31 08 2013

On eccentric environmentalists…..

31 08 2013

If you are an environmentalist, and if you become active in the movement (as in going farther than watching David Attenborough shows on TV…) you will be bound to meet amazing people.  Over the years, I have had the great privilege of meeting environmentalists both famous and not quite so.  Some have been among the very smartest people I have ever known in fact.  From David Suzuki to Steve Harrison, from Bruce Teakle (who totally changed my life) to Dave Keenan and StJohn Kettle (my dear friend who recently passed away prematurely) and now Norma Nord who has joined him at the far more appropriate age of 98……

Sometimes you don’t need to know someone for that person to make a huge impression on the way you see things,suzuki&me they can be inspiring from afar.  Whilst I met Suzuki on three occasions, he was far too busy to have any discussion of importance with me personally, but to listen to him speak in the flesh was one of the most inspiring moments of my life.  When he explained that if you could tease out the fibres in your lungs and spread them out such that they were one great big sheet of lung tissue they would cover a tennis court, that this lung tissue was fused with the air thus making you an integral part of Planet Earth, and that the air those tissues suck Oxygen from is the same air that the dinosaurs, Neanderthals, Jesus Christ, and Mahatma Ghandi breathed….. you had to be inspired.  No way could you walk out and not think you had to look after the air and the Earth after listening to that…..

Bruce introduced me to the simple life.  And to Ted Trainer….  whom I’ve also met on several occasions.  Once you see how these two men live, you cannot take ‘modern living’ seriously again.  It was because of Bruce that I re educated myself on matters of energy efficiency and renewable energy.  And blacksmithing.  And I might never have owned an AGA were it not for Bruce’s influence.  Not to mention that more than half the wood in our house was milled by Bruce from weed pine trees cut down in Jolly’s Lookout National Park, such that every time I look up at our ceiling I think of Bruce…..

Dave I met while studying Renewable Energy Technology at TAFE in Brisbane.  A quiet peace activist and a genius with electronics, Dave installed the first solar power system on this house and is right now building an EV Mazda MX5 roadster with a friend, inventing stuff (that’s way over my head…) as they go along…

StJohn (pronounced sin-gin) married a friend I shared a house with way back in the early seventies.  It was through knowing her that I met Glenda in fact.  StJohn tragically died a few weeks ago aged just 60 from lung cancer, even though he never lit up once in his life.  StJohn was also a peace activist, and an utterly dedicated cyclist.  He was part of the troupe on North West island when I had to endure that epic swim.  St John was a mathematician and a philosopher, read more books that I would care to count and could talk at length about them, and never ever was boring like some people I know who won’t shut up….. his intellect just poured out, and you could not help but being enthralled by what he said.  The last time I ever spoke with him was over the phone about a book on early settlers in Queensland, and I will always cherish this last opportunity to invade his mind…  Like all the people mentioned above, StJohn could easily be considered eccentric.  I’m considered eccentric too, I’m sure…… and it’s such a great pity we don’t have more eccentrics in this world.

NormaNordOut of all those people, Norma is also the only person on the list who was not eccentric.  Though I suppose being an old Communist could be considered slightly eccentric these days!  I met Norma when I was active in the Greens when they were headquartered at the Grassroots Centre in West End.  She ran the place.  I remember showing one of my very earliest Peak Oil powerpoint presentations at a Greens meeting at her place when I was still fine tuning it.  Back in the days when I still thought we could save the joint……  I guess it could be argued I was taken in by the ‘lovely old lady’ aura she may have presented, but there was far more to Norma than her age, she was a true activist, and she cared….  she cared about everything, and probably fought for social equity and justice and the environment to her dying breath.

I didn’t know Norma very well, she didn’t live in an area I frequented much, and I only saw her occasionally when she would turn up on Fridays when I volunteered with Richard and John at the Greens Office where we would chew the fat on philosophy and politics and Peak Oil, and and and……. but you didn’t need to for her aura to influence your thinking.  And like Bruce, I will have a memento of Norma’s for as long as we live here……  she once gave me a small wash basin for helping her clean out the store room beneath the Grassroots Centre, and it now has pride of place in our toilet!  Recycling at its best…..

