Monday, July 21, 2008

Solar power realities

A comment by someone who knows from professional experience -- received via a reader. The report focuses on Tasmania, which is in roughly the equivalent latitude to Italy. So what is bad in Tasmania will be worse in Britain (for instance). As for Sweden or Canada, stop laughing!

I am one of those people who supply and maintain solar and wind power installations to power electronic systems at remote (unpowered) sites -- e.g. two way radios up on mountain tops.

Twenty plus years ago, a couple of us had a good look at the possibility of making a dollar or two out of flogging this emerging technology to the great unwashed. We didn't bother because it didn't stack up energy wise or financially. I admit the efficiency of the solar panels us mere mortals can afford has improved a bit since then (at least 8%) but the figures are still similar.

A loose look at the energy required to make the things verses the energy output of them during their average lifetime was not really surprising. The panel would return enough energy in the first year to smelt the aluminum in its frame and its mounting and transport the manufactured panel to us. We could not get energy figures for melting the silicon so the wafers could be grown and then cut up to make the semiconductors but overall it will be high so we guessed that it would take at least 100Kwh . This equates to 3 years output from the panel used up by the time it is delivered on site.

But it doesn't end there. Over the life of a set of panels the owner will probably need 3 or 4 sets of batteries. These are full of nice things like lead and acid and plastic and are very heavy. Then there is the magic box called the inverter. This is the box that converts the panel power up to the 230 volts mains power that we use. These are full of electronic things that take a lot of energy to make and have a reasonably short life span - say 10 years. You must include the energy costs for making and transporting these items to site in the overall energy that the solar panels must return during their lifetime. A battery pack of say 13kw h weighs in at approximately 500kg. So during the life of a set of panels you are going to have to transport 2 tons of them from (say) Sydney to Hobart and back again. Do the energy calculations on that one considering that the energy output per annum from each panel equates to about 4.5 litres of petrol.

I must qualify the above by saying that in our lovely clean green (work in the tourism industry or starve) state we don't get a lot of sun for large chunks of the year. When we are working out the energy budget for a solar site we allow an average of 3.5 hrs a day full output from the panels and have battery backup to allow for 14 - 28 days (site dependant) with no output. When the batteries are fully charged you can store no more so you effectively get no output from the panels. Therefore the extra output in summer is not usable unless you seriously upscale the battery capacity. Up in Queensland you can get away with less than half the number of panels for the same load. In drier climates panels seem to last a bit longer as well.

There are some interesting practical considerations that must be considered when using these things. It never ceases to amaze me how many people seem surprised to discover that a solar panel needs to get actual direct sunlight on it to give a worthwhile output. This can be a simple task of (wait for it - shock horror - sit down Rev. Bob in case you have a nasty turn) cutting down the trees to the height of the panels because the sun gets pretty close to the horizon down here in winter. Or if you have built your house on the southern side of a hill or taller building it is even simpler - you need to move the house or increase the number of panels to compensate. An extra $10k - $40k will usually suffice.

In Tasmania more than 50% of houses don't have a clear enough view north to make solar panels worthwhile and if you elevate them you begin to shadow the house to the south of you. This means you can never optimize the energy return from the panels. And what about our nice green leafy suburbs? When your northern neighbour's trees get high enough to shade your panels you lose output. Or if a leaf blows onto one of your panels the output goes down. (if you cover approximately 5% of the face of the panel the output will drop to almost zero.) The government will have to bring in draconian chain saw laws and you will have to have a photo license and a chainsaw safe to own one. Panels need to be cleaned regularly. Feathered airfoil excrement is especially effective in stopping them working.

Every time you need to have the system serviced the serviceman will use petrol in his van to get there. This will probably average using the equivalent energy output of one panel for a year for each trip and that does not count the energy required to make the van in the first place.

There is little doubt that in Tassie a solar installation as a collective item over its life is a net energy sink not a source. It is no different financially. My last electricity account for my workshop lists the cost as 18.5c per kwh or 21.4c including supply charge and for this my installation costs can be amortized over a 50 year life span. Over a 20 year life an $800 panel will return me 900kwh or $166.50 worth of electricity. Don't forget that out of the massive savings you have made there you must buy batteries, inverter, have it installed, pay the interest on the money you borrowed to buy the system and maintain it.

Note that this energy consumption would require 136 panels ($110,000.00), 14 day battery backup $13,500.00 (weight 1.6 tons, life 10 years), three phase inverter $15,000.00 (expected life 5 - 10 years). Interest alone would exceed $1,675.00 for the same period I paid the electricity authority $334.95. (Don't forget that if the batteries went flat and I had no electricity to run the workshop I would still have to pay my employees so a system failure could wipe me out. I would have to have a generating plant and/or duplicate equipment to allow for that. Even if you quadrupled the energy output from the panels the figures don't add up.

