Jonathan Brun

Gasland and Shale Gas Fracking

I just watched the documentary GasLand (trailer below), which tells the horrifying tale of the shale fracking natural gas industry in the US. Luckily, activists in Québec managed to stop the industry from moving forward with its plans to start fracking the the lower St. Lawrence valley.

Here is a good rundown of what Shale Gas Fracking is.

However, the stoppage is simply a moratorium and will likely be lifted eventually. In the states, natural gas exploration is advancing at breakneck speeds (though New York has also imposed a moratorium). Having been promised the technology was secure, many down on their luck farmers and property owners could not resist the easy money of selling off some of their land for shale gas exploration. By any reasonable measure, the decision to pollute water ways and the air for a few tens of thousands of dollars seems short sighted at best, but when faced with outsized credit card debt and mortgages – cash is hard to resist.

Of all the scary stories outlined in Gasland, the most dangerous is this: Shale gas fracking is done on hundreds of thousands of small platforms, not large centralized rigs. The distributed nature of the extraction makes it very difficult for the environmental protection agencies and communities to identify, monitor and control the source of pollution and danger. For example, in Canada we have the National Pollutant Release Information (NPRI) that requires sites who emit over a certain threshold to report their air emissions. The US has a similar program called TRI. Because each individual gas extraction platform is considered a site they typically fall under the threshold and do not need to report. This is very troubling. With hundreds of thousands of sites spread over vast territories, the potential impact is massive.

The distributed nature of the exploration also makes it nearly impossible to monitor – how many thousands of rivers, marshes, wells and air emissions can underfunded environmental protection agencies reasonably monitor?

I encourage everyone to watch Gasland and ensure your governments properly control the Shale Gas fracking industry. France just banned shale gas fracking, why can’t we?

Rundown of the situation in Québec (français)

Comité de vigilence sur les gaz de schiste

Published on October 10, 2011

Global warming just isn’t that important

With the hyper-active behaviour surrounding Copenhagen this year, climate-gate, and the failed climate change bills in the US and Australia; it might be time to take some perspective on our situation as a species and global warming as a problem. We are destroying the planet, but not in the way you might think. Global warming is a serious issue that threatens countries and people, but it is a superficial, easy to solve and a fundamentally materialistic problem.

Global warming is caused by the overconsumption of fossil fuels, used for the transportation and production of goods and services. Therefore, the solution is quite simple – reduce our use of fossil fuels. Global warming is a secondary level problem. When you steal an item off a store shelf, you are directly committing an immoral act and harming another person. When you burn a barrel of oil, you are indirectly harming people, but the indirectness reduces the level of immorality you might feel. Global warming is a secondary issue, it is therefore not as significant on the moral scale of crimes.

Global warming and other environmental issues are external to ourselves, while they might affect us and be our fault, they are manifestations of our failure as a society, not the actual problem.

In fact, there are much more pressing issues to solve.  In 2010, there are over 26 million slaves in the world, nine hundred thousand women are raped every year, over six million people are behind bars, and over 200 million children are abused while working every year. To these people, pollution, global warming and other middle class issues could not be more remote. Slavery, inequality, and poverty are fundamental problems of society – pollution is a consequence.  A doctor always strives to treat the source of a sickness, not simply mask the symptoms. We need to attack the root of the problem.

To tackle global warming, we must fist address the underlying issues that plague our society. Not only  is it morally urgent to address human suffering, it is also beneficial to the overall improvement of the environment. Let me be perfectly clear, you cannot put a price on human suffering and life and you can therefore not equate carbon reductions with a child slave. Priorities matter. Therefore, it follows that we should first address the issues with the greatest moral weight and and largest potential dividend.

