Signal to Noise

If I sit down and think about writing something here, it’s not a problem of there being nothing to say. It never is. The big problem is always, what can I separate out on its own and narrow down to a neat little topic? That can actually be the hardest part of sitting down and writing here.

It’s being ridiculously obvious to say that the world now is, to say the very least, complicated. It’s made more complicated by a constant droning wall of noise. There’s always an endless array of stories of people bombarded with supposed “information” confusing, misdirecting, and misleading them, when the world is complicated enough as it is, and getting more complex. You have to wonder what end game balancing of accounts kind of fate awaits the people who set about their daily lives to accumulate more money, political power, or both, by deliberately misleading and confusing people. It can’t be good. Masses of confused, badly informed, and misinformed people are then joined in all kinds of alliances and associations with madmen and fools, and gladly go along with the games because they really don’t understand they’ve hitched their own respective wagons to the crazy train.

I keep thinking, there are so many things people hardly notice, while a bombardment of chatter and diversions hits them continuously. Hours of television from piles of channels via cable or satellite, constant cell phone chatter, constant web browsing, endless trivia, and even when something important flashes by, a chorus of barking and chattering hits them, and often it’s not from people with an interest in honestly and accurately informing people about things that matter.

A poor boy can’t tell where to start sometimes.

 

I’ve just been reading “The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight” by Thom Hartmann, and this is definitely a book that makes me want to shout out to the world that everybody should read this thing.

One of the best, most comprehensive, just honest to god nailing it accurate summaries that I’ve seen, of a whole world of recent and current madness in American politics, appeared recently on the web. Go read: Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult. It’s amazingly concise for how much it covers, and neatly summarizes an ugly array of things that could be material for a whole series of books.

It pretty succinctly sums up the whole ugly brew of lunacy, extreme foolishness, hubris, and manipulation that rules the Republican Party of America today. Dwight Eisenhower wouldn’t recognize the stuff, and would probably be viewing the present state of his party in stunned horror. Not long ago, somebody said something that had great resonance to it; that writer and commentator William F. Buckley managed to drive the lunatics out of the Republican Party, and Ronald Reagan invited them back.

It’s a mess. And the mess propagates itself.

The problem is that this takes us right back into the same chronic fundamental and repetitive problem. The people who understand it probably already understand it, or at least have a pretty good general sense of the existence of the problems, while the people who really need to read the piece, and really get their heads around it, are the very people whose minds have been utterly deranged by the very kinds of things discussed there to the point where they can’t be reached.

The people who badly need the clues probably won’t be reading this.

There are people around with a sense of paying attention to the right things, and sometimes I find people like that talking about the kind of thing I’m talking about as a kind of shared concensus trance of delusion.

 

Hartmann’s The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight is a brilliant book, amazing in how much it addresses in comprehensive yet concise form, in less than 400 pages. For what it covers, that’s not very long.

If you are going to look at what I’m calling the Big Three of energy, economy, and ecology, they all tie together in ways that are inseparable, and Hartmann covers, extraordinarily well, how so much of what’s happening around us right now is badly off the rails, in a whole host of suppositions and assumptions, and just simply, clearly, absolutely cannot continue on its current path.

In “energy”, economics, ecology, there are too many fundamental presumptions at work that are destructive, and we are, right now, all of us living right this moment, in a time when the repercussions of all these things are rapidly becoming unavoidable. They’re all coming around and smacking us in the face, whether any of us is conscious of this or not, whether we want to face them or not, whether we understand them or not.

There are many assumptions of this kind.

There’s the idea that the Earth itself, our whole world, is all for us, humans. That it’s all about us and for us.

There’s a whole set of ideas that healthy economics, of “wealth”, revolves around constant, perpetual growth and expansion.

Coupled with these things is a working premise that says that all of the planet is there just as raw material for all this, and there will always be more, “new territory”, more resources in new frontiers just waiting to be exploited and “developed”, that are useless as is and going to waste unless, or until, they are exploited and “developed”. With that comes an idea that “nature” and “the environment” are concepts of a sort of separate domain from human life and civilization, only existing for these ideas of raw material just waiting to be put into use for our purposes.

This kind of thinking brings thinking and then actions that treat the rainforests of South America, not as part of a giant complex living system that we depend upon as living beings, but rather “wasted” real estate waiting to be cleared, stripped of any raw materials, and made “useful”.

Let’s not forget the whole pervasive constant of referring human beings not as “people” but as “consumers“. Locusts are “consumers“.

