resetting the electrical agenda

reposted from ussromantics

the all-electric la jamais contente, first car to break the 100 kph barrier, in 1899

In his book Clearing the air, Tim Smedley reminds us of the terrible errors we made in abandoning electric vehicles in the early 20th century. Smedley’s focus was on air pollution, and how the problem was exacerbated, and in fact largely caused, by emissions from car exhausts in increasingly car-dependent cities like Beijing, Delhi, Los Angeles and London. In the process he briefly mentioned the electric tram systems that were scrapped in so many cities worldwide in favour of the infernal combustion engine. It’s a story I’ve heard before of course, but it really is worth taking a deeper dive into the mess of mistakes we made back then, and the lessons we need to learn. 

A major lesson, unsurprisingly, is to be suspicious of vested interests. Today, the fossil fuel industry is still active in denying the facts about global warming and minimising the impact of air pollution on our health. Solar and wind power, and the rise of the EV industry – which, unfortunately, doesn’t exist in Australia – are still subject to ridiculous attacks by the heavily subsidised fossil fuel giants, though at least their employees don’t go around smashing wind turbines and solar panels. The website Car and Driver tells a ‘funny story’ about the very earliest days of EVs: 

… Robert Davidson of Aberdeen, built a prototype electric locomotive in 1837. A bigger, better version, demonstrated in 1841, could go 1.5 miles at 4 mph towing six tons. Then it needed new batteries. This impressive performance so alarmed railway workers (who saw it as a threat to their jobs tending steam engines) that they destroyed Davidson’s devil machine, which he’d named Galvani.

If only this achievement by Davidson, before the days of rechargeable batteries, had been greeted with more excitement and wonder. But by the time rechargeable batteries were introduced in the 1860s, steam locomotives were an established and indeed revolutionary form of transport. They began to be challenged, though, in the 1880s and 90s as battery technology, and other features such as lightweight construction materials and pneumatic tyres, started to make electric transport a more promising investment. What followed, of course, with the development of and continual improvements to the internal combustion engine in the 1870s and 80s, first using gas and then petrol – the 1870s into the 90s and beyond was a period of intense innovation for vehicular transport – was a serious and nasty battle for control of the future of private road transport. Electricity wasn’t widely available in the early twentieth century, but rich industrialists were able to create a network of filling stations, which, combined with the wider availability of cheap oil, and the mass production and marketing capabilities of industrialists like Henry Ford – who had earlier considered electric vehicles the best future option – made petrol-driven vehicles the eventual winner, in the short term. Of course, little thought was given in those days to fuel emissions. A US website describes a likely turning point: 

… it was Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model T that dealt a blow to the electric car. Introduced in 1908, the Model T made gasoline [petrol]-powered cars widely available and affordable. By 1912, the gasoline car cost only $650, while an electric roadster sold for $1,750. That same year, Charles Kettering introduced the electric starter, eliminating the need for the hand crank and giving rise to more gasoline-powered vehicle sales.

Electrically-powered vehicles quickly became ‘quaint’ and unfashionable, leading to to the trashing of electric trams worldwide. 

The high point of the internal combustion engine may not have arrived yet, as numbers continue to climb. Some appear to be addicted to the noise they make (I hear them roaring by nearly every night!). But surely their days are numbered. What shocks me, frankly, is how slow the public is to abandon them, when the fossil fuel industry is so clearly in retreat, and when EVs are becoming so ‘cool’. Of course conservative governments spend a fortune in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry –  Australia’s government  provided over $10 billion in the 2020-21 financial year, and the industry in its turn has given very generously to the government (over $1.5 million in FY2020, according to the Market Forces website).

But Australia is an outlier, with one of the worst climate policies in the WEIRD world. There will be a federal election here soon, and a change of government is very much on the cards, but the current labor opposition appears afraid to unveil a climate policy before the election. The move towards electrification of vehicles in many European countries, in China and elsewhere, will eventually have a knock-on effect here, but the immediate future doesn’t look promising. EV sales have risen markedly in the past twelve months, but from a very low base, with battery and hybrids rising to 1.95% of market share – still a paltry amount (compare Norway with 54% EVs in 2020). Interestingly, Japan is another WEIRD country that is lagging behind. China continues to be the world leader in terms of sheer numbers. 

The countries that will lead the field of course, will be those that invest in infrastructure for the transition. Our current government announced an infrastructure plan at the beginning of the year, but with little detail. There are issues, for example, about the type of charging infrastructure to fund, though fast-charging DC seems most likely.

In general, I’ve become pessimistic about Australians switching en masse to EVs over the next ten years or so – I’ve read too many ‘just around the corner’ articles with too little actual change in the past five years. But perhaps a new government with a solid, detailed plan will emerge in the near future, leading to a burst of new investment…. 

References

Tim Smedley, Clearing the air, 2019

https://www.caranddriver.com/features/g15378765/worth-the-watt-a-brief-history-of-the-electric-car-1830-to-present/

https://www.energy.gov/articles/history-electric-car

https://www.marketforces.org.au/politicaldonations2021/

is bioenergy a viable future option?

I haven’t investigated this issue before, and my general uninformed view as I begin this post is that producing fuel somehow from plants when we’re already having problems with over-use of land, and maintaining biodiversity, seems like a solution which will likely cause further problems downstream.

This general view I’ve found well expressed in an article published in The Guardian and on the World Resources Institute website in late January 2015, nearly seven years ago now. Were the authors correct then, and has anything changed since?

The 2015 article argues for solar energy as a more efficient use of sunlight, which, essentially is what bioenergy also uses. However, there are problems with getting energy generated from the sun, in, say, the Sahara Desert, to regions of high demand in Europe. And there may be ways of harnessing bioenergy without excessive land use. An article published in Nature Sustainability at the beginning of this year (2021) suggests, in its abstract, that:

growing perennial grasses on recently abandoned cropland is a near-term strategy for gradual bioenergy deployment with reduced risks for food security and the environment

The full article is behind a pay-wall, and I’m poor and cheap, but the authors appear to be arguing that a fair amount of bioenergy potential, measured in exajoules (that’s a ginormous number of joules) can be tapped from abandoned cropland, and from increasing areas of potential cropland, without affecting biodiversity or utilising essential water resources.

None of this suggests that bioenergy has major potential for an immediate future that looks increasingly dire. Saul Griffith, an Australian scientist, inventor and entrepreneur, spoke on the Climate One podcast (Electrify Everything, Oct 29 2021) about the situation.

