Yves here. Reader Henry Moon Pie yesterday posted a comment that some readers asked to be featured as a post proper, and we are honoring these requests. Henry Moon Pie discussed how what we call science too often has come to be anything but. We see that most clearly in medicine, where both the profit motive and “publish or perish” has allowed methods of at best limited utility, like randomized control trials and relative risk reduction, to be treated as stand-alone gold standards, as opposed to approaches to be used in combination with other analyses.
Henry Moon Pie uses an example from the world of climate change remediation to show how soi-disant scientists are touting direct air carbon capture, an approach they ought to recognize is a fraud.
By Henry Moon Pie
A tale of two Sciences:
Today’s links give us pictures of two different Sciences. One version strives to advance humans’ understanding of the world around them by taking into account both human history and human limitations. The other cares about neither of those things but seeks only to be a dutiful servant of corporate and political power.
Direct air carbon capture is example of the latter. Rather than adjust our social, economic and political systems once we learned of the damage we were doing to our Earthly home with our wasteful consumption, the scientists engaged in developing direct air carbon capture, generously funded by corporate and political power, claim to offer a high-tech solution that will allow all the affluent to continue to “live their best life,” flying all over the world on annual or semi-annual pilgrimages and driving four-seater, giant pickup trucks from their exurban ranchettes into their cushy office jobs in the city center.
The problem is that the solution is idiocy. This article highlights five reasons carbon capture can never succeed, but this one is the clincher:
Running a carbon capture system is incredibly energy-intensive. It essentially requires building a new power plant to run the system, creating another source of air and carbon pollution. That undermines the whole goal of capturing carbon in the first place.
Our country emits roughly 5 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year. Removing 1 billion tons of that through direct air capture would require nearly the entire electricity output of the United States.
It’s also important to consider the scale of what would be needed. The Energy Department recently announced $12 million to fund “direct air capture” projects. It also touted the possible removal of 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
To put this in perspective, the largest corporate polluter in 2018 was responsible for releasing 119 million tons of CO2 equivalent — and that’s only one of them.
Apparently, the scientists who are claiming the direct air carbon capture is a viable solution are much better at the mathematics of their bank accounts than they are at calculating what it would take to solve the carbon problem with their technology.
A very different scientific approach is detailed in the article about the “taming” of food crops. It begins with Natalie Mueller, a professor at Washington University not of physics or chemistry but of archaeology. She is seeking to better understand how humans first began to develop agriculture.
Mueller’s study, published April 7 in PLOS ONE, focuses on work with a plant called erect knotweed, a member of the buckwheat family that was domesticated by indigenous farmers in eastern North America. The domesticated sub-species is now extinct; humans don’t eat it anymore. But Mueller and others have previously uncovered caches of seeds stored in caves, charred plant remnants in ancient hearths, and even the seeds of erect knotweed in human feces, clear evidence that this species was once consumed as a staple food.
These knotweed seeds are hard to germinate. As gardeners who try to grow some herbs know, there are many seeds in nature that don’t germinate all that easily. Some require stratification (exposure to cold) or scarification (scratching through the seed coat), processes mimicking what seeds left in the wild undergo. How, Mueller wondered, did early gardeners get these difficult seeds to germinate.
So Mueller got her hands dirty and put seed to soil:
With erect knotweed, Mueller experienced a breakthrough of sorts. Based on four seasons of observations, Mueller determined that growing wild plants in the low-density conditions typical of a cultivated garden (i.e. spaced out and weeded) triggers plants to produce seeds that germinate more easily. This makes the harvests easier to plant successfully the next time around, eliminating a key barrier to further selection.
“Our results show that erect knotweed grown in low-density agroecosystems spontaneously ‘act domesticated’ in a single growing season, before any selection has occurred,” Mueller said.
Mueller says earlier domestication studies failed to uncover this because they regarded the plants’ response as statistical noise. They saw plants as “dumb” and incapable of responding to their environment and human tending.
“Because we lack the practical experience with crop progenitors that ancient people had, these effects of the environment on plant development have gone mostly unnoticed and understudied,” Mueller said.
Wow. You mean modern humans might have something to learn from ancient people? Even scientists? What a revelation.
The type of science that is being done on direct air carbon capture is the kind of science that has filled the air with too much carbon in the first place along with developing nuclear weapons and phones that hypnotize people. It is humans destroying themselves and all around them with hubris.