Some will say that we need to tackle all these items – global warming, women’s rights, slavery, etc. But resources are finite and even more limited is the ability to keep the public engaged on an issue. As an example, contrast the fundraising results during large natural catastrophes such as the Haiti earthquake or Asian Tsunami with the average fundraising efforts. It therefore follows that we should focus on the items that have the largest moral potential first. I cannot conscientiously ask for money for carbon credits when our fellow humans are in such misery. The problems of inequality and injustice go to the root of civilization and the way we treat each other. They are therefore much more difficult to resolve than secondary level issues such as climate change.

Not only are the victims of our crimes within reach of our help, the perpetrators are also  within our sphere of influence. We choose not to act because it is fundamentally a reflection on ourselves. The diamonds on your wife’s hand may be tainted, the clothes on your children may have been made by another child, and your cellphone contains coltan dug by slaves in eastern D.R. Congo whose mothers were likely repeatedly raped. By recognizing the failure of mankind, we inevitably confront our own failure to change.

To truly effect change we must change ourselves, we must ask ourselves, “What am I doing on a daily basis that may be making the world worse, not better”. Find one thing, and change that. Day in and day out, if done on a global scale, we could begin to change things in a fundamental way. It is far too easy to point the finger and say, not my fault!

Pollution is easy to externalize. The poor countries claim the west created the mess, the developed countries point at the coal factories in China, and individuals blame corporations. While we recognize we are all part of the problem, none of us think we are at the root of the problem. By focusing our media attention on global warming, we are actually making ourselves feel better, which is exactly what global warming advocates are doing. Green people, myself included, too often go to bed saying, “Yes, climate change is a big problem, but it is not my problem, I drive a Prius”. Global warming just isn’t that important when placed against other issues. All of these issues are intertwined, but we must focus on those with the largest moral payback and which lie at the root of our ills?

In my opinion, not a penny should be spent on climate change programs while children die of hunger, women are raped and slaves toil away around the world. The money proposed for climate change initiatives could have far more moral impact if it were employed to reduce poverty, improve medicine, increase the equality of women, and strengthen democratic institutions. The problems I propose to address first are so massive it may mean we never solve climate change. But do we deserve to solve environmental problems if we cannot address our most fundamental societal failures?

Published on August 11, 2010

End of oil

The film Collapse outlines an inevitable doomsday scenario – no more oil. Oil is the cheapest source of energy we have ever known and when we run out, it will be very bad. While it does not sound great, the film makes no factual error and offers no meaningful solutions. Perhaps there are none: wind, ethanol, solar, biofuels – all too expensive, too small. We need very big solutions, very fast.

If you want more technical details, take a look at the book The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, I warn you might lose some sleep. Of all the research out there, the only promising solution is new types of nuclear energy: Gen IV reactors and and notably Thorium reactors.

What the hell is a Thorium reactor you ask; the best way to read up on them is through this wired article, on this wikipedia thorium fuel cycle page and in this fast paced video below:

Another good resource: http://thoriumenergy.blogspot.com/

Published on April 27, 2010

Water wars not real

Recently two friends have repeated the idea that nations go to war over water. It is not true.

Over-consumption of natural resources is the topic du jour. The current popularity of environmental sustainability has birthed the notion that countries go to war for water. This is simply not true. While we do fight wars over resources, we do not fight over water – principally because water is not a resource.

In nearly all cases, water has led to peaceful agreements, even amongst warring nations. Nations fight over resources; including, but certainly not limited to, natural resources (oil, metals, coal), human resources (slaves, religious disciples) and land. Water is fundamentally not a resource, it is a requirement. The dictionary defines resource as:

resource |ˈrēˌsôrs; ˈrēˈzôrs; riˈsôrs; riˈzôrs|
noun
1 (usu. resources) a stock or supply of money, materials, staff, and other assets that can be drawn on by a person or organization in order to function effectively

However, water is not something that can be drawn upon, water must be drawn upon to survive – this is a fundamental difference that too many people overlook. We do not require oil, metal, religion or (much) land, yet we must have water.

