Nuclear Energy

July 18, 2018

People keep praising nuclear as the way out of out climate and energy problems but I’m not convinced. So this is a quick list of well known problems, which I will expand as more come to mind.

a) Expense. The new cheap small reactors which people talk about, don’t seem to have been built yet in anything resembling commercial operational conditions. Real reactors which are under construction appear to keep going up in price.

b) Finding a location. Nobody wants them built near them or, if they are neutral, near cities where they are vaguely economical. If we put them in the desolate outback, hardly anyone will voluntarily go to work there, and the power loss through cables may become significant. They also need water for cooling, so we are not going to put them in the outback, probably on the coast, which may significantly change coastal ecologies.

c) They seem to take a long time to build, although there are massive divergences in the figures people give (5 to 25 years!). Certainly anyone who says they can be built quickly and safely is probably being optimistic. Hinkley Point in the UK which is probably a fair comparison with anything that would be built here in Australia, is both massively over budget, and quite late.

d) Accidents may be rare but when they happen can be catastrophic. Insurance companies will not cover them. So taxpayers are up for even more expense, and may have little input into safety when they are built by private companies using cost cutting to make money (as they won’t be responsible for insurance).

e) Disposing of waste. No one has yet solved that problem yet.

f) The promised price of electricity from the UK’s yet to be built reactors is far greater than that of renewables or coal now.

g) When a reactor gets old, it has to be decommissioned. This can be a very expensive and dangerous process, with large amounts of radioactive waste. It is rarely added to the cost of use, because the cost is bourn by taxpayers. As usually costs are socialized and profits privatized.

h) They use massive amounts of concrete which is a source of greenhouse gases.

i) Thorium reactors. Nice idea but it has apparently failed once before and does not seem to be in use anywhere. So we are probably looking at 20 to 30 years before they become commercially available, even if we were doing any research into them.


The National Energy Guarantee

July 17, 2018

The Australian Federal government is pressuring States to sign the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) by August 10. Many people are saying the States should sign because it is the only offer there will be. The Labor party is looking friendly towards the NEG on the grounds it is better than nothing.

The question is, “Is it better than nothing?” That was the subject of a business seminar run by the Smart Energy Council, that I attended this morning.

The NEG sets an unchangeable emissions reduction target in the energy sector of 26% by 2030. One problem is that this reduction will already be achieved by 2020, factoring in current renewables development, so the NEG effectively sets a target of no further emissions reduction for 12 years. There is no formal requirement to build any renewable energy between 2020 and 2030. It seems to be expected that reductions to meet Australia’s promises under the Paris agreement, will have to come from farming, transport and mining which are much harder, although they should be reducing as well. The probability is that the Government will simply abandon the targets altogether.

We have no explanation or comparative analysis from the government as to why the NEG is good policy. At one stage the emissions reduction target was changeable over time, now it is not and we do not know why. The NEG is also not finalised. It could be changed in the Government’s party rooms after the States have agreed, so the States are signing blind. Of course the short period for consideration is also a way of avoiding good policy and good discussion – which does not suggest the government is interested in the best policy.

We are told the NEG will fix reliability. However, despite political and Murdoch Empire based assertions to the contrary, the energy supply is well over 99% reliable, and faults so far have resulted from distribution not generation (except when the coal stations fall over because it was too hot).

Our government is a proclaimer of the virtues of free markets, so of course they say the NEG is not regulatory. However, the speakers from the industry this morning, thought the NEG as it stands was highly regulatory, and indeed the points about ensuring possibly unnecessary reliability for everything, means that people have to go through all kinds of hoops they don’t have to at the moment – but it looks like fossil fuels don’t have to, not because they are more reliable, but because they are defined as reliable. So it regulates one part of the industry and not another part.

The Government also says the NEG is technology neutral, but as already implied it is not. Because it set extremely low levels of emissions reduction for 2030 -which will by most accounts be achieved by 2020 – it is not technology neutral it favours greenhouse gas emitting energy sources. It continues the Government’s ideal of apparently sacrificing the environment and climate for fossil fuels.

