Monday, January 09, 2012

Paul Sheehan, and time for yet another catastrophic crisis of the first water ...

(Above: today's thought bubble. If you read a Paul Sheehan column this morning, it might interest you to know you possibly lost 190,000 neurons today, as part of the process of losing 1 gram of brain mass per year, or 70 million neurons. That's right, you're doomed, we're all doomed, quick Chicken Little ring the bell - How Many Brain Cells that Die Each Day?).

If you read Paul Sheehan in The Sydney Morning Herald this morning, it might interest you to know that it takes 140 litres of alarmist gobbledegook to produce a single column. Such a simple but a profound equation.

Here's how Sheehan kicks off Energy use sucking up a precious resource (as shown in the 'Thought Bubble' above):

If you enjoyed a cup of coffee this morning, it might interest you to know it took 140 litres of water to produce that cup. Such a simple but profound equation.

It doesn't take much by way of science to spot that Paul 'Magic Water' Sheehan must be in the grip of yet another meme, and sure enough, a minute's googling led the pond to Remember That '140 Liters Of Water In My Cup Of Coffee' Theory? Here's Why Virtual Water Is Bogus.

It was written back in 2008 - clearly memes take awhile to reach Sheehan - and please pardon the pond for asking Hank Campbell to do the heavy lifting:

... a few days ago people were aghast and outraged when they saw a number stating that 34 gallons of 'virtual water' went into a cup of coffee. I understand their panic. That means we only have about 9,588,235,294,117,647 cups of coffee left before all the water is gone.

Except water doesn't actually disappear. There is the same amount of water on earth now as millions of years ago. That's right, you're drinking water a Neanderthal peed in. Water recycles. I understand that only 2.5% of all water is available 'fresh' water but that is why the outrage over coffee and hamburgers is unjustified.

Trees, for example, give off 70 gallons of water per day just in evaporation. That's two cups of coffee right there coming back to us. So water evaporating from trees provides enough water to result in 392 cups of coffee for every man, woman and child on the planet. Humans use, on average, 50 gallons per day directly, so we'd have to scale that coffee back to just over 390 cups per day.

My diatribe here is not about the water conservation industry. I am all for clean water. 2 billion people live without proper clean water and even in civilized areas there are 70,000 known chemicals in use that can contaminate water. I am very much against bad water. I am also against bad math.

Naturally Campbell got himself into trouble by making a joke about drinking Neanderthal pee, and he throws in a lot more about claims of 633 gallons of water needed to make a hamburger, and the 120 gallons of water needed to produce a single egg (so quaint to read of gallons in this litre-led world).

Meanwhile, the notion that drinking one coup of coffee costs 140 litres of water can be found in all sorts of places - as a header for a UNESCO-IHE press release, at a wiki on coffee, at an environmental forum, and then a link back to the motherlode, the source of the data at

The world population requires about 120 billion cubic metres of water per year in order to be able to drink coffee. This is equivalent to 1.5 times the annual Rhine runoff and constitutes 2 % of the global water use for crop production. International trade in coffee products is responsible for 80 billion cubic meters of virtual water exports, which is about 6% of the international virtual water flows in the world. Among all the crop and livestock products coffee stands at the top position in the list of global virtual water flows.

Now there's a flurry of fine virtual statistics ...

Virtual water?

Virtual water is the water that is virtually embedded in traded commodities. It refers to the water footprint of a commodity in the place of production. (here).

It turns out that this kind of ersatz calculation has been doing the rounds long before Sheehan got hold of it, as can be seen in a Guardian piece in April 2010, UK relies on 'virtual' water from drought-prone countries, says report.

In that outing, it was beef and a cotton T-shirt that copped the pounding, not coffee, and down below in the comments section, a few dissenting voices could be heard:

Water, unless electrolysed or otherwise broken down (high in the upper atmosphere, in photosynthesis) is generally conserved. Even in the case of photosynthesis, carbohydrates generally end up being 'burned' by one process or another returning to the carbon dioxide + water + energy from which they came.

By and large then, any water in a product will ultimately find its way back into ground water or the atmosphere. Ground water also ultimately returns to the atmosphere via rivers, oceans and evaporation. The atmosphere and the oceans are a global, shared resource. The notion that you can somehow package water, ship it across the world and then permanently sequester it there is ludicrous.

There is no sense to be seen in this article beyond the observation that industrial and agricultural development put strains on the infrastructure - including water retention, treatment and distribution - in developing countries. Very true and we ought to be doing more, much more, to help.

But back to Sheehan, because you see he can't get enough of statistics:

Think of that cup of coffee and its 140 litres. Or a single steak, which requires almost 10,000 litres of water to produce.

Think of that columnist regurgitating data. Why a single column requires almost ten thousand litres of blather to produce.

So let's cut to the chase. Sheehan is an eco catastrophist of the first water (no pun intended, we just love thinking of Sheehan as a a stone, or if you will a diamond).

