Friday, December 22, 2006

Happy Holidays--On Vacation

I will be on vacation until early January and expect to post again on January 7. Meanwhile, I hope you will visit these excellent sites:

Energy Bulletin

Global Public Media

Peak Oil News & Message Boards

The Oil Drum


Peak Energy (Australia)

Life After the Oil Crash News


For French language versions of selected articles from Resource Insights and other sites, try the newly established French peak oil site, Test.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Cuba's Strange Path

Cuba has become the poster child for a transition away from an agricultural economy based on fossil fuel inputs and for a society focused on self-sufficiency. Strangely, it may owe much of its success in this regard to its relative backwardness and its isolation from the world community. The implications for so-called modern industrial countries in a world approaching peak oil couldn't be more striking. To understand this, it is worth briefly tracing Cuba's path since the Cuban revolution.

After the 1959 revolution Cuba increasingly embraced industrial farming techniques that were already widespread in other countries. It was the modern thing to do. Rationalize farming along industrial lines so that the country could grow more crops for export. Inputs such as diesel fuel, fertilizer and pesticides were cheap. Cuba had become an ally of the Soviet Union which supported the country with subsidized oil and agricultural chemicals drawn from the Soviets' vast hydrocarbon reserves. Cuban plans to create a more diversified agriculture were abandoned.

There was one small exception. The military believed that Cuba could at any time suffer a naval blockade. Cuban military leaders realized that one of the key threats of such a blockade would be the loss of access to pharmaceuticals, almost all of which were imported. So the military set up a special laboratory devoted to herbal medicine which among other things gathered information about the already widespread use of herbal medicine within Cuba. This narrow effort would prove prescient.

After the Soviet block began to collapse in 1989, Cuba suddenly found itself denied the subsidized fuel and fertilizer it had been used to. By 1993 economic activity had plunged by almost half, a drop far worse that what the United States experienced during The Great Depression. Cuba's guaranteed markets and preferential pricing for its sugar (pricing that was on average 5.4 times the world price) had vanished and with them the money to import many of its necessities including fuel.

The country struggled to feed itself as its export-oriented agriculture based on fossil fuels had to be transformed into one that could feed the Cuban people with few fossil fuel inputs. Some visionary members of the country's Ministry of Agriculture suggested that the low-input, organic methods they had been experimenting with for years be introduced on a broad scale and that agricultural output be directed toward local consumption. This tumultuous time became known as the Special Period in Peacetime. Few countries came to Cuba's aid and the United States even tightened its embargo.

Today, the agricultural economy has recovered becoming largely organic and focused on satisfying local needs. This has made Cuba self-sufficient in almost all foodstuffs. It has significantly reduced the country's need for fuel and fertilizers. The plant-based medicines which the military had carefully studied for years in its special laboratory have become a mainstay of Cuban medicine.

While the number of private automobiles has diminished, a new public transportation system thrives. Many people have returned to the land and are making reasonably good livelihoods as farmers. The city of Havana has become one big urban food garden.

The oft-cited scientific prowess of Cuban society certainly had something to do with the remarkable and rapid transformation in Cuban agriculture. Cuba is said to have only 2 percent of Latin America's population, but 11 percent of its scientists. But to whom did those scientists turn for many of their clues about how to effect such a grand transformation? They turned to the country's many campesinos. These small farmers had continued to farm using animal power and without fossil fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides. In effect, they had informally preserved a vast bank of knowledge about how to conduct organic, nonmotorized farming on the island of Cuba. They became important partners in teaching others how to make the transition to low-input agriculture.

Other characteristics of Cuban society also seemed to have eased the transition to a low-energy economy. While health and education standards consistently improved during the rule of Fidel Castro, the country never attained a modern consumer culture, a development that was certainly stymied by America's embargo and Cuba's resulting isolation from normal world trade flows. In transportation, many of the cars which remain on the road today--and there are far fewer than before the crisis--date from before 1959. Modern car culture never became widespread either.

Hugo Chavez's subsidized oil exports to Cuba may tempt the country to return to a petroleum-based path. But for now it has enabled the Cubans to forego the need for large additional foreign investment, investment that would link it ever more tightly with a global trade system that destroys self-sufficiency and sustainability. (What ought to be of great concern is the island's increasing dependence on foreign tourism which is itself a product of the continuing availability of cheap oil and the cheap transportation it fuels. The government inexplicably maintains a focus on investment in this area as if future oil availability were merely a local rather than a worldwide issue.)

The more modern parts of Cuban society, its health system and its education system, were also key to the transition. Free and universal health care provided to the Cuban population helped to avert what could have been a public health disaster during the Special Period. It is claimed that the the average Cuban lost 20 pounds during this time. And, yet no widespread health disaster took place. A free education system has enabled Cuba to train more scientists and doctors than it can itself use. Many doctors, for example, work abroad. But the surfeit of scientists has allowed Cuba to do practical research that has been exceptionally useful in the transition to more sustainable agriculture.

