Down with Monotheism

Monotheism amounts to an imperialistic assertion of primacy.  That sounds like one of those wild-eyed slogans from the radical left or right.  But in fact it is a simple statement of what drives quite a lot of policy, both domestic and international.

Let’s start close to home.   In both Britain and the US there is a big problem with past imperial grandeur.  The Brits just can’t get over their lost empire, and they keep doing completely illogical and crazy things (e.g. Brexit) in hopes of getting it back.  The fact that the world has changed since then, with new powers and new bases for strength doesn’t register.  Since the empire is taken to be an expression of British superiority (and of God’s grace raining down on Britain) there is no reason why it can’t just happen again.  There is only one God and he’s ours.

The US has a similar problem, just a little later in time.  We had the 1950’s and even 60’s when in the years following the destruction of the World War II the US was unquestionably the world’s only remaining superpower.  If anything we were more dominant than the British as their peak.  And we’re just as blind in looking back to it.  Our dominance was a result of national superiority and God’s grace.   We are the chosen rulers of the world and there’s nothing that ought to stop that.

The Chinese and the Russians have similar issues.  Having lived in Italy at one point, there’s more than a bit of it (going back several centuries) there too.

The Old Testament (as I understand it) had a more limited notion of monotheism:  each nation had it’s own god or gods and international struggles were also struggles of those gods.  That sounds a little more accurate.  Contemporary monotheism amounts to assertions of primacy.  An astounding percentage of Americans are ready to talk about God’s protective shield over the US and our God-given role in running the rest of the world.  That gets in the way of any notion international cooperation or any workable national objectives.  With God on your side, reality just doesn’t matter.

The Brits have already driven themselves to at least a short-term future of poverty.  It is relevant to notice—although seldom mentioned—that the pre-EO version of Britain was much slower than the continent in recovering from World War II and generally poorer per capita. 

The US is on the brink of doing the same thing.  We’ve got a dictatorial theocracy going, as well as a “we don’t need anyone” ethos on the right that denies any need to interact with the rest of the world except under terms of dominance.  Furthermore the pervasive xenophobia denies the (currently enormous) contribution of foreigners to the economic strength of the US.

However the biggest problems are not even that.  As climate change and also Covid and the Ukraine crisis show us, we have only one world.  All the national gods are going to have to cooperate if we’re going to get out of this mess.  Enough with national monotheism.

We’re Doing Climate—Next the Court

Schumer and Manchin seem finally to have reached agreement on meaningful climate action. If we can do that, the next step has got to be reforming the Supreme Court.

This Court is responsible for even more than it gets blamed for.  Roe v Wade is the tip of the iceberg.  This court is dedicated to the project of overturning democracy by enforcing and maintaining minority rule.

That starts with the defense of gerrymandering.  This is the single most important factor in the polarization of the political environment—a political minority is given vastly exaggerated and untouchable power.  Punting to Congress is a joke, since that asks the beneficiaries to give up power. To that gets added Citizens United and the provocatively-announced ruling on “replacement electors.”

As both Alito and Thomas have made clear, this court has decided to use its unchallenged power to rule—and the proper response of the population should be obedience. Democracy has no place is this vision.

Changing the Court’s size is a matter that requires majorities in both houses of Congress and the President.  Democrats have that.  Taking that action is not radical.   What is radical is a rogue Supreme Court that is using it’s unchallengable powers to rule—certainly not the intention of the founding fathers.  It should of course be noted who is actually rulling—the Koch organization that created and managed the  Federlist Society, to which all conservative justices have dedicated their careers.

This is a chance to save democracy in this country.  Second only to saving the planet.

The Mid-Terms are It

There’s nothing particularly novel about this conclusion, but it still needs to be said over and over again. There is only one objective now: the midterm elections. With the current activist Supreme Court there’s no telling how much damage will be done in two years or what elections will look like in 2024.

This Supreme Court has asserted it’s right to impose a belligerent, unpopular theocracy. And that’s just the beginning. The conservative justices all come from the Koch organization’s Federalist Society, whose end goal is business control of government and elimination of all regulation and social services. That may sound far-fetched, but so did the complete elimination of Roe v Wade.

The Court has pointedly said it would review state plans for “alternative electors.” That would potentially allow gerrymandered legislatures to override electoral results. Such proposals are crafted to give all electoral power to those gerrymandered legislatures–even governors (some are Democrats) have no say. This Court is controlled by Republicans in the mold of Mitch McConnell. They have no qualms about doing what’s best for them, and they can hide (as usual) behind calling it states’ rights. With enough states tied up in this way, it may well become impossible to elect anyone but a Koch-approved President.

