Casaubon's Book

Totally Awesome!

Once upon a time, before I descended into parenthood and dull stability, I was out with a group of friends who had, let’s just say, been drinking quite a bit. One of the young men in this group proposed to two others that they do something that was, to put it bluntly, totally moronic and likely to get them into enormous trouble. One of the gentlemen to whom this had been proposed thought for a moment, and then observed that this was likely to bring down the authorities upon them. The third gentleman responded to this with, “Yeah, but it would be awesome!” After a brief moment’s consideration, both of the other young men shrugged, bowed to the weight of reason brought to bear by the assertion of awesomeness, set aside trifling considerations like ending up in jail, and went off to perform the moronic act in question which had, pretty much, the expected consequences.

From this lesson I derived the knowledge that sometimes the perception of awesomeness is all, even when it ought to be (but isn’t) accompanied by the perception of stupidness. For some incomprehensible reason, I was thinking of this as I read Dave Cohen’s very funny (in a horrible way) piece on the NAS’s enthusiasm for the use of methane hydrates as a source of fuel.
We must consider The Importance of Methane Hydrate to the Nation.

Ensuring reliable sources of natural gas is of significant strategic interest to the United States… Natural gas is the cleanest of all the fossil fuels, emitting from 25 to 50 percent less carbon dioxide than either oil or coal for each unit of energy produced. In recent years, natural gas has supplied approximately 20-25 percent of all energy consumed in the United States.

Accumulations of methane hydrate, a solid form of natural gas, may represent an enormous source of methane [See the Figure above]… Although the estimated total global volume of methane in methane hydrate is still debated, generally acknowledged estimates yield figures between 2 and 10 times greater than those of technically recoverable conventional natural gas resources. The existence of such a large and as-yet untapped methane hydrate resource has provided a strong global research incentive to determine how methane from methane hydrate might be produced as a technically safe, environmentally compatible, and economically competitive energy resource.

Although methane is a cleaner-burning energy source than other fossil fuels, it is itself a significant greenhouse gas, about 25 times more potent per molecule than carbon dioxide on a 100-year basis. Thus, understanding the potential environmental impacts of methane hydrate degassing and the seafloor hazard (“geohazard”) potential resulting from methane hydrate dissociation, whether through natural processes or through oil and gas drilling and production, are also important as its potential for commercial production is considered and tested.

Well, of course, this makes sense. We wouldn’t want to inadvertently disturb a big patch of methane hydrates, which might lead to the release of a shitload of gas into the water column, which would eventually lead to its bubbling out of the sea and into the atmosphere.

You see, if the methane in ocean floor hydrates gets loose, that’s much, much worse than if we successfully capture it, pipe it somewhere and burn it. In this latter case, we only get the carbon emissions from burning the “pure” natural gas (CH4), not the full-blown greenhouse effects of unadulterated methane in the atmosphere, which converts to CO2 over time there–it’s 25 times more potent per molecule [as a greenhouse gas] than carbon dioxide on a 100-year basis.

Methane hydrates are stable under low temperatures and high
pressures. So, I guess you could say that by capturing & burning
the natural gas in ocean floor hydrates, we would be actually saving the planet from the future ruin we might incur if the deep oceans were to warm sufficiently–due to the burning of fossil fuels like natural gas–to cause natural degassing.

Got it?

Perhaps you were a bit concerned for a little while here about the consequences of exploiting methane hydrates. But as I’ve just explained to you, there’s no need to worry about it–it’s all good!

It does sound like this particular NAS research group has been out sucking down the Jagermeister, and has now decided that the awesomeness of methane hydrates outweigh the very real risks of trying to exploit them. The awesomeness of the hydrates is this – they are a potential source of energy that would allow us to keep up our ridiculous rate of consumption without actually having to deal with energy constraints. Since we’ve already pretty much decided that we’re going to do shit about global warming, we might as well not worry about it – remember, this is awesome.

And the problem with this is not the shift to drunken report-writing of the NAS, it is this – the combination of our need to cling to the familiar and our taste for the shiny and awesome have the potential to do more harm than our other worst traits. I have often wondered whether we will destroy the earth, in the end, mostly because it is cool and we can.

