agenda in Congress." The message describes the special election as "crucial for [us] to continue pushing forward our agenda of change."
But when it comes to Obama's war policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with his marked increase in the use of predator drone attacks inside Pakistan, he needn't worry about who wins this election. Democrat or Republican, he is likely going to get anything he wants from Hawaii's next Congressman or woman.
Ed Case, who fancies himself a "moderate, independent" Democrat, is still remembered for not pushing for a withdrawal from Iraq and not opposing military action in Afghanistan. Case once famously (and many say needlessly) said that had he been in Congress in October 2002, he probably would have voted to authorize the use of force against Iraq.
In a recent telephone interview, Case said he believed "the great majority of Americans of all parties" support Obama on his decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I think if you asked ten Americans 'how's Obama doing in Iraq and Afghanistan?' you'd probably get to about eight that in one way, shape, or form supported his decisions there," Case said.
He called Obama's foreign policy "very moderate and balanced," saying that far-right hawks and far-left doves might find disappointment in Obama's policies, but that he believed that represents a "distinct minority in the political spectrum of our country."
On the question of whether Obama's foreign policies are consistent with Hawaii Democratic Party platform, which calls for supporting "a fair and just foreign policy that promotes peace," Case said, "I believe his policies do, in fact, implement our platform."
In other words, Obama can expect to get pretty much whatever he asks for in support of foreign occupation, wars or predator drones from Case.
Likewise, Colleen Hanabusa, the "liberal" among the three candidates, wrote on her web site, "I support President Obama's decision to send over 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan to assist existing forces in stabilizing the region ... The sobering reality is that 9/11 did occur, and it could very well happen again. We need take all reasonable actions necessary to ensure that it doesn't happen again."
Where have we heard that kind of talk before?
Even Djou, the sharp, young Republican who graduated in the same class as Obama's sister from the same prestigious school Obama attended (Punahou School), praises Obama's foreign policy with regards to Iraq and Afghanistan. In a phone interview Djou said, "I do think the president has taken the right approach in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama administration policies today look very different from Senator Obama policy calls during the 2008 campaign."
Djou was initially concerned about how Obama would approach national security, but has been pleased largely because, as he put it, "President Obama is ignoring the advice of Senator Obama."
Asked to grade Obama on Iraq and Afghanistan, Djou said he'd give the president a "B."
Not bad for the opposition party, eh?
And while Djou criticizes Obama on fiscal responsibility (he gives Obama a "D" grade), he, like his two leading Democratic opponents, shows no indication that fiscal responsibility extends to reducing, or even limiting the mind-boggling amount of money the United States spends on waging wars, occupying countries, developing and maintaining its nuclear arsenal or operating over 700 military bases around the world including "enduring temporary" bases in Japan, where nearly 47,000 US soldiers remain 65 years after the end of World War II. With the US having already spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,000,000,000,000 (one-trillion) on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of civilians and soldiers killed and wounded and our own country bankrupt and rapidly unraveling, it appears highly unlikely that Hawaii's next Congressman or woman will be anything more than another compliant body, ready to roll over, sit up pretty or play dead the next time Obama (or any other president) snaps his fingers demanding more money for war.
Image above: Illustration by David Sandlin for New York Times article.
For centuries, speculation about the existence of life elsewhere in the universe was the preserve of philosophers and theologians. Then, 50 years ago last month, the question entered the scientific sphere when a young American astronomer named Frank Drake began sweeping the skies with a radio telescope in hopes of picking up a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization.
Initially, his quest was considered somewhat eccentric. But now the pendulum of scientific opinion has swung to the point where even a scientist of the stature of Stephen Hawking is speculating that aliens exist in other parts of our galaxy.
The search for extraterrestrial intelligence is predicated on the assumption, widely held today, that life would emerge readily on Earth-like planets. Given that there could be upward of a billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy alone, this assumption suggests that the universe should be teeming with life.
