Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The nuclear future that never arrived

My latest column on Scitizen entitled "The Nuclear Future That Never Arrived" has now been posted. Here is the teaser:

Understanding how the great hopes of early nuclear power advocates eventually turned into great disappointment may shed some light on nuclear power's future.....Read more

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Could we start industrial society from scratch today?

Could we start industrial society from scratch today? The answer is probably not. While such a question seems merely hypothetical, its answer has important implications regarding the prospects for a sustainable industrial future.

The reason it would be so difficult to start an industrial society from scratch today is that most of the natural resources associated with advanced societies have been drawn down to a point where it would be difficult to extract what's left without an up-and-running industrial system. It is worth quoting at length Harrison Brown, author of "The Challenge of Man's Future," writing on this point in 1954:

Our ancestors had available large resources of high-grade ores and fuels that could be processed by the most primitive technology--crystals of copper and pieces of coal that lay on the surface of the earth, easily mined iron, and petroleum in generous pools reached by shallow drilling. Now we must dig huge caverns and follow seams ever further underground, drill oil wells thousands of feet deep, many of them under the bed of the ocean, and find ways of extracting the leanest ores--procedures that are possible only because of our highly complex modern techniques, and practical only to an intricately mechanized culture which could not have been developed without the high-grade resources that are so rapidly vanishing.

As our dependence shifts to such resources as low-grade ores, rock, seawater, and the sun, the conversion of energy into useful work will require ever more intricate technical activity, which would be impossible in the absence of a variety of complex machines and their products--all of which are the result of our intricate industrial civilization, and which would be impossible without it. Thus, if a machine civilization were to stop functioning as the result of some catastrophe, it is difficult to see how man would again be able to start along the path of industrialization with the resources that would then be available to him.

What Brown is really describing is a lack of resilience in modern industrial civilization. It lacks the redundancy built into agrarian cultures because the whole system has become so specialized and interdependent. For example, rare earth minerals are critical to the functioning of modern electronics, in the making of strong magnets useful in such things as hybrid cars and as catalysts in chemical processing. Some 90 percent of these elements currently come from China. Any cutoff could prove difficult for the rest of the world. There are other known deposits of rare earth elements, but it would take time to develop them and start up production.

Thomas Homer-Dixon gets at this issue of resilience in his recent book, "The Upside of Down." His number one recommendation is to build more resilience into every system we rely on including food production, transportation, education, manufacturing and governance. But the momentum in the global economy is toward further specialization at the behest of the world's policymaking elites which are dominated by neoclassical economists. Their solution to the problems of modern civilization is more complexity and more specialization.

That is what one expects from complex civilizations, according to Joseph Tainter, author of "The Collapse of Complex Societies." Such societies have been successful precisely because they have adopted complex strategies for taming the natural world and repelling their human enemies. These societies are designed for complexity. More than that they believe in complexity because new layers of complexity have helped to solve problems again and again in the past.

And yet, Tainter notes, there comes a time when returns on complexity begin to diminish and then actually decline. This idea seems alien to us. But, our belief in technological progress is really a belief in the effectiveness of added layers of complexity in solving our problems. Yet, even those who trumpet a future sustainable industrial paradise rarely speak of the downside of increased complexity. Its primary downside is a lack of resilience. Severe shocks--war, plague, resource depletion, climate change--become ever more difficult to respond to effectively.

To see why this is so, let us imagine a world population of 100 million people who are hunter-gatherers living, of course, in small groups. Let's assume that rapid climate change is upon them via the agency of extremely high volcanic activity. They will gradually move in the direction of plentiful food supplies and if they must all huddle near the poles to survive after a few generations, they will probably be able to do it without any central coordination.

However, it is difficult to imagine 6.7 billion people dependent on our complex industrial system coping as well with such a situation. The hunter-gatherer is mobile, moves in small numbers and simply goes where the food is. We modern people believe we have unprecedented mobility. But, in reality, we are wholly dependent for our mobility on the complex industrial culture that sustains us. For most people of the world, a trip to the interior wilds of Alaska without food or the supports of civilization even in summer would spell death after a relatively short period. We moderns are mobile, yes. But only as far as the short tether of civilization will allow.

Harrison Brown holds out the possibility of some intermediate state between our highly interdependent global civilization and the complete relocalization of the world into agrarian societies. It is difficult to see how even that intermediate state--presumably with some manufacturing and access to exogenous energy sources such as wind or solar-generated electricity--could be sustained without the extractive and refining powers available from our current, highly complex technical culture.

