Sunday, May 20, 2018

Life after Donald Trump

Once Donald Trump’s populist reign comes to an end, most Americans – Republicans, Democrats and independents – expect that the United States will return to the traditional “politics as usual”… old world “friendly” battle lines between and among conservatives, moderates and liberals. The loyal opposition doing what’s best for America… once again. We’ve watched as Europeans have tried their best to find ways to embrace Donald Trump and keep a traditional US-European connection alive, perhaps hoping for that future “business as usual.”
But the chatter back home, within the halls of European governments, is leading to a very different conclusion, one that not only sees Trump’s America as a lost cause but slowly coming to a belief that the schisms and wounds his presidency has opened, polarization that seems to have redefined America well beyond a single populist presidency, will keep pushing the United States and Europe farther apart long after Donald Trump is relegated to the history books.
“Trump may not be an aberration that can be waited out, with his successor likely to push reset after four or eight years of fraught ties. Instead, the blend of unilateralism, nationalism and protectionism Trump embodies may be the new American normal.
“‘It is dawning on a number of European players that Trump may not be an outlier,’ said Josef Janning, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. ‘More and more people are seeing it as a larger change in the United States.’ 
“Even before Trump was elected, Europeans sensed that Washington’s traditional role as guarantor of the continent’s security and stability was slipping away, and that post-World War II ties were fading along with the generations that forged them.” The Washington Post, May 19th.
Between taking the limitations off of corporate and organizational political advertising under Citizens United and the heavily gerrymandered Congressional districts forcing Republicans to “out-right-wing” each other in the primaries, the notion of an American political system that can reach compromises and deal with issues on a pragmatic and rational basis seems to have died.
To make matters even worse, history seems to say that once populism takes over any nation, even after the relevant populist leader is replaced, that country continues on a polarized and totally dysfunctional track. The folks who bought into the false populist economic promises will still be excluded from that elusive financial future; a return to a time when those now excluded were the mainstay of that nation will never happen. They will still hate the power elites and “not our kind” ethnic and racial scapegoats they blame for their reduced-to-second-level status… and continue to distrust a society that has not purged these elements entirely.
The fact that promises go unfulfilled or that populism ever took root in the first place tend to erode everyone’s faith in the entire political system, a faith that seems almost impossible to restore. And without faith (respect) in a nation’s form of government, including the officials elected to run it, most governments simply begin to unravel and lose their power to govern effectively. Instability and a loss of hope in the future makes genuine governance virtually impossible.
This is pretty much the story of Latin America, where no country that embraced populism has ever returned to a time of sustained stability and relative prosperity. Add the Philippines to this mix. OK, you say, that is a story of a post-colonial society, established well after the American democracy was founded, where middle classes were a distinct minority and polarized elites from the impoverished masses the norm. Nice try, but even in Europe, there is strong evidence that even where middles classes were pronounced, once populist leadership has taken root, absent the complete devastation of the nation itself (read: Hitler’s Germany which was virtually razed to the ground), populism tends to leave a weakened and dysfunctional state even after populist leaders are long gone.
The most salient European example has to be Italy. Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, member of The Washington Post editorial board and a professor of practice at the London School of Economics, explains this Italian experience: “The Northern League started out as a secessionist party, advocating the breakup of Italy and independence for the northern provinces. The Five Star Movement started out as a joke — it was invented by a comedian — and then became a social media operation. Both evolved: The Northern League turned itself into a far-right party, using aggressive language about immigrants, while the Five Star Movement adopted some classic left-wing policies, calling for a universal income and high public spending. Together, they are now set to run the Italian government.
“Unsurprisingly, they’ve had difficulty writing a joint program. Most of the things they agree on — conspiracy theories about vaccinesopposition to Russian sanctions; a strong rejection of austerity policies — risk creating a backlash. Still, it’s becoming clear that if they don’t share policies, they do share an attitude. They are both incoherent, angry, unrealistic and often anti-science; they are also clever users of information technology.
“Between them, in other words, the Northern League and the Five Star Movement represent every powerful emotion, resentment, suspicion and anxiety that can be mobilized and weaponized by modern political parties. Above all, they reflect the disillusionment with politics — the disillusionment with everything — that inevitably sets in when populism fails.
“For, despite the widespread belief that ‘anti-elite’ rhetoric in Italy is a new phenomenon, populism has failed in Italy already. As not everybody now remembers, the Italians lived through a major anti-elite revolution not so long ago, albeit one led first by lawyers and judges. In the 1990s, they uncovered a vast corruption scandal: Tangentopoli — the name translates into something like ‘bribesville’ — eventually engulfed the entire political class. One former prime minister, Bettino Craxi, fled to Tunisia to escape prison; about half of the members of parliament were indicted. The old party system (Christian Democrats, Socialists, Communists) eventually disappeared.
