Sunday, May 22, 2016

Saudi Arabia is planning for the post-oil era, why not the United States?

The world's largest exporter of crude oil, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, recently announced a plan for its post-oil future. If a country almost synonymous with the oil economy can see the need for such a plan, how can the rest of the world, particularly the United States, the world's largest consumer of petroleum, not see the necessity of such foresight?

The kingdom's plan includes sale of part of Saudi Aramco, the world largest oil company and currently wholly-owned by the Saudi government. The company controls all oil development in Saudi Arabia. That the Saudis want to sell part of the most valuable company in the world means they have a different view about the future of oil than those who will be buying. Commentators often report that markets rise because investors are optimistic or fall because they are pessimistic. But this is complete nonsense because for every buyer there is always a seller. Each side of a trade believes in a different future for the investment being traded.

Certainly, there are many reasons for selling a minority stake in Saudi Aramco. But one of them can't be that the rulers of the kingdom have an unalloyed bullishness about Saudi capabilities and oil resources.

As recently as 2007 the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) believed Saudi Arabia would be supplying the world with 16.4 million barrels per day (mbpd) of oil by 2030. (And, that was down from 23.8 mbpd projected for 2025 in a 2003 report.) In 2008 the Saudi king appeared to embrace a policy of 12.5 mbpd and no more.

Since then long-term projections for Saudi production have come down with a range of 10.2 mbpd to 15.5 mbpd for 2040 (in a 2013 EIA report) depending on which of three scenarios you choose. No explicit range has been included in subsequent EIA reports.

With the release of a new independent report on world oil reserves by a former BP insider, a report that suggests that conventional reserves are half what is being claimed, the issue of limits on oil production has resurfaced. (The report implies that Saudi reserves have been inflated as well.)

By including Canadian tar sands and Venezuelan heavy oil, world oil reserves increase back to about 75 percent of what is typically reported. But that number makes no adjustment for the much greater difficulty and expense of getting these unconventional resources out of the ground and then turning them into something we call oil. The financial debacle taking place in the tar sands under the current low-price regime is clear evidence that those resources cannot be sustained without high prices.

The temporary glut we are experiencing now, however, does not disprove limits. It only shows that we can still have market cycles in oil just as we did in 2008 when oil fell from $147 per barrel to around $35 in six months. By 2011 oil was back above $100, where it stayed with only brief forays under that price, until the end of 2014. This period has so far given us the highest inflated-adjusted average daily prices for oil ever.

For those who believe the United States does seem to have energy policies relevant to a post-oil world, I would answer that this is not the result of some grand design, but rather due to a hodge-podge of programs, many of which are conflicting. Even as the U.S. tax code continues to provide substantial subsidies for oil and natural gas production, it also provides substantial subsidies for renewable energy such as solar and wind. But these renewables subsidies are really about producing electricity.

Subsidies for liquid fuels, the kind that replace fuels from oil, have been reduced. The federal subsidy for ethanol ended in 2012. Subsidies for biodiesel and other biofuels continue.

While ethanol was always really an energy carrier and not an energy source--it takes about as much energy to produce corn ethanol as it yields--biodiesel is believed to have a positive energy balance. Even so, converting the U.S. vehicle fleet to biodiesel isn't in the cards, and doing so would require so much farmland to grow the necessary oil crops that we might be able to drive, but probably not eat--an absurdity of the first order.

Now granted, a post-oil society doesn't necessarily mean a no-oil society. Oil supplies may decline gradually after a future peak in production. We won't, as the critics say, "run out." That's just a canard meant to prevent people from understanding the serious implications, not of running out, but of having less each year.

There is the option of moving to electrified transportation which I support. But most people think of this as a move toward electric cars. The entire car fleet in the United States currently takes about 14 years to turn over. But, of course, we'd only get replacement of all vehicles with electrics over this period if we started selling 100 percent electric-only vehicles now. Moreover, certain types of transport--emergency services, farm equipment and rural transport--will likely require liquid fuels for a long time to come.

Because we are only very gradually increasing the number of electric-only cars available for purchase, it would likely take two to three decades for a complete transition away from oil-fueled vehicles. It would be much wiser to electrify and vastly expand public transportation, something that isn't on the policy radar in the United States.

There are certainly local efforts to expand bicycle lanes and pedestrian areas to reduce dependency on motorized transportation. But those efforts can hardly be called coordinated and rapid.

If we had absolute clarity on future oil supplies, we'd know how quickly we must make the transition away from oil. But we don't have anything approaching that. Instead, we have competing estimates and timelines, and--here's the important part--we Americans have chosen to embrace the optimistic forecasts without understanding the risks because doing so takes the pressure off of us to make the necessary changes. (And, we do this in spite of the fact that supposedly ample U.S. production is now once again in decline.)

The Saudi move toward a post-oil economy ought to be one of the strongest messages ever that the world is moving closer to a peak and decline in world oil production. The kingdom's actions are telling us that the world's largest crude oil exporter feels it must start today to plan and implement a post-oil economy.

Will we Americans (and others who haven't yet) take the hint seriously?

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, May 15, 2016

We are all Albertans now

It would be easy--too easy--to point to the wildfires which have devastated huge areas of northern Alberta near Fort McMurray, the hub of tar sands mining in Canada, and say that Albertans are reaping what they have sown. Yes, it's true that climate change is coming to one of the very areas which is contributing disproportionately to climate change and with catastrophic results.

The source of the current catastrophe is that the boreal forest which surrounds the tar sands has been turned into a tinderbox because of increasingly warm, dry weather that used to be uncharacteristic of this area of Alberta. But, what is happening in Alberta was predicted decades ago to be one of the consequences of unchecked global warming.