Which suddenly reminds me I was almost going to leave Richard Nielsen off the list….. mind you he reads this blogUnder the Mango Tree (Hi Richard) and may well be embarrassed to find himself thrown in with this bunch of superlative people, but he too deserves a mention.  You know someone’s special when you clearly remember meeting them even when the occasion was nothing particularly special.  One day I was just driving past the Greens’ office when it was located at Paddington and decided on the spur of the moment to pull over and join up.  Richard served me.  Like StJohn, Richard is a top conversationist (as well as a conservationist!) and you never ever think of asking him to stop once he gets going… I remember we had a great discussion about desktop publishing software….  Richard was a stalwart of the Party, and he kept the show going for years, eventually being made a Life Member.  He taught me to campaign and pretty well everything I know about green politics.  He was also instrumental in the success of Northey Street City Farm and is obviously a keen Permie…..  That’s Richard at the very bottom of the picture……

sarahI have to mention Sarah Moles too……  I first met Sarah when the Greens were a bunch of friendly activists thirsting for change rather than holding the balance of power.  She’s campaigned on the state of rivers, not least the Murray Darling for as long as I’ve known her, which must be some 15 years now…..  and of course, as she and Mick live on the Darling Downs, she’s also campaigning hard on the Lock the Gate campaign too…  where she finds the energy I’ll never know, and now she’s on a hunger strike, over coal mines and climate change, something I can’t see myself ever doing..!

Last, but certainly not least is Bob Brown.  Everyone knows Bob, but knowing Bob involves working with him.  Back in 2001, I stood in a high profile by-election in the seat of Ryan , in Brisbane (as an aside – and I didn’t even realise there was a wiki page about this election until now – the table of results is wrong; the Green vote went up from 3.6% to 6.3% and the ±% column should read +2.7%, NOT -2.28%!).  It was a big deal at the time, as with my preferences the Labor candidate won the seat that used to be held by a Howard minister.  Bob was an integral part of my campaign in that election, and he taught me a lot about dealing with the media, how to speak to them to get our issues across, and was a constant supporter for the whole month that was taken out of my family’s life….. I will always hold Bob in very high esteem.

Because this list is of people I have personally met and who I think influenced me in some way, it is short.  Obviously, I have met even more greenies than this illustrious bunch (and if I’ve left you off the list, I apologise – I have a goat to milk!), but to all of them, a great big thank you for helping me formulate a more sustainable life and for filling my spirit.  And at times like these, we all need our spirits lifted don’t we……… and we should all wear our badge of eccentricity with pride!

Hungry for Change…

30 08 2013

The Big Switch. What will it take…?

28 08 2013

My latest offer on the sustainability or otherwise of renewables written by Dawn Stover generated quite a bit of anger, frustration, and resignation…….  feelings I have to say I personally experience constantly whenever I start thinking about our future predicaments.

Listen to the current electioneering (if you can bear it…), and the silence on energy security is deafening.  Climate Change as an election issue is only ever brought up by the Greens, even though according to the ABC’s vote compass more than 50% of Australians think more should be done about it.

Some analysts even believe that coal now has a limited life left.  David Hamilton and I agree that it will not be easy.  It might even get a whole lot harder if Tony Abbott wins the Lodge.  But here, I’m going to have an attempt at analysing the hurdles we face.


Personally, I see this as the biggest hurdle of all.  Many other countries have at least started by building up the manufacturing sectors needed to build the new shiny toys we need in the future.  China is the obvious standout, but the USA, Denmark, Germany, and Spain are right up there.  The fact that we are currently hitting Limits to Growth all over the world is a deepening worry for me that anything will get done….  A few commentators on Damnthematrix have said we need to end growth, yet, make no mistake, building all the toys will exacerbate growth, it will become the growth issue of the future.  Australia has barely got six years of economic oil left, and all our gas is going overseas with no plans whatever to build the infrastructure required to redirect it to the East Coast where most Australians live.  It will be hard to manufacture anything in an energy shortage… and yes even coal could become scarce sooner rather than later if nobody wants to mine it in the middle of an economic collapse because there’s no money in it….  Let’s not forget that during the Great Depression, it wasn’t lack of resources that caused the pain, it was lack of money.  Today, we face both…..


