Sunday, August 29, 2010

Personality profile: Do you "go with the flow" or do you "stock up" just in case?

A frequent critique of those who claim we still have enormous stocks of resources left to exploit is that the flow or rate of extraction is far more important to the health of the world economy than the size of the stocks. If we can't get it out of the ground at the rate we'd like to, then that is the key restraint. Hence the concern about peak production of resources such as oil, natural gas, coal, phosphorus, and even gold.

It occurred to me that this argument might be due in part to differences in personality, but also to flaws in one's understanding of how the world actually works. Let's think for a moment about how the world actually works. All life on Earth (except that of certain deep-sea creatures living off the heat of the Earth's core) ultimately depends on the daily flow of sunlight. The sunlight enables plants to create food for themselves and for animals. There are storage mechanisms for when the light is gone at night or when it's seasonally weak and short-lived in winter. But, generally nothing could survive long without the Sun.

So too, our entire civilization lives on flows of energy, food, water and other resources. While it has the capacity to store resources, the end of the needed flows would mean the end of our civilization in short order.

Given all this, why is it that some people believe they can really store up much of anything? Yes, it is wise to have emergency supplies in case of a power outage or other disruption that might make it difficult to get food, heat and even water. But can one really stock up for a lifetime?

The illusion that we can is given to us by money. We are told that if we save enough, we can have a comfortable old age. But what is money other than a claim on the current flow of goods and services? It's not really a stockpile of anything. So, its value depends entirely on the smooth flow of energy and resources through the economy.

And yet, there are people who believe that money will somehow make them immune to the breakdown of this flow. Yes, enough money might make it easier for someone to get scarce goods during such a breakdown. But, ultimately a community that fails to function won't be able to provide you with anything no matter how much money you have.

This is the fear behind the thinking of the lone survivalist. And yet, even stockpiles of food and other goods will eventually run out. Without a functioning community capable of defending itself and with continuing access to a flow of energy and goods, no one can survive in the long run.

Today, however, it is far too easy to just "go with the flow," rather than prepare for possible disruptions. This is the philosophy behind the just-in-time inventory religion which is still so dominant. Prudent stockpiles of essential materials including food have been the hallmark of civilization. Without such surpluses and the ability to store them, what we call civilization could never have arisen. Civilization depends on the ability to store surpluses.

Today's cornucopians provide a useful cheering section for the just-in-time religion since they are the ultimate "go with the flow" crowd. They like to cite the principle of substitution as their defense against running low on critical resources. No need to worry about using up nonrenewable resources, they say. But, what they always seem to leave out is that substitution takes time. What if we don't have enough time for a smooth transition from one resource to another? Won't happen, the cornucopians say. You see, the marketplace is just like magic. Things show up the instant they are needed! (This is true until it isn't.)

What I'm getting at is that the balanced personality would recognize that all of us live on flows of energy and resources and that our cooperation to keep those flows moving is critical. But that same balanced personality would also recognize the potential for serious problems should those flows be curtailed. Therefore, the balanced personality would want three things: 1) That we have a reasonably large stockpile of critical goods in case of a temporary disruption of flows, 2) that what we rely on for our survival be by and large renewable, and 3) that our demand for renewable resources would come into balance with the supply we can reasonably expect--considerably less than fossil fuels have provided us.

It's hard to find such balanced thinking in the world we now live in. But that balance is precisely what we will need most in the years to come.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The illusion of individual risk

Every society attempts to determine which risks will be borne by the individual and which will be borne by the community. It is certainly not an exact science, and there are many situations in which risk is presumably blended, some being shouldered by the individual and some by the group, either the community in general or a specified group such as a pool of policyholders. An example would be deductibles or co-pays for various kinds of insurance. The policyholder is at risk up to a certain amount. After that, the insurance company, which really means the policyholders in the group, bear the risk.

But my task is to convince you that the idea of individual risk is flawed, and that to the extent we organize our society around it we are being hoodwinked by a false libertarian ideology, one that tells us there are choices available to the individual the consequences of which will fall only to that individual. I am going to discuss this in the context of energy and resources later, but first let me offer another kind of illustration.

Controversy continues to rage over mandatory helmet laws for motorcycles, scooters, and bicycles. Two states require no helmet for any of the three. (They are Illinois and Iowa.) Many states require helmets only for those under a certain age--ranging from 17 to 20 for motorcycles and 14 to 17 for bicycles. No state requires adult bicycle riders to wear helmets.

