Author Archives: katharineotto

About katharineotto

I vote with my big mouth, boycott packaging as much as possible, shop with a canvas "Acupuncture" bag, read to understand Humanland, do as much of my own cleaning, cooking, gardening, landscaping, clothes making, and home repairs as possible. My home is my laboratory, where I invent things out of the dribs and drabs of inheritance from my pack-rat parents. I also conduct animal behavior studies on three chickens and a cat, who study me while I feed all the other wildlife that likes chickens and chicken food, including mice. Mice like to eat wiring, too. There were no mice when my rat snake was still around, but I kept losing eggs.

A Stinky Subject

This isn’t about sex, murder, war, politics, or Donald Trump, so if that’s all that interests you, you may as well stop reading now.  It’s about landfill gas recapture and utilization, a subject that makes my engineering friends yawn but fascinates me.

It links my interests in environmental toxins, garbage disposal, and multi-purpose innovation to address commonly acknowledged problems.  While the political scientists debate whether the Earth is undergoing “climate change” and, if so, whether humankind is causing it, I’m looking at litter in the streets; noting the extraordinary growth of plastic and single use packaging; and throwing away heaps of junk mail in post office recycling bins.  At least the PO has recycling bins, a forward shift in consciousness, according to me, within the past ten years.  Not only does the post office subsidize this mountain of murdered trees by reduced rates, but my various alma maters and professional organizations are the worst perpetrators of this global plot to deforest the planet and speed up the global warming agenda.  One would think the ivory-tower elitists would be the first to rail against this glut of self-serving propaganda, but alas, they can’t afford to support their tenured positions and building campaigns with mere tuitions.  They must perpetually dun their graduates—and their graduates’ offspring—for money, if only to prove how cost-ineffective and eco-unfriendly they are.

So, rather than spend money supporting those who can’t support themselves, I choose to educate myself without cost in ways to reduce all my problems and the world’s problems at the same time.  A tall order, perhaps, and maybe a futile one, considering the stinky subject of landfill.  Nobody wants to touch it, unless, of course they can get government funding.

To get government funding, one is obliged to package the idea in terms that make the government look good.  For instance, did you know the United States has 2000 regulated landfills, the most in the world?  By 2006, the US generated 413 million tons of municipal solid waste, and 64% went into landfill.  70 percent of this was composed of food, paper, and corrugated cardboard, and 15 percent was of petrochemicals, mostly plastic.

Biogas, including carbon dioxide and methane, are emitted from decomposition of organic materials in landfill.  Aerobic decomposition of waste generally leads to the production of carbon dioxide (CO2), and anaerobic decomposition produces methane (CH4). Methane is also known as natural gas. MSW (municipal solid waste) landfill gas is comprised of 45-60% methane and 40-60% CO2.

Methane is believed to be at least 24 times more potent than carbon dioxide in its global warming effects.  About 50 million tons of methane are generated annually by municipal solid waste, but only 5 million tons are captured.

Landfills generate a maximum of methane at five years, then the amount begins to decline.  Landfill gas utilization is a process by which methane is captured and used to generate electricity or heat, or upgraded for inclusion in commercial natural gas products.  In 2006, there were 325 landfills in the US that collected biogas, up from 231 in 1999.  California had the most:  65 landfill gas facilities, followed by Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania.  In 2001, there were 955 landfills that recovered biogas, with the most in the United States, followed by Germany and the United Kingdom.  In the United Kingdom, the number of facilities went from 329 in 2005 to 519 in 2009.

There are two methods for capture of methane from landfill, closed and open capture.  Closed capture refers to gas extraction from landfills that have been closed and can be capped.  It is considered more efficient than capture from open landfills, at 84% and 67% respectively.  Methods for capture including drilling wells either vertically or horizontally.  Equipment needed for utilization depends on the size of the landfill.  Smaller facilities can employ reciprocating engines; medium-sized facilities can use turbines; and steam cycles are used for the largest deposits.

General Motors has significantly reduced its energy costs by using landfill gas to power some of its production facilities.  As of August, 2016, the General Motors Orion plant in the Orion Township of Michigan boasted that landfill gas was supplying 54% of its electricity.  The gas comes from two open landfills nearby, owned by Waste Management and Republic Services, respectively.  The GM plant also has a 350 kW solar array.

There are incentives from the Treasury Department, Department of Energy, the Agriculture Department, and the Department of Commerce for landfill gas extraction.  Landfill gas is considered a renewable form of energy.  The US EPA operates a landfill Methane Outreach Program.

Opponents of landfill gas utilization include such organizations as the Energy Justice Network, which claims that landfill gas has contaminants that are either inherently toxic or combine into toxic substances when burned.  Although “non-methane organic compounds” (NMOCs) comprise less than one percent of landfill gas, there are also non-organic toxic substances, such as mercury and tritium, in minute amounts.  Also, when halogens–like chlorine, fluorine, and bromine– are combusted with hydrocarbons, they can produce dioxins and furans, some of the most toxic substances known.  While other sources state that a burning temperature of 850 degrees centigrade can destroy dioxins, Energy Justice Network claims these can be re-formed in the cooling process.