The view of the speakers at the forum was that the NEG is worse than nothing. It would be better not to have it. Consequently, they advised that even if the government offers nothing else it should be rejected, unless it has a decent emissions reduction target.

At the same time as all this the ACCC is recommending the end of the small scale feed in tariff scheme. This along with other recommendations will massively increase the price of household solar which has so far been very popular. While the parliament had previously agreed this scheme would last until 2030, the government is now refusing to deny that it will end the scheme very soon.

What the NEG does do is probably increase the price of food if targets are imposed on agriculture, and destroy jobs in the renewables business, which have been amongst the growth areas of the economy. It also over regulates the industry. The NEG attempts to lock in a particular market which allows high levels of emissions. This benefits high polluting power companies.

If the NEG gets through we are left with three options.

  • 1) Hope that despite all the subsidy losses, and subsidies already present for fossil fuels, people will want to build renewable power,
  • 2) Find that people won’t build any power at all and when the coal stations close in 15 or so years, find we are without power, or
  • 3) use taxpayers’ money to refurbish or build new coal stations.
  • The technology neutral position seems to prefer option 3. The government voted for something like this in the Senate recently, so we can assume that is the aim.

    Winnie the Pooh and Climate Change

    June 25, 2018

    I recently attended an insightful presentation by Nick Drew called ‘Crisis response in the Hundred Acre Wood’ which obviously made use of Winne-the-Pooh, in particular the story “In which Piglet is entirely surrounded by water”. Nick is not to blame for the account’s inadequacies and inaccuracies.

    If you don’t know the story, it can be found online say at

    One of the main points of the presentation was the story described four possible responses to climate change, present in each of the characters.

    Piglet: was worried and frightened. He fantasizes about being in comfort with others and discussing the situation. He was concerned about others, but thinks they will all be alright, and was convinced there was nothing he could do for himself other than get rescued. So surrounded by water he put a message in a bottle and threw it out the window – relying entirely on chance. Luckily he was in a story and it worked out.

    Christopher Robin was quite excited by the flood, and measured the rise of the water with care each morning. Yes it was rising. Despite being mature and knowledgeable one, he was not really that concerned about anyone else – he was thinking about them and where they were, but he was safe on his high ground and it was fun.

    Owl was stuck in abstract and largely irrelevant knowledge and vocabulary. He had absolutely no concern about others, he was not empathetic to their plight and was unafraid, there was no real problem – after all he could fly. His comfort of piglet is notable by his complete unawareness of its failure.

    Pooh, works with the situation as it develops. He acts first through finding his feet wet, then through hunger and then narcissism – thinking the message in the bottle with all the ‘P’s in it must be about him. Determined to read the message he invents a boat (which naturally he calls “The floating Bear”) – which doesn’t quite work as it should, but it works well enough (“For a little while Pooh and The Floating Bear were uncertain as to which of them was meant to be on the top”). He is not scared of getting lost. When he gets to Christopher Robin who reads the note and finds Piglet is in trouble, Pooh decides to rescue Piglet and how to do it…. The message is that this is the way to respond. Because of Pooh’s inspiration others co-operate to help even if badly.

    One of the things we might want to consider is that before the flood, everyone is wrapped in their own concerns, but after the flood, as seems to be the case in many disasters, people co-operate and come together – and indeed Nick narrated how after some flood this had been the case – although the flood was much worse than that in this story – people were told not to drink the water even after boiling. This cooperation is not what our apocalyptic movies suggest. In them people fight and perhaps even eat each other. Indeed, in movies often it is other people also trying to survive who are the main problem, not the disaster.

    So Winnie-the-Pooh may be more accurate and useful. In this case, the disaster is unavoidable, so how do we create more Poohs to help afterward and possibly to act beforehand?

