Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year


Distributive generation

In my prior post on Distributionism, I noted that a normative model of society grew out of the Roman Catholic Church's attempt to come to terms with modern social conditions. That model in the hands of British Catholic intellectuals evolved into a concept called Distributionism. This concept focuses on two classes of people, prosperous peasants, and skilled workmen, and imagines that an ideal society would be dominated by these social type. The model rejects both capitalism and socialism as models of society, and offers a picture of a strong, free, and self reliant people.

The conflict between Distributionism and 2000th century capitalism is between two competing models of distribution. The Distributionism model requires that both ownership and production are distributed and that the owners also be the primary producers. The primary economic unit of society, in distributionist thought, and the family is also the primary unit of production and decision making. Distributionism forstalls economic development. The distributionist model is of a static society. 20th century capitalism utilizes the limited liability joint stock corporation to widely distribute ownership of capitalist enterprises throughout society.

Thus the difference between Distributionism and the standard view of capitalism has to do with the the split between ownership and production in the capitalist model. Thus the ideal organization for distributionism would be for each family unit to be also the primary production and consumption unit. This is the model practices in what economists call underdeveloped societies.

Rigorously applied to energy generation, the distributionism model would require that each household would generate its own electricity. There is however a paradox in Lovins model. The distributive generation facilities themselves would have to be a product of a capitalist economy. Lovins required that the plants be very well designed and built. in fact so well designed and built that they would require virtually no maintenance. The design and building of low cost high quality material objects is what capitalism does best. But capitalism typically builds material objects that require maintenance. Low maintenance usually means extra cost. But capitalism is capable of turning out high quality low maintenance goods for thosewho are willing to pay for the quality. There would seem to be, however, no way to produce micro generators in a strictly distributive economy.

In practice distributive electrical systems designed for household use are expensive as well as having maintenance issues. Distributive generation fans point to microhydropower as an exception to this rule, but microhydropower use is limited to households living next to flowing rivers and streams, and is subject to seasonal and climatic variations in water flow.

It practice distributive generation schemes are not economically competitive with central generation. Amory Lovins advocates energy efficiency in order to limit central generation, but distributive generation systems as a rule are less efficient than than central systems, and the relitiveefficiency can be explained in three words, "economies of scale."

Lovins talks of distributive co-generation, but that model has limitations. First, it is carbon friemdly rather than post-carbon. co-generation requires the burning of natural gas, a fossil fuels. Secondly, if heat is used for space heat, it should be noted that electricity would be only produced on a seasonable basis. If electricity is producedon a year round basis much of the efficiency gains of cogeneration is lost. If heat is used for water heating, then co-generation compets with solar water heating, a post-carbon technology. The co-generation would appear to be a very limited concept, that would be of no value in a post carbon economy.

Combined cycle generation is a second efficiency producing economy. But here the capital cost of combined cycle generation is beyond the economic reach of most household economy. Thus we note a disconect between the concept of Distributionism and Distributive generation. Distributionism is an attempt to bring peoples lives out of the capitalist economy. Distributive generation depends on capitalism, andcan only function within a capitalist system.

Amory Lovins also talks about "distributive renewable". These would include fuel cells, biomass, PV generation, wind generation. Each technology has serious drawbacks, drawbacks that are rarely elaborated by "distributive renewables" advocates. Photo voltaic produces electricity less than 1/4th of the time. Distributive PV systems need battery back up as well as secondary backup. Secondary back up can come from the grid, or from fossil fuel powered generators. Thus PV systems are carbon friendly, and the place of PV technology is a post carbon world is very questionable.

Biomass is not sustainable, because it mines the soil. It is also carbon friendly, because it extracts CO2 from storage in livving tissue, and returns it to the air. Finally, biomass is practical only in areas where a large number of trees or other vegitable materials are avaliable for harvesting. Thus the use of biomass in electrical generation is not truly renewable, and it has a negative impact on climate change.

Finally wind generation has limited potential in much of the country. In many areas wind generators operate at 10% of capacity or less. Winds vary according to time of day, the season of the year, geographic location, and changes in microclimatic conditions. Most of the population of the United States live in areas that are relatively unfavorable to wind generation.
More favorable locations include off shore sites, and the sparsely populated great plains of the United States. For this reason wind advocates favor building massive wind arrays in wind favorable localities and building grid extentions to the wind farms. Distributive advocates would argue that this system is distributive because wind generation depends on large numbers of small wind generators that are dispersed over a wide geographic area. But the
system is capital intensive, and relatively centralized, and in a way it is even less distributive than the traditional "centralized" system of electrical generation that brought the generators close to people. Wind generation is also carbon friendly, in that it depends on fossil fuel powered electrical back up. Thus wind systems do not fit the distributionism model, and there role in a post-carbon energy economy is open to question.

Similr considerations might be mentioned for solar thermal. Even with thermal backup, most areas of the United States are unsuited for solar thermal generation. A day of cloud cover would be disaster our for a thermal storage system. Thus solar thermal systems rely for any sort of reliability on areas of the country where there are almost never cloudy days. In practive this would restrict solar thermal electrical generation to the south west. A national system of solar thermal electrical generation would require massive additions to the national grid, and a huge capital investment. It would be absurd to classify the resulting system as distributive generation. Indeed the ST national system would be the anthesis of distributive generation.

Finally I should brieflty mention fuel cells. Despite devlopment for over a generation, fuel cell technology has not yet reached maturity, and its limitations suggest that it may well never do so. Despite large investments in fuel cell development for transportation, no practical fuel cell system for transportation has yet to imerge, and there is much pessimism about the future of fuel cells in transportation. No fuel cell system for distributive generation is likely to emerge if fuel cells for transportation are not possible.

There is then a tension between the distribution model dictated by Distributionism and what amory Lovins wishes to include in the distributive generation concept.

Amory Lovins distributive generation model is not distributive at all. In California distributionists are starting to rebel agains the massive grid expantion required to bring "renewable" electricity to consumers. "Why the heck should we pay for this line when we can use rooftop solar and get the energy we need?" asked Denis Trafecanty, a distributionist activest who is fighting big capital renewables related grid expantion. Needless to say, Amory Lovins is not supporting the distributionist. T'hey do not pay his hugh consulting fees.

Local distributionist would like to put money into local distributive generation projects rather than grid expantion. But David Hawkins, who is the lead renewable power engineer with the California Independent System Operator points to the flaw of the distributionists approach. "You're just not going to get enough power out of rooftops and parking lots," Hawkins says.

The ever zanny Sierra Club is fighting against power lines routes for environmental reasons, but they also suspect that San Diego Gas & Electric wants to hook the expanded grid up to coal fired power plants in Mexico. "Our concern all along about this project has been that it's a bait and switch," said Micah Mitrosky, a Sierra Club's organizer. One thing is sure, those Mexican Power plants will be a whole lot more reliable than California renewanles. The temptation for the capacity starved California electrical industry may prove irresistible.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Monday, December 29, 2008

Solar and Snow

A solar powered house in snow
Snow removal from solar cells
Does Amory Lovins personally remove the snow from the solar cells at at his home in Snowmass, Colorado?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Distributionism explored


Hilairy Belloc (left) never became a poster boy for cigarettes as his friend and colaborator G. K. Chesterton (right) was to.  




In my last post I briefly mentioned distributionism, and notes the influence of distributionism on the anti-nuclear movement. Distributionism was a radical interpretation of a charter document De Rerum Novarum issued by Pope Leo in 1891. De Rerum Novarum was a significant attempt by the Catholic Church to come to terms with modern society while at the same time promoting social reforms that were viewed by the church as demanded by its moral teachings. The moral teachings of the Catholic Church were filtered through the thought of the Medieval Catholic philosopher, Thomas Aquinas. Thus De Rerum Novarum did not find itself at peace with the modernity of modern society, or with the modern social order.

De Rerum Novarum depicted the plight of the poor in late 19th century Europe, and demanded justice for them. It supported the right of workers to organize labor unions, and demanded that owners pay their workers fair wages:
"Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice".
Distributive justice requires that
all citizens, without exception, are obliged to contribute something to the sum-total common goods, some share of which naturally goes back to each individual,
Yet what Pope Leo XIII gave with his right hand. Thus jusitice required workers to not disrupt social harmony as they sought a better life for themselves and their families.
The great mistake made in regard to the matter now under consideration is to take up with the notion that class is naturally hostile to class, and that the wealthy and the working men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict. So irrational and so false is this view that the direct contrary is the truth. . . it (is) ordained by nature that these two classes should dwell in harmony and agreement, so as to maintain the balance of the body politic. Each needs the other: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital. Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order, while perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity.
But De Rerum Novarum went far beyond promoting what it viewed as a harmonious relationship between workers and owners in modern society. It offered an attempt to base an economic theory on the concept of distributive justice. Here we encounter a way that De Rerum Novarum comes into direct conflict with the modern because in modern thought there is a conceptual seperation between the economic order and the moral order. In modern society there is no one unifying theory of the just, and so communities do not attempt to imposes ethical obligations on their members, rather they filter their diverse interpretation of the ethical though a series of laws that imposes minimal aproximate standards of the ethical on their members. De Rerum Novarum went well beyound the modern, by laying out a theory of economic justice that drew on the very unmodern philosoply of Thomas Aquinas.