Patriotic Gore and other global warming mongering

There's almost no point in talking about global warming any longer because global hysteria has long since torched reason - we are now watching the scientific equivalent of the Salem witch trials, where "what we say is true" is more important than "what we know is true."

So last week, we got to watch the spectacle of the EPA fanning the flames of fear while Al Gore fiddled like Nero as he performed his "Requiem for Fossil Fuels" to an audience of true believers. Gore announced his "plan" to save America from herself by making the nation's electricity production "carbon free" within 10 years at a cost of a tidy $1.5 trillion to $3 trillion.

As the AP reports it, Gore's "man on the moon" plan would mean "a significant shift in where the U.S. gets its power. In 2005, coal supplied slightly more than half the nation's 3.7 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. Nuclear power accounted for 21 percent, natural gas 15 percent and renewable sources, including wind and solar, about 8.6 percent." Under the Gore scenario, coal goes the way of whale blubber, and is replaced by a nifty mix of nuclear power, solar, wind and, er, um, "clean coal."

Of course, even Gore admits that "clean coal does not exist right now," but not to worry - the Nobel Prize-winning pied piper of peace has a plan: Tax 'em till they drop. Of course, he means the carbon emissions will be dropping thanks to the huge penalty to be paid for "unclean coal," but just maybe it is our standard of living that will see the bigger decline. Only time will tell.

In the meantime, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a 284-page report that is a modern version of the plagues and scourges unleashed by Moses on ancient Egypt. If you're afraid of it, the EPA's got it - disease, insects, foul water, drought, kidney stones (or was that in another hysterical report?), fire, flooding, hurricanes, pollution, food poisoning.

No wonder people are panicking about global warming even though the weather isn't getting warmer any longer. What? Of course, it's getting warmer. But no it isn't. Despite the endless allure of "what we say is true," sometimes we are faced with the brutal honesty of "what we know is true" and have to deal with it.

Of course, scientists who have jumped on the global warming bandwagon are reluctant to acknowledge that global temperatures have been steady or declining for the past 10 years. It's embarrassing, to say the least, to have to admit that the hysteria you promoted in the name of "science" was all just an expensive sham. Yes, it was indeed getting warmer in the decades immediately preceding 1998, but so what? It still wasn't as warm as it had been on the planet 1,000 years ago, long before the Industrial Revolution cursed modern man with cheap power, technological innovation, drastically improved health care, sanitary living conditions, worldwide mobility, and the empowerment of the middle class.

So the question really isn't whether the earth is getting warmer, but so what if it is? Does anyone really think that mankind is in charge of the planetary climate? There are long-term cycles at work here which are as much beyond our control as the orbit of the Earth around the sun. (OK, folks, let's all lean north to see if we can straighten this damn planet out - the tilt of 23.44 degrees from the perpendicular may just be what is making us all dizzy!)

The most likely reasons for global warming such as solar variability and geothermal dynamic fluctuation are the very same reasons why temperatures sometimes go down as well as up. You remember the great ice ages, don't you? But the fact is that scientists don't know what is going to happen to the temperature 20 years from now anymore than the TV weatherman does.

If they did, then the projections they have been making for the past 20 years would actually be correct, instead of myopically out of whack. We haven't seen anything like the temperature increase projected, nor has the sea level risen cataclysmically as Al Gore and his cronies have promised.

So the EPA's report about the devastating effect of global warming on the United States should probably be taken with a grain of salt, or lots of them. Because unlike Lot's wife, who turned into a pillar of salt when she turned back to see from where she had come, most of us will probably look back in 20 years and see not the rubble of civilization but the ruins of an idea whose time thankfully never came. Requiescat in pacem, global warming


Nutty Story of the Day: "Global Warming" is Killing the Penguins in Anarctica

The latest penguin scare. They are so photogenic that scares are almost compulsory. For previous sob stories see here and here (second story). One of the stories tells us that Antarctica is a dessert. I knew that it was cold but I did not know that it was edible

You have to wonder how the press allows stories like these to get published without some basic fact checking. I'm reminded of the recent CBS News story about "resonance" and global warming causing more earthquakes. From the UK Sunday Mirror:
This shivering penguin is just one of thousands close to death in Antarctica. Rain storms have killed tens of thousands of chicks - and scientists blame global warming. New-born penguins take 40 days to grow water-proof feathers. They can withstand snow, but if rain soaks them to the skin, they die of cold.

