Unintended Consequences – risks and rewards of needing energy

Fire is energy

Nearly half the world uses wood for cook and heat, which contributes significantly to deforestation. (Image credit: Freefoto.com)

In this video, Matt Palmer, filmmaker and photographer, raises good points about how we produce our energy and its consequences–intended and otherwise.

Energy is important to everyone and every process on earth. We want energy to power our lives. So, as Robert Bryce, author of Power Hungry, reminds us, “We put energy in a conversion device to make power: a plane, a truck, even ourselves.” [watch “What’s a Watt?“] Power is what we want. Energy converts to power to allow work. (And work is “the transfer of energy from one physical system to another.” – American Heritage Dictionary)

Palmer, in this video, considers the scope of our energy needs, what it would take to re-tool the world to non-fossil fuel based systems, and:

What does it mean to say: “Dirty Oil,” “Clean Energy,” “Renewable,” “Sustainable.”

In the project, he wants to through “Constant critical thinking,” “Challenge the idea that fossil fuels are only bad, and that alternative energies are free and benign and free from resource limits.”

“Unintended Consequences” began as an idea to do a feature film that examines the unintended consequences of different energy sources from oil sands, natural gas, and coal to alternative energy sources like wind, solar, and bio fuels, in order to forge an understanding of the impacts that come from our use of energy. So some of the central conflicts we intend to examine include questions like: how do we or can we reconcile our desire to maintain our standard of living at a time of population growth and increasing energy demand given the finite natural resources available to harness energy and the myriad of unintended consequences (social, political, environmental and economic) that result from our consumption of energy? How can we build a rational, pragmatic and optimistic framework from which to bring man, energy, environment, and technology into harmony?…The goal of the “Unintended Consequences Documentary Project” is to challenge all sides in the global energy debate from energy companies to environmental organizations to consumers to think critically about what we think we know, our assumptions, our biases, and our emotional connections to the issue. – Matt Palmer producer of the Unintended Consequences Documentary Project



Does he mean what he says he wants? So far, few people willingly do the math of alternative energy sources. However, the salt crystal lamp in the background gives me pause because they are complete quackery (according to one site I visited their salt crystal lamps “neutralize the positive ions generated by electrical devices,” thus “give your body the same relaxed feeling you experience when enjoying a day at the beach.”). It’s possibly nothing but a gift from his wife.

In corresponding with Matt Palmer, I recommended two books: Matt Ridley’s, The Rational Optimist and Robert Bryce’s, Power Hungry. He wrote that The Rational Optimist was next on his list. If he could interview Ridley and Bryce, that would be good.

Ridley know numbers, plus he can convey ideas simply. In the foreword of his book he writes, “I find that my disagreement is mostly with reactionaries of all political colours: blue ones who dislike cultural change, red ones who dislike economic change and green ones who dislike technological change…(H)uman progress has, on balance, been a good thing…(The world) is richer, healthier, and kinder too, as much because of commerce as despite it.”

You see, the more we trade goods and services, the more we trade ideas as well. Those ideas “have sex” he says. Like DNA recombining to make unique individuals, bits of ideas cross-fertilize with others to make better ways of doing things. “In a nutshell,” Ridley says, “the most sustainable thing we can do, and the best for the planet, is to accelerate technological change and economic growth.” For instance, changing from using animals to using machines, which need power, for farming freed up 30 percent more land, since machines don’t need pasture. Using petroleum to produce nitrogen fertilizers also freed up land, since with fertilization we require less land to be as productive. That freed land then could be used to grow more food or fiber or returned to its natural state.

Which do you think is better: fossil fuel or alternative energy sources? Why?

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Biofuel: Exacerbating the Food Crisis

The percentage of deaths related to malnutrition have declined over the past 40 years. In 1970, approximately 33% of the developing world was malnourished. In 2010, approximately 20% of the developing world is poorly nourished. If we were to put our concern toward micro and macro nutrition and less emphasis on greenhouse gas output, the improvement might even be greater. Dithering over GhGs with schemes such as biofuel ends up hurting those it is supposedly meant to help. Biofuel production steals from food production.

About 5 per cent of the world’s grain production is now going to make motor fuel rather than food, with the result that rich farmers like me get better prices, but poor Africans pay more for food. Yet that 5 per cent of world grain has displaced just 0.6 per cent of world oil use, so biofuel is hurting the patient without even stopping the nosebleed.- Matt Ridley, The Tourniquet Theory


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Letter to UC Berkeley’s “Daily Californian”

Here’s a letter I sent off to the Daily Californian:

On the Daily Californian’s opinion page on July 26, 2010 (Berkeley-BP Deal Only Looks Worse Post-Spill), Miguel Altieri writes, “This Berkeley-BP deal was signed without wide consultation with the faculty and despite warnings from a great number of faculty…”

At the nub of it, his fundamental complaint appears to be the administration’s exclusion of staff from the decision process. Of course he raises a number of other distracting arguments such as excess nitrogen in the gulf caused by fertilizing crops, BP’s poor safety and environmental record, the downside of biofuels, and the fact that the administration accepted lucre from an energy company for research to “find new, more sustainable energy technologies.”

Whether faculty input provides more politically correct donors is arguable and of no concern to me. Rather, my interest is in the subtext of the op-ed: that funding sources affect the research process. Funders can and do try to inflict their biases into studies. Whether the funder is BP or an environmental group, there is always a possibility that the funder will try to influence the findings. I personally know a forester contracted by the Sierra Club to do research regarding the (then) proposed Sequoia National Monument. When preliminary findings did not support the Sierra Club’s preferred results, the project was discontinued. I know another researcher contracted by the National Audubon Society; when his preliminary findings did not support their bias, they confiscated his camera and halted the study.

The faculty, student body, and the university’s administration recognize that the state’s funding of the university’s research needs will only continue to decrease, at least in the near term. Focusing on flaws in funding sources does not solve that problem. Rather, focusing on firewalling research from biases in design, implementation, and results, is a discussion worth having.

Norm Benson
Lower Lake, CA

UPDATE (3 August 2010):

I have been contacted by the Daily Californian. They will “strongly consider publishing” my response. Stay tuned…


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