The Iraq Quagmire

November 30, 2006

Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki told President Bush today that he expects Iraqi forces to be ready to take over security duties by mid 2007. The unspoken corollary is that he’ll want US forces out of the way soon after that, I’m thinking. The Maliki government appears to be dependent on the various Shiite factions for support, and the Sadr bunch are making his life terribly difficult right now. With the US out of the way, they can get down to the serious business of settling old scores with the ex-Batthist Sunnis. Where the US troops will go is an open question. Perhaps to the Kurdish authority, or perhaps somewhere else. We’re not welcome in Saudi Arabia anymore, and I doubt we have any plans to leave the region fully, since we want access, if not direct control, over as much of the oil in the region as possible.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is sending unoffical signals that it would have no choice but to get involved in an Iraqi civil war in the event of a US pullout. The attacks on Iraq’s minority Sunni population is seen by many in Saudi Arabia as a form of ethnic cleansing, and the Saudi government is under increasing pressure to do something about it. This is complicated by Saudi Arabia’s own sizeable Shiite minority (which just happens to inhabit Saudi Arabia’s main oil province near the Persian Gulf), which favors neither the Sunni Saudi majority (who persecute them as heretics), nor the Persian Shiites of Iran, being ethnic Arabs.

The worst possible case is a US pullout which starts a full-blown civil war in Iraq that pulls in forces from Iran, Saudi Arabia, and maybe Turkey. When those nations all decide to mix it up, I think Kuwait would have trouble staying out of the way, and who knows what could happen with Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinians? That could result in a loss of some or all oil exports from several major OPEC producers, and history has shown that the world simply cannot economically absorb the loss of even five percent of world daily oil production.

So, what are we to do? There are no easy answers, and it means that 2007 will prove to be interesting, considering that the scheduled handover of security duties will coincide with the start of the 2007 hurricane season. Perhaps the Baker commission will come up with a workable plan, and perhaps the Bush Administration will actually heed their advice. Or, perhaps I’ll be biking to work next August.


Weird Weather

November 30, 2006

Yesterday morning was like most other ones around my house. Up early, shower, shave, and hopefully being more or less cogent by the time the kids wake up. I let the dog out at 7:00 AM for his morning constitutional, and while I was standing in the brisk morning chill, I noticed something unusual. Canada geese… lots of them… flying south. I must have counted at least two hundred of them flying generally southward in their ragged ‘V’ formations.

This isn’t unusual in and of itself, but normally the sky carp have headed to warmer pastures weeks earlier. But here I was standing on my porch at the end of November with the outside air temperature in the middle 30’s watching all of these geese flying south and wondering what was spurring them to migrate right now? By the end of the day, I knew. When I walked out of work that evening, the temperatures had gone from being above-average to below-average. My car’s thermometer read 18F at 5:15PM, and the wind was up. Yuck.

All-in-all, I should be thankful for the pleasantly warm November we experienced up here. Temperatures were between 10F and 20F higher than normal for large chunks of the month, though it was very dry. I’d started to think “thank you global warming” until I remembered that this October had been cooler than normal, which made taking the kids out on Halloween miserable. In fact, Thanksgiving was around 20F warmer than Halloween, which was almost a month earlier. Just another wierd weather cycle here in the middle of the continent.

This ties into a novel I’ve just finished that relates to climate change. “Fifty Degrees Below,” by Kim Stanley Robinson, is the middle book of a trilogy based around abrupt climate change affecting the United States sometime in the “near future.” Robinson, a noted science fiction author, has written an interesting novel that deals with scientists at the National Science Foundation, and their attempts to try and stave off the worst effects of abrupt climate change after Earth has already passed at least one major tipping point. The first book in the trilogy, “Forty Signs of Rain” culminated in a huge flood that wiped out large portions of Washington D.C., and “Fifty Degrees” starts up in the aftermath of that event. As the book unfolds, the new problem popping up is that the Atlantic Conveyor has more or less shut down, and the affects are dramatic, as that winter, the US and Europe are subjected to extreme cold (-50F in Washington D.C., hence the title of the book), and everyone scrambles to deal with the problem after the fact.

Abrupt climate change is a relatively new field of study, and I have no idea how plausible the scenario in Robinson’s books are. It makes sense to me, but that’s about as far as I can critique his science. His description of the political intrigue surrounding the problem is excellent, though, with the scientists and some corporations fighting with the White House (and it’s un-named, conservative Christian, global warming-denying occupant) and other businesses with vested interests in maintaining some form of the status quo no matter what. There’s a certain amount of fiddling while Rome burns, so to speak, and Robinson’s biases concerning the political/scientific crossroads come through loud and clear to me. It’s a good book, though I wish I had started with the first book in the series, for I’m definitely missing some of the backstory that must have developed there.

Aqua Vitae

November 29, 2006

If someone loses access to petroleum products, their quality of life is diminished. If that person loses access to potable water, he or she will die. While concerns over oil production and consumption have gotten an increasing amount of press over the last few years, it’s only one of the possible resource shortages awaiting us. Another is water. I recently had the opportunity to read “When the Rivers Run Dry: Water – The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century” by Fred Pearce, in which he details mankind’s increasingly complex relationship with water as the new century unfolds.