At the same time, Energy Justice Network admits that methane is responsible for 10.6 percent of global warming from US human sources, with 35.8 percent of this from landfill gas.  It also claims that if landfill gas is to be utilized for energy, boilers offer the safest mode, with turbines, then internal combustion engines less desirable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Like a Sphere in Flatland

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A man in my e-mail group asked to be excluded from my responses.  He said I was “negative” and “liberal.”  I had merely mentioned I don’t believe in war, that it is barbaric, institutionalized murder.  I said I don’t believe in standing armies, either.

It really hurt my feelings that he called me “liberal.”  Liberals don’t like me, either.  In fact, on the political continuum from the various “ism’s” at the extremes and including “liberal” and “conservative,” I don’t fit anywhere.  I feel like a sphere in Flatland.

For those who haven’t read this charming classic satire, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by Edwin A. Abbott (1884), it is well worth reading, and only 160 pages.   In it, narrator A. Square describes a planar world in which the social hierarchy is determined by how many angles you have.  When Lord Sphere makes himself known to A. Square, he is incredulous until taken on a visit to “Spaceland.”  His attempts to convince his fellow Flatlanders of the existence of a third dimension only gets him in trouble, and he ends up in jail for his lunacy.

Another image, maybe more appropriate to the linear liberal-conservative standard and its limitations, is of trying to assess the validity of a book by the scientific method.  The scientific method is the holy grail of modern scientific dogma, but it is limited by its linear approach. Scientists believe this makes it superior to other methods of assessing truth.

The scientific method presumes cause and effect, yes-and-no, good and bad, right and wrong.  It sneers at extraneous information, abstractions, symbols, and patterns. Logic is linear:  words must come out in sequential fashion.  Those who relate this to the left brain–the seat of verbal thinking and expression in most people–claim superiority of this hemisphere because of its lock-step method of reasoning.  The right brain is associated with symbols, patterns, dreams, and appreciation for art and music.

However, the brain is wired such that incoming sensory information travels through the thalamus, the pain center, then through the limbic system, the emotional center, before it reaches left or right brain.  In other words, every thought is colored by physical and emotional input before it becomes conscious.  Even the most logical and rational analysis is founded on emotional bias.

The scientific, linear mode presumes to be objective, insofar as is humanly possible, yet the choice of study subject is based on emotional factors.  The idea that artificial intelligence, with its binary code, can eventually surpass the human brain’s abilities discounts the spontaneous creativity of the right brain and its symbolic language of patterns and associations.

The recent preoccupation with what’s called “fake news” shows how easy it is to confuse the “rational” mind.  Misinformation, propaganda, distortions, opinion, gossip, libel, and slander have always been around.  Assumptions presumed to be factual have fallen apart over and over in light of new evidence.  The earth used to be flat, remember, and the sun revolved around it.  Now there’s a widespread concern that people don’t know whom or what to trust, with “trust” seemingly synonymous with blind faith in the source.

What is truth, after all, and does it matter?  If this trend leads to a greater tendency to question authority or formerly trusted sources, or to more critical thinking, it might result in the revolution in consciousness that some people imagine.  We will not achieve it through the scientific method, which requires an artificial situation that attempts to reduce variables to one.  In life there is always infinitely more than one variable to consider.  Thus, trying to place anyone on a linear political scale reduces her dimensionality to a pitiful caricature, but we see it all the time:  the blacks, the women, the illegals, the racists, the poor, the 0.1 percent, and on and on.  The so-called advocates, whether members of the identified group or not, posture themselves as knowing the condition, needs, and wants of the group.

Labeling of groups dehumanizes them, clumps them into an agglutinated mass of undifferentiated genetic material that serves only to concentrate emotion into an identifiable target for support or attack.  Advocates tend to use that emotionally laden grouping to promote their agendas, which may be personal or may be backed by yet other groups.

I can only know my own truth, and even that changes moment to moment or as soon as I turn my head.  Truth is a slippery little rascal.  Like a sphere in Flatland, or a book whose value defies the scientific method, I can see from above or below the plane, or even with the plane, but at least I know the difference between a line and a circle.  The scientific method might judge based on emotionally based standards of comparison, but patterns make no judgments and have no beginnings or ends, no cause-and-effect, and reveal no ultimate truth.

My dislike for war, and for fighting, compels me to avoid arguing, recognizing as I do that my choice is emotional, as is my detractor’s.  Energy goes out of me when I’m drawn into conflictual situations.  I believe this happens with others, too, but I could be wrong.  The relentless focus on competition and struggle, on differences cemented by stifling labels, only feeds the problems, generating parallel, linear, universes with no spherical perspective.

Who Owns the Land?

