Still think globally, still act locally

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, by Victor Vasnetsov.

The world is ending!

Or at least according to a lot of people it is, and it’s going to happen sooner rather than later. The predominant view is that the world’s economy and infrastructure is going to collapse, and society as a whole is going to drop back to a pre-industrial age. For a lot of us, that would spell “game over.”

Perhaps it will happen, perhaps it won’t. I’m rather jaded when it comes to bleak future talk, because I heard all of this once before. The late 1970s and early 1980s were the final throws of the Cold War, and I was an early teen at the time. There was a strong belief that the world was going to be destroyed. Many believed this with 100% certainty, and just about everyone in my primary school doubted they would get a chance to grow up. The United States and the Soviet Union were going to blow up the planet before we got the chance. Instead, the USSR imploded and the world is still here. Fool me once…

Today, doomsday talkers speak of climate change, economic collapse, disease outbreaks, and other equally delightful things. For me, it’s the same talk with a different slant. I can’t – or won’t – go through life assuming that everything is going to end soon. That’s no way to live. I’ve been down that road once, it was difficult, and ultimately nothing happened. I’ll be damned if I let myself go down that way again.

Granted, it is statistically possible that the climate may go crazy, or there will be a superbug plague, or the modern world’s infrastructure will come crashing down. But even if that happens, I think humanity will find a way. History is littered with events that threatened civilization, and some of them have even come to pass. The black plague is a good example. Dealing with such a crisis won’t be easy, but we’ve proven to be a tough species. We’ll find a way.

And if we don’t, well, then we really won’t have to worry about things any more.

On a related note, there are people out there who say that people like me (and my wife) are heartless and irresponsible. Why? Because we brought two children into this world, and those people consider the world a lost cause. They say we were foolhardy and cruel to bring two lives into this hopeless world. One person even accused me of caving into “religious pro-natal arguments.” (That one really got my goat, and I really gave her a piece of my mind. Yes sir, bob! She ultimately maintained that I was full of dung, but the diatribe was fun.)

To these doomsday nay-Sayers, I would say that we were acting in defiance of them, and were stating that we ultimately see the world as still being a good place. Or at the very least, it’s worth saving. I seriously doubt that I will find solutions to many of the world’s problems, but one of my children might.

Onward.

In all fairness, some of the concerns the doomsday clockers have are valid. Natural resources, for example. Certain resources are being consumed much faster than they can be replaced or reclaimed, and in the long run this is a real problem. Technology has found ways to slow down this trend, so I don’t think it’s as bad as many maintain. But the problem is very real, and most of the “solutions” we have in place right now are only slowing down the inevitable. Some major changes need to be made, and they are likely to be… uncomfortable. Fossil fuels, for example, ultimately need to be phased out. They are not a sustainable source of energy, and if we run out, or even run low, we’re going to be a big trouble. And agriculture needs to be reformed. This is a no-brainier. We need to produce enough food for everyone to have at least one decent meal a day. We have the technology to better use our farmland, so we should get organized and just do it! A strong helping of common sense should be included in any planning for this. It’s sad that I have to point that out.

In the meantime, what can the average person do? I think the average person should think small. For a long time there was a mantra for social change that went “think globally, but act locally.” That still applies.

Look at energy production, for example. A lot of people talk about the production and distribution of energy, or the materials needed to produce it (petroleum being the biggest example). Is there a way the average person can gather or produce their own energy? Perhaps there is. If you live in an area where a solar panel on the roof can help defray your electric bill, consider doing it. Or, if you have a windmill on your land, or you live in an area where wind power can be captured, consider setting one up. (If your zoning laws permit this, naturally. If they don’t, find out why they don’t. You might be able to change the laws, have them amended, or even get an exemption.) If a lot of people started collecting solar or wind power, would it solve the energy crisis? It’s very unlikely. But, it would reduce a lot of consumer level electric bills. I calculated that a trio of square-meter solar panels on my house would reduce my electric bill by around 20%. Additional panels could reduce the bill further, up to 35%, but there is a real diminishing returns curve in there. In the big picture, that’s not a whole lot. But even so it would reduce the amount of electricity my family would be pulling from the central grid, and that saved electricity would be available for other uses. Now imagine if many families did something similar? Those multiple counts of 20% savings would quickly start adding up.

