Sunday, November 19, 2017

Agriculture and climate change: Is farming really a moveable feast?

There is a notion afoot that our agricultural production can simply migrate toward the poles in the face of climate change as areas in lower latitudes overheat and dry up. Few people contemplate what such a move would entail and whether it would actually be feasible.

One assumption behind this falsely reassuring idea is that soil quality is somehow roughly uniform across the planet. But, of course, this is completely false. Soil quality and composition vary widely, often within walking distance on the same farm. Farmers simply moving north (or south in the Southern Hemisphere) in response to climate change will not automatically encounter soil suitable for farming.

We must also consider that lands not previously farmed may very well be forested. Knocking down the trees and clearing the stumps might make such lands arable. But the loss of carbon storage that trees represent would only make climate change worse.

Quite often we think of rural areas as being undeveloped. But nothing could be further from the truth. Agricultural regions have complex networks involving roads, communications and electricity grids, irrigation systems, grain elevators, farm supply and machinery merchants, rail depots, agricultural research stations and field projects, government-sponsored agricultural assistance centers and the specialists attached to them, and entire towns which act as gathering places and service centers for those working in rural communities. All of this would have to be duplicated in newly opened agricultural lands for which pioneering settlers would have to be recruited. These pioneers would have to want to live in previously unsettled or sparsely settled areas with few amenities.

Unlike previous eras when farming was a way of life for most people and owning farmland was seen as a path to self-sufficiency and independence, these new pioneers will be adopting or continuing an occupation that millions are desperately fleeing around the world—in favor of the excitement and opportunities of the city.

Even if such rural migrations were subsidized (or forced—gasp!), they would take time, probably decades. All the while climate change would be bearing down on crop yields around the world. Would such a grand development project make up for ongoing declines in existing farmland production?

This is just one "solution" offered to us by what I will call the "adaptationists." The trouble is there can be no assurance that their solutions will actually work. A better approach would be to prevent further climate change as much as we are able (knowing that the lags in the Earth's climate system will make more change inevitable for the next several decades). The schemes being offered these days include emergency measures such as throwing sulfates into the upper atmosphere to reflect sunlight and constructing large mirrors between the Earth and the Sun to do the same.

The trouble with these approaches is they are all untried, and we have only the smallest inkling of their unintended consequences. Could we end up with a situation that is worse than otherwise would have been the case?

It is important to remember that when it comes to Earth systems, it is impossible to do just one thing. Whenever we do something, we affect the entire system, and we, as limited beings, cannot understand all the possible consequences ahead of time. We think we are acting on objects, and it turns out that we are acting on networks.

Networks have a way of pushing back at attempts to upend them. But frequently we cannot even see the networks we are affecting until they begin to react to our prodding, often in unforeseen and dangerous ways.

We do not know exactly how our agricultural networks will react as they are forced to change in response to the climate chaos we have unleashed. But we can take a much more humble stance by acknowledging that we cannot confidently predict that simply moving our current system toward the poles will allow us to produce all that we are going to need.

We may be faced with adopting systemic changes that include new ways of growing, more people in more places engaged in growing, changing what we grow and eat, and growing much more of what we eat closer to where it is eaten. Some of these changes are already taking place. But they will likely deepen and widen as climate change bears down more and more on our agricultural systems worldwide.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break from posting this week. I expect to post again on Sunday, November 19.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Look at the big picture, avoid groupthink, remember history

A friend of mine recently outlined as follows his method for thinking about important issues: Look at the big picture, avoid groupthink, and remember history.

First, the big picture. People too often think only about the narrow field in which they work or the community or nation in which they live. But whatever the topic, there is always a context that includes the rest of world and the interplay of actors and forces in many locales and fields of endeavor.

Let me provide an illustration (not one provided by my friend). If I want to understand the state of renewable energy in the United States, I'd certainly want to know also the state of that industry in other countries including their regulatory regimes; the structure of their industry whether public, private or a combination; and the state of research and development. I'd also want to know how renewable energy fits into the total picture of energy use, for example, its current share of consumption compared to competing sources of energy and its growth rate. Further, I'd want to know about the emergence of electric vehicles, a major new user of electricity, and about the industry that produces them. I wouldn't stop there, but what I've outlined so far conveys the scope of inquiry that I'm recommending.

Next I'd want to check into any relevant claims made in the media and by family members, friends, and co-workers in order to avoid groupthink, that is, believing something merely because I've heard it from others. For example, if someone claims that the dominant form of energy in human society in 2030 will be solar (and someone did), I would want to find the basis for such a claim if there is one and also see if the current trends suggest that this is likely. Just because some smart people believe that something will happen doesn't mean that it will.

Finally, I'd want to know something about the history of the renewable energy industry in America and abroad. What does that history tell me about what is likely to happen in the future? And based on what we know about the history of energy transitions in the past from coal to oil and then to natural gas, are various claims about the speed of the current energy transition to renewable energy plausible? Of course, no one can know the future. But when people make claims about the future that have no precedent, we should be skeptical and cautious.

Of course, these steps—looking at the big picture, avoiding groupthink, and remembering history—require time, concentration and reflection. It's simply not possible to do such research for every issue that crosses one's path. So, humans take shortcuts much of the time. They focus on what they know from their own experience. They recall what they've already read in the media and heard from those they know. They dispense with any serious study of the history of a subject, assuming that current knowledge is all that they need. (For minor daily issues this process may indeed suffice.)

Beyond the difficulty of doing one's own research, there is the difficulty of standing apart from friends, family, co-workers and others in one's social circle. Voicing an opinion that runs counter to the prevailing view can net one ridicule, dismissal and even social exclusion. Moreover, most people don't want to believe that the world they've constructed in their heads may be flawed, perhaps dangerously flawed. If you are the person telling them this, you will probably not be in line for thanks.

The greatest difficulty comes when our research produces information that challenges our own foundational beliefs. This potentially creates a crisis that could require acceptance of a whole new worldview. If accepted, this new worldview can strain relations with practically everyone close to us who may not only be surprised but possibly dismayed by our sudden change of outlook.

There are very few people who can engage in such independent inquiry on a regular basis and retain their mental balance. Being open at all times to the possibility of changing one's worldview can be anxiety-producing and exhausting. In order to maintain peace of mind most people avoid any thorough examination of topics that could force an alteration of their worldview.

