Thursday, July 30, 2009

Is Canada becoming a petrostate?

My latest column on Scitizen entitled "Is Canada Becoming a Petrostate?" has now been posted. Here is the teaser:

Canada's increasing reliance on energy exports, especially oil from the Alberta tar sands, risks unsettling its politics and economy and turning the country into a petrostate--an authoritarian society in which dissent is stifled and enterprises beyond the energy sector are de-emphasized or even discouraged....Read more

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The unfathomable universe

The one thing we know for certain about the universe is that it is unfathomable. We try to come to terms with this fact by telling stories, by creating narratives that are an attempt to abstract general principles from day-to-day events. In fact, making narratives is the primary way in which we transform brute events in our lives into what we call experience. Experience we can remember and reflect upon. Experience is the stuff from which we derive great artistic and scientific expression.

The inability to narrate the events of one's life creates a mere jumble of disconnected elements in the mind, a source of mental anguish and even mental illness. In fact, I have come to believe that so basic is our need for narrative that a good portion of all human illness, physical and psychological, finds its origins in the inability to narrate our lives fully and comprehensibly.

Having said all this, there is always a danger that we will come to believe that our narratives represent the true and possibly immutable nature of the universe rather than a dim and possibly misleading snapshot of its current state in our immediate region. Frequent readers of mine may wonder what this rather abstract discussion has to do with peak oil, climate change and the whole raft of sustainability issues. They will no doubt want to know whether I believe that peak oil, climate change and the entire range of ecological ills from which we suffer are "mere" narratives.

That we are in trouble as a species is palpable. If you cannot feel it in your bones, no amount of narration is going to convince you. Most of our understanding of the world is nonverbal, visceral even. But for the small portion that is verbal, the key question is exactly how we are in trouble and how can we address that trouble.

Keep in mind that when I say verbal, I include all of mathematics and science as ways in which we narratize the world. Scientific knowledge is not a set of facts about the world we live in. Rather, it is a set of inferences based on various related methods of observation, experimentation and measurement, inferences woven together into theories that are essentially stories which science tells us. I am not accusing science or scientists of being sloppy or imprecise. On the contrary, they tell us some of the most precise and testable stories available to the culture. But they remain stories, narratives, nonetheless.

So now I arrive at my purpose. No matter how many narratives we construct, literary, historical, scientific or religious, the universe will remain unfathomable. In a sense it partially mocks our narratives, and we feel it most when we get something wrong. But it can also validate them. We can rarely be sure ahead of time which it will do.

Those who proclaim that the human species, or at least human civilization as we know it, is completely and utterly doomed by the myriad onrushing ecological catastrophes we face know no such thing. There are those who proclaim that human nature is such that even though we know how to build a sustainable society, we won't; and, they say they know this because our evolutionary psychology has made us little more than automatons unable to make the hard choices needed to get to such a goal. But, these people know no such thing. Those who proclaim that our future is bright, filled with endless growth and technological fixes for all our problems, they, too, know no such thing.

Each group proffers us a narrative which we can only judge against our visceral experience and other narratives which we know. For now, on our current trajectory as I perceive it, the prognosis is not good. But the unfathomable universe may yet offer a way forward for it has always been and will always be full of surprises. This is no reason for complacency. The way forward may require extraordinary effort and sacrifice. But such a way, if it exists, will emerge from our own actions and interactions with each other and with the natural world. The fact that we cannot know what the future holds is neither cause for unwarranted optimism that everything will somehow work out nor cause for a doleful and apathetic resignation that becomes the engine for a self-fulfilling prophecy of annihilation.

To say that our collective human fate lies somewhere between complete destruction and an endless cornucopian future is yet another narrative. Even so, such a narrative requires something the other two do not, creative engagement with the still unfathomable universe. That may be the one thing that emphatically recommends it above the alternatives.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The big question: What do generations owe to each other?

In 1883 renown Yale professor William Graham Sumner examined the question of what the social classes owe to each other. Sumner was a classical liberal--what we might call a conservative today if only we could find a real one--and his answer to this question can be summarized in one word: Nothing.

