Tuesday, 15 April 2014

How chalcophile enrichment stopped industrialisation

A recent letter from Tim Low and Antoni Milewski presents an interesting picture of Chinese history:

“Hi Anthony (copied to Julien),

Part of our argument w.r.t. extinct Chinese parrots is that China has been disturbed profoundly by humans for far, far longer than the New World. I’ve known for years that the Chinese started using fossil fuels long before Europeans, but now I can put numbers to this. A recent study by John Dodson (Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation in Sydney) and co-authors (The Holocene, doi. org/rw8), investigating a site in northern China, have found evidence that the Chinese were using coal for fuel by 3500 years ago after deforesting the environment to the point of being forced to turn to coal instead. This refers to the Chinese Bronze Age. In fact, the sample at one site dated back much farther than that, to 4600 years ago! Admittedly the study area is unusual in that coal was lying around on the surface, and so mining of coal may have been unnecessary, but even so this shows how early the Chinese began to use fossil fuel – something the Europeans only began in the eighteenth century. However one looks at the fact, it’s clear that the Chinese were ahead of the rest of the world, in burning coal, by not hundreds of years but thousands of years.
All the best,


This story is something that is very surprising to me – although I knew of small-scale uses of coal for a very long time in the Enriched World.

China, like Western Europe, has substantial deposits of coal formed in the Carboniferous when its northwest – apart from the Tiān Shān – was a group of oceanic island arcs that became the Kazakhstan and Junggar Blocks, whilst the North China Craton was cool and humid to give large deposits of peat and muck to form coal that, in spite of intense deposition of sediments from the Tiān Shān and Himalayas, are close to the surface.

The question that begs one is that why China did not gain from using coal as Europe did. When Europe began burning coal, it was able to develop manganese metallurgy, which was the biggest breakthrough since iron was smelted, and which led to the industrial revolution. Europe was also able to develop current electricity, which produced the greatest breakthrough in human technology – lithophile metallurgy – which allowed the basic raw material of the continental crust to be used structurally for the first time and created the first industrial society.

There are two key possibilities:
  1. that coal was burned in China before iron metallurgy developed, so that the Chinese never saw the potential in coal use
    • this begs the question of why China would have lost coal technology in Zhōu times when iron was first smelted there
  2. That China’s depletion in lithophile and even some siderophile elements slowed or halted technological development
    • Modern China, however, does have large deposits of iron ore and manganese; however, these are concentrated in Inner Mongolia or South China away from where Chinese civilisation developed
    • China does lack high-grade deposits of chrome ore, cobalt and nickel, key elements for the development of electrical generation and modern steels
      • in fact, the absence of the use of cobalt and nickel by ancient Enriched World civilisations is a reflection of the concentration of their ores in infertile ophiolitic regions, since cobalt and nickel metallurgy is easier than iron
    • In contrast, China – especially Tibet and surrounding areas – is exceptionally rich in rare chalcophile elements, having a high proportion of reserves of antimony, mercury and tin – all of which have exceptionally high enrichment factors.
This uniform enrichment in chalcophile elements undoubtedly delayed the Industrial Revolution a long way beyond iron metallurgy and the use of coal.

The techniques to extract ferrochrome, cobalt and nickel are the same as iron, so that once coal became available the technology for high-quality steels would already have existed. With cobalt available, magnetic properties needed to generate electricity would have been possible, but China – like Europe, North America and Spanish-speaking Latin America – is too young geologically to have major deposits of those reactive metals needed for an Industrial Revolution or possibly even for experiments with these metals.

Consequently, before the settlement of Australia, any Industrial Revolution would have been out of the question, even had technology with cobalt, nickel and manganese developed much further than it had in 1788.

On the flip side, would Australian settlements have survived and thrived as they have without lithophile metallurgy, or would they have declined beyond, say, the catastrophic 1914 drought??

Saturday, 22 February 2014

A common childhood myth in the real world

In children’s books, it is common to show top-level predators like the tiger as the most violent and dangerous of animals. This is an impression I unconsciously accepted for most of my childhood and youth without knowing anything about it, until Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel showed in a few words just how wrong the perception of predators as dangerous is.

