Sunday, January 27, 2008

Cornucopians and their magical thinking

We are all subject to bouts of magical thinking. The classic and most widespread form of this is to confuse correlation with causation. One can see it in daily life: Objects such as rabbits' feet, special stones, and certain "lucky" pieces of clothing are presumed to be the cause of whatever good fortune comes to the holder or wearer. One can see it in commentary on financial markets: Presidential election years in the United States are bullish for the stock market as if for some arcane and indecipherable reason, presidential elections cause the stock market to go up. Another form is the belief that the mind can affect the physical world. If we wish for something hard enough (as opposed to taking concrete steps to achieve it), it will happen.

And, so it is with the cornucopian thinker. He (or she) explains that most accepted measures of human well-being have been rising since 1800. But so has population. Ergo, population increases simply cannot result in human misery in the future. The correlation--a rise in living standards while population increased--means that rising populations cause beneficial things to happen to most human beings. (Never mind that fossil fuel usage was increasing exponentially during most of this period. And, never mind that the cornucopian only considers human well-being, especially the ability of humans to extract their needs from nature in the short run. Never is the long-term health of the ecosphere on which all humans depend seriously considered.)

Another bedrock of cornucopian magical thinking is that substitutes will always be available for any resource that becomes scarce. As you will see below, our ability to think is supposed to allow us always to find substitutes. A favorite example is the use of fiber optic cable in place of copper as copper ores have declined in quality. Even now the high price of oil is creating increased demand for coal and renewal energy sources. Substitution has and does occur, but it is hard to see what substitutes there might be for potable water or a climate suitable for human habitation. Perhaps we will desalinate the oceans and geoengineer the climate. But, that would take huge amounts of energy and, when it comes to climate, we would need a precise knowledge about the climate effects of any proposed geoengineering fix so as not to create the wrong kind of climate.

As for energy, even the world's foremost cornucopian thinker, Julian Simon, admitted that energy is the "master resource" upon which the extraction and refining of all other resources depend. For Simon it is the sum total of all the efforts of an increasing population which will bring us solutions to any energy shortages. "Resources come out of people's minds more than out of the ground or air," Simon said in a now-famous Wired magazine interview. He went on to say that "[m]inds matter economically as much as or more than hands or mouths. Human beings create more than they use, on average. It had to be so, or we would be an extinct species."

Now this is not exactly the belief that if you think about something it will happen, but it comes awfully close. It is the passivity that such ideas engender that move this kind of thinking over the line into magical thinking. We are led to believe that all of our environmental and resource problems can be left to technical experts who will surely solve them without much disruption to our lives. What Simon is implying is that if we think hard enough, human ingenuity will always find a way to overcome supposed limits on the human species. (Notice also that he says above that people "create" rather than extract resources which one should put down to just plain confusion about how the natural world works.) And, just so people would get his point, he stated the following in another article:
We have in our hands now--actually, in our libraries--the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years. Most amazing is that most of this specific body of knowledge was developed within just the past two centuries or so, though it rests, of course, on basic knowledge that had accumulated for millennia.

Not only are people capable of great ingenuity when faced with great challenges, but they have already imagined and written down all the solutions to all the challenges to basic survival that we will face as a species for the next 7 billion years. Now, that might be properly classed as wishful thinking, perhaps the greatest piece of wishful thinking of all time. (Again one wonders about the oversight that in the past two centuries fossil fuel consumption has had a lot to do with giving people the time and power to discover and elaborate the basic knowledge to which Simon alludes--even if it now appears that that knowledge will not solve all of our future problems.)

Perhaps just as important as being able to spot cornucopian magical thinking is understanding the motive behind it. Simon elucidated his agenda and that of many other cornucopians in the following sentences from the article just cited above:

The extent to which the political-social-economic system provides personal freedom from government coercion is a crucial element in the economics of resources and population. Skilled persons require an appropriate social and economic framework that provides incentives for working hard and taking risks, enabling their talents to flower and come to fruition. The key elements of such a framework are economic liberty, respect for property, and fair and sensible rules of the market that are enforced equally for all.

What Simon--who was a professor of business administration, not a scientist--most feared was that concerns about the environment and about human population growth would lead to government intervention in the economy and society. That would undermine the free-market capitalism which he so stridently believed is the best form of social organization. (It is no accident that the piece quoted above was written for the free-market, libertarian-minded Cato Institute.)