The Trojans fought for Helen, the Romans for salt, the Europeans for gold, spices, and cotton, and the Americans for oil. However, no one fights for water. In large part, this is because humans around the world commonly recognize water as an essential ingredient for life; cruel as we might be, we seem to have the fundamental dignity to not desiccate our fellow man.

There is no need to take my non-expert word for this, Wendy Barnaby, a science journalist set out to prove that we fight over water and came back with just the opposite conclusion. She was tasked with writing a book about water conflict, but when she could not find the evidence, the book was cancelled (who wants to read about peace?) and she turned her work into an article for Nature. Here a few examples of existing conflicts and the role water might play in them.

Sudan is often cited as an example of conflict over water. It is claimed that the northern Arab Sudanese attacked Darfur for the fertile land and water supply. In some respects this is true, but the conflict over the fertile land is primarily due to the West. During the colonial period, the Brits redistributed the land according to tribal roots – trying to emulate our property system by creating definite borders and ownership systems. The nomadic tribes were excluded from the land allocation and these new borders constricted their mouvement between regions.

The droughts of the 1970s pushed the Sahara desert 40km into the fertile land, displacing people who now had fewer places to go. Neighbouring conflicts in Chad and elsewhere – often proxy wars of our cold war – placed further barriers to mouvement on the inhabitants of Darfur. Before these barriers were erected, the people of southern Sudan had a perfectly adequate system for dealing with droughts and lack of water – mouvement.  Now, the once nomadic tribes who moved with the water were trapped in a sandpit. This understandably led to violent conflict.

The Kashmir region of India and Pakistan has been at war since partition in 1947, but they have nevertheless managed to sign the Indus Water Treaty in 1960 which has allowed for the distribution of water between the two countries. Gwynne Dyer’s book Climate Wars, outlines a scenario where India and Pakistan launch nuclear missiles over water rights. Remarkably, the Indo-Pakistani conflict has remained relatively dormant for 60 years despite the recent Mumbai terrorist attacks, religious terrorism and longstanding historical conflicts. In light of this, water seems like an unlikely candidate for military escalation. Though Kashmir is still at war, it is not due to water.

Israel and Jordan are separated by the Jordan River and have a mutual interest in its waters. Each Palestinian is allowed to consume 1/5 the water of an Israeli. Israel withdraws far more water than its Arab cousins. Despite this apparent conflict, Jordan and Israel they have maintained the peace since 1992 and water issues are not seen as a major hurdle to a two-state solution. Syria might still be at war with Israel, but it is not fundamentally over water – though the Golan heights do allow for the control of much of the region’s water supply.

The list of agreements over water rights is long, the list of conflicts is very short. The cynics among us believe man fights for power without much consideration for life. If this were true, water would be the ultimate leverage over a population. Yet, over and over again, conflict over water leads to diplomatic agreements – not armed conflict. If anything, I see this as demonstration that despite our differences, we recognize each other’s right to live and have access to water.

An article in Foreign Policy claiming there will be more conflict

Good summary of Wendy Barnaby’s article

Interview with a geologist about water wars

Wendy Burnaby in Nature (paid – 32 $)

Another take on water conflict

Published on September 13, 2009

Global Warming Models are Inherently Flawed

Climatologists and financial modellers share more than we might think, or like. Fundamentally, both climate and financial models propose bold predictions based on highly sophisticated mathematical systems. One has already collapsed and the other will too.

Both the planet’s climate and the financial system are very, very complex beasts. Yet, people in both camps claim an ability to roughly model and predict their behaviour. Nicholas Taleb, a very popular figure these days and author of  The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness, has long prophesized that the mathematical models used in the financial world were useless because of large unpredictable events. The recent crash being a case in point. He calls these unpredictable events “Black Swans”, named after the discovery of black swans in Australia. Traditionally, it was taken for granted that all swans were white because that is all that was ever observed, but surprise, surprise they aren’t. When Europeans travelled to Australia for the first time, they came face to face with an impossibility – a black swan.

