Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Can Democracy Survive Without Fossil Fuels?

Is it an accident that the great modern revolutions, both American and French, occurred shortly after James Watt vastly increased the efficiency of the steam engine? Recall that the steam engine's primary purpose at the time was to pump water out of coal mines. Its perfection ignited an industrial revolution built on fossil fuels. Those fuels also indirectly ignited huge social and political changes that included modern demands for greater equality and democracy. Can those values thrive without fossil fuels?

Ancient Athens was democratic long before fossil fuels were discovered. In reality, democracy depends on some energy source that makes it possible for citizens to have the time to govern themselves. The citizenry must also enjoy a rough equality that doesn't put some citizens so far above others as to threaten their solidarity. So, what was that energy source? Slaves.

This explains, in part, why some founders of the American republic were able to embrace slavery. It had existed alongside democracy before. But, even as they embraced it, industrial development on the American continent began to erode its necessity. The plenitude of energy from fossil fuels would ultimately render slavery uneconomic. A free man in charge of a machine run on fossil fuels could do far more work than any human in bondage could ever hope to do manually. And, thus owning machines and their fuel supplies became more important than owning the labor to run them. The machine age required labor to become more mobile--in essence, to go where the machine rather than the master dictated. Is it yet another accident of fate that the first successful American oil well was drilled in 1859 and that the Civil War, the war that ended slavery, followed only two years later?

The power of fossil fuels was already erasing the biological differences in physical strength between men and women. The women's suffrage movement which had begun many years before the Civil War was intent on erasing their political differences as well. But fossil fuels also sent women and children into the factories where their size and strength mattered less than their docility.

As more and more energy was extracted from the ground in the form of oil and coal, modern industrial nations found they no longer required the labor of children. Nor was it necessary to maintain poor working conditions and living standards among the working classes in order to allow the rich to live well. Fossil fuels began to create enough wealth to go around. Rising prosperity muted competitive spirits.

In the middle of the cheap oil boom in America, many middle-class mothers could stay at home with their children. Only fathers worked. The subsidy of fossil fuels had essentially reached its apex. By this time those middle-class mothers could vote, slavery (though not discrimination) was a distant memory and child labor had long been outlawed. Social and political progress had coincided with the parabolic trajectory of America's fossil fuel supplies.

Politically this was the period of strong labor unions, high taxes and huge public projects--schools, hospitals, highways, and public power. Is it another coincidence that this period of fast growth and narrowing inequality came to a halt shortly after the production of oil in the United States peaked in 1970?

As fossil fuels deplete, especially oil and natural gas, will we be able to maintain the solidarity and consent that make modern democracies so stable? Or will we each fall back on our competitive natures as we struggle for our share of dwindling resources. It depends on whether alternative energy sources can provide sufficient energy at affordable prices.

It may also depend on how we organize ourselves. A lower energy future may cause political power to flow back to local communities as central governments lose their influence for lack of energy resources. If we can relearn our cultural instincts for local governance, perhaps we can retain much of the political and social progress that has been, in part, a gift of the fossil fuel age. If we can't reawaken those instincts, we may sadly find out that the only thing between us and despotism is a barrel of oil, one that may soon be taken away.

(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)

Sunday, June 26, 2005

The Politics of Survival

It is a sign of the times that a former energy analyst turned radical advocate for depaving the world would be quoted on the floor of the U. S. House of Representatives by a self-described "very conservative Republican" congressman while the congressman lectured the country about the dangers of world peak oil production. Just so you don't think this was a fluke, I give you exhibit number two: An investment banker who specializes in energy--a Bush supporter and former campaign advisor on energy--recently wrote a piece about the impending Saudi oil shock for Counterpunch, a left-wing, muckraking newsletter that is proud of its "radical attitude" and its freedom from corporate influence.

What we are witnessing is the collapse of the politics of left and right and the replacement of those politics with what I call the politics of survival. Those who come to understand the gravity of our energy situation quickly abandon their previous political views and instead focus pragmatically on how we can make a successful energy transition. They do so because they know the cost of failure is too high a price to pay for ideology. In the politics of survival ideology counts for almost nothing. Pragmatic plans count for everything.