So, the problem for those who would propose a long-term sustainable industrial society is that such a society, if it can be achieved, will not be able to afford many false steps. If the systems which comprise it have one too many breakdowns, the wherewithal to repair that society--using such things as easily obtained minerals and energy--may not be available.

That suggests that proposing to increase the complexity of society to solve our multiple predicaments involving climate change, resource depletion, and overpopulation may lead to our undoing. By creating a society that is less and less resilient and so more and more subject to catastrophic breakdown, we might be creating conditions that will prevent humans from ever again enjoying the benefits of industrial society--even a sustainable one--should that breakdown occur.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Peak retirement

As members of America's baby boom generation come to retirement age, they are experiencing an unwelcome confluence of events that is already causing many to postpone or scale down plans for retirement. The swoon in the world's stock markets, the crash in housing prices, low interest rates that reduce income from savings accounts and CDs, and rising costs for basic necessities such as food and fuel are all bedeviling current and would-be retirees.

In the past these circumstances have been viewed as temporary problems that would pass with the inevitable turn of economic cycles. But with the evidence for a nearby peak in world oil production growing--see David Cohen's excellent piece "Peak Oil is a Done Deal" which suggests a peak around 2011--it's possible that many of the adverse circumstances now beleaguering existing and would-be retirees will become long-term fixtures of the economic landscape. In short, we may be seeing peak retirement as those who are expected to retire in coming years find it increasingly difficult to do so.

Let's examine those adverse circumstances to see why this could be the case. For most people real estate investments really mean the homes that they live in. Of course, the appreciation in home prices until recently has been nothing short of spectacular. But now, real estate prices nearly everywhere in America appear to be in freefall. While the S&P Case-Shiller Home Price Index indicates a decline of about 14 percent nationwide in the last year, some the hardest hit areas are those with high concentrations of retirees such as Phoenix (-18.8%), Las Vegas (-22%), San Diego (-26%), West Palm Beach, Fla. (-32%) and Cape Coral, Fla. (-35%).

Perhaps most at risk are homes built in the outer ring suburbs or in the middle of cornfields which are the furthest from retail or employment centers. An oil peak implies continuing high energy prices that will make such homes less and less attractive over time as the cost of commuting to work and to retail centers explodes. And, no matter where one lives, those high energy prices will add substantially to maintaining a home as both heating and cooling costs rise.

Many retirees want to live in condominiums, rental units or retirement communities where much of the daily maintenance is done by others. But to do this they must often sell their homes first. With home prices plunging and the inventory of unsold homes growing, however, they are having to wait. Ultimately, they may be forced to accept much lower prices than they are hoping for.

Since the presumed reservoir of wealth that is the family home is drying up, many retirees are hoping to find salvation in their retirement savings. Here too the effects of the approaching oil peak are beginning to show. Most of those with various retirement vehicles such as 401K plans and IRAs or with substantial savings outside of these vehicles were advised that the best investment for the long run is stocks. And, until now that has largely been the case.

But both the housing collapse and the high price of energy have recently helped to put stocks on U. S. exchanges into bear market territory. A nearby oil peak implies very slow economic growth for the world as a whole and perhaps economic contraction for many years to come after the peak occurs. This presumably will be accompanied by high inflation as energy prices remain high or go higher. And, of course, high energy prices will feed through into inflation in virtually every other part of the economy. That's because almost nothing can be produced or provided without expending energy from some external source and especially without using oil in some form.

None of this can be good for stocks in general except those linked to rising prices for everyday necessities such as food and fuel. It doesn't mean that stocks can't rally from time to time or that the world economy won't be able to manage spurts of growth occasionally. But economic growth will become increasingly difficult to achieve as first oil, then natural gas, and then coal peak. Unless there is a remarkable political turnaround that puts the whole world on a crash program to build a renewable energy economy, the trajectory for energy supplies looks increasingly like it will begin to trend downward in the decade ahead.