Another possibility is food. We all have to eat, correct? There is a very simple solution for this one: Plant a garden! Look up “square foot garden” in your favorite search engine, for information on a style of garden that is very low maintenance, and can be scaled to whatever size you have available. Would a single square foot garden solve the world food crisis? By itself, no. The best it can do is scrape some dollars off your grocery bill, and you get to eat some fresh vegetables that are not tainted by Monsanto or DuPont. But here again if a lot of people did this, the resulting yield would really mount up. Some very active gardeners can their surplus produce and give it to food banks. Every little bit helps.

I could continue, but you probably get my point. If you can find ways to see to your own needs that are economically feasible and environmentally friendly, just start doing it. Changing the system is a long and difficult process. Social change takes even longer. So it you can’t beat or change the system, take matters into your own hands and try to bypass it!

Will these little actions solve the problems of the world? By themselves, no. But it may inspire others to do the same, and if with time enough people take charge of themselves this way, then we may begin to see changes on the macro level. But perhaps the best way to start is at the micro level, and initiate change by setting an example.

Even the biggest projects started small.


Image credit: Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, by Victor Vasnetsov, linked from Wikipedia.

Keystone (cops) XL?

Keystone KL pipeline proposed route

The Keystone Pipeline: what a debacle. It has dominated the news for several weeks now, and has brought out a new round of partisan flame throwing, name-calling, and all kinds of other ugly things. Such has become the norm of American politics. I wonder what the next explosion will be about…

Anyway, I’ve been trying to figure this out from Keystone mess from the get go, and I haven’t had much luck.

On the surface we have a proposal to build an oil pipeline from oil sand basins in Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Illinois and Texas. OK, so far so good. But from what I’ve read, the crude oil coming from the Alberta oil sands is heavy in tar, sand and shale, and can therefore be very hard to transport and refine. Crude oil can be nasty stuff no matter how it’s packaged, but apparently this type of crude oil is particularly tricky, and there have been accidents involving pipelines moving this sludgy stuff before.

OK, but if the pipeline itself is built to precise specifications these problems can be avoided, yes? In theory, yes, but the track record for such constructions are mixed. Historically, pipelines never get the maintenance and servicing they should receive, and they frequently leak. Usually the leaks aren’t that big a deal, but sometimes they can be whoppers! You have to admit that constantly inspecting a 1600-mile length of pipe for inch-wide leaks or cracks is not easy, and mistakes are going to occur. But this time, the margin for error is, well, there isn’t one.

This is where the environmentalists came into the mix. A pipe that long will fail somewhere, sooner or later, and when it does, there would be an inland oil spill in the Midwest. That is to say, crude oil would be spilled all over some of the best farmland in the Northern Hemisphere. There is an old expression:

Don’t shit where you eat.

Granted, there are already oil pipelines snaking their way through the Midwestern breadbasket, so we’re already playing with toxic sludge. What’s the harm in another one? Again, this particular type of crude oil has some characteristics that make it inherently riskier than others. TransCanada keeps insisting that the safety measures for the proposed pipeline are more than adequate. But since this pipeline is largely their project, can we honestly expect them to say anything else? I mean seriously, of course they are going to say it’s all fine and good! Company policy requires them to say that even if it is patently untrue. A second opinion is warranted, and most federal and independent studies suggest that TransCanada’s projected failure rate (11%) is off by several orders of magnitude (versus up to 92%).

Another concern has been the proposed route of the pipeline. It would go through the Sandhills region of Nebraska, which is environmentally sensitive. A huge aquifer, one that irrigates several thousand squares miles of grassland in Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming and Kansas, is heavily fed by rainfall to this area. If an oil pipeline in the Sandhills were to leak, and it’s safe to assume that eventually it would, all of that farmland, and the health of any human or animal living on it, would be in jeopardy.