There’ll be some geothermal; there’ll be some biofuels for some applications; there’ll be some hydroelectricity. But wind and solar are now proven to be the cheapest generators of electricity in the world.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has an article from earlier this year about bioenergy, land, and the net-zero-emissions-by-2050 target. This is a new area for me, so I was interested in the quoted fact that, currently, some 40% of bioenergy supply (about 25 exajoules) is from solid biomass (wood, and waste materials). This is a traditional use, mostly for cooking, ‘which is inefficient, often linked to deforestation, and whose pollution was responsible for 2.5 million premature deaths in 2020’. The aim is to reduce this type of fuel to zero by 2030 – which does sound optimistic.

The plan, or hope, is to transfer to and control a sustainable bioenergy supply as part of a transformed energy economy. This energy, IEA reckons, will be divided into solid bioenergy, biogas, liquid biofuels and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage. We’re talking 2050 here, and the IEA article writes about it in the present tense (a bit weird – for example ‘by 2050 almost half of liquid biofuel use is for aviation’). It projects that around 5% of our energy generation will come from bio, and that it will be ‘an important source of low-emissions flexibility to complement variable generation from solar PV and wind’. It will also be used in the paper and cement industries, to meet high temperature heat requirements not easily electrified, and in the early future to 2030 it will be used to replace ‘dirty’ biomass – for example, improved stoves. The IEA also appears to be talking up carbon capture and storage (CCS, or BECCS if you unite it with bioenergy), that somewhat vague technology which has yet to prove itself. I’ll have to write about that in future, to comprehend the process and to see if any progress has been made.

The IEA projects that the 2050 bioenergy supply (that 5% of total) will amount to around 100 exajoules. In its optimistic scenario, 60% of this supply will come from ‘sustainable waste streams’ which don’t require land use, compared to 20% currently. The idea appears to be that we will have come much closer to solving the current waste problem – from plastics to clothing  and various recyclables. Sorting and utilising will presumably be much more efficient, perhaps using advanced AI. There is also much talk of ‘advanced’ biofuels, presumably more efficient and energy dense. 

The controversial issue of utilising food crops and land for bioenergy is addressed, with a scenario that involves increased usage up to 2030, then gradually reducing to zero by 2050. Short-rotation woody crops (which are generally more productive of bioenergy) on marginal lands will largely replace them.

This emphasis on reclaimed land for bioenergy-producing short-rotation woodland makes me wonder about something outside of the IEA’s purview – the other life that such woodland might sustain, or not, as the case may be. What sort of birdlife, for example, would be attracted to such human-designed forests? A forest without birdlife would be an empty place indeed, but how would any bird fit into this human scenario? The IEA’s narrow focus thus becomes problematic when biodiversity issues are raised, but intercommunication on these issues should allow such woodland to be sustainable from a biodiversity perspective. 

 Another interesting usage in this IEA projection is the term ‘advanced’ . There will be ‘advanced’ biofuels by 2050, as well as ‘advanced’ short-rotation woody crops, and other such advances. In some respects, this is a reasonable assumption, but unforeseen consequences are unseen, after all. Still, the IEA are intent on collaboration with other stakeholders, including presumably spokespeople for those without a voice, such as all non-human species. Quite a large and varied sector. 

An article on ResearchGate from two years ago, ‘The Future of Bioenergy”, argues that land-intensive bioenergy may have uses in the short-term but is not a viable long-term option, due largely to the promise of other technologies. It quotes an earlier IEA study that finds that bioenergy has become an increasingly significant part of the current energy mix, a situation that’s likely to pertain for some time, but not so much for the long term. It also questions the viability of BECCS, which was promoted in an earlier IPCC paper. The problem with bioenergy, it seems, is that it may not be, and is unlikely to be, as green as its proven alternatives. There are, of course, major problems in applying green energy to aviation and to some heavy industries, and some current methods of biofuel production are hardly less harmful than those for conventional fuels. Land use is also an issue fraught with unforeseeables. But of course, researchers will continue their research, and new breakthroughs are always possible. Something to keep an eye on.

References

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-020-00680-5

https://www.climateone.org/audio/electrify-everything

https://www.iea.org/articles/what-does-net-zero-emissions-by-2050-mean-for-bioenergy-and-land-use

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/336740381_The_Future_of_Bioenergy

a hydrogen energy industry in South Australia?

an artist’s impression of SA’s hydrogen power project

I recently received in the mail a brochure outlining SA Labor’s hydrogen energy jobs plan, ahead of the state election in March 2022. The conservatives are currently in power here. The plan involves building ‘a 200MW hydrogen fuelled power station to provide firming capacity in the South Australian Electricity Market’.

So, what does a ‘hydrogen fuelled power station’ entail, what is ‘firming capacity’ and what does 200MW mean?

A presumably USA site called energy.gov tells me this:

Hydrogen is a clean fuel that, when consumed in a fuel cell, produces only water. Hydrogen can be produced from a variety of domestic resources, such as natural gas, nuclear power, biomass, and renewable power like solar and wind. These qualities make it an attractive fuel option for transportation and electricity generation applications. It can be used in cars, in houses, for portable power, and in many more applications. Hydrogen is an energy carrier that can be used to store, move, and deliver energy produced from other sources.

This raises more questions than answers, for me. I can understand that hydrogen is a clean fuel – after all, it’s the major constituent, molecularly speaking, of water, which is pretty clean stuff. But what exactly is meant by ‘clean’ here? Do they mean ‘carbon neutral’, one of today’s buzz terms? Presumably so, and obviously hydrogen doesn’t contain carbon. Next question, what exactly is a fuel cell? Wikipedia explains:

fuel cell is an electrochemical cell that converts the chemical energy of a fuel (often hydrogen) and an oxidizing agent (often oxygen) into electricity through a pair of redox reactions. Fuel cells are different from most batteries in requiring a continuous source of fuel and oxygen (usually from air) to sustain the chemical reaction, whereas in a battery the chemical energy usually comes from metals and their ions or oxides that are commonly already present in the battery, except in flow batteries. Fuel cells can produce electricity continuously for as long as fuel and oxygen are supplied.

So the planned 200 megawatt power station will use the chemical energy of hydrogen, and oxygen as an oxidising agent, to produce electricity through a pair of redox reactions. Paraphrasing another website, the electricity is produced by combining hydrogen and oxygen atoms. This causes a reaction across an electrochemical cell, which produces water, electricity, and some heat. The same website tells me that, as of October 2020, there were 161 fuel cells operating in the US with, in total, 250 megawatts of capacity. The planned SA power station will have 200 megawatts, so does that make it a gigantic fuel cell, or a fuel cell collective? In any case, it sounds ambitious. The process of extracting the hydrogen is called electrolysis, and the devices used are called electrolysers, which will be powered by solar energy. Excess solar will no longer need to be switched off remotely during times of low demand.

