Conservatives Evolutionists vs Progressive Intelligent Designers

TLS-ColbertSmall “c” conservatives are, by definition, ideologically committed to preventing or slowing the rate of change. The essential premise is that things are better the way they are, or maybe even the way they were, but definitely not the way they are going. Bill O’Reilly asserted the futility of this last night on The Late Show when saying to Stephen Colbert that conservatives believe they are losing the culture war to progressives. In response, Colbert noted that conservatism is always a losing battle because the culture always changes.

In a similar vein, Vox’s Matt Yglesias penned an interesting article about small conservative communities desperate to preserve the status quo. They are often resistant to new industry and new development coming to town for fear of what outside elements might come along with it. He noted the brutal truth that change was going to happen to these towns either way. By resisting the influx of outside influences, they were instead suffering the withering death of attrition as their young people went off to college and never came home.

In both cases, the conservative path is to ultimately have change thrust upon them by outside forces they don’t control and didn’t influence. In this way, conservatives are embracing a sort of cultural evolution. After all, in the natural world, evolution is simply the change induced by random events. It’s not directed. It’s not controlled. It’s not inherently good or bad. It just happens.

In contrast, small “p” progressives not only accept that change will happen, they advocate for it. They try to control and direct it. This doesn’t mean all progressive changes are good, but it at least means they were thought out and intended. They are open for debate, refinement, and improvement. Ironically, this puts progressives in the position of advocating for cultural intelligent design.

Go figure…

Einstein’s God was not Yahweh

Einstein on GodThe quote attributed to Einstein, “The more I study science, the more I believe in God,” is getting a lot of play around the interwebs.  I though it might be interesting to look at what he might have meant by the statement.

Einstein is also widely quoted as saying, God does not play dice with the universe.” Together, these quotes are oft cited as evidence of scientists believing in God—usually by fundamentalist Christian groups defending themselves against the encroachment of science on their literal interpretation of their mythology.

First, Einstein was neither a Christian or even a Jew. He was raised as a Jew and was schooled as a Catholic. He had ample education in the Abrahamic religions, but rejected them nonetheless.

Still, Einstein is not properly classified an atheist either.  He rejected the notion of a personal god. Instead, he said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.”

In other words, he was a Deist, and was in the spiritual company of Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, George Washington, Ethan Allen, and Thomas Paine. Deists believe that reason and observation of the natural world, without the need for organized religion, can determine that the universe is the product of a creator.

So Einstein’s quote is an observation of the mathematical beauty, the order, the ever unfolding revelation of the inner workings of the universe that he perceived. It’s not remotely an affirmation of the bible.

Einstein’s god never intervened in human affairs or suspended the natural laws of the universe, and absolutely did not have a supernatural existence or the capacity for miracles.  This makes Einstein a curious poster boy for Christians in specific, or even theists in general.

Dear GOP, Drill This

Either unregulated free markets work, or they don’t.  Either a thing is the President’s responsibility, or it isn’t.  You can’t have it both ways unless you’re inventing your own reality… Oh yeah, never mind.

US Oil ProductionOkay, maybe we should mind a little… The GOP’s message is that Obama is responsible for high gas prices and he should do something about that.  And that something is to “drill, baby, drill“.  Unfortunately, those damned liberally biased facts stand in stark opposition to the GOP’s message.  As the chart on the right shows, oil production under Obama has risen at a substantial rate, and contrasts markedly with the steady decline of production under George Bush.  In fact, the number of oil rigs in production in the U.S. has reached a 24-year high, according to oil field services company Baker Hughes. In 2005, domestic production was 1.89 billion barrels. This year, experts say, production is expected to surpass 2 billion barrels.

drilling_gas_prices_chartFurther, there’s no correlation between domestic oil production and gas prices.  The chart on the left shows instead that the two numbers seem to roughly track.  If we assume (moronically) that correlation is the same as causation, the obvious policy would be to stop domestic production in an effort to bring prices at the pump down.

Another nail in the coffin of the failure to drill position is the U.S. Energy Information Administration report that the U.S. exported 430,000 more barrels of gasoline than it imported for the month of September. This is an historic change, because we’ve been a net importer of gasoline, mostly from Europe, since the 1960s. We are not domestically constrained on gasoline supply.

Another inconvenient truth is U.S. net petroleum imports have fallen to about 47% of the nation’s consumption, down from a record 60.3% in 2005, Energy Information Administration statistics show. It’s been 15 years since the nation’s reliance on foreign oil has been this low.

So does Obama deserve all the credit for this?  No, absolutely not.  While he’s called for ending the $40B in annual subsidies to big oil, so far the money flows unabated.  While there was a brief moratorium on deep water drilling after the BP oil spill, that was long ago lifted.  Obama subsequently opened up drilling in the Arctic to the howl of environmentalists, and also agreed to open leases for drilling off the eastern seaboard, despite his reputation on the right for shutting down oil exploration.  Obama may not be responsible for the boom in production, but it’s not at all clear how you can claim he’s a hindrance to it.  There might be a claim that he could do more to spur drilling, but there’s no evidence he’s done anything yet to impede drilling.  If anything, his policies lean the other way.

Meanwhile, in reality, the major reasons for increases in domestic oil production lie with recent advances in geologic imaging allowing accurate identification of underground oil deposits, as well as the development of new extraction techniques making previously unprofitable wells productive.

oil -- u.s. oil efficiency improvingThe impact of energy efficiency should also not be underestimated. Not only are our homes, cars, and appliances cleaner and greener, but advances in technology have reduced the need for travel. More of us are telecommuting to work, or using GoToMeeting instead of jumping on a plane.

