… and it continues

Monday 2014.03.31

That is, the wealth of embarrassment continues to pile up. I’m actually just continuing the last note, a wealth of embarrassment, which I wrapped up where I did not because the subject was finished, but simply because it was several printed pages long, and we can’t be long-winded, now, can we?

The first item that got left out turned up on the BBC News website. The article is a quick glimpse of a serious perception problem. Coincidentally, embarrassment is a theme. What’s important about this is that it’s about putting a sense of embarrassment and shame on people, and it’s misplaced. It actually gets right to the core of some profound problems, and it’s probably fair to describe it as a severe case of national self-delusion. We have no shortage of people, especially self-serving politicians, proudly squawking about how we’re America, the most prosperous nation in the world, the wealthiest nation on Earth, the Land of Opportunity. Oh? You have problems? You’re unemployed? Well, then, there must be something wrong with you, you lazy worthless bum! My life’s just great!

There’s an opportunity in this for people to maybe wake up a little, peek outside their own little bubble, and understand how massively deranged so much of the American economy is now. It’s a epic tale of detachment from actual value. Too many people want everything, and don’t want to actually pay for anything, don’t want to pay anybody, anything, for anything.

We still have the ongoing circumstances of almost zero-interest money from the Federal Reserve, going for about a half a decade now, that is still presented to the public as a kind of financial stimulus, to encourage investment and grow the economy and create employment and all that jazz. The reality is a stark contrast to all the PR spiels, as it should be obvious to everybody that all that has really accomplished is providing almost no-cost money for parties involved in the Wall Street casino games to shovel more and more money into that game to get something for nothing. Investment in getting useful and needed good work done and paying people for their work, not so much. Look at the news on any day and see the “market reports”, and plenty of people just look at the big market numbers and take this as their indication of how “the economy” is doing, and thinking that it’s just great.

People evidently are managing to skim loads of profits of getting something for nothing this way. Meanwhile, that microscopic near-zero interest means that people actually holding savings in a bank savings account are getting virtually nothing in interest in return for the bank playing with their money. With inflation, they’re really effectively losing money. Among other problems, this means big trouble for old people who had counted on their savings to provide interest as part of their plans of how to live.

Then there’s the current squabble about raising the minimum wage. All kinds of noise flies around, missing some basics. One item that seems to get no attention is the matter of figuring how the current minimum wage compares to past levels, taking into account changes in cost of living and inflation. More to the point, people seem to not wonder about why this is even such an issue, examining how many people are working for only minimum wage, because somebody is paying them that only because they’re not legally allowed to pay them less.

Even then, it seems to be an increasingly frequent story to hear about what’s sometimes referred to as wage theft, which is an appropriate term, as somebody orders their employees to go to the time clock and punch out, and then work more hours officially “off the clock”, or in other words, work for nothing.

Even getting a starting handle on any of this faces all kinds of problems, with a kind of fundamental obstacle of various varieties of groupthink getting in the way. I mentioned one recently, the way some people get sucked into using lingo like “economic inequality” (or equality) or “income inequality“, that completely misstate the problems at hand, of distorted sense of value, of economic imbalance. Then other people prone to a different group, in their groupthink, go off babbling about communism.

Between a staggering variety of kinds of sales hype, raw propaganda, and reducing everything to bursts of cliches, stereotypes, dogma, and bumper sticker slogan sound bites, we have an epidemic of people unable to see and call anything as it is. Maybe the worst part is that even people who try to be well informed thinking humans can get sucked into the traps.

A few days ago somebody posted a comment note on my Facebook page, about my note here, The Man Who Awoke. This is somebody who’s sort of an old online acquaintance, so I’m fairly familiar with him, up to a point. He’s a guy who is pretty earnest about being well informed and thinking. Unfortunately, the reason I’m bringing this up is that he got some things very wrong. It’s a good example of even bright attentive people having problems because of missing and bad information.

What’s worse, for me personally, is that all of the following I’ve written about here. Extensively. But, hey! Who pays any attention to all that, right? Never mind me, other people have written about these things extensively. I point them out. They’re largely ignored.

I’ll quote some bits of what my online pal said to show you the problems.

Will we eventually run out of oil? Yes, perhaps. Will we run out of energy? No. But it’s never just that simple, is it?

It’s nowhere near that simple. And bear with me if you know that I’m going to be repeating all of this, again.

He obviously still isn’t familiar with Hubbert’s curve, and this is obvious because he’s a smart enough guy that if he was, he would understand, immediately and thoroughly, that thinking about this in terms of “running out of oil” is completely wrong. It’s not about having some left versus running out, all gone. It’s about being roughly midway through the amount of the stuff that was in the Earth when humans started using it, and starting to get into the problems, not of it being all gone, but into diminishing returns and limits. We are already there, now. It’s because of this that it’s probably almost certain that we’ll never “run out of oil”, in the sense of there being none left on Earth, but we will reach a period where whatever is still around will become effectively useless, because of the technical difficulties and all the economic factors.

Misunderstanding of this is common now. Thanks to all kinds of confused nonsense that has been written in magazine and newspaper articles or on the web, people who have actually heard the term “peak oil” believe something completely wrong, which is that it means “when the oil all runs out and the world comes to an end because advanced industrial technological civilization comes to a crashing halt”. It means nothing like that. It was a term coined as a shorthand reference to refer to reaching the peak of Hubbert’s curve, and turning into diminishing returns, and the complicated problems that come with that.

But then we have the line about “will we run out of energy?”. That question seems simple to some people, who would say: of course not, why, that’s absurd, the universe is full of energy! The practical reality is much more complicated, as the real questions are about: energy in what form, in what quantities, at what cost, how do we make use of it, what can we do with it? It drives me nuts to constantly see people coughing out platitudes about “energy” in simplistic general terms without ever looking at anything and thinking it through. You’ve heard somebody saying something about oil problems and issues, and then offering up some “solution” like saying that we’ll just get going with solar and wind power, like petroleum is just interchangeable with methods of generating electrical power, and that’s done, solved.

Notions of “the hydrogen economy” are a different example. It takes maybe a half hour of some basic reading and thinking to realize that we are not going to have some fantasy hydrogen powered world.

In short, hydrogen is not an energy source. People like to declare “hydrogen is the most plentiful substance in the universe, so we’ll never run out!”. That never seems to be followed up with the realization that it’s not in pure form in some reservoir. It’s always part of the molecules of some compound. Separating hydrogen from some compound ends up meaning some process, that requires energy to do it. That, then, is your actual energy source, whatever it is providing that energy. That gets you to the question of evaluation energy return on energy investment (EROEI), the ratio of how much energy you get out of the end product (in this case, hydrogen) over the energy put into the process. Hydrogen is not an energy source, it effectively is a form of energy storage (like charging a battery).

It got even worse. He went on to say:

… through fracking techniques we have become the “Saudi Arabia of Natural Gas”. This may actually solve our energy problems in the middle-term future, but it creates new ones. Our existing infrastructure uses oil, gasoline cars, etc. We have a lot of work to do if we plan to convert all our cars and electric power plants over to Natural gas.

Somewhere around this point I think I was starting to bury my face in my hands.

We have not become “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas“, or, for that matter, “the new Saudi Arabia in oil“.

Now, many people, at this point, would object, saying “oh, sure we are!”. Why? Because this fictional deluded nonsense is being hammered into the public group mind constantly now, even including the statement by our president, a couple of years ago in the State of the Union address, of this now popular meme of “a hundred years of natural gas”, which turns out to have no actual basis in fact. It basically amounts to: somebody just decided to start saying it, therefore it’s true. It’s the kind of thing that propagates because people think “well, I keep hearing that all the time, so it must be true!“.

The actual reality should be apparent, but it’s not, evidently, simply by the realization that the only reason there is so much activity now in the supposed miracles of hydraulic fracturing, even with its severe problematic consequences, and complexity and costs, is because the stuff it’s going after is what we have left. Even worse, the reality of the resources involved is that it involves scattered deposits, with all the difficulties involved in extracting either natural gas or “tight oil” crude oil, and very few “sweet spots”, and rapid depletion rates for wells, all inherent in the physical nature of it all.

The fantastic delusion of “plentiful natural gas” leads some people to the idea “well, if we’re running out of oil, we’ll just have to switch stuff over to run on natural gas”.

We’re in for serious problems ahead because of the depletion of natural gas, and instead of coming to terms with this and making plans for the future accordingly, we have all this nonsense flying around, encouraging all kinds of insane thinking, including the idea that we have so much, thanks to the illusory “shale revolution” that we’ll export the stuff.

