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Our recent power outage – how to prevent a recurrence. part 1 – preliminary remarks

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transmission-towers

Canto: So we’re tasked with solving the problem or problems in SA’s energy system.

Jacinta: We are? What problem? Or should I say crisis, what crisis?

Canto: That’s a good question Jass, because as you know the first step in finding a solution is to define the problem.

Jacinta: Yes I knew that. So we’re talking about how all the power died for a period of – what, 24 hours or so, statewide here in South Africa.

Canto: South Australia, don’t confuse our international readers. So I’ve heard the crisis framed in a number of different ways. First, in terms of the SA government’s irresponsible, unrealistic go-it-alone pursuit of risky renewable energy. Second, in the more or less opposite terms of other states’ and especially the federal govt’s foot-dragging and negative approach to said energy, leaving SA unsupported. Third, in terms of privatisation – a number of electrical pylons fell down like ninepins in the outback, because, it’s claimed, the private owners are pursuing profits over infrastructure maintenance. And a fourth and most comprehensive framing invokes climate change itself – SA was subjected to an unprecedented weather event likely caused by the emissions our gallant state government is trying to reduce..

Jacinta: And our little Torrens River has been torrenting like the mighty Amazon.

Canto: Yeah right. So with all these and more framings of the problem, it looks like we’ll have to spend a few posts on this issue.

Jacinta: Or a lifetime. But yes let’s try to be thorough. And positive. I thought we might start with the 9-point plan for solutions to complex problems which we found in the enlightening book The origin of feces by Stuart Waltner-Toews, and which was presented in simplified form on the Solutions OK blog.

1. What is the problem situation or issue? How did it come to be a problem?

2. Who are the stakeholders? What do they care about? Where are they coming from (motives, investments)? What are the agreements, discords among them?

3. What are the stories being told by these different stakeholders re their roles and concerns in the problem?

4. What’s our best systematic, scientific understanding of the situation/problem?

5. What’s our best understanding of the social & cultural issues to be addressed?

6. How are 4 & 5 related? How do they constrain or support each other?

7. What are the scenarios and narratives here that people most connect with? On what things can we agree on? What are the power relations between people who agree or disagree? Given these constraints and acknowledgements what do we realistically expect that we can do?

8. What course of action, governance structure and monitoring system will best enable us to implement our plans and move towards our goals?

9. Implement. Monitor. Adjust. Learn. Re-Start.

Canto: Yeah, that’s pretty comprehensive all right, maybe too comprehensive.

Jacinta: No I think it’s a good basis. Take point 1. What’s the problem? That’s easy. The problem is that SA had all its power cut for the best part of a day, and although many are saying this was a one-off, freak event, many others are saying it could happen again and that SA’s the most vulnerable state, it wouldn’t have happened to any other state.

Canto: Though I think our Premier said the exact opposite, it could’ve happened anywhere. Lots of conflicting narratives and opinions. So let’s get started.

Jacinta: Well let me first say that, whatever the cause, we are experiencing extreme weather here for October – rainy and stormy conditions which have certainly never been experienced here in a good long lifetime. And right now we’re got rain and strong wind conditions. There’s been little let-up for some time.

Canto: Interesting – we’re only a few days into October, but the average rainfall for September in Adelaide, since records have been kept, is about 58 millimetres. This year it was over 130 millimetres. October, though, might be the most interesting month for records. Certainly I can’t recall anything like this, and we have flooding in many parts of the state.

Jacinta: So we have extreme weather conditions, and the direct cause of the outage, according to our Premier, was freak weather conditions north of Adelaide, including two tornados which knocked over transmission towers near Melrose. More than 20 transmission lines were damaged. The question being asked, of course, is how could these storms knock out the power for a whole vast state for a long period? What were the back-up arrangements?

Canto: Well the back-up apparently relies on two interconnectors to the east coast. Presumably there must be some arrangement so that when local power isn’t forthcoming, the interconnectors receive a signal to transmit. However, only one was operational at the time of the outage. Now I don’t really understand this interconnector thing and how they work. I’m not clear on why one interconnector was shut down and why the other one didn’t just do the job. Is it just a matter of ‘firing up’ an interconnector and a whole state’s lights come back on? How simple or complex is it?

Jacinta: And what, if anything, has this got to do with renewable energy and the shutting down of the coal power station in Port Augusta?

Canto: We might get to that later. I haven’t been able to find exactly how interconnectors work, and nothing much at all on interconnectors in Australia, but currently in the UK there are four interconnectors, linked to France, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, of which the France one is largest, with 2GW capacity. It would be interesting to know the capacity of the two interconnectors linking us to the east, and whether that has any relevance. Anyway, these interconnectors are spruiked as providers of energy security and flexibility, so the more interconnectors the better. Maybe there’s a case for having a third interconnector, so that we’re never, or rarely reduced to having just one to rely on.