    Max Weber and the unintended consequences of Protestantism

    June 18, 2018

    When writing about Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism two obvious things have to be born in mind (and I wouldn’t bother writing about them except a friend pointed to an article which completely ignored them). You need to understand what Weber understood by the ‘Protestant Ethic’, and explain how and why Weber connected it to ‘capitalism’. Weber did not write about the ‘Christian Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’, or the ‘Modernist Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’, but the ‘Protestant ethic and… ‘

    The book is about the Ethic/ideology of Protestantism, and why this led to the formation of capitalism as an unintended consequence of the actions and dispositions protestant (really puritan) religion generated. It is a reply to those Marxists who insisted that economic behaviour and structures was the complete determinate of religious ideology. In counter argument Weber proposes we have a positive feedback loop (although he could not use those terms of course). In this argument Protestantism both was, and generated, a major break with the Christian past and previous economic formations processes. For Weber, Protestantism formed the generator and essence of capitalism or in other words its ‘spirit,’ or ‘internal rationality.’ It is also a mild criticism of that ‘spirit’ and of those people who think wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, and the consequences these views have built.

    So the Protestant and particularly the puritan ethic had the following consequences (and this is a bit of elaboration of Weber, and taken from other places).

    1) Salvation became purely individual. You could not work together for salvation, such as say prayers for those in purgatory. Hence the idea that everything depends on the individual – and there is no such thing as supportive community with anyone other than believers.

    2) Everything that happened is and was predestined, including your salvation or damnation. Nothing you did in the way of good works could make a difference to your future, only your strong faith, and separation from sin.

    3) Poverty was a result of sin and God’s will, so the poor were beyond help through charity, only through their personal/individual conversion and God’s will. It was even considered sinful to give ‘indiscriminate charity’. The Poor had no legitimate demand on the rich, or anyone else, for help. This helped to break the social relations which operated against capital accumulation. It also led to punishing the poor through workhouses, which may have formed the template for the factory.

    4) As you did not know whether you were saved or damned and good works did nothing, you looked for signs of God’s favour in this life such as wealth.

    5) Work and capital accumulation became the measure for true ‘vocation’ rather than mysticism, open charity, love or prayer for others.

    6) Eventually work became everything, and everything that was not work was an indicator of potential damnation – the devil makes work for idle hands – the poor must work, human life is work/labour. Time is money and must not be ‘wasted’…. etc. The Workhouse was considered good for the poor as well as preventing them from committing sin.

    7) Nature was purely a resource for work and conversion into wealth. Unless land was ‘productive’ for good puritans it was valueless, and needing ownership and improvement to make productive. Hence, first people’s did not treat land as ‘property’ or ‘properly’ and it should belong to protestants by right of God.

    With the loss of joyful activity, all that was left was work, money and condemnation of the sinful.

    None of these results were intended by the original protestants, and only a fairly small portion of the population were ever driven puritans, but the ideology and the habits it inculcated had a major effect on the formation of modern life.

    While this opened a pathway to allow the formation of a prosperous and plentiful mercantile middle class, as opposed to peasants and aristocrats, priests and warriors, the problem is (and I think that the criticism is implied by Weber), is that this protestant ethic is not a particularly pleasant foundation for a society. It destroys human sociability, mutuality, joy, spontaneity and connection to the Earth, and reduces all value to money and self-righteousness…. It is a very bleak basis for life and permeates the modern world.

    Can we reform capitalism

    June 14, 2018

    This is another website’s summary of the arguments of Yorrick Blumenfeld, slightly modified. URL below.

    Summary: Capitalism cannot be reformed, because its nature is destructive.

    Capitalism erodes and corrupts democracy: Capitalism is fundamentally antidemocratic. Money controls Parliaments and politicians, not the other way around. Corporate money tends to buy the ability to write and engineer favourable legislation, as parties need money to campaign, and corporate sponsored think tanks decide the environment of thought. The highest bidder – which is usually a group of corporations – buys the government.

    Drive to the Bottom: Capitalism pits small countries, states, and counties against each other, seeking special tax breaks and subsidies in highly wasteful “corporate welfare” programs. Capitalism seeks the lowest level of conditions for the people: cheap labour, cheap resources, cheap dumping of waste and cheap regulations.

    Capitalism drives off accountability: The political strucutre of corporations shields upper level managers from accountability, while shareholders are protected from personal liability for damage done by the corporation in making the profit they share. Multinationals are not responsible to any electorate, or to governments that respect them. Corporations can always be elsewhere, when they are challenged – just as they take their profits away from where they are earned.