The good news is that awesomeness is not only destructive, and drunks are easily led. While they may sometimes get fixated on telling you how much they really, truly love you, or on what the true lyrics to “Sweet Home Alabama” were in the original draft of the song, they also can be fixated on things that other people think are awesome. Perhap this committee of the NAS can be redirected into some useful purpose simply by pointing out that not raising the world’s temperature by 7 or 8 degrees might be totally, totally awesome!

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Greenpa
    February 11, 2010

    That’s a big ouch for the National Academy.

    Big Scientists are not in the least immune to the various forms of human stupidity. I collect stories on that topic, for a book someday maybe, and I’ll add this one.

    I’ll tell just one short one- a very close Real Thinker friend of mine, who often goes disguised as a Big Scientist, was visiting the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, to give a talk, and powow.

    The Big Scientist Administrator was giving him the grand tour, focused mainly on the new plans, now with Funding! for expansion. “Right here is where we’re going to be building our new main laboratory facility! It will have (BLAH BLAH ETC)! built right in and will be THE PREMIER research facility of its type IN THE WORLD!”

    They were standing looking at a big flat field, about 1 foot above sea level, next to the harbor there. My friend, in his foolish way, just blurted out what he was actually thinking- “But- LOOK, it’s your own researchers who are leading the predictions and discussions on sea level rise! According to YOUR people- the sea is going to be covering that site in just 30 years or so!”

    The Big Scientist Administrator froze for about 15 seconds, then shook it off like a dog coming out of a pond; “Yes. Well. And over there is where we’re going to be putting the new…”

    The mind just boggles, doesn’t it? And there you have one of the biggest flaws in our current academic system- that fact that “peer review” can be worse than nothing, as it can easily lead to rejection of sound new ideas, and the fortification of old bad ones, by older, established scientists- who nonetheless have only a human brain to work with.

  2. #2 Edward Bryant
    February 11, 2010

    I think each sex has certain strengths and weaknesses. Men need women to dope slap them when they are off being too clever by half and carried away with their own brilliance.

    Maybe I am generalizing from personal experience, but that is what happens in my house.

  3. #3 darwinsdog
    February 11, 2010

    Hubris, on the part of humans, was said to be the only sin the gods would never, ever, forgive.

    Any scenario regarding the future needs to factor in the unintended consequences of well meant actions. Along with those of purposefully malevolent actions. Along with the synergisms & potentiations among & between actions. In other words, whatever you think the future may hold, it’s likely to be even worse than that. Failure to take the nonadditive interaction components (1 bad + 1 bad = 5 bads) into account would lead to ruin, if ruin were not a foreordained conclusion.

  4. #4 Brad K.
    February 11, 2010

    Maybe we could suggest the NAS research moon and asteroid mining. If they hit any methane hydrates, they can burn it or bottle it and send it home. Or, if it raised the temps a few tens or hundreds of degrees, at least it isn’t affecting Earth’s climate.

    But from what you posted, it looks like the methane hydrates are already being disturbed by current and ongoing oil and other exploration and exploitation. That is, it is already releasing methane, the methane is just not being captured in some instances. It would be too much to stop and consider, wow! I guess we shouldn’t drill here!

    I wonder if they have looked into using methane hydrate to extract gold from the ocean? Or maybe use methane hydrate to reduce radioactive waste to strontium-90, calcium, vitamin B-12, hydrogen, radioactive methane, and ozone? Wouldn’t that save the planet!

  5. #5 Jim Thomerson
    February 11, 2010

    I have thought natural(?)release of methane from thawing permafrost, as well as release from methane hydrate, as a result of global warming is a major concern. Seems to me it is a positive feedback mechanism which will exacerbate the situation.

  6. #6 Don
    February 12, 2010

    When I read Cohen’s column, I wasn’t sure he wasn’t being serious. Thanks for letting me it was intended as humor–even if it’s rather grim humor.

  7. #7 The Gregarious Misanthrope
    February 12, 2010

    The concerns over destroying the Earth are way overblown. We’ll simply alter it enough that it can no longer support our existence, at least not in our current density. Sure, thousands or millions of species will go extinct in the process, but after we’ve eliminated ourselves, evolution will go on. To the extent the recording of history continues after our brief reign here, history will record us as the first biologically-driven mass extinction. That would be awesome. Yay Humanity!