It's no wonder then that our political, economic, and social culture encourages people to avoid the big picture, succumb to groupthink, and ignore history. It's much easier to maintain our peace of mind if we simply conform our opinions with those around us and avoid a tedious examination of the facts.

However, the price we potentially pay is that we will get blindsided by what in retrospect seems an obvious problem. That's when most people finally adjust their worldview to new realities. But by then, any damage is generally already done.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Devolution everywhere: Spain, Italy, Britain and the problems of complexity

The narrative about Catalan independence is that two major cities, Madrid and Barcelona, are competing for power, and one has decided that the best path forward is to declare independence from Spain and free itself of Madrid's dominance.

There is certainly something to this narrative. As CNN reports:

Catalonia accounts for nearly a fifth of Spain's economy, and leads all regions in producing 25% of the country's exports.

It contributes much more in taxes (21% of the country's total) than it gets back from the government.

Independence supporters have seized on the imbalance, arguing that stopping transfers to Madrid would turn Catalonia's budget deficit into a surplus.

Catalonia has a proven record of attracting investment, with nearly a third of all foreign companies in Spain choosing the regional capital of Barcelona as their base.

But the spread of independence-seeking across Europe points to something more than just sibling rivalry. In 2016 British voters shocked the world by voting narrowly to withdraw from the European Union (EU). Just this month two of Italy's richest regions held non-binding referendums on seeking increased autonomy from the central government. More than 95 percent of those voting said yes.

The immediate effects of Britain withdrawing from the EU and of Catalonia becoming independent (if, in fact, either actually ends up happening) could be quite negative economically, cutting both off from established trade arrangements that power their economies. (The vague desire for more autonomy among the provinces of Veneto and Lombardy in Italy does not yet spell economic and political divorce.)

Given this outcome, why would the people of Britain and Catalonia seek to disconnect from central authorities? For Britain perhaps the impetus was that most of the people of Britain did not feel they were sharing in the prosperity generated by the country's affiliation with the EU. Certainly the financial elite centered in and around London have prospered, but not necessarily the rest of the country.

In Catalonia, the problem seems reversed. The Catalans are prospering just fine. But Madrid is siphoning off the fruits of Catalan labor and ingenuity and providing little in return.

Both complaints point to a larger and yet conceptually invisible problem. Joseph Tainter in his momentous study entitled The Collapse of Complex Societies explains that complexity is a strategy for societies to respond to challenges. At first complexity works well to solve problems. Later in the life of a society, complexity—a new bureaucracy here, another layer of complexity in the infrastructure there—continues to work but with diminishing returns. Finally, a society now used to solving its problems successfully with greater and greater complexity is blinded by this success and cannot see the point when the returns from complexity turn negative.

The key here is that the returns from complexity are not evenly distributed. And, when such returns go negative, those implementing the changes that increase complexity—usually the people in power—may, in fact, benefit while the majority suffer. And, the negative returns may not just be economic. They may also have to do with perceived status, the workings of justice, public safety, and any number of other civic functions.

When people perceive these reductions in their well-being compared to others, they seek common cause with those closest to them whom they assume feel similarly aggrieved.

Here in the United States I frequently ask friends how much they think San Francisco, Portland and Seattle listen to the dictates coming out of Washington, D.C. The dispute over so-called sanctuary cities for undocumented immigrants is but one example of failure to cooperate with federal authorities. Gov. Jerry Brown sounded more like the president of California than its governor when in the wake of Donald Trump's victory he told the American Geophysical Union that if the federal government shut down satellite collection of climate data,“California will launch its own damn satellites.”

In an age which seems to call out for transnational solutions to climate change, pollution, deforestation, species extinction, and myriad social, economic, and health issues including wealth inequality, cybercrime, and possible pandemics—in such an age we are faced with the strange centrifugal force of devolution as many people lose faith in centralized authorities to solve their problems.

The hugely complex, tightly networked systems within which we live now in communications, trade, transportation and finance have provided unparalleled (but poorly distributed) wealth. They exhibit the economies of scale that attract us because they produce low prices for the goods and services we want. But more and more people are coming to believe that these systems lack the responsiveness needed to address their daily problems.

What they don't necessarily understand is that these systems because of their high efficiency are also very fragile. Their very efficiency means they have little redundancy, and it is redundancy which creates resilience. For this reason, the devolution we see emerging politically may someday be forced upon us in other areas of our lives whether we are prepared for it or not.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

An ecological view of Trump's trade war

Whether you regard President Donald Trump's rejection of America's trade agreements as a good thing or a bad thing, few people understand what canceling them would mean. From an ecological point of view, abruptly pulling out of trade agreements, agreements which have resulted in innumerable long-term investments and commitments, is the ecological equivalent of a reduction in scope.

A reduction of scope means that occupational niches which arise specifically to facilitate trade in shipping by land, sea and air, manufacturing for export, warehousing, finance, insurance, government employment (such as customs officials and coast guard forces) and other trade-related occupations, all are endangered when the scope of their activities is reduced as a result of new trade restrictions.

To understand what this means, we need to understand the flipside of scope reduction, scope enlargement. From an ecological perspective the increase in world trade over the last few centuries has in a manner of speaking allowed local populations to escape the tyranny of Liebig's Law of the Minimum. In the mid-19th century, Justus von Liebig observed that plant growth was strictly governed by the least available of a plant's necessary nutrients. Adding other essential nutrients simply wouldn't overcome the limitation imposed by the least available one.

In the absence of trade, Liebig's Law acts like a brake on a local community, preventing it from expanding beyond the carrying capacity afforded by its least available essential resources. In dry areas, it might be water. In others it might be arable land. In yet others farmland might be plentiful, but a lack of metal mines might prevent the widespread use of metal tools that could enhance agricultural and manufacturing productivity.

All of this can be overcome if, for example, dry areas rich in mineral deposits trade with agriculturally endowed areas that have plenty of water. In essence, the dry areas are importing water and fertile soil in the form of food in exchange for minerals needed to make metal tools. Something like this goes on today. Countries rich in oil but poor in farmland trade their oil for food to supplement inadequate supplies grown domestically.