There are echoes of the Cuban situation in the simultaneous decline of its old patron, the Soviet Union. Dmitry Orlov recently posted a slide presentation that makes the case that the people of the former Soviet states were actually better able to withstand the economic implosion which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in part because of their relatively less developed economy. Please understand that what passes for development these days are the following: high private ownership of housing; private transportation, especially private automobiles; suburban sprawl; shrinking and deteriorating public transportation systems; just-in-time inventory systems; outsourcing of critical manufacturing and food production; and a ruthless focus on individual financial achievement to the detriment of solid human relations and community responsibility.

All of this, of course, has important implications for countries that meet the definition of modern industrial societies, but especially for the United States in the event of a peak oil induced decline. In Cuba every vocational student now learns to grow food organically. In the United States very few people know anything about how to grow food of any type; and, Americans have become ever more dependent on fast food restaurants and food processors to do food preparation for them. The number of those with knowledge of organic techniques is increasing, but information on animal power in agriculture is now the province of a tiny cadre of animal power enthusiasts.

Health care (except for the elderly and the poor, but not the working poor) remains a largely private affair. More than 40 million Americans have no health insurance. The health care industry is just that, an industry now largely bound by the same profit incentives that govern any privately owned corporation. The hospital as a public utility, for example, has been almost completely lost. It is hard to see how an equitable system of treatment could be worked out under extreme conditions when it cannot be worked out under conditions of great affluence.

The American transportation system, of course, relies very heavily on private automobiles. As Orlov points out in his presentation, most Russians live in compact cities with public transportation. The collapse of the Soviet system forced no changes in this pattern. It is difficult to see how the American system of sprawl could endure a prolonged decline in oil supplies.

In places such as Cuba and Russia education remains free. The response to rising costs in education and declining public support for it in the United States has been to transfer costs to students and their families. In the resource-challenged era to come, will Americans have the vision to invest more in their education system in order to maintain the levels of competence needed to run society? There is the separate question of reforming that preparation for the kinds of challenges we will actually face. At this point it is hard to imagine both a push for more money in education and a revamping of the curriculum to include, for example, organic gardening.

I could go on. But all of this is said to point out that the supposedly advanced systems of modern industrial civilization float on a sea of cheap hydrocarbons. Once that sea begins to recede, these systems fall into immediate peril. Those whose systems have relatively less need for such hydrocarbons will by definition be less vulnerable. It is for that reason that Cuba's strange path may have much to teach us.

The book, Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance: Transforming Food Production in Cuba, and the film documentary, The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, were invaluable resources for understanding Cuba's response to declining oil availability.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Mavens, mavens everywhere...

As the long somnolent American public began to wake up in large numbers to the dangers of global warming in the past year, those in the peak oil movement looked on in amazement. The first reaction for many might have been, "It's about time!" The second reaction might have been, "What are we doing wrong? Peak oil should be right up there with global warming in the list of dangers that humanity faces."

Global warming has reached the so-called tipping point. That doesn't mean it's clear sailing from here. The next step--what to do about it--is sure to include one bruising battle after another. But peak oil remains unknown to the vast majority of the public. For why this is so, Malcolm Gladwell's bestselling book, The Tipping Point, may offer some insight.

For those who haven't read the book, Gladwell is studying the anatomy of the "social epidemic." How do ideas, fashions, new modes of behavior, and other social changes spread in society? He uses the medical epidemiological model as a starting point. Ideas and fashions spread like communicable diseases from one person to another. In short, he analyzes how word-of-mouth can create social change.

Gladwell puts the main movers in this process into three categories: connectors, mavens and salesmen. Connectors are people with large Rolodexes, but who also have worked or volunteered in many different settings. They often bring people together at parties from various walks of life and are constantly referring people to one another. Not surprisingly, they tend to be extroverts.

Mavens are experts. But, their recognized expertise doesn't necessarily stem from their formal training. Simply stated, they are people found in every community that others look to for advice on a particular topic. Gladwell profiles a Texas business school professor whose maven status comes not from his job, but from his intense interest in anything one might buy. As Gladwell points out, if the professor were a plumber instead, he could acquire the same expertise. This professor knows, for example, how to get the best deals for hotels; why a certain American car provides the same ride and features for far less than a German one; exactly what time of the month to go to the car dealer to buy that car; and what kind of TV to buy and why based on an exhaustive review before buying his own.

One critical trait for mavens, Gladwell says, is that they have an intense desire to be of service to others. This is what makes them important players in spreading new ideas and fashions. But, the mavens are not persuaders. That job falls to the final category, salesmen.

What salesmen (and saleswomen) do, of course, is self-explanatory. Why some are far better at it than others remains something of a mystery. Gladwell discusses research suggesting that so-called cultural microrhythms--the small movements and gestures we make when we encounter and talk with other people--are extremely important. Great salespeople apparently have very compelling microrhythms.