Having said all that, we should remember that the warming we are experiencing today is actually the result of greenhouse gases dumped into the atmosphere as of 40 years ago or so. (The analysis cited gives a range of 25 to 50 years, a lag related to what is called the thermal inertia of the oceans.) If this is the case, what Albertans are experiencing today has almost nothing to do with the climate effects of tar sands exploitation since there was very little production from Alberta's tar sands that long ago.

What this means, of course, is that there will be much worse to come even if today we were to reduce to zero all greenhouse gas emissions and other factors which are raising worldwide temperature.

The problems we are already seeing such as increased flooding in some places; increased drought in others; sea-level rise that is already swallowing islands; the rapid change in climate zones (which affects what we can grow in those zones); and myriad effects on plants and animals around the globe as their habitat shifts or disappears--all of these are just the beginning. And, there is no reason to believe that global greenhouse emissions and other causes of climate change such as deforestation will reverse their trends anytime soon.

When thinking about the Alberta wildfires, there is something else we must remember. Tar sands oil combined with oil from America's fracking boom have been the only reason that oil supplies worldwide have been able to grow. The very sources of oil that have been vilified as a new assault on climate have until recently found ample demand for their product. With production from both these sources now contracting due to low prices, we may in the not-to-distant future face oil price spikes.

As a global society, we still want all the conveniences which oil provides without the bad side effects. As such we must now consider ourselves Albertans no matter where we live and understand our complicity in their plight--and, why their plight is becoming our own.

However carbon-intensive extracting oil from the tar sands may be, shutting down one source of oil is hardly a solution to the climate problem. Our challenge is to shut down our own demand for oil and other fossil fuels. That strategy would make high-cost oil sources such as the Canadian tar sands and America's deep shale deposits its first victims and accomplish through demand reduction what all the public protests to date have failed to achieve.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Why a "modern" can't understand the risks we face

In my previous piece, I discussed why it is useless to argue with a person clinging to what I called the "religion" of modernism. I summarized four main tenets of the modern outlook as follows:

  1. Humans are in one category and nature is in another.
  2. Scale doesn't matter.
  3. History can be safely ignored since modern society has seen through the delusions of the past.
  4. Science is a unified, coherent field that explains the rational principles by which we can manage the physical world.

These assumptions make modern humans particularly susceptible to becoming captives of the bell curve. Our understanding of risk is mediated by a misleading picture of regularity in the physical world and in human society. Moderns believe that nearly all risks--and certainly the nontrivial ones relating to our survival as species--can be easily calculated and managed.

The truth about risk is actually much more disturbing. The generator of events in the universe is hidden from us humans. We see the results and make up theories about the causes and the processes. Some theories work well such as those relating to the prediction of the orbits of planets, for example. But, others have a challenged track record. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith remarking on his own profession once said: "The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable."

The idea that the study of human psychology, sociology and economics would yield theories as powerful as those we have for predicting the orbits of planets has long since been abandoned (except by economists, it seems). Humans remain quite unpredictable. And, the trends in the societies in which we live are all the more difficult to perceive and forecast since there are so many people interacting with each other using our worldwide communications and logistics system, each pursuing their individual aims.

Now let's return to the bell curve, a famous statistical construct. Many phenomena in nature when tallied on a graph result in a bell curve. Such a curve can be quite useful for understanding distributions of physical characteristics that are constrained by the laws of physics and biology. For example, we can reasonably predict that a distribution of human height will fall along something resembling a bell curve. The constraints of biology and gravity imply a range for the stature of humans. We might expect to see very few adult humans who are either 3 feet tall or 7 feet tall, but many in between. We would, however, expect to see none who are 100 feet tall. And, we could easily arrive at an average that would not be far from any individual, say, 5 feet.

Social phenomena, such as wealth distribution, are not governed by the laws of physics in the usual sense. While one might find quite a few people at a social gathering who are near 5 feet in height, there would be no one who is 5,000 feet tall. On the other hand, it is quite possible for one person in a room to have a net worth of $50,000 and another to have 1,000 times that or $50 million. There is no physical constraint on the creation of money other than the energy required by a clerk to type instructions into a computer at a central bank.

While social phenomena such as wealth distribution do not follow the same pattern as physical phenomena, they can still be quantified and illustrated.

So far, we've been talking about things which we can readily measure, and we have said nothing about the future. This is where things get sticky. Risk is all about judging the likelihood of something happening in the future--and we can know nothing about the future for certain. (Even the orbit of a planet might be altered by its collision with a comet or a rogue planet. This is unlikely in a short time frame, but grows ever more likely with time--admittedly long spans of time.)

Now, it is one thing to say that in the future adult humans are very likely to remain mostly between 3 feet and 7 feet tall with a few outliers, but none 100 or 1,000 feet tall (unless the laws of biology and physics change). It is quite another to predict the stock market, predict world oil supplies 40 years from now, predict the date of the next world war (which we'd have to define since there are wars going on all the time) or predict human population 1,000 years from now.

There are so many variables which affect predictions such as these that all we might do is hazard a guess. If we end up being right, it will be more a matter of luck than method.

But a "modern" might make generalized, but confident predictions about some of these. The stock market will go up in the long run, say, over the next 50 years, because economic growth will continue apace during that time--growth resulting from the deployment of many new technologies and new abundant, cheap energy sources.

A modern might predict that oil supplies will be irrelevant 40 years from now or predict that they will continue upward during the next 40 years because of--you guessed it--new technologies.

A modern might predict that human population will be larger in 1,000 years as the human ability to provide for greater populations with much higher efficiency continues to develop.

Part of what is lacking in these pronouncements is an understanding or even acknowledgement of the risks inherent in the technology that will allow these felicitous (depending on your point of view) outcomes.

Since we cannot view the generator of events in the world, we can only theorize about causes and effects, never know. While the interactions among unpredictable humans make social forecasting very difficult, adding that unpredictability to human interactions with the physical environment makes long-term forecasting in human affairs as a practical matter impossible.