This kind of attitude and mindset leads to things like discussions in the United States Congress about wilderness preserves in north Alaska and oil finding an elected representative standing before the chamber, with an easel for display, holding a large blank piece of white poster board, as the speaker argues that this is what the area in question is. Get it? The contention there, it’s nothing but white, the place is all covered in snow, there is no human civilisation or activity there, so therefor, it’s a big blank, why, there’s nothing there, and all that oil is just going to waste because of some silly darned “environmental extremists” just being unreasonable, and impractical, by golly, just making a big fuss about (so the argument goes) literally nothing. That’s the attitude: it’s just there, we aren’t getting anything out of it, we’re not making use of it, so what importance could there be to the region other than going in and sucking out the oil?

All this runs smack into a wall of reality that too many people are convinced can be ignored, or even argued as, somehow, not even being real. A large, pervasive, giant set of interwoven assumptions about how things work and how they should work run into conflicts with the reality of Earth and life upon the planet all being a large, incomprehensibly complex large system whole. It runs into the reality of a planet of finite resources.

But people sit in front of televisions either watching hours of vapid empty entertainment, with extra derangement points in an assortment of euphemistically described “reality” shows, and if they turn to something for actual news and information, there’s not much help in sorting out the world and getting a good grip. The worst is the Fox News continuous stream of reality distortion. It doesn’t get much better elsewhere, even if the blatant deception isn’t there like on Fox.

A few weeks ago I encountered some comments from a character online, and, among them, was the declaration that if not for the supposed misdeeds and obstruction of particular political persons, why, we (the U.S.) would have all the oil we needed, right here in the good old U.S. of A, and, I quote, “we wouldn’t even need OPEC!”. His idea of support for this argument, a link to a web page, a short piece with the theme “high gas prices and how it’s Obama’s fault”. That thing was written in the general style of appearing to be some serious, studied, analysis, and it was beside the point, all about government policies and “The Market”. Nothing about the physical reality of petroleum.

That wasn’t the first time I’ve heard that nonsense before; which is exactly the point here.

Not a word of anything relevant to what had been claimed by the deluded character offering this piece up as information, about the United States supposedly having all the oil it wishes to our heart’s content. It was irrelevant and useless. It didn’t even make sense and prove anything about the supposed point about gas prices. That, in itself, is the subject off on its own, in that, clearly, for some people, they do think it made some sort of actual point. This particular episode provides a perfect example of something very bad. It has become normal among whole large groups of people to not just fail to understand a subject, they can’t even tell whether or not they’re on the right subject, even when you tell them about it.

Holy shit.

 

The subject of petroleum issues does indeed get complicated when you wade into the thing (and the last thing anybody needs is confused babbling bullshit from people who don’t even grasp what the subject IS). You can, however, break it down to a pretty short simple outline form. Narrowed down to the specific range of subject of oil relevant to the United States, it’s:

  1. The remaining oil resources within the territory of the United States;
  2. The rates of consumption of oil in the U.S.;
  3. The patterns of oil discovery and extraction that were figured out over fifty years ago by geophysicist M. King Hubbert (who specialized in petroleum and worked a career in the oil business).

You can find tons of chatter about petroleum. How much of it actually encompasses those three general factors and actually addresses physical reality? How much of it is like the worthless blather made to appear like serious analysis like the “we don’t like gas prices and it’s Obama’s bad policies” bilge somebody pointed out?

 

I find myself repeating myself on the subject of oil, for the reasons found in what I’m talking about. Too few people have enough understanding of what’s happening, and will be happening, and what’s involved, to get a handle on discerning when they’re hearing or reading something serious, or snake oil sales deceptions, or even just garden variety noise from idiots.

There’s a serious problem; there are plenty of people easily bright enough to get their heads around the information and concepts involved. The basics really aren’t so terribly complicated. Any reasonably intelligent person, with a decent basic high school education, can get a handle on the basics with no problem. It isn’t so complex and esoteric that few people can grasp it.

The problem is not even that the relevant information and explanation of the concepts are not available. They are. I’ve run through some things here on my little corner of the web, and going up to the top of the web page where you’re finding these words will lead you to a link to a page of links with loads of material. The stuff isn’t a collection of secrets. It just isn’t getting through the noise, and worse, too many people won’t get their heads around it because it disturbs their ideas of how things are and how they will be, and this is turning them toward some things that present a large, complicated, difficult picture to deal with.