But the notion of life as a cosmic imperative is not backed up by hard evidence. In fact, the mechanism of life’s origin remains shrouded in mystery. So how can we test the idea that the transition from nonlife to life is simple enough to happen repeatedly? The most obvious and straightforward way is to search for a second form of life on Earth. No planet is more Earth-like than Earth itself, so if the path to life is easy, then life should have started up many times over right here.
Searching for alternative life on Earth might seem misconceived, because there is excellent evidence that every kind of life so far studied evolved from a common ancestor that lived billions of years ago. Yet most of the life that exists on Earth has never been properly classified. The vast majority of species are microbes, invisible to the naked eye, and scientists have analyzed only a tiny fraction of them. For all we know, there could be microbes with other ancestral origins living literally under our noses — or even inside our noses — constituting a sort of shadow biosphere, containing life, but not as we know it.
The denizens of the hidden “alien” biosphere — let’s call them Life 2.0 — might employ radically different biochemical processes than the life we know and love. Microbiologists could easily have overlooked their existence, because their methods are focused on the biochemistry of standard life. Obviously, if you go looking for A, you will find A and not B.
One way to go about tracking down Life 2.0 is to make educated guesses about what its biochemistry might be like. Alternative microbes might, for example, have different chemical elements. One shrewd suggestion, made by Felisa Wolfe-Simon of the United States Geological Survey, is that phosphorus — crucial to life as we know it — could be replaced by arsenic. She and her colleague Ron Oremland are dredging bugs from arsenic-contaminated Mono Lake in California in search of arsenic life.
Other researchers are focusing on the handedness of molecules. In standard life, the key amino acids are always left-handed, and the sugars are right-handed. Scientists are not sure why standard life has made this particular choice; nonliving chemical mixtures tend to contain equal amounts of both left- and right-handed molecules.
If life started again, perhaps it would select different handedness for its key molecules. Should a shadow biosphere of “mirror microbes” exist, the organisms could be identified by culturing microbial samples in “mirror soup” — a cocktail of nutrients with the handedness reversed, available from commercial suppliers. Standard life would find the soup unpalatable, but mirror life would thrive on it. Some experiments along these lines are being carried out at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville. Ala.
Life 2.0 would be easier to identify if it inhabited distinct niches beyond the reach of regular life. Microbes are known to dwell in the superheated water around volcanic vents in the deep ocean, for example. Others survive extremes of cold, salinity, acidity or radiation. Yet all these so-called extremophiles that have been investigated to date are the same life as you and me. Regular life is clearly very hardy and adaptable, and can tolerate amazingly harsh conditions. Nevertheless, there will be limits. If Life 2.0 has a different chemical constitution, it may lurk in pockets at even more extreme temperatures or higher levels of radiation.
An argument often given for why Earth couldn’t host another form of life is that once the life we know became established, it would have eliminated any competition through natural selection. But if another form of life were confined to its own niche, there would be little direct competition with regular life. And, in any case, natural selection doesn’t always mean winner-takes-all. Some years ago it was discovered that simple microbes actually belong to two very distinct domains — bacteria and archaea. Genetically, these groups differ from each other as much as they differ from humans. Yet they have peacefully co-existed in overlapping habitats for billions of years.
If my theory turns out to be correct, it will have sweeping consequences. Should we find a second form of life right here on our doorstep, we could be confident that life is a truly cosmic phenomenon. If so, there may well be sentient beings somewhere in the galaxy wondering, as do we, if they are not alone in the universe.
• Paul Davies, the director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University, is the author of “The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence.”.
Image above: Labeled starter plants ready for exchange for another.
5th Biannual Community Seed and Plant Exchange All seeds and plants will be given freely or traded. WHEN: May 23rd, 2010 from 1:00 pm to 6:00 pm
All Saints Gymnasium in Kapaa
Check-in of plant material begins at 1:00 pm.
The seed and plant exchange will follow a group blessing
Dr. Valenzuela will start his presentation at 4:30 pm.
To find out more please call (808) 652-4118
This event is a joint production of Regenerations Botanical Garden, Kauai Community Seed Bank & Library, GMO Free Kauai, and Hawaii SEED.