    Capitalism’s values are insufficient: Capitalism doesn’t foster many things we value such as: ethics; controlling child labour; strict health and safety standards; reducing hours of labour; providing security for workers; preserving nature; or guaranteeing holidays and weekly breaks from labour. The market economy has failed to focus on durability and ecologically sustainable products and services, and it cannot because these count as costs, not profits. The only spiritual values capitalism can recognise are those that see money as a sign of God’s favour, demand obedience from workers, or generate sales.

    It fails to serve the poor: This model underserves over three billion people. Two hundred plus years of capitalism have not brought about global prosperity or environmental balance. It has brought massive prosperity for the very wealthy. Most of the world’s current wealth is controlled by an extremely small number of people – which gives them even more power to govern in their interests alone.

    Capitalism has a stability and debt accumulation problem: The supply of money is dependent on people and firms relying on loans and perpetually increasing their debt. Issuing interest requires endless economic growth to pay back the debt, which is neither in the national nor in the global interest. This inflated speculative debt drives the never-ending economic crises and bubble bursts. Without debt current capitalism would collapse. Most of the world’s monetary transactions are purely speculative: wealth is being burnt.

    Corporations are subsidized and unaccountable: Capitalist companies are often heavily subsidized (including subsidized by the global ecology by making pollution and destruction an ‘externality’). They also avoid giving back to the community. For instance, corporations avoid taxes that support infrastructure fundamental to their expansion. They use shell companies, tax havens, and modern electronic transfers to shuffle capital around and evade responsibility and to avoid contributing to the life conditions they need. They are parasitic on healthy societies, which they help run down

    Globalized capitalism creates local vulnerability: Globalized export-oriented high-tech capitalism undercuts national and regional self-reliance in key commodities. Heavy dependence on global supply lines for items such as food and energy creates a fragile and dangerous situation. Countries may not be able to feed themselves in the near future. Just like workers cannot be self-sufficient without jobs in capitalist organisations. Capitalism creates low resilience to crisis.

    Capitalism undercuts diversity and threatens groups: It favours cultural homogenization as well as the homogenization of goods and services to advance market control and to increase profit through uniformity of production. By pushing consumerism and materialism and crushing all other value and survival systems, some would argue that capitalism inspires terrorism. At the least, undermining local conditions creates nationalisms, and fundamentalisms in response.

    Capitalism ignores and destroys nature’s life support systems: Capitalism denies that the biosphere has any limits. By failing to internalize the costs of environmental pollution, and purposefully misleading people about the effects of pollution to further their profit, corporations drive a process that radically reduces planetary carrying capacity. Endless expansion of growth and destruction of resources and ecologies is destined to cause overshoot and collapse. Fisheries are over fished, land is over grazed, chemicals are pumped into the environment with little restraint or knowledge of effects, other minerals are extracted from the environment destructively with little attempt at rehabilitation. More waste clogs the land air and sea. The ‘invisible hand’ of corporate power has been destructive. Capitalism will almost certainly drive global suicide.

    Other points

    Capitalism destroys commons: Capitalism produces the tragedy of the commons, in which common property is consumed and destroyed by profit seeking, because the only property that can be recognised is alienable private property. Capitalism enforces the idea that people should not cooperate to restrain the business of others when it impacts on them. Common-land is simply land to be exploited, and to be destroyed or polluted in order to cheapen the cost of production, as is the air and water. All cheap or free things tend to be undervalued, unless they can be monopolised. Capitalist theorists say they can solve all our problems by turning everything, including you, into private property. Then somebody will care. But capitalist property rights also include the right to destroy ‘your’ own property. If someone owns the air, then they can pollute it without challenge. However, if no one owns the air then everyone, especially the powerful, can pollute without challenge as well. Common property is of no value, yet it is the basis of all value.

    Capitalism owns the law: for the same reason it owns politics. It buys the lawmakers, and exemptions from the law, so that law favours it’s actions. Similarly because law itself is a process involving lawyers, it can buy the best lawyers and exploit the incoherencies of law, and stretch out cases for such a long time that ordinary people are rendered bankrupt, and cannot afford to challenge the wealthy – even if the wealthy do break the law. The more the law can be bought the more wealth dominates.