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I’m so glad authors like Fred Pearce are paying attention.  I’d never heard of Pearce until his book, The Land Grabbers:  The New Fight Over Who Owns the Earth, jumped from the library shelf into my hands.  Published in 2014, the book reads like a world-wide travelogue, except the sights are disheartening.  Until the end, it made me wonder if every plot of arable soil on the planet has been razed, plowed under, polluted, and subjected to rampant, monolithic, mechanized agriculture for export.

The Land Grabbers premise is that “soaring grain prices and fears about future food supplies are triggering a global land grab.”  The super-rich, would-be rich, and governments are scouring the world looking for productive investments; and land—especially arable land—reigns supreme.

In chapter after chapter, the reader learns of how formerly communal land has been privatized, with drastic changes in ecosystems and eviction or undermining of subsistence-level, indigenous people.  In the first chapter, we learn about government “villagization” in Ethiopia, the collecting of dispersed populations like the farmer/fisher Anuaks and the livestock herding Nuer into state-designated villages, ostensibly to provide better services, like schools, hospitals, and water wells. But locals claim the government is stealing their traditional lands to turn over to foreign agribusiness.

The second chapter takes the reader to the Chicago Board of Trade, the home of commodity trading.  We learn commodity speculation in 2008 may have contributed to the sharp spike in worldwide food prices that year.  The food price bubble was first noticed in early 2007 in Mexico, where the cost of tortillas quadrupled in two months.  Subsequent months brought food riots across North and West Africa.  In Egypt, the world’s largest food importer, bread prices tripled.

Pearce says grain shortages could not be blamed, since grain production was up five percent that year.  However, at least one-third of the world’s grain goes to feeding livestock.  Also, 2007 saw a boom in the biofuels industry, and was the year the ethanol mandate was passed in the United States.  The US earmarked half of its corn for ethanol, diverting surpluses from export markets.

In Saudi Arabia, fear of dependency on food imports prompted billionaires to pump water from a mile beneath the desert to irrigate wheat and grazing grasses for dairy cattle.  Within a few years it had depleted four-fifths of its underground water reservoir–formerly the size of Lake Erie–and realized this tactic was unsustainable.  It turned to acquiring large tracts of land in foreign countries, especially impoverished Muslim countries in Asia and Africa.  Qatar and other Persian Gulf countries are also acquiring foreign farmland or concessions to produce food for their people.

The book repeats the story of dispossession in South Sudan and Kenya. In South Sudan the new government has promised vast tracts to Arab interests, with land rights signed over by questionable spokesmen for the people, without surveys or other demarcations showing where the properties begin and end.  Tradition has it that whole communities must participate in communal land decisions, but purchasers find ways around this.  In several cases, the land has been leased out with great promises of agricultural development, but nothing has been done on the ground.

There’s the story of the American Christian evangelist who made his money running private prisons in the US.  He has leased 17,050 acres in the Yala swamp in Kenya.  It drains into Lake Victoria.  Calvin Burgess claims he has permission to drain the swamp, clear the papyrus and cultivate, primarily, rice for export.  He sees his huge agribusiness as a means to bring Christianity to the poor, as well as drag them out of poverty.  His farm is named “Dominion.”

Locals tell a different story.  Before Burgess, everyone had cattle and used the swamp, taking papyrus as needed to make mats, baskets, roof thatch, and other useful items.  Now, because Burgess has raised a weir several feet, the swamp overflows and floods regularly, destroying locals’ crops and bringing crocodiles and hippos to their front doors.

Pearce describes the general political scenes in several African counties, including Liberia.  Liberia had recently emerged from a 14-year civil war.  I read about the Firestone rubber “fiefdom” in Liberia since 1926.   “International law” favors the investors; and investor claims supersede individuals, communities, and countries.  I have to wonder who is the arbitrator of “international law.”  UN “peace keepers” dominate in Liberia.

Pearce writes a lot about the palm oil industry, which has grown exponentially over the years.  It started back in the early 1900s, with the tyrannical King of Belgium in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but later came under the control of the Lever Brothers, and then Unilever.

Also in Africa, the grabbers have claimed large concessions to create hunting reserves, “eco-tourism,” including safaris, and conservation areas that have squeezed indigenous Massai tribes and run them off traditional lands.  This in Tanzania, primarily, but also in Kenya.  I guess they have had domestic cattle for centuries, in concert with wildlife, yet moderns believe the two are incompatible and want to remove the people and their cattle from their traditional lands.

We learn about the Inner Niger Delta, in Mali, which is being dried out by irrigation rights upstream.  Here four foreign concessions have been given enormous prior claims on Niger water, complete with canals.  Two are for sugar cane—British and Chinese—which is a huge water hog; one is a US concession for rice; and the fourth, possibly the largest, is for food for Libya.

