Archive for September, 2008


September 4th, 2008 38 comments

I spent most of yesterday at a symposium organised by the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science and Technology. A lot of topics were discussed, but one that interested me was methane, mainly that emitted from both ends of ruminants such as cows.

There’s plenty to to say about this, but I’m just going to repeat one point that I made briefly and that subsequent speakers like Snow Barlow from Melbourne expanded on. Methane belched or farted by a cow is not just a greenhouse gas, it’s nutrition wasted by the digestive process. So, if we can find ways to reduce methane emissions, they should also increase the productivity of agriculture.

That’s not to say that there are $50 bills lying in every cowpat, waiting to be picked up. If there were a cheap and easy way of improving digestion it would have been found by now. But there’s certainly a potential for increased output to offset the costs of finding, developing and implementing ways of reducing methane emissions, for example by making cows fart like kangaroos

As an illustration of the complexities, some other research reported at the symposium showed that having more CO2 in the atmosphere will increase the growth of some tropical grasses (this was a bit of a surprise because these are C4 plants, generally thought to benefit less from this effect), but will reduce the nutrient quality which makes digestion more difficult and therefore tends to increase methane emissions. For any “Greening Earth’ fans out there, I should point out that, as in previous work, studies reported at the symposium found that adverse effects of higher temperatures and more variable rainfall will outweigh any net benefits of CO2 fertilisation

Here’s my presentationMosquito the Rapist aka Bloodlust on dvd

Categories: Environment Tags:

Oil and war

September 2nd, 2008 29 comments

It’s pretty widely assumed that several recent wars (most obviously those in Iraq and Georgia) have been motivated, in part at least, by the desire to control oil and other valuable resources including natural gas and (one that is close to my heart) water. The other side of the same coin is the idea (again evident in both these cases) that countries with control over valuable resources can use that control to further their own geopolitical ends.

But examples where either of these strategic ideas has been applied with success are thin on the ground to say the least. While I don’t subscribe to simple ideas of “war for oil” in relation to Iraq, it’s pretty clear that one of the many motives for going to war was the desire to put Iraq’s oil under the control of a government friendly to the US (and preferably not so friendly to rivals like France and Russia). The war has been as spectactular a failure in this respect as in many others. With the best part of a trillion dollars already spent and trillions more to come, the US is worse off in the oil market than it has ever been.

On the other side, the oil embargo of 1973 signalled the change from a market dominated by a buyer cartel to one dominated by a seller cartel. But in geopolitical terms it was a disaster. The Israeli occupation arising from the 1967 war, then only six years old, is still almost intact 35 years later (the Egyptians got the Sinai back, but not because they had any oil).

More generally, I suspect that countries wanting oil can’t do better than to buy it at the going price, and that those wanting to maximise the benefits from owning oil would be best off selling it for the same price and using the money to promote their strategic goals (or, more sensibly, investing it in projects like education).

Of course, showing that it’s stupid to go to war over oil doesn’t prove that people won’t do it. Empirical observation gives us plenty of evidence of the fact that people are more than usually stupid when war is concerned. In the early 20th century, Norman Angell’s Great Illusion demolished the idea that modern nations could secure economic benefits by fighting over war and resources. He was proved right in the most appalling way possible: the Great War that began in 1914 led to the ruin of all the parties.

Categories: World Events Tags:

Monday Message Board

September 1st, 2008 43 comments

It’s time, again, for the Monday Message Board. Comments on any topic, civilised discussion, no coarse language please.

Categories: Regular Features Tags: