20 thoughts on “Sandpit

  1. Detailed reply to James Wimberley re the atmospheric concentration / fossil fuel emissions contretemps in the Gas and CC thread.

    “The plateauing of global emissions from fossil fuels and cement is now confirmed by the IEA for three years of steady GDP growth over 3%, so around 10% in total. It’s becoming absurd to claim that this is a statistical artefact.”

    I did not claim it was a statistical artefact. Essentially, I am saying, Gee that’s great, except that this development is too late. Serious climate and environmental damage is already in train.

    “It’s amusing to note that this creates an ideological problem for both Marxists, who reject the idea that capitalism can reform itself – and for neoclassical economists.”

    I’m not a Marxist. I am Marxian is some of my thinking. In any case, it creates no ideological problems for Marxists or Marxians. It is clear that capitalism cannot reform itself. Piketty has proven this yet again. The inner laws of capital accumulation, under low growth conditions under about 4% very roughly, lead to greater inequality, capital over-accumulation, stagnation, depression and unemployment. And then maybe to another boom in the boom-bust cycle if enough resources are left. Only state or some other external intervention can break unfettered capitalism out of this cycle. Only democratic intervention, via the state or some other form, can reform capitalism. Science properly applied can help that reform. If democracy or any other force reformed capitalism comprehensively then it would cease to be capitalism.

    “So what is going on? Why, against all logic, are we making progress?”

    The progress is very belated let us be clear about that. Essentially it took really existing capitalism 25 years to turn the ship one point off its disaster course. The year 1990 is the Kyoto reference year. We should have taken real action from that point. Instead, late stage, relatively unfettered capitalism took us on another 18 years of emissions bingeing before having a GFC (small depression) and getting the economic “vapours” for about the last 7 years. The stagnation of the system since the GFC may well be the main reason for flattening emissions. Admittedly, this is augmented by some renewables (still small in total) and some so-called “de-coupling” of economic growth from energy use. It’s not de-coupling at all. De-coupling properly means to become completely unconnected. It’s simply a formerly near inelastic coupling which now shows more elasticity. The two are still connected.

    All this trumpeting, that it is wonderful that capitalism has finally worked, is basically a hand-waving cover-up for all the years it has failed to work. The earth is like a patient who got woefully inadequate treatments for a long duration and whose condition worsened, to the possibly terminal, in that critical treatment hiatus. Is the patient supposed to be all gratitude when the correct treatment is finally administered? Are we supposed to accept that fixing a problem extremely belatedly after terminal damage may already have been done is good enough and it proves that the system is adequate? No! Absolutely not! Such extremely belated results are actually proof the system has failed, has failure built into its very structure, and that it must be completely reformed.

  2. And now for a complete change in focus and interest. I want to talk about sugar ants which live outside, probably in ground nests more than in old logs, but which do come inside the house. Not being a myrmecologist, I do not know if I am referring to Camponotus humilior or Camponotus consobrinus. Most observed factors incline me to think I am referring to Camponotus humilior, (nocturnal, appropriate size and coloring) but the in-ground nesting maybe points to consobrinus.

    Anyway, I have noticed a couple of odd things (to me) about these ants when they come indoors.

    1. The appearance of outlier scouts in pairs.

    These ants appear to form lines to and from good food sources indoors like a food waste bin (common enough ant behaviour) but they also seem to place scouts in other areas which produce no or minimal food like floors of other rooms. Here, the scouts are very typically in pairs sharing an area of about 2 to 4 square meters which they patrol somewhat apart (maybe 50cms apart on average.

    I have since found out via Wikipedia that Camponotus ants perform “tandem running”. You can look it up to see what it entails. This is described as being one way new ants are led to existing food sources. However, it appears to me they also tandem run to outlying scout positions. This would explain the pairs of scouts. What it does not explain or at least not describe (to my mind) is this overall apparently efficient behaviour of sending lines to known heavy food sources and just dual scouts with seemingly area responsibilities to outlying areas where food either is rare (the odd minuscule crumb) or non-existent but seen as an area somehow having food potential (or danger?).

    I have experimentally killed tandem outlier scouts and the next evening a new pair (usually) are there. Occasionally 1, 3 or 4 will be there but much more commonly it is 2.

