25 June 2022

Agency contest

Today, food is extensively dependent on fossil carbon; the stylized fact puts it at ten to one by mass.  Every tonne of food required ten tonnes of fossil carbon as fertilizer and pesticide feedstock, in shipping the fertilizers, in powering the tractor, in making the tractor tyres, in shipping the food, and so on.  (Don't neglect food processing! A bag of raw wheat kernels isn't all that much like food.)

That's going to end.  How it ends is optional; that it does end is not optional.  

(Me, I note that there's this massive cash grab going on by oil companies.  They've had first-tier climate modelling since the eighties; I have this suspicion they're expecting Thwaites to go in the first half of this decade and they're not expecting oil transfer infrastructure or refining infrastructure at sea level to survive. It could be straight up political manipulation, too, but this feels more like cashing out.)

That this is going to end has made it into the public consciousness; food prices are driving inflation.

What does that do?

Politics is a contest about who gets the agency — who does what they want and who does what they're told, whose opinion matters, whose experience is heard — and only rarely is a political movement required to compare its beliefs to reality; having power means you can offload your insecurity on other people and make them deal with it.  (The trivial example is making your tenants pay for work-arounds to not fixing the building; electric space heaters, mopping up roof leaks, and so on.  The tenants don't have the agency to make the landlord fix it, so the landlord gets to transfer risks and costs to them, despite it notionally being the landlord's obligation to maintain the building.)

This is the end of an age; the Oil Empire comes to an end, the long Anglo Thalassocracy ends, the five thousand years of agricultural sedentism ends.  (You can only have agriculture if it rains in predictable amounts at predictable times. We're losing that, and no matter what we do now it gets worse for a century.  Never mind heat excursions and other issues.)

Which means that the political event horizon isn't five years; it's right now.

The thing to push for is not a return to any supposed status quo.  It's where you want to wind up.  (The end of an age is not a time to take a long view about current events.)

So not a resumption of mask mandates to mitigate COVID spread but real ongoing public health; double the training rate of doctors and triple the training rate of nurses, duplicate every hospital bed, indoor air filtering standards in the building code and backed up by the fire marshall, quantified policy (e.g. is Rt over 0.8?  EVERYBODY wears a respirator, no exceptions), and admission of responsibility for and financial support of PACS consequences.

Not a resumption of Roe (or re-opening a single abortion clinic in New Brunswick) but a national movement that you can't own people and specifically cannot own women, with everyone disagreeing being reduced to a condition of obedience by any expedient means.

Not an excess profits tax or a higher marginal rate on the rich but income and asset caps that abolish the concept of fuck-you money; everyone has the same political agency because everybody's got the same basic amount of lifespan.

Not income supports to offset inflation in food prices but a massive, every-nerve-and-sinew public program to decarbonize food production while replacing field agriculture.  (This is difficult, and urgent.  People have to eat every day.)

The people demanding no change because they've won and the people demanding to own women and the people demanding that someone tell them COVID isn't real are generally weak and incompetent; if they weren't, we wouldn't be in this mess and their views could stand democratic tests. (If they weren't, they'd be dealing with their mortality much better.)

Any expedient means time; the ideals of former days — equality before the law, consent of the governed, transparent public processes — have value, but the forms do not.  What matters is that we get something that works.

"Works" means nobody owns anybody and everybody has enough to eat all the way through the time of angry weather.  Everything after that is implementation.


Moz said...

One aspect is capitalism. "cheaper is better" means that in many cases there not only aren't alternatives, there can't be. Or they're very narrowly available.

The community solar project I'm involved with is in some senses a scam. Random punters like me are paying to build a self-contained microgrid way off in the country somewhere. It's explicitly designed to make that community more resilient - if the grid goes down they switch it off and the community solar farm (with battery) keeps them going. As capitalalism it is slightly profitable, because the land is "free" (leased, but it's cheap remote farmland).

But that's not a generally workable solution. While we definitely can build solar one megawatt(hour) at a time, we can't run farms off it. Not yet, possibly not ever. It's not just that the technology exists but the products don't, it's the gap between the amount of energy required and the amount available is *huge*. That 10:1 ratio of fossil energy to food energy means that a square kilometre of farmland needs at least a square kilometre of solar farm to make the fertiliser and machines that make the food farm part work.

I'm pretty confident we could make farming work in Australia even at +2°C, if we invested in it. But currently we're moving the other way - mining more water, mining more soil and salinating it as well, all focusing on short term profit. One frustrating part is that the carbon farming we need to do would also improve the resilience of the food farming, but since that also makes it less profitable farmers by and large can't afford to do it.

Graydon said...

Yup. "No technical bar" is a hell of an epitaph for a species, but we're looking at it.

I don't think farming in the field agriculture sense will work generally at plus two; it's breaking in general today at about plus one (plus one plus?). Even if it does keep working regionally it's the generally that's so necessary to prevent migrations and wars and other things that break civilization.

And, yeah, capitalism can't see the problem; it's not there in the systemic feedbacks, it doesn't exist.

(The best way to get the ammonia and the methane feedstock is probably ocean wind; sail around and drag the prop and use the water and the atmospheric CO2 to make NH3 and CH4. Hydraulic oil and lubricants are already being synthesized from CH4, because natural gas is easier to frack than light crude these days. Still no technical bar.)

Moz said...

Nah, sailing and dragging is a lot less effective than windmills. You get double the prop inefficiencies (modelling a sail as a single bladed prop it's even less efficient tan an actual airfoil... see the wing masts etc used by the fast boats). There's a great video somewhere of a cruising catamaran with a ~6m windmill instead of sails. It's at least as fast and much easier to sail, except harder to furl and impossible to fix at sea.

If you want a floating wind farm (rather than bottom tethered) I suspect an array of tether style turbines with semi-solid linkages between them, then drifting with limited propulsion would be the way to go. The problem is that the optimum gap between turbines is enormous so that semi-solid linkage would be kilometre scale. But a single untethered turbine would be unmanageable (you'd need a crew...). And there's so much continental shelf available that the need for that kind of deep ocean generation is limited.

There's been a lot of effort inside economics into managing externalities, but even in theory creating or modifying a market to include them is difficult. Once you add political manipulation to it the problems really start. And we have the additional externality that the US will not tolerate markets in a form it disapproves of (this is one reason why there's no carbon taxes at borders).

Graydon said...

I think you might be preferring a particular measure of efficiency over system resiliency.

The seas are coming up; wind patterns are changing. Anything synthesized has to come ashore to be useful in agriculture. A lot of vessels able to tranship their own product ashore is likely preferable to anything that requires a concentration of infrastructure. Far too easy to put the infrastructure in the wrong place if it's fixed, even if it starts in the right place.

"Market economy" is unfortunately code for "unrestricted extractive access", yeah. In layers.