The global economy was built on the premise of cheap, ever-increasing supplies of energy. Energy is really at the root of true wealth. Without energy no resources can be extracted from the Earth or subsequently refined, manufactured into products and shipped to their destinations. So dependent has our modern agriculture become on oil and natural gas that without them it would be impossible to feed the 6.7 billion people on the planet unless we put many more of them to work as farmers, planted many more acres including those available in and around cities, and reduced the amount of feed given to animals. Absent increasing energy supplies, the value of financial instruments such as stocks and bonds that represent claims on the production of goods and services in the economy will become increasingly impaired. Ultimately, what we call money in the modern economy is nothing more than the ability to command energy to do what we want it to do.

All this implies that except for those (probably very few) retirees who have put their savings in investments that benefit from rising energy and food prices or in inflation hedges such as precious metals, most will find their savings inadequate for a comfortable retirement. Many may not be able to retire at all without severely curtailing their consumption.

There are, of course, the payments from Social Security that retirees receive. Some also have company or public employee pensions that pay them a monthly amount instead of a lump sum at retirement. But these streams of payments are dollar-denominated for American retirees, and with the financial condition of the federal government deteriorating daily and the huge trade deficits that have been around for decades, it is doubtful that the dollar will hold its value. Those Americans living overseas in countries with rising currencies who receive pension payments in dollars already understand this only too well.

But it is all currencies which are losing value against the goods and services we need every day. We could, of course, merely be in another cyclical downswing in economic activity and another cyclical upswing in inflation. The era of long-term energy stringency may lie further in the future.

However, mounting evidence concerning future energy supplies and the unfolding developments in the energy markets suggest that a peak in oil is near. And, if this is, in fact, the case, we can expect a peak in the number of people who can afford to live out their old age without working. In other words, peak retirement may be just around the corner.

This poses another problem. In an energy-constrained future, the economy may not be able to provide jobs to all who want them. That means that even those retirees who want to work to supplement their incomes may have a hard time finding as much work as they would like or, in some cases, finding any work at all.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Could sustainability lead to an authoritarian future?

Those who imagine humans eventually returning to agrarian societies also often imagine that such societies have the potential to be much more democratic and egalitarian than our current world. But, among those who imagine what I'll call a sustainable industrial future, there is little discussion of future political arrangements. It is implied that we will continue with nominally liberal democratic governance in North America and Europe. (It's hard to see, however, how that model will apply to say, the governments of central Africa.) But a sustainable industrial future, if it can be achieved, might require the regimentation of the individual beyond anything we have so far experienced.

One need look no further than the issue of population to realize that this assertion is not overblown. In any sustainable society population cannot grow indefinitely. It must be stabilized at some point. How then to stabilize it? Normally, nature manages this task by making the death rate equal to the birth rate. The question that should concern us is whether we want to allow nature to match high birth rates with high death rates or whether we'd like to keep both birth and death rates low. Presumably, one of the principal advantages of industrial society is that it is able to provide a healthy longevity to many more people. This implies that to stabilize the population we must achieve birth rates low enough to match our low death rates.

The right to bear children, however, is regarded as a fundamental human right not to be interfered with by the state. And, the choice not to bear children is also regarded as a right in many countries. But if the choice is left up to the individual, there is no guarantee of a stable population. How then should we go about matching birth and death rates? Harrison Brown, writing to us from the year 1954 in his book, "The Challenge of Man's Future," suggests a method that would strike us as a crass violation of the rights mentioned above:

Let us suppose that in a given year the birth rate exceeds the death rate by a certain amount, thus resulting in a population increase. During the following year the number of permitted inseminations is decreased, and the number of permitted abortions is increased, in such a way that the birth rate is lowered by the requisite amount. If the death rate exceeds the birth rate, the number of permitted inseminations would be increased while the number of abortions would be decreased. The number of abortions and artificial inseminations permitted in a given year would be determined completely by the difference between the number of deaths and the number of births in the year previous.

But that wouldn't be all. If we are to maintain a worldwide sustainable industrial society, we will need to control population across current borders. If we don't, many members of overpopulated societies will soon be knocking at our doors asking for assistance or even entry.

Brown also suggests that such control over reproduction might be used to slow down the deterioration of the human species. This has occurred in industrial society because humans are no longer subject to natural selection to the same degree that they have been in the past. Those who are healthy and able might be encouraged through incentives to have several offspring, while those who have deficiencies, say, of sight or hearing or mental ability might be discouraged. The problem, he notes, is in deciding what really constitutes "fit" or "unfit" and overcoming our revulsion to such a eugenics scheme. Still, he adds, when one considers the bald evolutionary facts, it behooves human societies, if they want to remain resilient in the face of changing conditions on Earth, to somehow replace nature's cruel hand in pruning the so-called "unfit" with something less drastic. It's that or face eventual extinction.

