Monday, March 28, 2011

What Is the World Running Out Of?

by Richard Crews
By the time the year 1900 arrived, chemists had identified all the elemental building blocks of nature. With tens of thousands of experiments--together with a lot of clever guesses--they had pieced together the rows and columns of the Periodic Table of the Elements and filled in all its gaps. It was known that there were 92 natural elements--from hydrogen, atomic number 1, to uranium, atomic number 92. However, barely half of those elements had been isolated, purified, and studied. And only a little over half of those--some 28 altogether--had found their way into one or more useful corners of human use.

But the 20th century was, among other things, "the century of materials science." Scientists and engineers aggressively pursued the usefulness of the materials they had at hand. By the time the year 2000 arrived, all 92 natural elements had been purified, studied, and put to use--all 92 were in demand for something somewhere. Uranium could be used to make powerful bombs, electric power plants where there was no flowing water, and armored shielding for tanks that was denser than lead and stronger than steel. Neodymium made stronger magnets than iron and lovely, blue-tinted glass. Indium was used in liquid crystal displays and touchscreen laptop computers. Etc.

In the meantime, geologists had rooted out sources--that is, ores--for all of those elements. But as mining and use skyrocketed, it turned out that some of the elements were in short supply.

In some cases the problems were geographic: China, for example, had almost all the good ore for a dozen of the elements--germanium, antimony, magnesium, tungsten, etc. In some cases the problems were political: with clever multi-billion dollar subsidies, China had maneuvered itself into the position of having the only active refineries for any of the rare-earth metals (scandium, yttrium, lanthanum, etc.--altogether there are 17 of them). No other countries who had rare-earth ores could compete at the price that China put those metals on the world market. Rare-earth refineries all over the world--which had been very complex and expensive to set up--went out of business, sometimes with huge piles of unrefined ores dumped nearby.

In some cases the problems were supply-and-demand economics. For example, since indium and gallium are minute byproducts of zinc and aluminum mining, unless more zinc and aluminum was needed on the world markets, it was not economical to increase the production of indium and gallium. Price-wise, the flea simply could not wag the dog.

One hears in the news about how fossil fuels, fish proteins, or clean drinking water may soon be in disastrously short supply. But in fact there are nearly two dozen chemical elements with worrisome shortages looming in the next few years. These are elements that have found important uses in the modern world--uses we have come to depend on--uses for which there are no substitutes.

We are like a rich, happy tourist running around with a pocketful of coins--but our pockets have several holes in them.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Safe Nuclear Power

by Richard Crews
Our worst fears about the dangers of harnessing nuclear power were approached by the disaster at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in April 1986. Millions of people were threatened, tens of thousands of lives may ultimately be lost; millions of animals were slaughtered, millions of square miles were contaminated; the costs of clean up, containment, decontamination, and health care have run so far to hundreds of billions of dollars.

The causes at Chernobyl? Although there may have been some design and construction weaknesses at Chernobyl, the cause was overwhelmingly human operator error.

The only other significant nuclear power plant disaster until the current one at Fukushima, Japan (although there have been several close calls) was the partial core meltdown that evolved during late March and early April of 1979 at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. In that case there were no significant health problems, and the financial costs amounting to a few hundred million dollars were manageable by the industry. The principle "fallout" was political--a public perception backlash against nuclear power, particularly in the U.S. This led to untold hundreds of billions of dollars in political, infrastructure, and business expenses and incalculable secondary greenhouse gas emissions that are expected cause climate changes extending over decades (which may be crippling worldwide to human civilization itself).

The causes at Three Mile Island? In the case of Three Mile Island, the principle cause was human error. If human operators had not misunderstood the situation and intervened inappropriately, the automatic systems would have averted the disaster.

Now we are watching another nuclear power disaster evolve in Fukushima, Japan. The enormous 9.0 earthquake on March 11, 2011 disrupted the main power supply and the ensuing tsunami washed out the back-up emergency generators. This caused a failure of the cooling systems, causing uranium fuel rods to overheat; there were fires, explosions, and leaking of radioactive material into the environment. Although this disaster has passed the Three-Mile-Island level, it is still far short of the Chernobyl level; the ultimate outcome is as yet unknown.

The causes of the problems at Fukushima are also not yet fully known. It is clear there were strategic design flaws such as building nuclear power plants--at all--in an active earthquake area, and burying the back-up generators underground where they were susceptible to damage from a tsunami. If there were also contributing human errors, this is not yet known.