There’s no doubt that the fortunes of hydrogen as a clean fuel are on the rise. It’s also being considered more and more as a storage system to provide firming capacity – to firm up supply that intermittent power sources – solar and wind – can’t always provide. The completed facility should be able to store 3600 tonnes of hydrogen, amounting to about two months of supply. There are export opportunities too, with all this excess supply. Japan and South Korea are two likely markets.

While it may seem like all this depends on Labor winning state government, the local libs are not entirely averse to the idea. It has already installed the nation’s largest hydrogen electrolyser (small, though, at 1.25 MW) at the Tonsley technology hub, and the SA Energy Minister has been talking up the idea of a hydrogen revolution. The $11.4 million electrolyser, a kind of proof of concept, extracts hydrogen gas from water at a rate of up to 480 kgs per day.

The difference between the libs and labor it seems is really about who pays for the infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, the libs are looking to the private sector, while Labor’s plans are for a government-owned facility, with the emphasis on jobs. Their brochure on the planned power station and ancillary developments is called the ‘hydrogen jobs plan’. According to SA’s Labor leader, Peter Malinauskas, up to 300 jobs will be created in constructing the hydrogen plant, at least 10,000 jobs will be ‘unlocked from the $20bn pipeline of renewable projects in South Australia’ (presumably not all hydrogen-related, but thrown in for good measure) and 900+ jobs will be created through development of a hydrogen export industry. He’s being a tad optimistic, needless to say.

But hydrogen really is in the air these days (well, sort of, in the form of water vapour). A recent New Scientist article, ‘The hydrogen games’, reports that Japan is hoping that its coming Olympic and Paralympic Games (which others are hoping will be cancelled) will be a showcase for its plan to become a ‘hydrogen society’ over the next few decades. And this plan is definitely good news for Australia.

Japan has pledged to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. However, this is likely impossible to achieve by solar or other established renewables. There just isn’t enough available areas for large scale solar or wind, in spite of floating solar plants on its lakes and offshore wind farms in planning. This is a problem for its hydrogen plans too, as it currently needs to produce the hydrogen from natural gas. It hopes that future technology will make green hydrogen from local renewables possible, but meanwhile it’s looking to overseas imports, notably from Australia, ‘which has ample sunshine, wind and empty space that make it perfect for producing this fuel’. Unfortunately we also have an ample supply of empty heads in our federal government, which might get in the way of this plan. And the Carbon Club, as exposed by Marian Wilkinson in her book of that name, continues to be as cashed-up and almost thuggishly influential as ever here. The success of the South Australian plan, Labor or Liberal, and the growing global interest in hydrogen as an energy source – France and Germany are also spending big on hydrogen – may be what will finally weaken the grip of the fossil fuel industry on a country seen by everyone else as potentially the best-placed to take financial advantage of the green resources economy.

References

Hydrogen Jobs Plan: powering new jobs & industry (South Australian Labor brochure)

https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/hydrogen-fuel-basics

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuel_cell

https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/hydrogen/use-of-hydrogen.php

‘The hydrogen games’, New Scientist No 3336 May 2021 pp18-19

Marian Wilkinson: The Carbon Club: How a network of influential climate sceptics, politicians and business leaders fought to control Australia’s climate policy, 2020

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-03-23/hydrogen-power-play-in-sa-as-labor-announces-gas-plant-project/100022842

graphene aluminium ion batteries – the big breakthrough?

GMG's coin battery unveiled

GMG’s coin battery unveiled

So I’ve heard more exciting info recently from the Skeptics Guide to the Universe (SGU), this time returning me to Australia – Queensland more specifically. And some are describing this as the big battery technology breakthrough many of us have been waiting and hoping for.

So, lithium-ion batteries go back to the late sixties, though we can go back further to the twenties when it was noted that lithium’s electrochemical properties, such as low density, high specific capacity and low redox potential, would make it a likely battery anode material. I’m tempted to go into a thorough self-education investigation of how li-ion batteries were developed and how they work, but I’ll resist it and go straight to the new tech.

Graphene is an allotrope, or form, of carbon, as is diamond and various fullerenes. It consists of a single layer of atoms in a hexagonal lattice. Graphite, a very stable carbon allotrope, consists of stacked layers of graphene. The clean technology company Graphene Manufacturing Group (GMG), based in Queensland, manufactures graphene via a ‘proprietary production process’ which utilises natural gas (methane) rather than graphite. Its current principal focus, according to its website, is ‘developing applications for energy saving and energy storage solutions’. In its corporate overview, here’s what the company has to say on the battery front:

In the energy storage segment GMG and the University of Queensland are working collaboratively with financial support from the Australian Government to progress research and development, and ultimately explore the commercialization of GMG graphene aluminium-ion batteries. Aluminium-ion batteries have the potential to have better energy density than lithium-ion batteries. Graphene Aluminium-ion batteries may eliminate many disadvantages of LI Batteries, including the risk of overheating/fire and performance degradation. Management believes that successful commercialization of the Graphene Aluminium-ion batteries would result in a superior substitute to LI Batteries in targeted applications.

At this point they are promising longer battery life – up to 3 times – and very much faster charging – up to 60 times, something like a supercapacitor. There are no problems with overheating – lithium requires a cooling system, using more space and energy. They also describe the battery as ‘planet-friendly’, in that it doesn’t require scarce resources, such as lithium, which has become much more expensive recently. In fact, Australia is the world’s largest producer of bauxite ore, from which aluminium and gallium are extracted, so these batteries could put Australia in the box seat for production and manufacture. A ‘secure and simplified supply chain’ is one of the benefits touted by the company. Other benefits include safety (no catching fire), stability (no spontaneous discharge, i.e. energy leakage), and improved energy and power density. The batteries will have a longer lifespan, with many charge-discharge cycles. And at the end of the day they should be more recyclable. GMG also promises that these new batteries can be fitted within existing battery housing – no modifications required.

So how does the battery work? Here’s where I have to learn stuff. These are a class of rechargeable battery in which aluminium ions flow from the anode (the positive electrode) to the cathode and back. As to the cathode, I think that’s where graphene comes in. Based on breakthrough technology developed at the University of Queensland’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, the battery cells ‘use nanotechnology to insert aluminium atoms inside tiny perforations in graphene planes’. Aluminium ions are trivalent, meaning they have three valent, or ‘free’, electrons to play with, compared to lithium’s one. This has had both benefits and disadvantages in the past. The three units of charge per ion means more energy density or storage capacity, but, according to Wikipedia, ‘the electrostatic intercalation of the host materials with a trivalent cation is too strong for well-defined electrochemical behaviour’. I don’t know what this means, but presumably this is the problem that the use of graphene solves.