Talebs theory stands on the mathematical work of Benoit Mandelbrot, the man who discovered fractal geometry. Fractal geometry (figure below) demonstrates that an apparently simple mathematical formula can generate an infinitely varying pattern of shapes with unpredictable behaviour. It goes on to illustrate how a nearly imperceptible change in the initial conditions can have incalculably large effects on the final outcome. Fractal geometry is self-repeating patterns that grow more and more complex through time, but start from a very basic shape. Here is an example of an equilateral triangle being repeatedly copied to produce a Koch Snowflake.

Fractal geometry is found everywhere in nature. The geometry and size of twigs, trees, and forests are all related through fractal geometry. As are ant colonies, plant distribution, and coral reefs. Human dwellings in Africa, human village size, and other parts of our societies exhibit fractal behaviour. As a brief introduction to fractals, watch the amazing PBS Nova special.

3D Fractal

Mandelbrot’s discoveries, led to “Chaos Theory”, popularized in Jurassic Park, and the “Butterfly Effect”. The basic idea is that the flap of a butterfly’s wings changes the air around it and eventually results in a violent tornado on the opposite side of the planet. An apparently inconsequential event can have unforeseen consequences. Sounds crazy, but it is true. It therefore follows that modelling complex, non-linear systems with any degree of accuracy is an activity in self-deception.

The IPCC, financial analysts, and other “modellers” who predict outcomes of complex systems should have their credentials checked. A superficial survey of fractal geometry, chaos theory, shrodinger’s equation, quantum mechanics and complex adaptive systems should trigger alarm bells. Big alarm bells.

There are numerous ecological “Black Swans”, some natural: the eruption of Krakatoa and Mount Tambora, sunspots, tectonic plate shifts; and others human: the discovery of fire, the steam engine, oil, and electricity. Explicitly and simply stated, events and discoveries we are completely incapable of predicting will occur and dramatically alter history. Single events can, and will change everything – we just don’t know what or when.

Imagine yourself in Victorian England, around 1880, as an oxford educated elite with the best education available. Your country controls a good part of the globe and you have read most of the available knowledge. If I were to predict that within 4 generations, man will visit the moon, explore every corner of the earth, have global wireless communication to every living person, regularly fly through the air near the speed of sound and have a black man as world leader; you would call me mad. And yet.

J.B.S. Haldane, the famous geneticist, once said,

I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. Possible Worlds and Other Papers (1927), p. 286

Think about it. If we cannot even suppose how queer our universe is, how can we hope to model and predict its behaviour? A word of caution, I am not saying no models work; models do work with relative accuracy most of the time, but when they fail – they fail miserably. It is therefore unwise to base long term planning for the entire planet on a model that has a high likelihood of falling on its face.

Another way of putting it is that there are known knowns (things we know we know), known unknowns (things we know we don’t know) and the unknown unknowns (and things we don’t know we don’t know).

James Lovelock a fervent environmentalist and father of the Gaia Theory, which claims the Earth behaves like a living organism, has expressed doubts that complex models offer much valuable information.

Lovelock is as provocative as ever. He is withering about the attempt of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to forge a consensus, a word that he says has no place in science: “Just think, over 1,000 of the world’s best climate scientists have worked for 17 years to forecast future climates and have failed to predict the climate of today.” UK Telegraph

Lovelock is correct. Until you can demonstrate that your models from previous years have accurately predicted today, your model is broken.

The New York Times just reported that new studies have halved the estimated sea rise due to Antarctic melting, from 20 feet to 10. The change is due to gravitational effects not previously accounted for in the models. So, the new model has changed the outcome by 50% (or 100% depending on your perspective). Imagine this, I advertise my height as 6 feet on a dating website, I then arrange to meet a beautiful woman for a walk in central park. On Saturday, at the convened time, I meet her, and I am 3 feet tall. She might be disappointed.