Experts yesterday said 400 Adelie penguin chicks have washed up dead on Brazil's beaches after migrating 2,500 miles to avoid the rain. The Emperor penguin - star of the hit film March Of The Penguins - is also under threat. Antarctic temperatures have risen by 3C in the last 50 years to an average of - 14.7C (5.5F). The penguin population has fallen by up to 80 per cent and, if the downpours go on, they will be extinct within 10 years.

Dozens of migrant penguins are being treated at Rio de Janeiro's Niterio Zoo. Biologist Erli Costa said: "This is all due to global warming."

That's the entire story, no other sources are given. But I did find the source Associated Press story here. Interestingly, the AP story has no mention of "rain" or of "baby chick penguins". There were mentions of other causes such as food supply and pollution as possible causes. It seems Mr. Cooper of the mirror has the only mention of "rain" and "chicks" and "80 percent population decrease".

Ok let's do some fact checking to see if there is really anything going on in Antarctica causing an "80 percent population decrease".First lets look for a collaborating research story, how about the best organization on Birds, the National Audubon Society? Surely they'll have this story. But a check of their web page at: shows no mention of this.Ok maybe Greenpeace? Nope, nothing there. British Antaractic survey? Nope though they have a nice picture of a penguins but no mention of the crisis.

At the very least, let's check the temperature in Antarctica, It's winter there. Here's the temp map as of publication of this blog posting: Temperatures in degrees Centigrade.Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison's Antarctic Weather Stations Project. Hmmm. Warmest temperature is -6ø C, it is rather difficult to get rain under that sort of temperature. Unfortunately I did not find an easy to decipher archive of temperatures for the last few days, but again given it is winter there, the prospect of above freezing air temperatures seems unlikely.

And then there is this statement from the story: "Experts yesterday said 400 Adelie penguin chicks have washed up dead on Brazil's beaches after migrating 2,500 miles to avoid the rain."Huh?

But here is the clincher from the AP story: Costa said the vast majority of penguins turning up are baby birds that have just left the nest and are unable to out-swim the strong ocean currents they encounter while searching for food.

Mr. Cooper, your story is all wet. The Mirror should issue a retraction.


Greenie shambles looming in Britain

The number of Gordon Brown's flagship eco-towns should be slashed by two thirds because most of the proposed schemes are not green enough, senior civil servants have warned. They have advised ministers to cut the number from 10 to only two or three "exemplar" towns, The Sunday Telegraph has learnt. The civil servants from the Department of Communities and Local Government said that most of the proposals being considered by the Government were not sufficiently environmentally-friendly and would be so damaging to the eco-town "brand" that they should not be allowed to go ahead.

One source close to the bidding process said: "You wonder why some of the bids were selected in the first place. Civil servants don't want to advise ministers to go ahead with projects that are going to be a catastrophe. There are two or three in there that could proceed but some of the bids are just suicidal." However, the Prime Minister is understood to be applying pressure to push ahead with the policy in its entirety, setting the scene for a battle between Downing Street and Whitehall.

The source added that officials from the Department for Transport had expressed concerns about infrastructure issues, while civil servants from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are alarmed that some proposed towns, including at Ford, West Sussex, would be built on flood plains.

A pet project of Gordon Brown, and one of the first new policy programmes he announced after taking over from Tony Blair a year ago, eco-towns are designed to be low-energy, carbon-neutral developments constructed from "eco-friendly" materials. Each town will contain between 5,000 and 20,000 homes and will be the first new towns built in Britain since the Sixties. Five will be built by 2016, with another five completed by 2020. A government announcement on the policy is expected this week. It will give an update on the remaining bids and show that three developers have now officially withdrawn their schemes and that a further proposal, for a town in the Leeds area, is still without a site or developer.

Last week, Tesco hinted that it would withdraw its plans for an 8,000-home eco-town at Hanley Grange, Cambridgeshire, after the medical charity The Wellcome Trust refused to sell it a crucial piece of land that was needed to proceed. The likely withdrawal of the proposal by Jarrow Investments, which this newspaper revealed was a front for Britain's biggest retailer, would be the fourth in a series of departures from the original 15-strong shortlist. It has also emerged that at least one more developer does not yet own the land it wants to develop. The Coltishall Group, which wants to build a 5,000-home eco-town in Norfolk, has not yet been told if the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) will sell the 625-acre site, which it bought off the Ministry of Defence. The MoJ plans to build a 500-place prison there.

Another source involved with the selection process said that civil servants were now going back to developers who originally submitted bids but did not make it on to the final shortlist, in order to boost numbers, in case Gordon Brown refuses to back down. The source said: "That would be an insurance policy, to make sure there were ten. Some of those shortlisted are now clearly duds, so they have to have more up their sleeve that are not as obviously embarrassing."