And here we must acknowledge that our understanding of the physical world is very limited, however much we may think it is comprehensive. Scientists in all disciplines continue to discover relationships and processes which challenge long held views. If such revelations happen over just one lifetime, and we are basing our projections on our current understanding, then we simply cannot fathom how perceptions of the world around us will change over long periods--or whether those new perceptions will tell us that we are getting ever closer to a complete picture of the universe or that we will never arrive at one.

The modern seems unaware of what I've called the chief intellectual challenge of our age, namely, that we live in complex systems, but we don't understand complexity. I alluded to complexity as a double-edged sword in my previous piece, both a tool for adaptation and barrier to it.

The failure to understand how little we know about the world we live in and the inability to see that the world cannot be reduced to an engineering problem have led us to deploy inventions the consequences of which we cannot know--and more important, which threaten systemic ruin for human civilization.

A friend of mine calls this the Midgley Effect after the noted mechanical engineer and chemist, Thomas Midgley Jr. Midgley was responsible for two major inventions which are no longer in use because they were so injurious.

One, lead in gasoline, has had myriad well-documented public health effects. Yet, at the time of its invention, lead was heralded as an innocuous additive to gasoline to improve engine performance. Almost no thought was given to where the lead would go once it exited the tailpipes of the world's gasoline-powered transportation fleet.

This theme carried over into Midgley's other now infamous invention, chlorofluorocarbons, known by the trade name Freon. The world needed a liquid that would be highly volatile and chemically inert to aid the spread of refrigeration. Early refrigerators used toxic, flammable and corrosive liquids to transfer heat from the inside to the outside of the refrigerator. Chlorofluorocarbons as a nontoxic and nonflammable refrigerant seemed an ideal solution.

The problem, of course, was that no one thought about the systemic risks of releasing chlorofluorocarbons into the environment, substances which were designed to persist over decades.

If it were not for the efforts of one curious scientist, F. Sherwood Rowland, in the early 1970s, we might not have learned about the emerging catastrophic interaction between chlorofluorocarbons and the ozone layer. Rowland asked a simple question: Where do chlorofluorocarbons go after they are released into the environment?

The answer was shocking. They were reaching the ozone layer and destroying it thereby threatening all life on Earth, life which had evolved under the ozone layer's protection from the sun's ultraviolet radiation. This was really a case of potential catastrophic ruin that might have gone undetected until the damage was far more advanced.

Rowland's research led to the Montreal Protocol in 1987, a worldwide agreement to phase out the use of ozone-destroying chemicals.

But the inventor of chlorofluorocarbons was widely lauded during his lifetime, winning several top awards for his achievements in chemistry and even serving as president of the American Chemical Society.

Since then, we have had many examples of worldwide systemic releases of dangerous chemicals which were thought to be innocuous or at least "safe" by the standards of the day.

Ignoring all this the modern pretends that we've learned our lessons and now couldn't possibly do things which could bring down civilization, that is, pose the risk of systemic ruin.

Everyone feared the destruction which a nuclear war might bring. But it wasn't until computer modelers suggested that total nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union could bring on dramatic summer cooling of 20 to 35 degrees C that the full systemic consequences of a such a war were understood. The shroud, known as nuclear winter, that would envelope the sky would initially block out 99 percent of the natural radiation. It would mean a wipeout for the world's food supply and the end of civilization and possibly many species, including perhaps humans.

Such a nuclear exchange seems unlikely today. But it is still possible.

We humans continue to flirt with systemic ruin by touting the benefits of those things which could cause it. Genetically engineered crops (often called genetically modified organisms or GMOs) have been introduced worldwide with virtually no testing on how such novel genes might interact with the natural environment. As author on risk Nassim Nicholas Taleb has explained, where there is repeated use of a technology with a nonzero risk of systemic ruin, that ruin over time becomes almost certain.

If you do something which has a 1 in 10,000 chance of killing you and you do it only one time, you will probably survive. But if you do it 10,000 times, you will almost surely end up in your grave. That is the problem with GMOs, and we have no way of even calculating the risk. We face the possibility of a wipeout of the food system for reasons which we cannot anticipate--that come from the hidden risks accompanying the spread of novel interspecies gene transfer without any understanding of the dynamics of such transfers once released. If we stopped now, perhaps we would avoid such a wipeout. But if we continue, we are only playing a more elaborate version of Russian roulette with gene-splicing technology.

Others have noted the systemic dangers of creating self-replicating nanobots, possibly leading to the so-called gray goo problem in which nanobots consume significant portions of the biosphere in order to feed and replicate.

Some systemic risks are more passive. We've created a worldwide electrical system which we now know is vulnerable to solar storms. It is only a matter of time before one capable of shutting down much of the world's electric power generation hits. So critical is electricity to the daily functioning of our global communications and logistics systems and to everyday systems such as water purification and wastewater treatment, that a denial of electricity to much of the world for more than a few weeks might very well lead to mass death and the end of modern technical civilization. Yet, we as a species have done little to prepare for this event.

What the modern believes is that such scenarios are so unlikely that we should ignore them. He or she believes that the bell curve (normal distribution) of outcomes applies to such risks, when, in fact, we cannot calculate their probability since we cannot quantify what might cause them in the first place.

The point about systemic risk is not that any one of these scenarios is likely. It is that any one of a thousand unlikely systemic risks could seriously endanger all of society. We don't need all of them to take place to experience catastrophe. We just need one. Climate change comes to mind.

And so, as we pile risk of systemic ruin upon risk, we are doing nothing more than whistling past the graveyard, lost in modernist denial--obliviously believing that we know far more about and have far more control over our environment than we do.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Why you can't argue with a "modern"

The modern world is filled with things many of us regard as antiquated and old-fashioned. Modern people often say that ancient rituals are mere superstition, that science tells us what is real and what is not, and that we are now free from ideas including untestable ideas from religion that have slowed continual improvement in the lot of average humans.