Hmmm… domestic production is up, domestic use is down, and gas prices are still rising.  That doesn’t sound like the supply & demand model we learned about in school!  But wait, I’ve heard rumors that the US is not the only country on the planet.  Maybe there are other players here influencing the market.

It turns out that growing industrialized counties like China and India are consuming an ever larger portion of the global oil supply.  In aggregate, the global demand is expected to barely keep pace with global production.  So there’s minimal excess capacity in the market, and that helps keep prices high.  Granted, additional production will definitely help this problem.  However, if China and India continue growing at their current rate and eventually consume oil at rates approaching what we do in the U.S., the need will far outstrip the supply of oil on the entire globe.  So long term, most of us have to find an energy alternative to oil anyway.  The only way “Drill, Baby, Drill” solves this problem is if the US becomes entirely oil self-sufficient, and then detaches itself from the global oil markets.  And that flies directly in the face of the GOP position on open, free, and unregulated markets.  Can you imagine the cries when the law is passed that prevents Exxon from exporting?

And speaking of free markets, oil speculators are in no small part responsible for the current price spike.  Almost 70% of the current oil commodities market is driven by speculators.  Why is speculation driving prices up?  Primarily, the speculation that there is an imminent military intervention in Iran that will dramatically impact the delivery of Mid-East oil.  Meaning, the increased saber-rattling toward Iran is helping drive prices up by driving speculation of a coming supply crunch.  Keep in mind that while Obama has offered stern warnings to Iran, the current GOP Presidential contenders (excluding Ron Paul) have all promised to attack Iran if they don’t fall in line to U.S. demands.  Commodities speculation is fairly unregulated, and it seems highly unlikely the GOP would support such financial regulation.  Meanwhile, their militaristic approach to foreign policy exacerbates fears that are driving the free market in the direction they claim to not want it to go.

Mitt Romney is on record saying that rather than bail out the auto industry, the market should just have been allowed to run its natural course.  That’s what’s best for the markets and ultimately best for America. Why then, is it not best for the markets and best for America to let gas hit $5/gallon if that is the natural course of things?  Why should the government intervene on gas prices?

If your mantra is, shut up and take your medicine while the markets sort it out, then shut up and take your medicine.

Fracking might frack us all

ScientistIt seems increasingly likely that some amount of hydraulic fracturing to liberate shale-bound natural gas reserves will be approved in New York state.  The specific rules around that, and in what areas it will be approved, are still being determined.  The EPA, who faces the reality that fracking is an issue in many states and that the environmental imacts of the technique are not necessarily bound by state lines, is increasingly looking to New York as a model for if and how fracking should be allowed.

There seems little doubt that the energy resources recovered through fracking would go a long way toward solving our short term energy problems.  Economically, it makes good sense.  Companies believe they can make money doing it, and the country can use the energy.  If it were as simple as all that, no one would really be against it.

Yet there is a niggling little concern that fracking compromises underground aquifers, causes earthquakes, and generates copious amounts of polluted wastewater that will be released into the environment.  And therein lies the rub.

The trick here is that the science is not remotely settled.  This has not stopped groups assuring us that it is 100% safe and they would gladly have their children frolic in fracking wastewater retention ponds, as well as their counterparts assuring us that permitting any fracking would result in having hot and cold running fire taps in every kitchen.

The trouble is, it’s complicated.  There are no generalized models for how fracking fluids or methane will migrate through the Earth’s crust when things are disturbed thousands of feet below ground.  Scientists are just beginning to study this, and the answers won’t be known for some time.

Even when and if the science community reaches consensus on an answer, it’s likely to be disputed by whichever group is proved wrong.  The global warming debate has taught us that the political and popular perception is that ultimately scientific conclusions are something that can be voted on.

The only sane way to proceed is an evaluation of the risks on each side.  If we don’t frack, we may face shortages of natural gas.  This might drive up energy prices, push for investment in alternative energy sources, increase global competition and tension over foreign oil supplies, or drive us to increasingly rely on dirty domestic coal for power.

If we do frack, we may face permanent pollution of potable water supplies.  Fresh water shortages are already predicted to be the next major natural resource crisis.  There may also be unpredictable damage to wildlife ecosystems that could ultimately threaten food supplies and human health as well.

In comparing these two risks, it seems clear that not fracking exacerbates risks we are already dealing with.  Meanwhile, fracking introduces lots of unknown risks—unknown risks with long term, widespread, dire, and potentially irrecoverable consequences.  In essence, we are choosing between the known and the unknown.

The conservative position here is clearly to favor known risks.

Besides, we’ve seen this play out too many times before.  We were assured the risks of industrial pollution were localized and minimal.  Then the Cuyahoga River caught fire, Los Angeles was lost in a haze of smog, and the northeast was drenched by acid rain.  These were not minor inconveniences or local hazards.  These were widespread ecological disasters with definitive and demonstrable negative effects on human health.  And the economic costs to recover from them have been, and continue to be, enormous.

Fracking may well be safe.  I don’t know.  You don’t know.  The politicians and energy companies don’t know.  And neither do the environmentalists or the EPA.  The critical point being, are we willing to risk being wrong?  Does it make sense that a society, currently with their hair on fire over the prospect of passing debt on to their grandchildren, is willing to casually risk passing land without potable water or farmable land on to those same kids… for the sake of lower heating bills?

Frack with caution. Do it for the children.