De Rerum Novarum assumes a world in which their are two classes, the rich and the poor. Both have obligations to the other. The rich are obliged to transfer some of their wealth to the poor as charity. The poor are obliged to not raise a ruckus if the righ do not prove to be as generous as they would wish.

De Rerum Novarum suggests that if a worker
saves something by restricting expenditures and invests his savings in a piece of land in order to keep the fruit of his thrift more safe, a holding of this kind is certainly nothing else than his wage under a different form; and on this account land which the worker thus buys is necessarily under his full control as much as the wage which he earned by his labor.
The right to own land and enjoy its fruits is a major concern of De Rerum Novarum.
The land, surely, that has been worked by the hand and the art of the tiller greatly changes in aspect. The wilderness is made fruitful; the barren field, fertile. But those things through which the soil has been improved so inhere in the soil and are so thoroughly intermingled with it, that they are for the most part quite inseparable from it. And, after all, would justice permit anyone to own and enjoy that upon which another has toiled? As effects follow the cause producing them, so it is just that the fruit of labor belongs precisely to those who have performed the labor.

Rightly therefore, the human race as a whole, moved in no wise by the dissenting opinions of a few, and observing nature carefully, has found in the law of nature itself the basis of the distribution of goods, and, by the practice of all ages, has consecrated private possession as something best adapted to man's nature and to peaceful and tranquil living together. Now civil laws, which, when just, derive their power from the natural law itself, confirm and, even by the use of force, protect this right of which we speak. -- And this same right has been sanctioned by the authority of the divine law, which forbids us most strictly even to desire what belongs to another. "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his house, nor his field, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is his."
What Distributionism did was to expand the connection which Leo XIII made between social justice and property ownership, by focusing the land owning rights of workers on farming. The Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc pushed De Rerum Novarum to a more radical view as Raymond Williams explained in "Culture and Society":
Belloc's argument is that capitalism as a system is breaking down, and that this is to be welcomed. A society in which a minority owns and controls the means of production, while the majority are reduced to proletarian status, is not only wrong but unstable. Belloc sees it breaking down in two ways — on the one hand into State action for welfare (which pure capitalism cannot embody); on the other hand into monopoly and the restraint of trade. There are only two alternatives to this system: socialism, which Belloc calls collectivism; and the redistribution of property on a significant scale, which Belloc calls distributivism.
Belloc worked in close intellectual collaboration with the better known writer G.K. Chesterton., but is regarded as laying the theoretical foundations for Distributionism.  In a number of respects Belloc's thinking paralleled Marxism .   He certainly held capitalism in low regard: 
"The Capitalist state breeds a Collectivist theory which in action produces the Servile State".
and
"..a collectivist solution is the easiest for a Capitalist state to aim at, and yet, in the very act of attempting collectivism, the servitude of the many results and the confirmation of the present privilege of the few?.
Distributionism thus went far beyond Pope Leo in focusing on the localization as opposed to the centralized as optimal.  Thus individuals made better decisions for themselves than large organizations could.  Small organizations were better equipped to make decisions than large organizations.  Belloc and Chesterton also advocated the self sufficiency of families, even to the extent of growing their own food. They supported coops as opposed to corporations, and guilds as opposed to unions. The supported eliminating the role of the middle man in economic transactions. They opposed government welfare programs and social security schemes. They did not like the charging of interest on loans.

Distributionism is clearly reactionary, and far less modern even than De Rerum Novarum. It views the just society as a community of artisans, small business people, and farmers. The ideal business is a family business and the ideal farm a family farm.

The notion that nothing good can come from large organizations including the state was not, however, driven by Balloc and Chesterton to its logical conclusion in the area of religion.  The equivalent of Distributionism in religion is the principle of congregational autonomy, a principle that utterly undercuts the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.  

Afterword: I have diverted from my usual course on Nuclear Green because I am trying to untangle some of the intellectual roots  of the anti-nuclear movement, and in particular of Amory Lovins' anti-nuclear belief system.  I intend to unpack the relationship between Distributionism and Lovins' energy theory.  I will also intend to look at the relationship between Distributionism and anti-Capitalism in the the Green movement, and in the "relocalization" movement.    

Friday, December 26, 2008

BUDDHIST ECONOMICS: Small is Reactionary

The Buddha was roughly a contemporary of the Judean thinker Jerimiah. Both were deeply concerned with the esistential problems posed by human insecurity. The Iron age created the possibility of human wealth, but left human life highly insecure. The philosopher Karl Jaspers noted emergance of important thinkers and schools of thought in many human societies during the Iron Age.
... If there is an axis in history, we must find it empirically in profane history, as a set of circumstances significant for all men, including Christians. It must carry conviction for Westerner, Asiatics, and all men, without the support of any particular content of faith, and thus provide all men with a common historical frame of reference. The spiritual process which took place between 800 and 200 B.C.E. seems to constitute such an axis. It was then that the man with whom we live today came into being. Let us designate this period as the "axial age." Extraordinary events are crowded into this period. In China lived Confucius and Lao Tse, all the trends in Chinese philosophy arose... In India it was the age of the Upanishads and of Buddha; as in China, all philosophical trends, including skepticism and materialism, sophistry and nihilism, were developed. In Iran Zarathustra put forward his challenging conception of the cosmic process as a struggle between good and evil; in Palestine prophets arose: Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Deutero-Isaiah; Greece produced Homer, the philosophers Parmenides, Heraclitus, Plato, the tragic poets, Thucydides and Archimedes. All the vast development of which these names are a mere intimation took place in those few centuries, independently and almost simultaneously in China, India and the West…
If we are to understand the significant of the Buddha and his controbutions to human thought, we ought to begin by understanding the insecurities of the Iron age and the limitations of Iron Age solutions to those insecurities. In a way it was those insecurities that lead to an intellectual revolution in Europe that began with Francis Bacon. Bacon was the first thinker to observe that science could contribute of human security and material well being. Francis Bacon was undoubtedly the spiritual father of all true progressives. Bacon wrote
I would address one general admonition to all; that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things; but for the benefit and use of life;
Bacon signaled the beginning of a second axiel age in human history, one which has begun the problems of human insecurity in ways that thinkers of the first Axiel age did not. †he great accomplishment of the second Axiel Age has been the expantion of the power of ordinary people, and indeed both Bacor and DesCartes for saw this acomplishment. By expanding human power the second Axiel also lead inexorably to a more complex society. consider the the relationship between the American and Chinese currencies:
if the Chinese economy continues to deteriorate – a likely scenario as the deterioration just started – the Chinese government will stop buying US Treasuries and even worse, it will start digging into its US reserves. Since there are no other natural buyers (in size) of the US debt, our interest rates may actually skyrocket, the US dollar drops against Chinese currency, while our inflation may still remain low. This is bad for China twice:
  1. High interest rates mean even lower economic growth from the US and thus even lower consumption of Chinese-made goods.
  2. China cannot afford a weak US dollar – its US dollar reserves are worth less, and more importantly, its product becomes more expensive for US consumers.
In a complex economic environment war becomes more difficult. War becomes increasingly impossible in an international economy in which the wealth and prosperity of one nation is tied up with that of other nations. But complexity has its enemies. There are always those who long to return to simpler times. The Economist E. F. Schumacher was one. Schumacher wrote
What I’m struggling to do is to help recapture something our ancestors had. If we can just regain the consciousness the West had before the Cartesian Revolution, which I call the Second Fall of Man, then we’ll be getting somewhere.
One must understand that in energy matters Schumacher was a long time advocate of Coal. He consulted for many years with the British Coal Board, and no doubt his acknowledge opposition to both oil and nuclear power was in no small measure to his vested interest in the fortunes of coal. But Charles Fager pointed out something else about Schumacher thinking about economics.
Small Is Beautiful -- a message so skillfully delivered that it has been absorbed by his audiences apparently without being noticed. What is the message? Nothing less than a passionate plea for the rediscovery of old-time Western religion -- Roman Catholic religion, to be precise.

That’s right: E. F. Schumacher is really an apologetical preacher, one of the rare breed whose experience has made it possible for him to employ effectively the language and concepts of economics as a medium for communicating what is essentially a sermon, a call for readers to repent, believe the gospel and reorder their lives accordingly.
Fager continues:
He readily owned up to being a Catholic, a certified convert as of five years ago. This item is not mentioned in his book; in fact, one of the most frequently cited chapters, “Buddhist Economics,” almost made it appear as if he were deeply involved in Eastern religions. But wasn’t this chapter, I inquired, really more informed by the Catholic writings and thinkers he mentioned so frequently elsewhere in the book -- the papal encyclicals, Newman, Gilson and, above all, Thomas Aquinas?

