Monday, February 18, 2013

Desperate Measures

From the BBC this weekend, a story of an expedition that is diving to the bottom of the ocean to search for the next generation of antibiotics. The 8 million pound (12 million dollar) expedition is going to troll the sediment of the sea bed to look for bacteria and fungi that have not already been exploited:
The inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics - and an over-reliance on the drugs - has led to a rapid increase in resistant bugs and medical experts fear effective antibiotics might soon run out completely. In January, Chief Medical Officer for England, Dame Sally Davies, compared the threat to global warming and said going for a routine operation could become deadly due to the risk of untreatable infection.

Project leader Marcel Jaspars, professor of chemistry at the University of Aberdeen, said: "If nothing's done to combat this problem, we're going to be back to a 'pre-antibiotic era' in around 10 or 20 years, where bugs and infections that are currently quite simple to treat could be fatal."

He said there had not been a "completely new" antibiotic registered since 2003 - "partially because of a lack of interest by drugs companies as antibiotics are not particularly profitable". "The average person uses an antibiotic for only a few weeks and the drug itself only has around a five to 10-year lifespan, so the firms don't see much return on their investment."
Antibiotics search to focus on sea bed (BBC)

This is to me an ultimate example of what we've been saying here for years - that we're going to desperate lengths to do the things that were once relatively easy and we took for granted. We will not be able to do this forever. If spending eight million pounds diving to the bottom of the ocean to look for new antibiotics isn't a sign of the increasingly desperate lengths we have to go to to keep this society going, I don't know what is. I'm sure the mainstream will spin at as a sign of human ingenuity. What it really is is a sign that we're up against it. Note, too, how the everything-for-profit system is endangering humanity yet again.

I'm sure you recall the story of the accidental discovery of pennicillin - how mold found its way into a petri dish and killed off some of the bacteria. Antiobiotics were used extensively during World War two and saved a lot of lives that otherwise would have been lost (thoroughout history, fighting was more deadly due to infection that the actual fighting itself). See the story here. After antibiotics became mass-produced, they saved millions of lives, but were also massively overexploited for profit in yet another tragedy of the commons. Four times as many antibiotics are given to animals as sick people:

Antibiotics and Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria in Meat: Not Getting Better (Wired)

This what we've been warning about for so long - going to ever more dramatic lengths is a losing proposition in the long run. The technical term is intensification. As large mammals died off during the Pleistocene extinctions, we turned to growing cereal crops and herding. In the nineteenth century right whales were hunted to near extinction in a desperate bid to get enough whale oil, elephants were nearly driven extinct for their ivory tusks, and nitrogen rich guano from the droppings of sea birds was strip mined on islands in the Pacific Ocean. Of course, we know what happened in all of these instances - we substituted fossil fuels for all of these scare resources. But how much longer can we do this? It's the classic Red Queen's race - running faster and faster just to stay in the same place.

And the analogy is exactly perfect with fossil fuels themselves - we're taking ever more desperate measures, drilling down to the sea floor, strip-mining the tar sands of Canada, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to look for "tight oil", etc., to get at the last of the fuels that were once trivial to access:
On Sakhalin Island, in Russia’s far east, temperatures can fall to 35 degrees below zero. Many islanders herd reindeer. And in January, oil crews drilled the world’s longest and deepest extended-reach well, 7.7 miles down into the ground and 7.1 miles out under the ocean. Seven of the 10 longest oil wells on Earth have been drilled there since Exxon Mobil launched its Sakhalin-1 project in 2003. Crews expect to keep breaking their previous records in the coming months.

The seven-story oil rig at Sakhalin, nicknamed Yastreb (the Hawk), is the industry’s most powerful, with four 7,500-psi mud pumps, 14,000 barrels of liquidmud storage and six generators. It has two walls to help it withstand the cold and earthquakes, which are frequent. The Yastreb’s drill torque is approximately 91,000 foot-pounds (a pickup truck operates with about 200).

Extended-reach drills travel both outward and down. To control the position and angle of the wellbore, drilling engineers use magnetometers and inclinometers; the information the tools gather is sent back by pressure pulses in the drilling fluid, which the engineers then analyze at the surface. The team - about 800, mostly Russians — pre-maps each expedition using 3D seismic imagery to create visual models of the conditions in the rock and the locations of the oil reservoir. They can reach their target with an accuracy of just a few feet. It’s as if they were standing in the middle of Central Park and drilled down to a specific doorway of the New York Stock Exchange.
At The End Of The Earth: The Longest, Deepest Oil Wells In The World (PopSci). And yet it's still not enough:
Technically, the world isn’t even producing enough oil to keep pace with the rise in global incomes. Oil supply has risen by 2.3 percent since 2010. But the world economy has grown by 7.1 percent since then. The only reason that oil prices haven’t soared to record highs, Hamilton points out, is that countries have been undertaking new conservation measures. Americans, for instance, are buying more fuel-efficient cars in droves.

Granted, oil prices would almost certainly be even higher than they are now without the drilling boom over the past two years in places like North Dakota. But at this point, the extra drilling is struggling to keep up with the pace of global economic growth.

Most forecasters expect that to be the case for years to come. The International Energy Agency recently projected that U.S. oil production would continue rising through 2020 and beyond, as companies extract more “unconventional” oil from shale rock and other sources. But global demand was also expected to rise 35 percent between now and 2035, with China on pace to become the largest oil consumer in the world in the next two decades.
The boom in U.S. oil drilling hasn’t lowered gas prices (Washinton Post)

Heck, we're even having to dilute our bourbon and spike our hamburgers with horsemeat. What's it going to take to get the message? Intensification does not lead to prosperity in the long run, just a bigger disaster.


  1. William Catton, author of Overshoot (a must read), thinks that humans have a small chance of taking intelligent action to mitigate the likely violence and needless cruelty and death that usually accompany a species' passage through the bottleneck that most highly aggressive and adventitious species go through.

    He's probably overly optimistic. Technology and modern weapons have given those human groups with an optimism bias the edge: those who think they deserve the spoils of war, and who have the ability, are selected for. Human groups who are satisfied with less, who would prefer a sustainable life, are marginalized and left to themselves only so long as they don't get in the way of the ecocidal and genocidal desires of the aggressive groups who have been given global reach.

    Some already get the message. Most won't accept it even if that is the only way they can survive. Humans, as we see in the news all the time, routinely choose suicide and an alternative to adapting to reality.

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  3. This particular culture always chooses intensification, even when changing the system -- so that doing antibiotics research appeals, and so that antibiotics are used only for the cases where truly needed -- makes far more sense. It seems that changing the system is never in the cards, while intensification always is. Suicidal is right.


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