I don’t consider myself a treehugger, but that little factoid kind of grabbed my attention. After considerable pressure, TransCanada proposed an alternate route through less sensitive areas. Smart move, but the new route poses a risk to parts of the Missouri River watershed. Any leak that occurs anywhere along the route is going to be a big environmental problem.

On a related note, this type of crude oil is reported to be harder to clean and refine. The process can produce as much as 17% more pollutants. Shale oil like this has been refined at other refineries worldwide, and even without the additional particulates, it is more expensive to refine. The increased energy needed to extract and refine the oil reduces the net yield of useable energy (gasoline, kerosene or diesel fuel) at the end of the process. Less bang for the buck.

For comparison, one of the big problems with using hydrogen as a fuel is that the energy needed to extract hydrogen from the numerous compounds it is bound in,is almost as high as the final energy yield of the hydrogen itself. Usually it’s not worth the trouble! Tar oil can pose a similar problem.

So, let’s look at the score sheet so far:

  1. The oil going through this pipeline is among the most difficult to transport
  2. The pipeline poses a significant environmental risk along the entire route of the pipeline, and will produce more pollution during processing, and
  3. The resulting oil is ultimately not as cost-effective as other fossil fuels.

This isn’t shaping up very well. But let’s not call it yet.

We can all agree that the United States needs more sources of crude oil, so perhaps this is necessary, in spite of the risk. Proponents of the project say that it will create jobs within the United States, and will help reduce our dependency on oil from the Middle East. Most Americans seem to think that this Canadian oil will be fed directly into our domestic energy needs. If that were the case, then the pipeline would make some sense. But here’s a kicker. Much of this project is a sweetheart deal between TransCanada and a handful of oil firms (British Petroleum Canada and Valero for example) that would sell the oil to China and India! Very little, if any, of this Canadian oil would be used in the United States. We would continue to get most of our oil from the Middle East. I may be missing something here, but I don’t see how this pipeline will reduce American dependence on Middle Eastern oil, if none of the oil is staying in America!

As for the creation of jobs, the pipeline would create a large number of temporary jobs during the construction, some estimate as many as 5000. Fine and good, but once the pipeline is complete, those 5000 Americans would be under- or unemployed again, so this is little more than a temporary bandage. There is one estimate that the pipeline would only produce 35 permanent new jobs. That’s about the same number of jobs as a small department store.

So let’s look at the score board again. One the con side:

  1. Oil that is difficult and dangerous to transport and process
  2. Environmental risks throughout the process
  3. Not as cost-effective or efficient as other fossil fuels

And on the pro side:

  1. 5000 temporary and 35 permanent jobs.

…OK. But, let’s keep going. There are still some angles to consider.

Who, other than those 35 lucky Americans, is actually going to benefit from this thing?

TransCanada, and those companies tied to it, will make a fortune selling oil to a handful of American refineries. Those refineries will then, in turn, make a fortune selling oil to China and India, at prices that are competitive with oil from Saudi Arabia and other points in the Middle East. So the winner will be TransCanada, British Petroleum, Valero Oil, India, and China, and anyone who has strong investments in those companies or those areas.

I suspect that last group is the biggest pusher of this whole thing. It would include people like the Koch brothers, and other multi-millionaires, who are more loyal to themselves and the global economy than they are to any country or idea. Ned Beatty’s character in Network is a good example of this type, and they seem to be the ones calling all of the shots these days. God help us all.

Video: Ned Beatty – The World is a Business

Getting back on track, it looks like the real winners in this whole thing are a handful of oil companies (the largest of which are not based in the United States) and a bunch of investors. Sounds like another piece of pie for the infamous one percent.

OK, so we know who the winners are in this. Who appear to be the losers?

The Midwestern United States would bear the brunt of any ecological or environmental problem caused by this pipeline, or in the processing of this particularly filthy form of fossil fuel. And since the United States won’t be receiving much of the oil at the end of the day, we would be shouldering all of the burden, and the dangers, while enjoying almost none of the benefits. There is also the possible disruption to the already fragile agricultural industries in the area by slapping a dirty pipeline through the middle of prize farmland. That sounds inherently dangerous.