But perhaps even more basic than this is Simon's admission in the preface to his book, The Ultimate Resource, that he once believed that population and resource problems were worrisome and urgent. His research into the matter, however, reversed his views. And, this research had an important side effect. It helped to lift him out of long depression (which he claims had nothing to do with his previous views on population and resources), a depression that never again returned. He wrote:

And I believe that if others fully recognize the extraordinarily positive trends that have continued until now, and that can reasonably be expected to continue into the future, it may brighten their outlooks, too.

That is the one thing about which Julian Simon is dead on. Magical thinking like his can often lift our spirits and make us think anything is possible, that is, until reality intrudes and leads to painful and sometimes catastrophic results.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

How the coming home heating crisis could threaten the grid

Canadians think about heat a lot more than most people do for obvious reasons. And, since so many Canadians rely on natural gas to heat their homes, assuring adequate supplies of the stuff is understandably critical to them. This fact was highlighted on a recent trip to Canada where I met with members of Post Carbon Toronto who detailed their concerns about natural gas supplies in North America, concerns which the Canadian government, their fellow Canadians and the largest importer of Canadian natural gas, the United States, seem only too happy to ignore.

The crux of the matter is that North American natural gas production has been stuck on a plateau fluctuating between 26 and 27 trillion cubic feet of production annually since 1998. But, it's not for lack of trying. From a low in early 1999 of 397 active gas drilling rigs in Canada and the United States combined, the count has vaulted to 1,753 active gas rigs for the week just ended. And, the high rig count is not just a recent phenomenon. Combined gas rig counts first reached 1,000 in the year 2000 and fluctuated between about 700 and 1,300 from then until mid-2005. At that point they broke through the 1,300 level and never looked back. The simple fact is that natural gas in North America is getting harder to find; and when we do find it, it is coming in smaller quantities that flow at slower rates than in the past. That's why we are having to drill so many wells just to run in place.

All of this might not seem so desperate were it not all but certain that at some point natural gas production will start to fall, perhaps precipitously so. Oil fields over their lifetime generally exhibit gradually rising and falling production which looks like a bell curve on a graph. However, gas fields quickly reach a plateau in production (usually determined by what a pipeline can carry), remain on the plateau for a time, and then fall off very quickly once the decline starts. The plateau pattern is followed by what can only be described as a cliff.

(Even before gas production begins to fall, North America's limited natural gas storage capacity could result in a winter heating crisis. Natural gas is now extensively used to generate electricity for which demand peaks during the air conditioning season. Therefore, it is conceivable that a hot summer followed by an unusually cold winter could bring storage down to dangerously low levels. Another peril is a strong hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico that does extensive damage to the natural gas infrastructure there.)

Resource economist Douglas Reynolds, a specialist on North American natural gas, has told me that once the natural gas decline begins, he expects a 5 percent per year drop-off in total production. Reynolds believes such a drop could begin as soon as this year. While imports of liquid natural gas (LNG) could ease the situation, the U. S. currently has only five such ports, and Canada does not anticipate opening any until 2011.

The members of Post Carbon Toronto have little faith that LNG will come fast enough and in quantities large enough to make much of a difference. (For why, see my piece entitled "If we build it, will they come?") And, planned pipelines from Alaska and northern Canada will not arrive anytime soon. So, the question, of course, is this: What will people who rely on natural gas for home heating--and that includes a huge number of people in the United States--do when the crisis hits?

One Post Carbon Toronto member feels certain that they will turn to electricity in a big way to heat their homes. The main problem will not be that natural gas is unavailable since home heating will get first priority (even if it means businesses and public buildings must be shut down). The main problem will be the skyrocketing price of natural gas. In a scramble to find affordable heat, people will turn to the grid via electric space heaters. Those who can will turn to wood. But in large cities such as Toronto (and Chicago and Detroit and Cleveland, for that matter) it will not be practical to do this because most homes do not have wood stoves and because supplies of firewood will be limited. And, although kerosene heaters will certainly be available, kerosene is a petroleum derivative and therefore may not ultimately be any cheaper to heat with than natural gas. Beyond this many apartment and high-rise dwellers will find that building rules or local ordinances prohibit the use of kerosene heaters in their units. All of this points to electricity as a backstop for cash-strapped Canadians and Americans faced with a natural gas shortage in winter.