This type of illustration will seem familiar as a standard explanation for the wisdom of trade. But Liebig's Law does not cease to apply because we have global trade. It now applies to global carrying capacity rather than just local carrying capacity. Because this carrying capacity depends heavily on trade in finite energy sources, that is, fossil fuels, its stability cannot be guaranteed indefinitely. Without a substantial replacement of fossil fuels, which supply more than 80 percent of the world's energy, the current system will collapse into a lower state of organization with far less carrying capacity.

Collapse or at least a partial collapse can also happen if the scope available for obtaining essential goods and services shrinks due to political or economic circumstances. During the Great Depression the decline of global trade was magnified by measures designed to protect domestic industries from foreign competition, mostly through import tariffs adopted by many countries. The effect was a reduction in scope that created even more unemployment through the destruction of occupational niches associated with trade.

We may now face something like this—though whether it becomes severe depends on how far the Trump administration proceeds in withdrawing America from the world trading system and whether other countries retaliate.

Regardless of the Trump administration's trade policy choices, the ecological perspective allows us to see that almost all of the modern world's trade-oriented occupational niches are temporary rather than permanent. In the short run, they depend on a general agreement among nations not to engage in trade wars that result in a reduction of scope, that is, nations forced to live on their own resources. This would, for example, be problematic for the American electronics industry that is heavily dependent on China which produces more than 80 percent of the world's rare earth metals. Those metals are necessary for the production of computers, cellphones or other communications and computing devices. And, this is but one example in our highly interconnected world.

In the long run the limiting factor for trade-oriented occupations is energy because so much of our energy comes in the form of fossil fuels. Those fuels are central to every economy and are critical to sustaining the global logistics system. To assume that world trade at the scale it exists today can continue far into the future without a dramatic reshaping of the world's energy system is a failure to understand that the laws of nature, in this case Liebig's Law, cannot be overcome by optimistic pronouncements about our energy future.

On our current energy trajectory the human race is likely to be headed for a reduction in scope as fossil fuel resources ultimately decline and renewables fail to expand quickly enough in type and scale to address the mismatch between our desires and the supply of energy needed to maintain global networks of exchange.

According to the International Energy Agency, despite the rapid growth of renewables in recent years, combined geothermal, solar, wind, and tide/wave/ocean energy output provides less that 1.5 percent of total world energy. Hydroelectric power makes up another 2.5 percent but is growing quite slowly. Percentages for renewables would have to rise dramatically and soon if we are to avert the twin crises of climate change and fossil fuel depletion.

Ideas for changing our current trajectory abound. But they will not matter unless they are shown to be both technically and economically feasible and until they are widely deployed. A felicitous outcome is by no means assured within a time frame that avoids a reduction in scope and its attendant effects.

This piece draws heavily from William Catton's book Overshoot, the relevant section of which has been reproduced here.

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Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Taking a short break - no post this week

An exceptionally heavy workload has forced me to take a short break from posting. I expect to post again on Sunday, October 22.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

The Italian experiment and the truth about government debt

Money is a slippery concept. Today we think of it as paper certificates and coins. But actually, anything that is generally accepted in trade can be considered money. The rise of cryptocurrencies is demonstrating this truth. In wartime scarce but desirable and easily transported commodities such as cigarettes, alcohol, jewelry and valuable paintings can act as currency.

Debt is defined as money owed to another person or entity such as a corporation. It is an obligation to pay the money back, usually by a specified date at an agreed rate of interest. Certain kinds of debt, especially government bonds, are traded daily in the world's money markets. So confident are investors that some government bonds, especially U.S. Treasury bonds, will pay the agreed interest and be redeemed in full at maturity that they treat them as if they were cash—because they can be converted into cash in an instant in world markets.

But is government debt what we think it is? Consider the poor Italians who recently announced that they will try paying for government services with tax credits—essentially reducing a person's tax bill in exchange for services rendered or products delivered. The reason is simple. The Italian government is hard pressed for revenue which is paid in Euros, a currency which the government does not control and therefore cannot create more of.

The tax credit scheme gets around this inconvenience. But it also makes possible a far more interesting possibility. As the writer of the linked piece points out, what if instead of making book entries in a taxpayer's account, the Italian government issued paper tax credit certificates that could be used to pay taxes?

At first this seems unimportant unless one imagines that everyone who is doing work for the government receives tax credits in the form of paper tax credit certificates. Furthermore, what if those certificates were available in convenient denominations much like paper Euros? Since most Italians have taxes to pay, these certificates could be traded for goods at the local grocery store which also has taxes to pay. And the grocery store could pay its suppliers in certificates because they too have taxes to pay and so on.

Pretty soon this form of government obligation starts to look just like money. And while it essentially borrows the work of others, it does not borrow money from them. The government's obligation is then extinguished when the recipient pays his or her taxes with the certificates. (Eventually, with so many businesses accepting such certificates, banks would be persuaded to accept them as deposits into savings and checking accounts.)

All this implies that the Italian government could get back into the currency creation business to help finance its operations—even if it were to print more certificates than it had taxes due. So long as people were willing to trade them for goods and services among themselves, some portion of the certificates would remain in circulation and never be redeemed to pay taxes.

Of course, the government could overdo the issuance of such certificates, and the author offers up several ways in which the amount in circulation could be managed.

Whether the European Central Bank (ECB) would allow things to get to this point is an intriguing question. After all, the whole point of the Euro is to unify the countries using it under one currency, and in the Euro area agreement, only the ECB can issue currency.

This Italian experiment—if it were to be fully realized—would come tantalizingly close to what so-called Modern Monetary Theorists say is possible: Government finance without debt or the necessity of taxation. A government that controls its own currency can simply issue what it needs to pay for its operations. The only reasons to tax anything are 1) to carry out certain social and economic policies favoring some activities over others and 2) to create demand for the currency being issued. If government taxes can only be paid using the currency issued by the government, nearly everyone will have to have at least some of that currency.

In practice, such a currency becomes a convenient medium of exchange and is therefore almost universally adopted.

All of this may seem improbable upon first blush. But two examples suggest that it is broadly possible and even desirable. First, the United States government financed the Civil War through the issuance of Greenbacks, paper money with no gold or silver backing, only the assurance that the government would accept it in payment for taxes. Such money lives on today in what are now called Federal Reserve Notes which the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank will not redeem for anything other than more Federal Reserve Notes.