“The main beneficiary of this turmoil was Silvio Berlusconi [left above], the billionaire with surgically enhanced skin who entered politics partly to evade prosecution himself. He won the prime ministership on a cloud of jokes and promises, and he held it, on and off for nine years, with the help of a new party, Forza Italia. He had a Trump-like way of offending, and a Latin American strongman’s lack of interest in anything resembling real reform. During his years in office he fought the courts that tried to indict him, held elaborate parties in Sardinia, and failed to tackle the bureaucratic and legal tangle that chokes Italian commerce.
“A series of technocratic governments, as well as a center-left government that tried to blame the European Union for Italy’s local problems, followed. But the failure of populism did not, in Italy, lead the public to beg for the return of sober centrists. Reeling from the flood of broken promises, electorates did not turn back to honest realists who told them hard truths or laid out the hard choices. On the contrary: In Italy, as in so many Latin American countries in the past, the failure of populism has led to greater dislike of ‘elites,’ both real and imaginary; a greater demand for radical and impossible change; and a greater sense of alienation from politics and politicians than ever before.” The Post.
Here in the United States, we’re watching progressives on the left and the Tea Party evangelicals on the right pushing out traditional Democrats and Republicans. These de facto “new parties” will not compromise, do not care what the other wants and are willing to let the whole country shut down unless the relevant faction gets its way. And they are slowly taking over the political parties where their seeds were initially planted. The best interests of the majority or the United States a whole? Anyone advocating such middle ground is very unlikely even to make it out of the primaries these days.
White protestant evangelicals with strong rural values are rapidly aging and shrinking as a percentage of the general population. But they represent the angriest bulk of the populist movement. Trump’s promises and scapegoats are their legacy, even though very little of Trump’s populist agenda will ever be implemented to their benefit. As with Italy, where Berlusconi’s cronies prospered, America’s elites have never made so much money. The disenfranchised Trump-base desperately want to reverse time itself, an impossibility.
These socially conservative traditionalists have fought with all their might to limit the political power of their “diverse” opponents, managed to get federal judicial appointments who have set justice aside to cater to political agendas (hence Citizens United), and their efforts have been dramatically successful. They control the majority of state governorships, state legislatures, the presidency and both houses of Congress… even though they represent a distinct minority that was even unable to muster a popular majority vote to support their presidential choice. Win or lose come mid-terms, they will continue to battle to impose their minority will on the majority of America, a majority that is growing more urban and more diverse by the hour.
What happens as the tsunami of demographic change eventually overwhelms, when all these right wing political machinations finally cannot stop the election of a majority of diverse urbanites to American dominance? Unlike all those other nations struggling in the ugly aftermath of populism, there are well over 300 million guns, including 15 million AR-15s, in this country… most of them in the hands of those with strong traditional rural values. What will happen when their political voices are drowned out and their political agendas marginalized?
Unless the younger generations push their elders out the door, shove uncompromising and impractical extremism agendas off the platform as they embrace tolerance, science and commonality… the great American unraveling will simply accelerate… until… I hear China and Russia laughing. Don’t think Americans will ever get that violent otherwise? Really? Then please explain the Civil War to me, where many of the same issues led brother to kill brother.
I’m Peter Dekom, and when will patriotism return and purge nationalism from our palate?

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Assault with a Battery

Let’s face it, as municipalities pass ordinances mandating solar panels in all new construction (like Los Angeles), as pressures increase to counter the growing devastation from man-released greenhouse gasses that are rapidly heating up the planet, with more electric cars, as green energy demands viable storage systems, there are huge engineering safety questions that need to be addressed. Most of these systems are lithium-ion based. Clearly, using lithium, a rare earth that requires environmentally-challenging mining and extraction, is both an expensive and unsustainable basis for continued battery manufacturing growth. There’s not enough of it; most of the known lithium deposits are outside the United States with serious political and military overtones.
There are also safety risks. For example, “Physics researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University have discovered that most of the electrolytes used in lithium-ion batteries—commonly found in consumer electronic devices—are superhalogens, and that the vast majority of these electrolytes contain toxic halogens.” (10/24/14) Manufacturing processes can be refined to limit such toxicity, but with batteries being imported from all over the world, universal standards and manufacturing quality controls become increasingly critical. There are new battery systems being developed with different metals (non-lithium-based,  e.g., aluminum), but many of the same kinds of toxicity and fire issues discussed below also apply to this next generation of batteries.
There is the much-publicized risk of explosions and fire. Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphones are a prime example, but Samsung is hardly the only user of lithium-ion consumer devices facing this issue. Updating a September 2016 article, CNET (January 2017) explains: “After 35 reported incidents of overheating smartphones worldwide, Samsung made the unprecedented decision to recall every single one of the Galaxy Note 7 smartphones sold. That's said to be 1 million of the 2.5 million that were manufactured. (Since the recall was first announced, the number of explosive Note 7s has nearly quadrupled.)
“The company stopped all sales and shipments of the Note 7, worked with government agencies and cellular carriers around the world to provide refunds and exchanges for the phone, and apparently it still wasn't enough: as of October 102016, as many as five of the supposedly safe replacement Note 7 phones caught fire as well, and Samsung asked all users to shut down their phones. On October 13Samsung officially recalled every single Note 7, including replacement units…
“The science behind phone battery fires is actually pretty simple, and fairly well understood. Much like the infamous exploding hoverboards, phones use lithium ion battery packs for their power, and it just so happens that the liquid swimming around inside most lithium ion batteries is highly flammable.
