Friday, April 20, 2007

UnEconomics

We finally managed to get a definitive diagnosis for Spice's ear-jaw pain. The bad news is it may be chronic. The good news is, we caught it very early, and might be able to keep it from getting worse. At least we're getting the right meds now.

At the moment Spice is rebounding from weeks and weeks of zombiehood- now I'm afraid she's going to blow a gasket, zooming around trying to "catch up".

I want to get back to Friedman's article for last Sunday's NYT Magazine, The Power of Green

If you haven't already, I'd suggest you read my post here from Sunday, "Muscular" Green; it will explain the conversation much better than any attempt to summarize. The comments are enlightening, too. Friedman's article got a huge amount of attention; it was #1 on the NYT "most emailed" list for 2 days; and stayed on the list somewhere until Thursday.

I was interested to discover that the major focus for this post was already on my list of topics: "the only way..." - I'd actually forgotten.

Friedman uses that phrase at least twice in his article:

"The only way we are going to get innovations that drive energy costs down to the China price — innovations in energy-saving appliances, lights and building materials and in non-CO2-emitting power plants and fuels — is by mobilizing free-market capitalism."

and "The only way to stimulate the scale of sustained investment in research and development of non-CO2 emitting power at the China price is if the developed countries, who can afford to do so, force their people to pay the full climate, economic and geopolitical costs of using gasoline and dirty coal."

I'm afraid I'm going to be a little rude here, but I just don't know any other way to say this- I've really come to believe that anyone who uses the phrase "the only way..." - has not truly thought about the problem they are discussing.

My basis for making that statement? All of history.

One of the basic problems in science is: how do you manage to think a thought; conceive an idea, that has never occurred to anyone else before?

It's extremely difficult to crack loose from all our training and cultural blindnesses; and see anything from a genuinely new perspective. But that is where all real "progress" comes from.

I've studied the history of innovation all my life; collecting stories on how breakthroughs occur. One of the lessons of history is; repeatedly - major breakthroughs in thought USUALLY come after a long stagnant period, where all the experts keep reciting:

"We completely understand this problem; we've studied it exhaustively; there is nothing more to discover."

People who say that- historically - are ALWAYS wrong. Isn't that astonishing? Always.

I now use that kind of statement as a warning signal - when I hit them in something I'm reading, it makes me look harder for logical errors.

Friedman goes on with this statement; another form of "the only way...":

"Summing up the problem, Immelt of G.E. said the big energy players are being asked 'to take a 15-minute market signal and make a 40-year decision and that just doesn’t work. ... The U.S. government should decide: What do we want to have happen? How much clean coal, how much nuclear and what is the most efficient way to incentivize people to get there?'
He’s dead right. The market alone won’t work. Government’s job is to set high standards, let the market reach them and then raise the standards more."

If you can decipher some to the Big Biz Speak- he's actually contradicting his first statement above - "mobilizing free-market capitalism", he now says, is not only "the only way", but will not be enough. Hm.

Very flat statements like this - besides tending to make readers think "gosh, this guy must really know his stuff" also tends to make the readers NOT think for themselves. It can be a kind of manipulative writing; " don't bother to think about this; I've already done the thinking for you." And please don't check my facts. It's a trap for the unwary reader- watch for those words.

Ok. So, what you're thinking right now is "Yeah? So far, you're not doing anything he wasn't- blather, blather. Show me."

Deal.

Here's a HUGE problem in our attempt to move into a sustainable world; our "science" (HA!) of Economics is based on "money". They count it, print it, move it, "earn" it. Squeal loudly if take it away; and will defend to the death their right to make a "fair profit."

Our whole Western civilization has bought this concept- Friedman speaks the language fluently- China is adopting it as fast as it can go- and it's a deadly dangerous fantasy. IT HAS NO BASIS IN REALITY - the reality of ENGERY - costs, savings, benefits, etc.

For a very specific example-

UnEconomics

That's a very good article on shrimp farming, in the USA. Some bright kids have built a commercial scale system that grows shrimp, indoors- with NO waste water outputs. Way cool.

But because of the unrealities of economics- most of the shrimp we eat in the USA comes from the other side of the freaking world. Where it is raised by workers paid next to nothing.