Jacinta: So why did we have no power? Why didn’t the interconnector provide it for so long? Or was it the interconnector that provided it, or was it the local system?

Canto: Well there was certainly local work going on from the start, as soon as conditions allowed, to fix local faults, but I can’t find too much info on the role of the interconnector. However, word has just come out that there’ll be a state inquiry into South Australia’s unique situation, so maybe there’s no point in us continuing this conversation.

Jacinta: Wait up, I think it might be fun speculating on and researching the matter, and then comparing our findings with the inquiry.

Canto: Which’ll come out in, what, five years?

Jacinta: An unnecessarily jaded remark. So let’s get stuck into some research, and look for solutions, always keeping in mind that 9-point plan.

 

Written by stewart henderson

October 4, 2016 at 7:54 pm

the renewable energy juggernaut

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new-england-solar-wind-becoming-cheaper-than-fossil

There is more global investment in solar power today than there is in fossil fuels. We’re talking about hard-headed investment for profit by business and governments worldwide, not greenies or special interest groups. And another interesting factoid: China today is generating more energy from wind power than the whole of Australia’s energy production. Not to mention the Chinese government’s massive investment in other renewables. That’s info I got from a recent ABC Science Show podcast. Renewable energy really is making inroads, and this is most encouraging for those around the world fighting the damaging environmental effects of mining and fracking in their regions, though it’s clear that such operations are dying hard.

I remember some time ago at a meeting of skeptics (not climate change ‘skeptics’, just regular sciencey anti-quackery, anti-UFO-type skeptics), when I was spruiking the virtues of wind power, so successfully taken up here in South Australia, being told dismissively that it was too expensive to be really viable. However, wind-power only really has establishment costs. Ongoing costs are quite minimal. Furthermore, a research group conducted by the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Global Ecology Department has recently conducted the most wide-ranging expert survey on wind (or any other) energy. Sure, it was a survey of those already heavily invested in wind, but that does make them the experts in the field. Predictions about the cost of wind energy into the future were based on two approachess. First, a projection into the future of falling costs over the past three decades or so – what they call the ‘learning curve’. One would assume those projections would vary from ‘most optimistic’ to ‘most pessimistic’, with consensus somewhere in between. The second approach involved a ‘bottom-up engineering assessment’, looking at the costs of individual turbine components into the future. Science Daily has summarised the findings:

On average, the participants expected wind power costs to continue falling for the next several decades, for three major classes of wind turbines, both onshore and offshore, with prices falling by 24-30% by 2030, and 35-41% by 2050.

Meanwhile governments worldwide are getting on board in a determined effort to drive down the cost of solar. Vox Energy & Environment reports on the US target:

…the US Department of Energy has a program, the SunShot Initiative, devoted entirely to driving down the cost of electricity generated by solar panels — the target is solar power with $1 per watt installed costs by 2020, a 75 percent reduction in costs from 2010.

It’s hard to get the head around the growth of solar energy worldwide since about 2007. It’s been a whirlwind ride, but starting from an extremely low level. And in the US since 2012, large or utility-scale solar has been growing faster than domestic, rooftop solar, and with falling prices and increasing module efficiency, the growth trend in big and small solar should continue well into the future. Yes, there’s government stimulus, but solar is being seen more and more as a sound investment on its own terms. Solar’s steady growth also makes for sound investment against the high volatility of the natural gas market. And this of course is just as relevant for many regions outside the US.

I’ll be taking another look at Australia’s situation, while many of our governments bicker and focus elsewhere, in an upcoming post.

global_wind_power_cumulative_capacity

Written by stewart henderson

September 16, 2016 at 8:57 am

clever Charlie Darwin

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A photo taken by me! King Charles seated in state in the Musuem of Natural History, London. It was a thrill to be granted an audience

A photo taken by me! King Charles seated in state in the Musuem of Natural History, London. It was a thrill to be granted an audience

I recently decided to reread Darwin’s Origin of Species, which was really reading it for the first time as my first reading was pretty cursory, and I could barely follow the wealth of particular knowledge he used for cumulative effect to adduce his theory. This time I’ve been doing a closer reading, and becoming increasingly impressed, and I’ve only read the first chapter, ‘Variation under Domestication’.

Darwin’s argument here of course is that domesticated horses, dogs, birds and plants have been artificially selected over long periods of time, and often unconsciously, to suit human needs and tastes. This might seem screamingly obvious today, and to a degree it was recognised in Darwin’s time, but because of an inability to take the long view, and also because of the then-prevalent paradigm of the fixity of species, breeders and nurserymen tended to under-estimate their own cumulative powers, and to claim, for example, that dogs and pigeons had always come in many varieties. Even Darwin was uncertain, and was willing to concede – writing of course before the advent of Mendelian genetics, never mind the revolution wrought by the identification and analysis of DNA as the molecule of inheritance – that in some cases the breeders might be right:

In the case of most of our anciently domesticated animals and plants, I do not think it is possible to come to any definite conclusion, whether they have descended from one or several species.