In the course of the column, he manages to produce an energy-water nexus crisis, a population crisis, an industrialised world crisis, an alternative technologies failure crisis, an oil recovery crisis, a water-intensive recovery of marginal and shale-based unconventional fuels crisis, a counter-intuitive crisis regarding water shortages after the two wettest years in a century in Australia (yes Sheehan has at last discovered we're in a La NiƱa pattern), and a peak soil crisis, hidden only by the use of fertilisers.

Throw in a mega-wather pattern crisis, the hottest decade in history, land clearing, a third of the world's natural disaster insurance costs, $20 billion in losses, and a prediction by insurers of more disasters, and where do we land?

Insurance Australia Group, which owns NRMA, among other brands, predicts that floods, fires, heatwaves and drought will grow more extreme and Australia will be one of the countries most affected by climate change.

Climate change? Dear sweet absent lord, could this be the very same Sheehan who wrote Beware the climate of conformity in praise of Ian Plimer and his book Heaven And Earth?

Never mind, there's even more. China and India are under water stress, and in crisis, China has a woeful strategic water shortfall, and so faces a crisis, India is worse off, depending on Himalayan glaciers which are retreating, with a crisis close at hand, and the strain is showing and saltwater is seeping into aquifers wherever we look, the Ganges is polluted, Pakistan is in trouble, India's middle class is growing rapidly, water consumption is soaring, and something has to give - wealth or water - and did we mention a crisis?

Could it be that sourdough bread prices in Woollahra will skyrocket to catastrophic levels? What a crisis ...

The world's growing freshwater stress makes the debt crisis in Europe look trivial by comparison, yet it barely rates consideration.

Yep, Europe was last week's catastrophe, but that was a trivial crisis. This week it's the amount of water in a cup of coffee, as crisis piles on crisis ...

Put it another way, in a calm, considered way. We're all doomed, we're all rooned, quick, run to the nearest exit:

"We'll all be rooned," said Sheenahan,
In accents most forlorn,
Outside the church, ere Mass began,
One frosty Sunday morn. (apologies to John O'Brien, his full poem here)

The funniest thing? Well if you step back apace, the use of faux statistics, and alarmism about the environment, and concepts like Peak Soil are the purest green of green tactics.

Sheehan's column could have been written by Clive Hamilton.

And yet when it comes to the Greens, Sheehan is pure schizophrenic, which explains how he can scribble Labor now practises what Greens preach. Or if you like Greens Policies are Flaky.

In that piece, you can find the ghost of Sheehan past dismissing the hysteria of present Green Sheehan as simple-minded scare mongering.

Take, for example, in his alphabet, the letter 'D', and gibberish spoken about global warming:

D: Decadal Oscillation. A major complication for climate alarmists is a weather pattern known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and the Atlantic Decadal Oscillation. Their cycles have been measured for 1500 years. Every 24 to 31 years they alternate global warming and global cooling phases. Australia was due for a cooling phase, and this year's flooding rain is consistent with the onset of a cooling phase.

Phew, that's a relief, everything is Plimerish again.

As in U:

U: Urban heat islands. Another complication for climate action alarmists is the general rise in temperatures measured in urban areas, reflecting the huge trend in global urbanisation.

Alarmist? Don't you just love it when an alarmist ridicules people for being alarmist?

Does Sheehan ever have the first clue about the confusions and contradictions that teem from his festering brain? Do his editors? Do they think they're spreading enlightenment, rather than panic, alarmism, fear and loathing throughout a crisis-riddled world?

A flurry of words spring to mind, but we'll settle for the variant on his column header Sheehan by name, flaky by nature.

The man hasn't got a coherent, consistent bone in his body. He is the perfect exemplar of a columnist driven by thought bubbles of a panicky catastrophist kind.

Well at least the Herald labels its thought bubble producers correctly.

Thought bubbles come in two forms: the chain thought bubble and the "fuzzy" bubble.

The chain thought bubble is the almost universal symbol for thinking in cartoons. It consists of a large, cloud-like bubble containing the text of the thought, which is connected to the area next to a character by a chain of increasingly smaller circular bubbles. (and the rest at the wiki on speech balloons).

Read Sheehan, enjoy the bubbles - chain thought or fuzzy - and leave your innocent desire for calm, measured, rational, reasoned thinking behind ...

Now remember, before you get too anxious about the world, and its crises, and the way we're all doomed, that big business is good, and wealth creation vital:

P: Profiteering. The Greens' website features the word ''profiteering'' 295 times (thank you, Chris Berg). Big businesses equates with greed.
V: Voodoo economics. The Greens have a long list of demands on the public purse but a short list of initiatives for wealth creation.

Uh huh. But it takes 140 litres of water to make a cup of coffee. Will someone bring the pond a list of initiatives for wealth creation, or at least coffee-making ...

(Below: Paul Sheehan goes green. Click on to enlarge).

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