In the Ukraine, the story is similar to the others.  Individuals form companies, get investors, buy or lease large tracts of land with grand plans to grow this or that.  In the Ukraine or Russia, a number of formerly collective farms have been abandoned.  There are many household farms, but the people don’t have the money to grow for more than their own needs.

The cerrado in Brazil, and the chaco in Paraguay both hosted indigenous tribes.  Now the tribes have been squeezed, killed, compromised, or absorbed, and the foreign investor mono-agriculturalists are encroaching ever closer, destroying biodiversity, rendering many species extinct, obliterating and polluting habitat.

The conservationists are either weak, compromised, or circumvented.  In South America, the main industries are cattle ranching, sugar for ethanol, and soy, but also other grains like corn and wheat.  Rubber.

In Sumatra and Papua, New Guinea thousands of acres of rain forest and peat bogs have been destroyed, for two Chinese-owned paper mills.  Once again, locals who depended on the forest for rattan and rubber, as well as fishing and shrimping have been displaced, in some cases violently, and their water polluted.  Their government has favored foreign investors over them, despite presumed legal protections. The IMF was happy to advise the Sumatra government to give away even more forestry concessions to bail out the Chinese paper mills when there was a recession in Asia.

Overall, the book gives an impression of the sheer size of the earth, and its many and varied lands.  But the land grabber strategy seems similar the world over.  The international concerns are deeply intermingled, with lots of names, re-names, countries, and corporations, hedge funds, pension funds, and university endowments involved.  Tax havens.  Companies awash in subsidiaries, controlled by individuals and families, with holdings in multiple countries, and assisted by weak or corrupt governments, rape the land, displace subsistence locals–who generally have depended on communal sharing of resources, like forests and rivers–turn them against each other and the police/government against them.  They bring in bulldozers and chain saws to replace rotation farming and biodiversity with mono-agriculture for export.

It’s enough to make me a Communist, if it would mean a return to communal land holdings.  Reading The Land Grabbers reveals the de facto pervasiveness of communism, in the shared, or communal land sense.   It is the undercurrent that modern property-owning society is built on.   That land grabs are happening all over the world to so many indigenous and until now isolated people shows how the perpetrators have depended on the isolation to pull the same stunt over and over.

I liked the way The Land Grabbers ended.  Pearce claims most of the world’s food is still produced by smallholderrs.  Most land is still held and used in common.  In Africa a half-billion smallholders produce 90 percent of the food.  Pearce writes that in India large dairy cooperatives have propelled the country from 78th to first in the world in milk production.  The coop provides for daily milk pickups from the members.

Bottom line is all is not lost.  Pearce says that despite myth, smallholders take better care of their ecosystems than large mechanized industry.  They farm every corner of their small spaces, use crop rotation, animal manure for fertilizer, expand and contract grazing and growing spaces depending on need.  They grow diverse crops and have animals, like cows, goats, and chickens.  The idea of “tragedy of the commons” doesn’t hold.  Without written rules, communal holders manage to work out among themselves fair balances so that land does not become over-grazed or reduced to desert.

After reading The Land Grabbers:  The New Fight Over Who Owns the Earth, I believe more strongly than ever that no one owns the earth.  The earth owns us.

 

 

Who are the Savages?

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This isn’t a book review about Savages, by Joe Kane, published in 1995.  This is an attempt at a synopsis, although such a meaty and universally relevant book is hard to encapsulate.

On the surface, it is a travelogue, depicting the author’s extended visit to the Amazon rain forest, where ancient meets modern in dramatic but understated violence.  In 1991, Kane, a journalist originally working for an environmental group in San Francisco, came across a plea for help from members of the “savage” Huaorani, indigenous clans of Ecuador, primitive jungle dwellers who live off the land and are known as fierce warriors who have never been conquered.

The mysterious letter claimed DuPont-owned Conoco was trying to destroy their land and way of life.  At issue was the massive development of oil fields in the Amazonian jungles by many oil companies, but especially by Conoco.  Maxus Energy Corporation, which was slated to develop “Maxus Block 16” on traditional Huaorani land, also becomes a major player in this book’s drama.

Author Kane wanted to discover for himself what the Huaorani were like and how they lived.  He writes about befriending tribal leaders/members, and hiring one of them, Enqueri, as a guide to Maxus Block 16, deep in tribal lands but slated for oil drilling and exploration, if the Huarani could be appeased. The story delves into the author’s encounters with other locals, the military, the oil company representatives, government officials, missionaries, environmentalists, and the land itself.

Savages becomes a personal story about the Huaorani, especially members Moi, Enqueri, Nanto, and others who are fighting for their land and traditional ways, but they are forced by inevitable change to adapt, each in his own way. Kane describes his first, danger-fraught trip by truck, canoe, and foot through the jungle, with nothing but a machete for defense, and virtually no clothes.