He was even prepared to concede that it was ‘highly probable that our domestic dogs have descended from several wild species’, while at the same time arguing that the breeding of dogs, in Egypt, other parts of Africa and Australia (where, in his Beagle travels, he observed dingoes, which he may have seen as semi-domesticated by the Aborigines) extended back far further in time than most people suspected. We now know that Darwin’s concession here was ‘premature’. The latest research strongly suggests that our domesticated dogs trace their ancestry to a group of European wolves dating from 19,000 to 32,000 years ago, and probably now extinct. That’s a time-frame Darwin would’ve baulked at, and it’s both funny and kind of tragic that this is something I’ve ‘discovered’ after 30 seconds of selective internet searching. There’s no doubt, though that Darwin’s bold but always informed speculations were heading in the right direction.

Particularly informed –  and bold – were his speculations about pigeons. This is hardly surprising as he spent several years studying and breeding them himself. Interestingly, he started doing so because he’d become convinced that all the fancy pigeons then on show were most likely derived from one common species, the rock pigeon or rock dove (Columba livia), a view already held by some naturalists but few breeders.  He devotes several pages in Chapter 1 to arguing his case, for example pointing out that the ‘several distinct species’ argued for by breeders can be crossed with complete success, that’s to say with no signs of sterility or more than usually defective offspring.

So, as with dogs, I decided to look up what the latest research was on the ancestry of English carriers, short-faced tumblers, runts, fantails, common tumblers, barbs, pouters, trumpeters and laughers, to name some of the pigeons Darwin mentions in the chapter, and was excited to find that a piece of research published as recently as 2013 has confirmed Darwin’s hypothesis. Cheaper and faster genome sequencing technologies have enabled researchers to sequence the genomes of many wild and domesticated birds, and they’ve found that all of the latter are clearly closer to C livia than to any other wild species. It only took just over 150 years for Darwin to be proven correct.

Close reading like this really does reap some fun rewards, and I’ll finish with two more examples. Darwin wrote of how in the world of breeding, quite a drastic change can be brought about in one breeding step, as in the case of the fuller’s teasel with its hooks. He goes on:

So it has probably been with the turnspit dog; and this is known to have been the case with the ancon sheep.

Not knowing wtf he was talking about, I irritatedly decided to look up these unknown creatures. The turnspit dog is a now-extinct breed, bred specifically from around the 16th century to provide the dogpower to turn meat on a spit, the only conceivable way of cooking large joints of meat in your average fancy household for a couple of centuries. The dog, or dogs, because the system worked better if you had two of them engaged in shift work, turned a wheel by running inside it, rat-like, until the meat was cooked. They were known to be long-bodied and short-legged, but details of how they were bred aren’t known, as they were apparently beneath scholarly consideration. They certainly weren’t seen as cuddly pets – if you treat creatures as slaves it heightens your contempt for then (cf Aristotle) – and they were even taken to church as foot-warmers. They’d disappeared entirely by the end of the 19th century.

It's a dog's life?

It’s a dog’s life?

The ancon sheep was a short-legged type, apparently bred from a single individual in the USA in the late nineteenth century, its short legs having the singular advantage, to some, of curtailing its hopes of freedom by jumping the fence. The term ‘ancon’ has since been used by breeding researchers to describe strains of creatures arising from an individual with the same phenotype.

Achondroplastic_sheep

Written by stewart henderson

June 4, 2016 at 11:00 am

an open letter to a homeopath

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B_zXQldU0AAfdTR.jpg-largeWhen I was in Canberra last year I came across an article in the Canberra Weekly, written by one Wesley Smith, director of the ‘Live Well Spa & Wellness Centre’ in Manuka, a Canberra suburb. It was called ‘Homeopathy in the cross-hairs’, and you can probably guess the rest.

I tore out the article, vaguely intending to do something about it, and promptly forgot about it, but having rediscovered it today, I’m thinking it’s not too late.  An online version of Mr Smith’s (he’s not a doctor) article is here. On this centre’s website, I note that it advertises ‘holistic’ wellness (see my recent post), and offers ‘acupuncture, herbal medicine, kinesiology, naturopathy, remedial massage, meditation and yoga’ as some of its treatments – and reading the bios of Wesley’s quite large team tells me that cupping, EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques), dry needling and ‘soft tissue therapy’ are also on offer, though I note that nowhere in these extensive bios is there any mention of a medical degree. The only mention of qualifications is in Wesley’s own bio – he has a Bachelor of Applied Science in Acupuncture from the University of Technology, Sydney (shame on the institution). But this gladbag of BS is too large to deal with, though it does indicate the depth of crazy in which our Wesley is mired. I’ll just keep to homeopathy, with maybe a dash of acupuncture (I can’t help myself).

So here’s a letter, which I’ll send by email to Mr Wesley Smith. It may mark the beginning of a rich relationship.