The Supreme Court has to be reformed before it completes its takeover of the country. That requires workable majorities in both the House and Senate, which sounds like a heroic task. However the point is not that it’s easy; the point is that there is an actual path to saving the country from the Koch coup. There are enough seats up for grabs in the Senate. Retaining the House will be harder.

For the House people have just got to realize what’s at stake. Roe v Wade is bad enough as it is, but it’s also a sign of what’s coming. No labor protections, no help for the environment, no government role for healthcare or Social Security. The USA as Brazil, with all but a few of us living in the slums of Rio and ready to be undone by climate change.

We have an opportunity to preserve our country before it’s turned into something unrecognizeable. And that’s not just for Democrats. This is a new bout of Prohibition with religious vigilantes telling everyone how to live their lives. And the powers pushing hardest for gun rights really want those guns in the hands of private Pinkerton militias, just like in the good old days of the nineteenth century. The Koch people are nobody’s friends.

This year is it. Forget everything else. It’s amazing we have a chance.

On Climate, to fight back we just need to think wider

The Supreme Court, Manchin, and the Senate Republicans have now made it much harder for the United States to do anything substantial about domestic usage of fossil fuels.  It’s hard not to get worked up about this, as the perpetrators are self-serving traitors to both our country and the rest of the world.  But that doesn’t mean there is nothing to be done.

The thing we keep forgetting is that there is only one world atmosphere.   There are other ways—beyond our own consumption—that we can use to affect the world’s climate.  It was never the case that climate was just a matter of doing our own thing.  We rich countries were always going to have to do what it takes to reduce CO2 from anywhere.   We just have to step up the effort to make sure climate is a big part of everything we do. 

I’m in no position to put numbers on this, but my guess is that we can achieve a sizeable chunk of what we say we’re losing.  The Ukraine war has already delivered given a big boost to the demand for electric cars.  We need to upgrade our electrical infrastructure to deal with the consequences—the car manufacturers are going catch up with demand.   Even if we can no longer require renewable power generation, there is a lot that needs to be done with transmission and distribution regardless. Infrastructure is necessary climate work (just like EV’s themselves or even heat pumps) though it doesn’t deliver results until the power generation change is complete.

Beyond that I’d start by focusing on our military and the Ukraine war.  Climate is after all a national security issue.   There is a lot of money authorized for both, and we need to start climate actions—foreign and domestic—associated with it.  Many people have spoken about climate backsliding from the Ukraine war, so we need to spend some of that money on compensating projects.   All of our foreign aid money—especially military (since that’s largest piece)—should be reorganized around climate.  That includes project financing and what we do about the third-world fallout from the Ukraine war.

We also need to be spending real research and development money on ways to reduce carbon dioxide production from industrial processes–not just here but in other countries such as India.

Biden has lost power to specifically address domestic usage, but it’s very important to recognize that we have other ways for the Executive to address climate issues.  We just have to start thinking more widely now.

We’re Wrong About Divisions

The most important division in American society is not between Republicans and Democrats.  It’s within the Democratic Party itself.

As an indication of what I’m talking about, I think about an episode of the program Peaky Blinders.  In that episode the hero Thomas Shelby’s sister’s boyfriend is a communist, and the hero has to figure out how to keep him alive.  When the subject comes up with the police, the answer is “Normally we don’t have to worry about those people.  They’re so busy killing each other that they’re just not a problem.”

The Republicans can say amen to that for our tamer version of the left:

  • We’re still living down “defund the police”
  • We’ve had an endless supply of articles about how privileged, racist whites just have to get used to taking a well-deserved hit, including for education.
  • Virtually any statement made about “neo-liberals” is a whitewashing of Republican failures so that chosen Democrats can be blamed instead. One hopes George W. Bush is duly grateful.
  • We had a chance to pass a Biden agenda, but the Democratic Party spent so much time posturing and pretending that Manchin and Sinema didn’t exist that when they finally got around to voting it was too late–inflation was THE issue and it was easy for Manchin to hide. The left wing of the party is gleefully blaming Biden, without any alternative policy or blame for Republicans.
  • Democrats are actually fighting over whether Biden will be the nominee in 2024—when the real issue is the 2022 midterm election.  The only result of this fight is weaking the remaining days of the Biden administration and undermining the Democrats’ message for 2022.

With friends like this who needs enemies.  As in the Peaky Blinders quote, they hate each other so much that it trumps any desire to do anything good for anybody. It’s hard even to count the self-inflicted wounds.

