“Fossil fuels are not finished”

Matt Ridley (The Rational Optimist) has a strong new article on his blog, in full. “Fossil fuels are not finished, not obsolete, not a bad thing” was previously behind paywalls at the Wall Street Journal and Sunday Times (UK).

I’ve taken some of the figures he gives for world power production in the article, and supplemented them for a fuller picture:

Nuclear: 4%, with massive subsidy (Ridley)
Wind: 1%, with massive subsidy. (Ridley)
Solar: less than 1%. (Ridley)
Geothermal: 0.3%, unproven beyond the city scale.
Bioenergy from crops: maybe 1%, and an ecological and ethical disaster.
Tidal: 0.002%, vanishingly small.
Hydroelectric: Very nice if you have the mountains or vast rivers for it: Norway, 96%, Brazil 80%, Canada 62%, New Zealand 51% according to the World Bank table. But it’s not a global solution for the rest of us. Even vast and heavily dammed China can’t squeeze more than about 22% from it, and that’s if you believe their often-fiddled regional government output statistics.

There are, of course, arguments that the legacy pollution from fossil fuel production and use is not fully factored into their cost. Ridley doesn’t address these arguments, although to be fair they probably require another complete article. I’m no expert but I do wonder if the very heavy taxation of fossil fuels means there has effectively been a “consumer pays for environment restoration” for the pollution of the 1920s-1980s era. I also wonder if the claims on un-costed legacy pollution assume that pollution clean-up costs will be on the same scale of those in the 1970s and 80s. When actually, in the developed post-industrial world, fossil fuel use is now vastly greener and cleaner at all sorts of levels, and enforced by industry practices, legal regulation and public demand. There may still be uncovered future-legacy clean-up costs for the years 2020-2050 in developed countries, and I’d welcome seeing strong figures on that. But again I’d assume that high taxation level of fossil fuels must cover much of these hidden costs. I’d also assume that fossil fuel companies must be factoring their own near-future rectification costs into the consumer price, simply as good modern business practice.

One can, of course, point to the dreadful and very photogenic smogs of China and India. But these countries will rapidly transition away from coal-fired power plants and old dirty cars made under socialism. Just as the UK did from the 1950s to the 1980s. And probably sooner rather than later, as government will for drastic measures hardens under public pressure. I’d also note that environmental pressure groups in China and India also have many more tools and public support at their disposal than the likes of Friends of the Earth did in Britain in 1980, and that such nations can draw on the west’s proven technology solutions at a much lower cost that we had to bear in developing them.

As China and India fix their chronic air pollution problems, possibly quite rapidly, there may even be beneficial effects following on for Africa. Both China and India are increasingly involved in Africa, and they may be able to profitably export affordable air pollution solutions to developing African cities.

Go Bold

The UK’s computing PC magazine has “Our Exciting, Weird, and Scary Future: Q&A With Peter Diamandis”, who has a new book out titled Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World. Not a great interview, with an underprepared journalist, but the final question is interesting for those wondering if they should pick up a used hardback or paperback of Diamandis’s Abundance from Amazon…

PC: Since Abundance came out in 2012, has any more data come out that has made you more or less optimistic?

PD: The paperback that came out a few months back has a bunch of additional charts in it. So I remain more optimistic and more compelled than ever. But my mission about writing Bold is the realization that 1,000 years ago it was only the kings and queens who could impact a region or a country. One hundred years ago it was only the industrialist. And today it’s all of us.

Big news is bad news

“Breaking news: It’s the best of times” points to the amplification effect that modern news gathering has on the level of bad news we read. With a whole world of news to choose from, editor preference will naturally gravitate out to the extreme margins of the vastly widened news spectrum.

“the international news is usually worse than national news, which is worse than regional news, which is worse than local news. In other words, international news is depressing for statistical reasons. The extremity of atrocities and tragedy is not a representative reflection of the state of the world.”

This operates at both ends of the spectrum, from fluff to atrocity. Thus the Daily Telegraph‘s Wildlife RSS feed devolves into a wasteland of ‘whacky funny animal videos’, while the Guardian‘s environment pages exist in a permanent state of ‘Apocalypse, Now!’.