    Trump and ‘collusion’

    June 13, 2018

    President Trump denies there is any evidence of his personal collusion with Russia, and that collusion is not a crime anyway, and the investigation should be shut down… An interesting argument. He is innocent and if he is not innocent its not a crime, and no one should investigate any possible crime anyway.

    This is a quick summary of some of the suggestive evidence…

    1) We know Trump publicly asked Russia to release Clinton’s emails. This indicates that he was prepared to work with Russia for his benefit (this is totally in character, its not like its an aberration). We also know that if Clinton had asked the Russians to release Trump’s tax returns or whatever, that every part of the Republican media (and that includes more or less everything in the US with the possible exception of the LA Times and Mother Jones) would be nonstop calling her a traitor. His action could be excused as stupidity, but Trump supporters keep saying how everything he does is well thought out…

    2) We know that people from the Trump campaign met with Russian intelligence at Trump tower, without Lawyers, and denied it. We know Trump wrote the denial. We know they wanted dirt on Clinton and they denied it. We know that at the meeting Russians talked about their governments support for Trump, and we know that the Trump people welcomed this. The meeting was for the purpose of collusion or conspiracy. We know that Trump jr rang a blocked phone number while arranging this meeting, and that the Republicans refused to allow tracing or investigation of that number.

    3) We know that despite all the evidence that the Russians were attempting to manipulate the US campaign, the Trump team denied it and they keep denying it. This is what we would expect if they were colluding or conspiring. They even denied it during the campaign after being briefed by US intelligence that this was the case. In fact by these repeated denials they are helping the Russians manipulate US voting and are colluding for their own benefit (the Russians are not helping the Democrats). Again the Republican media would be screaming for Clinton’s head if she had done this. In any case they are leaving the US wide open for further attack in their favour. This is clearly, at best, opportunistic collusion

    4) We now know that various wealthy Russians associated with Putin were trying to buy influence with and support US conservatives and the NRA. So the Russians were eager to conspire and other ‘conservatives’ were eager for their money to help Trump and Republicans.

    5) We know that friends and associates of Trump and his campaign hunted out Russians to meet in secret during the campaign – by coincidence of course. Nothing to do with Trump, even if some of those people received money from the Trump campaign for unspecified reasons.

    For example it appears Manafort was massively in debt to a Russian oligarch who was working with the Russian government to influence Trump and that Manafort hoped working with Trump would reduce his debts to the Russian. So he, as a member of the Trump campaign, saw his work as useful to Russians.

    Likewise other people tried to get information on Clinton from the Russians for Trump, and lied about it, even when they were told that such actions amounted to collusion.

    Roger Stone ‘predicted’ the hacking of Clinton’s emails before they were released, apparently showing he had knowledge of the hack presumably through contact with Russians – unless he is a successful psychic.

    Trump junior also attended a meeting with a governor of Russia’s central bank, apparently to set up channels of communication – who knows what else? Whether this is connected with the Trump Tower meeting needs investigation.

    6) There is no evidence that Trump and friends believe they are innocent. They try to obstruct and smear the inquiry at every moment. They also draw fake equivalencies, accusing Democrats of spying on them, when there is little to no evidence of this etc. They display no eagerness to get at the Truth at all, merely to prevent it emerging. In this they are unlike Jill Stein, and nobody seriously thinks she is involved, despite this being a Republican talking point to make the inquiry look political. We know Trump tried to stop or corrupt the investigation from the beginning and remove people he considered unfriendly (we might consider these as people who tried to be ethical and not intimidated by him). We have repeated evidence of witness tampering and attempts to obstruct justice by people associated with Trump. Amazing if there is nothing in it.

    7) There are stories of Trump talking to people from Saudi Arabia about getting help.

    8) We know Trump was involved with supporters who used Cambridge Analytica to help manipulate disinformation and that these people had contacts with Russians and lied about it – as usual.