That the modern outlook has all the hallmarks of a religion never occurs to a thoroughly modern person (whom I'll refer to merely as a "modern"). A modern believes that the modern outlook is above and outside all superstition and groundless belief. In effect, the modern outlook is a myth that does not believe it is a myth.

In using the word "myth," I do not mean to label the modern outlook false. In this context myth is simply a narrative that outlines a worldview. It turns out that a myth of any vintage, ancient or modern, can be a powerful tool in motivating behavior, in explaining and manipulating the world, and in assigning meaning to human existence. And any myth of any vintage can turn out simply to be mistaken in some or all of its details.

The modern myth has some unique characteristics that make it particularly powerful and particularly dangerous at the same time. The modern myth tells us the following about the world and our place in it:

  1. Humans are in one category and nature is in another.
  2. Scale doesn't matter.
  3. History can be safely ignored since modern society has seen through the delusions of the past.
  4. Science is a unified, coherent field that explains the rational principles by which we can manage the physical world.

Let me take these claims one at a time.

First, let's see whether, in fact, humans are in one category and nature in another.

A key element of the modern narrative separates humans from nature. We humans are different for many reasons. We have speech. We use tools. We use abstractions to order the world. We plan for the future.

These presumed advantages have allowed us to become the dominant species in the biosphere. One measure of that dominance is what is called global human appropriation of net primary production (HANPP). Net primary production refers to the "net amount of biomass produced each year by plants." Humans appropriate biomass directly through their use of plants for food and fiber. They appropriate it indirectly through the consumption of domestic livestock and wild animals (mostly fish) which must, of course, feed on plants or other animals that in turn feed on plants.

Estimates of HANPP vary widely depending on who is counting and how. The most recent estimates range from 14 percent to 55 percent. But no matter how one estimates HANPP, the portion of the Earth's net primary production devoted to humans is truly remarkable for one species when we consider that there are an estimated 8.7 million species on Earth.

Still, just because one species is dominant does not mean that it is outside the natural world. And, in fact, the modern does not put the human body outside the natural world. The human body is the subject of rigorous scientific investigation through the discipline of biology and its many subdisciplines such as physiology, anatomy, and pharmacology to name just a few.

So, if our bodies are not in a category outside nature, then what part of humans separates them from nature? Well, our minds, of course. While no one can say precisely what it means to say humans have minds, we all know we have thoughts because we experience them. Extreme materialists will say that our thoughts are merely our perception of brain chemistry at work. Thoughts have no independent existence. If that's true, then the distinction between humans and nature falls apart.

Now, nature is a loaded word with a long history. We speak of "human nature," but don't mean necessarily our bodies so much as our social character. And, we usually mean it in a negative way.

Nature can be holy. It was and is to followers of nature religions. It can be something fallen and evil. It is in Christian tradition though that view has softened with the advent of the modern environmental movement. It has also changed as Christian teaching has evolved on human sexuality, long viewed as an evil part of human nature.

The adjective "natural" often signifies the property of not being man-made. It is getting harder to distinguish the two states as humans take over more and more of the biosphere. Humans raise livestock in specific ways and yet the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides a category for "natural" products from livestock. The climate is changing almost certainly because of human activities. Is the climate no longer a natural phenomenon?

Bruno Latour, the French sociologist of science, suggests that humans and nonhuman entities are all part of a connected network which he loosely refers to as the collective. In any case, those things which we thought distinguished us from the other animals are gradually falling away.

It turns out animal calls now appear to have characteristics of what we regard as language. And, elephants communicate with sophisticated sign language. Dolphins apparently have a "sono-pictorial" language of communication. And, they appear capable of using nouns and verbs to form intelligible sentences.

We now know that many animals use tools. Primates use tools. But so do non-primates such as sea otters which use rocks to crack the shells of edible seafood.

Crows have convincingly shown their ability to think abstractly. Primates and dogs can think abstractly, too.

And, it turns out some animals can plan for the future just like humans including apes and birds.

I am not making the case that humans are exactly like other animals in every respect, only that our oft-cited defining differences aren't differences after all. We share so many abilities and characteristics with other animals that it is difficult to conclude that we belong in a separate category. As such, we have no vantage point outside of the natural world from which we can hope to observe it objectively and know it completely. We are stuck inside that world and faced with the limitations of a participant/observer.

So, if we humans don't belong in a separate category, then we may very well be subject to many of the same constraints as animals. We humans are adapted to our environment in ways that have allowed us to become the dominate species; but the fossil record suggests that our dominance is likely to be a temporary phenomenon.

Whatever we call the category that includes humans and everything else, in an age of ecological understanding we would be foolish to pretend that we are separate from what we call the natural world and not subject to its laws.

Second, while our success as a species is undeniable, we conclude from this success a notion that may turn out to be fatal to us or at least to modern technical civilization.

The faulty conclusion we draw is that scale doesn't matter. Many modern readers have been dazzled by the analysis of writers such as Charles Mann, author of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, who argue that the presumption of a pristine landscape described by Europeans landing for the first time in the Americas is overdrawn. By that time indigenous peoples had altered the landscape in thoroughgoing and profound ways. From this Mann and others conclude that humans can continue this alteration without fear of taxing the physical environment in ways that might lead to civilizational collapse.

What Mann and others seem not to grasp is the problem of scale. Native populations in the Americas might well have been higher than previously estimated (about 25 million instead of 1 million) and their alteration of the landscape might have been greater than previously believed. But that does not mean that the more than 7 billion people now on Earth with their highly intensive extractive ways can continue live as we do indefinitely without risking systemic collapse. As a group we humans today put pressures on the environment that are orders of magnitude greater than those of the much smaller and less resource-intensive world population of the pre-Columbian era.