The biggest and really obvious problem is the kind of fog of noise bombarding people, that distracts people from getting a clear focus on the things that need attention and solid, valid, correct information. People can get endless quantities of “news and information”. How much of it actually informs them, about what they really need to know, gives them enough information and explanation to understand it, points them toward more, more detailed, deeper information, and actually tells them the truth? As I regularly point out to anybody who might pay attention, even if you encounter some sort of news story about oil that has the appearance of addressing oil resource problems, it’s much more like than not to be some vague framing of the story in terms of a question like “are we running out of oil?”, which badly fails in providing people with an understanding of the matter.

 

It’s easy to encounter excited chatter about supposed wonderful new boundless discoveries of oil resources that are actually talking about tar sands or oil shale, without understanding what the stuff really is, and all that’s involved there. Even then, it’s probable that what you find in some of the excited chatter that’s around is people citing numbers that, when checked out further, turn out to be complete fantasy pulled out of nowhere. I know I’ve come across astronomical numbers that, when examined further than just accepting some joker’s claim at face value, held up like a vampire with somebody waving a cross in front of them at sunrise.

Keep this in mind the next time you hear some knucklehead claiming that the United States has boundless supplies of oil beyond our wildest dreams, if only certain factions were not obstructing this new wonder. Something that’s been seen more often is people getting wildly excited about “oil boom times in Bakken”, for example, usually missing a serious reality check. [See the three outline categories above.]

 

A couple of recent stories find both Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann spewing nonsense about the subject of oil and fundamentally dim statements about oil and “energy policy” (or just dishonest, you figure it out if you can). Read the pair of articles I point to there, they pretty much speak for themselves.

Consider an absurdity here. Pay attention to chattering bullshit artistes of the Republican Party political variety, and any commentary about the subject of “energy policy” will probably be of the “drill, baby, drill!” nonsense I’ve already talked before. Among this crowd, there is some kind of common idea that it’s just a matter of drilling more oil wells, and there you are, presto, more oil.

If you’ve read anything I’ve written, or read any of the material I’ve pointed out, you know better than that.

In the article found above linked to the name of Romney, “Obama can’t catch a break on oil“, you can find a really fundamental absurdity. Bear with me a second, because you find this stuff pouring into your head right now just about any time you try to catch the news. It’s a running theme of bullshit among Republican politicians, and they find plenty of people willing to believe it. It’s stuff more or less cut from the same cloth as the ideas they put out there citing national average retail pump gasoline prices and saying “see! gas prices right now are higher than when Obama took office, so Obama’s energy policy is bad!” (completely ignoring any real grasp of what’s going on).

It astounds me to see how much nonsense is disseminated that neglects the most fundamental point about petroleum being a finite resource. In the politician’s oil drilling frenzy club, the answer to “the oil problems” or “energy issues” goes: the “solution” to problems of depleting a finite resource is, in their minds, to put all possible efforts into using up the stuff at an even faster rate.

Read that last paragraph over and over.

Politicians often being, let’s say, extremely reluctant to focus on the reality and tell prospective voters the story, they want to tell people “vote me into power, and everything will be just great”. In this case, a batch of Republicans wanting to be their party’s candidate to run for President against the incumbent President (and Democratic Party member) will fall all over each other claiming that if they were elected President, you can have all the oil your little heart can ever desire, with no limits, and it will be ever so cheap. Which is complete bullshit.

What I find really grotesque in the blatantly dishonest political machinations is the thing you find in the article I just mentioned. There is no end of chatter about “Obama’s energy policy”, much of it revolving around saying that our only problems with oil are a result of “Obama’s drilling restrictions” (along with “liberals”, “Democrats”, “left wing radicals”, “environmental extremists”, all the regular cast of Fox News bogeymen). The reality is, we find, that while Barack Obama has been President, the number of oil drilling rigs has actually increased.

That then gets you futher into the reality of petroleum, that just because you punch more holes in the ground with oil rigs, this doesn’t then mean all the oil you want comes gushing out, no matter how much anybody wants it, and wishes for it, and demands it to be so. It just doesn’t work that way.

If you want to address Barack Obama’s policy regarding petroleum, if there is a criticism to make, it has to be in not clearly, forcefully, communicating to the people of the United States that the only “oil solutions” must revolve around rethinking and changing all manner of how we do things to use less of the stuff, and do this as soon as possible, in a major, comprehensive effort ranking right up there with things like the NASA moon flight program, or the mobilization and changes that occurred when the country was faced with World War Two.