Pearce details the issues, politics and possible solutions regarding human water usage in a lively, well-written text that was actually a pretty quick read for what can be a very dry subject (pun intended) . While the earth is mostly covered by water, only a very small fraction of it (around one percent) can be used for irrigation or consumption, and we humans seem to use it poorly for the most part.

One of his main points is that while individual water usage patterns can vary greatly between cultures, the main culprits for wastage of this critical resource are agriculture and industry. An average suburban house can easily run through 15-20,000 gallons of water per month in the summertime if the homeowner waters his or her lawn on a regular basis. This sounds like a lot until you read Pearce’s assertion that a single pound of coffee beans requires around 2,600 gallons (that’s 10 tons, by the way) of water to grow. Kind of makes the fair-trade coffee look a little less virtuous, eh? For what it’s worth, the amount of water required to generate wheat (130 gallons per pound) , milk (500-1000 gallons per gallon) and beef (1300 for a small steak) isn’t exactly small either. It’s no wonder that some of the major rivers in the United States, including the Colorado and Rio Grande, and elsewhere never make it to the ocean anymore. The destruction of the Aral Sea is noted in great detail as well.

Pearce also brings up the issue of the virtual water trade. Considering how much water it takes to grow a pound of wheat, the amount of water the United States exports as part of it’s grain shipments is truly staggering. This amount is even more alarming considering how much of the grain belt in the midwestern US is fed by the Ogallala aquifier, which is mostly ‘paleowater’ left over from the last ice age. This aquifer is being recharged slowly, but not at anything close to the rate of removal. As the water table drops in this aquifier, the water quality has a tendency to worsen, and once the wells cease to be viable, large portions of the midwestern farm belt may see sudden drops in productivity, since once again they have been depleting their water savings account without much in the way of foresight.

The book also covers the political fallout over water rights, using the Israeli-Palestinian situation as a sample case. In addition to the political and religious sides of this particular conflict, Pearce also details the ways Israel controls the water flow in the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights and how this plays into the poverty, despair and hatred that fuels the Palestinian Intafada. This is hardly a unique situation, of course. Government or corporate control of water rights is a growing issue around the world.

Mr. Pearce also details some of the engineering marvels that have been undertaken to bring water to where there isn’t enough, and the slow-but steady re-learning of ancient water capturing techniques that have proven to be just as effective (if not more so) and much more cost-efficient than the modern methods of dams, de-salination plants, sewage-treatment plants, etc. Many of these traditional methods are detailed in Mollison’s “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual.”

Overall, this book is an interesting and important read. I’d like to note that Mr. Pearce has found a nice balance between crisis and opportunity. This isn’t a depressing read, for he notes a number of areas around the world where innovative thinking is leading to a smarter ways to use, gather and conserve freshwater. Many areas of the world are now treating rainwater as a resource to be harvested versus a nuisance to be diverted, and that alone is good news for many people around the world.

Being blessed with ample access to freshwater, most Minnesotans (and Wisconsinites for that matter) probably don’t spend much time thinking about this subject. We’ve seen some strange proposals in the past regarding shipping water from the Great Lakes to California and other places out west by one method or another. Thankfully, these proposals have all been shot down before. As the Colorado river continues to lose it’s flow volume while the population of the Southwestern US continues to rise, I expect that we’ll see more and more proposals covering this. Shipping the volumes of water need to satiate Southern California and Arizona are significant, and would require massive sums of cash to pull off. The US economy continues to slow, so I don’t see the necessary money coming forth, and that will make life for many in that part of the country untenable. Kunster has predicted in “The Long Emergency” that the Southwest’s population will revert to it’s pre-1950’s levels as the cost of energy rises. A lack of drinking water will only make that worse.

Great post on Biofuels at TOD

November 28, 2006

Biofuels are going to be part of our energy future… there’s no way around that. Unlike a lot of people who are promoting ethanol without really looking at the math behind it, the poster “Enigneer Poet” at The Oil Drum has written a thoughful new post concerning smarter ways to replace oil and gasoline.

After rightly pointing out that ethanol is EROEI-negative, EP goes on to list other methods and processes for getting usable fuel out of biomass. I don’t have the expertise to critique his article, but plenty of other folks are chiming in on the comments thread.

The only quibble I have is, do we have enough time and enough political willpower to overcome the intertia built in to our corporate, short-term, profit-oriented system? Hard to say, but I’m cynically taking the position that the powers that be here in the US won’t do anything until the fecal material has already started to hit the fan.

Regardless, the post is highly recommended.


November 27, 2006

My long weekend has ended and I’m now back at the daily grind. I got the opportunity to read several books over the last 10 days or so that have given me some new things to think about. I’ll touch on them briefly here today and hope to expand on them in subsequent posts.