He provides entertaining but respectful cameos of the individuals and Huaorani settlements.  He emphasizes Huaoranis’ resourcefulness, their ability to go without food for days, to build leak-free shelters out of palms within minutes, and their bountiful good humor in the face of adversity.  Deemed savages by some, because of their reputation of vengeful killings of invaders, the Huaorani that Kane depict come across as lovable and kind, well adapted to the jungle but sadly naïve about the world beyond their territory.

Kane describes multiple instances in which his jungle-bred friends collapse in laughter.  They spend afternoons in communal bathing, playing and flirting.  Sharing food is a sublime act of generosity, because for them, it is feast or famine.  They adore their children.  The Huaorani can also stand motionless, without expression, for hours, observing everything.

The story offers adventure deep into the Amazon rain forest and shows its contrast with the new age of oil exploration and development by the generic “Company,” which includes Shell, Texaco, Conoco, and most egregious, Maxus Energy Corporation. The author reveals the horrific degradation of the land caused by the “Company.”  The Huaorani refer to all non-clan members as “cowode” or “cannibals” who have brought roads, pipelines, colonists, oil spills, overflowing toxic waste pits, oil in the streets, towering flames of natural gas, and the pervasive smells of petroleum.  The Company has clear-cut vast acreages of jungle.

The Company has led to poverty and disease like never before, but it has also brought gifts, jobs, and schools.  The missionaries have in some ways run interference between the Company and the local populations, but they have imposed their own agendas, and have convinced younger generations that tribal ways are evil.

Since 1970, the national debt of Ecuador has gone from $300 million to $35 billion, the opposite of what the oil extractors promised, yet the Ecuadorean government—like so many other governments—has played along and accepted enormous debt in the peoples’ name.  They have looked the other way as filth replaced natural wonders and pristine natural habitat.  As Ecuador sank ever deeper into debt, oil prices declined, and oil companies claimed costs were higher than expected. They assured the government that clean-ups were being handled and going well.

The trajectory of the book shows how the natives are killed or absorbed, killed by disease from infection, toxic waste, contaminated drinking water, malnutrition, and all manner of accidents.  The author specifically mentions malaria, polio, and tuberculosis, as well as fungal infections.  He also describes the toxic effects of crude oil and cleaning up oil spills for slave wages by hand.

But the gifts were seductive, and the jobs attracted those who wanted a more modern life.  Food like rice, salt, a kind of Kool-Aid, and lollipops, as well as tools, outboard motors and gas, began to creep into the jungle to take their places alongside the traditional manioc and monkey meat.  The Huaorani wanted schools and health care, which the missionaries and oil companies promised to provide.  Kane mentions the double-edged sword of literacy.  Children were taught by missionaries to read (the Bible), but not to write.

The story hasn’t ended, but the fate of this hitherto isolated culture seems destined to change, and to change dramatically.  At this point it doesn’t matter whether it’s right or wrong, because it’s too late.  Huaorani children are already forgetting the history of their clans, or they are being taught it was a “savage” one well left behind.

But, still, the book raises the disturbing question: “Who, after all, are the real savages?”

 

 

 

 

 

Taxing the Sun

The new 30% tariff on imported solar panels looks like a direct economic hit on the alternative energy industry, imposed by the dinosaur in the White House.  That the man is owned by the oil industry is becoming increasingly obvious.  First there was the okay to the final segments of the Keystone XL pipeline.  More recently, just about the entire coastline of the US has been offered for off-shore oil and gas drilling.  Our Secretary of State is former CEO of Exxon, and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency has spent much of his career fighting the EPA.

Now we have a 30% tariff on solar panels?  According to an Associated Press report, the tariff was sought by Suniva, Inc., which sought bankruptcy protection in April, and by the American subsidiary of Germany’s SolarWorld.  They claimed the 500 percent increase in imported solar panels over the past five years has led to a ruinous price collapse.  Nearly 30 American solar-manufacturing companies closed in that time.  They claimed big, bad China plotted to flood the global market with cheap products to weaken US manufacturing.  Apparently foreign companies manufacturing in the US are exempt from the tariff, but they now have more wiggle room to raise prices.

So the US President jumps in to stop China in its tracks, apparently, and to raise the price of solar panels for everyone.  But, as Senator Ben Sasse, R-Neb, claimed, tariffs are a tax on consumers.  Moreover, a tax on imported solar panels will reduce choice and supply for everyone, forestall or delay installation, and constrict employment in the alternative energy field.

A tariff is defined as a tax or duty on a particular class of imports or exports.  It is claimed “protective tariffs” are intended to make domestic products more competitive.  Tariffs are not new in the US, with the first imposed in 1789. Since then, well over thirty acts affecting tariffs have been implemented.

The 1789 tariff, also called the Hamilton Tariff Act, was the second piece of legislation passed by the fledgling US Congress.  Two years later, excise taxes on whiskey, run, snuff, and refined sugar were initiated.  The purpose of both types of taxes, according to the first Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, was to pay Revolutionary war debt, allow the government to function, redeem at full value federal debts, and pay the debts of states.