The question arises anew, can nuclear energy be safely harnessed to provide for humanity's electrical power needs? The answer is yes, but not in its current design form. There are potential nuclear power designs--for example, using radioactive thorium as fuel rather than uranium, or using traveling wave technology--that do not risk power-plant disaster. They also significantly curtail both of the other two terrible dangers of the current uranium design: spent fuel disposal and terrorist theft. These two alternative design technologies are being explored in India and China respectively. (They are too "hot potatoes" politically to explore in this country.)

Nuclear power can be safe, but because of the political and sociological issues that have come to surround it, it is problematic whether or not it can contribute to saving humanity from our energy hunger and the climate destruction our profligate use of fossil fuels has precipitated.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Arab World in Flames

by Richard Crerws
As dawn broke on the morning of December 17, 2010, a young Tunisian named Mohammad Bouazizi headed out onto the streets of Sidi Bouzid with his cart of fresh fruits and vegetables. He had stocked it up late the night before for about $200 in credit, a debt he planned to pay back in the evening out of his sales for the day. He hoped to make about $20 for his day's labor, money that would go to support his mother, uncle, and younger sibs, and contribute to his younger sister's expenses at the local university.

Mohammad was well known throughout the town as an affable, hard-working, and honest young man. He often gave fruits and vegetables to the very poor of the town who could not afford to pay him.

Mohammad was proud of the livelihood he had put together for himself. The unemployment rate in Sidi Bouzid was 30%; Mohammad did not have any special skills or training--he had been working part time since the age of 11, and had dropped out of high school at 17 to work full time. At 26 his lifelong hope of completing high school and going to the university was growing dim. He felt oblidged to assure that his family had food and shelter, and he wanted to do the best he could to see that his younger siblings got good educations. His main life dream now--for himself--was to save enough to buy an old pick-up truck to expand his fruit and vegetable vending business.

A couple of hours into the morning, Mohammad was approached by a contingent of police--two males officers and a female sargeant. They knew Mohammad. They could see that his cart was well stocked; they knew he had a thriving business. They demanded to see his vendor's permit. He explained, as they already knew, that he did not have one. He reminded them--which they also already knew--that he was not required to have one to ply his trade through the streets as he did. Because he did not have a vendor's permit, they demanded a bribe of $50 saying that if he did not pay it, they would confiscate his cart and stock.

An argument ensued. A crowd gathered. In the course of the argument, the sargeant struck Mohammad across the face; then the two officers beat him with their fists and feet and clubs, and then the three police left, taking Mohammad's cart and fruits and vegetables with them.

Mohammad was distraught. He had lost his cart and stock and income for the day. But most distressing of all was having been struck in the face by a woman, and in front of his friends and neighbors. That, to a young Arab male, was a terrible insult and humiliation.

Mohammad walked to the town hall a few blocks away to complain to the mayor. The mayor was in, but refused to see him. Whereupon Mohammad purchased a can of kerosene and paint thinner from a nearby store, walked to the town square, dowsed himself with the flammable liquids, and set himself ablaze.

Mohammad died in the hospital about a week later. But the flame he had ignited grew until outrage and rebellion engulfed the Arab countries of North Africa and the Middle East. Tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets. They demanded that their long-standing dictators step down, and that fair, law-abiding, democratic institutions be set up.

Tunisia fell first. Then Egypt. And in several other countries, the rulers made liberalizing concessions. But in Libya, the dictator Muammar Gaddafi dug in. He was a wealthy man. He had been in power for 42 years, and had been stealing Libya's oil revenues. He had a personal fortune of some $35 billion stashed in banks overseas.

He also had a well trained, well equipped, and highly disciplined army and security force. Although many of his top-rank executives, army officers, and diplomats around the world defected and joined the rebel cause, Gaddafi sent his forces--including tanks, planes, helicopters, and all manner of modern military equipment--against the rag-tag, poorly equiped, and poorly organized rebel throngs. He threatened to take revenge against civilian populations that opposed him.

As slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians seemed imminent, the U.N. took action. It passed a resolution authorizing the use of all necessary force to protect the civilian populations of Libya. The U.S. thereupon led a coalition of European and Arab nations against Gaddafi. They grounded his airforce and demolished much of his military equipment and supplies.

As of late March, 2011, it seems likely that in the weeks to come, military, economic, and diplomatic pressure will force Gaddafi to relinquish power. What sort of government may then emerge in Libya is a very open question. There are no potential leaders or nascent political organizations waiting in the wings; Gaddafi has systematically suppressed, jailed, murdered, or driven into exile any opposition--however fledgeling--for several decades.