Last night, Grant Shapps, the shadow housing minister, said: "Ministers have taken a good concept of building new green housing and have managed to destroy their own project by trampling over local democracy and systematically downgrading the green credentials of eco-towns to the point where they'll be less environmentally friendly than all other housing built at the same time."

The government believes the new towns will combat the growing housing crisis in an environmentally friendly way. But the policy has come up against many high profile critics, including Lord Rogers, the Labour peer and former government adviser on cities, who branded eco-towns as "one of the biggest mistakes government can make".

Gideon Amos, chief executive of the Town and Country Planning Association, said it was important to build as many eco-towns as was feasible. He said: "The credit crisis is leading to an even greater demand for affordable homes - we need as many eco-towns to go forward as can meet the very challenging standards we are calling for."

A spokesperson for the Communities and Local Government department said: "Our position throughout this process has been that we will shortlist up to ten potential sites for eco-towns - and we are making no change to our policy."


Monbiot's metamorphosis

Today, environmentalists like Guardian columnist George Monbiot are adding a gloss of `scientific truth' to elite prejudices and fears.

George Monbiot, the Guardian columnist and predictor of the world's end, has undergone a metamorphosis of Kafkaesque proportions in recent years. Never mind poor Gregor Samsa, who awoke one morning to find himself transmogrified into a monstrous insect; Monbiot has made an even more remarkable cross-species leap. Some time during the past five years he went to bed an hysteric, the closest thing Britain had to a nutty Nostradamus, and awoke to find himself labelled a man of reason, a `defender of truth' no less, who is praised on the dust-jacket of his latest book for possessing a `dazzling command of science' (only by Naomi Klein, admittedly, but still).

How has this happened? How is it that Monbiot, who still writes the same old apocalyptic nonsense (think Book of Revelations but without the hot pokers or sex), can now pose - more than that, be hailed - as a scientific visionary? His metamorphosis from green-tinted despiser of all things modern to man with a dazzling command of science reveals a great deal about the politics of environmentalism, and how it has added a gloss of `scientific fact' to long-standing middle-class prejudices against mass modern society.

Not many moons ago, Monbiot was looked upon by many people as a green-ink eccentric, who was probably given a newspaper column on the same basis that friends of the Marquis de Sade smuggled scraps of paper and pots of ink into his cell in the Charenton insane asylum: because if he's kept busy writing, he won't go utterly off his nut. (The chasm-shaped difference between the Marquis and Monbiot, of course, is that the former wrote some brilliant stuff that nobody was allowed to read, while the latter writes inane copy that one can hardly escape.)

Pre-metamorphosis, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Monbiot penned mad-sounding tracts that said flying across the Atlantic is more evil than child abuse (eh?), and described how manmade flight would contribute to a climate calamity that would make `genocide and ethnic cleansing look like sideshows at the circus of human suffering' (1). Well, what's being gassed in a chamber compared with the carbon skidmark left by a bunch of British chavs taking a cheap flight to vomit-stained Magaluf? He wrote about loitering in busy train stations and watching as City workers, who must suffer from `a species of mental illness', hurried home: `Stress oozes from them like sweat, anger shudders beneath their skin.' (2) (Luckily for Monbiot, he executed this bizarre staring stunt in 1999, before New Labour really got serious about handing out Anti-Social Behaviour Orders.)

Like a latter-day Christian recluse, he wrote of his horror at hearing the sound of human laughter. `The world is dying, and people are killing themselves with laughter', he wailed (3). So disturbed was he by the `gales of laughter' sweeping Britain that he was moved to quote Kierkegaard: `This is the way I think the world will end - with general giggling by all the witty heads, who think it is a joke.' Far from being a `man of science', pre-metamorphosis Monbiot sounded more like Ephrem the Syrian, an early Christian theologian. In the fourth century CE, Ephrem declared that `the beginning of all destruction of the soul is laughing'. If a hermit or monk ever laughed, Ephrem said they had reached `the bottom of evil'. `O Lord, expel laughter from me, and grant me the crying and lamentation Thou asketh for!' Ephrem prayed (4). Monbiot must make a similar prayer: he's certainly had any fleck of humour scrubbed from his constitution, replaced by the crying and lamentation that Gaia asketh for.

In the old days, Monbiot argued that `being gay is arguably more moral than being straight', because gays are less likely to spawn 'orrible little resource-sucking babies - or `screaming shit machines', as one of his fellow green contributors to the Guardian more honestly describes them (5). Men and women of the Enlightenment, who really did desire to have a `dazzling command of science', were interested in using their knowledge to `dazzlingly command' nature - that is, to understand, predict and even control the natural world for the benefit of mankind. Old Monbiot preferred to quote an old Indian proverb: `When you drive nature out of the door with a broom, she'll come back through the window with a pitchfork.' (6) Ouch.