President George Washington made protective tariffs a national security issue.  In his 1790 State of the Union address, he claimed protective tariffs, especially for military supplies, was crucial for US independence.

Between that time and 1860, tariffs and excise taxes comprised 80-95%. of federal income.  The amounts of each varied.  Thomas Jefferson abolished the whiskey tax, but it was re-instituted in 1812.  When national debt was paid off in 1834, Andrew Jackson abolished most excise taxes and halved tariffs.  By this time tariffs had become a major political issue, especially following the tariff of 1828, the so called “Tariff of Abominations,” which imposed a 38% tax on 92% of imported goods.  Most tariffs were instituted to protect domestic industry, favored by Whigs (which later became Republicans), who were mostly Northeastern industrialists and industrial wage earners.  Southern Democrats strongly opposed tariffs.  In the South, tariffs raised prices for every household and also made it harder for the British textile manufacturers to buy their cotton. Some historians believe the cause of secession was not slavery but tariffs.

The Republican platform of 1860 favored higher tariffs. Abraham Lincoln made tariff increases one of his priorities. The Morrill Tariff passed in 1861, after seven Southern states had seceded and their Congressmen had resigned.  The Morrill Act raised tariffs from 17% overall and 28% on dutiable items to 26% overall and 36% on dutiable items, but it wasn’t enough to feed the government and the approaching war, so a second tariff bill later that summer raised tariffs another 10%.  Lincoln also instituted the first income tax in the US, under the “Revenue Act of 1861,” but it was repealed ten years later.

After the Civil War, tariffs fluctuated mildly but remained, with excise taxes, the main source of federal funding until 1913.  This was the year the income tax went into effect.

Since 1913, most of federal income comes from individual income taxes, payroll taxes (later), and corporate income taxes, with 41% coming from individual income taxes.  Excise taxes apply to “luxury” items, like tobacco, alcohol, and gambling, but also to telephone and utilities, among other things.  Excise taxes comprise about 3.8 percent of federal income.  Tariffs now constitute only about 1.7% of government revenues, $30 billion in 2012.

Far from being a supporter of free trade, the US has 12,000 specific tariffs on imports.  Tariffs on imported tobacco products are the highest and can run up to 350%.  Peanut tariffs that date back to 1933 run from 131.8% for shelled peanuts to 163.8% for unshelled peanuts.  New Balance shoes enjoys a 48% tariff on foreign sneakers like Nike and Adidas.  There’s a 40% tariff on Japanese leather.  We pay a 100% tariff on European meats, truffles, and Roquefort cheese, just to name a few.

It is arguable whether tariffs protect domestic industry, or benefit a country’s economy, especially if they start trade wars with other governments.  In the case of the solar industry, the added cost to imported solar panels may be prohibitive for large-scale projects that could employ large numbers of people.  It looks like a protective tariff, not for domestic solar panel manufacturers, but for the oil industry.  But the good news is that the solar industry is thriving, considering the 500 percent increase in imports over the past five years.  No wonder the oil companies are threatened.

Oil Glut

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By Katharine Otto, January 20, 2018

Tracking history through personal time shows how my interests evolve.  In January, 2008, I was reading Oil! by Upton Sinclair, the 1926 novel he wrote about the oil industry.

In January, 2018, ten years later, I have read the biography of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., Titan, by Ron Chernow, published in 1998.  This book goes into detail about Rockefeller’s childhood, personal life, his creation of Standard Oil and business methods, retirement, and philanthropies.  It gives short character sketches of most of the people associated with Rockefeller.  It makes an attempt to reconcile the strange mixture of rapacious greed and Baptist charity that coexisted in the man.

I didn’t know it then, but the novel Oil! was probably based on the true story of Standard Oil and the way it destroyed, compromised, or bought out its competitors.  The monopoly was dissolved in 1911 when the US Supreme Court found Standard Oil in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.  Chief Justice Edward White gave the company six months to spin off its 33 subsidiaries.

If the purpose of breaking up Standard Oil was to destroy the monopoly and allow for competition, the plan backfired.  The same insiders controlled stock in all the subsidiaries, Chernow notes, and in the decade after the decision, the total value of the assets quintupled.  Rockefeller, who had a quarter of the stock in the parent company, and received the same amount of stock in all the subsidiaries, went from being a mere millionaire to a having net worth of  $900 million, and thus became the richest man on the planet.bkschertitan1998

In 2018, the largest oil companies in the world are Standard Oil descendants.  Standard Oil of New Jersey became Exxon; Standard Oil of New York evolved into Mobil; Standard Oil of Indiana became Amoco; Standard Oil of California was renamed Chevron;  Atlantic Refining morphed into ARCO and eventually Sun; and Continental Oil became Conoco, now a unit of Dupont and Cheeseborough-Ponds, according to Chernow.  British Petroleum later took over Standard Oil of Ohio.