What is next for Libya in the way of government? Will some democratic processes really emerge? Or will another military dictator come to the fore, or a religious (Muslim) system, or some other? Or will the country disintegrate into tribal rivalries and ethnic disputes? That is the big question that lies ahead for Libya, and no one knows the answer.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

World Population

by Richard Crews
The world's population has been growing rapidly in recent years. During the first million-or-so years of human evolution, the total world population probably never exceeded a few million individuals. But with the invention of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, the human population began to grow rapidly. By 2,000 years ago it had reached some 200 million.
Over the next 1,000 years it doubled (reaching 400 million in AD 1000).
Over the next 750 years it doubled again (reaching 800 million in 1770).
Over the next 130 years it doubled again (reaching 1,600 million in 1900).
Over the next 65 years it doubled again (reaching 3,200 million in 1965).
Over the next 45 years it doubled again (reaching 6,400 million in 2010).

The world's population currently stands at just under seven billion. But it is not expected to continue to grow rapidly much longer. The U.N. estimates that the world's population will level off at about nine billion in the next few decades.

Granted that is a lot of people. The Earth might be better able to maintain a balanced, healthy ecology if there were 1/10th that number--or less. But in fact with efficient food production and distribution practices, we can feed all those people well. And with suitable recycling, the Earth's limited commodities--silver, rare earth metals, phosphates, etc.--need never run out.

However, that leveling off of population growth depends on one surprising factor, the equitable distribution of wealth. Over the past few years, by studying a variety of populations under a variety of conditions, sociologists have discovered that as people's standard of living rises--that is, as they become more healthy and secure and have lower infant mortality rates--they tend to have smaller families. It seems that among a deeply impoverished population in which poor health, poor sanitation, and generally poor living conditions mean that many children die before they reach adulthood, parents will tend to have large families of 8 or 10 or 12 children--so many children, it turns out, that they more than compensate numerically for the loss. On the other hand, relatively wealthy--and therefore healthy--families in a post-industrial society will tend to have fewer children on the average, down to 3 or even 2 children per family.

So the U.N.'s prediction that the rise in population will level off presupposes that effective measures will be taken to raise the standard of living for the vast majority of the human race.

Is the total wealth produced by human activity on the planet sufficient to accomplish that? Yes, numerically it is. At present some 90% of the world's population are impoverished--they live on less than $10 a day. If the total wealth produced on the planet each year were evenly distributed, each person's share would be nearly $30 per day. Looked at another way, if the wealth controlled by the 1,000 wealthiest people on the planet were distributed among the 1,000,000,000 (one billion) poorest, each would get about $2,500.

The difficulty is, of course, that such a redistribution of wealth is impossible politically. But if the Earth is to be saved from devastating overpopulation (and the resulting ethnic, land, and water wars), something must be done to fix the gross inequity in income and wealth distribution between the rich and the poor. In the U.S., for example, for a start, rich people and corporations should pay their fair share of taxes to run the government: income tax rates for the wealthy should be raised, tax rates on large inheritances should be raised, and the maximum income level for contributing to Social Security should be raised; exorbitant pay packages for executives of financial institutions should be curbed (and perhaps the exorbitant rewards reaped by top entertainers and athletes as well); farm and industrial subsidies for wealthy corporations should be discontinued; etc.

The solution to the world's population woes is, interestingly, largely economic. But as surely as money begets power and power begets money, any significant economic changes will be very difficult to implement.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Roots of Literature

by Richard Crews
(Note: There is absolutely no evidentiary basis for this depiction—how could there be? But it makes a lovely and believable foundation for the study of literature.)

Imagine, if you will, a million years and more ago a small band of savages—perhaps a dozen, or twenty at most—huddling around a campfire at night. They are crowding inward a bit for the warmth and protection the group and the fire provide—protection from the cold and from marauding wolves and other predators who pass by in the night. There are a dozen or more adults in this group (a larger group cannot sustain its food supply); these are men and women between the ages of 12 and 25—few live longer—and half as many children, most of whom will not live to reach adulthood. They are hunter-gatherers; they spend their days searching out the roots, leaves, berries, barks, and bugs that sustain them, occasionally lucking across the carcass of a dead rabbit or rodent, or even able to capture and kill one afresh.

When sunset approaches, they gather tinder and firewood and build the campfire that will keep them safe through the night. Then as darkness crowds in around them, someone begins to recite the tribe's story. Everyone joins in, though the volume is low—little more than a murmur.

The tribe's story tells of their gods, their beliefs, their ways of eating and living and surviving. The recitation goes on hour after hour through the night. Some fall asleep from time to time, but there is always someone or some few awake, guarding the fire, reciting the story, watching against the dangers of the night. If one of the adults awakes and no one is telling the story, he or she feeds the fire and takes up the guarding vigil, and takes up the recitation again.