Just think about it.  That Democrats can do anything good at all—given this nonsense—means that they could perhaps do something really big if they could get organized and stop the knife stabbing. If they stopped providing amunition to Republicans, they might just be able bridge the other divisions we hear so much about.

The One Million Covid Victims Have a Message

At least half of these deaths were due to deliberate misinformation from political interests calling the whole pandemic a left-wing plot.  For month after month the most popular story in the Wall Street Journal was the latest reason why there was really nothing going on:  it was just like normal flu; it was worst in New York because it was only in disgusting cities full of disgusting people.

Everyone in the country suffered, including very many who bought into the party line because they thought the propagandists were on their side.  Since vaccines were coming, deaths delayed could be deaths avoided. What’s worse, almost of half the people who died were unvaccinated when they could have been, convinced by the arguments of people like the Fox hosts-who were actually vaccinated for themselves.

This Covid story is unfortunately typical of what’s happening in this country.  The “populists” are the Kochs and the Mercers and the Thiels—people with the money to fill newspapers with issues they don’t care about (abortion, guns) so they can ride them all the way to the bank.  The only major piece of legislation passed in the Trump years was the monumental tax cut for the rich.  As with Covid, the supporters drawn in with identity issues are the ones who will suffer—in jobs, healthcare, education, climate, you name it.

Taking this one step further, it is worth noting that the damage with Covid was not from action but from inaction.  Most of the endless discussions of our fractured political system are missing the point.  The country is ungovernable because they want it that way.  If government can’t act, the powers that be are running things.  As Steve Bannon put it, all we need to do is create chaos. 

This story isn’t complicated, just lost in the cacophony of bought media.

The Climate Argument Against Gas for Europe is Counterproductive Nonsense

There have been many articles about how the plans to provide US natural gas to Europe will undermine progress on climate.  This is a false conflict between climate progress and support to Ukraine.

First of all there is a timeframe difference.  What matters for Ukraine is a show of Western resolve now.  Even a year from now the situation in Ukraine will hopefully be different.  It’s going to take at least that long for much to happen with natural gas terminals here or elsewhere.  There is no reason to undermine the support for Ukraine now.  

Second the argument that anything we build will be used for years afterwards—however frequently it is made—is wrong.  Terminals will be used as long as there is demand for their capacity.   If Europe, for whatever reason, weans itself off natural gas, then those terminals will not be used even if we want them to be.

Third the gas to be provided by the agreement is both insufficient and expensive.  We would only be providing one third of the current demand and the pricing is expected to be twice what is currently paid.  The agreement in fact provides a very strong incentive for the Europeans to get themselves off natural gas.

People who fight this agreement on climate grounds are doing no cause a favor.

A Serious Climate Scenario

It seems to me more important than ever that we think about real scenarios for dealing with climate change.  There’s so much religion here that we can be missing the boat.  I’m going to take an extreme position in this piece, both because I think it should be on the table and because I think it’s more likely than a lot of what is taken for granted. 

I believe that fusion is going to work and be deployable in about the next ten years.  We’re going to know quite soon where that stands.  Both the Commonwealth Fusion people and Helion (among others) plan to generate net positive energy by 2025. There are also regularly new developments: more powerful magnets, longer plasma retension times, higher energies attained, even AI-based methods for controlling stability of reactor plasmas.  Higher temperature superconductors have been game-changers.  It is time to be serious about fusion.

The consequence is that we are entering (in the relatively near term) into an era not of energy scarcity but of energy abundance.  That’s not just a matter of fusion—solar, wind, and better in-network storage also contribute—but fusion represents real abundance. That’s a different mindset with different conclusions than most of what gets discussed.  I’ve argued earlier that it’s the proper mindset for the long-term, because it is the only serious way to address our worldwide problems.  The difference is that progress in fusion has been such that we can move that indefinite future to the nearer term.

With that point of view, we can view the response to climate change as two distinct issues:

– Keeping things from getting too bad in the interim while the new energy sources get up to speed.

– Deploying abundant energy to combat climate change.

It’s important to look at the second issue first, because the first (assuming we can solve it) is temporary.  The architecture for the second issue is relatively straightforward.   We’re going to have generation stations of significant size with high-capacity interconnection for distribution to users.   Electricity will be the basic form in which energy is delivered, but we’re going to have to deal with significant applications (industrial processes, air travel) where electricity itself is not the answer.  For such applications we’ll need ways to convert electricity to other forms of energy.  That may involve using electricity to make hydrogen or using electricity to achieve climate neutrality by pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere for synthetic fuels. (It’s interesting that carbon capture has value even without large-scale CO2 storage.)