Dear Mr Smith

In reference to your article ‘Homeopathy in the cross-hairs’ published in the Canberra Weekly some time last year, I would like to point out some problems with your analysis of the situation with homeopathy.

Firstly, as you know, the NHMRC has now completed its review on homeopathy and its findings were made available online in March 2015. They are clear: there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective. The review also states that

People who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments for which there is good evidence for safety and effectiveness. People who are considering whether to use homeopathy should first get advice from a registered health practitioner.

Having visited your website and read your biography, I’ve found that you’re not on the APHRA list of registered health practitioners. I could check out your team, but as I notice that no medical qualifications are mentioned for any of them, it’s probably reasonable to assume that none of them are in fact registered health practitioners.

I find it strange that in your summary of homeopathy in your article, which is reasonably accurate as far as it goes, you describe its principles as ‘challenging’, and suggest that it would be particularly so for those with some knowledge of basic chemistry and ‘a lack of imagination’.

While imaginative insight is indeed required to postulate a new theory, as with Maxwell’s insight about the relationship between electricity and magnetism, Einstein’s insight about the relationship between space and time, and Darwin’s insights about competition and variation, the really hard work involves proving the theory to be true, as I’m sure you’ll agree. Maxwell and Einstein had to develop accurate, watertight, explanatory equations as proofs of their theories, to enable them to be tested ad infinitum by others. Newton developed a whole mathematical calculus, which has since become one of the most valuable tools available to science, in order to precisely calculate his revolutionary laws of motion. Darwin devoted a whole lifetime to providing detailed evidence of adaptive development in a wide variety of species…

Yet it’s remarkable how little work has been done, especially by self-proclaimed homeopaths, to provide proofs of the efficacy of homeopathy. Imagination is hardly sufficient. It seems that, out of exasperation, as well as a sense of ‘duty of care’, the NHMRC, representing medical professionals, has decided to take on this proof-providing responsibility, and the results have been damning, but unsurprising to any one with a scientific bent and a respect for evidence.

You’ve defended homeopathy by claiming there ‘must be’ hundreds of thousands of Australians who’ve been ‘astounded’ at how their bruises respond to homeopathic arnica. Surely you can’t expect any medically trained person to accept such claims as evidence. It would be like accepting someone’s word that hundreds of thousands of people have had their prayers answered by their god, therefore their god really exists and really does answer prayers. In order for such claims to be counted as evidence – as you well know – information would have to be gathered about this multitude of individuals, the nature of their ‘bruises’, and the mechanism by which the bruises responded to the treatment. You would think that homeopaths the world over would be enormously interested in how arnica, in such infinitesimally minute doses, has this miraculously curative effect. The fact is surely sensational and would revolutionise the treatment of bruising – essentially, internal haemorrhaging – around the world, saving millions of lives. Yet homeopaths appear not to have the slightest interest in causal mechanisms. They’re only interested in claimed effects. There are no laboratories working on how homeopathic treatments work, in testing and developing their theoretical underpinnings, in finding further applications for these truly extraordinary ‘principles’. Why ever not? How can homeopaths be so irresponsible? So completely incurious?

You claim that it’s impossible to dismiss the curative effects of this treatment as due to placebo. In other words, you know that it works. That’s fantastic news, now all you have to do is prove it. I cannot believe that this would be difficult for you, since you claim that hundreds of thousands of Australians (and presumably hundreds of millions worldwide) are astounded at the treatment’s efficacy. Considering this, you must be astounded, in your turn, at the NHMRC’s final report. How could they have got it so wrong? Furthermore, how is it that in Britain a study by Edzard Ernst (himself a professor of complementary medicine), which made a systematic review of the Cochrane Database of reviews (the Cochrane Database being justly famous for its rigour), found, again, that homeopathy had no discernible effect beyond placebo? Is there a conspiracy happening here? You seem to be suggesting as much when you write of the huge profits for pharmaceutical companies in successfully trialling their products, compared to the difficulties for poor homeopaths. But homeopaths could surely unite, with each other and with these millions of delighted clients, to provide the proof you need in the form of double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomised trials with large sample sizes. After all, you yourself have testified that the treatment is nothing short of sensational. It would surely haver wider application than simply healing bruises. If these principles really work, why wouldn’t they be effective for curing cancer, ebola, malaria, or any other scourge to humanity? The benefits would be such that you would be criminally negligent not to pool your resources and provide these proofs for humanity’s sake. There would certainly be a Nobel Prize for medicine in it for you if you were to organise the trials that led to these revolutionary cures,  not to mention eternal fame and the gratitude of billions…

But let’s not get carried away. The ‘revolution’ of homeopathy has been around for over two hundred years, and it has never progressed beyond the French characterisation of it as médicine douce, the kind of medicine you take when you don’t need medicine, our fabulous immune system being what it is. If it really was as effective as you claim, pharmaceutical companies would have financed the research trials in a jiff, thereby turning their millions of dollars of profits into billions. Not to mention the fact that if homeopathic ‘principles’ worked, much of the science we know would be up-ended, and most of our modern physics and chemistry would have to be scrapped.

