by Geoff Olson

ChinatownIn the 1974 film Chinatown, a private investigator played by Jack Nicholson unravels an intricate scandal involving the fresh water supply of Greater Los Angeles. Towards the end of the film Jake Gittes confronts  Noah Cross, a villainous land baron played by John Huston.

“How much are you worth?” asks Gittes.

“I’ve no idea. How much do you want?” responds Cross.

The gumshoe doesn’t understand why Cross needs to game the L.A. water supply system when he’s already filthy rich. “Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can’t already afford?”

“The future, Mr. Gittes – the future! “exclaims the Stetson-wearing senior.

Lately I’ve been tracking the severe drought in California, grokking the satellite shots of the Sierra Nevada mountain range with its dandruff-like dusting of snow. The state’s two main reservoirs are at less than 40% capacity and aquifer levels are in decline.  Some scientists believe the state is facing a “mega-drought” lasting decades. Doesn’t sound like a future that many Californians can afford.

Some call it the breadbasket of North America.  You certainly can call it a fruit-basket and nut bar. In 2012, California’s GDP beat out Canada’s GDP, so more than your grocery bill is effected by the state’s economy.

Earlier this week my partner sent me a link to an AP news story headlined, “Thirsty almonds roasted in drought-stricken California water debate.” The story claims that  each tiny almond requires 3.8 litres of water to grow. California supplies 80 percent of the world’s almonds, and the crop consumes 4.06 trillion litres annually: “one-fifth more than California families use indoors.”

In December 2014 Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of drought emergency, and this April ordered cities and towns to reduce their water consumption by 25 percent. Agribiz in the state  faces no such restrictions. Noah Cross would have smiled in approval.

I forwarded the almond story to others on my contact list. One responded, “notice how they bury the fact that the biggest user (by far) of fresh water is livestock – this is an almond-crusted red herring!”

Another responded with a link to a headline from Mother Jones magazine: “You thought California’s drought couldn’t get any worse? Enter fracking.” State documents reveal that almost 3 billion gallons of oil industry wastewater have been illegally dumped into central California aquifers that supply drinking water and farming irrigation.

“The wastewater entered the aquifers through at least nine injection disposal wells used by the oil industry to dispose of waste contaminated with fracking fluids and other pollutants,” according to The Centre for Biological Diversity. The fracking chemicals  reportedly include arsenic and thallium, a toxin found in rat poison.

There’s more. Another contact responded with a link on how corn syrup-fed honeybees are trucked into the state to pollinate the almond trees. Feeling like Jake Gittes thumbing through a damning bouquet of receipts, I came across an April 2013 story at phys.org. A  team of entomologists from the University of Illinois found a possible link between “the practice of feeding commercial honeybees high-fructose corn syrup and the collapse of honeybee colonies around the world.” Most corn syrup is made from GMO corn, but the team’s report in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences did not address this angle.

All this info brought to mind a term coined by Canadian political scientist Thomas Homer Dixon: “panarchy.” This refers to the effects of negative social and environmental trends acting in tandem, significantly worse than any or all acting separately.

Nothing is certain in this Hollyweird trailer for the Anthropocene, though I expect the big players won’t feel much pain. Commodity speculators will leverage any food production problems in their favour, and the shale gas industry will move on to poison aquifers elsewhere. Perhaps some young Silicon Valley wunderkind will give a Ted Talk about manufacturing robo-bees for pollination tasks.

Hopefully sanity – and solar-powered desalination – will prevail over the usual suspects doing a Noah Cross with California’s H2O.  In any case, the state’s condition is an object lesson why it’s madness for B.C. to give away its fresh water to Nestle and other corporate players, at $2.25 per 1 million litres.

“The future, Mr. Gittes! The future!”

The Vancouver Courier, Apr. 24


by Geoff Olson

There are two primary formulas connected with the name of Albert Einstein. The first equation ruled the latter half of the 20th century. The second will rule the latter half of the 21st century.

E = mc2 describes the equivalence of mass and energy. It allowed physicists to break open the atomic nucleus like a tiny Pandora’s Box, and enabled military commanders to paint people’s shadows on the streets of Hiroshima.

The lesser known equation, E = hf, was formulated by physicist Max Planck in 1900. Einstein interpreted the emission of electrons from metals struck by radiation – the photoelectric effect – as evidence that light is composed of discrete packets with the energy hf. It was his insight into Planck’s formula that won the frizzy-haired brainiac the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921, and led to the science behind photovoltaic panels.

The Burning Answer: A User’s Guide to the Solar Revolution, makes the case for E = hf over E = mc2.  Author Keith Barnham points out the irony that several of the defeated nations of the second world war, including Germany and Italy, were prohibited from developing nuclear weapons and are now among the world’s leaders in solar technology. The victors in the second world war  – the UK, US and Canada –  are laggards in this technical revolution.

That revolution is not far off in the future. It’s happening right now, with solar R&D benchmarks falling like dominoes. The price of solar cells has plunged to .80 a watt from $4 a watt in 2008, and last September the International Energy Agency released a report predicting that solar power will displace fossil fuels and become the world’s primary source of electricity by 2050.

The planet is currently awash in cheap carbon-based fuels, which is undermining the petrostate Russia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Canada. But what happens when enough nations loosen their dependency on a substance behind most of the world’s currency markets and resource wars? That’s when all bets are off, geopolitically.

Even Arab nations have seen the texting on the wall. “The Saudis are themselves betting on solar, investing more than $100bn in 41 gigawatts (GW) of capacity, investing more than $100bn in 41 gigawatts (GW) of capacity, enough to cover 30 percent of their power needs by 2030 rather than burning fossil fuel needed for exports,” observes Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Telegraph.

Resistance to abundant alternative energy, including geothermal and secondary solar technologies like wind power, is mostly from lobbyists and political proxies of King CONG (Coal, Oil, Nuclear, Gas). Yet when money talks, older technologies and their supply chains walk, even if it takes a few decades for these monsters to stagger toward the door. That’s the history of technology in capsule form. (Remember whale oil? Exactly.)

Nuclear energy is well over a half-century old; a capital-intensive technology with a dubious safety record and a waste disposal problem worthy of a Frank Herbert novel. Its return on investment is impressive, but only if you ignore the substantial environmental risks.

Chemical combustion is an even older technology, which brings me to the recent spill of bunker fuel from a grain-carrying cargo ship in English Bay.

“Bunker fuel degrades even less rapidly in the environment than standard fuel oil, and is difficult to remediate because of its thickness,” notes a report in The Natural Resources News Service. The heavy grade oil is used to power the 90,000 cargo ships that ply the world’s oceans – many of which are used to push massive quantities of carbon-based fuel from one market to another.

As necessary as they are for today’s high-consumption lifestyles, there is nothing more steampunk than some of the bigger vessels you see in BC waters. Their technology dates back to the 19th century. So it’s not great surprise that global shipping is by far the biggest transport polluter on the planet. And while it’s unlikely we’ll ever see cargo ships powered by solar power alone, it’s a different story for automobiles, homes, office buildings, and their associated energy grids.

A vastly different world drawing on the energy of the sun isn’t a pipe dream. What’s a literal and figurative pipe dream is a planet dominated by fossil fuels and the petrodollar, to say nothing of a nuclear genie with bipolar disorder.

E = mc2 is so last century. I’m placing my bets on E = hf.

The Vancouver Courier, Apr. 17