The science done by Dr. Mueller is the kind of science we must be doing if we have any hope of reducing the damage we are doing to our home. It is the kind of science advocated by Wendell Berry, a man who refuses to use a computer but who still recognizes the value that science can provide.
We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world – to the incalculable disadvantage of the world and every living thing in it. And now, perhaps very close to too late, our great error has become clear. It is not only our own creativity – our own capacity for life – that is stifled by our arrogant assumption; the creation itself is stifled.
We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover the sense of the majesty of creation, and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For I do not doubt that it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.
From “A Native Hill”
Thanks, Yves, I’m honored.
Just to restore the context of the comment, Yves had included the following two links in yesterday’s Links:
1) Early crop plants were more easily ‘tamed’ EurekaAlert; and
2) Facing brutal climate math, US bets billions on direct air capture
The comment was a response to those two articles.
Every morning, Yves, Lambert, Conor and the rest of the Naked Capitalism crew provide us with lots of food for thought to go with our morning cereal. Thanks to them for keeping us informed and making us think.
I should probably add one more link to the study that backed up the assertions in the Food & Water Watch’s article. This study found two very striking things about carbon capture technology:
1) “The output amountwe standardized for is 1 GtCO 2 removal per year. We examined energy and land requirements at that level of capture. We found that the literature regularly discusses the massive energy usage of DAC. For example, just 1 Gt removal could consume a quantity of energy approaching the total
electricity generation for the US in 2017.”
2) “We found that the commercial ICR (C-ICR) methods being incentivized by governments
are net CO 2 additive: CO 2 emissions exceed removals.” In other words, the process produces more CO2 than it removes.
If we add in all the electricity that will be required for their plan to switch all our transportation over to electricity by 2030, the whole prospect becomes doubly absurd.
Very good post Henry Moon Pie! Thanks a lot.
Appreciate it, Ignacio. And thanks for all the information and background you’ve provided re: Covid and European politics these past years.
Henry Moon Pie: I just ran across this earlier study by Natalie Mueller. She mentions the “taming” of many interesting species here, from gourds to sunflowers to goosefoots (which are now considered a weed). Plus erect knotweed, friend of buckwheat:
I happen to be a big fan of buckwheat, which intrigued me in the original post and your original comment. Buckwheat is not a fussy plant. It tolerates cool weather and higher altitudes–here in Italy, the Valtellina is famous for its buckwheat. (I get my supply from darkest Lithuania!)
Buckwheat is hardly eaten in the U S of A these days. Even buckwheat pancakes seem to have disappeared. Is it too much a “grain” of the poor? Yet bringing back buckwheat would be one more survival mechanism for Americans.
I note, too, that appreciation of old species isn’t exactly on the decline–yet it is very much cultural. Here in Italy, “farro” in its three varieties / subspecies is still cultivated. Spelto (spelt), emmer, and einkorn. Again, in the U S of A, these sturdy species could be revived. Will they be?
I’d argue that the “air capture” peeps are gunning for tenure. It has to do with power, I suspect.
Natalie Miller wants to study sunflowers as food: More power to her.
Thanks for that link. The two links that served as the basis of my comment provided such a contrasting picture of humanity. There’s Miller tending a garden (there’s that old myth again), perhaps humans at their best, and those “air capture” peeps, climbing the ladder, serving power, blinded by hubris.
I’m still with Joni. We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden. It’s why I like Chris Smaje’s ideas of a Small Farm Future so much. What a contrast it provides to the “30 by 30” movement for each nation to set aside 30% of its land as protected wilderness. That’s headed in a direction where most humans will be holed up in high rises, and these set-aside lands are treated as parks for the billionaires. Elysium (the movie) without the need for a giant satellite. I don’t think we humans do well with no contact with Nature. What a tragedy that would be.
Just a little tidbit regarding what I believe is you hitting the nail on the head, hubris. Reading a book right now, We Are the Land, about California Indigenous Peoples, wherein it describes some of the first meetings with the Spanish (and English) on the CA coast around 1500. From the Indigenous Peoples’ likely perspective, they lavished the Spanish with gifts and food to show how prosperous they were (and even wore the priests’ crosses) in order to strike up good feelings, friendship, and potential trade partnerships. The Spanish, on the other hand, recieved all these gifts and thought to themselves, “Gee, they seem to be in awe of us. I guess that means they’re offering themselves to be subjugated.”