They all know the story—hours and hours of it. They have each heard it hundreds of times as they were growing up. Sometimes sections are added or forgotten—but not often. For the stability of the story binds them together as a culture. It tells the myths of their origins; it tells—as tales of their half-remembered heroes and ancestors--the patterns of migration and feeding that they follow through the changing seasons; it tells, as entertainment, what the tribe has learned through generations and needs to know in order to survive.

When at last the sky begins to brighten and the sun begins to rise, the story—and the fire—are allowed to die out.

Some places along their wandering migration are safer and more generous of food than other places. At these they linger; their camps become larger, stronger, and more permanent. Gradually the nighttime story-telling ritual dies out. Only the old folk remember it now—those who have survived into their 20's—and the recitation takes place only on special--on festive--occasions.

Over hundreds and thousands of years as the intellectual skills of the tribe develop written language and their technology finds and develops writing surfaces and mediums, the stories are written down, and the primitive basis for entertainment and education through literature is born.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Worldwide Tangled Web

by Richard Crews
We face a number of important problems here in the U.S. and around the world. While these problems are distinct, they are also massively interrelated. They twist and cling to one another like a huge ball of string that has been pulled at carelessly. They can be untangled, but it must be done, not just soon--it grows worse year by year--but carefully and thoughtfully. Evey time we grab and tug on one string or another, a hard, tangled knot is pulled tight somewhere else in the puzzling, tangled ball.

For example, the unrest in Arab lands is another sign of the long, slow curve of history toward democracy and human rights. Yet it will destabilize the region for years. And since the Middle East and North Africa produce more than one third of the world's oil, it has already increased the rate of inflation and set back the U.S. and worldwide economic recovery.

Closely related to this is the problem of wealth disparity--the widening gap between the very rich and the rest of us. This depends on political pressure to make broad populations pay for tax breaks and for trade and regulatory incentives for big businesses and the very wealthy. As Michael Moore says, "America is not broke. Not by a long shot. The country is awash in wealth and cash. It's just that it's not in your hands. It has been transferred, in the greatest heist in history, from the workers and consumers to the banks and the portfolios of the uber-rich.... The only thing that's broke is the moral compass of the rulers." The reluctance (or political inability) to tax with fairness the wealthy and big businesses (including financial institutions) has led to huge federal deficits and to state and federal budget shortfalls.

Some states have attempted to deal with this by union busting, that is, by depriving workers of the right to bargain collectively against powerful employers. But union collective bargaining is one of the bedrock forces of American democracy. Erosion of such civil rights and civil liberties is a slippery slope; it is a snowball rolling downhill that is hard to stop.

And related to this, WikiLeaks has recently demonstrated that even in our democratic republic secrecy and savagery abound. Bradley Manning, who ostensibly stole the classified documents that WikiLeaks released, has already suffered months of torture in solitary confinement (although he has not yet been charged with a crime) and Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has been harassed through international courts for his heroic stand on freedom of speech. He and Manning may both face years in prison--even the death penalty. And for what? For revealing government crimes and mismanagement.

Meanwhile our poor planet is stressed by--
--overpopulation (there are far more people alive today than in the entire two million years combined of human evolution prior to the year 2000),
--pollution (billions of tons of garbage and complex chemicals are dumped into the atmosphere, land, and oceans every year),
--shortages (food prices worldwide are higher than they have ever been in history, and more than a dozen key industrial commodities from oil and silver to phosphates and fissionable uranium are expected to "run out" in the next few decades)
--global warming (and attendant droughts and floods, super-storms and rising seas, and forced emigration of tens of millions of people).

The remarkable thing about all these problems are that they are solvable. There is enough food in the world to feed everyone--the problem is access and distribution. And since the U.N. predicts that the world population will stabilize at around nine billion about halfway through this century, with proper land, water, and seed management, there could readily be enough food production to go around. That also depends, however, on eliminating the scourge of poverty, because people with an adequate standard of living and some assurance that their children will live to adulthood, tend to have less children.

This also depends on "solving" the terrible wealth disparity in the U.S. and around the world. No one "needs" more than a few million dollars to live a high and bountiful life; and if wealth accumulation for individuals around the world were limited to a maximum of a few million dollars, there would not need to be impoverished masses--no one would need to go hungry.

The world's problems are severe, and they are all tangled together, but they are solvable. Do we, as a species, have the wisdom to do this? That--as the saying goes--THAT is the question.