Monthly Archives: May 2019

Peak Rubber And Mars Colonies

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hevea_brasiliensis#/media/File:Hevea_brasiliensis_-_Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-071.jpg, Public Domain

On a television series This Giant Beast That is the Global Economy, an episode was aired on the rubber plant.  If you thought oil was an issue for the global economy, this video tidbit will open your eyes even wider.   It seems that the rubber tree, hevea brasiliensis, was wiped out in Brasil due to a rapidly spreading fungal infection.  As a result, only about tiny fraction of rubber in the world comes from that region of the world any more.  Most of it comes from southeast Asia now, but is still susceptible to the same infection.

As noted in Wikipedia:

The majority of the rubber trees in Southeast Asia are clones of varieties highly susceptible to the South American leaf blight—Microcyclus ulei. For these reasons, environmental historian Charles C. Mann, in his 2011 book, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, predicted that the Southeast Asian rubber plantations will be ravaged by the blight in the not-too-distant future, thus creating a potential calamity for international industry.

Calamity is a bit of an understatement. Although there are a few dandelion to rubber projects, if this blight were to hit the southeast Asian plantations/farms that have rubber trees, things might get dicey in modern society.  Removing that one simple element, rubber, can cause a whole bunch of knock on effects that might bring modern conveniences and technologies to their knees.  Yes, it is possible to make synthetic rubbers or analogues, but it takes a bit of effort, and the substitutes aren’t always ideal.

Taking this in mind, it is always laughable/sad to see the ideas of Moon and Mars colonies bandied about.  Although it might be able to put ten, one hundred, or even a thousand people on the Moon or Mars in the next twenty years, unless you’ve got something like very cheap (think antigravity) transport, those colonies will be dependent on Earth for a vary long time, until they can manufacture everything that could be needed forever, in a sustainable way.  If you don’t have basic elements like rubber, you don’t have a modern society, and you certainly don’t have a workable and self-sustaining off-world colony.   Ultrapure silicon and gases for processing semiconductors, cobalt for touch screens, trace elements for a variety of technological widgets – all are required for high-tech off-world living, and therefore, those colonies will be tied to Earth for a long time.  If these colonies are meant to be lifeboats for humanity, they won’t last very long.

Yes, it is possible that we get these colonies going in short order;  Arthur C. Clarke once had a pithy quote:

When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

I’m not an elderly scientist, nor am I distinguished.   I’m not even claiming it is impossible to get a colony of sorts going off world.   The point here is that yes, it may be possible to get hundreds, or even thousands of people off-world.  To do it sustainably, however, will be a real trick.

Questions:

  • Peak Oil.  Peak Rubber.  Peak (Fresh) Water.  What other elements or resources can nip any of these high-tech schemes in the bud the fastest?
  • What modern technologies are least immune to these resource limitations?
  • If you did manage to start a Moon or Mars colony, would there be a way to keep a colony going indefinitely?   What industries would you develop first in order to ensure self-sustainability?  Would you go a biological route, say, basing your civilization on plants and plant derived resources?
  • If we did start colonies on the Moon and Mars, how long do you think it would take to become self-sustaining?  What sort of population minimum would be required?  Some of these questions have been answered (based on interstellar colonization projects), and the answers aren’t too encouraging.  If anything, having a livable world solves a great deal of these problems.  Are we willing to terraform Mars, the Moon, or other solar system bodies towards this goal?
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Climate Reality and Response

tilted_sc.png

The tilted scales of reality, Own Work, Public Domain

Some of the complaints and opposition to the science of climate change aren’t due to the science, but to the folks who want to dictate solutions to it.  Some people will point to the hypocrisy of Al Gore (who has a massive carbon footprint), or to the virtue signaling of banning plastic straws, with large fines and jail times, and a random legislator mentioning the regulation of every aspect of people’s lives.  When things like this get mentioned, the baby gets thrown out with the proverbial bathwater, and for some, this is the last straw (no pun intended!).

This is where good science and climate change reality can be doomed.  A look at the data (not modeling predictions) of sea ice coverage, sea level rise, Greenland ice mass loss, and CO2 levels show that the climate is changing, and we are the cause.  Alas, some in society see this as an opportunity to force change with a heavy hand, legislating jail time for plastic straws.  Having real, and perhaps even market driven solutions to pollution and climate change, or asking where most ocean pollution or greenhouse gas emissions comes from might be a better choice.  When people who are right of center see this, they may shake their heads, and wonder if this this is all just a ploy for control.

