October 10, 2018

US lags in reacting to longterm trends in energy, pollution, and global warming

After the American Century

The times are out of joint. The short term outlook is good, if by this one means unemployment is low, interest rates are low, economic growth stronger than it has been in years. But the long term outlook is terrible, if by this one means global warming, species extinction, political polarization, and overuse of the earth's resources.
Image result for cartoon - man tripping and falling


So the question becomes, at what historical moment will these short and long-term trends intersect? When will pollution become so severe that it hurts the economy, for example? When these two trends meet, pulling and pushing in opposite directions, the short-term ones will lose the battle.

Some countries are far more ready to weather this storm when it comes. Holland builds dikes; the US builds on the flood plain and offers FEMA support to rebuild there after hurricane winds destroy homes schools, prisons, etc. Holland obviously is smarter about this than the US. Some countries are going in for recycling in a big way. Some countries are reducing their use of fossil fuels, requiring effective insulation of all new houses, building mass transit, etc  But the US is not doing these things

Instead, the Trump Administration is allowing pollution levels to rise, denying the existence of global warming, pushing for greater use of coal, and opening new lands to oil and gas exploration. These actions are setting the US on the course toward failure. When the long term trends overtake us, as they must, the effects are going to be more strongly felt in the US economy because we did not get ready.

I could produce statistics to back up all these points, but those who don't believe in any of these long term trends are not going to be convinced. So we drift on, embracing the failed policies of the past. Assuming humanity survives for at least several more centuries, the chapter on how the US faded away as the world leader will make for melancholy reading. After the American century, indeed.


July 31, 2018

How I came to write a novel: McSocrates


After the American Century



Once upon a time I was in England for a semester of research, and after several months I had exhausted all the local archival materials. Not that my project was done, but there was nothing more to do there. At first I was bored, but then I decided to try writing a little fiction. I had often thought about writing a novel, but I always seemed too busy. And what kind of a career move was it for a historian to write a novel anyway?

As it happened, not only was I a bit bored but the weather turned inclement. Rain and yet more rain, all spring. And so I started a short story, or so I imagined, one set in a small college in upstate New York. I know quite a bit about small colleges, as my father taught at Trinity College, Hartford, and I went to Amherst College. Later I taught for a few years at Union College, and I have also lectured at quite a few colleges over the years. In the novel I did not model Socrates College on any of these individual places, nor is its faculty like that at any one institution, though a few former colleagues have been gathered together at this new location. In any case, I did not have a plan worked out for a novel, but was just trying to write a short story.

Then something quite unexpected happened. After describing the campus and introducing several characters, a woman suddenly appeared. I had expected the main character to be Al Thayer, a middle-aged historian whose work focused on Renaissance Italy. But I began to make snide remarks about him, and after just a few pages, Michelle Jensen, a young woman drove an old Chevy into the manuscript and just took over as the main character. The book also became more irreverent and satirical. And what had been a short story grew to over 50,000 words. Fortunately, I know several women roughly the same age as Michelle, and they were willing to read the manuscript. To my relief, they found her credible, but they had helpful advice on her clothing and vocabulary.

By the time I had completed the first draft, I was back in Denmark, where full-time teaching and research demanded all my time. I completed the historical study I had begun in England, and it was published by MIT Press. A year after I started my inadvertent novel, it was almost forgotten, and for a year I did not look at it. When I eventually did, I liked it more than expected. I made a few revisions, forgot about it again, and then made further revisions one summer later. I also got feedback from several more readers. At this point, I realized that the little book was done. But I was afraid to publish it. After writing many historical works, conceivably it would tarnish my reputation, to the extent I had one. Nor did I relish the prospect of probable rejection from commercial publishers.

This summer I have screwed up my courage, made a final edit, and put the book out with Amazon. Since it deals with academic life and with the effects of digitization on a college campus, it may be of interest to some.

February 22, 2018

The Energy Transition from Gas to Electricity

American Illuminations: The Energy Transition from Gas to Electricity

After the American Century



In 1900 the city of Cincinnati sent a small group around to ten other cities to study their lighting systems. Cincinnati had an old gas system and wanted to upgrade it. It may seem strange to us today, but it was by no means obvious that they should choose electricity. Gas lighting had improved greatly in the 1890s, and when the Cincinnati committee got to St. Louis they were told that while electricity was popular with the citizens, it was rather expensive and was only used on a few streets. Elsewhere, St. Louis was going to use Welsbach gas mantles. The committee next went to Indianapolis, but its system was not cutting edge and left immediately for Chicago, where they heard that of course the city was converting everything to electricity. But in Milwaukee, they learned that gas was preferred.

And so it went. The choices were also more complex than just gas or electricity, for there were many different kinds of arc lights, some open, others enclosed, some using alternating current and others direct current. The committee also had the problem that they wanted to compare systems side by side, but they were hundreds of miles apart. How could they compare the electrical system in Pittsburgh with the gas system in St. Louis? They might see one city when the moon was shining and another when it was raining. The problem is much like that of a city buying a technical system today, and it is not always clear which system is the optimal choice.  

This is just one of many stories in American Illuminations which looks at how Americans developed the most brightly lighted cities in the world by the end of the nineteenth century. The larger story includes the spectacular displays at world's fairs, the development of "moonlight towers" and electric signs, the illumination of skyscrapers, the invention of the city skyline, the lighting of amusement parks, the city beautiful movement, and the many uses of electric lighting in parades and politics, particularly presidential inaugurations. 

Walter Benjamin once wrote that "overabundance of light produces multiple blindings." Read this book, and see if you agree.