The scale of human exploitation of the biosphere already has altered the climate in ways which are believed to be potentially catastrophic to human civilization. In addition, fisheries are being depleted. Soil is being eroded as never before. Forests are being felled at unprecedented rates. And, all this is being done without a comprehensive understanding of the systemic effects on the environment and by extension on the viability of human civilization as it is currently constituted.

The old saw that "we will figure something out" is merely a statement of faith. And, any statement of absolute certainty about the future is religious by its very nature since in the realm of practical and scientific knowledge we cannot be absolutely certain of anything about the future.

Which brings us to supposition three of the modern: History can be safely ignored since modern society has seen through the delusions of the past. Here I am less concerned with recorded history than I am with archeology. Joseph Tainter, author of The Collapse of Complex Societies, shows us that highly advanced societies of the past make mistakes that lead to collapse.

His thesis is that while the proximate cause of some collapses has to do with climate change and/or resource depletion, the ultimate cause is the inability of complex societies to respond effectively to such challenges. Complexity, which initially is highly adaptive and successful, ultimately becomes a cause of collapse as societal systems become so complex that they are no longer capable of processing the information they receive from the environment effectively in order to take the necessary actions to avoid collapse.

The modern doesn't know this history or dismisses it as irrelevant since "we know better now." He or she asserts this even as complexity is piled upon complexity without solving our most urgent and perilous problem, climate change.

In the realm of political affairs, we had a passing fancy that history was ending when Francis Fukuyama told us in his book, The End of History and the Last Man, that liberal democracy would be the final form of governance for all humankind. The breakup of the Soviet Union and the fall of communism made some people believe that the end of ideology had arrived, that politics was no longer politics, but now a kind of science with one method, the liberal democratic method as currently defined.

And this brings us to the fourth claim of the modern that science is a unified, coherent field that explains the rational principles by which we can manage the physical world. Of course, science is no such thing. It is a loose set of disciplines employing widely varying techniques for various ends. It is true that the so-called scientific method has proven to be a powerful tool for harnessing the forces of nature for our purposes.

But the range of what we call science shows it to be a highly differentiated set of disciplines--sciences rather than science--with inconsistent and in some cases irreconcilable theories and practices. Field biology is science, but is it the same kind of science as the study of quantum mechanics? And quantum mechanics, a subdiscipline of physics dealing with the very small, continues to be at odds with general relativity, another subdiscipline of physics that describes gravity and thus the world of the very large. As it turns out, no one has been able to find a theory that would unify the two. They seem to work in very different ways.

Science by its very nature is open-ended. It draws conclusions from observations and from experiment. But it does not claim that any theories developed by scientists are the end of all theories. Quite the contrary, science in practice is about continual testing of hypotheses and theories. And, it is about altering our theories to match new observations.

As the tools of scientists reach farther into space, deeper into the oceans, and more minutely into the life of the cell and into the very basis of human life, the soil, scientists are realizing how little they know about the universe around us. The fact that we are finding so much more to study tells us that we only know the tiniest fraction of all there is.

The extent to which we have altered the biosphere without realizing it by using the technology that has flowed from our scientific understanding tells us how little we understand the complex systems around us.

The modern cannot find humility in the face of our ignorance and therefore cannot understand that in large part the scale of our human enterprises explains our current predicament.

The modern always has a "solution" to every big problem. It can be technological or it can be merely an appeal to faith in what he or she calls "progress." Somehow, modern humans are Houdinis who can collectively extract themselves from every fix before time runs out. Even if we have no answers to our major problems today, those answers will show up soon. Just wait!

This begs the question: If humans are so clever and if they've known about our major environmental problems for decades, then why do the indices by which we measure these problems keep getting worse? Why haven't humans solved these problems already with their cleverness?

Of course, there were those who four and even five decades ago called for rapid deployment of renewable energy, control of and even decline in human population, a move toward more sustainable agricultural and forestry methods, and an end to our consumerist culture. But their voices were drowned out by the moderns and their allies who could not accept the idea that there might be limits on what humans could take from the biosphere and dump into it.

And, to say that human welfare has improved over this period only speaks to our ability to extract ever more resources from the biosphere for our own use (HANPP mentioned above) and dump whatever we choose back into it. The question is not our ability to do this, but the sustainability of exponential growth in this extraction and dumping and the stability of the biosphere which supports us under the pressure of these trends.

It is a mere mathematical fact that exponential growth in the use of resources cannot go on indefinitely on a finite planet. But this mathematical truism is one that a well-propagandized modern either knows nothing about or responds to with that ever present article of faith: "We'll figure something out."

And, now at last we arrive at why you cannot argue with a modern. It is because you are not ultimately arguing about data, facts or observations, but about faith. The modern has a religion-like faith that all human endeavors from here on out will not fail to avert the downfall of civilization and the extinction of humankind. It is my experience that it is very, very difficult to argue anyone out of their religion,* and that's what such a belief amounts to.

To ask someone to reject their own religion is asking them to leave behind beliefs that anchor their lives in the world, that are the very framework for their daily conduct. To abandon one's religion means abandoning an entire way of living and painstakingly building up a new way.

My point is that moderns cannot be convinced of the narrowness of their vision and the folly of their uncritical optimism even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Rather than arguing with those with whom argument is futile, it is better to remember what every political candidate knows about voters: There are those who will always vote for you and those who will never vote for you, and those who are persuadable.

It is for the persuadable that we need to learn the weaknesses of the modern outlook. The persuadable are open to understanding the world in new ways because something in their experience has shown them that mere belief is not enough to assure that things will turn out all right. It takes action.

And, it is personal action, especially action designed to change the current dangerous trajectory of humankind, which the modern seeks to avert. Far from being a change agent, the modern is now the most reactionary of all thinkers, believing that stability and progress are compatible and inevitable and that therefore individual action seeking to alter our current trajectory is not merely misguided but dangerously misguided. With the rise of environmentalism the modern now parades as a clever contrarian while actually being the quintessential representative of the status quo.