On the rare occasion that Monbiot did dip his nib into the world of science, he invariably got things wrong. He was one of a gang of green-leaning writers in Britain who leapt upon Dr Arpad Pusztai's experiments on lab rats as evidence that GM foods could be harmful to humans. In 1998, Dr Pusztai seemed to find that GM potatoes caused thickening in the stomach lining of rats, and this single, unreplicated experiment was taken as proof that genetically tampered-with grub - an invention that greens consider supremely offensive - might make humans sick, too. When experts picked apart Pusztai's findings, and showed that there was no scientific basis to the hysterical public panic about killer spuds, Monbiot argued that the important thing is how people feel about allegedly dodgy foods: `Food scares happen in Britain because people feel they have no control over what they eat. Our decisions are made for us by invisible and unaccountable corporations.' (7) In a testy public debate on GM, one of Britain's top scientists said Monbiot was either a `liar or a fool', or maybe `both' (8). Again, ouch. Dazzling command of science my arse.

Back then, Monbiot was simply a shrill articulator of petty dinner-party prejudices: car-drivers are selfish; fecund families are dangerous; supermarkets are evil; City workers are slaves, and possibly even mentally ill. Pop into any soiree in the leafy suburbs of Britain and you will hear people saying similar things over their Nigella-inspired main course. Yet now, after the metamorphosis, he's treated seriously (by some) as `one of the best informed people on the planet' (as John Burnside gushes on the back flap of Monbiot's new book). The man who said flying was like fiddling children and being straight was effectively an eco-crime is hailed as a brave defender of scientific truth.

Monbiot's new book, Bring on the Apocalypse (the title says it all), is a collection of mostly post-metamorphosis columns; the articles, in the main, are from 2003 to 2007. It is remarkable the extent to which Monbiot now considers himself a warrior for scientific fact. Gone are the naked assertions about how empty and slavish is modern life (at least as lived by frequent flyers and `mentally ill' City workers); in their place we have `facts', stats and percentages galore, apparently showing the slow but certain destruction of biospheres and ecosystems by mankind. Gone is old Monbiot's suspicion of mainstream science; in its place we have declarations about how the `entire canon of science, the statements of the world's most eminent scientific institutions, and thousands of papers published in the foremost scientific journals' tell us that climate change is happening (9). These newer columns are still jam-packed with expressions of disgust for modernity and its adherents, of course, but each outburst is carefully evidenced, proven, footnoted, fact-checked, scientifically backed up.

The metamorphosis of Monbiot is telling. It shows, in microcosm (after all, we're only talking about the Guardian comment pages here), how the politics and science of environmentalism have added a new, legitimising coating to elite fears and prejudices. The most striking thing about the rise and rise (and rise) of the environmentalist ethos is how it has acted as a life support machine for the political and cultural elite's contempt for the lifestyles of the lower orders, and how it has added a new scientific/end of the world twist to the authorities' attempts to manage, control and change our behaviour and expectations. In our post-modern, anything-goes, Oprah-ised, non-judgemental era, it is increasingly difficult for elite elements to lay down the line on what is right or wrong, or to induce guilt and shame in the `wayward' masses, or to make nakedly moral judgements about the apparently soulless, greedy populace. Instead, `scientific fact' - `evidence' about individuals' disgusting impact on their surroundings - has become the main means through which the elites hector us and police our behaviour. Slowly, inexorably, instinctively, the apparently fact-driven politics of environmentalism has spread to fill the gap left by the collapse of traditional morality.

Everywhere one looks, long-standing snooty prejudices are being `scientised'; old-fashioned hatred for mass behaviour is being replaced by new, superbly convenient `scientific facts' which apparently show - on spreadsheets, graphs and pie charts, no less - that mass behaviour is quantifiably, unfalsifiably, unquestionably Harmful.

For example, a certain breed of middle-class writer and thinker has always hated the consumer society and the masses who patronise it. They talked about the `rat race' (the sight of thousands of men and women in suits commuting to work) and of the masses' brainless dash to buy more and more `stuff' that they don't need. Today, a new diagnosable, scientifically provable illness has emerged to describe the stupidity of the masses: `Affluenza'. Serious writers, researchers and policymakers now claim that years of fact-gathering and scientific-style study prove that the rat race and the stuff race make people mentally ill (though as I argued in the New Statesman earlier this year, after examining the experts' `evidence', actually they have `rehabilitated the sin of gluttony in pseudo-scientific terms') (10).