Brown acknowledges that none of this will seem acceptable to the vast majority of his readers. But, he is concerned that unless population stability and other problems are addressed head on, arrangements that are far more restrictive and objectionable than the ones he proposes may be implemented in their place.

Already many of you who are reading this are probably squirming, and we are only getting started down the path of regimentation. In relating Brown's ideas, I am not advocating them. But I recognize that so much of the freedom we now enjoy is premised on access to increasing amounts of energy and other resources. This surfeit reduces the frequency of conflict over resources and makes sharing resources more palatable. Our abundance makes us less inclined to object, for example, to the roughly 80 million new mouths the world needs to feed every year.

There is also a second critical limit on human behavior in the sustainable industrial society. We will not be free to increase our consumption at will. There is, of course, the possibility that people will try to circumvent such a restriction; but to the extent that this occurs, others in society will have to consume less to stay under acceptable limits for consumption that keep the society in balance with the natural resources available to it. It is possible that efficiencies in resource use will allow some growth in perceived consumption, that is, increased satisfaction of wants with the same amount of throughput. But infinite efficiency is not possible and so at some point increased satisfaction of wants will presumably have to cease, at least satisfaction based on boosting the quantity of matter and energy consumed. (Spiritual and perhaps some social satisfactions may not have similar limits.)

Since both production and consumption will have to be carefully controlled, the necessary organization of a sustainable industrial society suggests considerable centralization of governance and regimentation of daily life.

While this rather unattractive outcome is not inevitable, it seems all too likely to materialize if we succeed at making the transition to a sustainable industrial civilization. Those who propose that we can and will make such a transition need also to contemplate what institutions will be required to govern such a society. How might we retain important freedoms that we now enjoy such as freedom of expression and freedom of association while acknowledging that increased control of human activity will be inevitable under such circumstances? And what of love and sex in a world of tight control over reproduction?

Perhaps, you will say, we can inculcate self-restraint in the future denizens of the sustainable industrial society, and this will serve in the place of regimentation. You will certainly be able to do this with some people who find self-restraint a virtue. But, what will you do with those who will not or cannot restrain themselves from violating the principles of sustainability?

As Garrett Hardin, author of "The Tragedy of the Commons," points out, it takes the cooperation of all to maintain the viability of the commons; and that's what a sustainable society must be considered, one big commons. But it takes only one person acting on pure self-interest to bring destruction to the commons by forcing everyone else to overtax it or lose out in the competition over resources.

Those who are selling us the bright green sustainable industrial future must tell us how they plan to regulate the behavior of humans in this future. It is either that or give up any pretense that what they are selling is, in fact, sustainable.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Which future should we prepare for, industrial or agrarian?

The more Harrison Brown talks about the future of industrial society, the more unlikely it seems that it has a future. Brown is the author of a seminal book entitled "The Challenge of Man's Future" which outlines the ecological predicament we find ourselves in today. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Brown's book is that it was published in 1954 long before our predicament had taken its full shape and when there were only about 2.6 billion people on Earth. (The current world population is estimated to be 6.7 billion.)

Brown's aim was to limn out the obstacles that lay ahead for industrial society and to suggest a course for navigating them. He concluded that the most likely trajectory for industrial society was a reversion back to agrarian society. Only by maneuvering ever so carefully through the narrow passage to sustainability would industrial society be able to continue for an extended period, say, many centuries or millennia.

Brown's views may seem strange to the modern ear accustomed as it is to hearing how thoroughly we have subdued nature through technology. But even back in 1954 it was already well-known in scientific circles that 1) we would one day run short of finite fossil fuels, 2) we were working our way from high-grade metal ores down to low-grade ores, and 3) industrial society would ultimately be faced with the task of obtaining its required metals and other basic resources from nothing more than air, rock and seawater. The key to making a successful transition, Brown reasoned, would be finding the necessary energy since if one has enough energy, getting needed materials from the ultra-low-grade resources of air, rock and seawater would be feasible.

Of course, he realized that recycling would have to be enforced to keep as much of the previously extracted metals in circulation and that certain destabilizing dangers had to be avoided. Chief among them was nuclear war which he believed would so undermine the complex systems of industrial society that those systems might never recover. He also recognized that if the whole world were to industrialize--he made special mention of India and China--then population would have to be stabilized so as not to overwhelm the ability of the Earth to provide the necessary food and other materials.