Whether these new batteries will effectively replace li-ion batteries is a question. Established industries don’t move aside easily, and it’s likely that the new technology will be better for some applications than for others. Li-ion is not only well established, the technology is constantly improving. And nickel metal hydride, the previous form of rechargeable battery, still has its place, I believe.

Things are apparently moving fast. GMG CEO and Managing Director Craig Nicol said, “We are currently looking to bring coin cell commercial prototypes for customer testing in 6 months and a pouch pack commercial prototype – used in mobile phones, laptops etc. – for customer testing in 18 months. We are really excited about bringing this to market. We aim to have a viable graphene and coin cell battery production facility project after customer validation that we would likely build here in Australia”. According to the SGU the company expects to have EV batteries ready by 2024.

So that’s about it. But here’s some other random but relevant info:

Since 2005, lithium costs have increased nine-fold, while aluminium costs have increased by 20%.

Currently 90% of lithium is accessed from China, 10% from Chile – but I heard on Fully Charged that Australia is a major source of lithium, so I’m confused.

Basic ingredients of the new battery: ‘aluminum foil, aluminum chloride (the precursor to aluminium and it can be recycled), ionic liquid and urea’ (Craig Nicol)

From graphene-info.com: Now, GMG has shared the initial performance data when tested in coin cells for the patent-pending surface perforation of graphene in aluminium-ion batteries developed by the Company and the University of Queensland (“UQ”). Currently, GMG Graphene is producing coin cell prototypes for customer testing in Q4 2021.’

From Dr. Ashok Nanjundan, GMG’s Chief Scientific Officer: “This is a real game-changing technology which can offer a real alternative with an interchangeable battery technology for the existing lithium-ion batteries in almost every application with GMG’s Graphene and UQ’s patent-pending aluminium ion battery technology. The current nominal voltage of our batteries is 1.7 volts, and work is being carried out to increase the voltage to directly replace existing batteries and which lead to higher energy densities….. The real differentiator about these batteries is their very high power density of up to 7000 watts/kg, which endows them with a very high charge rate. Furthermore, graphene aluminium-ion batteries provide major benefits in terms of longer battery life (over 2000 charge / discharge cycles testing so far with no deterioration in performance), battery safety (very low fire potential) and lower environmental impact (more recyclable)”.

So, I’ll be following developments over the next few months and years…

References and links

https://www.graphene-info.com

https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaeltaylor/2021/05/13/ev-range-breakthrough-as-new-aluminum-ion-battery-charges-60-times-faster-than-lithium-ion/?sh=3be2b61a6d28

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aluminium-ion_battery

flying close to the sun

solar wind and our magnetic shield-field – so much more to learn

I’m not a physicist, or anything else scientific, I’m just an ageing sponge, trying to suck up knowledge and understandings in the diminishing time I have left. Physics is just one vast web of knowledge that I’ve barely stepped upon, to mix metaphors, but that won’t stop me trying to make some sense of orbital mechanics in this post, with the help of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe (episode 826), and other sources.

The NASA Parker Solar Probe (PSB) is the fastest human-built object, and also holds the record for closeness to the sun. It was launched in August 2018 and weighs around 73 kgs. Named for Eugene Parker – a multi-award-winning solar astrophysicist who worked out the effects of the solar wind and predicted the spiral shape of the solar magnetic field in the outer solar system – the PSB recently (only a month ago) got to within about ten million kilometres of the sun’s service. The next closest artificial object was the Helios spacecraft, in 1976, at a distance of about 43 million kms. Mercury, which has a highly elliptical orbit, only gets as close as 47 million kms at perihelion.

The PSB is part of NASA’s Living With a Star (LWS) program, which investigates the Sun-Earth system as it affects our sun-dependent and sometimes sun-threatened lives. For example, the SGU references the Carrington Event, the largest geomagnetic storm on record, caused by a solar coronal mass ejection hitting the Earth’s magnetosphere in early September 1859. If such an event occurred today, it would cause massive damage to our electrical grid systems and satellites. So the PSB is designed to study the sun’s corona and solar wind, presumably in the hope of providing an early warning of future events. For this purpose it’s loaded with various forms of detecting and measuring instruments. However, my interest here is in trying to understand how the probe gets from Earth to the Sun’s corona, how it’s expected to reach speeds of up to 690,000 km/h, and how it can withstand the temperatures in the corona.

It has apparently been calculated that it takes 55 times the energy to get to the Sun as it takes to get to Mars. This is all about orbital mechanics – the sun is spectacularly massive, making up 99.8% of the mass of the solar system. That means it also has a spectacularly massive gravitational pull on the Earth, and all other orbiting bodies. It’s the Earth’s ‘sideways’ velocity (107,208 km/h) that keeps it from falling into the sun. So the Earth’s orbital velocity needs to be taken into account – cancelled out – in planning a trip to the Sun. It turns out that it’s inordinately difficult to do so. With current technology they have only managed to cancel out about 80% of this velocity – which will bring the PSB close to the Sun but not close enough. Travelling to the outer planets is much easier. The probe would leave Earth at 40,000 km/h (escape velocity) and would require a relatively slight boost (6-7,000 km/h) to reach Mars, and further small boosts to reach the other outer planets.

The solution to this cancellation problem is to employ an orbital manipulation called Venus Earth Gravity Assist (VEGA). The PSB was sent to Venus to reduce the sideways orbital motion. Every swing around Venus further reduces this motion, and allows the PSB to decrease the orbital perihelion ultimately to about 7 million kms, at which time it will be travelling at its maximum speed. This will occur at Christmas Eve 2024 (they can be quite precise, apparently), after the last of its planned seven swings around Venus. The probe’s orbit around the Sun will be highly elliptical, with a minimum of time spent around perihelion, to prevent radiation damage to the craft and instrumentation. 

Of course the PSB will also come equipped with probably the most sophisticated heat shield or thermal protection system ever built, which will protect it not only from the intense heat and radiation but from high-velocity dust particles. It measures about 2.5 metres in diameter and is made from carbon foam between layers of superheated carbon-carbon composite, aka reinforced carbon-carbon (carbon fibre in a matrix of graphite). Its outer aluminium oxide coating is, naturally, reflective white, to protect probe and equipment from a maximum temperature at perihelion of about 1370 degrees celsius. NASA expects that the inner side of the shield will be at a little under 30 degrees – so cool in fact that some instruments will be independently heated to operate at maximum efficiency. The probe has been created to be as autonomous as possible, given its distance from Earth. For example, if instrumentation somehow becomes exposed to radiation, four light sensors will ‘detect the first traces of direct sunlight coming from the shield limits and [engage] movements from reaction wheels to reposition the spacecraft within the shadow again’, to quote the Wikipedia article on the probe. 