Schumacher grinned. “Of course. But if I had called the chapter ‘Christian Economics,’ nobody would have paid any attention!”

This is not to say that the reference to Buddhism was a sham; he is firmly convinced that the basic elements of a common religious outlook are to be found in all the world’s major religions. But it was done artfully, to help get his message across. “You see, most people in the West are suffering from what I call an anti-Christian trauma,” he explained, “and I don’t blame them. I went through that for 20 years myself.”

Paradoxically, it was Buddhism that opened the door to Schumacher’s return to Western religion, so his use of Buddhist concepts, besides being shrewd, is authentically based in his experience. “I was raised in Germany in the atmosphere of scientific materialism,” he explained, “though with a veneer of Christianity -- Lutheranism. But after I went to the university, I reacted very strongly, like many young people, against veneers of religion and culture, and that was the beginning of my own version of the anti-Christian trauma. There’s much truth to that reaction too, of course, because the churches have become associated with so much that’s wrong about our culture.”

But this scientific materialism was hardly a satisfactory alternative world view for a sensitive soul. “These attitudes,” said Schumacher, “all left the taste of ashes in my mouth,” and it wasn’t long before he was searching for some better view of life.

Fager, relying on Catholic theologian John Coleman, pointed out the sources of the core concepts of Small is Beautigul, the neo-Thomistic philosophy of French Philosopher Jacques Maritain, who thought that small institutions were more humaine than large institutions, and English Catholic writers G. K. Chesterton, Hillaire Belloc and Eric Gill, who talked of decentralizing industry also appeared to have influenced Schumacher. Thus Schumacher can be claassified as a "conservative revolutionaries’ or ‘reactionary radicals’ but not a progressive.

It ought to be noted that Schumacher had a profound impact on the thinking of Amory Lovins who is a member of the board of the E. F. Schumacher Society. Thus Schumacher plsys a major and to my mind very wrong headed role in the development of "Progressive" thinking on the human relationship to the environment. Unfortunately for his "progressive" admirers, Schumacher is a reactionary, who utterly repudiates the ideas upon which matrial progress is built. Let me say first that I admire the intellectual accomplishments of Buddhism which I view as a sort of Asian mental health movement. I do not regard Buddhism as an anti-materialist philosophy. Far from it, Buddhism teaches people how to live in a world where their human and material expectations are likerly to be disappointed.

The Buddha would tell us that it is natural for people to desire things, and to to strive to have them, but that if we fail to expect material things to be more than temporary we are mistaken, ands likely to be disappointed. Disappointment is painful. Thus far from being anti-materialist, Buddhism accepts the existence of a material world, and teaches us how to come to terms with the fact that material things do not last forever. Do Buddhist enjoy, appreciate and desire material things? Yes indeed they do.

The Buddha createde his philosophy in the time of great material privation, and his followers followed a path that offered comfort to the deprives. Does Buddhism have a real coherant economic philosophy that is relivent to mordern society? F. L. Pryor notes:
the vagueness of the Buddhist canon on economic matters combined with its complexity and length allows room for quite different interpretations of an ideal economic system in modern times, especially since conditions are very much different than they were more than 2000 years ago when the Buddha lived. Of course, this situathon is little different from that of Christianity. The really difficult problem is to determine what part of the canon will be taken seriously under what circumstances, but this would require a much different kind of approach than the textual exegesis offered here.
Schumacher conceived of the ideas of Buddhists economics while serving as a consultant for the government of Burma in the mid 1950's. The Buddhist economic program of U Nu, who Schumacher advised failed, and the country has been rulled for many years by a corrupt and tyrantical military 7Junta.

BUDDHIST ECONOMICS
by E. F. Schumacher
"Right Livelihood" is one of the requirements of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. It is clear, therefore, that there must be such a thing as Buddhist economics.

Buddhist countries have often stated that they wish to remain faithful to their heritage. So Burma: “The New Burma sees no conflict between religious values and economic progress. Spiritual health and material well-being are not enemies: they are natural allies.” 1 Or: “We can blend successfully the religious and spiritual values of our heritage with the benefits of modern technology.” 2 Or: “We Burmans have a sacred duty to conform both our dreams and our acts to our faith. This we shall ever do.” 3

All the same, such countries invariably assume that they can model their economic development plans in accordance with modern economics, and they call upon modern economists from so-called advanced countries to advise them, to formulate the policies to be pursued, and to construct the grand design for development, the Five-Year Plan or whatever it may be called. No one seems to think that a Buddhist way of life would call for Buddhist economics, just as the modern materialist way of life has brought forth modern economics.

Economists themselves, like most specialists, normally suffer from a kind of metaphysical blindness, assuming that theirs is a science of absolute and invariable truths, without any presuppositions. Some go as far as to claim that economic laws are as free from "metaphysics" or "values" as the law of gravitation. We need not, however, get involved in arguments of methodology. Instead, let us take some fundamentals and see what they look like when viewed by a modern economist and a Buddhist economist.

There is universal agreement that a fundamental source of wealth is human labour. Now, the modern economist has been brought up to consider "labour" or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it can not be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a "disutility"; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice. Hence the ideal from the point of view of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment.

The consequences of these attitudes both in theory and in practice are, of course, extremely far-reaching. If the ideal with regard to work is to get rid of it, every method that "reduces the work load" is a good thing. The most potent method, short of automation, is the so-called "division of labour" and the classical example is the pin factory eulogised in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. 4 Here it is not a matter of ordinary specialisation, which mankind has practiced from time immemorial, but of dividing up every complete process of production into minute parts, so that the final product can be produced at great speed without anyone having had to contribute more than a totally insignificant and, in most cases, unskilled movement of his limbs.

The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence. Again, the consequences that flow from this view are endless. To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence. Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.

From the Buddhist point of view, there are therefore two types of mechanisation which must be clearly distinguished: one that enhances a man’s skill and power and one that turns the work of man over to a mechanical slave, leaving man in a position of having to serve the slave. How to tell the one from the other? “The craftsman himself,” says Ananda Coomaraswamy, a man equally competent to talk about the modern West as the ancient East, “can always, if allowed to, draw the delicate distinction between the machine and the tool. The carpet loom is a tool, a contrivance for holding warp threads at a stretch for the pile to be woven round them by the craftsmen’s fingers; but the power loom is a machine, and its significance as a destroyer of culture lies in the fact that it does the essentially human part of the work.” 5 It is clear, therefore, that Buddhist economics must be very different from the economics of modern materialism, since the Buddhist sees the essence of civilisation not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character. Character, at the same time, is formed primarily by a man’s work. And work, properly conducted in conditions of human dignity and freedom, blesses those who do it and equally their products. The Indian philosopher and economist J. C. Kumarappa sums the matter up as follows:

If the nature of the work is properly appreciated and applied, it will stand in the same relation to the higher faculties as food is to the physical body. It nourishes and enlivens the higher man and urges him to produce the best he is capable of. It directs his free will along the proper course and disciplines the animal in him into progressive channels. It furnishes an excellent background for man to display his scale of values and develop his personality. 6

If a man has no chance of obtaining work he is in a desperate position, not simply because he lacks an income but because he lacks this nourishing and enlivening factor of disciplined work which nothing can replace. A modern economist may engage in highly sophisticated calculations on whether full employment "pays" or whether it might be more "economic" to run an economy at less than full employment so as to insure a greater mobility of labour, a better stability of wages, and so forth. His fundamental criterion of success is simply the total quantity of goods produced during a given period of time. “If the marginal urgency of goods is low,” says Professor Galbraith in The Affluent Society, “then so is the urgency of employing the last man or the last million men in the labour force.” 7And again: “If . . . we can afford some unemployment in the interest of stability—a proposition, incidentally, of impeccably conservative antecedents—then we can afford to give those who are unemployed the goods that enable them to sustain their accustomed standard of living.”

From a Buddhist point of view, this is standing the truth on its head by considering goods as more important than people and consumption as more important than creative activity. It means shifting the emphasis from the worker to the product of work, that is, from the human to the subhuman, a surrender to the forces of evil. The very start of Buddhist economic planning would be a planning for full employment, and the primary purpose of this would in fact be employment for everyone who needs an "outside" job: it would not be the maximisation of employment nor the maximisation of production. Women, on the whole, do not need an "outside" job, and the large-scale employment of women in offices or factories would be considered a sign of serious economic failure. In particular, to let mothers of young children work in factories while the children run wild would be as uneconomic in the eyes of a Buddhist economist as the employment of a skilled worker as a soldier in the eyes of a modern economist.

While the materialist is mainly interested in goods, the Buddhist is mainly interested in liberation. But Buddhism is "The Middle Way" and therefore in no way antagonistic to physical well-being. It is not wealth that stands in the way of liberation but the attachment to wealth; not the enjoyment of pleasurable things but the craving for them. The keynote of Buddhist economics, therefore, is simplicity and non-violence. From an economist’s point of view, the marvel of the Buddhist way of life is the utter rationality of its pattern—amazingly small means leading to extraordinarily satisfactory results.