It was Juan Cabrillo who first explored the California coast in 1542. His encounter with the natives were not amicable. He died from one of the encounters. Cabrillo anchored off the Santa Barbara coast in 1545.
The local Chumash cycled the same group of men across a visible bluff to give them the impression their band was actually bigger than real life. These Chumash did not see foreigners for another 250 years. When the Missionaries (Padre Serra) progressed up the coast from Mexico to Monterey, CA, beginning in 1779. Bringing disease, decimation, and God to the natives.
DJG, I am a devotee of buckwheat, as well. Here in Chautauqua County, NY, one sows it around July 4th, as it dislikes cold, wet weather. It makes a good cover crop, after harvesting peas and garlic. The seeds germinate quickly in the warmth and moisture, and in four weeks, one has foot high stalks and leaves, covered with flowers that bees and other pollinators love: a bee pasture! My dream is to plant an acre with it. However, the deer love it as well and fencing an acre is not doable.
Buckwheat honey is dark, almost molasses-like, with a strong, rich flavor. It’s said to be excellent for coughs. Last fall we purchased a quart of darker-than-usual honey from our local supplier; I asked him if was from buckwheat flowers, and he said, no. This was from hives close to a plantation of …. Japanese knotweed, also a member of the Polygonaceae, or knotweed, family. This imported invasive plant, growing up to ten feet high, with bamboo-like stalks and huge white panicles of flowers, has colonized many of western New York’s river and stream banks, crowding out native species.
Our little town has an old grist mill, maintained by volunteers. Each year they produce buckwheat flour, along with corn meal, which is sold locally. Don’t get me started on dent corn!
Farro is available in supermarkets (at least some), it is a bit expensive. Other are available by mail order. It would be nice if whole grains (and vegetables) are available in USA at a price closer to the cost of production, healthy eating is basically what was staple food 100 years ago.
Buckwheat is great. Japanese soba noodles are great, and can be easily consumed at home, but my favorite is buckwheat crepes (Brittany galettes).
Oh, my yes! A favorite filling is a slice of ham, an egg, cheese, chopped shallots that have been microwaved in a bit of olive oil, maybe a tomato slice, if it is tomato season.
That sounds yummy! Could we add a few fresh sweet basil leaves if there’s a tomato?
What a way to start the morning! Henry Moon Pie’s fantastic post that ends with a Wendell Berry quote that explains so much.
Thanks back at you, KLG, for all I’ve learned about this topic from your posts and comments.
I joke about the “Berry brothers,” Wendell and Thomas. They’re a wise pair. And while we’re at it, Wendell’s long-time friend and correspondent, Gary Snyder.
Thank you HMP. I missed this yesterday for garden work and the three ring cat circus. Someone else probably already said this, but I’ll point it out again, the instrument of carbon capture has already been designed, called trees. probably should try not to cut them down.
Yep, and Gabe Brown has pointed the way to expanding our use of this healing power of Nature. If the trees can do it, so can the grasses. ;)
Indeed. And thanks.
“…best limited utility, like randomized control trials and relative risk reduction, to be treated as stand-alone gold standards…”
Perhaps HMP can explain why pharmaceutical trials still use placebos rather than current gold standards. If the drug being tested does anything at all, of course it’s going to be better than a placebo. But is it any better than a drug currently being used?
Also, you forgot the third leg of the dark triad, besides corporate and political interests, there is their subservient handmaiden, academia.
One of the first sentences I heard during an orientation lecture in organic chemistry grad school was, “We might not turn you into great scientists. We might not even turn you into good scientists. But we will turn you into the best grant getters on the planet.”
Not to go off topic, but in law I notice the same take over of pseudoscientists. When I was in law school all the first year classes were peppered with cases through the common law where a court of equity would inject fairness into the system when the legal results were oppressive or nonsensical. Also, there was a general instruction that we were to be professionals interested in doing Justice and helping people.
But science injected itself into a field that should remain at least somewhat subjective in the form of Richard Epstein and Chicago boys law and economics. When you get out and practice law, you find that this theory, which is neither in the constitution or the common law tradition, is the Bible in which our legal system is based. It allows decisions to be made that at their extreme have no more logic that Judge Smails sentencing someone to gas chamber because he felt he owed it to him, or the US destroying a village in Vietnam to save it.