When I asked David Hamilton where the money would come from, he replied “I would think that a lot of it will need to come from not spending money on other things”.  That’s a fair enough answer, but those ‘other things’ might lose funding from lack of credit due to another financial crisis…….  so there may not be enough money to do ‘other things’ as well as the Big Switch.  Pessimistic of me?  As the US’ Quantitative Easing policy comes to an end, many analysts, especially those whom you might call ‘alternative’ economists like Chris Martenson and Charles Hugh Smith (you know, those guys who are on our side…) think the USA (and the US Dollar) is on the verge of collapse.  Which could even be why all the sabre rattling over Syria is coming to a crescendo.  If war breaks out in the Middle East, you can kiss your Big Switch goodbye…

Anyone following my rantings on this blog will know I’m convinced all debts will need to be cancelled.  Lots of people think I’m a complete crank over this, but I’ve never been more serious…  Apart from the fact it’s the only reason we have to have any economic growth at all, the debt burden is a burden that might make the application of the Big Switch almost impossible.  We need a new economic operating system…..  one that is neither Capitalism nor Socialism, but one that is sustainable, in the true sense of the word.  We need a new Marshall Plan……


For renewables to work at all, we need a serious attitude change among the populace.  The vast majority of Australians feel entitled to burning up as much energy as they like.  But that level of energy consumption using renewables is totally unrealistic.  Consumption must drop dramatically.  By no less than 50%, but by more like 80% in my not so humble opinion.  I’ve proven a lot can be achieved through energy efficiency here.  But houses cannot be successfully retrofitted to the standard achieved at Mon Abri…  And we don’t commute to daily jobs here, and everyone else will have to join us in this one.  Obviously, some people will need to be retrained from the many useless tasks they think of as ‘work’ to doing useful new tasks like building solar panels, wind turbines, and growing food locally.  We will need to end ‘the big commute’ just so we can build the future we need before it’s too late.  if it isn’t already…. ah!  there I go again……


Revolution; that’s what it will take to get our politicians kicking and screaming to the guillotine to change the way we do everything.  What, exactly, will it take for the people to revolt..?  A cyclone hitting Sydney?  Several straight years of drought in Adelaide such that it totally runs out of water and has to be abandoned?  A month of consecutive 40º+ in Hobart?  Or half a dozen floods in Brisbane over the next Summer?

It’s easy for groups like BZE to say their aim is ” to transform Australia from a 19th century fossil fuel based, emissions intensive, economy to a 21st-century renewable-energy-powered clean-tech economy”…..  but I wonder if they truly understand the big picture?  Or that they may be unfairly inflating people’s expectations beyond all possibilities of reality..?

And lastly, if a revolution is what is needed, will it be one like Egypt’s over resource shortages, instigated when it’s all too late…?  Will we have to nationalise our fossil fuel sources to achieve the desired goal?

And in the end I ask myself “do we even need all this energy”?  Might not the real answer be for us to live more simply so we may simply live….?

Over to you dear reader….  the comment box is awaiting your proposals…!

The myth of renewable energy

26 08 2013 Stover is a science writer based in the US Pacific Northwest and is a contributing editor at the Bulletin. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Conservation, Popular Science, New Scientist, The New York Times, and other publications. One of her articles is included in the 2010 Best American Science and Nature Writing, and another article was awarded a special citation by the Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism.

“Clean.” “Green.” What do those words mean? When President Obama talks about “clean energy,” some people think of “clean coal” and low-carbon nuclear power, while others envision shiny solar panels and wind turbines. And when politicians tout “green jobs,” they might just as easily be talking about employment at General Motors as at Greenpeace. “Clean” and “green” are wide open to interpretation and misappropriation; that’s why they’re so often mentioned in quotation marks. Not so for renewable energy, however.

Somehow, people across the entire enviro-political spectrum seem to have reached a tacit, near-unanimous agreement about what renewable means: It’s an energy category that includes solar, wind, water, biomass, and geothermal power. As the US Energy Department explains it to kids: “Renewable energy comes from things that won’t run out — wind, water, sunlight, plants, and more. These are things we can reuse over and over again. … Non-renewable energy comes from things that will run out one day — oil, coal, natural gas, and uranium.”

Renewable energy sounds so much more natural and believable than a perpetual-motion machine, but there’s one big problem: Unless you’re planning to live without electricity and motorized transportation, you need more than just wind, water, sunlight, and plants for energy. You need raw materials, real estate, and other things that will run out one day. You need stuff that has to be mined, drilled, transported, and bulldozed — not simply harvested or farmed. You need non-renewable resources:

Solar power. While sunlight is renewable — for at least another four billion years — photovoltaic panels are not. Nor is desert groundwater, used in steam turbines at some solar-thermal installations. Even after being redesigned to use air-cooled condensers that will reduce its water consumption by 90 percent, California’s Blythe Solar Power Project, which will be the world’s largest when it opens in 2013, will require an estimated 600 acre-feet of groundwater annually for washing mirrors, replenishing feedwater, and cooling auxiliary equipment.