For the modern economist this is very difficult to understand. He is used to measuring the "standard of living" by the amount of annual consumption, assuming all the time that a man who consumes more is "better off" than a man who consumes less. A Buddhist economist would consider this approach excessively irrational: since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption. Thus, if the purpose of clothing is a certain amount of temperature comfort and an attractive appearance, the task is to attain this purpose with the smallest possible effort, that is, with the smallest annual destruction of cloth and with the help of designs that involve the smallest possible input of toil. The less toil there is, the more time and strength is left for artistic creativity. It would be highly uneconomic, for instance, to go in for complicated tailoring, like the modern West, when a much more beautiful effect can be achieved by the skillful draping of uncut material. It would be the height of folly to make material so that it should wear out quickly and the height of barbarity to make anything ugly, shabby, or mean. What has just been said about clothing applies equally to all other human requirements. The ownership and the consumption of goods is a means to an end, and Buddhist economics is the systematic study of how to attain given ends with the minimum means.

Modern economics, on the other hand, considers consumption to be the sole end and purpose of all economic activity, taking the factors of production—and, labour, and capital—as the means. The former, in short, tries to maximise human satisfactions by the optimal pattern of consumption, while the latter tries to maximise consumption by the optimal pattern of productive effort. It is easy to see that the effort needed to sustain a way of life which seeks to attain the optimal pattern of consumption is likely to be much smaller than the effort needed to sustain a drive for maximum consumption. We need not be surprised, therefore, that the pressure and strain of living is very much less in say, Burma, than it is in the United States, in spite of the fact that the amount of labour-saving machinery used in the former country is only a minute fraction of the amount used in the latter.

Simplicity and non-violence are obviously closely related. The optimal pattern of consumption, producing a high degree of human satisfaction by means of a relatively low rate of consumption, allows people to live without great pressure and strain and to fulfill the primary injunction of Buddhist teaching: “Cease to do evil; try to do good.” As physical resources are everywhere limited, people satisfying their needs by means of a modest use of resources are obviously less likely to be at each other’s throats than people depending upon a high rate of use. Equally, people who live in highly self-sufficient local communities are less likely to get involved in large-scale violence than people whose existence depends on world-wide systems of trade.

From the point of view of Buddhist economics, therefore, production from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of economic life, while dependence on imports from afar and the consequent need to produce for export to unknown and distant peoples is highly uneconomic and justifiable only in exceptional cases and on a small scale. Just as the modern economist would admit that a high rate of consumption of transport services between a man’s home and his place of work signifies a misfortune and not a high standard of life, so the Buddhist would hold that to satisfy human wants from faraway sources rather than from sources nearby signifies failure rather than success. The former tends to take statistics showing an increase in the number of ton/miles per head of the population carried by a country’s transport system as proof of economic progress, while to the latter—the Buddhist economist—the same statistics would indicate a highly undesirable deterioration in the pattern of consumption.

Another striking difference between modern economics and Buddhist economics arises over the use of natural resources. Bertrand de Jouvenel, the eminent French political philosopher, has characterised "Western man" in words which may be taken as a fair description of the modern economist:

He tends to count nothing as an expenditure, other than human effort; he does not seem to mind how much mineral matter he wastes and, far worse, how much living matter he destroys. He does not seem to realize at all that human life is a dependent part of an ecosystem of many different forms of life. As the world is ruled from towns where men are cut off from any form of life other than human, the feeling of belonging to an ecosystem is not revived. This results in a harsh and improvident treatment of things upon which we ultimately depend, such as water and trees. 8

The teaching of the Buddha, on the other hand, enjoins a reverent and non-violent attitude not only to all sentient beings but also, with great emphasis, to trees. Every follower of the Buddha ought to plant a tree every few years and look after it until it is safely established, and the Buddhist economist can demonstrate without difficulty that the universal observation of this rule would result in a high rate of genuine economic development independent of any foreign aid. Much of the economic decay of southeast Asia (as of many other parts of the world) is undoubtedly due to a heedless and shameful neglect of trees.

Modern economics does not distinguish between renewable and non-renewable materials, as its very method is to equalise and quantify everything by means of a money price. Thus, taking various alternative fuels, like coal, oil, wood, or water-power: the only difference between them recognised by modern economics is relative cost per equivalent unit. The cheapest is automatically the one to be preferred, as to do otherwise would be irrational and "uneconomic." From a Buddhist point of view, of course, this will not do; the essential difference between non-renewable fuels like coal and oil on the one hand and renewable fuels like wood and water-power on the other cannot be simply overlooked. Non-renewable goods must be used only if they are indispensable, and then only with the greatest care and the most meticulous concern for conservation. To use them heedlessly or extravagantly is an act of violence, and while complete non-violence may not be attainable on this earth, there is nonetheless an ineluctable duty on man to aim at the ideal of non-violence in all he does.

Just as a modern European economist would not consider it a great achievement if all European art treasures were sold to America at attractive prices, so the Buddhist economist would insist that a population basing its economic life on non-renewable fuels is living parasitically, on capital instead of income. Such a way of life could have no permanence and could therefore be justified only as a purely temporary expedient. As the world’s resources of non-renewable fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—are exceedingly unevenly distributed over the globe and undoubtedly limited in quantity, it is clear that their exploitation at an ever-increasing rate is an act of violence against nature which must almost inevitably lead to violence between men.

This fact alone might give food for thought even to those people in Buddhist countries who care nothing for the religious and spiritual values of their heritage and ardently desire to embrace the materialism of modern economics at the fastest possible speed. Before they dismiss Buddhist economics as nothing better than a nostalgic dream, they might wish to consider whether the path of economic development outlined by modern economics is likely to lead them to places where they really want to be. Towards the end of his courageous book The Challenge of Man’s Future, Professor Harrison Brown of the California Institute of Technology gives the following appraisal:

Thus we see that, just as industrial society is fundamentally unstable and subject to reversion to agrarian existence, so within it the conditions which offer individual freedom are unstable in their ability to avoid the conditions which impose rigid organisation and totalitarian control. Indeed, when we examine all the foreseeable difficulties which threaten the survival of industrial civilisation, it is difficult to see how the achievement of stability and the maintenance of individual liberty can be made compatible. 9

Even if this were dismissed as a long-term view there is the immediate question of whether "modernisation," as currently practised without regard to religious and spiritual values, is actually producing agreeable results. As far as the masses are concerned, the results appear to be disastrous—a collapse of the rural economy, a rising tide of unemployment in town and country, and the growth of a city proletariat without nourishment for either body or soul.

It is in the light of both immediate experience and long term prospects that the study of Buddhist economics could be recommended even to those who believe that economic growth is more important than any spiritual or religious values. For it is not a question of choosing between "modern growth" and "traditional stagnation." It is a question of finding the right path of development, the Middle Way between materialist heedlessness and traditionalist immobility, in short, of finding "Right Livelihood."

Jumping the tracks

I favor a two party or multiparty political system. The flaws of human beings are such that no single party is going to long persevere in power without flaws emerging.  The greater the power, the more troubling the flaws. As Lord Acton reminds us:
"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."
The only protection we have against the corruption that power brings is a competitive political system, but an adversarial system brings with it the possibility of using hate as a motivating force in politics. It is easier to demonize an opponent by denigrating him to the electorate rather than to defeat his argument through the use of reasoned arguments. Thus laziness is a major source of fallacious reasoning in politics. Ideology is a system of reasoning that relies on a closed system of related or semi-related propositions to yield answers to all political questions. Again the expediency of ideology is the effort it saves in thinking though issues. In addition, a shared ideology allows for consistency and cooperation among people who share the ideology. Thus ideologies may be very useful to political parties. However, once an ideology is applied to a problem, the ideologue typically stops thinking. If the ideologically correct solution fails to correct the problem, the ideologue who focuses on ideology rather than fact, may fail to notice that the problem is not solved by the ideologically correct solution. Even worse, the ideology may make assumptions that are just plain wrong and lead systematically to political errors.

I take these problems to be both universal and human. The only way a political system can counteract these human tendencies to laziness, viciousness, and thoughtlessness is through a competitive system of leadership. I want to point to two political issues which illustrate the corruptibility of the politically minded and the inability of party and ideology to protect against that corruption. The issues are Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) and the use of civilian nuclear generated electrical power. In the former case the ideological sin is committed on the ideological right and is associated with the Republican Party. In the latter, the sin is committed by the political left and is associated with the Democratic party.

There is little doubt that Global Warming skepticism is a conservative/Republican political cause. Global Warming skeptics have control of numerous media organs associated with the Republican Party and global warming skeptics are common among Republicans. A Pew Research Center Survey found that Republicans were twice as likely as Democrats or Independents to be convinced that Global Warming is not caused by human action. The disparity is even more striking among college graduates. 75% of Democrats and 57% of independents with college degrees say that the earth is warming and that this is caused by human activity. In contrast, only 19% of Republican college graduates agree that AGW is a real problem. Both Democrats and Independents who lack a college education are less likely to be convinced by AGW than their college educated peers, while the opposite is the case among Republicans who are not college graduates.