  • One of the reasons I like Kunstler’s term of “The Long Emergency” is that we are not simply looking at the terminal decline of oil production; there are a number of variables in play besides that. The more I look at things, the more they look like a giant game of “Clue”. Our way of life will soon be killed. Will it be due to abrupt climate change leading to catastrophic losses of food that triggered a global war, or will it be declining oil production jacking commodity prices into the stratosphere and thereby touching off a global economic meltdown? Perhaps it was widespread drought that caused nations to overtax their aquifiers and lead to loss of arable land and declinign food production? Or, maybe it’ll just be greedy bastards getting wealthier at the expense of the majority of the world’s population through normal economic manipulations? There are a number of issues heading at us, and no-one really knows when they’lll hit, in what order or how hard. In the overall scheme of things, it probably doesn’t matter a whole lot. Those people who are fully dependent on the system will be screwed regardless.
  • Speaking of getting screwed, I’m starting to see more advertisements up around here regaling people with offers on how to avoid home foreclosure and bankruptcy. As 2007 unfolds, I’m expecting to see more and more of this.
  • Minnesotans, be proud. James Howard Kunstler officially ripped us in his blog offering this week.
  • I had the opportunity to go to the dome again this weekend to see the Vikings narrowly avoid losing to the Cardinals. This might be just my warped perspective, but it seems like the number of panhandlers around the stadium is on the increase.
  • While I piously observed “Buy Nothing Day” on Black Friday, my wife more than made up for my tightfistedness. I’m of two minds regarding this. I’m a scrooge at Christmastime due to my distaste with the commercialization of the holiday, and we hemmorhage cash every year. At the same time, my oldest child is finally understanding what holidays are, and Christmas is (naturally) one of his favorites. His glee at seeing the tree go up in the living room made me smile. I’m convinced that economic hard times are awaiting us sooner or later, so buying some things now while our cash is worth something seems like a good idea, as long as the goods being procured will still be of use in a low-energy world. In other words, XBox bad; steam pressure canner good.
  • Speaking of the dollar melting down, 321 Gold has another interesting article predicting doom for the greenback. These kinds of posts are pretty common there, being a contrarian/gold bug financial site, but the arguments in this particular posting are persuasive to me. The dollar has lost about 30% of it’s purchasing power relative to the Euro since 2002, and the fundamentals behind the US economy have only continued to worsen. Once China decides that they can lose the US consumer market and is willing to write off a good chunk on the nearly one trillion dollars they are currently holding, life will get interesting for Americans. Once again, savers are being punished through their savings being watered down. When foreign banks start dumping their dollars, my guess is that the Federal Reserve will waste no time in flooding the markets in an attempt to keep the dollar afloat. Welcome to hyperinflation. I won’t feel so bad about my mortgage when my house is valued at 4 million dollars or more. Having to pony up $25 for a Big Mac will make the whole concept of a “value meal” even more dubious than it already is, though.
  • Finally, the head of PEMEX is predicting that production at the Cantarell field is due to drop fourteen percent per year from 2007 to 2015. Mexico is currently the number two supplier of petroleum to the United States, and 66% of it’s output comes from Cantarell. Keep watching this story, for as oil and natural gas production drops in Mexico and Canada, it will affect the USA much more than drops in the Middle East will.

Taking Stock of Thanksgiving

November 24, 2006

I’m still recovering from tryptophan overload on Thursday, but had to opportunity to work some of it off on a sunny, 56F day, which is unseasonally mild for the end of November. We’ve been blessed with two mild winters in a row here in Minnesota… perhaps we’re in for a third? Regardless of whether it’s climate change or just normal weather patterns, I’m thankful for the low heating bill this month.

Our Thanksgiving meal was a normal one for my family… too much food, so we took home lots of leftovers. The difference is this year my wife actually volunteered to take the turkey carcass home, where it’s currently in the process of being rendered down into soup stock. I’m already drooling thinking about the several batches of homemade turkey-noodle soup we’ll get out of it.

This is a turning point of sorts for my family; in the past the missus has refused to deal with bones and the like in any of her meat, but I think she’s seen the light regarding the high-quality soup stock you can get with a little extra work versus buying the canned stuff in the grocery store.

We’ll see how far her newfound interest in bones go this weekend when we go grocery shopping. A whole fryer chicken or two would be divine. Dark meat for me, and fresh chicken stock.

The Key to Modern Life is Strategic Ignorance

November 22, 2006

A great quote from an article in the Washington Post magazine about the Earthaven Ecovillage in NC. This is actually a pretty balanced article about how and why people choose to live in intentional communities (don’t you dare call them communes), and how it may shed some light on how future generations may be forced to live.

I must admit that I like having access to ample amounts of electricity and propane at the house, and the thought of lugging my own water from the nearby stream would probably lose it’s anachronistic appeal within a day or two. That said, the life these people live here is a lot better than being in either a dystopian police state or chaotic wasteland. I applaud these folks for volunteering to drop out of society and truly live their beliefs.

Earthaven practices permaculture techniques extensively, and is also active in green building. If it were closer to me, I’d love to visit it just to see what all they’ve been able to accomplish.

Hat Tip to Life After the Oil Crash for highlighting this article.