Also in the past year, I have been reading about the divestiture of fossil fuel stocks from a number of pension plans in various countries, including the US and UK.  The Norwegian central bank has recommended similar divestiture from its sovereign wealth fund to avoid too much dependence on oil in its portfolio.

wsjoslooil111717This leads me to believe the industrial age, with its over-reliance on fossil fuels, specifically oil, has peaked, and we are on the path to some new paradigms regarding energy and its use.  I’ve speculated about what sells oil and realized war, international shipping, airplanes, plastics, trucks and automobiles provide some of the largest markets.  In other words, the “global economy” depends heavily on oil and will for the foreseeable future.

To reduce dependence on fossil fuels requires a longer and broader perspective than we have considered so far.   The drum beat for “growth” and “progress,” and for the “global economy,” American dominance, and “jobs,” presumes a continuation along the paths we have taken so far, yet they have led to world-wide malaise, toxicity, and conflict.  Will more of the same be better?

The US dollar lost 95% of its value between 1913, when the Federal Reserve Act was passed, and 2010.  More money isn’t necessarily better, and it leads me to wonder if the frenzy over money, from individual to international levels, misses the crucial issues.  They say money doesn’t buy happiness, but worry over money buys only pain.  They also say money is a symbol for energy, but energy blocked or misdirected, like money, festers and ultimately damages the host. Is more energy better, if it causes destruction?

Oil is the new gold, in today’s economy.  Oil may be more useful than gold, but the way it is used leads me to question whether we are wasting or misspending our energy and resources to acquire only excess, pollution, and trouble.

Oil has become so integral to our 21st century lives that it’s hard to imagine life without it. It’s also hard to imagine the pristine conditions the planet enjoyed before humanity started extracting that gooey black stuff from under the ground and spewing its spent components in the air, dumping it in the water, and spreading it over the land.

Does “the economy” really need to grow, or does it need to retract a little and engage in some self-reflection, to appreciate and make better use of what we have?  Will the “growth jobs” of the future concern themselves with cleaning up the ocean gyres, planting trees, and making re-usable shopping bags?  Are American citizens and taxpayers under any real obligation to support wasteful government mis-spending of empty money that rightfully belongs to the unborn?

Anyone who supports return to a healthy planet should consider how our national policies create artificial markets for fossil fuels, global warming, and planetary suicide.

Joe’s Nightmare

December 29, 2017–In a slight divergence from my normal posts, I’d like to present here the first five pages of my novel.  This magnum opus has been over 30 years in the writing, keeps getting shelved, evolves, and may be coming into its time.  I call it “speculative fiction,” describing visions that leap-frog over the Armageddon the sooth-sayers are so ominously predicting.

It’s About Time, Bud, Beon and the Bots, begins with “Joe’s Nightmare.”  Protagonist Joe and his doctor friend Marian are sitting at Mack’s  Bar and Grill on a busy Friday night.

I present this opening here, to WordPress friends and would-be friends, seeking correspondence of ideas and imagination.  I hope to entertain, tell a story, express a philosophy, and inspire the forces of vitality to all who are touched by it.

CHAPTER 1

JOE’S NIGHTMARE

Marian glared at Joe, but he didn’t see.  He was slouched low in the booth, staring at his beer. His faded white shirt hung loose over thin shoulders.  His brown eyes, usually bright and inquisitive, were dark, brooding, and sad as those of an old, dying dog.  His eyelids drooped, and even his large, floppy ears seemed to sag.  Marian chuckled at his woeful appearance.  Joe’s eyes didn’t move.

Her eyes followed his to the glass, then scanned the room.  Mack’s Bar and Grill was hopping, the Friday night crowd jubilant and loud.  Tiffany lamps interspersed with hanging plants sparked with bejeweled light.  The misted window beside their booth gleamed with trails of glittering raindrops outside.  Mack’s mirror collection covered the walls, giving an impression of friendly spaciousness that Marian found refreshing.

As people swarmed, eerie, surreal shadows played across Joe’s face.  Televisions with muted sound in front and back showed sports highlights.  A dank, musty smell rose with moist heat from the milling bodies.

Marian leaned back and closed her eyes, absorbing the lively mood.  Occasional bursts of laughter here and there rolled over her like waves.  A loud gruffaw from the center of the room startled her, but Joe’s eyes remained fixed on his glass.

She sat up and sipped her wine, watching her strange friend.  As narrow as a line in his personal life, Joe was a genius when it came to science.  More than a genius, he was a wizard.

But tonight even the bubbles in Joe’s beer showed more signs of life.  “Joe!” she almost, but not quite, shouted.  He jumped.  His knee hit the booth’s underside and jostled the glass, but he caught it before the first drop spilled. He held the beer and glared at her.

“Where are you?”  she asked.

“I’m here, of course,” he retorted.  “I live inside my body.”  He put finger to pulse with a flourish and closed his eyes. “My heart is slowing now,” he finally said.  “Had me worried for a minute, a minute and six seconds, to be exact. It was racing at 144 beats, after you so rudely interrupted my experiment, but it has calmed to a mere 86.”