    2. The propensity to “pool” or bivouac outside the nest.

    These ants are active in the early to mid evening. Later some (sometimes a very considerable number) will pool and appear to go comatose or asleep in under-sink cupboards, in dim room corners and so on. In the morning they are usually all gone but if this pooling becomes heavy enough they will then hang about around the clock. Most other ant species will just actively trail to food sources and back to nests. They don’t show this Camponotus tendency to bivouac outside the nest. Or maybe I simply have not been observant enough to note this in other species.

    Anybody know anything more about these Camponotus behaviours?

  3. Where did I “trumpet” to the effect “that it is wonderful that capitalism has finally worked”?

    We disagree profoundly on the extent and significance of the recent turnround, and it’s a waste of time to reargue this. You do recognize that there has been some progress, but don’t respond to my question where it comes from.

    IMHO you reify “capitalism” to such an extent that it prevents you from seeing the variety of forces at work. An example. Hans-Josef Fell is a German Green politician and father of the country’s Renewable Energy Acts, that played a key role in subsidising early deployment of wind and solar energy and bringing down their prices. In what sense was he a tool or expression of “capitalism”? The way I see it, the German Green party was orthogonal to the old left-right cleavage. It was able to get its way on renewable energy in a multiparty system, because the Greens cared a lot about the issue, and the traditional parties thought it unimportant. In this way minority players can turn conviction into leverage.

    The growth of renewable technology is due partly to basic university research, funded everywhere on a socialist model, and partly to product development by capitalist corporations. (The solar cell was invented at Bell Labs: a giant, semi-socialized monopoly capitalist corporation investing in basic university-type research for prestige, a genuine outlier.) It’s possible for state socialist (and cooperative) corporations to innovate, but historically they have not been very good at it outside weaponry and war. The revival of electric vehicles required no fundamental discoveries – they were common in 1910 – and the development was IIRC funded by Elon Musk’s Tesla as a straight capitalist venture project.

    Chance and great men? Shocking. But the Kingdom of Serendip is where we live.

  4. @James Wimberley

    Exactly, just about everything good in the modern context has come from democracy, socialism and science: those parts of those things which have managed to survive against capitalism and do things in spite of it. I agree our societies have many strands. But capitalism has been becoming more and more dominant. Especially since the neocon revolution of the 1970s-1980s.

    You mention electric vehicles. The fossil fuel capitalists and their paid state stooges killed a revival in the 1990s. See “Who killed the electric car?” The fossil fuel capitalists also ripped up L.A.’s public transport system in the first place to promote cars.

    When virtually only one form of large enterprise is permitted and abetted, the capitalist corporation, it is scarcely a wonder that it is the only form seen in large projects in some capitalist countries. We, in Australia had large national enterprises in he past but many of these were stolen from the public and privatised.

  5. @Ikonoclast
    I found your post on ants interesting. What I found more interesting is that you actually found out what species they were.
    I have a lot of ants on my orchard as I use sod culture between the rows but only one species has aroused enough curiosity to find out more about it and has me stymied.
    This species is only around 6-7mm long and zooms very quickly in and out of a sloping entrance. They seem to deposit a grain or several of dirt in a fan shaped mound and dash back underground for some more.
    The colony must be very small, I rarely see them and they are usually the harbingers of rain within a week.
    I do know that ants are an important species for turning the soil, more so in arid areas but still part of the mix of insects which churn the crust.

  6. @Salient Green

    Common names are quite a handy start for amateurs like me. The ants we were getting are very commonly called sugar ants. I looked up “sugar ants” and it was quite clear from online pictures and information that these ants were either one of the two species I mentioned above but not a third sugar ant species as our ones were the wrong colour for that. So let’s look at some common names for common ants found in S.E. Qld where I live;


    Meat ants: Live in a “mound” with a near flat or slightly convex top which is circular or oval to look down on. The mound is bare, open to sun and liberally sprinkled with fine gravel. It has several or more openings. Meat ants are also called gravel ants. Diurnal. The workers are about 8 mm and dark brown to black. They swarm (scurrying) when you stomp on their nest. This was a common childhood “experiment” of mine. Most common species is Iridomyrmex purpureus.

    Green Ants: Every Brisbane schoolkid knows what a green ant is especially after being “bit” by one. Have a painful sting. (Note: Some ants bite and some bite and sting.) The colour is a dark metallic green. Workers are 5 to 7 millimeters. They appear to move by darts rather than scurrying when disturbed or threatened Nests are small, in the grass usually and may have small loose earth cone at entrance. Rhytidoponera metallica.

