Monday, September 27, 2010

Sustained Economic Growth: Our Favorite Oxymoron

I'll begin by admitting that I know quite little about the topic of oil production. Most of my knowledge comes from a short talk I heard a few weeks ago by Sally Odland.

Odland's talk made me realize something which I think is both obvious, and profound. This realization stems from two basic observations.

The first is that there is a causal relationship between energy consumption and GDP. These two quantities are inexorably linked. Just take a close look at the following graph, which plots U.S. energy usage and GDP:

There's a lot going on here, but I think there are three important observations.
(1) Both energy consumption and real GDP have risen, more or less linearly, over the course of the last 150 years.

(2) The growth in energy consumption has come, almost entirely, from increased use of fossil fuels.

(3) Amidst this growth, there are various dips in economic activity, recessions and the like. If you look closely you'll notice that dips and bumps in the GDP curve are mirrored by dips and bumps in overall energy production.

In other words, fossil fuel consumption and GDP move in tandem. In fact, one could say they are almost the same thing.

Here's the problem:
Growth in oil production, which has largely come from the Middle East over the last 20 years, appears to be plateauing. Now people will argue about how much oil still remains in reserves. But Odland makes the point that OPEC doesn't actually offer any proof for a large number of its claimed reserves, many of which which appeared out of thin air during the 1980's

Regardless of the reserve quantity, everyone agrees that the production and consumption of fossil fuels cannot increase forever. And a simple examination of the above graph shows that we have reached, or are close to reaching, the maximum amount of daily production.

These are the two facts that I have just illustrated:
(1) fossil fuel consumption is GDP
(2) fossil fuel production has, or is close to plateauing.

With these two key ideas in mind, it strikes me as absurd that economists continue to talk about things like sustained economic growth. This concept is simply an oxymoron.

What is sustained growth? It is an exponential increase. It is in fact, the definition of a cancer - something that continues to grow unchecked. In other words, our stated economic goals are a continued growth of consumption and production. We don't have to be a cancerous growth upon the earth's surface, but our current economic philosophy dictates that we be exactly that.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Down in the flood

A moment of chaos...

Imagine this:

It's 17,000 years ago and you are a wooly mammoth grazing in a region which, someday, will be called Eastern Washington. Things are looking up. The climate is getting warmer and the melting ice sheets have uncovered large new tracts of land.

The same melting ice has pooled in a giant lake, one that is now half the size of modern Lake Michigan. This melted ice water is trapped behind an ice dam.

But, on this bright Spring day, the dam begins to leak, and then, suddenly fails, unleashing a wall of water hundreds of meters high.

In the distance you hear a roar, and then, raising your matted head to face the oncoming deluge, you are swept up in the roiling waves, and moments later your consciousness is extinguished...

It happened many times...
Geologists believe floods of this variety occurred around 40 times during the time period from 18.6-15.9 thousand years ago. This evidence comes from multiple high water marks in the Glacial Lake Missoula basin, and stacked layers of sediments from high-energy flooding events on land and in deep-sea sediment cores off the coast of Washington.

The land
Eastern Washington is dominated by features from the Missoula Floods. During late August, I spent two days in Douglas County looking at erosional and depositional features from the flood. Here are some pictures and short descriptions:

This picture shows mega-ripples along the banks of the Columbia River. Ripples form from the agitation of particles in a current-driven or wave-driven fluid. For example, you can witness structures like those depicted in this picture forming in wave-modulated currents along the ocean coast. However, those ripples are typically a few centimeters in height and spaced a few tens of centimeters apart. The sheer dimensions of these mega-ripples indicates a flow strength many orders of magnitude greater than any ocean current.

Dry Falls. During the floods this waterfall would have been greater than any waterfall which exists in the modern world. Water flowed 300 feet above the upper surface of the falls.

A classic formation of the Channeled Scablands. The floods carved deep incisions into the basalt which covers much of Eastern Washington. The majority of these heavily eroded sites is now dry. The shaping of this landscape occurred during a few catastrophic events.

Here is a layer of unconsolidated sediment which was deposited by some major flooding event. The geometry indicates a rapid flow with a lot of entrained sand and silt.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Wisdom from Bhutan

Last Wednesday I had the opportunity to see Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley of Bhutan speak at Columbia University as part of the annual World Leader's Forum. The title of his speech was “Well-being, Happiness, and Leadership.”

While Thinley's speech was certainly informed by Bhutan's unique governing philosophy of Gross National Happiness, he focused on the nature of leadership and five complex global problems that will require innovative solutions in the upcoming century:

*The explosion of populations, especially the elderly who are being increasingly marginalized. Thinley believes everyone should age without the “fear of insecurity or loneliness.”

*The fast rate of bio-diversity loss, caused by deforestation, monoculture farming, and climate change. As the dominant species, Thinley argues that humans have the burden of Earth stewardship.