He released his wrist and blew on the chilly glass.  “I would fog a mirror if I had one, so I appear to be breathing.  Would you like to see? I didn’t bring my blood pressure cuff, this time, but perhaps you have one in your purse.”  He chugged half the beer and thunked the glass on the table.

“What experiment?” Marian asked.

Joe gave her a disgusted look.  “I was calculating the volume of air coming out of an invisible speck.  I was counting the bubbles, of course, to multiply their spherical volume by the number.  Then, I was going to add another speck and keep track of its air volume.  From that I was going to determine how much CO2 was dissolved in my beer to see what effect it might have on global warming.  Why?”

Marian sighed.  “I wondered if something was wrong.”

“Nothing but the ruin of my experiment.”  He chugged the rest of the beer.  “Another scientific failure.  Now we may never know how we could save the world by dissolving more carbon dioxide in beer and drinking fast.”

He waved his glass high in the air, exposing a thin wrist bounded by a frayed white cuff.  A passing hand with rings on every finger swept past and escaped with glass on tray, leaving a trail of french-fry smell. When the next beer arrived, Joe slumped into bubble-counting position, his head at eye level with the glass.  His feet struggled to find room under the table.

“Quit kicking if you want me to be quiet.”

“OK,” he said.  “Sorry.”

Marian was left to her thoughts.  Marian wasn’t sure when she first noticed Joe.  Like a cloud, he had eased into her awareness, emerging as if from thin air, until one afternoon he was sitting on a barstool at Mack’s in full flesh, still and silent, his stiff brown hair forming spikes around his head, unshaved chin jutting over a coffee mug. He sipped coffee and stared at the back bar mirror, which revealed the scene behind him, of booths, mirrors, and windows lining the restaurant’s long side.

Over the ensuing weeks, Marian noticed Joe sitting on the same stool every afternoon, drinking coffee, staring into the mirror above the bar.  She liked relaxing at Mack’s, too, where she, exhausted from a long day of writing prescriptions and ministering to other people’s ailments, could let Mack alleviate suffering instead.  Most days she watched, sipping herbal tea at her favorite barstool near the cash register.  Here, she and Mack exchanged ideas on economics, as he collected low-overhead money for treating customers’ problems.

Mack’s Bar and Grill was an independent country, the front door claimed, the “State of Freedom, Democracy, and Capitalism.”  It pictured a lion with Mack’s face lapping beer out of a mug.  It declared Mack’s roar the “Loudest in the Land.”  So far, no one had challenged his independence, and the local police were some of his best citizens.

Mack claimed the lion was the ideal free market capitalist, king of the jungle, who sleeps 20 hours a day, eats two hours, and makes whoopie the remaining two.  Also, he gets his harem to do the hunting and killing for him. Mack complained that Linda, his wife, didn’t understand lion thinking.  She thought he was too fat.  “You have to work for your supper,” she told him.  As for the harem, she only smiled and shook her head.

Until the day Marian noticed Mack’s limp, she could have believed Joe knew only three words.  “Just coffee, Mack,” was all he said.

But Marian’s interest in Mack’s arthritis brought Joe out of his trance.  He jumped into their conversation and regaled them for nearly an hour on the anatomy of the knee, physiology of muscles, histology of bones, the causes of inflammation, and all the current treatments.  Marian was awed, because he was accurate in every detail, and his knowledge seemed infinite.

Who is this strange creature, she wondered.  He looks like he lives in the street.  Over time she found that his aloof manner discouraged personal questions, but Joe was always eager to discuss medicine, technology, and science.  Now Marian took his wizardry for granted and followed him from topic to topic with delight.

“How do you know so much?” she asked tonight.

Joe’s eyes didn’t waver from the glass.  “I’m a curious person,” he said.  “I read a lot.”

Suddenly, a hot dish of fried calamari landed in front of Marian.  Joe looked up.  He glared at the calamari.

Marian offered Joe a sample but knew in advance his answer.  He knew everything about squid, except the taste.  He explained its biology, physiology, anatomy, life cycle, mating habits, and preferred habitats the last time she ordered calamari.

“Fried food is bad for you,” he said now.

“That’s what they say,” Marian replied.  She dipped an offending morsel into tzaziki sauce and popped it in her mouth.  “But I believe in homeopathic doses of lard, from time to time.”

Joe’e eyes followed her hand, glanced at the TV screen, at Mack behind the bar, then looked briefly at Marian’s face before settling back on the beer. He spoke as if to the bubbles. “I had a nightmare,” he said, his voice barely audible.

Marian laughed.  “Is that why you’re so gloomy?  I thought it was something serious.

Joe ignored her.  Marian sighed.

“Is there anything I can do?” she asked.

“Shoot me,” he said.  “That might help.”