Thank you for that dose of sanity, Henry MP! The carbon capture scheme sounds like the ethanol debate. So much hand-waving in both cases. And so much money transfer going on.
The essence of it is HUBRIS. These people think they are a Level VII or VIII in the Culture Universe and they can do and undo anything, including making women out of men and reverse it. I would like to see how is to become a dolphin, just for a little while…
At the beginning of every episode of ‘The Clone Wars’ there was some sort of saying (never accredited). You have to read fast and try to catch the gist because it disappears quickly. Ironically, there’s no time in the moment for contemplation.
One of those sayings toward of the end of the series was about the path to humility being through humiliation.* Difficult to be in awe without first being humble before… whatever your god is. In the absence of a God above or beyond one’s self, there’s only pride, and humiliation without purpose in the service of nothing… and who welcomes that?
What I wanted to understand from the series more fully is what were the steps that led Anakin Skywalker to become Darth Vader (according to the writers). It was raw talent with The Force and pride in his power and what he could accomplish in service to a cause (as defined in the end by the Supreme Chancellor/Darth Sidious). And also shame at his humiliating childhood, sold into slavery. An aspiring ‘Spartacus’… he was not. His old master, Obi-Wan, had become more of a peer and fallible, only Sidious was more powerful. Pride told Anakin the only one worth his respect and obedience was someone more powerful than himself. He’d outgrown his Master and discarded his humility, if he ever had any. All the religion that exists in the that universe can be found amongst primitives, in galactic backwaters like pagan-god-worshipping hillbillies
I think this is the path humanity is on, the illusion we’ve outgrown Nature and our Gods. We’re getting close to outmastering our Masters. Maybe not today, but soon with the help of STEM. Aren’t we just tickled with ourselves?! Okay, maybe mostly Westerners, don’t know about the rest of the people on this little planet.
Enjoyed the Berry quote, Henry. Read him in college 40 years ago and still think of those books, long after forgetting most other authors. His worldview made an indelible impression on me.
*Pope Francis, maybe?
I think much of the rest of the world has fallen under Western cultural domination at an increasing pace as technology has advanced, but our own culture is becoming a parody of itself, something I would not have realized without reading the comment threads of blogs that draw from a wide geographical area like NC. Combine that with a growing hatred for the way our “diplomats” and businessmen, especially bankers, comport themselves in their overseas activities and it would appear that our influence is waning daily.
Russia seems to have proven that life can go on without an iPhone.
People who reject bourgeois Christian ideology and the leisure class, i.e. anyone who isn’t a pathological liar wants that. Property “owners” believe that their ability to manipulate others’ emotions, “in service of” some imaginary friend onto whom they project their self-regard, somehow entitles them to other people’s labor and stuff. The universe is a collection of subjects you can objectify and exploit as servants, eh?
Predictable but no.
“The universe is a collection of subjects you can objectify and exploit as servants, eh?”
“The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”
On the same wavelength?
Typical delaying action, propose some complicated “solution” that cannot work, deny and obfuscate the criticism of the “solution” and delay any action or expenditure for 5 to 10 years or more.
Re pate rinse and lather – for an example look at Oil Companies (yes Shell, I am referring to you) and you Exxon who have most probably set us in Concrete on the path to a mass dies off and probably extinction. My thanks for your valiant efforts. (Not)
I an ashamed to admit my contribution, a lifetime of Air Travel of over 1,000,000 miles.
Delaying and shifting. It sounds good to say, “We scrubbed 80% of the carbon from the emissions of this NatGas power plant.” But the carbon plus more just gets shifted to the other power plants generating the power necessary to do the scrubbing. Shifting manufacturing to China makes the U. S. look like it’s tackling the carbon problem and allows them to point the finger at China, “China’s emissions are growing! Bad China.” But why is China emitting so much? Because they’re filling the shelves at our Walmart.
Always playing games instead of solving problems. That’s our PMCs.
How much carbon was released into the air with the SpaceX rocket launch and explosion today?
For others looking for counterpoints to careerism masquerading as science, I highly recommend Science for the People Magazine!
Ah, buckwheat pancakes. Haven’t had them in 25 years. Whole wheat is a poor substitute.
Carbon capture is engineering; science applied to a problem. Science is interested in proof-of-concept “Can this work?” Engineering is interested in “Can we do this cheaply enough to make sense?” All early tries at engineering-as-experiment are failures in that they make no sense economically.