There will be education tables, films, live music and food, along with Kaua`i grown seeds and plants from around the island. This event features a keynote presentation by University of Hawaii Crop Specialist Dr. Hector Valenzuela entitled “Ecological Agriculture and Local Food and Seed Systems in Hawaii”. His areas expertise include agroecology and field trial research, composting and organic amendments, and no-till farming.
In his role as Science Advisor for Hawaii SEED, Dr. Valenzuela works to educate the public about the risks posed by genetically engineered organisms. He recently co-produced the “Hua ka Hua” Public Seed Symposium on Hawai`i Island. Live music will spotlight local favorites Malama Pono Alstars and Aroshn.
People bringing plant material to share will fill out a label that identifies type of plant, favorable growing conditions, and if they wish, their contact information. Those bringing seeds and plants are requested to bring pre-cleaned, pest-free, GMO free and non-invasive material. Everyone is encouraged to attend: even if you have no plants or seeds to give away, there will be plenty to learn and receive.
Gulf Spill Worse Than Estimated Video above: "Lowering the Cofferdam". BP's failed attempt at a quick fix. From (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2JTM2QyAfCI) By Richard Harris on 14 May 2010 on NPR - (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126809525) There's at least 10 times as much oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico than official estimates suggest, according to an exclusive NPR analysis. At NPR's request, experts analyzed video that BP released Wednesday. Their findings suggest the BP spill is already far larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska, which spilled at least 250,000 barrels of oil. BP has said repeatedly that there is no reliable way to measure the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico by looking at the oil gushing out of the pipe. But scientists say there are actually many proven techniques for doing just that. Steven Wereley, an associate professor at Purdue University, analyzed videotape of the sea-floor gusher using a technique called particle image velocimetry. A computer program simply tracks particles, and calculates how fast they are moving. Wereley put the BP video of the gusher into his computer. He made a few simple calculations and came up with an astonishing value for the rate of the oil spill: 70,000 barrels a day — much higher than the official estimate of 5,000 barrels a day. The method is accurate to a degree of plus or minus 20 percent. Given that uncertainty, the amount of material spewing from the pipe could range from 56,000 barrels to 84,000 barrels a day. It is important to note that it's not all oil. The short video BP released starts out with a shot of methane, but at the end it seems to be mostly oil. "There's potentially some fluctuation back and forth between methane and oil," Wereley said. But assuming that the lion's share of the material coming out the pipe is oil, Wereley's calculations show that the official estimates are too low. "We're talking more than a factor of 10 difference between what I calculate and the number that's being thrown around," he said. At least two other calculations support him. Timothy Crone, an associate research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, used another well-accepted method to calculate fluid flows. Crone says the flow is at least 50,000 barrels a day. Eugene Chaing, a professor of astrophysics at the University of California, Berkeley, got a similar answer just using pencil and paper. Without even having a sense of scale from the BP video, he correctly deduced that the diameter of the pipe was about 20 inches. And though his calculation is less precise than Wereley's, it is in the same ballpark. "I would peg it at around 20,000 to 100,000 barrels per day," he says. Chiang calls the current estimate of 5,000 barrels a day "almost certainly incorrect." Given this flow rate, it seems this is a spill of unprecedented proportions in U.S. waters. "It would just take a few days, at most a week, for it to exceed the Exxon Valdez's record," Chiang said. BP disputed these figures. "We've said all along that there's no way to estimate the flow coming out of the pipe accurately," said Bill Salvin, a BP spokesman. Instead, BP prefers to rely on measurements of oil on the sea surface made by the Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Those are also contentious. Salvin also says these analyses should not assume that the oil is spewing from the 21-inch pipe, called a riser, shown in the video. "The drill pipe, from which the oil is rising, is actually a 9-inch pipe that rests within the riser," Slavin said. But Werleley says that fact doesn't skew his calculation. And though scientists say they hope that BP will eventually release more video and information so they can refine their estimates, what they have now is good enough. "It's possible to get a pretty decent number by looking at the video," Wereley said. This new, much larger number suggests that capturing — and cleaning up — this oil may be a much bigger challenge than anyone has let on. .