In 2009 in the grip of advancing climate change and rapidly depleting resources we are confronted with a more radical question: What do the generations owe to each other? The easy answer is to copy Sumner's. And, some people have. (Scroll down to Sam Vaknin and expand his essay.) But given that most people have offspring, we can expect that their sympathies might extend to their children and grandchildren, but not much beyond. It is a natural impulse to want to sacrifice for one's children or grandchildren. But is it natural or even practical to make sacrifices for people who will live a hundred or perhaps even a thousand years after us?

Let me illustrate the pitfalls of sacrificing for future generations. Let's say we decide to go on a severe fossil fuel diet starting today and remain on that diet indefinitely in order to lessen the ravages of peak fossil fuels and climate change. Many decades later our descendents wake up to a world with a steady, livable climate and with a relative abundance of fossil fuels that are now used almost exclusively as chemical feedstocks except in a few small instances. These descendents decide that their lives could be improved somewhat quite cheaply by burning a little more fossil fuel. After all, the danger of catastrophic climate change has passed, and greenhouse gas levels have actually come down. Why not ease restrictions on burning fossil fuels?

Of course, this modest lifting of restraints probably won't last long as the flush of enhanced living standards encourages a call for burning additional fossil fuels to increase living standards a bit more. And, of course, this unfortunate path could lead my hypothetical future society right back onto the road to collapse and destruction.

It should be clear then that the efficacy of our decisions to create a sustainable world will depend heavily on the self-restraint of future generations. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try. But it points to the necessity not just of a revolution in behavior--which can be accomplished using the right incentives--but to a revolution in values.

Values are never permanent, but they have more lasting power than mere behaviors which may persist only so long as an incentive or restriction is in pace. The current talk among policy thinkers concerned about sustainability leans heavily toward incentives and restrictions to achieve sustainability goals. This is the kind of structure we provide to children as we are trying to train them to be adults, and it has its place. But it is the fond hope of every good parent that their children will internalize the discipline which must be initially applied externally during a child's formative years.

This internalization is akin to a revolution in values, and it is not so easily achieved. Values develop over time in response to actual physical and social conditions. They persist over time based on their perceived efficacy in ordering society and the life of the individual and in ensuring the survival of society.

We are now in the situation of the proverbial man who has jumped off the roof of a 100-story building. When you stick your head out at the 50th floor and ask him how he's doing, he says, "Fine." It is the speed with which we appear to be approaching our doom that gives values--which take time to test and validate--so little opportunity to change. They will undoubtedly change for our proverbial man in free-fall once he hits the ground. But only if he survives, and then we can expect him to be severely disabled.

Every human prefers the present over the future. And, that's as it should be. One can't live for the future if one fails to protect oneself from destruction or ruin today. This balancing act is one that every person concerned with sustainability is called upon to endure. It is easy to criticize others for failing to do all that is necessary to improve the chances of future generations for a good life. It is more challenging to support them in their attempt to bring off this ever more difficult balancing act.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Canada is leaking emergy

That's not a typo in the title. Emergy is a term coined by famed energy and ecology researcher Howard Odum. An analysis underpinned by the emergy concept explains why importers of Canada's natural resources such as crude oil, natural gas, unfinished wood, grains and metal ores are getting a bargain as much of Canada's emergy endowment is given away for free.

Canada has long been a major exporter of natural resources. Blessed with large forests, massive mineral and hydrocarbon deposits, and fertile prairies, Canada's small population hasn't needed all that it can produce. And so, much of its natural wealth has been exported to other nations hungry for raw materials, energy and food. All of this has helped to make Canada a rich, developed country with an enviable standard of living and a wide array of well-funded public services for its citizens including universal health care.

So great is Canada's natural endowment that it has more than made up for the fact that the country and its people have been giving away a substantial portion of the value of their resources to foreign customers for free. And, the country is planning to expand that giveaway as it gears up for much larger exports of synthetic crude oil and bitumen from its huge tar sands mining operations in Alberta.