I am not trying to argue here for or against specific helmet requirements. You can certainly find many sites on the Internet that will argue that wearing a helmet ought to be an individual choice. But do the consequences of not wearing one fall merely on the individual?

Long ago during two separate time periods, I did marketing work for two rehabilitation hospitals, the kind that treat head injuries from motorcycle and other accidents. Yes, these hospitals compete for the very lucrative task of treating traumatic head injuries as well as other types of injuries requiring extensive rehabilitative stays in a hospital. So, now you have at least one clue about how the consequences of such injuries are actually distributed.

If you are insured, your insurance picks up much of the tab which means other policyholders are picking up your bill; that's how insurance is designed. But, if traumatic head injuries are more numerous than the insurance company anticipates, look for a rate increase to pay for the very costly treatment.

Okay, so what happens if you aren't insured? Well, in my state the state government picks up your bill, and that, of course, means all taxpayers do. What is the logic behind this? The state figures that without rehabilitation a trauma victim with severe injuries will become a long-term burden on the state and the local community through other programs that serve low-income citizens in the areas of housing, employment, home health care and transportation. It's much cheaper to bring the injured person back to his or her fullest capabilities than to treat ongoing disabilities resulting from an accident. It's also the right thing to do for that person.

But there are all sorts of other consequences of a traumatic head injury that can affect the individual and his or her family and community for years afterwards. For those who never fully recovery there can be a lifetime of follow-up services, not all of them covered by insurance and many paid for with tax dollars. Some patients who appear to have a full recovery develop subtle deficits in higher reasoning functions and find that the speed with which they formerly thought through problems, say, simple calculations, is not there. These ongoing deficits take a toll on those around the injured person even though he or she appears healed.

I've used this illustration because I am so familiar with it. But I want to apply the same logic to the way in which we use resources, particularly energy. Most Americans feel that they have a right to use as much energy as they choose so long as they can pay for it. The perceived risk is that you may not be able to pay for it, not that its supply could become scarce, something that would affect myriad systems in society, not just the individual.

In an era of rising supplies of just about everything including energy, the marketplace solution to allocating resources functioned reasonably well with occasional shortages and disruptions and, of course, with the attendant steep inequality of distribution. But, running low permanently was not considered a risk. The marketplace would always magically bring on new supply or at least substitutes.

As we face a future of constrained resources, the risks are increasingly shifting from the individual person or company to society as a whole. My resource use no longer simply drives up prices which will then cause mining companies and oil and gas companies to produce whatever society might need at ever higher rates. Instead, my profligate use of resources threatens to destabilize the very social, economic and governmental systems I depend on. Should I merely be entitled to all that I can pay for?

So much of the freedom of action we take for granted today is, in fact, a product of the availability of huge amounts of energy. Of course, not to allow the individual some range of action to take risks would indeed make our lives exceedingly frustrating and dull and our societies stagnant. But as we head down the slope of energy and resource constraints, we as a society are going to have to rethink the idea that the risks associated with access to resources are an individual risk. They are increasingly going to become a societal risk to which we will need to apply some restraints regardless of the ability to pay in order to insure the stability and integrity of society as a whole.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Global coal supplies: It might be worse than anyone thinks

My latest column on Scitizen entitled "Global Coal Supplies: It Might Be Worse Than Anyone Thinks" has now been posted. Here is the teaser:
A new study on global coal supplies suggests a worldwide peak in production from existing fields in 2011.....Read more

Sunday, August 15, 2010

James McCommons' year-long train ride

Henry David Thoreau commented at length on the frequent interruptions of his day caused by the whistle, rumble, and hiss of steam-powered trains on the Fitchburg Railroad which passed not far from his house on Walden Pond. The railroad symbolized that commercial "getting and spending" world maligned by Wordsworth in his poem The World Is Too Much With Us.

How different the railroad seems to most of us 150 years hence! As I read James McCommons' compelling account of his year riding Amtrak, Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service, the memories came streaming in. In the little burg where I grew up just two blocks from my house trains passed every evening around bedtime. The low roar of the diesel locomotives and the syncopated clatter of the railway cars on the track, far from disturbing me, lulled me to sleep.

As a young boy there were overnight trips in sleeper cars on the Denver Zephyr, one leg in the family's annual journey to Colorado for a skiing vacation in places like Vail and Aspen, long before they became exclusive celebrity playgrounds. The observation car provided a geography lesson as the Great Plains gradually gave way to the Rocky Mountains in the dusky twilight. The dining car seemed as exotic as a circus act: A formal dinner in a moving vehicle, who thought of something as neat as that? At night the gentle rocking of the train made me sleep, well, like a baby.