This isn’t a trait unique to the left, or to the reality of climate change.  Terrorist attacks are horrific, and there might be more in the wings, but does it justify going to war on questionable state-sponsored terrorism accusations, shaky weapons of mass destruction pretenses, and clamping down on civil liberties?  When “non-state actors” do really horrendous things, a strong, all-out, internationally coordinated police effort could be the wiser choice.  Likewise, people left of center see this, shake their heads, and wonder if this is all a ploy for control.

How do we separate the wheat from the chaff, reality from hype, concern from hysteria?   There are real problems and predicaments in society – take your pick of any one of them.  There will be data to support your argument.  But as soon as you ‘jump the shark’, and propose outlandish responses, or worse yet, fake the data, people will question your motives, and all that wonderful good data you have at your side can become useless.  There may be reasons to ban straws, or go to war with particular countries, but getting the data right without bias is critical.

When a crisis is happening, it is easy to get caught up in handling it immediately (let’s have action!).  When dealing with something horrific, it might even be tempting to be heavy handed in all the wrong ways.  When you are hypocritical, it is even worse.  It is at this point that reasonable people will begin to wonder – is this all a ploy, and using the crisis of the moment for something else?

As someone on the left on some issues, and on the right on others, it is frustrating.  A good many solutions to problems (or best practices in dealing with predicaments) can be thrown away because someone either deliberately (or through bad science) tries to tilt the scales in their favor.  In the end, left, right, and center – we all lose.

Questions:

  • What are other times where the data was great, but someone mucked it up because they overplayed the data, or flat out lied?
  • How can you separate reality from ‘reality plus hysteria’?  How do you prevent it?  Is this even possible?

 

Four Fifteen

415, sliced a few different ways.

We just hit 415 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere.   Why this particular number, like others before it, have warranted a flurry of articles, I don’t quite know. Humans typically count in base ten (although base 60 was used by the Sumerians, and base 2 is used in computers), and when we hit 400 ppm, there was also a small blizzard of articles on this milestone.

420 (which may get some chuckles), 425, 430… they are all coming, but what of it?  When will people realize we’ve got a real crises, so much so that real change will happen?  My guess is that it will take a lot more than a number,. written in any numeric format to change our attitude.   An ice free arctic; the collapse of the Gulf Stream; regions becoming uninhabitable without artificial cooling – these are all possibilities (and with increasing probabilities).

What will it take for people (and more importantly, governments) to realize and act on these troubling data points, and have this part of our daily discussion?

The Sheep Look Up – Again

doublesheep

commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Ovis_aries#/media/File:Ewe_sheep_black_and_white.jpg ; By George Gastin – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6663137, x2

A quick note – the BBC just had an article that chimes in with more detail on John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up as written here a few posts back.  Perhaps his legacy might outshine more of the well known sci-fi authors.  Stay tuned, of course.

Erasing the past

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Washington#/media/File:Gilbert_Stuart_Williamstown_Portrait_of_George_Washington.jpg, Public Domain

With friends on both sides of the aisle, you occasionally get forwarded articles with a particular slant on the news.  This week, it was news that some folks wanted to erase a mural that depicted George Washington having slaves, and showing some of the realities of how people treated Native Americans.   The commentary article was here, and the original article was here.   The second, original article is worth a read, since it brings up some more detail about the artist (no right winger, by any stretch), and some other solutions (like covering up parts of the mural with a screen) that weren’t as drastic. The comments on the original article, some by the school’s alumni, clearly refer to erasing the past not being the best of plans, and that seems to be the general response.

Erasing the past isn’t a particularly good idea.   Coming to grips with what we’ve collectively done is probably the most constructive way of handling these issues.   There are some issues where a plaque, another piece of art, or a sober explanation can do wonders.  My first reaction when reading the first article was to think of how modern collections of older cartoons have a small introduction which recognize the era they came from.  Whoopi Goldberg (another certainly not right-leaning icon!) did a bit on Tom and Jerry cartoons; it’s been done with others. The folks having issues with George Washington might have put up a plaque or something else, but tearing it down?  Washington was the man who declined a crown, set the stage for being president, and gave his all for his fledgling country.   This story alone makes you wonder what the country would be like without his character.

Questions:

  • What is the cutoff between celebrating the past, and remembering it?  Germany bans Nazi iconography unless it is used for “art or science, research or teaching.”   How about the Confederate flag?
  • What is going on with the people who are suggesting these more extreme courses of action?  Are our echo chambers becoming so well “echoey” that we can’t see or hear the questionable logic that is underpinning these arguments or suggested irreversible actions?
  • If we start erasing the past, or how other eras remembered the same pasts, won’t we walk straight into philosopher George Santayana‘s oft-quoted observation that “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it”?  Modern Germans seem to have a plan that works.