The real situation is as described by Dr Steven Novella at Science-based medicine:

 

… proponents of homeopathy would have the world believe that one man, Samuel Hahnemann, stumbled upon a fantastic secret two centuries ago (actually, multiple secrets) that defy scientific explanation, have been ignored by 200 years of scientific progress, and yet to this day would turn our scientific understanding of the world upside down. For some reason, however, believers just can’t seem to produce any convincing evidence for any of it, not even that homeopathic products have any properties at all, let alone clinical efficacy. After 200 years all they can produce are endless excuses and demands for more research.

And what do we have in your article, Mr Smith? In its last lines, true to form, you make excuses about (200 plus years of) limited funding, and demands for more research. QED.

Written by stewart henderson

April 11, 2015 at 2:44 pm

some interesting beasties: cheetahs

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Sadly I don’t have so much time for writing these days, especially anything too strenuous or research-based, so I think I’ll do a series on organisms that have interested me over the years – or that I’ve just recently been fascinated by, for that matter.

Over at Not Exactly Rocket Science, there’s an article to whet the appetite as well as to apply a corrective to our thinking about everyone’s favourite wild cat, the cheetah (the name derives from Sanskrit, and cheetahs are found in Iran as well as Africa, and were probably more widespread in Asia in earlier times). Cheetahs are a vulnerable species, with about 10,000 of them currently existing in the wild. They’re described as a ‘charismatic species’, meaning that they’re utilised a lot as ‘ambassadors’ to draw attention to environmental and habitat issues for wildlife in general – along with elephants, humpback whales, giant pandas, California condors, grey wolves and such.

Cheetahs are, of course, built for speed in every way, though agility, with an incredible acceleration and deceleration rate, is also a key to their success. They can accelerate from zero to 40mph in just three strides – faster than the most sophisticated racing cars. Claims that their lightning runs leave them half-dead with heat exhaustion much of the time are, however, wildly exaggerated, as are the claims that they lose as much as half of their kills to lions and hyenas. In fact, cheetahs use up far more of their energy seeking out or tracking down potential kills than they do actually chasing them. A cheetah sprint takes up only 45 seconds a day on average – that’s less time than I spend on my high intensity interval training.

The key to maintaining cheetahs in the wild, then, is not to add to their greatest and most energy-sapping problem: finding food. Adding obstacles to their habitat, such as fences and enclosures, and depleting that habitat of their favourite food – gazelle, deer and impala, and the odd young zebra or springbok – would make life that bit more painful for them.

Speed, of course, is the cheetah’s big specialisation, what it’s adapted for. In fact over-specialisation is arguably its main problem, as it doesn’t have the bulk or strength to fight off other predatory mammals, all of which annoyingly compete for the same food. It’s light, with a weight that averages around 50 kgs, and its aerodynamically evolved head and body trade speed for strength, meaning that its jaws and teeth don’t have the size or force of other wild cats. It has a flattened ribcage but larger than usual heart and lungs for large intakes of air and fast pumping of blood. It also has a longer and larger tail than most cats, which it uses as a rudder for balance as it sets off on one of its twisting and turning runs. Its claws are only semi-retractable, unlike those of most cats (its genus name, Acinonyx, is Greek for ‘no-move claw’). This gives it extra grip while running. Males and females are the same size and hard to tell apart from distance.

Cheetahs don’t roar but they make up for it with a range of other noises, including purring like a – well, a cat, when experiencing domestic plenitude. They also hiss, spit, growl and even yowl when faced with danger. Cubs make a bird-like chirping sound, and the mother makes a similar sound when trying to locate her young. A sound called churring – no idea what that sounds like – is used on social and sexual occasions between adults. Male cheetahs form lifelong partnerships, often but not always with brothers, while females are solitary, bringing the kids up by themselves. They tend to mate with a variety of males – which hardly makes it mating, really. Interestingly, though the females are regular hunters, they’re not territorial, unlike the males, who practice group territoriality, each member of the gang contributing his scent.

Female cheetahs put their kids – or those that survive, as there’s a heavy infant mortality rate – through a tough survival training schedule before abandoning them at around 18 months. At around 2 years of age the females go their lonesome ways and the males hang together, sometimes combining with other blokes. It seems to work for them. In fact I think I read somewhere that males live longer on average than females, which wouldn’t surprise me. Fending for yourself all the time’s a deadly business, even when it’s all laid on in the big smoke, never mind having to chase your meals every day into old age. So spare a thought for the cheetahs, especially the girls, under-appreciated as always.