    9) We know that Wikileaks collaborated with Russian hackers, who were possibly connected with the Russian government to favour Trump and did nothing to favour Clinton or hinder Trump. We also know that that there was a lot of talk that Trump was planning to pardon Assange… We know there were two othe hacks into Democratic party email servers during 2016: One that stole Democratic National Committee emails and one that stole correspondence from John Podesta’s personal Gmail account, these hacks were also probably by Russian hackers. Trump and co were eager for scandalous content in these emails – ie they were hoping the Russians would collaborate with them. Almost nothing resulted from this, except that Republicans kept implying there was something shady about the Democrats…. and that stuff would soon be released. It was coincidentally released at times which benefitted the Trump campaign or distracted from his problems.

    Coincidentally people from Cambridge Analytica also met with Assange…

    10) Trump helped turn the Republican party and its masses away from the opinion that Russia was to be treated with suspicion to being a good guy who had never done anything nasty under Putin. He supported Putin’s role in Syria and Ukraine – both of which are (to put it mildly) dubious. In this he was helped by fake news from Russian accounts. He was working with Russian propaganda, whether this was conspiracy, payback or because he was a victim of the propaganda is difficult to tell at this moment.

    11) By constantly repeating the narrative there is no direct evidence of collusion, Trump resembles a housebreaker stating ‘There was no embezzlement’, and making claims evidence of housebreaking is irrelevant. This is a story that seems persuasive to those who want to believe it. Trump was never going to be tried for collusion anyway, as it is doubtful that such a crime exists…. The question is about finding out what he, or his team, has done.

    12) Mueller has so far obtained 17 criminal indictments and five guilty pleas, but this is presumably not relevant to the conduct of Trump and his crew, in any way whatsoever, and the inquiry is purely an unfounded witch hunt.

    Modern Politics

    June 8, 2018

    For the last 40 years, in the English speaking world, we have been told that “free markets” and putting business first would bring us liberty, opportunity and prosperity.

    It hasn’t done that, and can’t do that. All it does is bring liberty, opportunity and prosperity for the wealthy. Ordinary people’s prosperity is a cost and should be cut. Any attempt by people to get the State to help others in misfortune is a cost and to be opposed. Every virtue which does not generate a profit for the established powers, is a cost to be eliminated. Wealth buys politics, laws, regulations and so on. “Getting the government off people’s backs” has been used as an excuse to regulate ordinary people, give corporations more power and wreck the environment. There is no longer any hope. Wages (for ordinary people) do not increase like they used to. Social mobility is dead. Education is declining. and so on.

    Given the failure of the so called free market neoliberal project, the only way that its benefactors can get people to vote for them, is through fake news, and stirring up nationalism and hatred. If you hate your opponents, then you can’t co-operate with them and you won’t learn from them, and you won’t team up against those oppressing you. You will vote for the people oppressing you because of your loyalty to something else, and you won’t get any real information….

    There are some who think this is an aberration of the market or the state, but the problem is that a capitalist market nearly always seems to generate the same structures. The people who succeed and accumulate wealth and leave it to their offspring, eventually create a class society and succeed in buying the government – so the rich have a dominating say, and have (in a vaguely electoral political structure) to lie to people and deceive them to keep their support. In a free market there are no values other than profit, so its hard to object to this, or get your objections heard.

    There was a time in the 60s and 70s (and still in some parts of Europe) when workers were organised and collaborative and there was a market which was regulated favourably for the people, and business sometimes had to compete against State owned companies and so found it hard to found unofficial cartels. The system was not perfect by any means, but most of us did not seem to have the problems we have now. There is also no doubt that if we had been aware of looming ecological catastrophe and climate change with the same kind of organisation, that attempts to deal with the problem would have proceeded much more rapidly than in an era of corporate dominance and belief in ‘free markets’. Everyone would have been better off. The truth is that humans are a cooperative and competitive species, they do not like hierarchies of the type capitalism generates, and they like organising together to carry out projects.

    Conclusion: Some free market is good, lots of free market is bad and unfree. We need a balance. No one should be able to make vast profits destroying our future and that involves restraining ‘the market’.

    The dominant political and economic forces in the Anglo-capitalist world generate destruction, and their political tactics involve distorting the truth to stop people from doing anything about it.

    They aren’t the only destructive people on the planet of course, but they are the ones we can do something about.


    Bitcoin and its costs

    June 7, 2018

    Bit coin is usually put forward as a piece of criminal activity or as a triumph of libertarian economics.