I was recently contacted by a local elected official who asked me to set up a customized version of my "Oil Famine" short-course for a group of government officials from my county. I knew going in that the two of us were on opposite ends of the political spectrum. As I spoke to him, I realized that all he wanted to ascertain was whether I could effectively bring the message of peak oil and its possible consequences to the officeholders he had in mind. My political leanings didn't matter.

Such is the power of understanding an obvious and basic, but infrequently discerned truth, namely, that there are limits to resources and that those limits are approaching. This understanding can create instant focus and solidarity in a way I have never before seen. It is what allows me to remain hopeful. If enough people understand what we are really facing--not only in the area of energy, but also in the areas of global warming and water and soil depletion--we have a chance of embracing the politics of survival in enough places in the world to make a difference. I admit that this kind of change remains a long shot. But, so far as I can tell, it's the only shot we've got.

(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Peak Oil Mind: Juggling Two Realities

I nowadays feel as if I'm a passenger on the Titanic who knows about the fatal iceberg dead ahead, but who is too polite to bring up the dreadful subject at dinner. The usual questions arise each time a new venue for disseminating the word about peak oil presents itself: Who will believe it? Will I be considered a kook? If I get beyond the disbelief, what will I offer as solutions--for people will surely want ready-made solutions? How can I steer a course between creating hopelessness and soft-pedaling the problem in a way that fails to arouse concern? Worst of all, will I be considered a killjoy who has ruined a perfectly good evening out with friends?

Over the weekend I attended a surprise 50th anniversary party for relatives. The final leg of the drive there was deep into a rural landscape which is quickly being transformed into subdivision after subdivision. I couldn't help thinking about whether 10 or 20 years from now the grand new brick, mansion-like homes would be abandoned because they are only accessible by automobile--a mode of transport without a future in the post-peak-oil age. All I could see was the tremendous amount energy needed to maintain this sprawled out way of life--the gasoline for the cars (usually two or three of them in each driveway), the air-conditioning and heat for the capacious homes, the electricity for pumping the water and running the automatic sprinklers, the energy needed for the endless gadgets inside each house, and the fuel for the mail trucks, the service vehicles, and especially, for the heavy machinery that is needed to clear and maintain the roads leading up to these subdivisions. I said nothing at all about this at the party. It would have ruined the mood, and it's just one man's view anyway.

A couple days later I felt quite comfortable in my downtown neighborhood as I met with neighbors to discuss possible zoning restrictions for our historic district. Perhaps this city life is not sustainable in the very long run, but it seems more likely to survive the coming oil crunch. To defend my neighborhood and improve it does not pull me into two halves.

There are times when I feel myself floating above the absurdities of our oil drenched civilization--the Hummers, the pounding car stereos, the endless traffic, the hypercaffeinated, 24-hour, ad-filled world that seems to say that this consumer paradise can only get bigger and better. I am secretly comforted by my not-so-certain belief that it will all be swept away. The day-to-day blather of politicians and pundits bothers me almost not at all; it seems largely irrelevant. I judge the public's unease to be genuine. If only they knew what they really ought to be uneasy about.

Then, out comes a forecast from the world's foremost oil forecasting firm assuring us we have nothing to worry about. The marketplace will take care of oil supplies and bring us substitutes just when we need them like an attentive waiter in an expensive restaurant.

Am I crazy? Am I missing something? Everyone around me seems to be living in a different reality. I'm the one who's out of step with the world's smartest oil experts. But, wait a minute! Should we really play at this prediction game as if it were only a contest about who's right?

No, I say. There is too much at stake. There are many things we can and should do that are good ideas no matter what our energy future holds. The two realities I've been juggling meld into one again, and I return to my work.

(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)

Monday, June 20, 2005

The Verdict of Science

It's no surprise that human beings want all the benefits of science without accepting its verdict. The benefits come from understanding how to manipulate biological, chemical and physical processes to create a consumer paradise that is increasingly going global. The verdict comes from understanding how that manipulation is leading to oil depletion, global warming, water pollution, loss of biodiversity, soil erosion and a host of other effects that could eventually lead to the end of industrial civilization as we know it.

