Friday, May 31, 2013

Electric Cars ≠ A Green or Sustainable Alternative

The recent hype around electric cars seems to have mellowed out somewhat, but it appears to have captured enough people's attention that it seems people are seeing electric cars as a viable transportation alternative.  President Obama in 2011 announced a plan to have a million electric cars on US roads by 2015, with help from Chevrolet via their Chevy Volt.  Others like Tesla Motors have talked up the lower emissions labeling cars zero emissions and stating reduced emissions and better efficiency than gas powered cars.  Whatever claims that are being made, this seems to be another example of green-capitalism or green marketing that is doing more to hinder environmental movements and our societies environmental sustainability than helping it.  It reeks of technological millenarianism which would have us believe that a quick change to new technologies will alleviate us of a range of environmental issues, but specifically climate change.  Lets take a close look at what problems confront those who are pushing an electric car transportation infrastructure and see if it's just baseless hype or if electric cars are really the future.

First, there's no doubt electric cars will be produced, consumed, and that the market for them seems to be getting bigger.  However, it is entirely unreasonable to assume that electric cars will replace gas cars.  This is not just due to what are seen as short comings of a new technology which can't travel indefinitely with only ten minute or so refueling stops like gas cars, but the reality of energy production in the US and abroad.  The amount of energy it would take to power a nation of electric cars would leave us without enough energy to power our homes or other industrial projects, and would increase the demand on electricity which would raise the price.  In 2008 alone passenger cars and motorcycles used 8,969 trillion btu of energy.  Our electricity production in the US was 4,054 billion kWh.  1,000 kWh is equal to  3.412 million kWh meaning 1 kWh has 3412 btu.  So we produced over 13,832, trillion btu of electricity yet just our passenger cars alone would add another 8,969 btu of energy to our power grid.  What would the effects of adding 64% more consumption of to our power grid (keep in mind this is all calculated at 100% efficiency so it would actually be a higher percentage)?

37% of the electricity generated is done so with coal, 30% with natural gas and 19% with nuclear power.  All three of these are not only unsustainable because they use finite energy sources, but coal is one of the greatest greenhouse gas emitters on the planet.  The fact of the matter is that we're going to have to find a way to generate 64% more electricity in order to make the switch to electric cars and we're only projected to increase our renewable energy production from 13% of energy in 2011 to 16% by 2040.  So we'll likely still be using coal and natural gas as a primary power source for our homes as well as any electric cars to be built.  Therefore, the idea of switching completely to electric cars and their "zero emissions" technology is an absolutely ridiculous project in the first place because the energy itself is not zero emissions.  In reality that's not the expected route though as no one expects gas cars to just go away.  Instead, what electric cars will really allow us to do is use more energy to cover the lack of energy production growth in the fossil fuel sector.  It's obvious when for every one barrel of oil we find we extract five or six, that we're not looking at a rosy fossil fuel future.  With oil production going into decline we're looking at a future with less net energy.  Simply changing the technology that's using energy won't solve a problem of less net energy.

Second, to replace our gas vehicles with electric cars would require the construction of 254.4 million cars in the US alone while worldwide this would require the production of 1 billion cars.  The costs associated with this scale of production and the necessary changes to our infrastructure are large, but the cost to the environment is greater.  By the time one electric car is produced it's already responsible for 30,000 pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions.  Half of it's Co2 usage will come about simply from production.  Then there's lithium mining for the batteries which is less than environmentally friendly.  Most of these batteries will need to be replaced after just five years use.  This means that according to the WSJ, "If a typical electric car is driven 50,000 miles over its lifetime, the huge initial emissions from its manufacture means the car will actually have put more carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere than a similar-size gasoline-powered car driven the same number of miles. Similarly, if the energy used to recharge the electric car comes mostly from coal-fired power plants, it will be responsible for the emission of almost 15 ounces of carbon-dioxide for every one of the 50,000 miles it is driven—three ounces more than a similar gas-powered car."

So essentially what's being marketed as a green alternative to gas powered polluting cars is as polluting or more polluting that gas powered cars.  This becomes more clear when we consider just where the batteries go when they can no longer hold a charge.  At best they are recycled which is not only an energy intensive process in itself, but few processing plants are in operation and this is because the cost of the materials you get out of recycling is incredibly low.  Since they're using less expensive metals for the batteries to cut the cost of making them, chances are they have a much smaller chance of being recycled in the first place.  It's not economically feasible to remove the metals if for example one ton of batteries doesn't contain at least 600 pounds of cobalt.  This is simply waste pretending to be conservation.  Of course the chances that you can afford an electric car in the first place is pretty small.  While the Nissan Leaf sells for $28k Tesla's cars go for over $100k.