Geothermal power. These projects also depend on groundwater — replenished by rain, yes, but not as quickly as it boils off in turbines. At the world’s largest geothermal power plant, the Geysers in California, for example, production peaked in the late 1980s and then the project literally began running out of steam.

Wind power. According to the American Wind Energy Association, the 5,700 turbines installed in the United States in 2009 required approximately 36,000 miles of steel rebar and 1.7 million cubic yards of concrete (enough to pave a four-foot-wide, 7,630-mile-long sidewalk). The generator of a two-megawatt wind turbine contains about 800 pounds of neodymium and 130 pounds of dysprosium — rare earth metals that are rare because they’re found in scattered deposits, rather than in concentrated ores, and are difficult to extract.

Biomass. In developed countries, biomass is envisioned as a win-win way to produce energy while thinning wildfire-prone forests or anchoring soil with perennial switchgrass plantings. But expanding energy crops will mean less land for food production, recreation, and wildlife habitat. In many parts of the world where biomass is already used extensively to heat homes and cook meals, this renewable energy is responsible for severe deforestation and air pollution.

Hydropower. Using currents, waves, and tidal energy to produce electricity is still experimental, but hydroelectric power from dams is a proved technology. It already supplies about 16 percent of the world’s electricity, far more than all other renewable sources combined. Maybe that’s why some states with renewable portfolio standards don’t count hydropower as a renewable energy source; it’s so common now, it just doesn’t fit the category formerly known as “alternative” energy. Still, that’s not to say that hydropower is more renewable than solar or wind power. The amount of concrete and steel in a wind-tower foundation is nothing compared with Grand Coulee or Three Gorges, and dams have an unfortunate habit of hoarding sediment and making fish, well, non-renewable.

All of these technologies also require electricity transmission from rural areas to population centers. Wilderness is not renewable once roads and power-line corridors fragment it. And while proponents would have you believe that a renewable energy project churns out free electricity forever, the life expectancy of a solar panel or wind turbine is actually shorter than that of a conventional power plant. Even dams are typically designed to last only about 50 years. So what, exactly, makes renewable energy different from coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear power?

Renewable technologies are often less damaging to the climate and create fewer toxic wastes than conventional energy sources. But meeting the world’s total energy demands in 2030 with renewable energy alone would take an estimated 3.8 million wind turbines (each with twice the capacity of today’s largest machines), 720,000 wave devices, 5,350 geothermal plants, 900 hydroelectric plants, 490,000 tidal turbines, 1.7 billion rooftop photovoltaic systems, 40,000 solar photovoltaic plants, and 49,000 concentrated solar power systems. That’s a heckuva lot of neodymium.

Unfortunately, “renewable energy” is a meaningless term with no established standards. Like an emperor parading around without clothes, it gets a free pass, because nobody dares to confront an inconvenient truth: None of our current energy technologies are truly renewable, at least not in the way they are currently being deployed. We haven’t discovered any form of energy that is completely clean and recyclable, and the notion that such an energy source can ever be found is a mirage.

The only genuinely sustainable energy scenario is one in which energy demands do not continue to escalate indefinitely. As a recent commentary by Jane C. S. Long in Nature pointed out, meeting ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gases cannot be accomplished with “piecemeal reductions,” such as increased use of wind power and biofuels. Long did the math for California and discovered that even if the state replaced or retrofitted every building to very high efficiency standards, ran almost all of its cars on electricity, and doubled its electricity-generation capacity while simultaneously replacing it with emissions-free energy sources, California could only reduce emissions by perhaps 60 percent below 1990 levels — far less than its 80 percent target. Long says reaching that target “will take new technology.” Maybe so, but it will also take a new honesty about the limitations of technology. Notably, Long doesn’t mention the biggest obstacle to meeting California’s emissions-reduction goal: The state’s population is expected to grow from today’s 40 million to 60 million by 2050.

There are now seven billion humans on this planet. Until we find a way to reduce our energy consumption and to share Earth’s finite resources more equitably among nations and generations, “renewable” energy might as well be called “miscellaneous.”

Global unrest going exponential

25 08 2013

I recently came across an article titled “We Are Now One Year Away From Global Riots, Complex Systems Theorists Say”.