Second, many people have long predicted that the vast and mounting U.S. federal debt would cripple the country's finances and lead to an inflationary economic calamity. And yet, even as the debt mounts to a previously unimaginable size, the country seems no closer to that calamity than it did 10 or 20 years ago—at least not one associated with the federal government's debt.

What's happening is that the U.S. government is doing something through its borrowing operations that is in its ultimate effects roughly the equivalent of issuing currency. It borrows its own currency from private individuals and institutions and then uses that currency (or rather book entries denoting currency) to call upon the productive capacity of the United States (and to a certain degree the world) to satisfy its needs. Because it has not unduly strained that capacity, this spending has not pressured prices very much. (If the buying power of the currency in circulation electronically or otherwise does not exceed the productive capacity of the economy, evidence suggests that there is little reason to expect general price inflation.)

With the U.S. federal debt approaching $20 trillion and rising, many are saying that a crisis cannot be far away. But the Modern Monetary Theorist would propose an easy fix: Issue currency to buy back whatever amount of the debt is necessary to calm markets. Better yet, buy all of it and never issue debt again. (Doing this over an extended period of time would probably be best in order not to bring chaos to world money markets. And, it would demonstrate that the U.S. government is not "going broke" nor could it ever go broke as long as it issues its own currency.)

Given that the United States and many other countries issue their own currency, why should wealth in the form of interest payments be transferred to the rich who hold most of that debt, when these countries could be debt free?

What the Italian experiment highlights is that governments that issue their own currency do not have to be dependent on private credit or taxation for their spending needs. In fact, as the author of the piece linked above proclaims, it's downright crazy for such governments to borrow their own currency from private institutions and individuals when those governments can simply issue currency as needed. Only those who hold the strings of private credit and therefore benefit from current arrangements have a stake in getting the rest of us to believe that the world can be run in no other way than the one they prescribe.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Puerto Rico: When the electricity stops

When the electricity stops in modern civilization, pretty much everything else stops. Not even gasoline-powered vehicles can get far before they are obliged to seek a fill-up—which they cannot get because gas pumps rely on electricity to operate.

When I wrote "The storms are only going to get worse" three weeks ago, I thought the world would have to wait quite a while for a storm more devastating than hurricanes Harvey and Irma. But instead, Hurricane Maria followed right after them and shut down electricity on the entire island of Puerto Rico except for those buildings with on-site generators.

Another casualty was drinking water because, of course, in almost every location, it must be moved using pumps powered by electricity. In addition, the reason we remain uncertain of the full scope of the damage and danger on the island is that the communications system (powered by electricity, of course) failed almost completely.

The Associated Press reported that as of September 30, 10 days after Maria's landfall, about 30 percent of telecommunications had been restored, 60 percent of the gas stations were able to dispense fuel and half of the supermarkets were open.

Presumably, these figures represent mostly urban areas where any single act of repair can restore services to many more people than in the countryside where conditions by all accounts remain desperate.

Unless power is restored soon to those areas still without it, many of life's daily necessities—food, water, medicine—will remain beyond reach for substantial portions of Puerto Rico's residents. The consequences of this are both predictable and dire. But the expectations are that weeks and months may pass before electricity again reaches the entire island.

If that turns out to be the case, then those who are able will simply leave their homes and migrate elsewhere, most probably to the U.S. mainland—something they are entitled to do as American citizens. The United States is unprepared for such a massive wave of migration if it develops.

Electricity is the essential pillar upon which the operations of all modern industrial societies depend. And yet, it is something that remains impossible to stockpile in large amounts; nearly all electricity is consumed as it is produced. Its transmission remains all too vulnerable to bad weather which we now know is only going to get worse—not only hurricanes but also ice and snow storms which will increase in frequency and severity as the atmosphere becomes more saturated with water vapor (because warmer air can hold more moisture).

Part of the question the United States and the world will be answering when deciding on how and what to rebuild in Puerto Rico is how much are we willing to spend on making infrastructure climate-change proof when climate change is a moving target. We do not now know how "hard" we will have to make any rebuilt infrastructure in Puerto Rico because we do not know for certain the ultimate severity of climate change through the lifetime of the infrastructure being built. It would be foolish to rebuild infrastructure that will simply blow down or flood out in the next major hurricane or one just 10 years from now.

While contemplating such dangers, the world remains largely oblivious to an unparalleled danger to the electric grid, one that dwarfs what climate change is ever likely to threaten: electromagnetic pulse or EMP.

Two sources of EMP, a coronal mass ejection from the Sun and the detonation of a nuclear bomb at high altitude are real threats. What makes North Korea such a menace is not the few nuclear weapons which the country apparently has, but the possibility that it could detonate one at high altitude and thereby cripple much of the electrical infrastructure of the country targeted. (Whether it has a weapon of sufficient power and the ability to deliver it high into the atmosphere above the United States or another country is unknown. Not surprisingly, the nuclear facilities of the U.S. military have been hardened against such an attack so as to assure a retaliatory capability in the event of a first strike.)

The possibility of a coronal mass ejection of sufficient power to cripple the world's electrical system, however, is not theoretical. Just such an event, known as the Carrington Event, took place in 1859. Back then it dazzled viewers of the sky worldwide while burning up telegraph lines. Today, it would shut down much if not most of the globe's electrical infrastructure.

What Hurricane Maria has done to Puerto Rico reminds us of how vulnerable systems critical to the daily operation of industrial society remain. We have options: one is a more decentralized, renewable energy system hardened against EMP. But we do not yet have the foresight and the will to realize such a system anytime soon.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The solar panel imports case and the future of self-sufficiency

Last week the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) ruled that the American solar panel industry had been harmed by cheap imports though it did not specifically find that the competition was unfair.

The decision has stunned the solar industry which has relied on cheap panel imports to spur the growth of solar power in the United States. It's not clear what remedies the commission will recommend to President Trump who will have final say about how to respond. But the president's often articulated antipathy toward America's existing trade arrangements suggests a punitive response such as a tariff or quota.

Such a response could slow the spread of solar power in the United States by raising the cost of deployment. This would happen just at the point when Mother Nature herself has underlined the need for low-carbon energy sources through the devastating effects of climate-change enhanced hurricanes on American territory in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. In fact, in Puerto Rico, hit by two major hurricanes in a row, the damage was so severe that according to The New York Times the island may be facing months without electricity.