“If the battery short-circuits -- say, by puncturing the incredibly thin sheet of plastic separating the positive and negative sides of the battery -- the puncture point becomes the path of least resistance for electricity to flow… It heats up the (flammable!) liquid electrolyte at that spot. And if the liquid heats up quickly enough, the battery can explode.”
Generally, even disposing of devices with such Li-ion batteries carries a risk of fire: “It is especially risky when Li-ion batteries are mistakenly put into a recycling bin and end up bouncing around in the back of a dry, recycling truck. Pressure or heat (in the summer months our trucks can get quite hot) can cause them to spark, setting off a chain reaction which spells disaster when that battery is in the back of a full recycling truck, surrounded by dry paper and cardboard. In fact, Lithium Ion Batteries are one of the leading causes of recycling truck fires.”
OK, we get the risks of smaller consumer devices, but today, electric cars and residential and business use these battery arrays to capture wind- and solar-generated electricity (and even from traditional power systems). These batteries are (a) large and (b) increasingly ubiquitous. Clearly, larger battery configurations create an explosive and fire risk that is proportionately bigger. The underlying issues are vexing city planners and fire departments alike.
Car fires are one risk, but the few Li-ion-based cars that do catch fire are usually out in the open. Vehicle car fires are rare (see above), but the resulting fires are intense and scary. Usually, there is enough time for the driver and passenger to exit the vehicle… unless they are incapacitated because of a crash. But should a battery in a business or residential structure explode/catch fire, the risks are much worse.
The new era of big batteries has already drawn scrutiny after fiery electric-car crashes across America and Europe. Now, U.S. city planners are worried about the same risk of hard-to-control blazes as these power-storage units make their way into basements and onto rooftops… ‘You can have these things go on fire, and then hours or days later, they can reignite,’ presenting a new challenge for first responders, said Paul Rogers, who led New York City’s effort to establish battery safety standards until he retired as a lieutenant with the Fire Department this year. Firefighters — ‘if they act inappropriately — they could get killed,’ he said.
“Improvements in energy storage are revolutionizing how and when electricity is used. Batteries now fuel such diverse machines as smartphones and the electric cars proliferating around the world. In the latest trend, racks of batteries stacked up to the size of studio apartments are being installed in urban spaces such as office buildings and shopping malls.
“The units enable buyers to tap into lower-cost and renewable energy and supply backup power during widespread outages… But the same chemistry that makes lithium-ion batteries so effective also poses a hazard. Although fires are rare, an overheating unit can ignite… And although water can put out a battery blaze, it takes a lot more water than for other kinds of fires. A few high-profile fires involving mobile phones, laptops, electric cars and even jumbo jets have some city officials calling for more caution and clearer standards before storage units end up in buildings.
“An effort by New York to review the safety of these battery systems has already limited their deployment, according to the research group Electric Power Research Institute. No lithium-ion battery systems have been installed inside a building there, though there have been four approved for outdoor spaces, New York utility Consolidated Edison Inc. said.
“New York’s Fire Department says it isn’t deliberately slowing installations. The agency just wants to ensure ‘these installations meet appropriate safety standards,’ said Ronald Spadafora, the department’s chief of fire prevention… The way Rogers puts it: ‘A lot of code officials, they don’t know what to do with’ the lithium-ion batteries…
“Lithium-ion batteries have gotten a lot cheaper — dropping almost 80% in price since 2010 — as demand has increased for electric cars. That has increased the appeal for utilities to integrate batteries that can store the intermittent energy produced by wind and solar farms. Commercial building owners can deploy batteries to buy energy when it’s cheap, then use it to power air conditioners and lights during hot summer days when electricity prices surge…
”In San Francisco, the Fire Department says lithium-ion batteries in buildings with capacities larger than 20 kilowatt-hours must comply with city and California fire codes for stationary battery systems. Rules include placing the batteries in separate rooms with automatic sprinklers, ventilation and smoke detection systems.
“New York has been more cautious in greenlighting installations, partly because the nation’s largest city is so densely urban. The Fire Department said it has taken time to develop its own guidelines to allow researchers to conduct tests that would help determine appropriate safety measures.” Los Angeles Times (Bloomberg), May 19th. New York should have its full guidelines ready by the end of the year, and because of its high density urban living emphasis, it is widely believed that the NYC standards will be adopted nationwide.
What does any of this mean for ordinary residents? Be aware when battery power, especially the new generations of Li-ion and beyond, is part of any device you use, any car you drive or are in and any structure you will spend time in. Ask questions about fire and toxicity prevention, making sure someone actually took these risk factors into consideration.
I’m Peter Dekom, and as we change our power sources and engage in power storage, we each must take some personal responsibility to know the issues and takes steps to mitigate risks.