Back to my online friend:

… I person <sic> sense that the real reason that Putin has invaded Crimea and the Ukraine is that the Ukraine and the other former Soviet republics all buy about 70% of their natural gas from Russia. And Europe buys about 30-50% of theirs from Russia. The US is on the verge of becoming a major exporter of natural gas. This could potentially erode Putin’s market. I think he sees this as a major economic threat, and so would like to re-consolidate the old soviet empire again – if only to protect his markets from US energy sales incursions.

I don’t know quite how to say it gently to him that the short version here is that none of that has any relationship to reality, except for maybe the numbers about the proportions of natural gas purchased from Russia. Russia is a major supplier of natural gas, and petroleum, to those areas, and a side note to this, albeit a very important one, is that one reason Russia is in such a position is because it has not been burning through their own resources of natural gas and petroleum for decades as if the stuff is infinite.

That aside, there is so much wrong with what was written in these comments that has to be split up.

Right off the top, Putin has not invaded Crimea and Ukraine. This, I have written about in several notes now, complete with loads of links to articles where people are digging past the nonstop propaganda into the story of what has been happening, with some historical context. The narrative of “Russia/Putin has invaded Crimea and Ukraine” has been such a constant chant, from our own government, dutifully repeated by European government leaders, and the US and European news media, that people repeat it as obvious plain fact.

I don’t want to recycle all of it again, but for reference here, the Russians moved military into Crimea (although Putin and the Russians did themselves no favors by claiming the obvious bullshit about no Russian troops there, it’s just local self-defense militias supplying themselves from military surplus stores or something). They moved military forces in that area that were, by all reports, were within the limits that were provided in the long term lease agreement between Ukraine and Russia, for security for the Russian naval base that has been on the Black Sea coast of Crimea since the 18th century. Crimea was part of Russia until 1954 when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (who, it turns out, was a Ukrainian) made some decree making it part of Ukraine (when both Ukraine and Russia were both parts of the USSR anyway, which makes that a little puzzling). Crimea was not only largely Russian, in terms of culture and identity, but an autonomous region. Recent trouble ended up with a coup forcing a Russian-friendly elected president out, replaced by an “interim” unelected government, decidedly hostile to Russia, and, even worse, being complicated by the forces of full on neo-Nazi characters extremely hostile to Russia. At this point, Russia moved troops into Crimea. The Crimean parliament voted to separate from Ukraine and ask to rejoin Russia, and a voter referendum was reported to have overwhelmingly supported this (with plenty of news reporting providing evidence that it was that popular, coming from US news media generally repeating the US government party line on everything).

That’s the quick repeat summary, and there’s much more to this, as I’ve written about in past several notes, with lots of links.

The point is, Russia did not invade Ukraine. The US is not about to become a major natural gas exporter. Both of the narratives to the contrary on those things are monumental stacks of bullshit. The idea that Putin decided to invade Ukraine because he’s afraid that the United States is going to be “The Saudi Arabia of natural gas export” and take away all his natural gas sales to former Soviet republic neighbor nations and western Europe is so bizarrely in conflict with reality that it would be comedy, if not for all of this being so extremely serious.

When I read those comments I’ve quoted, I sat there wanting to say “dude, are you fucking kidding me?”, but he clearly wasn’t. It was obviously meant earnestly, and sincerely, and, as I think I’ve already said, the man is not some halfwit. It’s clearly a result of a serious thinking person fed really bad information.

There’s a lot of that around, and the messes keep piling up as a result.

I should also add that a lot of this ends up running into other problems, revolving around people arguing about whether something is positive or being negative, or optimistic or pessimistic.

Anyway. The comments about the note I posted that referred to the story The Man Who Awoke had a certain amount of irony, in appearing to have really missed the moral of the story that Asimov was talking about in his lecture. In that story, written in 1933, somebody had really grasped the obvious probable future problem. In the story, a man who was able to go into some sort of suspended state for a long, long time, expecting to wake up in an amazingly modern advanced world. He awoke to find something that was not so at all, that was, shall we say, amazingly rustic, seemingly backwards and primitive, not what he expected. And the reason explained to him was that people of his general era had blown through the one-time windfall natural bank account of energy found in the hydrocarbon deposits of the Earth. When that was depleted, all the things the sleeper had thought of as advanced and modern were not possible.

Right now, we’re in that era, where so much has become assumed as normal, with assumptions about being even more so in the future, based on blowing through those hydrocarbon deposits as if they are limitless, even as we now are well into the diminishing returns phase.

When are people going to wake up and realize we have a hell of a lot of redesign and rework to do, and fast?

Hint: it’s not “change everything over to natural gas”.


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