Passenger trains still seemed glamorous and contemporary then. Yet with only 5 percent of the passenger market, they were already lurching toward oblivion.

But McCommons' book is not about the past, but about the future of passenger rail, right? In fact, it is about both. He seamlessly weaves the history of passenger rail in with his artful travelogues as he describes the scenery he sees, the people he meets, and the problems and joys he encounters during a year of train travel that covers nearly every major Amtrak route. These travelogues are an absolute pleasure to read. And, they provide an excellent window on the current state of passenger rail in America today. Frequently, McCommons takes train trips to meet people who are actively shaping passenger rail in the United States. That's the part of the book about the future.

In reading this book it helps to have fond memories of train travel for this predisposes you to look carefully for clues about what might be done to improve and expand service. It helps even more if you have occasion to ride Amtrak today as I do to reach Chicago or visit friends in Minnesota via the Empire Builder. But herein lies part of the problem. McCommons tells us that an astoundingly low proportion of Americans have ever been on an intercity train, less than 2 percent! Only 3 percent use light rail or commuter lines. It's hard to build sympathy for a mode of travel that most Americans have never experienced and may know only from movies or television.

Still, it is indicative of the hold trains have on the popular imagination that many routes have Wikipedia entries. How many airline routes have that! It is this appeal which provides some hope. After all, many of the Amtrak routes which remain today exist only because people in the localities served by those routes fought hard to keep them. Some of the stories are detailed in the book. And, when the Bush administration tried to destroy Amtrak by zeroing out its budget, Congress simply passed Amtrak funding by veto-proof majorities. People want passenger rail.

Now, comes the sticky part. An economist acquaintance of mine has tried to drill into me that we as a society should tax the things we don't want, and let the market sort out what should take their place. If we do that, then the government doesn't need to pick winners by subsidizing anything. In fact, he insists, if the U. S. government would stop subsidizing highway travel, that is, if people were forced to pay the true cost of driving on highways, they would soon flock to rail and that rail would be privately financed because it would be profitable.

He may be right, but I am a realist. I don't think we will ever get a chance to find out if his system would work. Societies have always considered transportation as simply too important to be left to the marketplace--from the roads of the Roman Empire all the way to today's newest airports. And, so perhaps the critical point that McCommons' book makes is that if we want passenger rail to thrive in America, we as a society will have to pay for it. Passenger rail will never be profitable in the narrow sense that businesses are. But it will be vastly profitable to society by other measures: energy efficiency; national cohesion; private development associated with transit; and the comfort, aesthetic pleasure, and sociability that trains offer over other types of transport.

That means we need to focus on making passenger rail so attractive that people will abandon their cars because they think that taking the train is a better idea. And, to do that we will have to invest far more in passenger rail than we do today.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

The end of prevention

It is a frequent conceit among humans that they are at the beginning of some new important era or at the end of a previous grand or decadent era. It is quite boring to imagine oneself simply in the ongoing stream of an already well-established pattern of life that will neither reach a climax nor inaugurate a new epoch.

What if, a friend of mine proposed, we are not approaching a point that will tip us into a grand ecological catastrophe which we are called upon to prevent? What if we are in the middle of that catastrophe and it began some time ago?

So much of the environmental community is focused on preventing this catastrophe. So much of the scientific community is warning us about what we must change in order to avert disaster. Of course, disaster is already arriving for many species who are being wiped out daily by the encroachments and ill effects of industrial society. But apparently the marker for much of the public will be widespread human casualties from lack of heat, lack of food, disease and myriad other causes.

William Catton Jr., author of Overshoot and Bottleneck, has already stepped forward and said that the public will have to wait no longer than sometime in this century for their preferred signal that the great ecological catastrophe is upon us. He believes we are now on a trajectory for a mass dieoff of humans. It probably won't mean the extinction of homo sapiens, he believes. But it will mean the end of industrial civilization as we've known it.

The idea that we can prevent the great ecological catastrophe has certain psychological effects that I have noticed even in myself. For some it creates a great sense of urgency and a desire to leaflet the neighborhood. There is a deadline looming, and we must as a society act in time. If we succeed at prevention, then life will return to normal. For others the idea that we still have time for preventive measures simply means that we can leave the task of prevention to future generations. It'll be their problem. But if, as my friend and the venerable William Catton suggest, the catastrophe is upon us, then neither of these outlooks will do.