    It has two main problems, which reflect neither of these positions..

    1) It is amazingly slow. The transaction rate is so slow that it constantly grinds to a halt with high demand. As far as I know, this problem cannot be solved without increasing the intensity of the second problem.

    2) It has extraordinary energy consumption. I quote from an article appended below: “A fluctuating bitcoin price, along with increases in computer efficiency, has slowed the cryptocurrency’s energy footprint growth rate to ‘just’ 20 percent per month so far in this year. If that keeps up, bitcoin would consume all the world’s electricity by January 2021.”

    Bitcoin is clearly destructive….

    The energy usage is a cost of bit coin transactions which has to be paid for so it means that bitcoins should have a constant drain in value. This cost works like the signorage on medieval coins (the charge for turning gold or silver into coins), because bitcoin exchange is the only ‘value’ being produced. This drain on value is probably not a good deal, and probably can only be funded in an apparently non detrimental way as long as new bitcoin users appear, and bid for coins. This makes bitcoin a Ponzi scheme which will eventually collapse, given the limits on transactions, and the eventual limit on new participants compared to old participants.

    The problem for non-users is the pollution from energy consumption, which is (if the article is correct) apparently huge. That pollution is a cost that appears to be being socialised or shuffled onto everyone, even if those being enriched hope that they can get rich enough to avoid the problems it generates. It is also possible that taxpayers will end up funding the energy costs, which is also probably not a good idea.

    In the long term unless the energy consumption can be reduced (and the slow speed increased) bitcoin does cost too much to maintain.

    Thinking on the spot: Algorithms and Environment

    June 1, 2018

    I may, or may not, be asked to participate in a radio show/podcast about algorithms and the environment….

    This is my initial spur of the moment thinking…

    I’d start by talking about the difficulties of getting algorithms for a complex system. The whole point of complex systems is that they are unpredictable in specific, while possibly being predictable in terms of trends. For example, we cannot predict the weather absolutely accurately for a specific place in 3 months, but we can predict that average temperatures will continue to rise. Initial conditions are important to outcomes in complex systems, but there are always prior conditions (ie there is a way in which initial conditions do not exist), and because so much is happening and linking to each other, there are always problems determining what is important to the model, and what the consequences of an action were. Another problem with complexity (as far as I understand it) is that it can only be modelled to a limited extent by any system which is not the system itself.

    Then the model tends to be taken for reality, so we act as if we knew something and are working directly on that system, rather than working on a model which may increasingly diverge from reality with the passing of time….

    Then there is the issue of power relations. We know that one simple way of proceeding with Climate change, is to phase out coal and other fossil fuels and increase the use of renewable energies. However, we can’t even do this transition at the speed we need to because of established power relations and habit (power is often the ability to trigger established pathways of behaviour) – and we cannot guarantee there will be no unexpected side effects even if we could. For example, we may not succeed in replicating something like our current social life with renewables or we construct them in such a way that it harms the environment.

    We also seem to need to absorb greenhouse gases as well as cut back on emissions, but absorption can be used to delay reduction (again through power relations), and there is, as yet, no yet established way of dealing with the GHG that have been removed which is safe or long term. Algorithms cannot successfully model the effects of things we don’t know how to do…

    On top of that there is the potential power consumption of the algorithms – while hopefully this will not be too bad there is some evidence that bitcoin (which is a complex algorithm of a kind) could end up being the most energy hungry thing on the planet…. In which case our efforts to save ourselves could intensify the crisis.

    Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that computational algorithms are never of use, but that they tend to be used without testing because they depend on fictional stories which have a high level of conviction, and are treated as if they are the reality we are working with and not as models of that reality. If the model / algorithm tends to advantage some group more than others, and the appliers belong to people loyal to that group, then it will probably be harder to curb if incorrect, and be more likely to be taken for correct. The same is probably true if the model reinforces some precious group belief. The point of this is that models tend to become political, (consciously or unconsciously) because the axioms seem like common sense.