Most of these college educated Republicans believe that there is a real scientific debate on the causes of Global Warming. Yet numerous scientific bodies have adopted statements endorsing the AGW construct. These include the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Astronomical Society, the American Physical Society, the American Chemical Society, the American Medical Association, and the American Statistical Association. In contrast, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma has prepared a list of 650 scientists who are alleged to be AGW skeptics. But Inhofe's list is conspicuously unimpressive. Some named on the list are not known to hold advanced degrees in science and have no peer reviewed publications. The list also appears to be padded with the names of TV weather forecasters who are at best Meteorologists rather than climate scientists. Inhofe also has included a number of right wind economists on his list, even though their professional training would not qualify them to make judgements about climate science.

Republican Global Warming Skeptics take their cues from supposed experts like Steve McIntyre of Climate Audit. McIntyre's critics charge that his favorite tactic is to mis-represent his target and then, having set up a straw man, proceeds to demolish it. It is not my intention to debate the quality of Mcintyre's work, but to point out that it has been the subject of controversy, and that outside of Republican circles, Mcintyre is not regarded as a serious voice in mainstream science.

Republicans AGW skeptics seem to explain the lack of credibility of their AGW skeptical position by there being a vast conspiracy through which "liberals" control the views of mainstream science, and that the idea of AGW os part of the "liberal" conspiracy. i regard this is most unfortunate because I disagree with mainstream Liberal thinking about Global Warming Mitigation. My views, which I would characterize as radical, is that the main line "liberal" thinking about AGW is highly distorted by the same sort of ideological cant that has taken hold of Republican discourse on climate.

Democratic discourse on AGW mitigation is full of talk about "efficiency", "sacrifice", "renewable energy", "clean energy". Readers of my blog might appreciate that I have attempted to analyze mainstream Democratic notions on AGW mitigation and to demonstrate that they are overly expensive, as well as unlikely to be effective. In addition, Democrats appear to be assume far to much reliance on government regulation, subsidies and far too little on normal economic mechanisms. Let me hasten to note that as a Liberal Democrat, I by no means reject regulation out of hand, nor am I an uncritical admirer of free markets. I just happen to think that overly intrusive regulations are less likely to work as mitigation approaches than lower cost market based mitigation approaches that are also likely to win broad public acceptance.

Since Republicans are more amenible to the mitigation strategy that I favor, I would like to see them at the table when mitigatioon is discussed. Instead, like a group of defeated Japanese Samurai, Republicans seem to be lining up to commit political Harakiri via global warming denial. Indeed the Republican Party would quickly be demolished due to Republican stupidity were it not for the fact that Democrats are equally stupid about mitigation issues.

So what is going on? Why do Republicans jump the tracks on Global warming and Democrats jump the tracks on mitigation? Are they simply crazy? Blogger Erich Vieth puts his finger on the problem, although being a Democrat Vieth fails to apply the lesson to his own party.
Dogma wears two hats. . . . dogma facilitates bonding.

The assertion of group-approved-nonsense looks and sounds ridiculous to outsiders, but uttering it loudly in the presence of one’s group proves one’s loyalty to those insiders. The more nonsensical the dogma is, the tighter the bond it is capable of generating among those willing to utter it. . . .

Uttering officially-approved nonsense in front of one’s group identifies one as a bona fide member of that group. Uttering absurd things is a display that one desires to be a member of that group so incredibly much that one is willing to utter the sorts of things that will trigger social ridicule from learned outsiders. . . .

Therefore, uttering nonsensical dogma is not primarily about conveying the truth of the matter asserted. Rather, it’s about sending out a sonar signal in order to identify allies and enemies. It is a herding mechanism.This deep need to be accepted by a group is so deeply wired into humans that, in most people, it even overcomes the urge to follow evidence where it leads. Unfortunately, the literal meaning of the dogma doesn’t entirely dissipate. Therefore, we have lots of Republicans who still refuse to act on the threat of global warming. . . .

Raising one’s hand to swear allegiance to scientific nonsense is usually done in full view, but such it actually functions like a secret handshake.

If you want to feel the glow of acceptance by a big group of Republicans, all you’ve got to do is say the magic phrase: “Global Warming has not been proven.” Say it just often enough to piss off Democrats. Don’t say it too often or too loudly, or even the Republicans will think that you’re wierd. With those magic words denying global warming, you’ll get smiles and pats on the back from total strangers who will buy you drinks and regale you with stories about how they outwitted stupid Democrats; they’ll laugh at your jokes and they’ll tell you that you’re smart. . . .

Here’s an experment that demonstrates what I’m claiming. Take a Republican off to the side and talk to him one-on-one. Be cordial and non-threatening. He’ll eventually settle down and you’ll find him somewhat reasonable on many topics. Then allow him to wander back to his group of fellow Republicans and listen to the dogma start to fly again–the same guy who (minutes ago) was starting to make sense (when it was just the two of you) is now spouting nonsense like he’s absolutely sure of himself. . . .
When Democrats start talking about energy efficiency, clean energy, renewables, and dangerous nuclear power, they are being no more rational than Republicans are when they claim that "AGW is hype".

Edward Sapir noted 80 years ago that "the real" is to a large extent a socially constructed linguistic picture:
Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language, and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the "real world" is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group.
One of my most telling formative experiences occurred on the first day of the school year a high school biology class. Several of the students in the class were to go to win National Merit Scholarships, which makes what happened that day so remarkable. The teacher began the class by talking about the study of living things, which is the subject. He mentioned several living organisms. Then he began to point to a potted plant that sat on his desk. He asked a member of the class if the plant was a living organism. The answer was "yes." Several other students were asked the same question, and each answered yes. Then the teacher pointed to a student in the back of the classroom if the glass in the classroom window was a living organism. The student answered "yes". Then the teacher asked the student who was sitting next to the first student, if the window glass was a living organism. The answer again came back yes. The teacher then very calmly began to work his way through the classroom, asking each student in turn if the window was a living organism. The answer was always, "yes". Eventually the teacher reached the front row, where I had taken a seat next to Vanda Brown, the a girl with a truly astonishing anatomy. The teacher finally asked me, "Mr. Barton, is the window glass a living organism?" I withdrew from my teenage revery on Vanda's most astonishing features long enough to say, "No".   I probably lost my chance with Vanda at that moment, but the teacher thanked me for the right answer.  I did not make an "A" in biology, but several of the students who had said the window was a living organism on the first day did. Once they figured out how to give the answers the teacher was looking for in class, they did fine.

Giving the true answer, instead of the answer my peers had adopted, marked me as a socially maladjusted teenager. I probably still am.  Social groups can be corrupting because they have the power to make us deny truth.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN (Japan): Thorium a Safer Choice for Nuclear Reactors

From: THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
Date: 2008/12/24
Thorium a safer choice for nuclear reactors
By Takashi Kamei

A move to take a new look at atomic energy as a measure to alleviate global warming is gathering momentum around the world. However, concerns about safety, disposal of radioactive waste and nuclear proliferation cannot be dispelled. As a way to solve these problems comprehensively, I wish to call attention to nuclear power generation that uses thorium for fuel.

Thorium is a naturally occurring element that can be used as nuclear fuel. In uranium-fueled nuclear reactors, after absorbing a neutron, part of the uranium with an atomic mass number of 238 turns into plutonium-239, a key fissionable component in nuclear weapons.

With an atomic mass number of 232, thorium hardly breeds plutonium when used as nuclear fuel, reducing fears of nuclear proliferation.

Thorium is distributed extensively, and reserves are rich in such countries as Australia, India and China. It is estimated that thorium reserves are more than four times as abundant as uranium reserves.

In May, then Australian Governor-General Major General Michael Jeffery said that the use of thorium should be considered as a sustainable energy source because it does not produce weapon-grade materials. The use of thorium was also discussed at an international symposium on climate change held in October in Potsdam, Germany.

A statement issued in December 2007 by experts on global warming from Japan, China and India also included the use of thorium.

It is said that molten-salt reactors are most suitable for the use of thorium as a nuclear fuel. Molten salt refers to salts such as sodium chloride that come in liquid form under high temperatures. Energy is produced by dissolving thorium and a small amount of fissile materials in molten salt, which serves as the primary coolant.

Compared with conventional nuclear reactors that use water as a coolant, molten-salt reactors are safer because the pressure of the coolant is low even under high temperatures.

Another advantage is that there is no need to frequently stop operations to exchange fuel because they do not use fuel rods. Nor do they produce transuranium elements--chemical elements with atomic numbers greater than that of uranium at 92. These are the main elements of high-level radioactive waste.

In other words, molten-salt reactors can reduce radioactive waste both in terms of quantity and quality.

Studies on molten-salt reactors advanced in the United States from the 1950s to the 1970s. An experimental reactor was also operated for four years without accidents. But under the Cold War regime, one of the major purposes of nuclear power generation was to obtain uranium and plutonium to build nuclear weapons. Therefore, for political reasons, thorium was not a favored choice.