What is obvious from this classification system is that the peak oil movement lacks enough connectors and salespeople. Many of those concerned about peak oil come from technical backgrounds: physics, geology, engineering and computer science. Others may not have formal training in these areas, but have proved adept at assimilating technical information and communicating it. In other words, the peak oil movement has an embarrassment of mavens. This is a great plus, but not enough.

In order for peak oil understanding to reach the tipping point, the world's connectors need to bring people from the movement into contact with people outside of it and in walks of life far afield from those I've already mentioned. More lawyers; more doctors; more school administrators and teachers; more airline pilots and bus drivers; more ministers and therapists; more theater professors and piano teachers; and more shoe salesmen, hairdressers and dentists need to understand the basics of peak oil.

Of course, every movement needs its salespeople, and it isn't hard to identify great salespeople in any community. Some of them have probably sold you something. But, many of them are not actually in the sales profession. What distinguishes them is that they are very good at persuading their fellow citizens to act.

There are other hurdles which Gladwell points to such as making one's message "sticky." And, there are challenges with the peak oil message itself; that message implies a considerable amount of change, change that may not seem positive to many people. But any reframing of the peak oil message will matter only if the right kind of people can be recruited into the service of the peak oil movement in the first place. Finding more connectors and salespeople in our communities and helping them understand what is at stake seems like an important first step.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Copernicus, Darwin and the cure for autistic economics

Autistic children can spend much of their time in a world of elaborate fantasy, emotionally detached from real people and objects. Unfortunately, it is not much of a leap to substitute the words "most economists" for "autistic children" in the previous sentence. So apparent has this become that there is a burgeoning movement to establish what is now called a "post-autistic economics" to meet the challenges of describing the real social and physical world we live in.

This wouldn't matter much were it not for the inordinate say that economists have in shaping public policy of all kinds and at all levels. Those of the post-autistic persuasion say that establishment economists have become a priestly class of sorts that enforces its neoclassical view on any and all who would dissent. It does this by keeping them off college faculties and out of key policy positions.

But as the biosphere presses its limits upon us in the areas of energy, climate, water, soil and pollution, the neoclassical economic view that human ingenuity will allow the species to ignore every other species on the planet and grow the world economy indefinitely has become life threatening, even civilization threatening.

The cure for this view was suggested by a dear friend. It is a surprisingly simple move, and one with an impressive pedigree. The Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus was the first to work out how the Earth revolved around the Sun. He thus began a journey for humankind that removed it from the center of the universe and placed it, to borrow the words of environmental education giant David Orr, "on a small planet attached to an insignificant star in a backwater galaxy."

What Copernicus had done for astronomy, Charles Darwin did for biology. After Darwin humans would no longer be set apart from the animal kingdom. Henceforth, they would be only one of its many inhabitants, buffeted by the same laws of mutation and natural selection as the ape and every other living creature. Anthropocentrism in biology was finished.

It is now time--long past time--for a Copernican/Darwinian revolution in economics in which humans cease to be seen as the privileged species, homo economicus--at the center of everything and exempt from the limits of the biosphere. Instead, humans need to be placed within the same systems that nourish every plant and animal on Earth. In this case, however, there is a twist. Far from having to realize how insignificant and unexceptional we are, we must come to understand that we have evolved into a different species which William Catton Jr. has dubbed "homo colossus," a man-tool hybrid capable of destroying the very habitat that sustains us and so many other creatures.

The simple fact is that the economy cannot become bigger than the biosphere. (There are, of course, some believers in Star Trek-style fantasies who envision us exploiting and living on other planets. To such people may I suggest that they get started on this project right away since we are running out of time to turn things around here on Earth.) Humans already consume at least 40 percent of the photosynthetic product of the Earth each year and, that's an estimate from 1986 when the population was 5.5 billion. Now it is 6.5 billion. And it's projected to be close to 9 billion by 2050. Could we increase our share of the world's photosynthetic product to 60 percent as the 2050 projection implies and still survive? Would we wipe out species upon whom we depend, but of which we currently know nothing? Even if we could transition away from finite fossil fuels, would finding a theoretical, but as yet unknown, unlimited and pollutionless energy source really solve our problems? Or would it simply cause us to bump up against other limits?

When you undergo the Copernican/Darwinian revolution in economics, you cannot avoid such questions. The physical world and its limits must be accounted for. To that end some researchers are proposing a comprehensive biophysical economics. One outline of an approach to such a problem can be found in an article entitled "The Need to Reintegrate the Natural Sciences with Economics."

The field of study now known as ecological economics has been working on the problem in a piecemeal fashion for a long time. But even though a comprehensive biophysical economics may never be possible--since it would require understanding everything about the natural world--we must attempt the feat for two reasons: 1) to expose the dire peril in which neoclassical economics has placed us and 2) to suggest ways to build an economy that can operate indefinitely on the Earth and not one that only functions until it destroys the Earth's capacity to sustain us.

The French writer François-René de Chateaubriand is reputed to have said, "Forests precede civilizations and deserts follow them." It is to this problem that economists must now turn themselves.