Sunday, June 25, 2006

Russia's plight: A cautionary tale about the need to relocalize

Recent mention in the media of more than a decade of population decline in Russia elicited little more than a yawn from the somnolent public. The usual explanations link that decline to events in Russia which seem specific to that country: a high rate of alcoholism, a poor public health system, widespread denial about a raging AIDS epidemic, and economic hard times. No doubt there are many things uniquely Russian about the sad state of Russian society. But is Russia's decline really only about Russia? Can we safely ignore the bad news and assume nothing like it can happen to us?

Perhaps if Joseph Tainter, author of The Collapse of Complex Societies, had published his book today instead of in 1988, he might not have had to reach back so far in history for an example of a complex society in collapse. (For a brief summary of Tainter's ideas, read his 1996 article entitled, Complexity, Problem Solving and Sustainable Societies.) And, if William Catton, author of Overshoot, had published his book this year instead of in 1980, he might have had to look no further than post-Soviet Russia for an example of how a reduction in the scope of trade relations can create an ecological crisis of sorts, one that led to a long economic depression in Russia which at its depth cut the country's GDP in half. (This was far worse than what the United States experienced in The Great Depression of the 1930s.)

Let's take Tainter first. Whatever one believes were the causes of the breakup of the Soviet Union, the complex economic and political arrangements of the Soviet block were becoming increasingly untenable given shifting realities. One of Tainter's contentions is that when a complex system doesn't meet the needs of the people it governs, they may seek to break off from that system, i.e., govern themselves under conditions of lower complexity. It is certainly true that changing technology, particularly communications technology; the globalization it spawned; and the military and diplomatic pressure applied to the Soviet system worked to confound its inflexible, hierarchical pattern of governance and economic organization. Those arrangements weren't delivering to people what they could now see others getting in terms of material goods, services and freedom of movement. Not even the Red Army could stop the cascade of events that finally fractured the Soviet empire.

In his book Overshoot Catton explains how a vast reduction in the scope of international trade was, in part, responsible for the severity of The Great Depression. Many goods and services that were formerly obtained through trade either had to be made within each country or region or simply done without. Since much of the world's productive capacity had become specialized by country and region, in the short term, people suffered a triple calamity. First, they found that things they needed that had formerly been imported from other countries weren't widely available. Second, they found that the things which they themselves produced were in considerably less demand since foreign markets had essentially been closed. Third, many whose work depended on exports found themselves out of jobs. This, of course, made it difficult for those people to buy whatever essentials were still affordable in the depression-plagued economy. And, that rippled through the rest of the domestic economy.

The inciting event for The Great Depression was financial: the worldwide stock market crash of 1929. The inciting events for the breakup of the Soviet Union were a mix of economic, social, political and military developments that resulted in a major reduction in scope. But, what might the inciting event be for a worldwide reduction in the scope of trade? Those who believe we are nearing a peak in world oil production have an answer: very high oil prices.

Because petroleum-based liquid fuels power the vast majority of the world's land, sea and air transportation fleet, it should be fairly obvious that skyrocketing fuel prices could destroy the current world trading system. That system is based on cheap fuel. Without it, many things which are routinely shipped across the oceans or by airfreight today would cease to move. Inexpensive plastic household goods, bottled water, flowers and fresh produce come to mind. At first, anything with low value per unit of weight or volume would be in jeopardy. As the crisis deepened, perhaps only luxury goods would be worth transporting long distances. We would, in a manner of speaking, be thrown back to the days of Marco Polo. Yes, we would have more technological resources and still many more times the power, but we would lack the incentive to use it--at least, in the way we have become accustomed to using it.

A sudden reduction in scope might very well manifest itself as an economic depression. But, this time the underlying cause would not be financial, but rather the declining availability of a key resource. The results would be far-reaching. All of the new governments formed in the wake of the Soviet breakup including the Russian government found themselves disoriented and unprepared. Long settled trade, political and social arrangements were suddenly ripped away with nothing immediately available to replace them. The results have been nothing short of catastrophic for the average citizen.

In Russia, for example, male life expectancy plummeted from 64 to 57 years. It has recovered a bit and now hovers around 59. But, that number may soon be a memory as the AIDS epidemic overwhelms the dysfunctional public health system. Death rates from AIDS and other causes are skyrocketing. The blow to important public services, especially health services, has been so severe that demographers say that if death rates remain at this level and birth rates continue their current low trajectory of about 1.2 per woman (far below the 2.1 replacement rate), Russian population could fall 22 percent by 2050. Already, population has fallen by about 3 percent from a peak of more than 148 million in the early 1990s to about 143 million today.

Such is the power of a sudden reduction in scope that it not only undermines the economic well-being of those affected, but also ultimately the ability of their government and community institutions to cope with things most of us in wealthy industrialized nations take for granted.

There are, in addition, all manner of foreign policy implications--most of them, in this case, quite bad--when one empire crumbles while another lives on. But, what kind of mess would we find ourselves in should a sudden reduction in scope visit the entire globe, one precipitated by extremely high oil prices?

This is why those concerned about peak oil have been calling for the relocalization of economic life; this is why they have been saying that we have no time to lose. We need only look to Russia to see what they mean.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Nonrenewable renewables: The hidden life of biofuels

The farm fields are again sprouting with their recently planted corn and soybeans, and those verdant fields, once reserved for growing food, are increasingly devoted to what people are now calling renewable fuels. Those fuels, ethanol from corn and biodiesel from soybean oil, are touted as the path to energy independence and clean air and as an answer to global warming. How innocuous and wholesome these fuels must seem: They come from things we eat; the smell of biodiesel is no more offensive than that of french fry oil; ethanol is nothing more than the same alcohol we find in all alcoholic drinks; and the carbon dioxide which both fuels release into the atmosphere gets reabsorbed by the following year's planting.