But now that the Cold War is over and the world is facing global warming, thorium and molten-salt reactors are once again attracting worldwide attention. In the United States in October, Democratic Senator Harry Reid and another senator submitted a bill to set aside $250 million for research and development of thorium-fueled nuclear power generation.

In the Czech Republic, too, construction of a molten-salt reactor is scheduled to start in 2013.

Meanwhile, in Japan, Kazuo Furukawa, a former Tokai University professor, and others have been proposing the use of thorium based on U.S. research results. However, full-scale domestic research and development have made little progress because researchers and budgets have always concentrated on the use of uranium and plutonium.

In the long run, nonthermal energies such as solar power should be promoted as the main source of energy. But during the transition period, nuclear power is needed.

Since thorium is a radioactive material, it obviously must be handled with care. Safety of waste disposal must also be confirmed. Before building a commercial reactor, high temperature containment vessels should be developed and the integrated system should be verified. Still, I believe thorium molten-salt reactors can eventually become a mainstay technology.

Hundreds of thousands of tons of thorium are in stock around the world in the form of residue after extraction of rare earth elements. The volume is large enough to operate molten-salt reactors until the end of the 21st century at the current global output level of 400 million kilowatts.

If Japan takes the lead in establishing thorium reactor technology and provides it to developing countries that are facing tight energy supply amid growing demand, it would also be useful in curbing global warming. Japan should also seriously consider the use of thorium for its own nuclear power generation.

* * *

The author is an assistant professor at Kyoto University specializing in energy system design and assessment.(IHT/Asahi: December 24,2008)

Hat tip to David Walters

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Great Slump of 1930

I am shifting my normal focus on nuclear power, decarbonization, and environmental issues because of the extroprdinary economic situation we face. Last month over 500,000 workers lost their jobs in the United States. Were such a pace of job layoffs, it would profoundly impact our national economic situation. It is appear that the stock market collapse may not be over, and the wealth iost in the United States and around the world will impact the international economy as well as our national economy for some time to come. It is not yet clear if we face a 19th Century type crash, or a great economic contraction similar to the Great Depression of the 1930's. Lets hope that it is the former, rather than the latter.

The great English Economist Lord John M. Keynes wrote a famous essay on the crash of 1930 which in mny ways reflected our current situation. The title of the essay was "The Great Slump of 1930".

JOHN MAYNARD KEYNES on The Great Slump of 1930

The world has been slow to realize that we are living this year in the shadow of one of the greatest economic catastrophes of modern history... [The man in the street] begins to doubt the future. Is he now awakening from a pleasant dream to face the darkness of facts? Or dropping off into a nightmare which will pass away?

He need not be doubtful. The other was not a dream. This is a nightmare, which will pass away with the morning. For the resources of nature and men's devices are just as fertile and productive as they were. The rate of our progress towards solving the material problems of life is not less rapid. We are as capable as before of affording for everyone a high standard of life—high, I mean, compared with, say, twenty years ago—and will soon learn to afford a standard higher still. We were not previously deceived. But today we have involved ourselves in a colossal muddle, having blundered in the control of a delicate machine, the working of which we do not understand. The result is that our possibilities of wealth may run to waste for a time — perhaps for a long time.

Alexander deVolpi's knols on nuclear non-proliferation

I have added a link on Nuclear Green to Alexander deVolpi's knols on nuclear non-proliferation. Dr DiVolpi's writings are required reading for anyone who who wants to claim expertise on nuclear proliferation. DiVolpi was a peer of the late J. Carson Mark of Los Alamos, and his knols correct the view that Mark thought reactor grade plutonium was a practical weapons materials. DeVolpi also parses statements on reactor grade plutonium from official sources, often cited by anti-nuclear experts. For example DiVolpi points to a statement by David Hafemeister of the United States DoE,
" [Advanced] nuclear-weapon states such as the United States and Russia, using modern designs, could produce weapons from reactor-grade plutonium having reliable explosive yields, weight, and other characteristics generally comparable to those of weapons made from weapon-grade plutonium."
DeVolpi comments,
"I suggest a discriminating reader would see that the quote is limited to “advanced nuclear-weapon states,” confined to “modern designs,” and qualified by terms such as “could produce,” “reliable yields,” and “comparable characteristics.” Since official declarations (hedges) are usually the product of a careful inter-agency vetting. His statement, thus, pretty much excludes reactor-grade plutonium as source material under a number of realistic circumstances: less-advanced nuclear-weapon states, less-sophisticated designs, less-than-assured yields, and other sub-marginal situations. In other words, neither advanced weapon states, nor less-advanced weapon states, nor threshold weapon states are likely to produce weapons from reactor-grade plutonium (for reasons validated by Hafemeister’s carefully chosen omissions)."
Needless to say nuclear critics do not engage in such carful reading of the documents that they draw on to make their case. But then nuclear critics are not interested in questions of truth or accuracy. They simply mine sources for supportive quotes, and hope that no one will note important qualifications. Such selective misreading of texts, such cherry picking turns sources into sock puppets on the hands of nuclear critics like Dr Frank Barnaby, who has become the new anti-nuclear wacko on scitizen.

Banaby, a sometimes associate of the infamous Jan Storm van Leeuwen in the Oxford Research group, appears to belong, like Storm van Leeuwen, to the Club of Rome wing of the anti-nuclear movement. A successful post carbon shift to nuclear power would definately put a crmp into the goal of Club of Rome plans to kill off most of the human race and return the economic basis of society to a medieval like peasant economy. In order to bully us into accepting this extremely unattractive scenario, Barnaby has to threaten us with nuclear proliferation, as if the die off of a few billion human beings would be a preferable consequence, and thetermination of modern society woiuld be a more acceptable outcome.

I previously called Dr, Barniby to task for ignoring DeVolpi's telling views on nuclear proliferation, but he continues to do so, no doubt because DeVolpi makes it quite clear that that reactor grade plutonium is not a practical material for the building of nuclear weapons, and that the danger of nuclear proliferation is not increased by building civilian power reactors that produce reactor grade plutonium as a byproduct. Needless to say, Dr. Barnaby ignored my comments, just as he ignores Alexanger DeVolpi's writings on reactor plutonium. Dr. Barnaby copes with criticism by ignoring it. By doing so he discounts himself as a serious intellectual. A serious intellectual acknowledges his critics, and tries to answer them. If he or she makes mistakes and they are pointed out he or she acknowledges them, at least to self, and learns to not make the same mistakes again. Since Barnaby does not even acknowledge mistakes when they are brought to his attention, his is not a rational voice.  

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Depression and nuclear power

Eric Sprott, a Canadian investment funds manager has read the tea leaves. Sprott has stated:
“There are so many job cuts and output cutbacks it’s shocking. That’s not a recession, that’s a depression. I look at the data points and they just scream at me that we are off the cliff.”
During the last few months the Fed and the US Treasury has been running the printing presses at a historically high rate. The money creation machine has been working overtime. Conventional economic theory tells us that this should lead to rampant inflation yet as Craig Harrington notes
Despite the Fed’s creation of hundreds of billions of dollars out of thin air and the Treasury’s massive foreign borrowing campaign, the prices of everything from gas and groceries to electronics and clothing has gone down. Most of us are struggling through economic hardship of our own, and the recent drop in prices has been a welcome relief; but these price corrections could have a more sinister undertone. When prices fall across the board the phenomenon is called “deflation.” If this occurs over the course of a few months we typically herald it as a relief. If it occurs over an elongated time period, it spells doom to an economy.

When prices drop across the board companies are forced to lay off workers, lay offs lead to decreases in disposable income which in turn lead to decreased consumption. In order to bring in customers companies must drop prices further, thus setting off another cycle. If this spirals out of control we could see massive joblessness, falling personal income, and prices so low companies cannot afford to produce or sell goods.
The word depression seems appropriate. What is happening is not a local mater in the United States. We are dealing with a world wide phenomena. The entire golbal economy economy is in a tail spin. The insane economic policies of the Bush Administration have something to do with the problem, but the Bush administration policies were expediencies designed to cope with a deeply flawed international economic structure. In my own oppenion, the problem has at least as much to do with distortions in the international economy by the fact Asian consumption of consumer goods was not growing as fast as their production in China and to a lesser extent India.

From time to time I have to adjust my thinking to catch up with the economiic reality we confront. Chinese overproduction forced prices some dow, while Chines spending to to expand their economy drive the prices of energy and raw materials every higher. Eventually something had to start giving, and eventually the United States absorbed more debt than it could handle, and as debtors were unable to reopay their loans, financial institutions began to collapse, and with the resulting collapse of confidence, consumers world wide have stopped buying.

It is probably too soon to assume that we will have a deep and prolongured international depression, but we certainly cannot rule it out. certainly we will see a reversal of the inflation in the price of energy production facilities. This will be true of nuclear power plants.

