In my real life I’m a son of Chuck and Linda. Linda is an art historian; although she wouldn’t say so, one of the world’s foremost experts on the arts and crafts movement. Chuck started out to be an engineer, took a detour into philosophy which is still where he’s professionally housed, and now spends his time figuring out ways to explain how complex systems like economies and climates work and involve each other. He hangs out a lot with climate scientists and is in on the cutting edge about global warming. He knows what he’s talking about. Here’s a recent attempt to explain where we’re at with all that in a commonly-understandable way, in the form of a review of a book that most people won’t read. This will probably end up published somewhere, so consider it a preview.
My question to all y’all visiting here (about 50 a day so far, thank you and welcome) once you’ve read this is, can you imagine a reasonably smart (therefore, winning) politics for Crazy Barack or Crazy John that would adequately take the situation Dad describes into account? Remember, Crazy Al Gore, who knows these things as well as anyone, couldn’t do it and gave up trying.
Everyone who’s lived for a while in the Delaware Valley remembers Crazy Eddy. Crazy Eddy was in the going out of business business. He’d open up new CRAZY EDDY’S all over the place, and immediately run going out of business sales. He did this for a number of years, then, to everyone’s surprise, he went out of business. Every region probably has its star of the going out of business business, but Crazy Eddy is our all-time star. (Well, maybe Gene Mauch.)
But now it turns out that with all these climate problems we’re all in the going out of business business. We’ll have to be careful. The going out of business business is a tricky business. The trick is, the less it feels like you’re going out of business the better. The money rolls in; the inventory moves. And that could fool you into thinking you really weren’t going out of business. Crazy Eddy seemed to think that the going out of business business could last forever. And look what happened to him.
Management help may be on the horizon. There’s this guy we’ll call Crazy Vaclav. What’s crazy about him is that he has an uncanny ability to find numbers, get them right, and make them mean something. He’s also a maniac for hard work. Other than that, there’s nothing crazy about him. In fact he may be the sanest person on the planet. He keeps the only sensible books on the going out of business business: numbers we’d better pay attention to.
For instance, suppose we were worried about all the gas, oil, and stuff being used up by farm equipment: tractors, and so on. And you think “Well, maybe it’s time to go back to horses. They did it for us once; they can do it again.” Crazy Vaclav has it all figured out for us. “Matching the power of U.S. tractors in the year 2000 with horses would require building up an equine stock of 250 million head, about ten times the record number of horses in 1918. About 300 million ha [hectares], twice the total of U.S. arable land, would be needed to feed the animals.” Lively times on the stud farm.
Moving from horseshit to moonshine (Well, what did you think ethanol was? Puts NASCAR right back to its roots.), how much would we have to make to replace the petroleum, coal, and natural gas we use? Crazy Vaclav had to work to get this one. There are lots of estimates and conversions to make, based largely on data the petroleum and coal companies have provided. To make moonshine, you take vegetation (the more sugar the better) ferment it, then distill it. Corn squeezins are the most common, but the net production of vegetation on earth (NPP) can be calculated too, and you can figure out how much you’d have to work with per year by adding it all up. Making petroleum, gas, or coal is another matter. You take a lot of vegetation, sink it in swamps, and put a lot of pressure on it for a few hundred million years or so. You find out that “… during the later 1990s, annual consumption of fossil fuels burned organic carbon that required about 400 years of current global NPP.” So it seems that if we converted to biofuel, and used every scrap of vegetation for moonshine, we’d be able to replace one fourhundredth of the energy we’ve typically been using. Unfortunately that’s a big over-estimate given the technologies, and, of course we’d all starve to death before the first year was over anyway.
But the real threat to keeping the going out of business business in business isn’t the supply of stuff to put on sale, it’s the temptation of an old classic, the going out of business fire: the producer of dozens of vacant lots in North Philly. Let the insurance industry pay (as they did in New Orleans, and as they’re doing right now in California). The trouble with fires is that once they get going, they’re hard to stop. This is just as true of the slow slow fire of global warming as it of a wildfire in a dry canyon. Maybe we ought to collect up those greenhouse gases, and store them away. Wouldn’t you know. Crazy Vaclav is worried about finding enough storage space. “Even if the gas were stored in the supercritical form … [squeezed as tight as it’s possible to squeeze it], putting away just 10% of its global flux would require annual handling of a volume equivalent to the worldwide extraction of crude oil.” I guess we’d better not fire the fire department. (Crazy Vaclav is really Vaclav Smil; and the book where you can find all the numbers and calculations is Energy in Nature and Society.)
Meanwhile, on the other side of the street, Crazy Barak and Crazy John are competing for our support. They both tell us that our economy can grow while we stave off the end of the going out of business business. They differ in minor particulars, but they’re both using numbers that aren’t within thousands of miles of making any sense. In a few months one of those distinguished gentlemen is going to be running the going out of business business. Better one of them than me.