That, anyway, is the extent of the story one might get from recent coverage of the biofuels boom. But are these fuels really the renewable wonders they seem? That may hinge on what people mean by renewable. If they mean that for a limited time the crops from which liquid biofuels are made can be repeatedly grown, harvested and processed to make biofuels, then they are perhaps in a very narrow sense correct. If what they mean by renewable is sustainable, then they are just plain wrong. Biofuels produced the way we are producing them today are not even close to sustainable. In truth, the current production methods for biofuels are more like mining operations than farming operations. That calls into question whether such fuels can deliver the benefits which are now being so incessantly trumpeted in the news media.

To understand why this is so, we have to go beyond the fleeting glimpses of farm fields that we get from our cars--glimpses that for many of us form the sum total of our knowledge of farming. If one were to stand across from a field of corn or soybeans for an entire season, one would, in most cases, witness the following: plowing done with a tractor, planting using large mechanical planters, the spraying of herbicides and pesticides, the application of fertilizers, irrigation (in some cases), and harvesting done by large machinery. In fact, one would see that all of the heavy field work is done by petroleum-powered machines.

This style of industrial farming involves huge petroleum and natural gas inputs to fuel the machinery; to make and apply the herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers; and to irrigate and harvest the crops. Many people don't know that oil is the basis for most herbicides and pesticides and that natural gas is the basis for most of the world's nitrogen fertilizers. (Nitrogen fertilizers are used heavily on corn, but not on soybeans which produce their own nitrogen.) Both oil and natural gas are finite resources; their use to help grow crops for fuel can in no way be called sustainable. In effect, we are mining finite hydrocarbons to grow crops for biofuels.

In addition, industrial farming causes soil erosion on a horrific scale. A recent study shows that soil in the United States is eroding at a rate that is 10 times faster than the rate at which it is being replenished. The numbers are worse in places such as India and China where the erosion rates are 30 to 40 times faster than the rate of replenishment. And, while many areas of the United States get ample rainfall, others require irrigation to be productive. That leads to another problem: overpumping. David Pimentel, one of the world's leading researchers on biofuels, pointed out in a recent study that "[i]n some Western U. S. irrigated corn acreage, for instance, in some regions of Arizona, groundwater is being pumped 10 times faster than the natural recharge of aquifers." This can hardly be termed a sustainable practice.

But, even where there is plenty of water to pump, irrigation can cause salt to build up in the soil rendering it useless for crops. In all, close to 50 million acres of farmland worldwide are lost to soil erosion and salinity each year. In effect, we are mining the soil and the acquifers of the world to produce crops.

But, we have yet to discuss the processing of crops for liquid biofuels. Here, the news is no better. First, of course, there is the diesel or gasoline burned to transport crops from the fields and grain elevators to the production facilities. More fuel is burned to transport the finished fuels from the production facilities to the service stations. The production facilities themselves run on a combination of electricity, natural gas and/or coal. In fact, the high price of natural gas has led ethanol producers to build new plants that will use coal for energy and heat. Electricity isn't exactly clean, either. It has to come from a generating plant that almost always uses either coal, natural gas or uranium to produce it. What this means is that the reputation that ethanol and biodiesel have for being "clean fuels" is rapidly being tarnished. The extensive use of fossil fuel energy to produce liquid biofuels can in no way be construed as renewable. Again, we are simply mining finite resources to run the production facilities.

The obvious question for newcomers to the biofuels debate is why biofuels themselves aren't used to run the production plants. The answer is troublingly simple: Under present methods of agriculture and processing, liquid biofuels are energy losers. Their production uses more energy in the form of fossil fuels than the finished biofuels contain. In fact, the entire biofuel regime is not only unsustainable, but a huge boondoggle which only exists because of large government subsidies. Absent those subsidies, no one would make liquid biofuels in commercial quantities.

Perhaps, you say, technology will improve, and we will eventually get more energy from biofuels than we expend to make them. No one can predict the future. But it is worth keeping in mind that the energy profit ratio--the amount of energy we get back from petroleum, natural gas and coal for each unit we expend extracting, processing and transporting them--ranges from 10 to 1 to 20 to 1. Biofuels are currently below 1 to 1 in their return. In other words, they are energy negative. Even if their energy profit ratio were to improve to say, 2 to 1 or 3 to 1, we would still find ourselves living in a very low-energy world if we had to rely on biofuels alone.

But, it is doubtful that, even in this best-case scenario, biofuels would do very much to help us. First, there isn't enough arable land to make much of a dent in the liquid fuels market. Perhaps even more important, food and fuel are already beginning to compete with one another and that has serious implications for most of the world's population which is poor. Some 3.7 billion people are currently considered malnourished. The last thing they need is higher food prices.

So, next time you pass by those fields of corn and soy, think of what you don't see; think of the hidden life of biofuels. Don't get bamboozled by the cynical public relations ploys of the biofuels producers; their only goal, after all, is to get you to support their lucrative subsidies. And, don't get taken in either by the wishful thinking of well-intentioned biofuels advocates; unfortunately, some may lead you to believe that life in the future will look pretty much like life in the recent past if we commit to biofuels.

Liquid biofuels are not renewable under any reasonable definition that also means sustainable. And, far from helping us kick our fossil fuel habit, the production of biofuels is only making our addiction worse.

(This article was based in part on papers published by David Pimentel and Tad Patzek. If you would like copies of those papers, email Kurt Cobb at