Saudi Arabia would also be a loser, because two of their primary customers for oil sales would be lost. Personally, I can’t get too upset about that one, but I don’t think it’s worth the risk. Creating an environmental catastrophe just to destabilize the economy of one nation? Nope, not worth it. But still, I know some people who consider that destabilization a top priority, and one that should be front and center on everyone’s mind. If Saudi Arabia suffers an economic hit, they say, their ability to finance the militant groups in the Middle East will be curtailed. That in turn will calm down the political mess over there. (Israel is particularly intrigued by that possibility.) That is a possible outcome, but I wouldn’t bank on it. The Saudi’s aren’t stupid. I think it’s more likely that Saudi Arabia would quickly find another buyer, or they would undersell the Canadian interlopers, before they cave. We may see a temporary upheaval, but things would quickly return to the status quo, or, we would see a new round of energy crunches. Saudi Arabia isn’t going to go down without some kind of fight, and economically, they have a strong arsenal. I do agree that reducing the demand for Middle Eastern oil will change the political climate over there, but the effect of this pipeline is likely to be minimal. In fact, I think the most effective way to calm down the Middle East would be for everyone to stop using oil. Hold that thought; I’ll be getting back to it.

So let’s look at the winners and losers, if this thing goes through:

Winners:

  1. TransCanada, and it’s corporate partners
  2. British Petroleum, Valero Oil, and others who would refine and transport the Canadian oil
  3. Canada, for the influx to it’s economy
  4. China and India, for their lucrative new source of oil
  5. The Koch Brothers, and others who have investments in the various entities involved in the construction and operation of this pipeline

Losers:

  1. The United States, for bearing all of the ecological and environmental risk of this thing, while gaining little or no long-term economic benefit
  2. Saudi Arabia, for losing two of their best customers

Since there are more winner and losers, some would say that this thing should happen. After all, it’s benefiting more people than it harms, correct? Some claim that the United States is being selfish by stopping what would be a boon to the world economy! To be honest, I think the global economy would be better served by something other than… this.

Let’s take one last step back and look at the even bigger picture.

The debate over global warming is ongoing, and there isn’t a consensus on it, so I won’t go too far into that. I do know that fossil fuels release particulates into the atmosphere that cause problems for crop production, create acid rain, and cause or exacerbate health problems for large numbers of people in many regions of the world. Global warming may indeed turn out to be a load of noise, but those other problems are not. This pipeline would make these problems worse.

It can be argued that in these times of economic hardship, deluded dreamers like me I don’t have the luxury of considering grand sweeping issues like the global environment and humanities place in it. We need income producing jobs and we need them now! Yes, that is true. But I firmly believe that we should be getting off the “Petroleum Standard.” The way I see it, we have technology available that could take us away from fossil fuels, or at the very least start pulling us away from it. If we would just spend the time developing it! That would generate jobs as well, if we play our cards right.

Bio-diesel is perhaps the best short-term option at the moment. Solar is another. The core technologies for these alternate forms of energy have been around for a while, but until recently there hasn’t been an interest in developing them. People would rather stick with what they know. Or, people with money in the old technologies are doing everything they can to discourage change. Change would only hurt their purses.

Now I’m going to call it.

Building this pipeline would be a collective step backwards, further into a dependence on fossil fuels. As a United States citizen, I have absolutely no reason to support it. As a member of the human race, I really really have no reason to support it. Apologies to Canada, China, and India, but we’re all riding on the same rock, and if we mess up one part of it, the rest will eventually follow. Then what? For the good of this world, we need to eliminate (or at least drastically reduce) our dependency on fossil fuels. Yes, it’s going to hurt, it’s going to be difficult, and a lot of rich people are going to lose their fortunes. Sorry guys, but you’ve got to take one for team humanity.

Or diversify your financial portfolios to include these emerging energy sources. It’s your call.