    Sugar Ants: Already said enough about these.

    Carpenter Ants: Same genus as sugar ants, often nest by making galleries in fallen logs. Don’t actually eat the wood.

    Tree Ants or Green Tree Ants: Build nests in foliage. “Build balloon-shaped nests among the foliage of trees and shrubs. Groups of workers pull leaves close to each other and ‘weave’ them together with silk produced by the larvae.” Workers are about 5-10 mm long and yellowish-green. Oecophylla smaragdina.

    There is another way to look up ants from a key observation (or smellservation) about them. There is one smallish black ant which when crushed smells sort of like coconut or rotten coconut. I was aware of these ants: commonly seen and numerous when seen but did not know what they were called. Look up “coconut ant” and you soon find the common name and scientific name. The Odorous House Ant (Tapinoma sessile). “T. sessile ranges in color from brown to black and varies in length from (1.5–3.2 mm.”

    The species you mention might be the green ant (Rhytidoponera metallica) but you don’t give enough information. Things to use for an internet search:

    Common name
    Most Notable Characteristic
    Standard worker size
    Obvious above ground casts of different sizes (“workers” and “soldiers”)
    Diurnal or Nocturnal activity
    Nest situation

    Of course one very damaging and dangerous exotic ant to look for is the Fire Ant. These are only in S.E. Qld so far. If you find them do not disturb their nest and do not come in contact with them. Call the relevant state authority; in Qld., Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

    Fire Ants:

    Small 2-6 mm
    Variety of sizes within each nest
    Head and body are coppery-brown, abdomen is darker
    Mounds have no obvious entry or exit holes
    Aggressive, numerous particularly near the nest
    Swarms and inflicts multiple painful stings often leading to huge excruciating rashes and even anaphylactic shock. Treat with extreme caution. Always inform authorities for correct checks eradication.

    I have seen a demonstration fire ant nest in a large, secure perspex display case. To me the most defining characteristic (apart perhaps from sheer numbers) was the great variety of sizes of above-ground individuals. I have seen no native ant demonstrate that size variety (not that I am seen all that many native ant types.)

  7. I should have mentioned I am in the Murraylands of SA so some of the ants you mentioned are not here but it was interesting reading about them nonetheless.
    From your post I have gleaned that perhaps the locals will have a common name for them. I have been here for 25 years but it’s the kind of place where you really don’t feel like a local unless you’ve been born and played footy here. I shall ask around.
    This ant is black but its distinguishing characteristic is the speed, which is much faster than any other species I have seen even when agitated.
    I know a plant breeder in SA’s primary industry research organisation who should know an entomologist or two now that your post has got me going. Cheers.

  8. @Ikonoclast


    for three years of steady GDP growth over 3%

    is a capitalist canard. Compared to previous years and to a subsequent year (2015) it represents the opposite – an entrenched decline. N.B. as the IMF generally downgrades its estimates, it is likely that a forthcoming IMF WEO could put the 2015 at or below 3%.

    In such a context, a decline in global emissions from fossil fuels and cement is not laudable.

    The cause is not what we need.

  9. Ivor do you acknowledge that the US economy is more than twice as energy efficient as it was in 1970? Essentially the link between ‘growth’ and resource use – particularly energy – is becoming more tenuous.

    As for current low economic growth – sand chucked in the wheels of commerce by well meaning but misguided policies tend to do that. It also enables a lot of foot stomping by frustrated individuals who then blame commerce itself. Also GDP is probably becoming more and more irrelevant as a measure of growth due to factors such as technological deflation etc.

  10. @Joe Blow

    Do you acknowledge:

    – Annual Mean Global Carbon Dioxide Growth Rate in 2015 was 3 ppm, the highest on record?
    – The world has reached in March 2016 404.83 ppm atmospheric CO2?
    – When raised by other GHGs to a CO2e measure this already indicates global warming of 1.5C at least is in train?
    – This will lead to significant harmful effects on our economies?
    – That levels greater than this could seriously damage our economies and societies?
    – March 2016 set a new all-time March heat record?

  11. @Joe Blow

    There are so many complexities with such measurements over this time-scale but I assume the US has become more energy efficient since 1970.

    This does not mean that its CO2e emissions have fallen since 1970.