But, then, there’s your petroleum political problem. Who will stand up and face reality and say, “things are going to get very difficult, and to deal with this, you’re not going to like much of what’s necessary”? I think it’s pretty certain that most people won’t like any of what’s necessary. Most people only want to hear that it’s all only going to get bigger and better and brighter and easier.

 

Another online comment, one I might have mentioned before, said, about the subject of oil, “we need to do whatever’s needed to keep it plentiful and cheap”. If I did mention that one before, I probably pointed out that this particular opportunity was decades ago. We’re into the problem zone already as a result of decades of burning through the stuff at the rate we have. The only way to have kept it “plentiful and cheap” (and notice that I did use the past tense) was to have carefully conserved what we had to begin with from the beginnings of what we might now call “the Oil Age”. That ship has sailed. The best thing, the only thing we can do now, is to get our act together and face this bit of reality and think and act accordingly from here on.

Just a day ago, I sat talking for a while with somebody I’ve known for years, doing business with him. Sometimes when I stop into the office we’ll talk for a while about things. He’s an intelligent guy with a sense of humor and we happen to share a lifelong interest in cars. We got into the subject of the general oil situation.

It was interesting. This is a sharp guy, intelligent with an education, what I would say is a finely tuned bullshit detector, a reasonably informed character, always in contact with all sorts of people in his business (insurance), and since he often has the television on in his office with satellite TV, he can keep up with whatever is in the news easily.

It was interesting to find what he was aware of and what he knew and what he had clearly thought about, and understood well, while at the same time, he was totally unaware of some important things, and worse, shared some of the same deeply mistaken ideas about the matter that you find in people as much more of a regular rule than an exception.

As we started in on the subject, when I questioned him generally to see what he thought of things, what the situation is, he immediately responded with an idea that’s common. He talked of the idea that there’s lots of oil but there are all these environmental issues restrictions, and that nobody wants it in their area.

If you’ve read what I’ve written before or are generally aware of the subject, you know that while there are, in fact, these issues, this is a naïve idea. If you instantly removed any such restrictions on where to put oil drilling operations, we would still have virtually the exact same problems.

He actually suggested that the whole ugly episode of the Gulf of Mexico disaster of the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion was this idea of “people won’t allow this stuff onshore around them”; this was, it was suggested, why this rig was there, drilling into Earth beneath a mile deep sea, something like 40 miles offshore. I explained it to him, “not wanting a rig in view around us” was not the reason for drilling under 5000 feet of water 40 miles from land; it’s because, we’ve used up so much of the easy to get oil, this is where people are now needing to go. As a footnote, I also told him about what I had found about the estimated recoverable reserves of the Macando Prospect, the pocket of oil the Deepwater Horizon was tapping (about 50 million barrels), and what that meant in terms of U.S. oil supply given the rate we consume oil (basically less than 3 days worth of crude oil supply).

[Very similar story to things like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.]

I explained the quick sketch version of the concept of Hubbert’s curve. That explained, I let him in on the fact that the peak of oil extraction rate in the United States happened around 1970-1971, forty years ago, turning and going into decline somewhere around 1974. I elaborated on the concept by explaining that on the down slope since then, you saw a small upward bump where the slope briefly went positive again around the early to mid eighties as Alaskan oil came online, peaked, and went into its own regional scale decline, a smaller geographical region mini Hubbert curve on the larger United States national level curve, but even with that, the US came nowhere near the peak level reached around 1970. And that’s how it works. We can change “drilling policy” any way somebody thinks, it isn’t going to magically make oil appear where it isn’t.

I talked a bit about the explanations as I understand it, on a layman’s level, of how the peak curve takes its form, with an gradual increase, a crest, and then decline. Part of that is the idea that once what some people call the “low hanging fruit” is extracted, the highest quality crude in the largest deposits in the easiest most accessable places, it gets harder, and extraction rates decline (and costs go up). Then it’s a harder road, working in more difficult places, with the costs and efforts bringing smaller returns from smaller pockets of oil, and so on.

This was all new to him, apparently. You have to really look for anybody telling you this stuff.

Most people are so bombarded with noise, petty trivia, and nonsense, they aren’t just missing some things, they aren’t even aware they are missing them.

In this case, this was really significant, this conversation, because the person I was talking with was missing basic, absolutely essential information about the subject. This wasn’t a case of talking to some hopeless dimwit without a clue about anything in the world beyond beer and idiot television.