  8. #8 darwinsdog
    February 12, 2010

    Anthropogenic Mass Extinction isn’t the first biologically driven mass extinction event. When cyanobacteria evolved O2 generating photosynthesis, the rather abrupt (from a geological time perspective) change from reducing to oxidizing ocean & atmosphere forced many obligate anaerobes into marginal anoxic environments but without a doubt likewise drove many extinct. This may not be evident in the fossil record per se, but is implied by the change in chemical composition of rock. The “Big Six” mass extinction events only applies to the Phanerozoic, which accounts for only 1/8 of Earth history.

  9. #9 Dennis Denuto
    February 12, 2010

    Fear successfully promoted over science. Congrats.

    Here is the problem:

    “Well, of course, this makes sense. We wouldn’t want to inadvertently disturb a big patch of methane hydrates, which might lead to the release of a shitload of gas into the water column, which would eventually lead to its bubbling out of the sea and into the atmosphere.”

    But its ok to dig up coal. drill for oil. Much more dangerous and much more dirty options. Oh well.

    There are no “big patches” of hydrates. It is not easy to accidentally disturb. It is not easy for it traverse the water column. And finally, the amount of gas that is naturally bubbling out of the seafloor (thousands of natural seeps in the Gulf of Mexico alone… a huge ongoing seep at Coal Oil Point) due to naturally leaky oil and gas reservoirs are likely to be much greater than the as-yet-unaddressed-by-science risk related to hydrates. But still folks advocate NOT ONLY not producing hydrates, but NOT DOING THE SCIENCE to determine if the hazards are actually real. The NAS report suggests doing the science, and as such, is a very good report and step in the right direction that you should applaud.

  10. #10 The Gregarious Misanthrope
    February 12, 2010

    @darwinsdog
    Then I amend my post to “smart” monkey-driven extinction. Too smart by half it would seem.

    Thanks for the correction. Luckily for us the oxygen deniers of the day won out. Future sentient reptiles or cephalopods will thank us.

  11. #11 Sharon Astyk
    February 12, 2010

    You know, for decades environmentalists and a minority of scientists have been using fear over science to say “look, there is some indication there are serious risks to burning all this shit, maybe we should try and stop.” Oh, wait, maybe we should have stopped 3 decades ago before we got so close to the climate tipping point. The science overwhelmingly said we should go right ahead – until it didn’t anymore, right around the point we started to see the problems. The IPCC didn’t call global warming certain with in the relevant margin until 2006. Fear was right. There are a lot of other examples. The idea that “science” can tell us whether we should go ahead and take a major risk as a society and will always correctly predict consequences is wrong. Sometimes fear is a really good way of noticing that there’s a problem.

    Sharon

  12. #12 Dennis Denuto
    February 12, 2010

    Oh my! Why not leave the anti-intellectualism to the Republican base?

    Right now we are scarring and polluting the entire east with shale wells. No science up front on issue of water quality, etc. Just do it! We are paying a huge price. I know, I live in the midst of it.

    Now, here we have the NRC saying, OK, this looks like it might work after all, we understand the realities here, but lets do the science first to see if its ok or not. And for that, you and others call them idiots. It makes no sense to me whatsoever.

    Fear runs in a lot of directions Sharon. Every wave of immigration created fear. Virtually every change for the good creates fear. Some of these fears are rational and some are not. There is only one way I know of to know the difference. I understand that many choose the easy way of stoking those fears that support their agenda, while righteously mocking those that run against it. My advice is to embrace reason! It will save you from writing stuff like this.

  13. #13 Sharon Astyk
    February 12, 2010

    I just have to add that this is always the argument used by everyone who wants to exploit just one more resource – you are letting fear override science. There is nothing scientific about the decision to exploit, rather than constrain – that’s an ethical decision. There’s nothing scientific about choosing to ignore the precautionary principle. The choices about how we spend our money, time and resources are not, ultimately questions of science. They are ethical questions, and when people imply that science alone can make those decisions – that science must exist unfettered by ethics or other considerations, that’s both a weak argument and creates a science bare of ethics, which is a very dangerous thing indeed. Science can tell us what some potential consequences are and make evaluations within its capacities to understand things – the moral choices belong to the people who will live with the consequences.