This is all further evidence of technological millenarianism in which people adopt unfounded and poorly evidenced views of technology solving our environmental problems when it's clear that our environmental problems stem from moral and ethical problems of a culture addicted to growth.  Real solutions to these problems simply lie in using less energy, not finding creative ways to market technologies as green while using more energy.  Abandoning the building of entire transportation infrastructures built around cars, or our entire car culture for a much more convenient foot based transportation culture where long trips are not required nearly as much are real solutions.  However, solutions of using less always upset the economists in all of us because it calls into question the basic economic maxim of more is better.  While this is demonstrably false, it has gained traction for centuries, but it's time we focused on the quality of our lives rather than the quantities of what we consume.  How long people will hold on to the myths of our times (even when backed by scientific sounding claims) will shape what kind of world we leave to our descendants.  In a short time will we be facing a whole new set of problems brought about by unsustainable electric cars or will we realize that cars are simply not sustainable and find ways to have happy lives without them?   We must move towards a culture that consumes substantially less energy while keeping up high quality lives or it will be forced upon us in what is often called societal collapse.  Rejecting the myth of technology saving us from these environmental and energy crises is the first step towards actually making a change.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Bill Maher: A Principled Liberal or Partisan Worshipper?

Bill Maher recently tweeted "PS, doesn't Obama have anyone on staff to toss hecklers? If you shut up lady, he's ANSWERING UR QUESTION! Maybe ONE more drone strike..."  He was referring to Medea Benjamin's interruption of President Obama on his speech this Thursday the 23rd of May.  What was Medea asking though?  She asked...

“Can you tell the Muslims that their lives are as precious as our lives?  Can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA? Can you stop the signature strikes that are killing people on the basis of suspicious activity? Will you compensate the families of innocent victims you have killed?”

Nothing like this is being asked to or answered by the president.  The speech Obama gave essentially seemed to address very little specifically, but was meant to defend his use of drone strikes and assure everyone that everything in the land of the free was just and right.  For instance...

"We act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat. And before any strike is taken, there must be near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured, the highest standard we can set."
"So doing nothing’s not an option."
"I would have detained and prosecuted Awlaki if we captured him before he carried out a plot. But we couldn’t. And as president, I would have been derelict in my duty had I not authorized the strike that took him out."

The speech was an argument for ending traditional boots on the ground warfare and validating the drone program.  When Medea Benjamin interrupted the president she did so because she said,

"Sitting at the back of the auditorium, I hung on every word the president said. I kept waiting to hear an announcement about changes that would represent a significant shift in policy. Unfortunately, I heard nice words, not the resetting of failed policies... The bulk of the president’s speech was devoted to justifying drone strikes. I was shocked when the president claimed that his administration did everything it could to capture suspects instead of killing them. That is just not true. Obama’s reliance on drones is precisely because he did not want to be bothered with capturing suspects and bringing them to trial. Take the case of 16-year-old Pakistani Tariz Aziz, who could have been picked up while attending a conference at a major hotel in the capital, Islamabad, but was instead killed by a drone strike, with his 12-year-old cousin, two days later...  When the president was coming to the end of this speech, he started talking about Guantánamo. As he has done in the past, he stated his desire to close the prison, but blamed Congress. That’s when I felt compelled to speak out. With the men in Guantánamo on hunger strike, being brutally forced fed and bereft of all hope, I couldn’t let the president continue to act as if he were some helpless official at the mercy of Congress.“Excuse me, Mr. President,” I said, “but you’re the Commander-in-Chief. You could close Guantánamo tomorrow and release the eighty-six prisoners who have been cleared for release.”

Whether or not this type of political action or resistance to those in power is really effective is not in question, but rather the point is that we should respect those who stand up for those who are being done injustice.  Maher's response albeit in jest, was not only not funny, but actually provides some light into a subject that I've been wondering more and more about myself; Is Maher even a liberal anymore?  It has been argued that Obama is not a liberal and to the right of President Ronald Reagan.  However, Maher himself argued that Obama isn't actually a liberal and is "unhappy with Obama."

So why then would Maher give $1 million dollars to Obama's Super PAC for the 2012 election?  His argument is essentially that he's better than those "bat shit crazy" GOP Republicans, and that's about all Bill Maher is willing to stand up for.  In fact on a previous episode of Real Time Bill actually supported Obama's drone policy saying to Ariana Huffington that, "you'd do the same thing" if she was president when she brought up civilians being "killed again and again."  To which Avik Roy responded, "I wish you were saying that 6 years ago."  The reason was perhaps that Maher didn't support Bush's war on terror yet seems to support Obama in his war on terror.  It's funny that a guy who gets fired over saying "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly," in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks has reversed his position to essentially to "some people need killing" and "That's not to say that all drone strikes are bad."  There's not a lot of difference between lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away and ordering drone strikes and it's not like Obama has pulled using cruise missiles from the arsenal.  After all a cruise missile strike aimed to kill Awlaki was launched and killed 52 civilians before every "charge" Obama levied against Awlaki in his speech.

So if Maher is convinced Obama isn't even a liberal and yet he donates a million dollars to his campaign then I think we can finally put to bed the idea of Maher being a liberal.  He is now a partisan hack.  Maher supports the policies he once used to criticize simply because he has tied himself to a party and a president that are not principled themselves.  The response to people questioning Obama now is simply to shut up because of course Obama is "rethinking policy".  The idea that killing innocent people abroad being cowardly or even wrong is no longer up for debate, but simply it's a "bad world" now so we have to do bad things.  This is another prime example of Degenerative Party Syndrome that is destroying not only any semblance of a liberal opposition to the neo-conservative policies of the Bush era, but enabling it.  There is no question that without a Democrat in the president's office these policies would be unsupported by Maher and every other Democratic pundit.  