He did understand some important things. He understands that ethanol as an idea of a way to simply replace petroleum fuels is a spectacularly bad idea; and I must note that we didn’t even get to things about such as the energy return on energy investment (EROEI) of the stuff, or the whole obscenely foolish concept of turning farmland from the purpose of growing food crops to growing crops for fuel.

He understands the biggest, most fundamental issue, the issue that we cannot and will not avoid, the amounts and rate of consumption of petroleum, especially here in the United States. He realizes that part of this stems from people becoming so accustomed to essentially unlimited (as far as they can tell) petroleum, so cheap, for so long, that everything revolves around that, and the average American can’t even conceive, and probably doesn’t want to, any idea of the situation ever changing. They just want to hear from people telling them, you can have all the oil you want, cheaply, if only you do what we want.

Even then, as I was heading out the door, because we had talked for maybe 15 minutes and we had things to do, he tossed out something that is another common misconception. He has an idea in his head that, as a consequence of becoming used to what people thought was limitless cheap oil, needed attention and work and changes were not happening on other technologies apart from oil, such as… hydrogen.

Oh, great, I thought. So I did my best to try to lay out a general one minute quickie thumbnail sketch of the simple naivete of any ideas of a “hydrogen economy”, and why you just simply cannot think of hydrogen as an energy source, but only a form of storage, an “energy carrier”.

If you need to break it down to the simplest possible terms, our fundamental “oil problem” is not obstacles to drilling for oil anywhere and everywhere, our “oil problem” is in things like people buying homes 30 miles from where they work and then driving some behemoth truck for personal transportation every day.

Too many people just can’t be bothered to find out. It’s made much harder than it needs to be by all the noise. You have the “drill, baby, drill” cast of liars and madmen. You can find things like turning on CNBC and having obnoxious windbag Jim Cramer rattling noisily. I caught part of a recent show of his where there was a whole episode devoted to him sitting down interviewing a parade of characters on site somewhere in the Bakken region, chattering about what a great boom times wonder this whole thing is. Noteworthy, here, is that all of his parade of guests were people in businesses working there whose interest all revolves around convincing people of the idea that this is a boundless new wonderland of energy resources and American Energy Independence, if only people throw large quantities of cash at them in investments in their enterprise.

Very recently, it seems, from what I’ve caught, that suddenly there is a lot of attention being devoted to new stories about the Bakken region, much of it painting a picture of “new jobs and prosperity” for a country frantically looking around for good news of that sort, almost like this is a 21st century story resembling the California gold rush of the 19th century. Head for North Dakota, young man, fortunes await you!

There is an obvious problem in trying to address things like this, a guy writing a little blog on the web. Somebody thinks, great, more. More stuff. Another random primate chattering about more stuff. It sometimes seems that one of the best information services you can provide to people is to clue them in on what to ignore. That way, a bit of reality has a better chance of slipping in and getting some attention.

It isn’t just the sheer amount of noisy fiction and nonsense. It’s becoming more and more apparent that even with a more selective, honest, accurate, and well organized body of news and information, people are dealing with a giant set of assumptions about what things are and how things work. There are all the things I’ve already mentioned; the concept of endless, perpetual growth and expansion, the idea that “the health of The Economy” is measured in statistical measurements of stock markets and national GDP, and ever increasing everything in every measurement; the idea that “nature” is a separate thing from humanity, and it’s all there as endless raw material and fuel resources, without end, just waiting for “development” and “consumers”. They can turn on a television and find some chattering debates on economics with differing schools of highly educated formal economists, that are actually in common, among the differences of different schools of thought, in that it appears that all of them are all completely, fundamentally based on developments of ideas explaining things over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries as things proceeded with the foundation of fossil fuels for energy and technological development that all are driven by and completely dependent on those fuel resources. All that seems to be ignored by the formal economists and everything is attributed to “innovation” and the magic omnipotent powers of The Market.

It’s tough to get a lot of things through the combination of confused or consciously manipulative noise and fiercely held presuppositions that are viewed as if they’re natural laws.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One Response to Signal to Noise

  1. Kathy says:

    John,

    I am just starting to read this. As you know, it is not a quick read. I have one comment so far. You are spot on about the idea that resources need to be developed to be useful. I won’t mention who I work for but let me say that there was a philosophy that water left to simply flow downstream was considered wasted. It needed to be captured and used for mankind….which seems very strange to me. It is never good to think that the world should revolve only around man. I will read more later…very interesting stuff! Hang in there, you are not alone in your thoughts! Kathy

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