Roboweeders roll out in Australia…

“Two robots working together on Bendee effortlessly sprayed weeds in a 70ha mung-bean crop last month. Their infra-red beams picked up any small weeds among the crop rows and sent a message to the nozzle to eject a small chemical spray. Bate hopes to soon use microwave or laser technology to kill the weeds. Best of all, the robots do the work without guidance. They work 24 hours a day. They have in-built navigation and obstacle detection, making them robust and able to decide if an area of a paddock should not be traversed. Special swarming technology means the robots can detect each other and know which part of the paddock has already been assessed and sprayed”

“New technology such as robots and drones is attracting many of a new generation of younger people back from university into agriculture. … a small farmer in a third-world country may not be able to afford the latest big [$250,000] tractor, but he could afford a smaller robot to do the job.”

farmrobotPicture: Farm robot bendee rig, hanging weed sprayers not loaded to the frame.

It’s hopeful, but less so the bottom

The new lead essay in Cato Unbound is by Megan McArdle, who takes a close look at how lives in the U.S. have got better since 1915. She does this by focussing on her grandmother who will turn 100 next month. (Currently the article is 404. But you may be able to snag it via the Google cache).

She shows that the progress has been overwhelming, widespread, real and positive. She does however cite five historical trends that have marred the progress of those at the bottom of society…

* HR staff and management effectively decided to turn the good university degree into the basic entry ticket to stable employment. For many that was an intellectual barrier that could not be surmounted, even in an era of heavy grade inflation.

* Getting and keeping low-paid work has become more unreliable.

* There was a thirty year spike in addictive hard drugs and violent crime, from roughly 1970-2000, and a consequent rise in prisoners.

* Easy credit + low financial skills meant that many were drawn into a life of debt.

* The rise in divorce since the 1970s, which then interacted with welfare regulations to produce a generation of absent fathers and lone mothers.

GLUM: Grumbling Lefties United for Misery

There’s a deeply muddled attack on optimism in the current issue of the UK’s far-left magazine New Statesman, “The happiness conspiracy: against optimism and the cult of positive thinking”.

The article spends most of its time pressing the well-worn buttons of the political left, in a hilariously scattergun order. The central point appears to be that the happy-clappy variety of personal optimism is being reduced to a commercial formula. By the evil mind-bending commercial forces of erm… daytime TV, advertisers, social media, and the “entire positive thinking industry”. Really, who knew? The New Statesman article makes no mention of the deeply ingrained pessimism and ‘bad news bias’ of the UK news media, movies and TV series, and the like.

But media pap is not the article’s main target. Having whipped up the mob, the label “neo-optimism” is wheeled out late in the article. Scary and political, and not too far from the 1990s hate-label “neocon”. This newly minted label is then swiftly tinged with the slur of science denial, being extended a few sentences later into “quasi-scientific neo-optimism”. Predictably, the article’s payload then splutters down to arrive at its real target — evidence-based rational optimism for overall human progress. It lands on Steven Pinker (The Better Angels Of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined), but he needn’t worry as it’s very much a damp squib. The article’s payload contains such an utterly shallow ‘argument’ that even the New Statesman editor must have cringed as he read it.

Turbo-charging multi-core PCs

Remember the old ‘turbo-charge button’ you used to get on a 1990s desktop PC? Sadly they don’t work any more — CPU clock speeds stopped increasing a while back. Yet our desktop PC boxes still keep getting faster. That’s mainly because we multi-core the CPU, meaning we pack many CPUs onto a single slot-in CPU that sits at the heart of our motherboard. Now, building on MIT’s work to speed up multi-core, an IEEE team has built an…

“extension of the [MIT] system that controls the distribution of not only data but computations as well. In simulations involving a 64-core chip, the system increased computational speeds by 46 percent while reducing power consumption by 36 percent.”

All that’s apparently needed is to add a flow monitor that takes up “1 percent of the chip’s area”. Given that computers are still a major household energy hog, a power reduction of a third in the central component sounds very desirable.