From the article: "With the competition from imported shrimp, it's virtually impossible to make a profit in shrimp farming," says Bob Rosenberry, editor and publisher of Shrimp News International. "People have been trying to grow shrimp in this country for 40 years, and to the best of my knowledge no farm has made a consistent profit over several years."

Now. What would you guess, energywise? SHOULD it be cheaper for a shrimp lover in Virginia to eat shrimp farmed in Virginia, or in Bangladesh? What would be the energy inputs- which is what REAL costs should/must be based on?

There's just no way that shipping FROZEN shrimp to the other side of the globe should be cheaper than eating unfrozen local.

BUT IT IS- because our "economics" and money systems are based on weird traditions; not realities. One of them being the "exchange" rate; where Bangladesh money is worth very little, and US money is worth a great deal. So a shrimp worker in the US gets paid $200/day; and a Bangladeshi maybe $200 a year.

That's what supports this insane waste of energy.

" Imports totaled more than 1.1 billion pounds last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau." Somebody should (you!) figure out the carbon/energy costs involved in a) freezing 1.1 billion pounds of shrimp; taken from very warm tropical waters; b) keeping them frozen before shipping; c) shipping 1.1 billion pounds of shrimp in freezer ships to the other side of the world; d) trucking them in freezer trucks to the other side of the continent, and e) HEATING 1.1 billion pounds of deep frozen shrimp to the cooking point. It'll be HUGE, I guarantee. The other aspect- the cheap shrimp from Asia price breakdown- how much of your dollar goes for oil- and how much to the laborers? My own guess- it'll be about 50% oil; 5% wages- 45% profit.

Hey, I'd love to make a profit myself, someday. A fair one. But this kind of thing is - insane. With the full literal force of that word.

Ok, gonna quit; this is getting long- but the next post will continue this line- with a specific suggestion for something we could DO to help shift energy costs into the real world. Actually doable, I guarantee.

Then back to personal green living, promise. Stick with me.

3 comments:

Alina said...

Well, it looks to me that as soon as oil starts to be really scarce, prices will rise astronomically and THEN it will no longer be cheaper to transport things from around the world... And since there are claims that 'peak oil' is upon us, that time is not so distant...

Anyway, I thought this Friedman guy was a little too arrogant for my taste. The fact that he decides to take a tendency that is developing in society and call it "his idea" really doesn't do it for me.

Greenpa said...

Alina - yeah, the price of oil will go up- but there's a kink in UnEconomics system that may keep them shipping popcorn from Uzbekistan to Costa Rica. Check my next post. :-)

RC said...

At first I was alarmed that you were part of the Friedman bandwagon and I would have to expect some largely erroneous comments emerging from your blog, but I am happy to notice that your commentary is in fact closer to reality than that of the Paper Pundit Minor God, Blowhard Friedman. I never read his work since usually by the third paragraph I start wondering how he can hold a job.
I have reams of writing I can produce about all of the bizarre inequities and imbalances in the world economic order, but I do believe that over time, say the next twenty years, those inequities will be less. HOWEVER, the drift of the US economy toward that of a banana republic will continue as part of that process. The political life in the US is already very Banana Junta {do you read the papers besides Friedman?}and the economy has been destroyed over the last 6 years of gross incompetence.
Better to concentrate on how to make life in our own backyards better away from the capital economy than to be alarmed now when it is far too late about the international capital morass. I am a capitalist- at this point isn't everyone? But there are many flavors of capitalism and the current one popularly in effect world wide is the drive down prices at all costs model. As I said, I can produce reams of this stuff; better to grow some fruit trees in your backyard and get some PV panels rigged up and move away from the cash economy as much as you can. If you have to invest in something, buy arable land near a permanent water source. This is the only real security over the long run. And even so, when scarcity is widespread, you won't be able to keep the hungry and thirsty away from your idyll. It's time to address some of these issues now as the resource wars have already started.
I may have mentioned that I left the US 28 years ago. All of this was there to see then, none of it is new. Yeah, I have the trees and the water and live next to largest federal reserve in the Carribbean.
But I do worry about the water. I may move again. To address the confusion, I live in a US possession.