And finally, the Middle East would get very quiet if oil ceased to be such an important commodity. Taking away the money train would change the dynamic over there very quickly.

In short, fossil fuels are something we should be moving away from, all of us, and this pipeline will do nothing for that. Instead of looking into new sources of fossil fuels, why aren’t we looking into new forms of sustainable energy? We have the core technologies; we need only refine and perfect them. What’s the hold up? What are we waiting for? Don’t shit where you eat! As a species we’ve been doing that for almost 200 years, and sooner or later it has to stop. Why not today?


President Obama vetoed the Keystone XL bill on February 25, 2015. To that I say, good for him. If the Congress can’t override the veto by March 5th, then this project is likely to die. At the very least this will tie the project up in discussions for several more months.


The bulk of my information, and the image at the top, comes from the Wikipedia article on the Keystone Pipeline and the sources cited on it.

Is DeviantArt a community…?

dafella

tardis_by_homemadezombieit’s flashback time! I originally posted this editorial on DeviantArt.Com, on November 21, 2006.

Deviant Art is NOT a community.

There has been a lot of talk recently, especially around the recent anniversary, of weather or not DA is a “community.” I’ve been on the Internet since it was still called Bitnet, NREN, and some other names I can no longer recall. The 1990’s were a very difficult period in my life, so with regards to the Internet and what it holds, I’m probably jaded and bitter. But in my opinion, the Internet doesn’t have communities. It never did.

My experience with online groups started out well enough, but it really went south during my “dark time.” I found that a very large proportion of the people on the Internet tended to lie and deceive at every turn. I also found many net denizens to be hopelessly immature, or just emotionally messed up. Sometimes both. Given my own emotional state at the time, constantly talking with such people was at best, a questionable practice, but I did it anyway. To my ultimate regret.

During my periodic fits of loneliness or boredom, I would go on-line looking for some human interaction. While I was able to conduct conversations with people, via newsgroups or chat rooms, I was never satisfied. After a while I found that I would log off feeling worse than when I logged on! When on-line, you think you’re socializing, when really you aren’t. The bait-switch nature of this online “socializing” felt very cruel. I was better off moping at home than getting on line. At least if I was moping around my apartment, I was being honest in my feelings.

Some people can still see a “community” in Internet-based groups. But for me, if I don’t know a person at least via telephone, then I don’t consider them a friend. A positive acquaintance, yes. A potential friend, certainly. But until I meet them in person, I won’t call them a real friend. It takes at least two friends to make a community, in my opinion, so if friends aren’t possible over the Internet, then neither are communities.

As for DA, for me, it’s simply an art gallery. It was never anything else. I look at the pictures, read the prose, post comments or critiques from time to time, and I’ve even put up a few items. But I don’t think of it as a community. I went into DA thinking “art gallery,” not community. The Internet is not where I go to socialize. It’s a commodity or an appliance that I use when I need something else.

The Internet somehow seems fake. I know that it’s supposed to bring people together, to exchange ideas and stuff. I remember when I first went online in 1992, the Internet (or NREN) was still an idealized forum for scholars and artisans. Within two years it became the loneliest, more alienating place on Earth. Instead of growing into utopian forum for ideas and creativity, it became an electronic version of east Las Vegas, where people would lie about who and what they are, and where various forms of deception were the norm instead of the rule. It was a virtual “red light” district, devoid of any real human interaction.

I guess I’m one of those who requires the “human touch.” I may well be in the minority in this regard. If you’re one of those people who can still enjoy the Internet as a social forum, and see Deviant Art and similar places as actual communities, then by all means, continue to enjoy it. But I’ve found the real, unplugged world, with all of it’s ugly flaws, to be far more satisfying.

The ultimate personal irony is the network handle I used when I started: Cyberbard. I’ve become about as un-Cyber as a man can get. If someone had told me in 1993 that Cyberbard would eventually turn into a borderline Luddite, I would have told them they were crazy.

Crazy is as crazy does.