So, this raises a second question: Will there be enough electricity for all those who want it? The short answer from Toronto is "no." Based on my admittedly rough calculations for the United States, the answer may be "no" here as well. If Americans who heat with natural gas substituted electricity for a mere quarter of their home heating, they would add about 6 percent to total electrical demand. Doesn't sound like much, does it? However, that 6 percent would not be added continuously throughout the year, but concentrated in the coldest months. That could cause a pronounced spike in demand, especially during deep freezes. Add to this the fact that about 20 percent of U. S. electricity is generated from natural gas-fired power plants that will be competing with homeowners for the same dwindling supplies of natural gas.

Right now the American electrical grid has about a 16 percent excess capacity margin. With all the additional demand coming during the winter and with supplies for natural-gas power plants in jeopardy as well, it seems plausible that my rather modest scenario could result in problems for the electrical grid. Keep in mind that this example involves replacing only a modest portion of home heating for homes warmed by natural gas. It takes into account neither the actions of those who own businesses or commercial buildings, nor the actions of homeowners who have gas appliances other than furnaces such as stoves and clothes dryers.

The likely response of the electric utilities, according to my informed Torontonian, will be to raise rates drastically to curtail electric use. Unless they can get some people to turn off their electric heaters, the utilities will risk major power outages and possibly damage to the grid. While rate rises in the middle of winter levied on a desperately cold population will probably not go down well with the public or their elected officials, it may be the only way in the short run to curtail demand and protect the grid.

Given that neither the U. S. nor the Canadian government seems to understand the seriousness of the natural gas predicament in North America, it is no surprise that they haven't thought through the implications for electrical demand once a crisis hits. While the probability of running low on natural gas by itself ought to scare the two governments into instituting emergency conservation programs, the possibility that the electricity might go out in mid-winter at the same time ought to positively terrify them.

Unfortunately, given the current inaction on both sides of the border, this horror movie may soon be coming to a town near you--or possibly even to your own town.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The coal question revisited

My latest column on Scitizen entitled "The Coal Question Revisited" has now been posted. Here is the teaser:
Many people believe the world has enough coal to last hundreds of years. Recent assessments now suggest that coal production could actually start to decline as early as 2025. Read more...

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Manufactured nightmares

There is nothing that says, "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here," quite like a trip to China with Edward Burtynsky, an internationally known Canadian photographer. In a recent film he takes us there for a tour of the detritus of industrial civilization--the mines; the junk heaps; the blackened, desolated landscapes. When the occasional person crops up, that person is the victim of a vast industrial combine that seems to have no head and no tail. If one were angry at it, one wouldn't know exactly where to strike. Certainly, not at these poor people.

Burtynsky's visit to China and a side trip to Bangladesh are the subject of a documentary entitled Manufactured Landscapes. I literally had nightmares after seeing it. Not that it sets out to be a horror film. Burtynsky's calm, measured voice starts out telling us that for much of his career he has been trying to catalogue the effects of industrial society, effects that result in what he calls "manufactured landscapes." For most of the film Burtynsky just lets the action and the pictures speak for themselves as we quietly survey scene after disturbing scene. As we watch, we observe him displaying all the sophistication of a first-rate fine art photographer in his meticulous attention to composition, lighting and color. The results are his disconcerting photos that seem as if they could be exhibits in a civil trial, albeit one that takes place in the world's finest art galleries. And, that is the horror of it all. Burtynsky creates beautifully done photography that silently draws the eye to it and into it, and thereby draws one deep into the horror of the subject matter itself.

Burtynsky says he refrains from politicizing his work. He is not holding a referendum on whether industrial society on balance is good or bad. It would be too easy for people just to vote yes or no, he explains. Rather, he wants viewers to look at things they rarely see--the extractive and industrial processes that make our modern lives possible and the waste--the piles and piles and piles of waste--that result. He wants viewers to look at these things deeply, carefully, quietly, with a patient gaze.

Along on the trip are director Jennifer Baichwal and her film crew who do more than simply record Burtynsky's actions and photos. They do some observing for themselves, showing us a motion-picture version of Burtynsky's manufactured landscapes. Inside Chinese factories we are treated to repetitive manual assembly operations that make one's wrists hurt just from watching. We see young, barefoot Bangladeshi men bailing crude oil out of a half-open, beached oil tanker which is being disassembled for scrap. We get brief interviews with young Chinese factory workers who brag about their prowess, their productivity and the reputation of their employers, all without conveying the slightest awareness that their bodies (particularly their wrists) are being used up to keep costs to a minimum.