*The persistent reliance on fossil fuels and unchecked consumption. To solve this problem we need to understand two things: it is possible to live well with less, and markets, which dictate energy usage, are fundamentally near-sighted, i.e. there are no markets for measures of return on the time-scales of 100's of years.

*Relentless growth of weapons industry. The 19th century logic of “security” and military alliances needs to be replaced by a new consciousness of a single planet.

*The combination of unhealthy lifestyles and a lust for longer life. This contradictory juxtaposition is leading to rising health care costs.

He ended his speech with a few simple ideas to generally increase happiness.

*Restructure of the 9-5 40-hour work week to a 25 hour work-week of intensely focused and productive activities. This would help spread employment and increase physical/mental health.

*The contemplation of the impermanence of self and others.

Listen, Thinley himself admitted that some of his ideas have components of naivete. But that's beyond the point. I think he's identified the long term issues facing the world.

Of course, the elimination of poverty should be the utmost priority. Thinley emphasized this, saying that he felt no pride in Bhutan's achievement of Millennium Development Goals, given that other countries have not yet made the same progress.

It was refreshing to hear a world leader with a sense of humility and compassion for other nations. Thinley has come to understand that short-term, greed-based approaches to governance and development are out-dated and ultimately self-defeating. Going forward, we're going to need a more holistic, far-sighted and cooperative approach. The longer it takes to adopt this philosophy, the more suffering humanity will endure.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Dear NY Times: There are a lot of trees in the forest

With school in full swing, I don't have much time to read outside of my classes. That said, I like to look at the discourses on the opinion page of the New York Times. These editorials and columns typically deal with less transient and vacuous issues than the trash which shows up in the daily news cycle. That is, they are often better than something like Feds Spent $800,000 of Economic Stimulus Money on African Genital Washing Program.

Yesterday I was looking over the Op-Ed page and couldn't help but feel angry while reading an editorial piece by staff writers and an opinion contribution by Robert Mazur. The thing is, I actually agreed with what these pieces were saying. The factual premises were sound, and through logical reasoning both authors arrived at a solid conclusion.

So why did these pieces make me angry? It's because they utterly missed the point, in the same way that an article about genital washing misses the point about the economic stimulus.

Logical fallacy #1
The first piece is about an EPA decision to allow the use of lead bullets for hunting animals. Why is lead in bullets a bad thing? Because it has been linked to bird poisonings.

The logic goes like this: lead kills animals unnecessarily. Killing animals when they don't have to die is bad. Therefore we should avoid putting lead into the environment.

The problem is, hunting itself kills animals. Usually it's just for the sake of someone's twisted conception of "sport", the animal is mercilessly killed by a human with an insanely unfair advantage, and then often left in the wilderness to rot. Now if a bird happens to die later because of lead poisoning that's obviously sad, but it completely misses the underlying problem.

Why not kill two birds, not with a bullet, but with one stone, and eliminate gun hunting completely?

Logical Fallacy #2
The second article, a column called "Follow the Dirty Money" by Robert Mazur, is significantly more disturbing because it ultimately deals with people killing people, a worse evil than people killing animals. In fact, Mazur actually stands to profit off of people killing each other if his ideas are implemented.

Mazur points out that international banks, ones with big, famous names that we see advertising on TV, are involved in shady underworld dealings to launder billions of dollars of money related to criminal activities. He brings up the example of Wachovia moving $400 billion of drug money out of Mexico. Many of these banks have been caught, and forced to pay hefty fines for their activities. However, these fines, deals brokered between the banks and prosecutors, were just a way for prosecutors to see "a small piece of the action".

Instead of handing over fines to the government, Mazur proposes that bank employees should be put in jail. To catch these people he suggests the creation of a task force, composed of individuals like himself, to go undercover and understand the inner workings of international money laundering. He also mentions that he wrote a book about his life as an undercover money launderer.

Here are some facts:
-More than 28,000 people have been killed in Mexico's drug war since 2006. (

-The cartels get the money for their massive weapon arsenals from drug and human exports, largely to the United States.

-Drugs are illegal, but hugely popular in the U.S. That's why Mexicans can make so much money importing them to us.

-Immigration to the United States is likewise illegal in most circumstances. That's why cartels do so well from human importation.

-Mazur is actually profiting off of this situation, while doing nothing to ameliorate it. He made money from his previous book, "The Infiltrator". He would make more money from a job in a task force, which would give raw material for another, potentially lucrative, book.

Now Mazur doing these things hinges on Mexican drug cartels existing. He needs something to infiltrate. If the cartels went away, he wouldn't have anything left.

The cartels will never go away from the futile war Felipe Calderon is currently waging against them. Nor will the imprisonment of morally corrupt bank employees cause them to vanish.

