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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Frost, Tolstoy and Wanniski Weigh in on the Folly of Carbon Accounting

Last weekend some old friends contacted me from beyond the grave on the subject of my last post, the issue of carbon accounting. First up on the ghostly cycle was the famed New England poet, Robert Frost. Mr. Frost reminded me that he himself had witnessed the carbon cycle in the woods and written of it. In his poem "The Wood-Pile", published in 1914, he wrote of following a small bird into a frozen swamp until it disappeared behind a wood pile. Of the pile, he wrote,
It was a cord of maple, cut and split 
And piled -- and measured, four by four by eight.
And not another like it could I see.
No runner tracks in this year’s snow looped near it.
And it was older sure than this year’s cutting,
Or even last year’s or the year’s before.
The wood was gray and the bark warping off it
And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis
Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle.
What held it, though, on one side was a tree
Still growing, and on one a stake and a prop,
These latter about to fall. I thought that only
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks
Could so forget his handiwork on which
He spent himself, the labor of his ax,
And leave it there far from a useful fireplace
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could
With the slow smokeless burning of decay.
His last three lines reminded me of my closing points in the previous post, although he said it so much better.

As I was contemplating that last line, Leo Tolstoy intruded into my thoughts to remind me that the application of discrete accounting methods to natural processes was also an exercise in futility, even though that is frequently how we approach things. He wrote in the beginning paragraphs of Book Eleven of War and Peace...

A modern branch of mathematics having achieved the art of dealing with the infinitely small can now yield solutions in other more complex problems of motion which used to appear insoluble. 
This modern branch of mathematics, unknown to the ancients, when dealing with the problems of motion admits the conception of the infinitely small, and so conforms to the chief condition of motion (absolute continuity) and thereby corrects the inevitable error which the human mind cannot avoid when it deals with the separate elements of motion instead of examining continuous motion. 
In seeking the laws of historical movement just the same thing happens. The movement of humanity, arising as it does from innumerable arbitrary human wills, is continuous. 
To understand the laws of this continuous movement is the aim of history. But to arrive at these laws, resulting from the sum of all those human wills, man’s mind postulates arbitrary and disconnected units. The first method of history is to take an arbitrarily selected series of continuous events and examine it apart from others, though there is and can be no beginning to any event, for one event always flows uninterruptedly from another. 
The second method is to consider the actions of some one man – a king or a commander – as equivalent to the sum of many individual wills; whereas the sum of individual wills is never expressed by the activity of a single historical personage. 
Historical science in its endeavor to draw nearer the truth continually takes smaller and smaller units for examination. But however small the units it takes, we feel that to take any unit disconnected from others, or to assume a beginning of any phenomenon, or to say that the will of many men is expressed by the actions of any one historic personage, is in itself false. 
It needs no critical exertion to reduce utterly to dust any deductions drawn from history. It is merely necessary to select some larger or smaller unit as the subject of observation – as criticism has every right to do, seeing that whatever unit history observes must always be arbitrarily selected. 
Only by taking infinitesimally small units for observation (the differential of history, that is, the individual tendencies of men) and attaining to the art of integrating them (that is, finding the sum of these infinitesimals) can we hope to arrive at the laws of history.
 "What has this application of the calculus to history got to do with carbon accounting?", I asked Mr. Tolstoy. He gave me that wise old Russian smile, took a puff of his pipe, and waited a minute for me to consider. Then he said, "Do you think that taking an arbitrarily selected series of carbon conversions, claiming that they started today, and then assuming if the state of Massachusetts counts only the actions of a subset of certain subsequent events, that the sum total of carbon conversions has been accounted for, and was the result of the state's decision?"

I saw his point. He was implying that application of accounting techniques for natural processes, like historical processes, not only required the over-simplification of a chaotic process, but it unfairly attributed effect to the most visible "cause", even though that particular cause had little more, if any, effect on the outcome than any of an infinite number of other causes. What he was suggesting was that we need an environmental calculus to measure ecosystems processes, not accounting ledgers. Based on my experience with life-cycle assessment, I had to concede his point.

But, I thought to myself as Mr. Tolstoy's vapor returned to his century, isn't it somewhat high-minded to think that we can or will ever develop an environmental calculus that will help us analyze and explain entire ecosystems?

That's when the contemporary economist Jude Wanniski interrupted my thoughts. "Ah, don't you recall my modest tome, The Way the World Works?", Mr. Wanniski asked me. "In my chapter titled 'Energy in Abundance', I explained to you why environmental accounting, especially accounting for carbon and fossil fuels, never has, and never will work."

Well, I had to refer back to that. And I found this beginning to his chapter...

There has never been a shortage of energy on earth. Certainly the planet is not energy “scarce” now, nor will it be at the end of the century [he was right!]—or at the end of the next thousand centuries. The planet itself is a ball of energy that rides in a sea of energy.  Earth has been absorbing energy from the sun for the billions of years of its existence.  The sun’s energy has nurtured plant life, which thus captured and preserved energy in the form of coal and gas. The plant life also nurtured animal life, thus preserving energy that now exists in the form of petroleum and gas.  In this sense, the human species now warms itself with sunbeams that were cast millions, if not billions of years ago, and have been locked in the earth’s crust for eons, waiting to be found and tapped.  The earth’s crust is layered with solar energy – petroleum, coal, and natural gas – only the tiniest fraction of which has been discovered by man. The notion that these organic hydrocarbons are “exhaustible” is correct only in the sense that they may be depleted some millions of years from now.  Indeed, it can be argued at present, there are more organic hydrocarbons being formed than are being consumed by the entire world population. That is, the plants and animals that inhabit the oceans, lakes, and swamps, are dying, decaying, and being absorbed as methane into these waters and the icecaps at a faster rate than mankind is now burning coal, oil, and gas.  Of course, we do not at this moment have the technology to tap this hydrosphere methane economically. But hundreds or thousands of years from now, when the more easily exploited hydrocarbons have been diminished, our descendants will have the technology to extract ocean methane economically, if it is necessary to do so.
The rest of the chapter goes on to explain that energy availability is much more a phenomenon of political systems than of natural supply. It's a great read.

Ok, I understand that energy is a lot more abundant than we commonly realize. And it rings true that whenever prices rise for a given energy source, we suddenly are able to produce a lot more of it; whether it's "renewable" energy, or fossil fuels.  Very few people of twenty years ago could have envisioned that Pennsylvania would soon be a natural gas boom-state, or that the mid-western U.S. and Canada would be producing amounts of oil from shale tar-sands that boggle the imagination. But does it follow that even if energy sources are apparently inexhaustible as we develop technology to tap it, we are free from the need to and expense of monitoring and "managing" our climate?

Perhaps not. Doing something has got to be better than doing nothing. Right?

Well, yeah...at least, if you're on the receiving end of the money spent to do it. But if you're like I was yesterday, pumping $109 of gasoline into my car, it's got to make you stop and think.

Best fuel for best use, and let the markets drive the technology. Trust the people to learn stewardship of the planet's resources as the dynamics of society change - the markets will reflect our increasing knowledge and preferences. Don't over-think it, and don't try to control temperature and hurricane activity through regulation and taxes tied to dubious accounting schemes. Trust that the environmental calculus has already been taken care of, and use the available resources to ease the burdens of society, not to increase them.

And oh yeah, use wood whenever possible. ;-)









1 comment:

Anonymous said...

uncommon sense in a sea of insanity. Keep it up chuck..