March 28, 2009

Size, Complexity, and Gluttony (1 of 2)


In my online work this morning I read three pieces which synergized for me. (links at the bottom)
The subjects of Dave Cohen’s latest column, The Secretary of Synthetic Biology, Joe Romm’s Climate Progress post on the putative nuclear renaissance, and Simon Johnson’s Atlantic piece on the financial crash and oligarchy seemed to have a common thread:
1. A will to maintain size, complexity, and exponential debt;
2. The enlistment of science and engineering toward this strategy;
3. All for the sake of oligarchy and debt consumerism.
I’ve written a lot recently about oligarchy so I’ll give that a rest for now, but in this post I want to jot down some notes on the other elements here.
Cohen details how Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu is fixated on a broad vision of technological heroism to keep Americans in their personal cars. The project combines every gigantist engineering nightmare: GMOs, aggrofuels, and CCS, all to be RDDD’d over the next 20 to 80 years. The goal is to develop “4th generation biofuels”. Genetically modified feedstock, engineered to be ever more photosynthetically efficient and to sequester unnatural amounts of carbon, is to be grown with hyper-efficiency on minimal acreage. (Or so they claim – that’s how it’s not supposed to compete with food production. But Jevon’s paradox aside, how are you supposed to control this GMO? As Cohen writes, “The mere fact that evolution has placed upper bounds on the efficiency of primary productivity in plants suggests that there are very deep reasons why this is so”. We may be contemplating kudzu of mass destruction here.) It’ll then be burned in biorefineries to produce liquid fuel while the carbon is sequested underground. They say it’ll also produce better matches than any computer dating service.
And what grand millennial goal is this all to be toward? What societal vision and strategy? None – it’s all for the sake of debt consumerism and profligate car use.
The same can be said for the dreamt-of expansion of nuclear power. Romm’s latest restates and summarizes the truths. It is tremendously expensive, complex, and unmanageable by any measure which correctly discounts black swan events.
We are currently undergoing the travails of this black swan burndown as the financial megastructure unravels. Simon Johnson’s article describes, among other things, how and why this humongously ramified structure was built. Again the means and the mindset were triumphalist where to came to size, complexity, and “quant” engineering for their own sakes, while the underlying purpose, the answer to the question “Why? For what?”, was paltry and vapid.
When we are asked to look to the putative future gods of size and efficiency, like Chu and the 4th generation aggrofuelers or the nuclear revivalists, we should be looking at the present economic cannibalization of Western civilization as the debt bubble and the bank holding structure collapse. These are all levels of the same Tower of Babel. 
Let’s consider a few points:
Size is not in fact “efficient”. It is efficient only from the point of view of a rent-seeking gang using political muscle to externalize and socialize costs, and to foist all systemic and black swan risks into a risk bubble which like Vesuvius is assumed on faith to never erupt.
The fact is that none of these large structures are cost-effective. They are rather inherently corporatist. There is no conceivable way for nuclear energy, CCS, or bank holding to exist within a true capitalist framework.
If we grant this corporatized mega-structure, allegedly efficient from the point of view of having shifted most of its costs onto the backs of the people and the environment, it is still systemically weak. As Kunstler wrote, “the road to hell is paved with efficiency”. The system has no resiliency, no redundancy, everything always has to perform well; the system can sustain no setbacks.
Whenever we hear the term “efficiency” in a pro-concentration, pro-centralization, globalist sense, we should think of something that looks futuristically sleek and ultrahealthy, but which is at every moment on the verge of death. We see this now with the finance system. But it’s just as true of the energy consumption system, how both the growing and transport of food depend upon a never-ending flow of liquid fuel, and how that food depends in turn upon the integrity of the soil.
When we ponder the prospect that the soil is exhausted; that oil supply would already be constricted if not for the economic depression, but that this constriction will come inevitably, sooner or later; and that the only plans of the powers that be are to build technology bubbles, Towers of Babel, to keep these systems staggering along, we should worry.
When we consider how the practice is to zombify the soil by bombing it with synthetic fertilizer; in order to grow engineered crops which increasingly will be the only ones which can grow in the hotter, drier world, and on such poisoned soil; in order to burn them to produce the fuel which can keep the globalized distribution network humming; which will keep shipping the goods which the people will keep buying with the debt they can momentarily fabricate by still being able to drive their personal cars to work; and which will continue to deliver the natural gas and nutrients this fertilizer requires; and meanwhile how their electricity will come from hundreds of new nuclear plants, all of which will have an endless supply of cheap uranium (or deuterium, if they’re fusion plants); and the carbon from all this activity will be captured and piped underground or to the bottom of the sea, where it will remain safely stored for thousands of years; and therefore the worst effects of the climate crisis and how it could wreak havoc on every element of the Tower I’ve been describing will be averted; and how all of this will be financed by a new and improved bank holding system which will be bigger, more complex, more ramified, and create ever more debt to keep all of this going economically……
…when we consider all this,  we should look at what’s happening to the financial system of today, and picture how incalculably worse the devastation would be if just one thing went wrong with the Tower I just described. And how here we’re talking about immediate, direct effects far more extensive and fundamental than not being able to get a bank loan. We’re talking about fuel and food stoppages.
In his article Johnson compares America to a banana republic. Indeed, in a sense America is an “emerging market”. Much like neo-feudal systems now slash-and-burn the rain forest in order to produce biofuels (and soon GMO biofuels), and how the economy and the earth are mined to extract the capitalization and the uranium required for nuclear energy, so America has slashed and burned its manufacturing economy and social safety net to replace it with a globalized finance economy. This “new”, i.e. atavistic and reactionary finance economy has plunged us back into a feudalistic Dark Age where, organized along crony capitalist lines, it has been only mining the country, not “producing”. And now with the bailouts the mining has been stepped up.
Simon Johnson http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200905/imf-advice 
Dave Cohen http://www.aspousa.org/index.php/2009/03/the-secretary-of-synthetic-biology/ 
Joe Romm http://climateprogress.org/2009/03/27/three-mile-island-anniversary-meltdown-nuclear-power-problems/#more-5163