This solar probe concept was first mooted in the late 1950s but was regularly postponed due to costs. The initial idea was for a less direct route using a gravity assist from Jupiter, which would have created a longer and more expensive mission and would have required a nuclear battery called a radioisotope thermal generator. Something to research in another post maybe. 

So I won’t pretend that I understand all the mathematics of this probe’s voyage, but I do know that it has been successful so far, at least in terms of its travel – the Venus assists and the solar orbits, which will all come to an end on August 29 2025. As to whether it will be successful in its research tasks, that will have to be evaluated over time. What precisely are those research tasks? There are three main ones: to trace the flow of energy that heats the corona and accelerates the solar wind, to determine the structure and dynamics of the magnetic fields that create the solar wind, and to determine what mechanisms accelerate and transport energetic particles.

Whether the knowledge gained will protect us from future solar wind and electromagnetic activity nobody knows. Predictions about the future are probably the most uncertain predictions of all. 

References

Episode #826

https://science.nasa.gov/heliophysics/programs/living-with-a-star

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parker_Solar_Probe

https://www.cosmos.esa.int/documents/1700208/1718748/06+Luhmann+Living+with+the+Sun.pdf/337d8891-ba5f-6534-42ea-92eff2131797

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrington_Event

https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2018/its-surprisingly-hard-to-go-to-the-sun

Water as a solvent

Not actually universal

Thinking of solutions often makes me think of water. I’m fascinated by water’s multiple uses in our world. As a cleaning agent, for example. What does it mean, that water cleans things? Well, take the case of dirty dishes. You’ve got some dinner dishes, with small scraps of meat, vegetables, some sauce, some cake crumbs, etc. They’ve been left on the sideboard for a few hours, so that the food scraps have dried out and are stuck to the dishes. Put these few plates, bowls, forks, knives and spoons in a basin of warm water for, say, twenty minutes. You will find that, with a minimal quantity of cleaning agents added – soap is perfectly adequate – you’ll be able to remove all the crumbs and bits of sauce from the plates and utensils easily with your hands. I find hands really great for cleaning, you can feel every lump and bump.

So what’s happening here? Certain chemical processes have occurred. First, The material on the crockery has dried out, over a period of hours. That means it has lost water to the surrounding air. Evaporation of water can occur at any temperature, as the surface water molecules have a higher kinetic energy, explained apparently by the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution, which I won’t go into here.

So when the dirty dishes are placed in water, reactions occur. Stuff dissolves in water. This is because H₂O is a polar molecule – its oxygen head is electronegative and its two hydrogen tails are electropositive. That’s because the oxygen pulls the electrons it shares with the hydrogen – called covalent bonding – closer to itself, giving it a slightly negative charge, and the hydrogens a slightly positive charge. This polarity attracts water molecules to each other. So if there are any water molecules left on the dirty dishes, and there will be, the basin water will be attracted to them, so softening and breaking up the food particles. And if there is salt in the sauce and sugar in the cake, these will dissolve in the water, because the polar bonds in H₂O are stronger than the ionic bonds in salt (NaCl), so breaking them down, and H₂O will connect with the polar O-H bonds in sucrose (C12H22O11).

I’ve mentioned two other useful factors for cleaning – heat and soap. Any unfortunate who sugars their coffee will know how effective heat is for dissolving their poison. This is simply to do with the energy state of the water molecules. The excited molecules interact more rapidly with the sugar, or salt, causing their rapid dissolution. Soap, and other detergents, act as cleansing agents for a very different reason.

Some substances, particularly hydrocarbons, such as hexane (C₆H₁₄), found in petrol and many glues, are insoluble in water. In our example, think of cooking oil and fats. Greasy stuff. Soap is made up of molecules called surfactants. These lengthy molecules have a water-loving (hydrophilic) head and a grease-loving (hydrophobic) tail, so to speak. Here’s a neat summary of what happens, from Science on the shelves, a website of the University of York:

The head of the molecule is attracted to water (hydrophilic) and the tail is attracted to grease and dirt (hydrophobic). When the detergent molecules meet grease on clothes [or dishes], the tails are drawn into the grease but the heads still sit in the water. The attractive forces between the head groups and the water are so strong that the grease is lifted away from the surface. The blob of grease is now completely surrounded by detergent molecules and is broken into smaller pieces which are washed away by the water.

More detail can be gone into here, but this is a start. The fact that water is such an effective solvent has so many implications for all living organisms it’s hard to know what to turn to next, so I’ll have to give it a think.

I should point out that in researching this piece, which certainly wasn’t hard work, I found at least a dozen good videos describing water as a solvent, and there were countless other videos describing other properties of water. I’m very grateful to be living in the internet age, when so much of this thought-provoking material is so readily available.

some references

https://www.middleschoolchemistry.com/lessonplans/chapter5/lesson4

https://www.usgs.gov/media/images/water-molecules-and-their-interaction-salt-molecules

https://www.york.ac.uk/res/sots/activities/soapysci.htm

Water as a solvent | Water, acids, and bases | Biology | Khan Academy (video)

Properties of Water (video – Amoeba Sisters

solutions to current political dogma 3 – Taiwan

We’re literally the first generation that can actually do democracy because it was illegal in our parents’ age. Because of that, there’s a lot more room to innovate.

Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s Digital Minister

inside Taiwan’s Social Innovation Lab

Taiwan is a nation with a complex recent history and an uncertain future, faced as it is with an aggressive and extremely powerful neighbour which utterly rejects its claim to independence. But while this future largely depends on the winds, or whims, of international support for its fledgling democracy, it is making progress on its own with new approaches to participatory decision-making, using crowd-sourcing and other digital methods.

These new approaches had their foundation in 2014, when a mass protest movement, called the Sunflower Movement, sprang up in opposition to an attempt by then President Ma Ying-jeou, of the governing Kuomintang, to create a trade deal with China, called the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) – clearly a highly sensitive issue, especially for Taiwan’s youth. The demonstrations – effectively opposing the one China policy in general – were massive, involving half a million people out of a population almost equal to that of Australia, but they were also ‘smart’, as they involved the use of smart phones to communicate and organise effectively.