To understand this giveaway, one needs to understand emergy, a concept invented by energy researcher Howard Odum. Emergy is the "available energy of one kind that has to be used directly or indirectly to make a product or service." Emergy is something close to "embodied energy" though the way that term is used today often leaves out nature's energetic contribution. Odum discerned something which is not obvious to even the professionally trained observer of international trade: Much of the value of natural resources comes through nature from the soil, the sun and geologic processes. These processes represent substantial inputs of energy. Buyers of such resources pay little more than the costs of extraction (or growing, in the case of crops) plus transportation. Therefore, they pay almost nothing for the free services nature provides.

This wouldn't be so injurious to Canada if it processed and transformed most of these natural resources itself. But it does so only on a limited basis. Much of the harvest from its farm fields and forests and the output from its mines and wells is shipped to other countries for processing. When some of this comes back in finished form, Canadians pay a hefty premium for that processing since unlike nature's services, human processing cannot be provided free of charge. Odum would say that the emergy balance in the exchange is negative. More emergy value goes out than returns.

But Canada has a substantial manufacturing and service economy. It, too, imports some raw and partially finished goods to produce finished goods for export--in some cases back to countries that provided the raw materials. So, Canada has benefitted to a certain extent from the uneven terms of trade that emergy-blind trade arrangements assure.

Not so well-off as Canada are many developing countries which have little or no manufacturing and processing capability, but a large resource base, either agricultural or mineral or both. These countries are forced to export many of their resources rather than process them at home. The agricultural and mineral exports from several Central and South American countries and many African countries come to mind.

An emergy analysis explains in part why many developing countries remain so impoverished despite their abundant natural resources. While there are often other problems in such countries involving governance and geopolitical instability, understanding the uneven terms of trade that an emergy analysis would reveal can go a long way in explaining the economic difficulties they suffer.

Where the decision has been made to process more of a country's natural wealth at home, there is a better chance for economic success. The valuable free emergy supplied by nature provides more jobs and value to the home country if it can process the resources which embody that emergy.

And, just as this is becoming apparent to many resource-rich developing countries, some developed countries such as Canada--when it comes to the tar sands--and the United States--when it comes to U. S. grain and timber exports--are regressing to a policy that increases giveaways of their natural wealth. All this is done in the name of a free trade ideology that is devoid of any appreciation of nature's role in providing us with so much of what we need on a daily basis.

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Howard Odum's book "A Prosperous Way Down" (summarized here in a reprinted presentation by Odum) provides a clear and concise explanation of emergy and how emergy exchanges affect the economies of countries through trade. Below is a table from the book that though dated provides an idea of how developed and developing countries rank in their emergy exchanges. Undoubtedly, China has improved its emergy ratio in trade since it now has a huge industrial base. But the relative position of other countries may not have changed that much. Andrew Nikiforuk's "Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent" provides a revealing window into Canada's tar sands development strategy including its foolish and excessive export of unrefined oil products to the United States even as Canada continues to import large quantities of oil to the eastern part of the country from abroad for want of an east-west pipeline.

Balance of Traded Wealth Evaluated with Emergy
Various numbers from the 1980s

NationEmergy from Within %Ratio of Emergy Received to Emergy Exported
Netherlands234.3
West Germany104.2
Japan314.2
Switzerland193.2
Spain242.3
U. S. A.772.2
Taiwan241.89
India881.45
Brazil910.98
Dominica690.84
New Zealand600.76
Poland660.65
Australia920.39
China980.28
Former Soviet Union970.23
Liberia920.151
Ecuador940.119

Source: "A Prosperous Way Down" by Howard T. Odum and Elisabeth C. Odum

Sunday, July 05, 2009

A brief ecological manifesto

I'm not a European, but I play one on the Internet--at least for the next month. Comment: Visions, a website which "explores the personal views of thinkers, innovators and scientists about possible solutions to global warming, overpopulation and dwindling resources," asked me and other "European intellectuals and leaders" to respond to the following question for the month of July posting: What can we do to ensure that generations to come have a sustainable future?