The modern's outlook is actually quite restful. It demands nothing of us except acquiescence to the current power structure and its prescribed trajectory for the human endeavor. The modern's message soothes our worries and calms our fears about our future and that of our descendants...until the day comes when it doesn't.


* I am not anti-religion. As it turns out, religion plays an important part in my life and can be a force for social, political and environmental action for many. But I do not believe that religion alone can lead to sound public policy. In the case of the modern whose religious beliefs are hidden from him or her, such beliefs can lead to disastrous policy.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The end of introspection (and why it matters)

A friend of mine who teaches undergraduates provided insight into something I see regularly but don't experience in the thoroughgoing way he does, namely, young people (and some not so young) who appear to be entirely an appendage of their cellphones. One study concluded that "[t]he average college student uses a smartphone for about nine hours each day."

The take on cellphones is that you can customize them to give you exactly what you want. You are in charge. The trouble with this reasoning is that someone else is programming the apps you use; and those apps are programmed to get you to do certain things in certain ways that are generally to the advantage of the companies providing the apps and to advertisers (sometimes one and the same). These apps may be useful to you, but they are certainly not your apps; they are not actually customized. And, they only offer the illusion of control.

Moreover, there is no app I know of designed to get you to stop looking at your cellphone and focus on the world around you or on your inner life. Some people listen to music or podcasts on their cellphones while they exercise, walk, drive, study, read, eat, or do practically anything. I'm all for listening to music and podcasts. But some of the activities listed above are actually great all by themselves.

Then there is the constant texting. Texting is very useful, I find, for telling people I'm running late to a meeting, inviting people to something at the last minute, coordinating family hordes on vacation and so forth. My professor friend tells me that many of his students say they prefer texting to face-to-face encounters. One student went so far as to characterize face-to-face conversation as a form of "aggression." When my friend first told me this, I had the horrifying realization that it's possible that many groups of young people I see texting while standing in a group may actually be texting each other! (Perhaps I'm extrapolating things too far.)

Now, this started me thinking that we are creating a whole generation of people who are ill-adapted to the giant demands of our emerging predicaments related to climate change; energy, soil, fisheries, forestry and water depletion; species extinction; public health threats; and threats from rapidly evolving technologies such as genetic engineering and nanotechnology--just to name a few.

If most people are going to shrink from having a spirited in-person conversation with somebody else about a critical issue, how exactly are we going to move forward on the major challenges of our age? In order to address critical issues, one must do critical thinking. Where is the time for that when all one does is move from music selection, to podcast, to texting, to posting photos, to computer games, to email, back to music selection and so on? There's never a dull moment with your cellphone. But are they really your moments?

So much of our thinking is of necessity shaped by the mass media (especially television and movies), our educational system, our parents' views, and our peers' views. It may be hard to imagine that the little cellphone could really be the main reason for our inability to think our own thoughts.

Perhaps it's not. But it is the attitude the cellphone engenders that presents a major problem, namely, that there should never be a moment when we are disengaged from our electronic communications system, or from the framing of our world that the cellphone and its app-makers have created for us--that there is never a moment when we should be (or even need to be) left entirely alone with our thoughts.

It is true that being left alone only with one's own thoughts can be a frightening experience for many people, an experience some wish to avoid at all costs. For others being alone with their own thoughts merely means boredom. Their thoughts (and the feelings that accompany them) do not sufficiently entertain such people.

But those whose thoughts and feelings trouble them often avoid dwelling on those thoughts and feelings by substituting someone else's agenda for their own.

I would be overgeneralizing to say that this state of affairs characterizes the entire population of young people. There are many dedicated young activists I've met who are perfectly capable of generating their own critical thoughts and formulating actions that flow from them.

Perhaps it has always been true that only a small minority will ever value the inner life even though literature, philosophy and religion extol it as the most important part of our lives. I am reminded of Margaret Mead's famous quote: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Under ordinary circumstances I would say this is true. But we do not live in ordinary times. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of human culture is at stake. We need all hands on deck (if you'll excuse the nautical metaphor). And instead, we have most hands playing with their cellphones, mistaking the screen for the world and for a pathway to building genuine relationships.

Even people in my admittedly mature cohort find it odd that I almost never look at my cellphone when I'm with them. I never have the ringer on unless I'm expecting a call that will require me to make a decision or provide a response on the spot with no delay. And, that means almost never. When that rare situation arises, however, I always inform the person I'm with ahead of time.

When my friend asked his students to go on an electronic fast for 24 hours, they were horrified. This meant no cellphones, no regular telephones, no computers, no radio, no televisions, no electronic communications of any kind. Most found it extremely difficult and described maladies that can best be characterized as withdrawal symptoms.

The nice thing about withdrawal symptoms is that they go away if you stay away long enough from the thing from which you are withdrawing. Given the ubiquitous nature of electronic communications, it's hard to see any of the cellphone-induced behavior described above doing anything but getting worse. In fact, an article with the ominous title, "10 Ways Marketers Are Making You Addicted to Apps," is actually a general guide for showing developers how to create that addiction, not a warning about how to avoid it.

I'm not sure anything can be done directly about the ever increasing cellphone addiction I see. But there are some indirect things: cultivating an interest and love of the natural world; reading books (okay with me if you read them on an e-reader); going to public talks; playing music (instead of just listening to it); going to the movies (yes, there are some really good movies that stimulate the mind rather than enslave it); laughing with friends (without looking at your cellphone); and walking, biking, or doing exercise of any kind without listening to anything else except the birds and the ambient sounds of the environment. My own experience is that I notice all kinds of new things even when I'm on routes I take frequently. I also get some of my very best ideas when I'm exercising.