In fact, a herbivore like the African Buffalo (Syncerus caffer) is much more dangerous than the tiger – something I often joke with those surrounding me about, saying that:

  1. a person is much safer near a tiger than an African Buffalo
  2. that a tiger will kill someone only if it is hungry, whereas an African Buffalo will kill at any provocation
  3. that the African Buffalo is almost like “the al-Qa‘ida of the animal kingdom” or “nature’s terrorist” because of the way its herds defend themselves by killing intruders
An article I discovered today in Time confirms just how wrong perceptions of predators as uniquely violent actually is. Titled ‘Depressed Man Tries to Feed Himself to Tigers, Gets Rejected: Man saved after trying to tempt the beasts for 20 minutes’, it shows a tiger failing to eat Yang Jinhai who offered himself as completely as possible to the big felid, before the zoo staff tranquilised the tigers and treated Yang for depression.

Children who read stories about tigers may think the tiger was not a “normal” animal and that a wild tiger would kill and eat a human very quickly. In fact, wild tigers, according to reliable sources, will only attack humans when they are a mother tiger with young.

This fact reveals something I was first really aware of from reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel – where he discusses how animals like zebra, African buffalo, oryxes and bushpigs were never domesticated because of their “nasty disposition” or tendency to kill humans when threatened. However, I was well aware African buffalo were dangerous since I had heard it said in a trekking guide to East Africa that “you have to trek with an armed park ranger” on Mount Meru, which is saying something about how untameable the African buffalo really is!

It would be a wonderful idea for those who write children’s books to think about the fact that the animals who actually attack humans are herbivores – the problem is seen in the 30-year-old Search for Dinosaurs where a person has not to use a “stun gun” on a herbivorous dinosaur but to get out of its way. In reality, “getting out of an African buffalo’s way” is unlikely to be sufficient to avoid it killing you even though it is scavengers (vultures) who will eat you.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

“Libertarian” versus “libertine”: two confused concepts

My brother often calls himself “libertarian”, but tends strongly to disagree with what is generally referred to as “libertarian”, such as:
  • a minarchist government dedicated only to protection of people against violence
  • a tax system without direct personal or corporate income taxes
  • a complete absence of regulatory bodies
  • no public welfare and reliance by those unable to work on savings or private charity
  • private provision of traditional “government” services such as:
    • defence
    • intelligence
    • scientific services (meteorology, agricultural research etc.)
James Poulos, whom I do not know despite having frequently read Front Porch Republic, points out that in fact most of the “Millennial Generation” who call themselves “liberatarian” are in fact politically big-government, supporting what Poulos calls the “pink thought police” (the pink being a reference to the use of pink as a symbol for homosexuality).

Recent polls agree with Poulos’ point that:
“It’s not death to the state these libertarians want, it’s the state as cool parent, with a stripper pole in every pot.”
This is vindicated by the recent study ‘Individualist Millennials and Communitarian Conservatives’, which shows clearly that the Millennial Generation of the Enriched World, nurtured by the late Boomers who came of age in the Bush Senior Era, are not libertarians but radical individualists, who wish to eliminate any moral standards and place trust only in those institutions which they can manipulate to this end.

The correct word for such radical individualism based on
“refusal to admit limits to the gratifications of the self”
is libertine. “Libertine” is a word scribes appear reluctant to use of the emerging Millennial Generation in the Enriched World despite the evidence of polls, perhaps because they feel it a little derogatory and that they might have no reason for their radically individualistic values.

It is true that for many school kids (as I can testify) a community of fans of AC/DC – the band who more or less invented modern libertinism for the masses – does give a sense of belonging and one which I lacked as a child. However, the immaturity inherent in supporting a band preaching such violent messages as “I shoot to thrill and I’m ready to kill/I can’t get enough and I can’t get my fill” (which can be nothing except a desire to be a serial killer for the sake of it regardless of what AC/DC’s apologists have you believe) means that mature relationships must be tough for those brought up in such communities, and such seems to be showing in today’s Enriched World.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Europe: perversely leaders when it needs to be laggards – and vice versa for Australia

The notion that a “sustainable” energy policy is incompatible with economic growth is one that is often heard shrilly in the Australian media.