It is striking that 10 years ago, in Liverpool Street station, Monbiot gawked at busy, besuited commuters and presumed that they must be suffering from a `species of mental illness'. `No retail therapy, no holiday in the Caribbean could restore the damage done by [their] self-consumption', he preached (11). It was unadulterated prejudice, underpinned by a well-to-do columnist's dislocation from the mass of the people, and his inability to comprehend the passions, desires and needs that drive people to work, work, work and buy, buy, buy. Now, lo and behold, research has emerged that `proves' these people are mentally ill. How remarkably convenient.

Likewise, snobs have always detested mass tourism, all of those thousands of good-for-nothings tramping to some beach or to an unfortunate foreign city. When British workers first started venturing to the English seaside in the 1870s, thanks to one Thomas Cook, an outraged writer declared: `Of all noxious animals, the most noxious is a tourist.' (12) As Paul Fussell argues in his book Abroad: British Literary Travelling Between the Wars: `From the outset, mass tourism attracted the class-contempt of killjoys who conceived themselves. superior by reason of intellect, education, curiosity and spirit.' In the 1920s, the British literary snob Osbert Sitwell described American tourists as a `swarm of very noisy transatlantic locusts'. His sister, the poet Edith Sitwell, said tourists were `the most awful people with legs like flies, who come in to lunch in bathing costumes - flies, centipedes' (13).

This prejudice, too, has been scientised. The idea of the mass tourist as noxious - that is, `harmful to living things, injurious to health' - has been rehabilitated through the science of environmentalism. Now tourists are seen as literally noxious, farting out smog and poisons from their cheap flights. Pre-metamorphosis Monbiot's distaste for the mass tourist was too similar to the snobbery of the Sitwells and others - he said flying across the Atlantic is `now as unacceptable as child abuse'. So where earlier snobs compared tourists to locusts and insects, Monbiot compared them to paedophiles, the lowest specimen in contemporary society. It was pure moral bombast, fired by a preference for localism over international travel. Yet now, post-metamorphosis, Monbiot cites science to denounce travellers. In his new book, it says that if you throw all the `numbers' into `the equation', then you will discover that `aviation will account for between 91 per cent and 258 per cent of all the greenhouse gases the UK will be permitted, [under a new law], to produce in 2050' (14). Numbers, equations, accounting, 2050. again, moral disgust is transformed into a scientific measurement; prejudice becomes wrapped up in percentages.

Similarly, middle-class disdain for supermarkets and their cheap and garish wares (old Monbiot wrote of how the supermarkets are putting small shops out of business) is today expressed in the extremely dubious science of `food miles': the distance a foodstuff travels, and thus how much it impacts on the environment, before it hits Tesco's shelves. Yet as I argued on spiked recently: `The "food miles" category is not an accurate scientific measurement of the impact of food production on the climate - it is a moral judgement about the "right" and "wrong" way of producing and consuming things.' (15)

Old snobbery about overly fecund families, especially in the sex-mad Third World, has been given a new lease of life in the green-leaning language of demography and the science of `resource depletion'. Even the hatred of football fans now has a scientific basis to it. In the past they were looked down upon as a seething, heaving, potentially violent mob. Now, serious academics and green reporters carefully measure how much football fans travel, eat and discard, and have worked out that a big football event can leave an `eco-footprint' 3,000 times as big as the pitch at Wembley (16). Courtesy of the `science' of environmentalism, even one of the foulest expressions of British snobbery - that against the working men and women who enjoy football - has been scientised; it is numerically proven that these people are, well, disgusting.

Monbiot, who once harried tourists, workers and shoppers over their bad habits but who now writes endlessly of science and sums, personifies an important shift that has taken place under the tyranny of environmentalism: the scientisation of elite fear and prejudice. And what of the science of climate change itself? No doubt there is research that shows the planet has warmed, and that man may have played a role in its warming; yet this science, too, has conveniently metamorphosed into a political and moral campaign to lower people's horizons and keep them in their place. Call me a cynic, a doubter, even a denier if you like, I don't care; but when scientific research continually and conveniently, almost magically, `proves' that people are disgusting and must rein in their desires and change their habits - just as the elite caste, from priests to politicians, have been arguing for decades! - then I get suspicious.

No, there's no conspiracy here; instead our rulers and our thinkers and our betters are instinctively feeling around for a new morality, a new form of control and judgement. And what better than easily moulded research which shows that travelling abroad is irresponsible (fact), over-shopping in supermarkets is evil (fact), wanting too much stuff will make you mentally ill (fact), having too many children is lethal (fact), and football fans are fat, foul and smelly (fact). It's almost as if one of the pious nuns who taught me at school, and who frequently spouted all of the above prejudices, suddenly happened upon scientific evidence to back up her worldview. Well, I say to the new green hectors what I often dreamt of saying to that nun, but never did: F*ck off.