We think of science as objective, nonpartisan, and neutral. Yet, both those who believe in endless technical fixes and those who forecast ecological collapse cite science. How can this be? In fact, science has an ideology. Sir Francis Bacon noted that "knowledge is power." In effect, that means science has been the handmaiden of what the ecologist calls "takeover" and "drawdown." Takeover is merely the ecologist's name for the taking of resources by one species away from another. Farming is a good example. Takeover increases carrying capacity* for one species while lowering it for another (or possibly many others). Drawdown refers to the extraction of a resource faster than it is being replaced. The quintessential examples of drawdown by humans are fossil fuels and metals. But many more resources are now being added to the list including water and soil.

Because observation and inquiry form the basis of science, it was inevitable that the same science used to conquer the environment would discover its destruction. These discoveries are byproducts, and fortunate ones. They give us a chance to change course.

In a classic book on human population and resource use, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, human ecologist William Catton asks whether we humans are the same as all other animals. Are we destined for the terrible collapse that has always been the fate of other species that overshoot the underlying carrying capacity of their environment, or are we different enough to plan ahead and manage a population decline? His book and the question it asks are as relevant now as they were in 1980 when the book first appeared. Will we at long last accept the verdict of science?


*The maximum population of a given species which a particular habitat can support indefinitely (under specified technology and organization, in the case of human species.) [Definition taken from Overshoot by William Catton.]

[Excerpts of Overshoot are available on the web and include the following chapters: The Tragic Story of Human Success, Dependence on Phantom Carrying Capacity, and Industrialization: Prelude to Collapse.]

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Thursday, June 16, 2005

Europe's GMO Trap

Neither Europe's people nor its bureaucrats have ever liked the idea of introducing genetically modified crops into their agricultural and food system. Food in Europe is almost a religion. Anything that threatens to disrupt the continent's time-honored traditions of cuisine is looked upon with skepticism.

That's why the moratorium on approving new genetically modified crops (often called GMOs or genetically modified organisms) which began in 1998 looked like it might drag on indefinitely until the United States challenged the moratorium at the World Trade Organization (WTO). The U. S. contended that the moratorium was merely a ruse, a so-called non-tariff barrier to trade. The WTO has shown itself particularly adept at throwing national safety and health regulations overboard when they interfere with the desire of some international corporation to sell something.

In 2001 the European Union adopted strict rules governing the labeling and traceability of biotech foods. The EU knew that a U. S. challenge in the WTO was inevitable and so began to set a trap for the companies seeking to peddle their biotech seeds. Individual EU countries have also passed laws such as an Italian law which allows individual provinces to ban the planting of GMO seeds and which includes strict regulations to prevent contamination of non-GMO crops. A new German law makes farmers using genetically modified seeds liable for contamination of non-GMO crops. The two laws could lead to a flurry of expensive lawsuits that make it unprofitable to sell GMO seeds in those countries.

The EU-wide labeling rules have kept food companies from including GMO ingredients in their foods because they know that European consumers won't buy GMO foods. Adding to the negatives for GMO seed makers are overreactions against those who openly protest genetically modified foods. Such moves only infuriate Europeans all the more as in the case of a Danish prosecutor who has charged Greenpeace under the country's antiterrorism laws for hanging an anti-GMO banner on the headquarters of a Danish agricultural organization.

With regulations in place and a public dead set against genetically modified foods, Europe began a gradual re-opening of its borders to GMO crops last year. Earlier this year a biotech seed purveyor was the first to walk into Europe's GMO trap. The company revealed it had sold unapproved GMO corn seed which ended up in the human food chain. On top of this the U. S. government had been informed of the mistake as early as December 2004, but didn't say anything to European regulators who found out about it from a magazine article in March. That led to a ban on GMO corn gluten products until matters could be clarified.

Now, the world's largest maker of genetically engineered crops, Monsanto, is faced with scrutiny over a feeding study it performed using its own GMO corn. The study showed kidney and immune system abnormalities in guinea pigs fed on the grain. Apparently, the company did not release the entire results of the study when seeking approval for the new corn strain. Of course, Monsanto claimed that it didn't provide the entire report because it contains confidential business information, and it dismissed the problems revealed by the study as "not biologically meaningful." Recently, it was revealed that the German government commissioned a review of the Monsanto study by researcher known for his independence. The company has tried to suppress release of that review until now though the report has yet to be made available to the public.