    According to some theories humans tend to confuse the ‘map’ for the ‘terrain’ (to use the General Semantics slogan) almost all the time unless its visibly and hopelessly not serving them and there is an easy alternative. If so, that could be one reason why science is so difficult and so relatively rare, and so easy to ‘corrupt’ when it becomes corporate science.

    If we are going to model what we do in the world then we absolutely need something like computer modelling, but we also need to emphasise that these models are unlikely to ever be totally accurate, always are going to require modification and change, will get caught in politics and could always be wrong.

    If we don’t do this then the aids to helping us model what we are doing and need to do, could well make things worse.

    One more time: Economics of Waste

    May 31, 2018

    (Based on a reply to a comment)
    In the last post I argued pollution erupts everywhere there:

    a) is no support for ecological thinking;
    b) where the costs of pollution are not factored into the economic process; and
    c) where there has been conquest.

    I should have added a point

    d) that pollution appears to be a strong part of developmentalism wherever it operates, whether in capitalist, socialist, communist, or nationalist systems.

    Making products or energy by cheaply destroying the ecology is an easy way to make money, and generate the products associated with development. Again the ecology (and often the people who depend on it) are sacrificed to the gods of development, which are usually material prosperity (for some more than others), modern technology, industrialism and military power.

    The more speedy the development the more pollution seems to occur, and if it takes force or law to overwhelm those who resist, then force or law will nearly always be used. This was first illustrated in 19th century England where people were poisoned and restrained by law, and the environment was polluted on a visible scale perhaps never seen before and rarely replicated since – although parts of the communist world which did similar development in an even shorter time were probably up there with it. Its hard to compare descriptions, and to measure the past.

    Developing countries can see attempts to reduce their pollution as attempts to keep them undeveloped – particularly when countries like Australia refuse to diminish their own pollution.

    It may be possible to make the argument that capitalism is now often justified by its ideologues in terms of it being a major force for development, which is why it is so bad for the environment. Both the demand for profit and the desire for development give each other support in their destructiveness.

    If pollution was only marginal to capitalism we probably would not have had so much political action trying to justify pollution and make it sacred. How often do we hear something like: “If we stop polluting then the economy will crash. We can’t afford these restrictions?” Likewise, I have not seen that many companies protest against President Trump’s attempts to ‘free the market’ by making it easier to pollute and poison people, but I dare say there may be some – after all being capitalist does not mean a person is inherently evil.

    The days in which ‘the people’ could use ‘their State’ to attempt to unambiguously reduce pollution, or enforce costs onto business use of pollution seem pretty dead, as the idea of the ‘free market’ fossilises corporate power, and any such anti-pollution movement is accused of wanting to bring about poverty and primitivism- that is they are said to be “anti-development.”

    The ability of people as consumers to affect capitalism is probably limited – after all they still have to buy something to live… but if the consumer wants less pollution, they have to find correct information about pollution and who is making it (which companies may try to hide) and find a difference between companies with similar products. They must also be able to afford buying products with less pollution. There is no sense they should participate in the processes of the State to gain enough power to enforce less pollution, as that might diminish the liberty of the powerful to pollute on those less powerful.

    We should also probably note that in capitalism the word ‘cost’ usually means ‘monetary cost’ alone. If the creatures and the land do not belong to anyone who both cares and is wealthy enough to go to law, or to make law, to protect them, then there is no recognisable cost; even if the destruction may be fatal to humans in the long term. If the person destroys their “own land” then everyone should be happy, as it is their ‘private property’ to destroy as they will, as if that property was separate from everything else in the world. Non-monetary cost, or cumulative dysfunction, seem difficult concepts to deal with once monetary profit becomes the only mark of virtue and success. If something is priceless, then it has no value.

    In response to these kind of arguments, some people will appear to argue that there can be an ideal capitalist market in which problems dissolve, ie we just get rid of State regulations and protections for the environment and workers. This is bold, but the problem is that this ideal process never arises, and all the talk of free markets appears to do, is justify a more stringent plutocracy. So I assume that producing plutocracy is the function of that talk.

    I may be wrong, but it does seem to be the case that the more pro-free markets the political party claims to be, the more they defend pollution and ecological destruction with vigour. They see themselves as vigorously defending capitalism and development, and demonstrate why we have to be careful with both of those institutions.