The only actual solution is to undermine their profit sources. That is, eliminate the demand for illegal importation of drugs and humans. To do that, we need a guest worker program, a stronger Mexican economy, and the elimination of demand for illegal drugs (the simplest method would be legalization).

Until these things happen, there will continue to be well-armed cartels, shady banks to help them transport their money, and individuals like Mazur to profit off of the situation. His band-aid task force would do nothing to solve the underlying issues and is simply a way for him to gain prestige and money off of cartels that he fundamentally has no interest in stopping.

It is sad that the New York Times, in both cases, published articles that don't really help the problems they tangentially address. The articles at first seem interesting to read, a new angle on an important world issue. However, they are just smoke and mirrors intended to distract from the fundamental issues, no better than a genital washing story.

The editorial about lead bullets can be found here:

The opinion contribution about money laundering:

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ray Charles and Siddhartha on Rivers

I would say the recording of Ol Man River by Ray Charles is one of my all-time favorite, most-listened to songs. I first heard it on a 45 that my parents brought back from one of their trips. Then, recently, I discovered it is available on youtube [] and I converted it to an MP3 []. Now that it's on my ipod and computer I listen to it somewhat obsessively.

The song starts out with a long intro, about 90 seconds of the song's total five minutes and thirty seconds. The intro, especially to my 2010 sensibilities, sounds very old-timey, and very white. It's not what you expect from a Ray Charles recording - a dramatic gospel chorus, haunting strings, obviously orchestrated timing. But then...

Ray comes in with drums, piano, guitar, and bass - a standard jazz line-up. Then slowly, the strings creep back in, laying down some gentle pads. On the second A section, the chorus comes back in, echoing words, and singing out long tones. The strings start to play more complex lines, eventually leading into the bridge with a beautiful ascending line.

The arrangement of this song is good, and certainly lends itself to a meaningful analysis. It's all about contrast and juxtaposition. The oppositions between jazz and gospel, black and white, new and traditional.

But to see how the recording goes deeper than that, listen to the real genius in this version: the soulful, heart-wrenching way that Ray sings it. His voice emerges from the wake of the white gospel intro, a lone black man filling up an empty space after the choir has finished and before the bass hits the first down-beat. And then, starting from a low gentle lullaby he soars over everything else, culminating in what is one of the most soulful moments in all of music at about 4:55, on the words "but that ol man river" which really come out as "but that ol-ol-ol-ol man-uh-an-uh rivuh, now". I mean that moment has literally brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion.

The thing is Ray isn't just singing it this way to sound good. He's saying the words, and then he's saying something.

The Ol Man River in the song is a personification of the Mississippi, a river that doesn't plant potatoes, cotton, or say a word - it just keeps on rolling along. But Ray, rather than personifying a river in his rendition, does the opposite. That is, he riverifies himself. He rises out of the muddy water, full of the wisdom and soul of an ancient and perfectly slow river, and brings all of that emotion and knowledge into one of the best versions of one of the best American songs ever written. [The music is by Jerome Kern and the lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, 1927.]

At the end of Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, it is the river who becomes the teacher that Siddhartha has spent his life seeking. Sitting on the banks alongside the ferryman Vasudeva, Siddhartha hears and absorbs the teachings of the flowing water. Hesse writes that "the river's vocie was sorrowful. It sang with yearning and sadness." Now, re-reading this passage, it seems so clear that if we could listen to rivers in the way that Siddhartha and Vasudeva could, rivers would sound like the voice of Ray Charles, singing with yearning and sadness.

Friday, September 3, 2010

What may be an old man's complaint

The month of August is over and I spent it inhabiting coffee-shops and the slopes of forested mountains. Am I trying to be a poet? Well, in fact, maybe that is what I'm trying to do.

In all honesty, it was a great month. Maybe a little lonely at times, but still a top-notch month. I don't have many complaints, but here's one of them:

Dear Coffee Shops,
Please stop playing music. Now I will freely admit that I love listening to pretty much all types of music. It's probably one of my top three favorite activities. When I come back from a long hiking trip, listening to music is one of the things I miss the most. My point is that I couldn't be happy without it.

The thing is, for me, listening to music is an all-encompassing experience, both physically and mentally. There are the words which engage the literary senses, the beat which engages the body and the physical senses, the notes which engage the abstract part of the mind. In other words, when a song is playing, I don't have much left for anything else. It's all going towards hearing it, feeling it, processing the groove, the melody, the harmony.

So, when I go to a coffee shop to read or write, I just get so damn distracted that the words start swimming off of the page and co-mingling with the lyrics in the air.

This may be a unique predilection, but I know I've talked with people who feel the same way.

If anyone knows a spot in Seattle that doesn't blast their speakers all day, please let me know and I will be there tomorrow.