What’s the number one reason we riot? The plausible, justifiable motivations of trampled-upon humanfolk to fight back are many—poverty, oppression, disenfranchisement, etc—but the big one is more primal than any of the above. It’s hunger, plain and simple. If there’s a single factor that reliably sparks social unrest, it’s food becoming too scarce or too expensive. So argues a group of complex systems theorists in Cambridge, and it makes sense.

How close to collapse are we getting now…?  The idiots who run TEPCO in Japan are apparently about to attempt shifting unspent fuel rods at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, wait for it, by hand…….  Now what could go wrong?  They apparently have no choice, the cranes that normally do this work are destroyed, the pool they currently sit in is above ground (now that was clever design..) and may collapse some time soon.

No one knows how bad it can get, but independent consultants Mycle Schneider and Antony Froggatt said recently in their World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2013: “Full release from the Unit-4 spent fuel pool, without any containment or control, could cause by far the most serious radiological disaster to date.”

And Arnie Gunderson talked about a few ways that sort of release could happen.An aerial view shows Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture (Reuters / Kyodo)

“There is a risk of an inadvertent criticality if the bundles are distorted and get too close to each other,” Gundersen said.

He was referring to an atomic chain reaction that left unchecked could result in a large release of radiation and heat that the fuel pool cooling system isn’t designed to absorb.

“The problem with a fuel pool criticality is that you can’t stop it. There are no control rods to control it,” Gundersen said. “The spent fuel pool cooling system is designed only to remove decay heat, not heat from an ongoing nuclear reaction.”

The rods are also vulnerable to fire should they be exposed to air, Gundersen said.

Based on U.S. Energy Department data, a total of 11,138 spent fuel assemblies are being stored at the Dai-Ichi site, nearly all of which are in pools. They contain roughly 336 million curies (~1.2 E+19 Bq) of long-lived radioactivity.  About 134 million curies is Cesium-137 – roughly 85 times the amount of Cs-137 released at the Chernobyl accident as estimated by the U.S. National Council on Radiation Protection (NCRP)

And this from RT…..

Even the tiniest mistake during an operation to extract over 1,300 fuel rods at the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan could lead to a series of cascading failures with an apocalyptic outcome, fallout researcher Christina Consolo told RT.

Fukushima operator TEPCO wants to extract 400 tons worth of spent fuel rods stored in a pool at the plant’s damaged Reactor No. 4. The removal would have to be done manually from the top store of the damaged building in the radiation-contaminated environment.

In the worst-case scenario, a mishandled rod may go critical, resulting in an above-ground meltdown releasing radioactive fallout with no way to stop it, said Consolo, who is the founder and host of Nuked Radio. But leaving the things as they are is not an option, because statistical risk of a similarly bad outcome increases every day, she said.

And now look at this…….

These are screenshots from

This first one shows ‘protest density’ in 1980


This second one shows unrest as of last year


But to get the full effect, go to the animation at the link above……  it’s quite extraordinary.  We can now add one more exponential phenomenon to the list….


The drumbeat goes on….

25 08 2013

Is anyone surprised by this?  Because I’m not…….  We got two very light frosts last week, and then the warm

Mark Cochrane

Mark Cochrane

weather came back…..  my bananas are even fruiting!  Bananas in AUGUST?  and everything around our place is in flower, the bees are pumping, and I’ll have to rob our hives…  in AUGUST!

Anyhow, this is another quickie from Mark Cochrane.  I had to post it because of the sheer numbers he puts up in this one.

The year-to-date has been the sixth warmest on record globally, and July was also the sixth warmest such month since global surface temperature records first began in 1880, according to new data released on Tuesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The figures show that July 2013 was the 37th straight July, and the 341st straight month, with warmer-than-average global temperatures — a more than 28-year time span that reflects the significant warming observed worldwide since the 1970s.

That means that no one under the age of 28 has ever experienced a month in which global average surface temperatures were cooler than average (based on the 20th century average) (link)

If anyone thinks that this is just some random fluke, I suggest that you don’t ever take up gambling. The chance of randomly having 341 months in a row that are ‘above average’ in temperature is roughly

one chance in 4,479,489,484,355,610,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,


You can just round that off to one chance in 4 tretrigintillion. For those counting at home a tretrigintillion is 10^102.

Anyone want to bet that August will finally break the streak? If so, I will take that bet!

If not, then consider what that means. You already know internally that the climate has changed and isn’t heading back to ‘normal’ any time soon. When do we (humanity) accept that we have an issue? When the streak reaches 350? 400? 500 months?