Understanding Our Present re Fossil Fuels Nuclear Energy and Growth + Soros Alchemy of Finance

Posted: March 15th, 2011 by: h2

Visualize a chess game. You are player X, mother nature is player Y.

You have fewer pieces than she does, and have now entered into a phase of the game where, while you are a skilled and talented player, you are also clearly able to recognize that checkmate is inevitable. She’s also got some options in the game which you don’t have, although you were given the option to inspect them before the game started, but chose to ignore that in favor of making up your own version of the rules, which isn’t actually permitted in this game. In other words, the real rules are absolute and determined by Y, the rules we generate will fail but we believe they won’t.

Building a nuclear power plant at the edge of the ocean facing a massive and extremely active earthquake fault is an example of making up these rules and ignoring the more fundamental ground rules of the game. In that case, the rules they made up were: we will build a x meter high (6, I believe) tsunami defense wall. In other words, the rule is that the tsunami that hits in potential will be less than x meters high. Mother nature doesn’t care about these made up rules, so the tsunami was as big as it was going to be, ie, larger than the rule said it would be, x+y, the quake was stronger than they designed for, so that piece of the ecosystem is now compromised and heavily damaged, and thus, the position occupied by X is now weaker than it was 5 days ago.

Making up rules like this is extremely common in I believe all large scale cultures that practice excessive non-sustainable resource extraction. Out of sight out of mind is another form of this rule invention, which is the rule we apply to most of our generated waste products.

Your pieces are parts of your ecosystem. You can use them all up before being checkmated, or you can gracefully tip the king over and admit the inevitable defeat, thus preserving the lives and future viability of your various pieces.

While some might point to the so-called marginal economic benefit of using nuclear energy as opposed to coal fired power plant energy, I am unable to actually derive any meaning from the term ‘marginal economic benefit’ since from what I understand all nuclear power is not economically viable in the first place. That is is, if all mining, construction, de-activation, and most important, permanent long term waste disposal costs are taken into account, the plant is a zero gain enterprise.

If we forget the entire ‘economic’ modeling, which I think is a good place to start, and look merely at extraction rates and long term viability of the various options, it’s clear that none of the current options have any future.

If we shut down our nuclear plants, as some suggest when trying to demonstrate a lesser of evils type argument, we would probably increase our coal extraction / burning rates in the short term, with a net gain/change in the chess game of exactly zero, since the coal will get burned up anyway somewhere in the world in all cases, only maybe not as quickly in the case where nuclear plants are not closed down or built. So while that might appear to present a reason to build nuclear power, it’s a false premise, since in fact what would happen is we’d just burn the coal anyway. So the reality is we are burning the coal, creating CO2, and show no signs of stopping, and generating long term highly toxic wastes, which threaten to poison our environment long term. That’s lose lose, instead of lose alone.

Keep in mind they are currently majorly revising actual economically viable coal extraction re reserves, with massive downgrades in future reserves. No more 200, 300 year future talk, it’s now approaching 20 to 40 years to reach global maximum production levels (although I am suspecting, based on rapidly increasing coal prices globally, that these levels have possibly already been reached due to unexpected massive increases in global demand based on Chinese and Indian coal use), which is about the same timeframes re time to oil production maximums being achieved (aka: peak oil) that were being discussed when I started following the so called ‘peak oil’ issue in the late 90s.

I see this only in terms of a realworld chess game where we already have lost too many key pieces to nature to ever win, or even reach stalemate.

Future generations will curse us, believe me, they will curse the heated global ecosystem from CO2 emissions they are going to inherit from us, which will take about 1000 years to return to a more normal level, and they will curse our mountains of toxic wastes (including but not limited to nuclear) we leave behind, which can take tens of thousands of years to finally become reasonably non-toxic, if they ever do. Discussions of ‘economic benefit’ when the outcome is only destroying more of our ecosystem long term in all cases is just not something I can find any heart to really get into.

I don’t know or understand why so many modern humans cannot respect mother nature, and why or where their profound contempt for her rules and limits came from, but I am unable to participate in that contempt or self-centered focus on personal greed, consumption, and fulfillment of desires that were not even an idea in someone’s brain 80 years ago.

I see now that the requirement for all decisions to be taken in long term was not some side thing for those who managed to live more sustainably than we do, it was the only thing. Despite this I see ground for hope, but not in any way a hope that will satisfy artificial notions of economic development. But that’s not a bad thing, it’s a good thing.