The new scientisation is defensive and censorious. It suggests an elite that has lost the nerve and the will to say what is morally right and wrong, and which instead continually hides behind dubious `facts' to justify its agenda. And anyone who challenges these `facts' is put beyond the pale. When something is `scientifically proven', whether it's that flying is bad or shopping is a mental illness or the planet will end in 72 years and three months, then if anyone stands up and says that travel is a good thing, that the desire for more stuff should be satisfied, and that human ingenuity can and will make the planet a better place, they can be written off as anti-science, as liars, deniers, heretics. Well, when it comes to defending human ambition from the attacks of our pie-chart-armed elite, that's a risk I'm willing to take: let the heresy begin.


WALL-E, Economic Ignorance, and the War on Modernity

The Disney/Pixar film WALL-E has been adoringly received by the majority of the theater-going public. This adoration is unjustified. The film blatantly conveys environmentalist, anti-capitalist, anti-technological propaganda - and aims it at an audience of young children, who still lack the critical faculties and intellectual sophistication to evaluate all relevant aspects of the issues presented in a rational manner that considers all sides.

But I will not focus here on how egregiously unrealistic the film's scenario of humans completely trashing Earth is. A simple look around you will suffice to refute this possibility. Garbage is not piling up around us, and landfills are in fact remarkably effective at storing it safely and even generating useful natural gases from it.

I will, rather, concentrate on a much more egregious error made by the creators of WALL-E - an error made in ignorance of basic economics and of commonsense insights regarding the nature of human behaviors and the incentives facing individual economic actors.

This error pervades the film's depiction of life aboard the Axiom, a starship made by Buy'n Large (BNL) corporation - a cross between Wal-Mart and the George W. Bush administration - to house the human refugees from Earth for 700 years after the Earth becomes too littered to remain habitable.

The startling aspect of life aboard the Axiom is its total homogeneity. Everyone is morbidly obese; everyone drinks fatty meal-replacement shakes; everyone rides around in automated carts instead of walking; no one engages in direct personal communication; no one exercises; everyone follows the BNL corporation's fashion advice (when the announcements tell the people the "blue is new red," all Axiom inhabitants switch their suit color from red to blue at the press of a button). Not only does this homogeneity mark one instant in time; it has been present all throughout the Axiom's seven centuries of travel through space. During that time, there has been zero technological progress, zero cultural innovation, and zero non-cosmetic changes in the aesthetic, philosophical, and political arrangements aboard the ship. If you believe that this is possible, then you will also believe nothing substantial at all had changed in human affairs since the year 1308.

The humans in WALL-E are not portrayed as evil; they are polite and well-intentioned, but ignorant and torpid. Strangely enough, the ship has an extensive information database about life and conditions on Earth, and nobody bothered to examine this easily accessible information for seven centuries, until the Captain suddenly has a burst of interest. Are we to assume that curiosity and elementary initiative are such rarities that they are exercised only once in 700 years?

WALL-E is egregiously wrong in assuming that technological conveniences such as easily accessible food, transportation, entertainment, and communication render all people lazy, indulgent, and devoid of initiative. Some people, to be sure, respond in this way. In the real world, however, this response tends to be temporary. In the more economically advanced countries, it tends to affect lower-income individuals who have just begun accessing historically luxurious standards of livings but have not yet developed cultural habits for managing their new-found wealth and opportunities responsibly. These habits will come with time - as they always have among groups of people that have lived prosperously for generations.

Already in the United States, the big fast food chains are racing to offer health foods - salads, fruit, and other low-calorie snacks - on their menus to keep the patronage of those who would have been satisfied with Big Macs and Whoppers in the past. Meanwhile, a wide variety of health foods and diet foods - some genuinely effective and others of dubious merit - are being consumed more broadly than ever before. In the meantime, of course, millions of people have never neglected healthful habits, even though they have for decades been surrounded by consumer goods that - in the anti-capitalists' eyes - would lead them to ruin. Just as the ready availability of guns does not automatically turn peaceful people into rampaging maniacs, neither does the ready availability of all sorts of foods turn responsible, educated, self-respecting individuals into range-of-the-moment hedonists.

With some kinds of wants met - such as food, shelter, and transportation - people virtually always tend to develop new wants or to focus on existing lower-priority wants not yet addressed. As Ludwig von Mises showed, people will act so long as they are faced with uncertainty and believe themselves capable of somehow affecting the uncertain future. These conditions will never stop existing - no matter how comfortable and prosperous people will become. Thus, humans will always act and will always strive to improve their lives. A wholly static, apathetic, sated, and torpid society is inconceivable in reality.