    Sharon

  14. #14 Sharon Astyk
    February 12, 2010

    If you think I’m a shale supporter, or unfettered use of energy, you haven’t been reading me. The truth is that science can be blinded by assumptions, as we all know – and the assumptions aren’t necessarily scientific, they are economic and social – bias is a real issue. So our presumption that we have to find more energy sources, we have to find ways of exploiting them has driven us to make some really foolish and dangerous choices in the past. It makes us blind to consequences – it is true that fear can be misused, but it isn’t being misused here. I realize scientists love to believe that this time there won’t be any big unintended consequences to their actions – and yet, we are reaching the point where it is no longer possible to clean up the unintended consequences of scientists who don’t seem to grasp the precautionary principle. When the inevitable “oops” comes a decade or two later, it is inevitably too late.

    This has nothing to do with politics – it isn’t an issue of Republican or Democrat – it is whether wholly unscientific presumptions about our need for growth and expansion should drive science to take unacceptable risks. Your claims seems to be that it should – that just because we’ve already done so and eaten the consquences shouldn’t matter. After all, we know much better now, right?

    Sharon

  15. #15 The Gregarious Misanthrope
    February 12, 2010

    Sharon,

    I tell my global climate change denying friends and coworkers to consider just one point: regardless of what you think of the issue, by producing so much greenhouse gas we are conducting an experiment and we are in the test tube.

    It doesn’t change minds (at least it hasn’t yet), but it gives them a new way to think about it.

  16. #16 Dennis Denuto
    February 12, 2010

    Sharon: “you are passionate, but you do not pursuade.” But I do appreciate the tone, so thank you.

    My view is that you cannot separate ethics from science in public policy. That’s religion. And that does not work. Ever.

    But it is you who make the presumptions. I did not say you were a shale gas supporter (I hope not!). And I did not say we need more energy sources. I said we need different ones. We need at least to study different ones. Hydrate (maybe) has a potential that is real, and that is vastly superior to the environmental rape that is coal extraction and coal consumption. Better than oil. Better than nuclear. It is a combination of pure methane (the most refined fossil fuel nature can produce) and pure water. It’ll never make those dirtier fuels go away, but if we can offset any coal and oil with it, I say amen to that. And amen to wind, and solar, and everything else that just might work.

    And don’t get me started on the rest of the world. Here’s the thing. If you want to discuss the future, you have to be real. You have to work toward solutions that are real. Its like deciding not to spend 20 hrs a day working and pushing for a candidate from the Green Party for US President just because he or she is the best smartest candidate with the best ideas. You have get real, hold your nose and vote for the best viable option. There are billions of people on this planet. Most can’t even dream of the standard of living we have here. Now that we’ve had our ride and some of us are seeing what we’ve done (and are doing) to the planet, we say “well, we had our fun, and now we want the rest of you to go back and live in the stone age.” Ain’t gonna happen. India, China, Japan, Korea – all big into hydrates. They will need the energy. They will not care about the idealism of those that say, don’t improve your lives now. Wait. Again, in this case, hydrates is maybe a way to help deal with this. Make the future a little better. Maybe not as better as you would like. But probably better than your approach is likely to affect. Sorry to say.

    Anyway, to make good and ethical decisions, you need information. That is what the NRC is saying about this. They should not be mocked. They could have said something much stupider and also much more wrong.

    And who’s a climate change denier, TGM? Its not all so black and white you know. Trust me,I know that we are experiencing anthropogenic warming and I know that the reason is fossil fuels.

  17. #17 Greenpa
    February 13, 2010

    Dennis: Sharon is off today, it being Shabbat. So I have a response for you (Sharon, we’ve recently decided here that our Day of Rest is Tuesday.)

    You have a couple of points with assumptions that are widely accepted; but not universally, specifically not by me, and I think Sharon.

    “India, China, Japan, Korea – all big into hydrates. They will need the energy.”

    No, they truly do NOT “need” the energy. Nope. Don’t They WANT it, certainly.

    “They will not care about the idealism of those that say, don’t improve your lives now.”

    The concept that “more stuff” equals “improvement” is what business and advertising has been pushing; but many many people are realising it’s a fallacy- and actually changing their lives to reflect that.

    It is possible – not inevitable, but possible – that enough people in China etc. will be able to go directly to that more advanced realization, and simply skip the “Consume!” stage. There are folks working on facilitating that. Just as many countries are skipping the “land line” stage of telephones and going directly to cell phones.

    That gets to be a very long and complex discussion, but there’s the crux; they DON’T need it; and high energy consumption does NOT equate to “improvement”. And it’s possible they’ll understand that, particularly as they watch us continue to slide downhill.