The success of the Sunflower Movement led eventually to a change of government – the Kuomintang, which had democratised since the 1990s but which had long been tainted with neofascism, was finally ousted in 2016, and a centre-left government, the Democratic People’s Party (DPP), was installed, and returned with an increased majority in 2020. But a perhaps a more interesting outcome of the movement was the development of online participatory democracy platforms such as vTaiwan. The DPP has embraced digital technology to the point of creating a Digital Minister, Audrey Tang, a heroine to a diversity of communities.

Participatory or open democracy is an attempt to flatten hierarchies by creating online spaces for citizen deliberation and more open access to elected representatives. The emphasis is on diversity, and ‘forking the government’, a joke term of sorts, which Jess Scully explains:

In programming, forking means creating alternative approaches to a subset of a program (that is, writing some new code) and testing those in parallel with the status quo. Once the alternative code is working well, it’s merged into the system permanently.

J Scully, Glimpses of utopia, p 60

As Tang explains, forking, in the strictly digital sense, has become a more flexible process in recent years, and this can be seen as a metaphor for governance. She sees her department as horizontal, and set within a broader government system that is as horizontally organised as practicable. Other terms such as sandboxing, are taken from the new tech world to describe experimental processes contained in lower-risk spaces such as the nation’s Social Innovation Lab before unleashing them on an unsuspecting public. These processes encourage the testing and tweaking of a diversity of inputs and responses to proposals from within or outside government, and clearly vTaiwan, the online platform, plays a key role. Government bureaucrats are encouraged to be proactive in formulating ideas and expected to be accountable in providing feedback to others. Accountability and reward go together.

It all sounds very idealistic, and there have certainly been roadblocks – such as getting government reps to take the issues discussed seriously – but vTaiwan and other such open-source platforms have allowed dissenters to articulate their grievances, and more importantly, to suggest solutions. Demonstrations can give way to consultations and collaboration. One key innovation in this consultative process is that no comments are permitted on proposals, thus eliminating divisiveness and trolling. Instead, proposals are upvoted or downvoted, so that maps of consensus can quickly emerge. Also, some proposals garner more attention for or against than others and so can be seen as focusing on issues of greatest public concern.

An even more successful platform, endorsed and utilised by Tang, is Join, created by the National Development Council, another government initiative. Often debate and contributions on these platforms lead to a complete reformulation of the original issue with innovative and wide-ranging solutions.

Taiwan’s outstanding performance in combatting Covid-19 has naturally made the country a focus of international interest. In an article written last December, ‘Digital participation in Taiwan: takeaways for Europe’, Dominik Hierlemann and Stefan Roch described the country’s success:

Taiwan’s open and vibrant social media called the “PTT bulletin board” was able to pick up the news and evidence of a new and dangerous virus in Wuhan as early as December 2019 and directed the information effectively to Taiwan’s Centre for Disease Control. Based on that information, the centre started to check all incoming flights from Wuhan and created a collective information system for all citizens, as well as with the help of citizens. As Taiwan immediately started rationing masks, an interactive App was quickly developed that helps people track down pharmacies that have masks on stock, so that the entire population could be effectively supplied. To this day, the Centre of Disease Control holds daily public briefings based on information collaboratively collected by itself, experts and citizens.

As Audrey Tang points out, Taiwan has more social media accounts than it has citizens, and it treats cheap broadband access as essentially a human right. With encouragement from one of the world’s most tech-savvy governments, the population is digitally interconnected like no other. And the Social Innovation Lab, based in Taipei, has a drop-in centre, open 16 hours a day, for people to meet, talk and eat in a relaxed atmosphere, exchanging ideas and plans informally and face-to-face. It all seems to be working, and more and more people worldwide are taking an interest.

References

Jess Scully, Glimpses of Utopia, 2020

https://www.technologyreview.com/2018/08/21/240284/the-simple-but-ingenious-system-taiwan-uses-to-crowdsource-its-laws/

https://www.ndc.gov.tw/en/

D Hierlemann & S Roch, ‘Digital participation in Taiwan: takeaways for Europe’, Dec 1 2020

solutions to current political dogma 2 – Iceland

Katrin Jacobsdottir, of the Left-Green Movement, Prime Minister of Iceland since December 2017

So there are problems with modern democracy, especially for those governmental systems that have congealed into a two-party race to be top dog for the next election cycle, with each new winning party tending to dismantle the policies of the previous government. There are also major problems of money in politics, especially in those nations, like the US, in which the rich-poor divide is problematic and worsening.

Of course these problems pale into insignificance as we witness the attempt to snuff out democracy altogether in Miyanmar. The democratic world watches this as if helpless, as if the matter shouldn’t be dealt with urgently and internationally. The only country that seems to want to do anything about the situation is China – to lend a hand with the butchery, in order to protect its business interests there. We need to strengthen international forces against those who ride roughshod over human rights in such a flagrant, corrupt and arrogant way.

After that venting of spleen I’ll return to the comfort of our lucky country and those like it. The fact is that these modern democracies and capitalist nations have a dynamism that traditional governing systems, laws and work practices are unable to keep up with, and the increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of financial elites is leaving behind a demoralised sector of society, formerly known as the working class. Traditional jobs are gone or transformed, leaving many feeling outcast, bewildered and defeated. But of course many of the young, or young-at-heart, in this sector have ideas and energy to spare, and are seeking a like-minded community.

The examples of participatory democracy and community action that follow have been introduced to me by Jess Scully in her book Glimpses of utopia: real ideas for a fairer world, and I will do my own research to follow up areas of interest and new developments.

  1. Iceland

As a person not well-versed in global finance, I always wondered how a failure of regulation in the US banking system led to a global financial crisis, where national governments felt obliged to bail out banks outside of the USA. The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) has an explainer on this, citing ‘linkages in the global financial system’, which I kind of guessed. But does the financial system have to be linked up in this way, and what if a particular government refused to bail out their nation’s banks?

The RBA mentions Iceland as one of many countries in which excessive lending, encouraged and facilitated by banks, was happening in the pre-GFC boom years. All of this was a result of lack of foresight (booms are always followed by busts), greed (the loans were sold on to investors as ‘mortgage-backed securities’ (MBS) which became increasingly opaque and complex) and corruption (due to lack of regulation, fraud in the form of overstating borrowers’ income and lying about the safety and value of MBS products). The international linkages included the facts that the housing boom was more or less worldwide, that US banks had an international presence, and that foreign banks were large-scale investors in MBS and other higher-return products.