The facts are that Australia has abundant sunlight and some quite unconventional potential geothermal energy sources in its outback that would allow it to achieve a zero-emissions target that should be absolutely the first priority of any international climate protocol. Australia is a much bigger problem than Europe, the United States or China who need to regard themselves not as enemies engaging in petty quarrels over minor reductions, but as allies in a fight against high emissions from Australia and to a lesser extent South Africa and the Gulf States. Severe effects from anthropogenic global warming like:
  1. Melbourne having 24 days in a month over 30˚C as against a previous record of 18
    • this figure could easily see Melbourne have higher maxima than historically hot Halls Creek for this February as a rock-steady super-monsoon drenches northern Australia.
  2. San Francisco receiving only 86 millimetres for the calendar year of 2013 and less than 10 percent of its virgin mean rainfall for the period from February 2013 to January 2014.
certainly mean something should be done to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. The trouble is that it is being done in precisely the places where it makes least difference!

George Osborne certainly should fear his own nation going far ahead of the rest of the world – and so should every nation in Europe. The lack of natural resources in Europe is already economically crippling, especially with the industrialisation of China which, as Osborne says, could very easily affect even the production of renewable energy and related components. As I said in my previous post, the EU faces a perverse energy price-gap for a region that is in geological terms exceptionally energy-rich and bears negligible responsibility for anthropogenic climate change. Given its comparative disadvantage in supplying land and mineral resources, there is every reason that European energy prices should be the lowest, or very nearly the lowest, in the world. Contrary to what Calbick and Gunton imply completely eliminating EU energy taxes would have little impact on energy consumption and greenhouse emissions in the EU, whilst potentially ameliorating major demographic and social problems faced by the region. These are severely regulated by the lack of natural resources without further price controls.

Emissions reductions in the EU are unimportant vis-à-vis reductions in Australia where an abundance of coal and flat land make energy-efficient mass transit systems economically questionable and politically unviable. What Osborne hopefully can recognise is that campaigns for severe reductions by Australia will make a difference, which his own country could never make. They may be politically exceedingly difficult, but the key step is for people in Europe should recognise the warming they observe as being in no way their responsibility and, if it affects them, something other nations (chiefly Australia) have a severe duty to pay the cost of.

Were it put forward hard enough to Australia’s politicians and businesses that they possess this responsibility, the globe would be half-way to repairing the damage caused by burning of fossil fuels. With enough pressure and insistence that Australia pays the cost for climate change abroad (not, however, for natural disasters within the virgin climate range), and clear evidence for Australia}s responsibility already existing, this can hopefully be done, but politicians do not yet see it.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Calbick and Gunton have it half-there ‒ back to the 2008 Sunday Times

Suspicion that Australia’s rock-bottom energy prices are largely responsible for it ‒ with as Zhang et. al have demonstrated the lowest allowable per capita emissions in the world owing to its extremely low-phosphorus soils ‒ having actually the highest per capita emissions, yet being treated with extreme lenience by all amongst:
  1. international treaties on global warming
  2. international environmental lobby groups
  3. academic works on the problem of greenhouse emissions
have been with me for a very long time.

However, it is only now that Thomas Gunton and K.S. Calbick have provided the first evidence that Australia’s excessively low energy prices are the cause of its high emissions, as much as its low population densities and dependence on energy-intensive metals. In a new study titled ‘Differences among OECD countries’ GHG emissions: Causes and policy implications’, they show that:
  1. energy prices alone are by far the best predictor of total greenhouse gas emissions
  2. that if Australia raised energy prices to the highest levels in the OECD, it would reduce its greenhouse emissions by sixty percent.
Demographic problems in the Enriched World make taxation rises dubious as a policy recommendation for the US and Canada. What will reduce their emissions without pushing them further into a demographic mire and eroding their ability to accept people from overpopulated Australia is unclear and I will not attempt such here.

However, with Australia, raising energy prices is an absolute necessity. Even a 60 percent reduction would put Australia’s emissions in the range of most Enriched countries, when the allowable value based upon soil available phosphorus cannot be higher than 5 percent the Enriched World average, or about 0.4 tonnes CO2 equivalent per person per year, or about 1.5 percent of Australia’s current per capita emissions.

The question that Calbrick and Gutton need to ask is what energy price would reduce Australia’s emissions by the requisite 98.5 percent?? It might not, in fact, be as high as the extreme prices described on 24 April 2008 in the Sunday Times; indeed, political problems might step in at such high energy prices. Nonetheless, it would certainly be higher than the most expensive Enriched World nations, and such high prices would potentially have even more economic and ecological benefits than respectable emissions for by far the worst offender in greenhouse emissions.