Normally a reasonable assumption in predicting the future is that the future will be like the present. This assumption is not always correct, hovever. We seem to be undergone a sea change in the international economy, and its consequences still have to be measured. Many of our deepest held beliefs about economics may have to be unlearned, and the international economic structure may have to be rebuilt.

Recovery will probably be the eventual outcome, but when is the big question. The present national and international debt structure appears to be collapsing. Irving Fisher argued that this is precisely what caused the Great Depression of the 1930's. Fisher postulated 9 factors that lead to the prolongued depression:
1. Debt liquidation and distress selling
2. Contraction of the money supply as bank loans are paid off
3. A fall in the level of asset prices
4. A still greater fall in the net worths of business, precipitating bankruptcies
5. A fall in profits
6. A reduction in output, in trade and in employment.
7. Pessimism and loss of confidence
8. Hoarding of money
9. A fall in nominal interest rates and a rise in deflation adjusted interest rates
All nine conditions have arguably have been meet, and the collapse continues at a pace. By this time next year, economic conditions are likely to be much worse than they are now.

Recovery may take far more time than we would expect, and thus projecting the future becomes impossibly problematic. The impact on the cost of building new nuclear power facilities could be very considerable. How much no one knows. But the price of muclear facilities before the power plant inflation between 2002 and 2007 was running around $2 billion per GW. It could drop considerably lower than that, however. The price of basic material like steel and cement has dropped dramatically, as has energy costs. If the price of labor falls over the long term, the cost of reactor construction could fall very dramatically.

At the very least, high end estimates of the future cost of nuclear power seem improbable. If last week, I thopught that the high end cost of building a nuclear plant in 2015 woud run to $8 billion, $4 billion nows seems more like the extreme limit, and $2 billion or less is at least plausible. A depression is extremel grim news the world's economy, but it ought not to stem the fight against global warming, and will significantly lower the cost of achieving success in that fight.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Global Warming and Mitigation Debate Revisited

This post started as a comment on the EfT comment section. It got way to long for a comment, so I decided to turn it into a bog post. I have written everything i have to say here before. But I flatter myself that these things are important, and probably can stand to be repeated. So if all this sounds familiar to the point of being boring, please be patient.

I learned of the CO2/AGW theory during am informal briefing at ORNL by Jerry Olsen in 1971. Jerry was attached to the ORNL-NSF Environmental Studies Program that I was working for. Ihad at the time what amounted to an Internship. Jerry Olson was a plant ecologist who specialized in the role of plants in the world carbon cycle. I suspect hehad just briefed Alvin Weinbero on the increase of the CO2 content of the atmosphere, and its implications for world climate. Shortly afterwards, ORNL set up a group, to study atmospheric CO2, and its effects on global climate, Alvin Weinberg persuaded Freeman Dyson to come to ORNL to participate in the CO2/climate change research. By 1975 Weinberg, who had been director of ORNL, was talking to Congress about climate change. My father was writing about CO2 driven climate change as accepted scientific fact in 1977.

I still find it more than a little shocking that people refuse to accept the what a generation ago highly regarded scientists considered to be a a scientific fact. I stopped arguing with global warming skeptics after I analyzed of how the global warming mitigation costs might be paid. I came to the startling conclusion that CO2 mitigation would have significant secondary economic benefits that might appeal to AGW skeptics. First, many fossil fuel power plants are old and need to be replaced. Coal and natural gas are no longer cheap fuels, and most utilities such as TVA have just gone through a round of very substantial electrical price increases, primarily to cover the increasing cost of fossil fuel. Many older fossil fuel power plants are worn out and in need of replacing. Thus the cost of building replacement power plants will have to be paid regardless of what we believe about global warming.

Secondly, eliminating coal from the power mix will probably lower medical costs now born by tax payers, employers, individuals and their families. A few years ago, a group of Canadian doctors and other medical researchers came to the startling conclusion that Canadian coal burning power plants had an adverse health related cost cost attached to them, That cost was paid by Canadian tax payers and by sick individuals and their families, in terms of direct and insurance payment for treatment of medical conditions caused by coal burning pollution. As much as 20% of Canadian and American health care expenses can be tied to the burning of fossil fuels as an energy source by out society. Thus mitigating CO2 emissions will have a large, positive economic benefit, and will improve the health of many people.

There are also similar powerful arguments against gasoline powered cars. Gasoline powered automotive technology and other internal combustion technologies is already a significant drag on the economy, and will become increasingly so. The United States cannot go on paying for imported oil with credit cards. I favor switching to electrical powered cars rather than some carbon neutral liquid fuel. We would get the same sort of secondary health care cost benefits that carbon mitigations in electrical generation would bring us, provided we used electrical power in the transportation system. Liquid fuels, even carbon neutral liquid fuels, would continue to impose indirect health care costs. Thus one need not believe in AGW to acknowledge the benefits of switching to post carbon transportation. I would expect by 2040 that battery technology will be greatly advanced, and that we will either be plugging in our cars at night. Urban trucking should also be electrified, but the long distance trucking industry will probably die, because rail transportation is far more carbon efficient, and can be electrified. The cost of transforming the transportation system will be at least partially paid for as replacement costs for older, worn out equipment. We will also be partially compensated by lower healthcare costs, and by better health.

I would also like to point out the ideological nature of global warming skepticism, and how I think the ideological problem can be made solved. There is a definite political and ideological divide in the global warming debate, with most global warming skeptics tending to be on the political right. For example, last year surveys found that a clear majority of college educated Republicans were global warming skeptics. Am overwhelming majority of Republican political bloggers are global warming skeptics. If we look at Europe we find a similar pattern with skepticism more associated with the right than the left. There are exceptions. Some extreme left-wingers are also global warming skeptics.

I view the skepticism of the right as most unfortunate, for several reasons. First, my analysis suggests that AGW can be mitigated much less government intrusion into the market than many Greens suggests. While I have no doubt that some intrusion may be required, because the crisis resemble a major war in significant respects, it is highly desirable that there be the widest spread support for the needed intrusions as possible. Woodrow Wilson was wise to give Republican Herbert Hoover a major role in the World War I system of economic controls, for example.

I am concerned about the “Green” capture of the left, because “Greens” are not liberals, and they are not political pragmatists. Greens tend to take a view that would require far more government intrusion into the economy, and into the personal lives and lifestyle of people that is justified by the situation we face. Some greens appear to take what can be described as an anthropophobic view point. They don’t like modern civilization, and view it as doomed by energy and resource shortages. They openly view the mass die off of people that would accompany the collapse of modern civilization as a good thing rather than a tragedy. As a liberal I view this attitude to be reprehensible and antithetical to liberal principles. So while I would not agree with political conservatives on many issues, we need them in the discussion on AGW mitigation to balance the views of the nut case Greens.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

End Game: Answering the World's Energy Needs from Nuclear Waste

Lars Jorgensen is an Electrical Engineer who is Chief Technologist for Radio Products for Texas Instruments. In his spar time Lars has an unusual hobby. He is doing unpaid work on the development of the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, in a project that Rod Adams describes as the Nuclear equivalent of the Open Source movement in computing. The goal of the project, is to develop viable LFTR designs including the design tools that would be useful for Nuclear Engineers. In addition Lars is doing research on the use of LFTRs to solve the problem of the nuclear waste from other reactors. At the same time, Jorgensen's concept will cause produce vast amounts of electricity from the waste destroying process through the use of the LFTRs involved in the electrical generation process.

The idea of "burning" transuranium elements, the principle toxic wastes in nuclear waste, in molten salt type reactors is not new. During the 1950's my father verified that plutonium was compatible with a molten salt fuel carrier, and thus was suitable for use as a nuclear fuel in molten salt reactors. The idea of Using LFTRs to destroy nuclear weapons was pioneered by a group of nuclear scientists and Engineers at ORNL. In 1991, Uri Gat, and J. R. Engel of ORNL, and C. H. Dodds, of the University of Tennessee, proposed burning fissile fuel from dismantled nuclear weapons in LFTRs, as a means of nuclear deproliferation. That is the process of destroying the raw materials of nuclear weapons.

V. V. Ignatiev, S. A. Konakov, S. A. Subbotine, and R. Y. Zakirov of the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow, and K. Grebenkine proposed the use of Molten Salt Reactors as a means of disposing of nuclear waste. They noted that LFTRs had advantages over Liquid Metal reactors for nuclear waste disposal. The Russian research has lead to the development of the MOSART reactor design. The MOSART is a liquid salt fuel reactor concept intended to burn nuclear waste.
A similar proposal has come from Charles W. Forsberg of ORNL.

Forsberg noted that the development of
Brayton power cycles (rather than steam
cycles) that eliminate many of the historical challenges in building MSRs and (2) the conceptual development of several fast-spectrum MSRs that have large negative temperature and void coefficients, a unique safety characteristic not found in solid-fuel fast reactors.
Forsberg pointed to the potential of LFTRs to both produce electricity and destroy the dangerous components of nuclear waste.