Written by stewart henderson

October 26, 2014 at 10:13 pm

Posted in gender, other life, science, Uncategorized

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1914 – 2014: celebrating a loss of appetite

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Statue_of_Europe-(Unity-in-Peace)

 

I’ve read at least enough about WW1 to be aware that its causes, and the steps made towards war, were very complex and contestable. There are plenty of historians, professional and amateur, who’ve suggested that, if not for x, or y, war may have been avoided. However, I don’t think there’s any doubt that a ‘force’, one which barely exists today, a force felt by all sides in the potential conflict of the time, made war very difficult to avoid. I’ll call this force the appetite for war, but it needs to be understood more deeply, to divest it of its vagueness. We know that, in 1914, lads as young as 14 sneaked their way into the militaries of their respective countries to experience the irresistible thrill of warfare. A great many of them paid the ultimate price. Few of these lambs to the slaughter were discouraged from their actions – on the contrary. Yet 100 years on, this attitude seems bizarre, disgusting and obscene. And we don’t even seem to realise how extraordinarily fulsome this transformation has been.

Let’s attempt to go back to those days. They were the days when the size of your empire was the measure of your manliness. The Brits had a nice big fat one, and the Germans were sorely annoyed, having come late to nationhood and united military might, but with few foreign territories left to conquer and dominate. They continued to build up their arsenal while fuming with frustration. Expansionism was the goal of all the powerful nations, as it always had been, and in earlier centuries, as I’ve already outlined, it was at the heart of scores of bloody European conflicts. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that the years of uneasy peace before 1914 contributed to the inevitability of the conflict. Peace was considered an almost ‘unnatural’ state, leading to lily-livered namby-pambiness in the youth of Europe. Another character-building, manly war was long overdue.

Of course, all these expansionist wars of the past led mostly to stalemates and backwards and forwards exchanges of territory, not to mention mountains of dead bodies and lakes of blood, but they made numerous heroic reputations – Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and his son Philip II of Spain, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, Frederick the Great of Prussia, Peter the Great of Russia, Louis XIV of France and of course Napoleon Bonaparte. These ‘greats’ of the past have always evoked mixed reactions in me, and the feelings are well summed up by Pinker in The Better Angels of our Nature:

The historic figures who earned the honorific ‘So-and-So the Great’ were not great artists, scholars, doctors or inventors, people who enhanced human happiness or wisdom. They were dictators who conquered large swaths of territory and the people in them. If Hitler’s luck had held out a bit longer, he probably would have gone down in history as Adolf the Great.

While I’m not entirely sure about that last sentence, these reflections are themselves an indication of how far we’ve come, and how far we’ve been affected by the wholesale slaughter of two world wars and the madness of the ‘mutually assured destruction’ era that followed them. The fact that we’ve now achieved a military might far beyond the average person’s ability to comprehend, rendering obsolete the old world of battlefields and physical heroics, has definitely removed much of the thrill of combat, now more safely satisfied in computer games. But let’s return again to that other country, the past.

In the same month that the war began, August 1914, the Order of the White Feather was founded, with the support of a number of prominent women of the time, including the author and anti-suffragette Mrs Humphrey Ward (whom we might now call Mary) and the suffragette leaders Emmeline and Cristobel Pankhurst. It was extremely popular, so much so that it interfered with government objectives – white feathers were sent even to those convalescing from the horrors of the front lines, and to those dedicated to arms manufacturing in their home countries. Any male of a certain age who wasn’t in uniform or ‘over there’ was fair game. Not that the white feather idea was new with WWI – it had been made popular by the novel The Four Feathers (1902), set in the First War of Sudan in 1882, and the idea had been used in the British Empire since the eighteenth century – but it reached a crescendo of popularity, a last explosive gasp – or not quite, for it was revived briefly during WWII, but since then, and partly as a result of the greater awareness of the carnage of WWI, the white feather has been used more as a symbol of peace and pacifism. The Quakers in particular took it to heart as a badge of honour, and it became a symbol for the British Peace Pledge Union (PPU) in the thirties, a pacifist organisation with a number of distinguished writers and intellectuals, such as Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell and Storm Jameson.

There was no PPU or anything like it, however, in the years before WWI. Yet the enthusiasm for war of 1914 soon met with harsh reality in the form of Ypres and the Somme. By the end of 1915 the British Army was ‘depleted’ to the tune of over half a million men, and conscription was introduced, for the first time ever in Britain, in 1916. It had been mooted for some time, for of course the war had been catastrophic for ordinary soldiers from the start, and it quickly became clear that more bodies were needed. Not surprisingly, though, resistance to the carnage had begun to grow. An organisation called the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF), consisting mainly of socialists and Quakers, was established, and it campaigned successfully to have a ‘conscience clause’ inserted in the 1916 Military Service (conscription) Act. The clause allowed people to refuse military service if it conflicted with their beliefs, but they had to argue their case before a tribunal. Of course ‘conshies’ were treated with some disdain, and were less tolerated by the British government as the war proceeded, during which time the Military Service Act was expanded, first to include married men up to 41 years of age (the original Act had become known as the Batchelor’s Bill) and later to include men up to 51 years of age. But the British government’s attitude didn’t necessarily represent that of the British people, and the NCF and related organisations grew in numbers as the war progressed, in spite of government and jingoist media campaigns to suppress them.