If these sorts of activities become your mainstay, the cellphone will find its proper place as a useful communications tool and nothing more. And, it might even be useful in a limited fashion for addressing those critical issues I believe must be our focus.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Why the fight for GMO labeling is (possibly) over

Ever since it became clear that Vermont's law for mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically engineered ingredients would actually go into force this summer, the big question has been how many food companies would choose to label their products and how many would choose simply not to sell in Vermont.

There is a third choice which purveyor of canned fruits and vegetables, Del Monte Foods, announced recently. The company will eliminate all genetically engineered ingredients from its foods, obviating the need for special labeling. This won't be too difficult since there are very few genetically engineered fruits and vegetables.

While the Vermont law is huge victory for the proponents of labels, the U.S. Congress could still pre-empt state labeling laws, something it failed to do earlier this year. But as more and more of the public demands to know which products have so-called genetically modified organisms or GMOs in them and as the number of products on grocery shelves with non-GMO verified labels increases, growers and processors may have no choice but to acquiesce. They may be forced by circumstances either to label their products (or automatically be suspected of trying to hide something for not doing so) or to eliminate GMO crops and ingredients for fear of losing customers regardless of what happens in Congress or in other states.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan and other books on risk, explains why this is so in a draft chapter of an upcoming book called Skin in the Game. His investigation begins with why nearly every packaged drink in the United States is labeled certified kosher.

The answer is surprisingly simple and leads to counterintuitive conclusions about how certain practices spread far and wide. Even though people adhering to kosher food consumption represent only three-tenths of one percent of the U.S. population, those people are spread throughout the United States rather than being confined to any geographic area. In such a case it is impractical to segregate packaged drinks that are certified kosher from those that are not. It's simply more cost-effective to make them all kosher.

This phenomenon has to do with one obvious and simple truth: Kosher eaters will not eat or drink non-kosher products. But non-kosher eaters have no problem consuming kosher products. One group has a strong and uncompromising preference, and the other group doesn't really care. This, Taleb explains, is how tiny minorities can enforce standards on the rest of the population.

This holds true if the cost differential between two types of the same product are minimal. Where the differential is substantial, as is the case with organic versus nonorganic foods, companies do, in fact, set up two food streams for customers.

Taleb points to the transition from manual-shifting vehicles to automatic shifting vehicles. This didn't occur initially because people preferred automatics. Rather, both those who preferred automatics and those who preferred manual-shifting vehicles could drive automatics. So, the small minority of those wanting automatic transmissions won the day.

As more and more people come to prefer non-GMO food, it will simply become easier to entertain mixed groups by assuring everyone that all the food and drink available is non-GMO. Bloomberg reports that candymaker Hershey recently announced that it is now buying only cane sugar--which means the company no longer uses sugar derived from genetically engineered sugar beets. The company's website lists GMO-free products and promises more to come.

It turns out that a stubborn minority is overcoming a broader majority that is content to eat non-GMO food if that is the preference of the minority.

This is the crux of the problem for companies selling GMO seeds and foods. They can talk all they want about the so-called rejection of science by consumers. In the end, food companies and farmers are obliged to sell people what they want; and where the preference of a minority is very strong, the majority will simply acquiesce.

As Taleb observes:

Big Ag (the large agricultural firms) did not realize that this is the equivalent of entering a game in which one needed to not just to win more points than the adversary, but win ninety-seven percent of the total points just to be safe.

The fight over labeling products containing GMOs has been one of the most potent forces in changing consumer preferences. We will soon find out whether there are now enough stubborn consumers insisting on non-GMO foods to bring the rest of the population with them.

In order to reverse the tide, the GMO industry would have to persuade at least as large a group of stubborn people not merely to tolerate GMO foods, but to insist on eating them. It's hard to see how the industry is going to do that if it continues to oppose labeling and if, as it insists, GMO foods are no different in taste and nutrition than non-GMO foods.

How did the industry end up in this fix? In the early 1990s when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was reviewing the safety of GMO crops, FDA scientists wrote that GMO crops involve unique risks and recommended that the crops be tested for safety in the same way that new drugs are. The cost of doing this would be enormous for each genetically engineered plant variety and would result in long delays before such varieties could be sold and grown.

The industry had another plan. It got the Bush administration to place one of the industry's own lawyers in the FDA and created a position for him that allowed him to stifle the FDA scientists' concerns. The industry lobbied heavily and showered politicians with campaign cash. The FDA abandoned its own scientists' recommendation and ruled that GMO crops are "substantially equivalent" to non-GMO crops. (This makes industry accusations that those who oppose GMOs are anti-science all the more a galling.)

But, by insisting that there is essentially no difference between GMO and non-GMO foods, the industry made what will turn out to be one of the biggest marketing mistakes of all time. For if you insist to consumers for more than two decades that your products are no different from your competitors' products, how can you later come back and say that they are different. And, if you say that they are different, you risk serious regulation of your product by the FDA. So, if there is no difference, then consumers have little basis for preferring GMO foods which the industry admits generally have no advantages* when it comes to taste, nutrition, appearance or shelf life. Otherwise, they would surely be touting these advantages on store shelves and in advertisements.

With the industry insisting for so long that there are no differences between GMO foods and non-GMO foods, it is now stuck in a messaging loop from which it cannot escape. That loop will make it ever more likely that consumers will just go with the flow. And that flow is decidedly in the direction of the stubborn minority who want nothing to do with GMO products.


*The industry does claim that GMO crops reduce the use of pesticides, reduce the need to till the soil for weed control, and can be more profitable for farmers than non-GMO strains. All these may be selling points for farmers, but have little impact on the preferences of consumers. Claims about increased yields have been largely debunked. Almost all of the increase in agricultural yields has come from traditional breeding and better agricultural practices.

Claims about increases in nutrition are usually couched in terms of what crops are in development rather than available today. The one notable exception is so-called Golden Rice which produces beta-carotene, a pre-cursor to Vitamin A, often deficient in Asian diets dependent on rice. A simpler fix would be to encourage a greater variety of crops to include vegetables which are rich in beta-carotene rather than encourage more extensive monocrop farming. Simpler still would be the free or low-cost distribution of cheap and widely available beta-carotene supplements.