  12. Joe Blow: “Ivor do you acknowledge that the US economy is more than twice as energy efficient as it was in 1970?”

    Interesting graph, Joe. The swings aren’t nearly as volatile, but dip for dip, rise for rise, it pretty much tracks exactly with the US’s balance of trade over the last 60 years (currently at -$760 billion for goods, excluding services).

    It’s almost as if the US has been steadily outsourcing its production emissions…

  13. Reply to Ronald Brak in the gas thread re Hinkley

    IIRC one of the Fraunhofer institutes built a 100% renewables scenario for Germany. They figured that the longest plausible period of negligible wind and solar output is a fortnight in winter. Solar output shrinks to negligible, and windless pauses of high pressure interrupting the usual procession of anticyclones do happen. Britain is even further north than Germany. So we have to accept that such countries do have a real backup.problem, and need cover of 100% of peak demand.

    You and I know that nuclear plants are both ruinously costly and technically unsuited to the role, but that’s the argument being made for them. It’s in that sense that interconnectors to despatchable Norwegian hydro are an essential part of Plan B.

  14. @Nick

    Good point. A coal mine in Australia emits almost zero carbon if it exports overseas.

    The emission is counted only when the coal is burned. So China records the emission from Australian coal and such economies can produce all sorts of fancy graphs showing a fall in CO2 intensity and blame (for example) China.

    Unfortunately it is Western economies that consume a lot of Chinese products made by burning Australian coal. But this is not counted as carbon emissions.

    So global emissions go up and academics and politicians in Western countries claim they have reduced emissions etc. etc. and spin as much as they can.

  15. Just a quick response to the thread on sea lanes, comments on which are now closed. Our focus on keeping sealanes open and preparing for a contingency in which we have to fight our ships through choke points, has been the passages through Indonesia, not the sc sea. However unlikely at the moment, a scenario in which Jakarta and the prc find common interest and bring these choke points into play still needs to be prepared for. We don’t own a merchant fleet, we lease the vessels of other nations. Insurance costs increase when political tensions rise and security becomes less predictable.
    Potentially prc reef to island building may begin with a 12nm limit, expand with a 12nm contiguous zone, full eez, or a claim on all waters between the newly created islands, based on the archipelagic principle used by Indonesia and the Philippines and recognised in unclos.

  16. I haven’t read all of this paper yet but it looks interesting in this context.

    1991: The Archipelagic States Concept and Regional Stability in Southeast Asia – Charlotte Ku


    Perhaps the Philippines in particular should have been careful what they wished for. They have handed China a club with which to beat them. China is doing what all great powers have done since time immemorial. That is beat up, oppress or exploit their neighbours where they can. At a practical level, it is hard to see how to stop China taking over the entire South China Sea without starting a war. The China containment line will move back to the archipelago lands themselves; the borders being the western beaches of Japan, Sth Korea and Phillipines as well as the beaches of Vietnam. These are the geostrategic realpolitik limits of Chinese power in the SC Sea. China cannot conquer these nations in the foreseeable future and maybe not ever. China will get to plunder the relatively limited resources of the SC Sea. Then it will be a dead zone of buffer use only. There are no winners from this process in the long run.

  17. James, I don’t think northern European countries have a backup problem. They have existing gas capacity that can help them meet winter demand. And since it is existing, the only costs are gas and the maintenance to stop them falling apart. It consists of combined cycle plants and less efficient peakers. There are even coal power plants, but the sooner they are gotten rid of, the better.

    Now if these existing gas power plants only have to be used rarely on account of there being a large amount of of solar and wind capacity and smaller amounts hydro, biomass and other renewables; and enough storage capacity to meet lulls in renewable output of a few days; then not much gas will be burned. If not much gas is burned, then not much CO2 will be released into the atmosphere. If not much CO2 is released into the atmosphere, then it won’t cost a great deal to pay to have it removed and sequestered. At $100 a tonne of CO2 it will cost about 3.6 cents a kilowatt-hour for electricity generated by a 50% efficient combined cycle gas plant. I can sequester carbon right now for $100 US dollars a tonne, so that’s not an unrealistic figure.

    Of course, using Scandinavian hydro could be a much better method. Or other alternatives. It’s just there’s no need to stress about wringing out the last few wisps of carbon emissions from electricity generation. If other alternatives are more expensive, we can mop up the dregs and hide them under the carpet until we come up with something cheaper.

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