Iceberg Melting

This is the inherent problem with any model of a complex system; a tiny oversight can have dramatic effects. And since there are so many unknowns; thousands of tiny oversights are inevitable.

I am not saying we should do nothing – quite the opposite. We should do everything possible to place the odds in our favour: invest in education, challenge the status quo, increase healthcare, and most importantly, invest in ourselves.

Some lament that even if the west changes, China and India will drag the entire planet into an ecological black hole, from which there is no escape. Gandhi even prophetically stated, “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the west… If our nation took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.”

Yet, environmental issues are not a priority in developing nations because they have more pressing issues, not for a lack of caring. Once their wealth increases sufficiently, they will start to pay attention to the environment – it is already happening. As an analogy, efforts to curb aids in Africa have had mixed results. Different groups advocate for education, abstinence, condoms, antiretroviral drugs, or a combination. Yet, the most effective tool to treat the diseases is increased life expectancy. I know, that smacks of tautology, but hear me out.

If a person thinks they can live to be 40, as opposed to say 25, they will invest in their health, school, and birth control. When you expect to die at 25, you might as well party it up. Get rich, or die tryin’ as 50 Cent says.

When you change the framework a person lives in, the person changes – not the other way around. If we change peoples’ life expectancy, their behaviour will change. The vast majority of countries with improved living conditions, improved health first, then wealth, then the environment. With increased life expectancy, people value the future more and put more emphasis on maintaining their local and global environment for future generations. You need to make people value life; their own, their peers, and that of the natural world.

Girl in Ethiopia looking forward

Too often, environmentalists claim that if everyone were as wealthy as the North Americans, we would need six planets to sustain our lifestyle. This is linearly true, but pragmatically false. Fundamentally, it assumes a static, linear relationship between resource consumption and wealth. Thomas Malthus, a 19th century classical economist, stated, “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”. Source A man of the clergy, Malthus saw this relationship between earth and man as divinely imposed to teach virtuous behaviour: he regarded optimistic ideas of social reform as doomed to failure. Two hundred years later, it is clear that the Malthusian approach predicting limited economic growth due to resource scarcity has been proven wrong by consistent growth of the world economy. The lack of empirical evidence for the theory is clear and to promote it undermines the legitimate environmentalist. Malthus and his supporters failed to imagine the transformative power of innovative technology.

Once we agree innovation can release us from the bondage of resource limitations, we can start to move the environmental debate forward. Returning to fractal geometry, recall how a small change can have incredibly large impacts. Who, do let me know, accurately predicted the effects of democracy, the end of slavery, mass produced antibiotics, the splitting of the nucleus, or the power of the semi-conductor?

In conclusion, here are four emerging technologies that will fundamentally change the wealth to consumption ratio of modern society.

  1. Metal in construction and machinery will be replaced with carbon fibre beams and plates. (Amory Lovins at Stanford)
  2. The efficiency of solar and energy storage technology will improve in a similar way as semi-conductors did in the 20th century (Moore’s law). (Varia)
  3. All plastics and packaging will be replaced with bio-degradable materials. (Varia, EU laws, general trends)
  4. Vertical, high-density farming will allow for near unlimited production of any food we like. (TED talk
    by Dickson Despommier, 2009)

None of these breakthroughs will be easy, but each has the power to change everything we take for granted. In all likelihood, something else will happen that no one has predicted. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for us and what we hold for it. It certainly does not forebode a global warming catastrophe.

Other Resources

Climate Engineering (Dust Related)

Daniel B. Botkin in the Wall Street Journal

Bjorn Lomborg in the NY Times

Dyson in the NYTimes

Dyson @ The Edge

The Planet is on our hands, deal with it – Wired

Micheal Crichton on Global Warming – Charlie Rose

Brief article casting doubts in EU Carbon Emissions Reductions

Another one on lack of EU Reductions

NIMONIK Posts

NIMONIK Post on Bjorn Lomborg

The failure of carbon makets

Published on May 17, 2009