Intentionally or not, the EU and its member countries have woven a web of GMO regulation that is likely to entangle the biotech seed makers again and again in the months and years ahead. The EU is already known for proposing the toughest rules concerning the safety of chemicals, insisting on review of all chemicals not previously tested to prove their safety over the next several years. Without proof, chemicals will be presumed unsafe and banned. There is every reason to believe the EU will move in this direction with genetically modified foods if it can justify doing so in a way that does not subject it to enforcement actions by the WTO.

The appearance that Monsanto withheld vital safety data may be just the beginning of a campaign that will demonstrate that the so-called precautionary principle must be applied to GMO crops, that is, they must be proven safe before they can be planted and marketed. That would all but kill the industry in Europe. If safety studies are forced on the industry and those studies show health and environmental risks for GMO crops, the results would surely be disseminated worldwide. That means Europe may find itself playing the role of the grim reaper for the entire biotech farming industry.

(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Oil reserve growth stalls

In line with expectations of oil pessimists the annual authoritative industry survey produced by BP showed that growth in oil reserves worldwide all but halted in 2004. When this data is combined with the oil megaprojects survey released earlier this year by Petroleum Review, the case for an early world oil production peak is strengthened. The odd thing, of course, is that reserve growth is stalling even as prices are rising, something which normally spurs new discovery and the reclassification of formerly uneconomic reserves.

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Thursday, June 09, 2005

The new nullification

Recently, 132 mayors across America announced they were going ahead with policies to fight global warming despite the Bush administration's rejection of such measures. In doing so, they were adding to a series of acts by states and localities that when taken together add up to a new and growing nullification movement. Nullification is a long debated theory that says that states have the right to defy federal law or "nullify" it if they feel a particular law is unconstitutional. While the mayors were not exactly defying a federal law, they were openly snubbing an official federal policy of inaction on greenhouse gas emissions. Their action and many similar ones are beginning to call into question the ability of the federal government to impose its will on the individual states and localities.

Take the lawsuit by eight states and New York City against utilities designed to force the utilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The suit was filed because the EPA refused to take action to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, a move that prompted an earlier lawsuit against the agency. Both suits are direct confrontations with a federal government which currently wants to do nothing about greenhouse gas emissions.

In the area of genetically engineered crops, the Food and Drug Administration has long held that such crops are virtually identical to non-biotech crops and therefore require no testing or extraordinary regulation. But, two counties in California have already banned their planting, and a third has a ban on the ballot this year. (Monsanto, the world's largest producer of genetically engineered crops, is fighting back by trying to pass state laws that pre-empt local control of biotech crops.)

But, the nullification now sweeping the country doesn't just include environmental policy. Connecticut recently passed a civil union law giving gay and lesbian couples rights substantially similar (though not identical) to those afforded heterosexual couples. While federal law does not recognize such unions, and no other state is obliged to honor them, the law is a clear defiance of federal policy. (The move does not, however, seem to be motivated entirely by ideological considerations. No doubt Connecticut hopes to attract gay and lesbian refugees, especially well-off and highly educated ones, from other states that are hostile to them.)

In the area of education, the Bush administration's vaunted No Child Left Behind legislation--which requires much of the states, but gives them little in the way of money to do it--is being resisted even in Republican strongholds such as Virginia and Utah. A few states are saying they will "opt out" of the law, something that would be a real nullification in the traditional sense of the word.

In health care the people of the state of California last fall repudiated the Bush administration's policy on stem cell research by passing their own $3 billion bond measure for such research over the next decade. Again, the differences are not strictly ideological. Californians believe this research investment will put their state in the forefront of a cutting edge industry.

But, perhaps the best-known acts of nullification are resolutions by states, cities and counties across the nation that call for refusing cooperation with federal authorities trying to enforce the so-called USA Patriot Act. To date some 386 resolutions have been passed. The list of cities includes Albuquerque, Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Dallas, Des Moines, Detroit, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Portland (ME), Portland (OR), Providence, Richmond (VA), St. Louis, St. Paul, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D. C. itself! States include Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana, and Vermont.