I did receive some comments on this one, contesting my view. I will give credit to the creators of DeviantArt for trying to make it an online community. I think they did the best they could. I don’t think a true community is possible in an online environment, so try as they might, they were destined to fail. Sorry, guys.

An Incident on Minnesota Avenue

May, 1999

incidentmap
The stage for this little drama.

Since the debacle in Ferguson, Missouri, racial tensions have returned to public prominence, and many stories have come to light. This is one such story.

It was May of 1999. I was driving on Minnesota Avenue, in the northeast quadrant of Washington, DC. My ultimate destination was a business on East Capitol Street SE: a local business that sold vintage and refurbished stereo equipment (among other things). Those of you who are familiar with the District know that Minnesota Avenue and East Capital Street (later Central Avenue) go through some high crime areas. When I started out, I wasn’t thinking about that. After all, I was going to be in a moving car for most of my trip, my goal was a well-lit and busy commercial area, and it was in the middle of the day.

Since it’s been well over ten years, I’m probably blurring some details. But this is how I remember the situation.

I was driving south on Minnesota Avenue, having just gotten off Kenilworth Avenue. The interchange between Minnesota Avenue and East Capitol Street is a type of clover-leaf, as these can both be very busy streets at different times of the week. I stopped at a traffic light, about a block short of the clover leaf. Minnesota Avenue turns into a two-lane boulevard near this point, like many major District streets do, and the resulting islands are common locations for Metrobus stops.

I was next to one of these bus platforms, waiting for the light to change, when from out of nowhere, there was a very loud tap on my car window. Startled, I looked to my left, to see what I can only describe as a very dangerous-looking young man glaring at me. I must point out that his appearance put me on the defensive. He was wearing a black leather jacket, a black knit cap, and sporting a goatee. He was also African-American. A group of three or four similar young men were a short distance away, and they were giving me similar glares. I opened my window just a crack and asked, as innocently as I could, “Can I help you?”

His response was alarming: “What are you doing here, honkie?”

I was suddenly very frightened.

“I’m simply passing through,” I answered carefully.

“Well, get the hell out!” he shouted. “You’re not wanted!”

This is where, I suspect, I messed up. I hadn’t been looking for trouble; I was looking for a local address, and still had a few blocks to go. The look on this man’s face, and those of his companions a few yards away, put me in what I can only describe as mortal terror.

“I’ll leave when the light changes,” I managed.

“Good!” he snapped.

The light turned green, and my tires made a screech worthy of a Hollywood car chase as I sped away. Instead of turning onto East Capitol and resuming my mission, I made my way to the nearest on-ramp for the local expressway, and started back home as quickly as the speed limit allowed.

By the time I got to my apartment my pulse had returned to normal. I had wanted to see the store in person. I was curious about what other products they might have had, and I could have found something else of interest. But I never made it there. Still, I called the store and inquired about the stereo component I was looking for. As it turns out they didn’t have it. I said “thanks anyway,” then informed the gentleman about what had happened just a few blocks from his place of business.

He was furious. He asked me if I could describe the kids in question, which I did as best I could. He then said he would speak with some other businesses in his block to see what could be done. I can’t imagine any business owner would be happy if a group of kids were scaring away potential customers.

I guess I did the understandable thing, but did I do the right thing? What could I have done instead? Should I have told the man at the bus stop that I was looking to patronize a local business, and didn’t want any trouble? Should I have shrugged, ignored his threat, and continued on my way?

People have told me that what I did could be considered self-defense, or self-preservation, and that no one can blame me for that. But at the same time, I can’t help but think that by allowing myself to be frightened away like that, and by paying more attention to “profiling” (remember how the men were dressed), I ended up aiding and abetting the problem of inter-racial tension, and help to perpetuate the existing cycle of violence.

I, perhaps unwittingly, became part of the problem.

What would you, gentle readers, have done in my place?


Some months later I mail-ordered something form the stereo vendor, so I did ultimately give them some business. But I never visited the store in person. In fact, I avoided that part of the District from that point on.

By 2005, that store had closed. I understand the owner retired.