In Australia, two conscription bills, in 1916 and 1917, failed by a slim majority. In New Zealand, the government simply imposed the Military Service Act on its people without bothering to ask them. Those who resisted were often treated brutally, but their numbers increased as the war progressed. However, at no time, in any of the warring nations, did the anti-warriors have the numbers to be a threat to their governments’ ‘sunken assets’ policies.

So why was there such an appetite then and why is the return of such an appetite unthinkable today? Can we just put it down to progress? Many skeptics are rightly suspicious of ‘progress’ as a term that breeds complacency and even an undeserved sense of superiority over the primitives of the past, but Pinker and others have argued cogently for a civilising process that has operated, albeit partially and at varying rates in various states, since well before WWI, indeed since the emergence of governments of all stripes. The cost, in human suffering, of WWI and WWII, and the increasingly sophisticated killing technology that has recently made warfare as unimaginable and remote as quantum mechanics, have led to a ‘long peace’ in the heart of Europe at least – a region which, as my previous posts have shown, experienced almost perpetual warfare for centuries. We shouldn’t, of course, assume that the present stability will be the future norm, but there are reasons for optimism (as far as warfare and violence is concerned – the dangers for humanity lie elsewhere).

Firstly, the human rights movement, in the form of an international movement dedicated to peace and stability between nations for the sake of their citizens, was born out of WWI in the form of the League of Nations, which, while not strong enough to resist the Nazi impetus toward war in the thirties, formed the structural foundation for the later United Nations. The UN is, IMHO, a deeply flawed organisation, based as it is on the false premise of national sovereignty and the inward thinking thus entailed, but as an interim institution for settling disputes and at least trying to keep the peace, it’s far better than nothing. For example, towards the end of the 20th century, the concepts of crimes against humanity and genocide were given more legal bite, and heads of state began, for the first time in history, to be held accountable for their actions in international criminal courts run by the UN. Obviously, considering the invasion of Iraq and other atrocities, we have a long way to go, but hopefully one day even the the most powerful and, ipso facto, most bullying nations will be forced to submit to international law.

Secondly, a more universal and comprehensive education system in the west, which over the past century and particularly in recent decades, has emphasised critical thinking and individual autonomy, has been a major factor in the questioning of warfare and conscription, and in recognising the value of children and youth, and loosening the grip of authority figures. People are far less easily conned into going into war than ever before, and are generally more sceptical of their governments.

Thirdly, globalism and the internationalism of our economy, our science. our communications systems, and the problems we face, such as energy, food production and climate change, have meant that international co-operation is far more  important to us than empire-building. Science, for those literate enough to understand it, has all but destroyed the notion of race and all the baggage attend upon it. There are fewer barriers to empathy – to attack other nations is tantamount to attacking ourselves. The United Nations, ironic though that title often appears to be, has spawned or inspired many other organisations of international co-operation, from the ICC to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

There are many other related developments which have moved us towards co-operation and away from belligerence, among them being the greater democratisation of nations – the enlargement of the franchise in existing democracies or pro to-democracies, and the democratisation of former Warsaw Pact and ‘Soviet Socialist’ nations – and the growing similarity of national interests, leading to more information and trade exchanges.

So there’s no sense that the ‘long peace’ in Europe, so often discussed and analysed, is going to be broken in the foreseeable future. To be sure, it hasn’t been perfect, with the invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the not-so-minor Balkans War of the 90s, and I’m not sure if the Ukraine is a European country (and neither are many Ukrainians it seems), but the broad movements are definitely towards co-operation in Europe, movements that we can only hope will continue to spread worldwide.

Written by stewart henderson

August 22, 2014 at 9:05 am

how much damage is synthetic fertiliser doing to soil?

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“A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

Fertilizer_by_the_Numbers_Ch2

In a recent conversation, in which I was accused of being too black-and-white about the positives of conventional agriculture and GMOs, the damaging effects of synthetic fertiliser were mentioned as a negative, as it ‘kills the soil’s organisms, including earthworms’.

So now I’m going to focus on that issue specifically, and follow the evidence where it leads me. There’s no doubt that intensive agriculture and mono-cropping are having a negative impact on soil quality, just as there’s no doubt that intensive agriculture  is currently required to feed the world’s human population. So what’s to be done? First, we could reduce or stabilise the world’s population, which we’re trying to do. Second, we can try to find biotech solutions, developing a type of intensive agriculture that’s less damaging to the soil and the environment – and organic approaches might help us in this. GMOs also offer promise, developing crops which require less in the way of fertilisers and pesticides, and deliver higher yields.