February 02, 2018

Our energy transition

After the American Century

We are living in the midst of an energy transition, shifting away from fossil fuels to solar, wind, biomass, and other forms of alternative energy. The price of solar power has been dropping rapidly during the last five years, and is now a cheaper source of electricity than windmills and more importantly, cheaper than coal. The price differences will become even larger, as new R&D keeps finding greater efficiencies, and manufacturers achieve economies of scale in production.

Danish windmills

The energy transition is taking place most rapidly not in the nations that were dominant in the old oil-coal-gas energy regime, such as the United States, but rather in nations which do not possess many fossil fuel resources but do have lots of sun, wind, or thermal heat.  Chile, for example, has all three of these, and will soon be supplying most of its energy needs from windmills along its long coastline and solar installations in the large desert region in the north. When I visited Chile last year to attend a conference on energy transitions, I heard many people talk about the vast exports of energy that were possible, too, once high tension lines reached into other South American countries.  Iceland is a leader in thermal heating and thermal electricity, and sunny Portugal is also rapidly becoming a player in alternative energy. 

Old fossil fuel economies are not as quick to change, and they are behaving in quite different ways. Germany has invested heavily in solar and wind power, creating thousands of jobs, and its official policy is to close nuclear plants and get rid of fossil fuels as soon as possible. Britain seems unable to give up nuclear power as a fantasy solution, but meanwhile is muddling through and headed toward more alternative energies, though not with the same pace and determination as Germany. France has long invested heavily in atomic reactors, and of all the nations in the world, has the greatest dependence on them. 

The United States is divided, on this as on everything else these days. Some states, notably California, Massachusetts, and New York, are acting like Europeans, becoming more energy efficient, while investing in alternative power. In contrast, the Deep South until quite recently has invested almost nothing in alternative energies, and uses about twice as much energy per capita as the three states just mentioned. The Federal government is rather schizophrenic, with programs from the Obama years designed to increase energy efficiency and move toward wind and solar power, but run by Trump appointees who are undercutting the programs. Meanwhile, Trump is a strong supporter of the fossil fuel industries, particularly coal. One hopes he will be the last such president, for the long term health of the American economy depends on making the transition quickly, rather than lagging behind. Interestingly, some "red"states in the western US that usually vote Republican are nevertheless rapidly adopting wind mills, because their region happens to have steady, strong wind. This is in contrast to the American South, while has good sun but little wind except for that blasts of hot air coming from its politicians.

China is investing heavily in alternative power systems, and more recently India has begun to cancel plans to build new fossil fuel electrical plants, choosing alternative energies instead. The change is driven by falling costs at least as much as by environmental idealism.

How long will this take? Based on previous energy transitions, which I have studied, the shift in energy regimes takes at least 30 years, normally. But in the past the changes were driven by prices and the comparative versatility and convenience of different sources of power. For example, in factories steam power was not as flexible as electrical power. On the other hand, in 1910 gasoline engines were more convenient on the whole that electric motors to power automobiles, because batteries were not good enough. That problem seems to be all but solved, now, but it took more than a century.  How long will the transition as a whole take? Perhaps only a decade or two more in countries that are really trying to make the change, like Portugal and Chile. Sadly, the US, once a leader in the transition to fossil fuels and again a leader in electrification, is falling behind. The Republican Party is largely responsible, but the Democrats also share some of the blame. US energy policy has been a battlefield for decades. 

The big question is whether in the world as a whole the transition will come quickly enough to overcome the destructive effects of global warming. Since the current US government has adopted the policy of denying the reality of climate change, our hopes will have to rest with the US state governments, thoughtful corporations that shift to energy efficiency and alternative energies (such as Apple), and most importantly, other nations. In this particular area, we do seem to be living "after the American century."  

For anyone interested, I wrote about the earlier energy transition from gas to electricity as the source of lighting in a book that is about to be published, American Illuminations  MIT Press, 2018.

January 20, 2018

Republicans Vote for a Shutdown

Republicans vote for a shutdown

After the American Century


Only 45 Republicans voted for the budget bill that would keep the government open. They have 51 seats, barely enough for a majority, but need more than a simple majority. Under Senate rules, they need 60 votes to end debate and then vote on the bill. According to the New York Times, five Republicans who voted against included the majority leader, Mitch "ConMan" McConnell. He voted against his own party, and yet was later on the radio blaming the Democrats for shutting down the government. John McCain, who is not in good health, was the only senator who did not vote.

McConnell has been an incompetent, self-serving embarrassment as party leader. So little legislation has been passed in the last year and he has been so divisive, that he ought to resign and let someone else try their hand at it. Consider the situation. There ought to have been a budget by Christmas, but instead, McConnell only produced a continuing resolution that kicked the can down the road to yesterday's deadline. There is still no budget, and the Democrats were asked once again to vote for a temporary extension of last year's budget. This is no way to run the legislature. If the Republicans cannot manage to produce a budget when they control both houses of Congress and the White House, it is a sign of gross incompetence. 

Not all Democrats were against the bill. Five supported it, including te newly seated Doug Jones from Alabama. He voted for the bill, though one might have thought that a lawyer famous for defending civil rights might have voted no. The other Democratic turncoats were, like Jones, from swing states where moderation is the safe road to re-election: North Dakota, Missouri, West Virginia, and Indiana.

For readers abroad, who may not know what this means, the shutdown only affects the Federal government. I heard an incompetent "expert" on the radio this morning declare that because of the shutdown all the schools in the US would close on Monday and that no one would be able to take a driving test. This is not the case, as both are State (not Federal) functions. Likewise, if someone needs a marriage license, that is a local matter. But a shutdown, at least in theory, could stop airport security (it will not) and close all the national parks (it will). The tax offices will be closed and all federal employees in Washington will get an unpaid "vacation" until Congress starts to do its job.

Meanwhile, the Republicans will try to convince the public that the Democrats are responsible for the shutdown.