Given today's climate, it is instructive that the first acts of nullification took place in 1798 and 1799 when Virginia and Kentucky declared the Alien and Sedition Acts passed by the Adams administration to be unconstitutional. The acts put additional restrictions on immigration, allowed deportation of those deemed "dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States" and gave the president the power to imprison aliens during wartime by presidential order alone. The Sedition Act outlawed assembly if there was "intent to oppose any measure of the government" and made it a crime to criticize the government of the United States. When Thomas Jefferson--who had been partly responsible for the nullification in Virginia--won the White House, he stopped enforcement of the laws.

There are two converging trends which are likely responsible for bringing nullification back to the center of American life. The first is ideological. For years Republican-appointed judges on the U. S. Supreme Court have been rolling back federal power and pursuing a states' rights agenda. This has encouraged states and localities to test the limits of federal power not only more frequently in the courts, but also in the form of outright defiance. The second trend is social and ecological. The complexities of modern society make it more difficult for a central authority to create solutions to problems for an entire country. Since federal solutions are either not forthcoming or considered wrongheaded, states and localities are taking things into their own hands.

This second trend may be cause for both hope and despair. It means more power is devolving to the local level and that local politics are becoming more and more important. Fortunately, individuals and small groups can have far more effect on local governmental action than on federal actions. Perhaps unfortunately, the country is splitting into enclaves with deeply differing social and political views. This splitting may be inevitable, and it means the prospects for members of various communities across the nation will differ even more markedly in the future than they do now.

However, for those concerned about environmental and social justice issues, the new nullification may provide an opening to effective action in ways that have not been previously available. Will the progressive and environmentally concerned elements of American society take hold of this opportunity, or will they squander it by continuing to focus on an increasingly feckless federal government?

(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Political Science

The Bush administration's chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality loves to edit government documents on climate science before they are released to the public. The kind of editing he does modifies words like "uncertainty" with "significant and fundamental" and substitutes "may" where "is" once resided. It's an exercise that gives new meaning to the words political science. Where did Philip Cooney, the man in question, learn to edit like that? In his former job as a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute. Generations to come will have him to thank for brightening up the language that predicted the demise of their world through global warming.

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Monday, June 06, 2005

Am I missing something?

The plan in Japan according to this article in the Times Online is to raise giant, fast-growing seaweed in the ocean to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and then convert the seaweed to a biofuel that can be burned. Such a scheme would supposedly be carbon dioxide neutral since it would release no more carbon dioxide into the air than the seaweed had already absorbed. I don't see how that would do anything to fight global warming unless this biofuel energy takes the place of energy currently generated by fossil fuels. Besides this, the processing of the seaweed involves "superheated steam." Where are they getting the energy to create the steam? From fossil fuels? How will they tend and harvest the seaweed? In boats run on diesel fuel?

My point is that it pays to look at the entire process. Both the reporter and the researcher interviewed seem to be confused, and we can't afford that kind of confusion when it comes to evaluating alternative energy sources.

(Via Energy Bulletin.)

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Sunday, June 05, 2005

Can we move from clueless to concerned?

James Howard Kunstler is out storming the nation hawking his new book, The Long Emergency, a tale of post peak oil woe. His favorite word on the tour seems to be "clueless." My father called me to tell me about an interview with Kunstler on C-SPAN's Book TV. The word "clueless" kept popping out of the receiver. And, that is the theme of Kunstler's latest blog entry, "Still Clueless." In the Book TV interview, Kunstler indicated that The Long Emergency is already in its third printing after being released only a few weeks ago. Can James Howard Kunstler somehow transform the American nation from one that is clueless into one that is concerned?

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"Climate surprises are to be expected"

"The Discovery of Rapid Climate Change," an article archived on the Physics Today site, takes you through a succinct history of how scientists came to realize that climate change can, in fact, proceed rapidly, that is, within a decade or two. As the article points out, the evidence for such rapid changes has been long available, and its meaning has been correctly interpreted by many scientists. But, it took a particular kind of evidence to bring about a paradigm shift among climatologists. Because so much of the work of climatologists rests on the notion that climate changes take place over long periods, at least centuries and more likely millennia, much of the work available today may be underestimating the possibility of rapid climate change. Thus, as one government report rather understatedly concludes, "climate surprises are to be expected."

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