So it’s likely that the major problem here was and is lack of regulation and independent oversight. I might go into the Australian situation in another post, but the situation of Iceland is unusual because the GFC led to a massive re-evaluation of its political and economic structure.

Iceland’s banks were deregulated in the early 2000s, and in the following years, its banking system went more than a bit crazy, creating paper billionnaires almost overnight. Clearly the dodgy deals were more flagrant than elsewhere, and when the crash came, many bank CEOs and some government officials were tried and jailed. But there was no bail-out. As Gudrun Johnsen, a member of the special commission set up to learn from the collapse, put it, ‘The banks were 10 times the GDP of Iceland; 20 times the state budget. They were too big to bail out’.

What did occur was a change of government, a rewriting of the Icelandic constitution, and an unprecedented period of financial and political reform, set off by the Pots and Pans Revolution. Much of this involved participatory democracy, including online crowdsourcing (in the case of creating a new constitution), the building of an online platform, Better Reykjavik, later rebranded as Better Neighbourhoods, and the encouraging of ideas and systems transcending political duopolies. All of this was quite unusual in Iceland, a nation not given to revolutionary activity, and it has only been partially successful. In 2013 a more conservative government was returned, but the political landscape has been altered, and political sensitivities have heightened. These comments from two analysts after the 2013 elections give a sense of the new situation:

While the grassroots movement that overthrew the government after the crash remains disillusioned and disappointed, its impact should not be under-estimated. One important development in its wake, and an important emerging theme for further research, is a series of experiments with direct democracy and social media. Soon after the crash, a crowd-sourcing company drew upon social media to prepare for a National Meeting (Þjóðfundur) of 1,000 participants for outlining a new constitution. While the end result of this work remains unclear, and much depends on the formal, indirect democracy of the Parliament, it seems safe to say that the public has been sensitized to new avenues for democracy and alerted to potential signs of corruption.

It may not seem like much, but the protests and what followed from them were something of a revelation for Icelanders – apparently the biggest show of public dissatisfaction with its leaders in a thousand years, together with positive, participatory action to improve the political and social situation there, using new technologies and social media. As we all know, social media is very much a double-edged sword, but it is here to stay (until something else comes up), and we can’t really afford to ignore it.

Next I will look at how Taiwan is dealing with its new democratic freedoms.

References

https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Myanmar-Coup/Myanmar-coup-Week-from-Feb.-20-to-March-18-UN-team-urges-whistleblowers-to-report-illegal-orders

https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Myanmar-Coup/Myanmar-crisis-drags-China-into-chaos-after-factories-torched

https://www.rba.gov.au/education/resources/explainers/the-global-financial-crisis.html

https://www.bbc.com/news/business-35485876

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009_Icelandic_financial_crisis_protests

Jess Scully, Glimpses of utopia: real ideas for a fairer world.

solutions to current political dogma 1: the problem

the tedium of it all

Back in 2012, Joe Hockey, later to become Australia’s Treasurer, delivered a controversial speech to the conservative think tank, the Institute for Economic Affairs, in London. The speech, titled ‘the End of the Age of Entitlement’, was delivered as the world was still suffering from the after-effects of the global financial crisis caused by the bail-out of rogue, aka deregulated, financial enterprises such as Lehman Brothers, Citibank and Bear Sterns, whose sub-prime mortgage lending practices had become exposed. The bail-out cost the US government hundreds of billions of dollars and affected financial markets worldwide.

The GFC led the Rudd Labor government in Australia to institute a Keynesian stimulus package which averted a recession, and was praised by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz as one of the best-designed of any country (and was attacked relentlessly by the conservative opposition). Other countries chose to, or felt obliged to, follow a similar path, and so many government surpluses became deficits, and those in deficit saw those deficits balloon disturbingly.

Hockey’s speech mentioned the GFC in passing, without commenting on the dodgy banking practices, for which none of the major players were ever held to account. One would think that the term ‘entitlement’ might be applied to these wealthy rogue operators, but Hockey’s target was in fact the welfare system, though the term ‘welfare’ was nowhere mentioned in his speech. It was substituted everywhere by the term ‘entitlements’, a term we would usually associate, naturally enough, with the titled.

Hockey’s argument was that developed economies could no longer afford the generous welfare payments provided by governmental taxes, and that this was proven by increasing deficits in spite of what he would have described as punitive taxation systems in some countries. Unfortunately, Hockey’s speech was short on solutions, at a time of increasing automation and the closing of factories, the casualisation of the workforce and the gig economy, beyond referring to Hong Kong and its apparently supportive and self-sacrificing extended families, as if the developed nations are ever likely to revert to that spread-the-poverty-around model, if it ever really existed (I would recommend reading Rebecca Skloot’s excellent documentary work The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks as an account of the benefits and limitations of extended families in the context of African-American poverty and disadvantage). And of course, Hockey advocates good old hard work which, as well as being its own reward, will inevitably result in a climb up the greasy pole to monetary success. This would have been news to the slaves of the Greeks, Romans and Conquistadors of earlier times, the coal miners and chimney sweeps of Britain and the asbestos factory workers of Australia. Arbeit macht frei indeed.

I could go on about the problems inherent in Hockey’s speech, but I noticed that, in referring to the inevitable right-left swings that democratic elections have devolved into (though these political swings formed the backbone of Livy’s History of Rome, written nearly 2000 years ago), Hockey prefers the terms ‘socialist’ and ‘conservative’, thus, it seems, deliberately emphasising and revelling in the divide. As a person intent on finding solutions, I find this sowing of division unhelpful. The aim here is to recognise problems – of poverty, of energy, of well-being, of health, of the environment we inhabit, and so forth. And I’m not sure if endlessly ‘working’ is the solution, at least in the narrow sense of ‘work’ that Hockey was using.

In fact, considering all these problems we need to solve – and more problems will inevitably arise (life would be pretty boring without problems to solve) – work is not simply a solution, it’s another problem. What constitutes work? Cultivating your garden? Looking after your children? Beautifying your neighbourhood? Attending conferences? Encouraging your students? Having sex with your partner?

All these activities provide value to human social life – and we are the most socially constructed mammals on the planet – in a way that can’t be easily monetised. And it would be silly to do so.

Anyway, all of this is preliminary to looking at solutions to a human world in which so much work is providing entertainment and diversion to our fellow human beings – for what are dining out, attending arts festivals and soccer matches, watching netflix, shopping, searching for extra-terrestrial life, decorating the house, and so forth, but forms of adult play? To which whole industries and technologies are devoted. And I’m not denigrating play – far from it – it marks the difference between life and mere existence. Just ask our dog.