The irony, of course, is that had Puerto Rico invested in distributed solar power, a source perfect for a sunny Caribbean island, it might still have had major problems, but not the kind that a devastated centralized power system has visited upon the island's residents.

The case just decided by the ITC may or may not result in large consequences for U.S. solar deployment. But it highlights another issue which the rise of anti-free trade sentiment has exposed. How self-sufficient should the United States or any other country, for that matter, strive to be?

In a globalized world this seems like a retrograde question. After all, the smooth operation of the global logistics system has served consumers and businesses well for decades. Yes, there have been a few disruptions, but nothing so long-term as to seriously call into question the wisdom of dependence on foreign sources for critical goods.

And yet, the increasingly bellicose exchanges between Washington and Beijing even prior to the Trump presidency suggest possible difficulties ahead. China has a near monopoly on the world's rare earth metals supply, critical for modern electronic devices, hybrid engines and certain military technology. And, back in 2010 the country reduced its rare earth metals export quota by 40 percent, possibly in reaction to an incident in the East China Sea.

China, of course, is also a major supplier of low-cost solar panels to the world. In addition, it has become a favored manufacturing hub for countless international companies which make everything from simple household items to sophisticated electronic equipment.

China, of course, is only one country of many which have become manufacturing centers for international companies. Mexico, Malaysia, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan come to mind.

The argument against self-sufficiency is that it costs more. If every country does what it does best, everyone will benefit from lower costs and higher quality. But do those low costs embody risks not accounted for such as environmental and security risks?

If something is cheap but you cannot get it because of a trade or diplomatic dispute or possibly even a war between two nations, its low price doesn't matter. And if the expertise to produce this now unavailable product is no longer found elsewhere or in one's own country, then the price will no longer be cheap and the disruption will be proportionate to the importance of the product in the functioning of one's society.

For this reason many countries protect their agricultural sector. Lack of food would be a catastrophic disruption. But does America want to revive its own solar panel industry? Won't the solar and other renewable energy industries become critical to the well-being and security of every nation? And, isn't the distributed nature of renewable energy generation a model to be heeded for the manufacture of devices that produce it?

The difficulty in such deliberations may be trying to separate critical industries from ones which are less important to maintaining the functioning of one's society. And, we must also now admit that humans might not be the cause of the next big disruption in world logistics. Extreme weather could knock out the ability of industries concentrated in particular countries or areas to supply world markets.

Absolutes are dangerous. Even the most ardent advocate for expanding domestic and even regional and local production may crave a cup of coffee or a piece chocolate, something which may be impractical to produce domestically in most places. But the case of America's solar panel imports raises the question of dependence for critical products on faraway producers who could at any time stop shipping their wares both for reasons we can imagine and ones we cannot yet discern.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The high cost of an easy-care, low-maintenance world

I may be a member of an endangered species. I prefer a perfect crease in a pair of pants resulting from the use of an actual iron rather than a crease maintained by a toxic brew of chemicals that can make cotton-fiber pants not only "wrinkle-free," but also "stain resistant."

Once you finally get such chemically-enhanced britches dirty, you can put them through a wash augmented by artificial perfumes and other noxious chemicals found in liquid softeners and dryer sheets.

The maintenance of clothing isn't thereby eliminated. It is simply transferred to chemical companies, clothing manufacturers, and purveyors of household products who concoct and apply formulas which require considerable energy to manufacture and deploy. One can adduce many other examples of our obsession with a low-maintenance life. (I will include a few below.) But, I write to contest the whole idea that a low-maintenance existence is in itself a good thing.

In general, entropy obliges us to maintain those objects which serve us. In doing so we must give them attention; we must give them a sort of love. We must become involved with their needs and not only our own.

By abandoning the duty of maintenance we owe to the objects in our lives, we are distancing ourselves from the physical world and essentially sending the entropy elsewhere for someone else to deal with, whether human or non-human.

I used to have an electric razor, the cutting block of which could be sharpened. A jeweler in the building where I worked had the equipment to do it. Later, it was cheaper just to replace the cutting block, and so, equipment that would sharpen it was scarce. Now, a new shaver that I just purchased—after many good years of service from my previous one ended with the motor shutting down—this new one is clearly designed simply as a throwaway.

Yes, there is nothing particularly new about planned obsolescence. But once again the maintenance task has simply been transferred to the landfill operator who must care for the objects we discard. This also shows that we should not conflate low-maintenance with durable.

I am not opposed to durable objects which require little maintenance. But we have created a world of low-maintenance objects which are low-maintenance merely because they are disposable. Sneakers that aren't resoleable are low-maintenance, but not long-lived. On the other hand, well-made wool clothing can last a lifetime with only an occasional cleaning.

In our gardens and on our farms we have transferred the care and maintenance associated with weeding to the world's chemical industry. The consequences of that are not only embedded in our soil, but also in our health care system—and in the degraded ecosystems upon which are lives depend.

Easy care and low maintenance are merely local phenomena. Once we pull back and see the bigger picture, the entropy produced by them creates a maintenance burden on others, on society and on other living organisms and natural systems.

As it turns out, maintenance has gotten a bad wrap. Maintenance is really a form of caring. Modern philosophers bemoan our love of material things. But I believe that we modern, industrialized people do not actually love material things. We wouldn't treat material things the way we do if we truly loved and cared for them.

Instead, the material world has become merely a substrate for our dreams of mastery. We do not want involvement with the material world and all the limitations which that implies. Rather, we want liberation—liberation from its constraints.

We think easy care and low maintenance are steps toward that liberation. But as we have seen, those characteristics only impose maintenance tasks on others and sometimes even rebound to sicken our bodies. More important, they separate us from a material world that should naturally summon our powers of care and concern.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The storms are only going to get worse

We are now used to hearing about once-in-a-1,000-year floods. The fact that we are used to hearing about them tells us that they will no longer be rare. In fact, since climate change is at the heart of these events and continues unabated, we can expect that storms practically everywhere will get worse.

That's because as average atmospheric temperatures continue to rise, the atmosphere will hold more and more water vapor. And, as more and more heat gets stored in the oceans, they will provide more and more energy to the storms which pass over them.

Of course, "once in a 1,000 years" only means that the chances are one in a thousand that such a storm will occur this year or the next. In fact, this phrase doesn't actually reflect weather records. As Vox points out, we don't have reliable records going back that far. We have only about 100 years of such records for the United States, and then not for every locale. Beyond 100 years we are guessing about flood severity based on indirect evidence.