Now some who believe that the catastrophe is here have chosen resignation as their stance. Since we have not prevented the catastrophe from happening and it is too late to prevent it, then there is nothing that can be done. But we do not typically take this attitude with an illness, for example. Having failed to prevent it, we set about treating it. We try to alleviate the symptoms if they are severe. We attempt to get at the underlying cause to shorten the time of recovery. And, if the problem proves chronic, we look for ways to cope with the condition long term.

All three of these approaches seem appropriate for those who accept that we are now beyond the possibility of preventing a collapse of some type in our ecosystems and ultimately our society. The cure, if there is one, is not something that will take us back to the coveted perpetual economic growth of industrialism, but forward to a sustainable society based on other principles.

For those alive today, we may be faced with something akin to dealing with a chronic disease. Fortunately, unlike actions aimed at prevention, there is no expiration date on our task. If we are at the end of prevention, then we might be fated simply to cope with the intractable problems of climate change and declining energy and resources. But "cope" seems too small a word for the task ahead. When people think of coping with a situation, they think of others around them happily proceeding with business-as-usual while they cope. What is actually available to us is a lifetime of creative response in collaboration with others to an unprecedented challenge. That view I believe takes us into a new dimension and along the path of action.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

What will it take to convince people about the dangers of peak oil?

As I watched the compelling interview of Michael Ruppert which was made into the movie Collapse, I found myself identifying with Ruppert's frustration that the public does not seem to understand the problem of peak oil and that it's hard to figure out what will convince it that peak oil is a serious problem.

I contrasted Ruppert's use of everyday analogies to illustrate the problem with the fact-and-figure laden presentations I've seen from Matt Simmons over the years and Simmons' book, Twilight in the Desert, a challenging tome of technical information that lifted the veil on Saudi Arabia's oil reserves. Each approach seeks out different audiences. Ruppert talked to a general audience through his now defunct newsletter. Simmons was typically addressing well-informed specialist audiences that were capable of following his technical explanations.

I applaud and have benefitted from the efforts of both to bring the realities of peak oil to a larger audience. It occasionally concerned me, however, that the two would engage in prognostications that time would likely debunk primarily because they put a near-term emphasis on them. At the time he was interviewed for Collapse Ruppert believed that the recent economic crash was the beginning of the unraveling of industrial civilization. Since then a partial revival, especially in Asia, has made that view seem at best premature. He may turn out to be right in the long run. But not today!

Simmons has been lecturing about the decrepit state of the oil and natural gas infrastructure. When I saw him at a conference in 2008, he was concerned that an oil crisis would quickly lead drivers to top off their tanks and draw down the levels of petroleum products in pipelines and other oil infrastructure below what he called the "minimum operating level." (PDF) Such a drawdown would, in his view, cripple the entire system and halt transportation of food and other critical commodities. Though he didn't exactly predict that such an event was imminent, he was clearly very concerned that it could happen at any time. As of this writing, it hasn't happened. That doesn't mean that it won't. Just not today!

Unfortunately, such failed predictions provide fodder to those who tell the public that erroneous predictions somehow invalidate the concept of peak oil as well as the writings and presentations of those who make such predictions. I myself have been too much obsessed with a possible natural gas cliff in North America. I had the good sense to use a question mark in the title of the piece cited. But I'm not sure that's much of a defense.

My professional experience is in the area of mass communications. Naturally, when I think about important public issues, I think about how to communicate about them to a broad public. Lately, however, I've been pondering a piece of advice Richard Heinberg often gives in his lectures. He tells his audiences that like an airplane passenger in a depressurization emergency who is instructed to put on his or her own oxygen mask before assisting others, those in the peak oil movement need to make their own peak oil preparations before assisting others. Partly this is a practical consideration. How can one be effective in assisting in the energy transition if one's own finances, livelihood, and basic needs such as housing, food and transportation are not reasonably robust?

But there is another important aspect to one's own preparation. Last week I was traveling in Canada and had a long conversation concerning peak oil with a couple staying at a bed and breakfast. Once they found out that I write frequently on the topic, they were interested in what I had to say. But they were also keenly interested in what I was doing to prepare.

I find myself these days especially attentive to people talking about their preparations for a post-peak oil world. I am partly learning and partly measuring myself against their level of preparation. If they are, in my evaluation, further along than I am, my focus is even more intense.

That has turned out to be an important clue for me about what it will take to convince the public about the dangers of peak oil. There is no more compelling testimony that peak oil is a critical issue than the time and treasure one is willing to put into preparing oneself for a post-peak oil world.