The economy aboard the Axiom does, however, seem to be the dream economy of popular "static equilibrium" models, where nothing ever changes - not production, consumption, preferences, or expectations of the future. Yet, as Austrian economics informs us, such conditions have never existed nor can they exist. At best, they are mere useful theoretical constructs - but certainly not accurate depictions of any realistic economy. In the real world, there exist immense changes of preferences, widely dispersed information, tremendous uncertainty about the future, and numerous entrepreneurs who alert themselves to possible opportunities for satisfying people's wants in a better way than they are currently being satisfied. That there is not one entrepreneur aboard the Axiom prior to the Captain's paradigm-shifting discovery of information that was easily accessible to everybody for the last seven centuries is testimony to the film creators' ignorance of what makes economic change possible and ubiquitous.

The humans' return to Earth and attempt to "rebuild" their lives there is, too, ludicrous from any sound economic perspective. After having had a sustainable automatic food production system aboard the Axiom - which had apparently worked without fail for seven centuries - the humans all of a sudden decide to resort to traditional agriculture. The one thing they had machine capital to do for them, they decided to do manually instead. Rather than devoting the precious time bought by the ready availability of food to, say, create art, repair all those broken skyscrapers, or design even better robots, the humans decided to manually dig holes in the ground and grow their food through backbreaking toil that led millions throughout history to die premature deaths. Oh, by the way, the film left that part out. Virtually no one today who romanticizes the "good old days" of traditional agriculture recognizes how nasty, brutish, and short life under such conditions had been for millennia. Once the first industrial factories opened - with their long hours, dangerous equipment, and meager pay - people flocked to them in droves, because the factory conditions (including the sanitation provided and wages paid) were greatly preferable to those of toiling virtually all day on the traditional farm.

The creators of WALL-E, sitting in their comfortable Hollywood studios, did a tremendous disservice to the civilization that made their very work and high standards of living possible. They glorified a lifestyle which would likely have killed them - and countless others - had it actually been revived. I, for one, have seen a semblance of these "good old days," having spent summers as a child with my maternal grandparents in a remote Belarusian village - where little had changed since the 1917 Socialist Revolution. The perpetual manual labor, lack of sanitation, lack of health care, and widespread inclinations toward alcoholism are never mentioned by those extolling the virtues of traditional farm life. I have spent my life to date moving increasingly further away from that, and I will resist vigorously the efforts of those who seek to drag our entire civilization back into miserable, decrepit pre-modernity.

WALL-E is an assault on modern civilization, borne of deep economic and historical ignorance. The film shamefully betrays the efforts of countless heroic individuals who have raised humanity out of the muck of barbarism. Its anti-technological, anti-capitalist message needs to be exposed and countered by all thinking individuals.



For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For times when is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here.



Алексей (rewritoff) said...

(if you cover approximately 5% of the face of the panel the output will drop to almost zero

OBloodyHell said...

Not to suggest I disagree with the basis of the overall thesis regarding Wall-E (I found it entertaining but do find issue with many of the same things the reviewer does) -- I would, however, like to offer some commentary I bumped into many years ago. Its applicability to the reviewer's argument about how indolent and lazy the people on the ship had become after 700 years is clearly evident:

. All modern predictions of utopia are based upon the reasoning that those characteristics useful in a hostile environment (resourcefulness, drive, creativity, etc.) will be used similarly in an 'Age of Leisure'. However, a relatively recent chapter of human history implies otherwise:
About 2000 years ago, a venturesome race of Asian peoples set out across the Pacific in search of more agreeable lands. The drive and resourcefulness of their genetic stock is manifest in the nature of their feat. In successive waves of emigration, leading nearly to modern times, the Asians settled most of the islands of the Pacific. Those who reached Tahiti found a paradise of abundant food & gentle climate, with few natural enemies.
. Under these favorable conditions, with a nearly complete absence of hostile forces in the environment and a direct line of descent from an enterprising people, the Tahitians might have been expected to evolve a culture distinguished for its crafts and technical skills, perhaps, or its art, its music, or some other form of creative endeavor. The life in Tahiti was noteworthy, instead, when discovered by Europeans, for its promiscuity, infanticide, ritual cannibalism, mayhem, and the common use of a hallucinogenic drug called 'kava'. Important skills carried to Tahiti by the first settlers, such as writing and pottery, had been lost in the intervening generations. A low level of intellectual and artistic activity, an emphasis upon sexual gratification, and a degradation of family life appear to have been the fruits of leisure and economic security in this case.

- Robert Jastrow, in the introduction to 'The Next 10,000 Years' by Adrian Berry -

I think it is interesting, and certainly flies in the face of that one component of the review.

The book is out of print, and I can't say I've read the whole thing or recommend it, but that introduction definitely was outside of my own thoughts at the time, and I suspect few have really thought upon this theme.