Instead of planning based on such long intervals, we will be faced with a moving target—actually a moving target of probabilities—probabilities which are rising in unknown ways at unknown speeds. Even with all of our instruments, models and scientists we cannot keep up with the changing dynamics of an atmosphere continually perturbed by climate change.

But we know the general direction; and what should terrify us is that we cannot really calculate just how bad things will get.

There is a notion afoot that we will simply adapt to climate change. How does one "adapt" to hurricanes such as Harvey and Irma if they become frequent events? If large parts of the industrial plant are shut down for weeks at a time after such a storm—as refineries producing ethylene, the basis for most plastics will likely be after Harvey—how well will the industrial infrastructure function?

We could harden our industrial, commercial and public infrastructure against such storms, but a move like this would be tricky to execute: What exactly should each installation do? And, such a move would be tremendously costly. Besides, as climate change continues to worsen, to what set of conditions are we supposed to adapt our infrastructure assuming we would be willing to spend the money?

Even if we were to decide to spend the money, if the homes of those working in the industrial, commercial and public infrastructure are destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, who is going to show up to work to run those installations after destructive storms?

Adaptation is going to be much harder than simply using more air-conditioning during the increasingly hot weather. (And, of course, in most locations using more air-conditioning will simply lead to more fossil-fuel use at electric generating plants; that will only exacerbate the problem.)

What Harvey and Irma are making clear is that the infrastructure we have built was built for a different climate and is surprisingly fragile in the face of climate change. When some scientists say that our civilization is at risk, this is what they mean. The things we expect to work and work reliably won't. This will include agriculture as climate change turns increasingly negative for food production worldwide.

Without a coherent plan to address climate change, the world will simply lurch from one climate-induced crisis to another. A focus on the immediate disaster will only make things worse as we do little or nothing to adapt to or to mitigate the warming of the globe.

That's the trajectory that the do-nothing crowd has now put us on. Are we so politically hamstrung and propagandized that we will simply allow this? The aftermath of two of the worst hurricanes ever will provide some clues.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

In media res: Houston, Harvey and the catastrophe of climate change

"In media res" is Latin for "in the middle of things." Frequently, it refers to the literary device of plunging readers into some central action of a story (often an epic) and then filling in the details and background later.

The residents of Houston must have felt that they were plunged into the middle of some epic story as Hurricane Harvey dumped up to 50 inches of rain on them and flooded much of the city. Early estimates suggest that this hurricane could end up being the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Hurricane Harvey is almost certainly an epic story unfolding before our eyes. That means the significance of events and outcomes surrounding the hurricane will only be filled in later--creating analysis, folklore and perhaps even a cultural output on par with that which followed Hurricane Katrina (think: the television series "Tremé").

There will be stories about the failure or success of the emergency response effort. There will be denunciations of those officials who recommended staying put and recriminations of those doing the denouncing. There will be riveting accounts of suffering and also of heroic rescues and exceptional kindness. And, there will be stories of lawlessness and cruelty.

Harvey will almost certainly be styled as a tragedy. The storm is undoubtedly a colossal misfortune, and we should have compassion for those affected. But from a literary standpoint, it is not a tragedy at all. A genuine tragedy requires that the main players be unaware of how their own flawed character is leading them to self-destruction. A genuine tragedy depicts an ineluctable course of events. Nothing and no one could have prevented them. Greek tragedians relied on Ananke, the goddess of fate, to drive the action of their plays.

But humans do know that their actions are leading to climate change--which many climate scientists foretold would result in increasingly destructive storms. Denial of such a link is not the same as ignorance. Denial means the message has been received and recorded, just not accepted.

It is, of course, an irony that the city most associated with the oil and natural gas industry should be struck so fiercely by a climate-change enhanced hurricane. But this should NOT be read as some kind of divine retribution either in the literary or the religious sense. The discovery and use of fossil fuels has long been hailed as the basis for modern prosperity and advances in human well-being the world over. Those involved in such discoveries and the refining and distribution of the output have until relatively recently often been cast as heroes in history, in literature and in film.

More energy--to those who have access to its benefits--has meant longer, healthier lives and rapid development of wondrous technologies which rely on abundant energy supplies for their deployment and operation. The modern technical civilization in which we live relies on continuous high-grade energy inputs in order to function. Without those inputs our society would quickly collapse. If we rail against those who have extracted and refined those fuels for us, we are only railing against ourselves for using them. (On the other hand, if we rail against those who have systematically lied about the climate effects of burning fossil fuels to the public and policymakers, that is another matter.)

It is true that the ravages of climate change have to date fallen disproportionately on those least responsible and least capable of protecting themselves such as island nations now being inundated by rising sea levels and the poor in drought-stricken areas of the world. What Hurricane Harvey is showing us is that climate change will spare no one.

The sadness and destruction inflicted on residents of the Gulf Coast will flicker on television and computer screens for weeks to come. Their misfortune is truly our misfortune--even if we are only capable of feeling it in the price and availability of gasoline.

But we should not mistake misfortune for tragedy--which many of our leaders will almost surely want us to do. They will want to paint Hurricane Harvey as a tragedy. They will use that word again and again, wittingly or unwittingly making Harvey out to be an unforeseen and unforeseeable event for which we humans have no culpability (or at most only a little and therefore hardly worth mentioning).

That takes them and us off the hook for neglecting the causes behind the great misfortune which this storm has become. And, it would encourage us and them to do little to try to mitigate future misfortunes as the catastrophe of climate change descends upon us.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Arctic riches: A most insane discussion

As climate change rips away the icy armor of the Arctic, nations surrounding the North Pole and companies eager to exploit the area's mineral wealth--particularly oil and natural gas--are growing giddy with anticipation.

So reports the Associated Press, though the AP is by no means the first to report this story. The slow-motion battle over the increasingly accessible resources of the Arctic is certainly a story. But the prevailing version of that story lacks the proper context, one that is hard to provide since the implications of global climate change are vast and difficult to grasp.

First and foremost, burning additional oil and natural gas made available by receding Arctic ice is nothing short of insane. But in a world that believes that adapting to climate change is merely an engineering problem, this type of talk persists.