He describes the problem this way:

Once a machine civilization has been in operation for some time, the lives of the people within the society become dependent upon the machines. The vast interlocking industrial network provides them with food, vaccines, antibiotics, and hospitals. If such a population should suddenly be deprived of a substantial fraction of its machines and forced to revert to an agrarian society, the resultant havoc would be enormous. Indeed, it is quite possible that a society within which there has been little natural selection based upon disease resistance for several generations, a society in which the people have come to depend increasingly upon surgery for repairs during early life and where there is little natural selection operating among women, relative to the ability to bear children--such a society could easily become extinct in a relatively short time following the disruption of the machine network.

In saying these things, Brown is not at all deploring industrial society which he believes provides substantial material benefits for humans and which frees them from the drudgery of much manual labor allowing them to pursue other interests. But, by stating the bald ecological facts, he demonstrates that such a society could easily be lost.

Of equal concern to him was that efforts be made far enough in advance to prepare for what he believed will be an inevitable transition for industrial society. Below he describes what is now sometimes referred to as the rate-of-conversion problem:

Continuance of vigorous machine culture beyond another century or so is clearly dependent upon the development and utilization of atomic or solar power. If these sources of newly applied energy are to be available in time, the basic research and development must be pursued actively during the coming decades. And even if the knowledge is available soon enough, it is quite possible that the political and economic situation in the world at the time the new transition becomes necessary will be of such a nature that the transition will be effectively hindered. Time and again during the course of human history we have seen advance halted by unfavorable political and economic conditions. We have seen societies in which technical knowledge and resources were both present, but where adequate capital and organization were not in existence and could not be accumulated sufficiently rapidly.

Today, it is all too easy to see the pattern which Brown feared developing. For example, we know how to build breeder reactors which could supply us abundant energy for centuries and perhaps much longer; but we have not pursued perfecting such reactors, in part, because they pose a nuclear proliferation danger. We were on our way to deploying wind and solar power on a broad basis in the late 1970s when fossil fuel energy prices fell dramatically due to vast new supplies. Incentives for deploying wind and solar were soon curtailed or withdrawn, at least in the United States. The public seemed content with the new low energy prices, oblivious to the dangers that lay ahead.

It is clear today as oil prices hit all-time highs on a regular basis that we need alternatives. And yet, the U. S. Congress cannot seem to pass a bill that will continue incentives for alternative energy such as wind and solar. (The dispute seems to be mostly over how to fund those incentives.) In addition, there is even a significant lobby for moving the economy toward greater reliance on coal, another finite fuel which itself may run out sooner than its advocates believe.

The complex systems which Brown feared might crumble are starting to crumble. The world's airlines are on the verge of a rash of bankruptcies. Routes are being dropped and effective fares are being increased even as the traveling public pulls back from its usual travel plans. Truckers from the United States and Europe have been protesting high diesel prices with many small trucking firms going broke. Perhaps society could do without air travel for pleasure. But given the current infrastructure could it function without a viable trucking industry?

Perhaps most worrying is the world food system which seems unable to keep up with demand as many of the industrializing nations of Asia import more and more food. For those at the bottom of the economic ladder, however, the recent dramatic rise in grain prices will be nothing short of catastrophic if it persists.

The record so far seems to indicate that we are not taking the necessary steps far enough in advance to avoid worrisome dislocations in our society. Even worse, the main cry so far has been for more drilling of oil and natural gas, as if making us more dependent on fuels which will soon be in decline is an answer to our predicament.

All of this is a long way of saying that it just might behoove us to focus on the single most important issue facing us in a transition away from our current industrial society: food. Teaching people who know nothing about growing food how to do so and then creating places for them to grow some could be the single most important task facing us. If the technologists and policymakers somehow navigate the narrow passage to a sustainable industrial society, we will be thankful. But we will almost certainly have to grow more food locally in any case because of energy constraints. And so, any effort put into mass agricultural literacy will not have been wasted.

But if human civilization devolves into a set of primarily agrarian societies, the knowledge we have gained so far about plant breeding, soil chemistry and fertility, natural pest control and myriad other things that would be useful in a post-fossil fuel agricultural regime will be critical to human survival and happiness.