Monday, May 13, 2013

Degenerative Democratic Party Syndrome (DDPS)

Looking back on the Democratic party's recovery in 2008-09 winning both the Senate and the House of Representatives as well as the presidency there seems to be a peculiar disease affecting those within the party.  The party that once championed Social Security, regulation of the financial industry, and assailed those who supported an endless war on terror and the Bush Doctrine; is now looking at cuts to SS, favors only very minimal regulation of the finance industries, and seems to now lend full support to the the war on terror and tenets of the Bush Doctrine.  Essentially liberals don't really seem liberal anymore, and it's due to authoritarian blindness and the degeneration of the party.  I'm calling this cessation and decay of liberal thought Degenerative Democratic Party Syndrome (DDPS), not to be confused with DRPS (Degenerative Republican Party Syndrome) which seems to affect Republicans when they're in power and causes them to forget every talking point they ever created on fiscal conservatism.  Degenerative party syndromes tend to come about mostly when a party comes to power and rather than representing a principled position in line with past positions, they degenerate to positions that serve the established powers, and begin to praise positions that just a few earthly rotations of the sun back would be polar opposites.  

When Barack Obama was elected president and began serving in 2009, most people who supported him seemed to genuinely believe that he was a political figure that could set right what had once gone wrong during the Bush presidency while reshaping the very nature of the political system.  While he wasn't making a Quantum Leap, his leap as a constitutional scholar to the presidency seemed to capture the hopes of the Democratic Party constituents who expected change.  Since I was not an Obama supporter during the 2008 election cycle - because I saw through his marketing campaign and told personal friends time and time again that his plans for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars mirrored Bush's and he supported increasing the size of the military which was a sure sign of business as usual politics no matter what party is in office- I wasn't as taken as his supporters in the hope for real change in the political system.  However, I did expect a little more from Obama and the Democratic Party than we've seen over the last 4 years.  The primary arguments against Bush seemed to be his unilateral swagger in regards to foreign policy, his curtailment of civil liberties, and a general disgust for his economic and social conservatism.  Yet it seems that the Democratic leaders and pundits alike have shifted towards positions that were once loathed by liberals.  

For example lets take a look at one of Obama's campaign promises to shutdown Guantanamo Bay's US prison site, famous around the world for torturing its inmates.  Recently it's been receiving a little more press with many inmates on hunger strikes to protest the conditions there and that many prisoners cleared for release are still being held.  While we can ignore for the time being that his real plan to shut down Guantanamo was really just a plan to create 'Guantanamo North' right here in the US - which allowed them to continue indefinite detention policies- the striking thing is not Obama's failure to close the facility, but the shift in public opinion towards Guantanamo.  
In just a few years time Democrats have gone from supporting it's closure to being pro Gitmo.  Doesn't it seem odd that one of the greatest stains of Bush's presidency and US foreign policy is now being supported by Democrats?  This is an advanced case of DDPS clearly showing the bend in political opinion since Obama stopped pursuing closing the prison.  It should be interesting now that Obama has renewed his pledge to "close" the facility to see if opinion shifts back.

Another such example is support for the war on terror.  Drone strikes that are being justified by the same old "the world is a battlefield Bush Doctrine" have been embraced by Democrats.   "Democrats approve of the drone strikes on American citizens by 58-33, and even liberals approve of them, 55-35."  This means that even self proclaimed liberals support drone strikes against US citizens, giving whomever the current president is the power to secretly kill citizens regardless of geographic location and outside the normative processes of law.  Who thinks for a second that if Bush had stepped out with this policy that liberals and Democrats alike wouldn't have supported this policy?

There are so many symptoms of this left wing hypocrisy disease it might be better to list them:  
Obama signed the NDAA and continued the Patriot Act
Obama fought against any meaningful regulation of the financial industry
Obama favored and signed extending the Bush tax cuts
Obama supports cuts to Social Security and Medicaid
Obama supports immigration reform similar to Bush's plan

So how does one treat DDPS?  They're called principles and they may work for you.  If you believe that invading and occupying countries is a bad idea under Bush, supporting the continuation of those occupations under a new president, principles may be right for you.  If you think drone strikes target only terrorists and support the program despite having no knowledge of who is being targeted even when evidence shows civilians are being killed time and time again, principles may be right for you.  If you think Obamacare is a step towards a progressive healthcare system when there is no public option, principles may be right for you.  If you think that cuts to Social Security and Medicaid are terrible ideas, but voted for Obama, principles might be right for you.  

WARNING: Assuming principled arguments rather than partisan worship may cause: scrutiny from both political parties, defending yourself from straw man arguments that your represent the "other party's" views, feeling nauseous every time you hear the words bipartisan cooperation, death to any political career as you can't change your policy with whatever way the wind blows, and upsetting the establishment.  

Consult history books, experts, and other evidence before making principled arguments.  Do not use while in political office or on national TV or it could result in job loss or controversy.