In a draft paper titled. "An Improved End Game for the Non-Moderated Thorium Molten Salt Reactor", Lars Jorgensen has determined that by combining the disposal of nuclear waste and the generation of electricity in LFTRs vast amounts of electricity can be generated. Jogensen foresees a world wide demand for 7,500 GWe, nearly 20 times the current electrical consumption in the United States. With the use of electricity for water desalinization, Jorgensen further foresees electrical demand increasing to as much as 20,000 GWe.

Jorgensen, drawing on work by French nuclear scientists, H. Nifenecker, D. Heuer, J.M. Loiseaux, O. Meplan, A. Nuttin, S. David, and J.M. Martin, offers plans
to simultaneously reduce the current TRU wastes 15-fold (with onsite recycling) to 15,000 fold reduction (with the best offsite recycling), while also supplying 9000 GWe electricity for an energy-hungry world.
This is surely an ambitious undertaking.

Despite his ambition, Jorgenson's plan is simple. He reference the French Non Moderated Thorium Molten Salt Reactor, a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, as the his waste burning power generation reactor. By 2046 enough fissionable transuranium elements will be present in American Light Water Reactor Waste to start enough TMSRs to produce 125 billion watts of electricity. The TMSR is a breeder, that is it will produce more fuel than it burns. Other reactors will be started with U-233 from original TMSR fleet.

Jorgensen believes that his concept would work world wide to get rid of nuclear waste. As many as 1000 large TMSR could be built to use the word wide supply of 8842 tons LWR TRU waste as nuclear fuel. Each reactor would produce 1 billion watts of electricity. From that initial fleet enough U-233 would be produced to start another 8000 reactors. Enough to supply the entire wolds electrical demands 100 years from now.

Jorgensen plans for the TRUs from light water reactors to remain in TMSR cores until they are used up, a process that would take several hundred years. After 200 years more that 56% of the original LWR TRU inventory will have been used up. If there is a desire to shut down the TMSR fleet, as the amount of TRU drops inside the TMSRs, the TRUs can be withdrawn from the core by batch chemical processing of the fuel, Fission products and U-233 would of course be processed out of the fuel salts at the same time. The withdrawn TRUs would be transfered to the cores of other reactors, and the reactor whose TRUs are processed out can be shut down.

According to Jorgensen:
We can virtually eliminate the inventory TRUs in the reactor cores by gradually shutting down the reactors and fissioning the residual inventory off. The optimization goals of the shutdown procedure are:
1) minimize the final inventory of TRUs disposed as waste;
2) shut down the vast majority of reactors, as quickly as possible, consistent with the first goal.
Eventually the TRU's and U-233 involved in the process can be "burned down" to a tiny amount of waste. as much as an 11,000 fold reduction in the amount of waste. The final waste will come from two sources: a very small leak of TRU and U-233 into the fission product stream, and the TRU and U-233 inventory left over when the final, very small TMSR no longer contains enough fissionable material to maintain a chain reactor.

Jorgensen concludes:
The deployment not only provides 1,800,000 GW-yr (1.8 PW-yr) of electricity, but eliminates 90 to 99.99% of the world’s predicted transuranic waste inventory. The NM-TMSR’s fuel flexibility allows virtual elimination of the waste inventory arising from shutting down the reactor fleet. This sort of flexibility is much more difficult to achieve with any proposed solid fuel reactor. The Th-U233 cycle operates with TRU inventories only 5% of those for U238-Pu239 based breeder reactors. While much R&D needs to be funded and completed to bring this reactor to fruition, it is far less than the projected costs for Yucca Mountain, and solves both the TRU waste and energy generation challenges facing our society today.
For those concerned about nuclear proliferation, the TMSR and similar LFTRs are wonderful deproliferation tools. Uranium and plutonium from nuclear weapons and weapons available stockpiles can be used as starter charges for LFTRs and burned up by the nuclear process. LFTR can be designed to produce no more U-233 than is burned up in its chain reaction. Thus far from being a nuclear proliferation menace, the LFTR can becomes a prime tool for lowering the possibility of nuclear war.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Gulf of Maine - Gulf of Money - Perfect Storm of Costs

George Hart of the Ocean Energy Institute has recently proposed the building of a huge 5 billion watt generating capacity wind arrays in the Gulf of Maine. There is little doubt that New England states and the State of Maine in particular are in need of new energy resources. Winter heating is, in particular heavily reliant on heating oil. But the cost of heating oil is subject to the wild gyrations of the oil market, and the cost of home heating during cold New England winters threatens to depopulate the region. New technology, a form of air source heating designed to operate in New England winters, offers the possibility of replacing oil with lower cost electricity in New England home heating. Note that I wrote lower cost rather than low cost. The price tag that the Ocean Energy Institute has placed on the project is $25 billion. I will demonstrate that that much money is not pocket change, and the nuclear alternative ought to be given long and careful thought, before the wind option is adopted. According to the Wall Street Journal:
Ocean Energy assumes its deepwater wind turbines will have a “capacity factor” of 45%, or about half what a nuclear power plant has.
The relative capacity factors of nuclear and wind means that for every watt of electricity that Gulf of Maine windmills will produce during a year, A nuclear plant of equivalent rated capacity will produce 2 watts.  But arn't reactors more expensive than windmills?  Currently cost figures for reactors of $8 billion dollars are being discussed for reactors to be built between 2012, and 2020, but this cost is highly speculative, and assumes a rate of inflation for building costs that may never occur.  The same rate of inflation  would undoubtedly effect the cost of wind projects, and if we use the $8 billion figure for nuclear we ought to assume a similar inflation cost for wind.  

We next need to ask if the $25 Billion figure is realistic.  There is reason to think that it might be low.  An offshore wind project on Long Island Sound was cancelled in 2007 after its estimated costs reached a figure of $5.70 a watt.  Some estimates suggest that the Long Island figure might reach as high as $7.15 a watt before the project was over.   Thus we ought not assume that $5 a watt would be the upper limit of the Gulf of Maine projects' price tag in 2008.  The Gulf of Maine project proposed to float its windmills rather than construct towers down to the sea floor.   The floating windmills would be tethered to the sea floor.   This technology has been used on oil drilling platforms, and it is assumed to have cost advantages over the the conventional approach, but reliance on a relatively new technology in a location where it has never been used before adds an additional element of cost risk to the project.  

At the very least the $5 per Watt of generation capacity would appear to be the lower limits of the Gulf of Maine Project 2008 costs, and the upper limits could well run into the $7.00+ range.   The 2008 cost for nuclear plants runs somewhere between $4 and  $5 a Watt.  This would indicate that the nuclear power costs less than off shore wind in terms of rated capacity, and as I have argued the annual output of the nuclear power plant will be at least 90%  of its nameplate capacity, while in contrast the power output of of the Gulf of Maine Windmills would be at best 45% of their name plate capacity, and quite possibly less.  Wind projects rarely obtain the optimal capacity calculated for their sites prior to their construction.  The Wall Street Journal notes:
Offshore turbines exposed to stronger winds more months of the year also take a battering, which leads to downtime for additional maintenance and repairs, pushing total output back down.

The European Wind Energy Association figures offshore wind in the future could reach a capacity factor of 40%. In Britain, where the government hopes a raft of big, offshore wind farms will help the country meet its renewable-energy targets, experts figure offshore wind farms get about 33% capacity. In practice, U.K. offshore wind farms tend to produce between 25% and 35% of the listed power capacity. That’s not much better than cheaper onshore wind farms, which average about 27% in the U.K.

It is not my any means all down side for Gulf of Maine wind. Peak electrical generations is most likely to occur at night rather than during the day, and during the winter, rather than the summer, thus Maine residents and other New Englanders would have a fair assurance that electricity would be flowing to their air source heaters at night. In addition Gulf of Maine windmills would seem to nicely compliment Canadian Hydro. Still we have to look at the heavy costs.

If we assume that the current economic down turn will soon be over, then we can expect that the inflation of new power facility costs will continue into the next decade. By the time construction of the Gulf of Maine project would begin the inflated price of off shore windmills could easily reach $8 to $10 per Watt. It would appear that nuclear could easily match this cost. In addition it costs less to keep a nuclear plant running than to keep to keep off shore wind turbines running. OFf shore windmills are located in a harsh ocean environment, that is likely to corrode essential parts. Thus they are far more likely to break down than reactors. The turbines themselves need to be replaced every 20 years, while the anticipated lifespan of new reactors is is 60 to 80 years. Thus the wind mills are going to cost more to operate and will probably cost more to build.

The question then is whether the residents of Maine and the rest of New England are romantic or practical. The romantics, of course want the windmills in the Gulf of Maine, while practical people would probably wish for the lower costs power flowing from reactors.

My readers know that I much prefer Generation IV nuclear technology to Generation III+ technology. Generation IV technology has a real chance of lowering the costs of building lowre cost nuclear electrical generating facilities, and would cost far less than the projected costs of solar and both land based and offshore generating facilities. But even Generation III+ nuclear technology, offers a great deal more at its price than renewables do.

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