I have been reading, with great interest, Soros’s book The Alchemy of Finance, which strives to not be a work on finance, but on human behavior and social systems. It succeeds in my opinion. One of the key concepts therein is that the way we as thinking entities perceive reality is always filtered through our thinking, and this is not something you can get around. The requirement, so called, for x or y levels of energy consumption in my opinion fits in perfectly with this model. It’s a feedback loop, we believe we require x or y level, then we generate x or y level, then we believe we need x or y + 1, so we generate that. Once generated, that forms a new floor for what we believe is necessary for human existence, even though it’s totally obvious that it isn’t, nor has it ever been.

To be clear, what Soros is noting here is the inevitable failures of social ‘sciences’ to achieve the status of certainty that physical science is able to reach. In other words, there can be no social science because the agent who is investigating is the agent being investigated, and that agent contains biases that are not possible to work around. So what’s he’s talking about is understanding social systems. Personally I would go further, because I do not believe science itself actually is doing what it pretends to be doing, but that is going way too far afield, and would lead to pointless discussions that would do little good.

This recent Japan nuclear problem to me is a perfect test for the core premises of several books I’ve recently started digesting (Soros’s work here discussed, Taleb’s derivative and weaker, but still useful, Fooled by Randomness, as well as the excellent When the Lights Went Out – A History of Blackouts in America, by David E. Nye), and their premises are being proved not just slightly correct, but absolutely so.

The corollary of this point is that it’s not a one way process, ie, just as we adjust our world views to the x=x+1 process, so too when we hit the limit of that, determined by underlying tendencies and fundamentals, we are forced by material circumstances to adjust mentally to a model which now is x=x-1, until a new relative steady state is reached (itself an illusion, since only once actual sustainable living is reached can we discuss relatively steady states, but it’s an adequate working model).

So all the frantic statements and comments from people who insist that the x=x+1 condition are the only possible outcome and future for us are simply demonstrating Soros’s notion of reflexivity in an explicitly clear manner.

When x=x-1 becomes the prevalent bias, these people will vaporize, or rather, the bias will vaporize, and will be replaced by those who maintain equally adamantly that an ongoing x=x-1 is the natural condition, and it’s absurd to suggest otherwise. At some point in the distant future we will bounce off and on from x=x, each time being corrected, again, as we try to use x=x+1 model, and returned to the x=x model. This won’t be a choice, but it’s so far in our future it’s also pointless to even really discuss that future.

The core concept here is that there is no way for human beings to actually avoid the underlying bias and trendlines, which are mutually self-reinforcing, ie, there is no point of view outside of them that is solid, but we can note that this process exists, and then try to mold our thinking to fit this model, which in my opinion is a significantly superior model for understanding human actions and social thought.

To be clear: the bias we now internalize about yearly growth in consumption of electricity leads directly to yearly growth in consumption of electricity, it is a feedback loop. When our bias alters due to our views coming too far out of step with what the fundamentals can provide, the bias will swing to the negative side of the slope, which will involve declining, decreasing levels of electrical power consumption. How our biases achieve explanations to ourselves at that point remains to be seen, but one thing is certain, they will. I am glad to see such a fantastic real world test case here and now for these ideas, it’s rare real concepts can be so readily tested, Soros used the market to test these, but he knew the ideas were much larger than the market.

This is how Soros explains all bubbles and boom/bust cycles, and I would without hesitation include the growth/decline model as fitting this perfectly, only more slowly, and over a longer and more complicated period of time.

In other words, we view our normal as normal, but that normal itself is not fixed, it’s fluid, it changes. People don’t like change, but when it comes, it comes, one can either resist (as in rightwing climate heating denialism), or one can move with it, ideally a bit ahead of it to give you an edge. Not impossible at all. Difficult, sure. It’s worth noting that deliberately placing oneself behind the curve, as most climate heating denialists do, places you in a position where you may experience short term gain, but you are almost certain to have long term total failure, both as a country and as an individual. While it’s a possible course, it is neither wise nor offering long term advantage.

And that’s it for the latest view from the pit, we’ll see how things pan out as they panic and try to negotiate their way out of finite and absolute limits, in other words, call in more digging tools, we’ll bury the nuclear plants in cement and sand sarcophagi, then build more new ones, we need to power the excavation equipment at all costs, full speed ahead!

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