Beyond the cumulative environmental and workplace horrors of China's economic juggernaut, viewers feel themselves dwarfed by the scale of operations they witness. They are treated by turns to a seemingly endless factory assembly building; a massive shipyard; a high-rise apartment next to the squat, densely packed residences of old Shanghai; and finally to the construction site of the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest. The scale is vast. But that in itself is not so troubling. It is the momentum that these places convey.

China is a society with huge built-in momentum that is everywhere on display in this film. To politically and sociologically aware eyes it does not seem possible that anything could deflect Chinese society from its current course, save a brick wall--perhaps in the form of peak oil or massive drought or plague. It is to this thought that I think I owe my nightmares. For one wishes neither for China's current course to continue, nor for the arrival of those things which seem potent enough to stop it.

It is hard enough to imagine North America and Europe coming to their senses and embarking on a crash program for creating a sustainable society. After seeing Manufactured Landscapes, it is all but impossible to imagine China embarking on such a course. With a population of 1.3 billion of which tens of millions stream each year from the countryside into the cities; a hypercaffeinated growth rate of 10 percent which is necessary to create jobs for all those urban arrivals; and greenhouse gas emissions now surpassing those of the United States would it be unfair to say that as goes China, so goes the world? That is the stuff from which nightmares are manufactured.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

The services we seek

It is now almost de rigueur for any self-respecting peak oil activist engaged in a conversation about energy to announce that the automobile era will soon be over; that cheap air travel and cheap food will soon be a thing of the past; and that life as we know it will generally disappear.

If anybody--most probably someone already in the know--is still listening at that point, the conversation may continue. But just as often those who are out of the peak oil loop will ask to talk about something else, as if the peak oil activist has made some thoughtless remark about one of his listeners lacking an arm. Perhaps a different approach would yield better results.

Economists tell us that it is not goods which people seek, but the services which goods provide. We would have scant use for cars if they didn't provide transportation. Air-conditioners would be of little import if they didn't produce cool homes and offices. Processed foods would be of no interest if they did not satisfy our hunger and our need for pleasurable tastes. Unfortunately, most people, especially those in North America, equate their cars with transportation. They may also equate air-conditioners with a cool environment in summer. And, they may unconsciously think of grocery store shelves as the point of origin for their food. To simply tell them that all of this is coming to an end because it is unsustainable seems to imply that every service they depend on for mobility, comfort and nutrition will abruptly disappear. People either won't believe it or they'll say that the situation as described seems hopeless.

But neither the need for these services nor the means to provide them will disappear. Rather the mode in which they are offered and the cleverness and amount of effort needed to get them will change. The challenge then is to get people to think not about such notions as electric cars, but rather about how to get the mobility they want, say, through public transportation, passenger rail, cycling and even walking. They need to be led to contemplate how they can keep their homes and offices and themselves cool in ways other than turning on their air-conditioners. They need to be encouraged to think about alternatives to getting the food they need such as farmers' markets, local farms, and home or community gardens. In short, they need to participate in the response. All of this seems plainly obvious. The point then is this: It is only half a discussion to talk about the things we'll have to give up after peak oil and not about the ways in which we'll obtain the services those things represent.

It is precisely this "thing" orientation which has to date prevented us from thinking clearly about organizing our lives and our societies. Instead of building beautiful, densely populated, pedestrian-friendly cities, we have sprawled out into the countryside because cheap energy and inexpensive private automobiles made it possible. The result has been that the distance between the services we need everyday has gotten much greater--because it could. We think we've gained mobility and saved time. All we've really done is swap the cheap, easy, low-energy mobility of walking, cycling and public transportation, for the privatized, high-energy, high-maintenance mobility of the car. This thing called the car which was supposed to liberate us ends up only isolating us and degrading our social and physical health as well as the health of the planet.

Admittedly, it is difficult to convince people that a different way of doing something will provide satisfactory results. But as long as the emphasis remains on an energy transition that for example, simply replaces one kind of car with another, the real work of adjusting to a low-energy society will be unfinished. Rather, we need a thorough-going inventory and analysis of the services we seek and new ways to obtain them with a lot less energy.

Much of that thinking is already being done, and many experiments are underway. The task is to introduce the "services" way of thinking into peak oil discourse so that 1) we are not inadvertantly promoting the idea that gadgets and products that are "greener" are always the best route to adaptation and 2) people can have confidence that there are, in fact, ways--perhaps many good ways--to get the everyday services we seek.