Comment: Visions is a collaboration between The European Voice, a newspaper which covers the European Parliament, and the euronews [sic] television channel, both of which are owned by The Economist Group, owners of The Economist magazine and other publications. The Comment: Visions site is produced in association with Shell, a fact which gave me some misgivings. But as I looked at the previous questions and responses, I discovered a wide range of views, some of them quite radical, at least by the standards of The Economist and Shell. And so, I decided to participate.

I attempted to write a concise, blunt assessment of our ecological predicament in hopes that perhaps at least one person of influence might read and understand what I believe we face. I have reproduced my answer below. For the other answers, go to the Comment: Visions home page for July. Here is what I wrote:

We are in overshoot. Failure to recognize this fact and act on it will ultimately condemn humans worldwide to nature's cure for this condition: collapse. Overshoot is a well-defined ecological term; it means an organism is temporarily living beyond the long-term carrying capacity of its environment, that is, the ability of the environment to provide it with the needed food, energy and other resources for the long-term and to absorb the pollution it produces without destroying that carrying capacity.

Collapse is a more indefinite term, but it does not mean annihilation. Collapse in the case of human society implies a fairly rapid decline in population over perhaps many decades and the reorganization of society into smaller and far more decentralized units.

For those who say that this cannot happen, the onus is on them to show that the record of history (which is replete with such instances) and the findings of science no longer apply to humans. Our predicament is probably most aptly described by ecologist William Catton Jr. in his book entitled "Overshoot." The enabling substances for this overshoot have been fossil fuels. They have provided a one-time endowment of exceptionally concentrated energy which we have used to extract large yields from farms, forests, mines, fisheries and factories. Fossil fuels have enabled us to increase our population and our wealth exponentially in the last 150 years.

But once these finite fuels are burned, they are gone forever. The long-run alternative is solar, its derivatives of wind and water power, and possibly nuclear power. However, our problems run deeply across multiple natural systems--climate, fisheries, water, farm fields, and forests to name a few. Merely deploying alternative energy quickly enough to replace fossil fuels will not solve all our problems. In fact, increasing our use of energy could put even more pressure on the very natural systems upon which our lives depend.

How then are we to climb down off this ledge of overshoot and avoid crashing headlong into the valley of collapse? And, what should our destination be? The historical record has only a handful of examples of long-term sustainable societies, and they are based on agriculture and hunting and gathering. The Indian agricultural village and the Australian Aboriginal culture come to mind. But few people in industrialized nations desire a return to such forms of human society. When modern people speak of sustainability, they mean a sustainable industrial society. And so, we are in uncharted waters for there is no historical example of such a society to guide us.

We must rely instead on certain principles to tell us what to do. The bedrock principle that nature suggests is this: We cannot have infinite growth in the consumption of resources inside a finite system, the Earth. If we are in overshoot, as I suggest, then we are beyond the point of growing and must recede from our current consumptive habits.

How can we achieve this? I admit that my solution is one no sane politician would embrace: a steady-state economy, that is, an economy in which neither the throughput of material resources nor the associated pollution would grow. The quality of goods and services, however, could continue to increase so long as that increase in quality does not demand the use of additional resources. And, the satisfactions we obtain from nonmaterial sources such as friends and family, athletic and artistic pursuits, and religious practice could continue to deepen and grow indefinitely. Note, however, that while this is the description of a steady-state economy, it is not one of a steady-state society. Both the economic and cultural life of such a society would continue to evolve.

All of this seems hard enough to imagine, let alone implement. But we must go even further for we cannot achieve a sustainable, steady-state economy by merely ceasing to grow. Rather, because we are already in overshoot, we need to reduce drastically our use of resources, especially energy. This will doubtless require new technology to make us vastly more efficient. But it will also require that we rearrange our lives and change our habits so as to accomplish our goals by using far fewer resources than we do today. We will also need to bring down population gradually over time to a level consistent with long-term sustainability.

While what I'm suggesting may seem like an impossible political task, it is the only feasible solution for a sustainable industrial society. Either we summon the will to bring about a steady-state economy or nature will tragically and remorselessly implement one for us. These are our choices.