Readers of the AP piece are told that those wishing to exploit the Arctic will have to build the necessary infrastructure to service the mining, fishing and tourism interests that want a piece of these boreal riches. (Yes, you read that right: tourism!)

But if development of the Arctic proceeds, it will be a sign that we are doing far too little to abate the very causes of warming that make such development thinkable. That would imply increasingly rapid climate change, something that will almost surely destabilize a world which wants to exploit the Arctic.

In a world plagued with agricultural areas devastated by flood and drought, coastal cities drenched by rising seas, mass migrations from newly uninhabitable areas, spreading tropical diseases, water shortages, and unimaginably long periods of intense summer heat, it is hard to imagine that nations and private companies will be able to provide the systematic focus on Arctic development needed to extract its wealth.

In short, the exploitation of the Arctic implies stability elsewhere; but a continuous rise in Arctic temperatures which will make such exploitation increasingly feasible implies the opposite.

We as a global society cannot seem to see the world in any other frame than that of imperial expansion with the Arctic as the next land to conquer--no matter what. (Outer space also continues to occupy our fantasies as a "next land to conquer.")

The unfreezing of the Arctic may itself be one of the most dangerous drivers of climate change. The ice--which has prevented those currently salivating over Arctic riches from getting at them--not only keeps the Earth cool by reflecting light back into space; it also keeps untold gigatons of methane sequestered in the tundra and deep ocean. Once in the atmosphere methane traps far more heat than carbon dioxide.

Geologic history suggests that it is possible that a methane release from a melting Arctic would be non-linear (read: sudden and big). Such an event is often referred to as a methane burp. In the geologic past methane burps have been broadly fatal to all things living and may have led to one of the world's six great extinction events. (The sixth extinction is currently in progress without so far the benefit of a methane burp.)

It turns out that what development of the Arctic implies is so catastrophic that it is hard to understand why we are even discussing it. I am reminded of an old New Yorker magazine cartoon depicting a speaker at a business conference concluding his talk as follows: "And so, while the end-of-the-world scenario will be rife with unimaginable horrors, we believe that the pre-end period will be filled with unprecedented opportunities for profit."

Most people don't really understand that a melted Arctic will almost certainly accompany the end of the world as we know it, both in nature and in society. Any profits gained as a result will be as monstrous as those mentioned in the New Yorker cartoon.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Moving to Washington, DC -- Taking a five-week hiatus

I am now in the process of moving to Washington, DC. Making that move while staying on top of my ongoing consulting and commercial freelance writing obligations and attending to various other duties will demand all my attention. I expect to return to regular posting on Sunday, August 27.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Pi's tiger and the Anthropocene

Science studies scholar Bruno Latour is fond of the film "Life of Pi" for the metaphor it provides for our current predicament. The main character of the film, Pi, ends up in a lifeboat with a tiger, and not a friendly one. Though Pi builds a raft to give himself distance from the tiger, he must still tie the raft to the lifeboat which holds all the supplies--food, fresh water, and, as we see later, flares. Ultimately, the destruction of his raft forces him to return to the lifeboat and find a way to live with the tiger.

In "Life of Pi" there is no peaceable kingdom like the one depicted by painter and Quaker minister Edward Hicks in the 62 surviving versions of his composition of that name. In "The Peaceable Kingdom" predator lies down with prey and no harm results--a reference to verses in Isaiah depicting an age in which "[t]he wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them."

In "Life of Pi" viewers are constantly in a state of anxiety about Pi's fate. The tiger cannot be tamed. And so it is with the biosphere as we enter the Anthropocene, a geological era defined by the large impacts of humans on the Earth and its cycles. As a post-Enlightenment culture, we have long believed that we are now free of the tyranny of nature. We can learn its ways and master it through our knowledge and ingenuity.

But it turns out that mastery over the Earth is an illusion fostered by its huge resources relative to human populations (until now) and the discovery of fossil fuels that have allowed humans to harness tens of millions of years of stored solar energy in just a couple of centuries.

As the dean of the steady-state economists Herman Daly has explained in his essay "Economics in a Full World":

As the world becomes full of us and our stuff, it becomes empty of what was here before. To deal with this new pattern of scarcity, scientists need to develop a “full world” economics to replace our traditional “empty world” economics.

In the full world we now live in, we are sitting cheek by jowl with Pi's tiger. The tiger, of course, is the natural world which we have sought to put at a distance. We imagined that we could disentangle ourselves from its fate. But we cannot. Because as much as we might wish that humans and nature could be in separate categories, they aren't.

The tiger coming at us now is simply the full world pressing down upon us. The effects of the vast stream of entropy that human civilization produces cannot be placed "out there" any more; nor can we simply run away to a new place to avoid it. The effects we humans are having are so great and ubiquitous that we are close to naming a new geologic era of the Earth after ourselves as mentioned above.

Although Pi eventually finds his way back to civilization and the tiger parts with him and enters the forest, we have no such possibility. We must now dance with the tiger, give him some territory (as Pi does), and limit ourselves in our exploitation of the biosphere's (and lithosphere's) resources.

Nature, it turns out, is not a passive object, but an active agent. It reacts mightily to our provocations. Pi's father tells him early in the film that a tiger can never be regarded as a friend, that any feelings Pi thinks he sees in the tiger's eyes are just projections of Pi's own.

At the end of the film, Pi tells us that he believes he has seen a glimmer of the tiger's own feelings and that these feelings are not always geared to hunting and eating, but at times akin to accommodation if not mutual respect. In this he may have something of value for our comparison. For the biosphere itself is made to sustain us and we are made to thrive in it. But if we fail to understand its rhythms and its limits, it will snarl at us and even injure us for our injuries to it.

Our fear should be that the biosphere's response will end up being all out of proportion to our provocations. In this regard, it is Pi's father who is right about the tiger and by extension the biosphere. The biosphere will not develop sympathy for our current predicament. It can only remorselessly react. That notion should guide our actions as we move about in the only lifeboat we have, the thin membrane encircling the Earth that makes our existence possible.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Syfy's 'The Expanse': The imperial project unhinged

Syfy channel's political/military thriller "The Expanse," set hundreds of years in the future, seems eerily resonant with our own era. The two major powers of the solar system, Earth and Mars, have been locked in a cold war for decades. Exploited populations working and living in the asteroid belt--an area that supplies crucial raw materials to both empires--become the flashpoint for what could turn out to be a civilization-destroying hot war between the two imperial powers.