The first earth satelites cost about $100,000/lbs to be put into orbit; the first Watt steam engines were so inefficient the only thing that made economic sense was to use it to pump water out of mines so the mines could continue to operate. Fiberoptics, radio, television, silicon gate switches genetic splicing and even older technology like bronze were at first so expensive that they were only used in a few “cost is no object” projects- the bronze sword was the hypersonic missile of its day. The $20 million dollar computer used for only a few exotic tasks turned into Apple maps telling you: “In 100 yards, turn left at Jones Street”.
Sometimes the cost of the new technology goes down fast and solves problems.. The wet scrubbers on power plants cut sulfer pollution by 99%. Sometimes the huge investment is a failure because the cost stays too high and the benefits are too low. Anyone remember fluidic switches, the supersonic transport plane and the flying cars from the 1940s New York World’s Fair?
So Henry Moon Pie is right to be wary. So am I. When the technology never lives up to the hype and falls into the dustbin of history we’re called Prophets. When we guess wrong and the technology turns out to become cheap and useful we are called curmudgeons… or just old.
I strongly agree with Henry Moon Pie’s excellent post.
Once the Wisdom of the Market appraised the monetary value that accrues to blessing various Neoliberal projects with the imprimatur of Science it was only a matter of time before science was captured and monetized. What is surprising is how relatively cheaply science and scientists can be bought. This situation reminds of the storied gutting of the Golden Goose.
I have some qualms with the suggestion:
“The science done by Dr. Mueller is the kind of science we must be doing if we have any hope of reducing the damage we are doing to our home.”
I can think of two aspects of Dr. Mueller’s Science. Dr. Mueller demonstrated the value of close observation, careful field work, and blue-sky direct experimentation in contrast with the statistical nonsense inspired by the advent of research contracts in place of grants — nonsense enhanced by the value of statistical nonsense for supporting the kinds of conclusions desired from the best science money can buy. The second aspect of Dr. Mueller’s science is its contrast with the kind of large scale Scientific Enterprise the u.s. government once supported, admittedly while shielded within the folds of spending to support the MIC. I view Dr. Mueller’s work as more similar to the work of Gregor Mendel than comparable with the kind of Science produced in the years of the Scientific Enterprise that preceded today’s Neoliberal science. But how different is the work of Dr. Mueller or Gregor Mendel than the unpublished work of the people who discovered what plants are or might be made edible, who discovered what mushrooms could be eaten, or the people who took plants like wild maize and developed corn. I believe the Scientific Method, Discipline, and Philosophy when applied with integrity represents an advance beyond the methods, discipline and philosophy that guided earlier Science and technical advances. I am confident this ‘small’ Science continues and will continue into the future. I believe the pursuit of this kind of Science is anther of the peculiar characteristics of Humankind.
I am skeptical that Science at a scale comparable to that of Dr. Mueller’s work offers much hope of significantly reducing the damage we are doing to our home. What was needed, and has been lost, is the kind of serendipitous discovery blue-sky Science at the scale of the Scientific Enterprise that grew out of the Second World War might have offered. I believe that is the kind of Science and Technology today’s Neoliberal science is attempting to impersonate.
This brings me to what I believe is the great tragedy of the hostile takeover of the Scientific Enterprise. KLG called attention to and explained a research paper addressing the question “How Does SARS-CoV2 Cause Disease?https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2023/03/how-does-sars-cov-2-cause-disease-a-current-report.html
Go back and review that post and some of the paper it references. The kind of tools and techniques, and the breath of deep expertise evident requires substantial grant money and a battery of tools that might only be found in well-equipped and well-funded laboratories. Those same experts and tools applied to basic research in cell biology could be making epochal discoveries — discoveries that may not be possible after the Collapse likely to come sometime this century. I fear a time might never come again in the future after the Collapse. Consider this is but one of legions of areas of science that were poised on the edge of great discoveries as Science was made yet another helot serving the whims of the Neoliberal Market.
What a strange premise. Carbon capture isn’t science. It is engineering.
Changing the society’s entire energy structure is also engineering. And the scale is massive, no less than getting an entire electricity supply’s worth of power to capture carbon.
And the Mueller study doesn’t have any impact on climate change whatsoever, so I don’t see why it is a juxtaposition to carbon capture.
Enough with purity of intentions and all. If the climate crisis is as dire as everyone says, then we should try out a myriad of solutions.