Finally, as a person brought up in a working-class environment (the town of Elizabeth in South Australia, created as a hub around the General Motors Holden factory and ancillary businesses in the late fifties), I experienced life there during the economic downturn of the mid-seventies, when unemployment became a major problem, leading to a palpable sense of demoralisation. Kids like myself, living in the chasm between school and work (of which there was precious little) hung out at shopping centres, smoking and selling dope and trying to act tough. Most of our parents were separated or about to be. The number of dilapidated and derelict homes multiplied almost before our eyes. I got and lost three or four factory jobs, making washing machines, mobile homes and iron tubing. I remember weeping quietly on the six o’clock bus on my way to one of these workplaces. How could I, with a mind the size of a planet, be reduced to this?

At other times, I got dole money, which I recall jumped from $7.50 to $21.50 per week when Whitlam’s labor government came in. Maybe I could use this windfall of filthy lucre to educate myself out of the bind I found myself in? The main point I’m making here is that, as part of a migrant family separated from the extended family 12,000 miles away, with no role models in business, academia or any of the more lucrative professions, and being generally introverted but profoundly anti-authoritarian, I hated ‘working for the man’ but felt I had boundless energy and capacity that I had little idea what to do with. What I lacked was a community of like-minded types. A community of two or three would do.

And that brings me to some of the ideas and practices described in Jess Scully’s Glimpses of utopia. More of that next time.

Reference

Brian Donaghy, Cents and Sensibility, 2014 (see appendix for Joe Hockey’s speech notes)

universal basic income 2: how to finance it





Imagine this highly unlikely scenario. The current conservative Australian government loses the 2022 federal election in a landslide, due to widespread financial corruption, inaction on addressing global warming – brought into relief by another devastating summer in 2020-21- and the rise of a young, charismatic leader of the leftist Labor opposition, who has managed to sell voters on an Aussie version of the Green New Deal, as well an ambitious Basic Income policy.

It’s okay to dream, but we have to get real. How do we make such a policy work?

I will rely on the ideas and calculations of finance journalist and author of A basic income for Australia, Brian Donaghy, for the following. First, based on the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) campaign of March 2020 which advocated a rise in what’s now called Jobseeker to $755.70 per fortnight (of course, the Covid19 pandemic has caused the current government to raise the previous payment, with obvious reluctance, to a figure which is still well below the ACOSS recommendation), together with an increased rent assistance payment of $158 per fortnight, the Basic Income payment should be set at $913.70 per fortnight, for every adult. Children would be given a percentage, depending on age. The total cost of such a package would be about $526 billion per annum. Alternatively, the payment could be set at the aged pension rate, plus supplements – $944 fortnightly – totalling about $544 billion per annum. The OECD takes the poverty line to be about $1000 per fortnight, and Australia’s minimum wage for the 2019-20 year was around $1481 per fortnight.

So, how do we find, let’s say, $544 billion dollars a year to finance this scheme? According to Donaghy’s costings, savings on welfare payments and administration would bring the figure down to about $415 billion. Next, Donaghy looks at ‘individual tax offsets and deductions’, which he claims the government should scrap. I can’t pretend to understand this, but scrapping these perks would, he claims, bring the basic income cost down to $377 billion.

All of this should simplify the tax system, making tax evasion and avoidance more difficult, and increasing revenue to the ATO, though putting a dollar amount on this might be difficult. However, tax avoidance task-forces have been in operation for some years and have collected billions of dollars. Their job would be made easier by a a more simplified system.

Another factor which would increase tax revenue by a hard-to-calculate amount would be the increased spending power created by the basic income. Remember, its universality would provide lower and middle income earners with the opportunity to spend more on dining out, home improvements, internal tourism and the like. Australia’s corporate profits would increase, according to economic modelling, enough to bring the cost of the UBI down to about $282 billion, though Donaghy has chosen to be more conservative, lowering the cost to around $320 billion.

The UBI goes to everyone, so that for many taxpayers it would be additional income at the top marginal rate. Without going into detail, this would bring in further tax revenue, totalling almost $81.7 billion, and bringing the cost of the UBI down to somewhere around $240 billion – with nobody suffering since that extra tax would only be a percentage of the extra income provided to the wealthy.

One could go on tweaking the system and working out theoretical savings, such as a restructuring of the government subsidies paid to particular industries, often described as business or corporate welfare. Australia’s Productivity Commission estimated that government ‘budgetary assistance’ to corporations totalled approximately $12 billion in 2018-19. Arguments as to whether such assistance constitutes sound government investment will run the gamut, and will of course depend on how much potential each corporation has – prediction about the future being particularly tricky. However, as Donaghy points out, modern companies have become increasingly technocratic and international, tending to shed rather than increase workers, and if they need hands-on work, may be able to source it from developing countries with cheap labour rates. Government handouts end up mostly if not entirely at the top end of town. Our federal government apparently subsidises the fossil fuel industry to to the tune of $12 billion annually, always using the ‘jobs jobs jobs’ mantra, but these industries are shedding jobs and are not major employers.

Other ways of tweaking the system include taxing multinational tech companies such as Google, Apple and Facebook – always risky, as they tend to respond with ‘big money muscle’, threatening to limit services. the Goods and Services Tax can also be looked at. Many European nations impose a higher GST on luxury items. Even raising the basic rate by one percent will bring in an extra $7 billion. Since the UBI would lead to greater spending, much of the money raised would be recirculated through the system.

Again I should emphasise that this is a very rough guide, largely based on Brian Donaghy’s rough guide to funding a UBI. However, I’m not optimistic enough to believe that anything like a UBI will operate in Australia in the near future. Meanwhile, with the current jobs crisis and shutdowns caused by the pandemic, the Australian government is operating with an online compliance system for jobseekers which is near-criminal in its stress-inducing incomprehensibility, and touting an increase in jobseeker payments, which, as mentioned, will keep these payments far below any reasonably projected UBI. The current government’s support of those most damaged by the pandemic – for example, those, like myself, who work in the international student sector – has been as minimal as it feels it can get away with. Of course the current government has essentially prided itself on its ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’ lack of innovation, so we clearly need to look elsewhere. The 2022 election is one source of hope, but there are other options besides a UBI (and of course there also many options within UBI). In her recent (2020) book, Glimpses of Utopia , Jess Scully, arts entrepreneur, curator and Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney, has promoted the idea of Universal Basic Services as a less ‘libertarian’ and more community-oriented approach to reducing disadvantage and improving inclusivity. I’ll explore this concept further next time.

References

Brian Donaghy, A basic income for Australia, 2020

Jess Scully, Glimpses of utopia, 2020