Moreover, since GMO crops require no special testing to determine their safety, there is no definitive proof that they are safe. To simply state that foods containing GMO ingredients have been eaten for more than two decades and everything seems to be fine is not the same as long-term feeding studies using control groups done by unbiased, neutral researchers using widely accepted procedures that meet rigorous drug testing standards. Instead, we are all guinea pigs in a worldwide uncontrolled experiment. My main concern about GMO safety, however, is not the possible danger to human health, but rather the potential to create catastrophic failures in the agricultural system via hidden risks.

Still, all of this is beside my point in the piece above. Apparently, the GMO industry does not believe in the free market and consumer choice. Consumers are increasingly telling the industry that they don't want GMO foods. Does the industry wish to legislate that we all be tricked into consuming them without our knowledge and consent? Lack of transparency has been the strategy from the onset, and it doesn't seem to be working anymore.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Corruption, resources, climate and systemic risk

Corruption is a loaded word. One person's corruption is another's sound social policy. Some people believe providing unemployment benefits to laid-off workers corrupts them by making them "lazy." Many others think such benefits are sound social policy in an economic system that is prone to major cyclical ups and downs.

Fewer people agree that bailing out major U.S. banks at taxpayer expense in the aftermath of the 2008 crash was a good use of public money. An alternative would have been for the U.S. government to seize the banks, inject funds to stabilize them, and then resell them to investors, perhaps at a profit.

Was it corruption that led to the bailout instead of a takeover? Or was it an honest difference of opinion about what would work best under emergency circumstances?

We can argue whether these examples of transfers of funds from one group to another are fair. But by themselves they do not constitute a systemic risk to the stability of the entire economic and social system. In fact, some would argue that such transfers enhance that stability. However one evaluates these transfers, I would contend that a much worse corruption is to subject our society knowingly to systemic failures such as severe climate change and widespread crop failures.

To understand this contention, we must review the material basis for our modern society. Despite all the hype about the service economy, the activities which make the service economy even possible are agriculture, fishing, forestry, mining and manufacturing. These sectors create the surplus food and fiber, the surplus energy and minerals, and the surplus goods that allow so many of us to do something other than farm, fish, log, mine or manufacture goods.

By "surplus" I mean that those engaged in the five essential underlying activities of the modern economy provide more food and fiber, extract more energy and other mineral resources, and make more things than they themselves will use. In fact, in so-called developed societies, the people in these occupations create surpluses in their respective areas that are nothing short of astonishing.

In the United States for example, those working in agriculture, fishing and forestry number 2.4 million or about 1.6 percent of the working population of 149 million as of 2015 according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those working in mining including oil and natural gas production (which, after all, is really just another type of mining) number 917,000 or about 0.6 percent of the working population. These two groups provide most of the raw materials for the rest of the economy while constituting just 2.2 percent of the workforce. Some raw materials, notably oil and metal ores, are supplemented with imports. But that is counterbalanced in part by agricultural exports that are about one-third of all crops grown.

Those working in manufacturing number 15.3 million, dwarfing the number who actually provide the feedstocks for that manufacturing. But manufacturing workers still only constitute 10.3 percent of the total U.S. workforce. We also supplement our manufactured goods with imports. But we export high-value goods such as airplanes, pharmaceuticals and advanced machinery.

So, the percentage of the U.S. workforce that provides the actual material basis for the economy amounts to only 12.5 percent.

Even though American agricultural, fishing, forestry, mining and manufacturing systems are exceedingly efficient, this doesn't mean that they are sustainable in the long run. Our agricultural practices by and large erode the soil and undermine its fertility, a process that ultimately will lead to a decline in food and fiber production if unaltered. Our fishing practices empty out fisheries faster than they can regenerate. Our forestry practices may be called sustainable, but removing vast carbon stores from the forest and merely replanting is unlikely to be sustainable in the long run.

When it comes to mining, we already know that mining nonrenewable sources of energy (oil, coal, natural gas) and other raw materials is by definition not sustainable in the long run. For fossil fuels, climate change makes this doubly true. We will ultimately have to find renewable substitutes or go without. Recycling is important, but we cannot recycle oil, coal and natural gas that have already been burned. And, a significant portion of metals that we mine are not recycled but scattered in landfills and in countless other places.

Now I finally return to the idea of corruption. We don't normally think of unsustainable practices as corrupt. Corruption normally implies that the corrupt actor knows that what he or she is doing is ethically wrong or contrary to law. Most unsustainable practices are not contrary to law, and people will argue about whether they are even unsustainable. An act is not normally considered corrupt if the actor is acting in good faith and believes honestly that he or she is behaving ethically and legally. The person might be mistaken. But we don't put people in jail very often for making honest mistakes (as opposed to negligence).

In the absence of definitive answers on sustainability--which we won't have them until it's too late to do anything--we surely face systemic risks. The failure of one or more of these five basic economic sectors to deliver the resources and goods upon which our society depends could be catastrophic--think: worldwide crop failure, decline in available fossil fuels, a shortage of critical metals needed for electronics (which are crucial to the functioning of modern society).

At the very least it is corrupt to subject society knowingly to potential catastrophic failures merely to enrich oneself or one's associates. I am reminded of a cartoon in The New Yorker many years ago depicting a financial presentation for which the caption read:

And so, while the end-of-the-world scenario will be rife with unimaginable horrors, we believe that the pre-end period will be filled with unprecedented opportunities for profit.

While we are being entertained with the exploits of corrupt politicians and businesspeople who hid their money from taxation using dummy corporations concocted by Panamanian lawyers, we should try to remember that, while despicable, this kind of corruption pales in comparison to the kind that threatens to undermine the very material underpinnings of our society.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at