There are other ways of looking at this and so many other problems, as I’ve recently become aware of complexity theory, which I’ll write about soon, but for now I’ll look at the claims being made and the solutions being offered.

So what exactly is synthetic or chemical fertiliser doing to our soil?  Needless to say, in order to obtain accurate data in answer to this question we have to negotiate our way through sources  dedicated to maximising, or minimising, the harm being done. So I’ll start with a definition. Here’s one from a website called Diffen, dedicated apparently to making unbiased comparisons between rival goods and services, in this case chemical v organic fertilisers.

A chemical fertiliser is defined as any inorganic material of wholly or partially synthetic origin that is added to the soil to sustain plant growth. Chemical fertilisers are produced synthetically from inorganic materials. Since they are prepared from inorganic materials artificially, they may have some harmful acids, which stunt the growth of microorganisms found in the soil helpful for plant growth naturally. They’re rich in the three essential nutrients needed for plant growth. Some examples of chemical fertilisers are ammonium sulphate, ammonium phosphate, ammonium nitrate, urea, ammonium chloride and the like.

Diffen goes on to describe the pros and cons, but there isn’t much detail beyond high acidity and ‘changes to soil fertility’. A 2009 article in Scientific American goes further, describing these mostly petroleum-based fertilisers as having these dire effects:

wholesale pollution of most of our streams, rivers, ponds, lakes and even coastal areas, as these synthetic chemicals run-off into the nearby waterways.

What this article doesn’t mention is that human waste (i.e feces), grey water etc is also getting into our waterways and causing damage, and it’s hard to separate out these many forms of pollution. In any case, I’m confining this piece to direct damage to the soil rather than to waterways, important though that obviously is.

One of the principal causes of soil degradation is leaching, the loss of water-soluble plant nutrients through rains and storms, and irrigation. Fertiliser can contribute to this problem. When nitrate (NO3) is added to the soil to boost plant growth, excess NO3 ions aren’t able to be absorbed by the soil and are eventually leached out into groundwater and waterways. The degree of leaching depends on soil type, the nitrate content of the soil, and the degree of absorption of the nitrates by the plants or crops on that soil.  Again, though, the leaching is caused by water, and the soil degradation is largely a natural process, though over-irrigation can contribute. This is why the older soils, such as those in Australia, are the most lacking in nutrients. They’ve been subjected to eons of wind and water weathering. The richest areas have been renewed by volcanic activity.

Not all chemical fertiliser is the same, or of the same quality. Phosphate fertilisers commonly contain impurities such as fluorides and the heavy metals cadmium and uranium. Removing these completely is costly, so fertiliser can come in grades of purity (most backyard-gardener fertiliser, the stuff that comes in little pellets, is very pure). Many widely used phosphate fertilisers contain fluoride, and this has prompted research into the effects of a higher concentration of fluoride in soil. The effect on plants has been found to be minimal, as plants take up very little fluoride. Livestock ingesting contaminated soils as they munch on plants could be a bigger problem, as could be fluoride’s effect on soil microorganisms. Fluoride is very immobile in soil, so groundwater is unlikely to be contaminated.

Acidification from the regular use and over-use of acidulated phosphate fertilisers has been a problem in some areas, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia, where aluminium toxicity has caused severe soil degradation. Acidity of soils is a serious problem in Australia, where in NSW more than half the agricultural land is affected. Most agricultural plants require a pH of 5.5 to 8.0 to grow best, though some plants are  much more tolerant than others of lower pH levels. Surface acidity can be corrected with the application of ground limestone, but subsurface acidity is a growing problem and much more difficult to correct. Acidification is generally a slow natural process caused by wind and water weathering, but it can be greatly accelerated by the use of fertilisers containing ammonium or urea. It can also be caused by a build-up of organic matter. As an example of the complexity of all this, superphosphate doesn’t directly affect soil acidity but it promotes the growth of clover and other legumes, a build-up of organic matter which increases soil acidity.

A comment on fertiliser and worms. No, they don’t kill worms, and because they stimulate plant growth they’re likely to increase the population of worms – but there are worms and worms. Some are highly invasive and have been transported from elsewhere. Some can be damaging to plants. At the same time new plants, and new worms, tend to adapt to each other over time. Again, complexity cannot be underestimated.

Another concern about chemical fertiliser, again not connected to soil quality as such, is nitrous oxide emissions. About 75% of nitrous oxide emissions from human activity in the USA came from chemical fertiliser use in agriculture in 2012, and we are steadily adding to the nitrous oxide levels in the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas which, on a unit comparison, is 300 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.

In conclusion, it’s likely that everything you do in agriculture has a downside. There are no free lunches. The key is to obtain as much knowledge as possible, not only about your patch, but about nutrient and resource cycles generally. It’s all connected.

Oh and above all be sceptical of some of the ridiculous claims, and the ridiculous propaganda, out there. Check them out on a reputable, evidence-based site.

Written by stewart henderson

July 13, 2014 at 1:42 pm