    Unquestionably, it’s a bit of a long shot that they’ll make the jump, but then everything is looking like a long shot these days. Might as well pull for the less disastrous ones.

  18. #18 Dennis Denuto
    February 13, 2010

    Wow. Simply wow.

    Everybody needs energy Greenpa. It is not even a point worth discussing. And the number of those people who need energy continues to grow.

    I suspect this strange comment on your behalf is based on the westernized over-wealthy viewpoint that energy is only used for consumption, and apparently frivolous consumption at that. I admit that that is the for a good share of the energy use here. But have you ever traveled in these countries? Many many of them live in mud huts and burn cowpies. I don’t think they do that on a whim. And I am not willing to accept that as the natural ultimate fate of mankind, but perhaps that is the future you have in mind for all of us?

  19. #19 Greenpa
    February 13, 2010

    Dennis: ” I admit that that is the for a good share of the energy use here.”

    I DO find it interesting that it was “truth” you subconscious choked on and omitted! (humor)

    “But have you ever traveled in these countries? Many many of them live in mud huts and burn cowpies. I don’t think they do that on a whim.”

    Indeed yes, I have, and spent days in “mud huts” – which were in a non-pejorative framing, traditional earth constructed houses; quite sound, safe, and comfortable. In China they weren’t burning dung, rather rice straw and pine branches, needles attached

    No, it’s NOT a whim- it’s traditional. Oddly, the great civilizations of China and India were constructed by people who lived in mud huts. They seemed to have plenty of time for great literature, great philosophy, great science- and good lives.

    Take a look on my site at how I live, and how long I’ve lived that way. I assure you I am not alone, though admittedly I’m further “out there” – or perhaps, further advanced- than most. Living simply does not require giving anything up, and in fact actually enriches life. I do not pine for cable TV, nor a refrigerator.

    There is a good scientist in California (name, of course, escaping me) who did extensive calculations on “real need”- and determined that in the US we truly need only 1% (one percent) of the energy we consume- industry included, I think.

    He is, of course, extensively ignored and jeered at; but I’m pretty sure he’s very close to right.
    :-)

  20. #20 Dennis Denuto
    February 14, 2010

    Traditional? So is high infant mortality. When you find that 1% link, be sure to post it. It sounds like interesting reading.

    Nonetheless, I will congratulate you on finding a lifestyle that works well for you. I think it might be a very good solution, in an ideal world. Still, I suspect that if you are able to persuade even 1% of humanity to take that path by choice, you would still stand only a meager chance of creating a perceptible impact on the future. Therein lies the rub, I think. Perhaps you feel we will all get there eventually by necessity. You could very well be right. Certainly, your approach would make that a certainty. I, however, do no aspire to have my grand-children living in the “traditional” manner of the peasants of central India. Therefore, I will not mock science as is done here. It is why we do not live as we did in 12th century.

  21. #21 Sharon Astyk
    February 15, 2010

    I’m way behind here ;-), having taken the weekend off. I’m not quite clear on what you mean by not being able to distinguish between science and ethics in public policy – we might agree or not. Do you mean that the ehtical considerations should be wholly the territory of the scientists? I’m not quite sure what you mean by “that’s religion” – religion could be involved in ethical considerations for some people, but so could non-religious ethical considerations. For example, one could argue that only agronomists should be involved in the decision about whether to raise and eat our meat from CAFO sources. Or you could argue that people who eat should have some ethical considerations as well. Some of those might use religious arguments in favor of CAFOs, some might use them against, some might use purely philosophical or ethical ones. I personally would argue that the question of whether CAFOs are good or ethical or safe in our society shouldn’t be left wholly to the agronomists, and that as long as you explain why you are making an ethical argument, specific grounds, religious or not, shouldn’t override the argument itself. But perhaps I’m misunderstanding you.

    I think we agree that we have to be realistic, and we agree that people want to use energy. We also have to agree that the science compelling shows that the kind of risk we’re taking with global warming is an order of magnitude greater than risks we’d be taking almost any other way – no other action of ours has the power to kill so many people. The projections for a 6 degree temp rise work out to make large chunks of the earth unhabitable and deaths in the billions. Not even nuclear war, except on the largest scale, could compete. So I think if we are being realistic, we have to be realistic about what global warming means.

    Sharon