The most important conclusion is straightforward:  we’re going to have to vastly increase and improve the facilities to generate and distribute electricity!  That is job number one and the most essential thing to be spending money on.  Existing technology will contribute to but not solve that problem.  We also need to figure out how to move everything that isn’t currently electric onto that network.  Note that ultimately it is much less important how efficiently we use electricity than that electricity is what’s used.  We’re not getting rid of air conditioners, and we’re not making sure that every electric hot water heater has a heat pump.

As to how we’re going to survive until then, the most important message is that survival means focusing on heavy hitters.  It is not the case that every little bit helps.  I’ve given this chart before for energy use in the US:

The key sectors are transportation, industrial, and electric power—not residential.  Electric cars are clearly an important contributing technology, but even they are only an infrastructure investment until the underlying power plants are converted.

For the rest of the world, the corresponding charts can be quite different, often tilted toward industrial uses. Focusing exclusively on the US distorts the issue.   We have to get world CO2 emissions down overall, regardless of where it comes from.  This is not a question of “every country needs to do its part”.  It’s a question of the most effective way to get the CO2 total down fast

We have to think about where all the sources are and how to get at them.  Carbon pricing schemes such as CCL are particularly helpful because of their wide impact. In this country a simple calculation tells you that the current annual subsidy to fossil fuel interests is about a trillion dollars, so we’re a long way from a rational economy. Putting solar panels on suburban roof tops—however useful—is not commensurate with the problem.  Furthermore, as the following chart indicates, we rich countries need to get used to the idea of helping the others in a big way or the job will never get done!


As the latest IPCC report (2/28/2022) put it: “Rich governments must quickly and dramatically scale up the level of adaptation finance for low-income countries.”

Or else—there’s no getting around it—we’ll end up stuck with geoengineering and hope for the best.  Simply stated (for those who haven’t heard) geoengineering delays global warming by filling the atmosphere with chemicals that put the whole world in shade. That can stop most (but not all) aspects of climate change, but with many known and unknown risks. 

It’s hard to come to a proper judgment of geoengineering. On one hand, it’s exceedingly scary to start messing with the whole world’s atmosphere, but on the other hand we don’t yet have all the technologies we need and we’ve been slow to deploy the ones we do have, so we may well need to be buying time. One can argue that geoengineering reduces the motivation for alternative energy progress, but that work today seems to have its own motivation. So in the end there is nothing immoral about geoengineering, and we may have to use it.  But given the risks and the fact that all that extra CO2 has to come out before we can quit, we had better do as little of it as possible. (These systems require regular replenishing, so turning them off isn’t a big issue; getting rid of the extra carbon dioxide is.)

You might wonder at this point why we brought up geoenginerring instead of the much-discussed topic of carbon capture? There’s a good reason. Despite all of the publicity around it, there’s no near-term silver bullet with carbon capture. For the yearly CO2 production in the US we would need huge infrastructure of processing plants full of giant fans—a multi-trillion dollar project using enormous amounts of energy to build and run it. And that’s before you even start to talk about where to put the output. The main reason carbon capture has such prominence is that it plays to the fossil fuel companies’ delaying tactics—if we can get rid of the carbon dioxide later, why worry about creating it now? Carbon capture is a project of energy abundance, AFTER we have somehow managed to survive. Going forward, unburning everything you burn is only sensible in particular application areas (e.g. air travel) where there is nothing else to be done.

Climate change unavoidably means a huge, expensive project—which is why it is important to be clear about what we’re doing.  As general principles, conservation for conservation’s sake is wrong, a focus on local issues is wrong, and an exclusive focus on current technology is wrong.  What’s right is to recognize that the future requires an electrical infrastructure capable of driving everything and that in the near-term we have to avoid distractions and focus on heavy hitters—worldwide—to keep from going over the edge.  Near-term and long-term projects are not necessarily the same. Finally we should realize that despite our current concerns, we are actually moving toward a period of abundant energy with enormous benefits for all—if we can stop fighting over the pieces of a pie that will become much bigger.

As an analogy I remember the early days of voice over IP networks, where the whole focus was how we would ever meet the realtime performance needs of speech.  It wasn’t so many years later that those same networks were handling realtime video to hundreds of millions of people worldwide—and voice was an almost invisible blip.   That’s the kind of transformation we’re talking about.  Limitless clean energy will change the world.