As it turns out, projecting the centuries-old imperial expansion project here on contemporary Earth into outer space is really no stretch at all. There is frequent coverage in the media today of schemes for landing humans on Mars and establishing colonies. And, there is also talk of extracting resources from asteroids. Empires need raw materials and when they run low, those empires, whether they are political or merely economic, seek new sources of supply.

But here is where "The Expanse" comes unhinged. Engaging in regular interplanetary flights requires a lot of energy. Rather than using elongated journeys powered by the gravity of planets to sling one's ship toward its destination (in an effort to save fuel), the ship captains of "The Expanse" burn a lot of fuel to take more direct routes. (The fuel seems like conventional rocket fuel, but we'll assume that's not the case.)

We find out in the first season that the source of this energy is fusion. All well and good. The attainment of fusion energy and its refinement over possibly centuries could power such a civilization. (We will leave aside for now the question of the effects of constant exposure to low gravity and cosmic radiation on the human body and brain.)

But if such copious and cheap fusion power were to become available, there would be no need to exploit the asteroid belt for rich ores. Instead that power could be used to get all the raw materials an advanced human civilization needs from sources available practically anywhere on Earth (or probably Mars). Granite--hardly something in short supply--contains almost all of the minerals we need albeit in very small concentrations. Mining granite in the required quantities and extracting trace elements from it would produce a lot of waste, but we'd have a lot of energy available to do it and deal with the waste.

Seawater is filled with minerals as well. And, we currently get many minerals from it. With enough cheap energy seawater could be mined even for minerals in very tiny concentrations. The air contains inert gases such as helium, neon, argon and krypton that are already available to us through existing methods. These would become cheaper to extract. And, of course, with huge amounts of cheap energy, seawater could easily be desalinated to provide drinking and irrigation water to any population within a few hundred miles of a coast.

The structure of society could and probably would be highly decentralized as most of the necessary resources would be locally available. Every community would have its own fusion and resource extraction complex. And thus empires--which are built on new resources taken from newly subdued lands (or, in this case, planets and asteroids)--would become irrelevant. Why go halfway across the solar system when everything you need is right at your doorstep because you now have the energy to extract it and mitigate the resulting waste?

In writing all this, I am not prophesying a space-faring human culture. Nor am I convinced that fusion power will be easily and quickly harnessed. The technical challenges may turn out to be so great that our current civilization will dissolve before we can succeed at taming fusion.

Rather, I am trying to show how our contemporary misconceptions about energy and the complex resource flows in our society lead to narratives that mislead us about the challenges we actually face.

"The Expanse" is fun to watch, and its subject matter maps well with our current political and military dramas. You can certainly enjoy it on that level. But take its assumptions about energy and resource flows and their effects on our political and social lives with a grain of salt. Those assumptions don't map well onto our material lives, even for an advanced civilization presumed to exist many hundreds of years in the future.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Can we live without progress?

To a person alive today it is hard to fathom that the ancient Greeks regarded themselves as living in an age of decline. These are the people who gave us the philosophers Socrates and Plato, the playwrights Sophocles and Euripides, the mathematician Pythagoras, the scientist and polymath Archimedes, and the first person to formulate atomic theory, Democritus. These are the people who designed and built the Parthenon and created the sculpture we so admire today in our museums. And yet, the ancient Greeks believed that the Golden Age, a period of unprecedented peace, prosperity, and cultural achievement, already lay deep in the past.

A friend recently asked if we who are alive today could bear to live in such an age. Our modern lives are premised on the idea that tomorrow will not only be different, but also better. He said this attitude has made us inattentive. We feel we don't have to pay attention to the details of life because we know their destination in advance, namely, progress.

In the sciences we speak of progress--greater knowledge, better instruments, new investigatory techniques, more comprehensive theories. But we rarely speak of progress in the arts. We tend to believe that art changes, while science advances. We do not think of James Joyce's novels as new and improved versions of Thomas Hardy's. We simply say that they are different.

Can we imagine an existence in which tomorrow may be different from yesterday, but may not necessarily represent an advance? Can we imagine a whole lifetime of such days? And, perhaps the most vexing question of all: Is it possible that we have actually been living in such a world without knowing it?

This question, of course, begets another one: What do we mean by progress? Generally speaking, we are offered the following metrics: more people living longer, healthier lives and enjoying greater material prosperity year after year (that is, ever increasing per capita consumption). We may also be told that our knowledge of the natural and social worlds is growing rapidly and that this knowledge is part of the reason for our prosperity.

When speaking of progress, we tend to leave out the side effects--some of them very dangerous--such as climate change, toxic pollution, soil erosion, fisheries collapse, species extinction, and myriad other ongoing environmental cataclysms that have the potential to destroy our civilization.

To contain our anxiety we tell ourselves that this is the price of progress. The politicians ask,"Which would you rather save, your jobs or some obscure species of fish?" Of course, the predicament we face is not so easily dismissed.

Another friend pointed out the disconnect between the United Nations' recent announcement that world population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050, up from 7.5 billion today, while the organization also warns of the devastating consequences of climate change for world food supplies in the future. Might not billions die of malnutrition and hunger before 2050 arrives as climate change continues to move faster than we have previously estimated?

And yet, the news is filled with predictions of fantastic leaps forward in artificial intelligence, robotics, and biotechnology without reference to the dangers we face--both from these fields themselves and from our environmental problems--that could put an end to and even reverse what we call progress.

One of the world's most prominent climate scientists, Tim Garrett, believes that our economic system simply cannot bring about the emissions reductions needed to stop climate change. Economic activity and carbon emissions are too closely linked.

This is just another way of saying that the idea of progress is embedded in the social and economic system, and that we cannot attack carbon emissions without attacking the idea of progress itself. Here is the question Garrett is really posing: If the progress we've made since the beginning of industrial civilization only leads to a complete reversal of all our supposed gains in the long run, can we really call what is happening progress?

And so, we must ask: Could we live in a world in which the idea of progress is abandoned? Could we stand the thought that tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that might feel endlessly the same, our personal power neither increasing nor diminishing--or worse yet, possibly diminishing somewhat over time.

Living without the hope of progress didn't stop the ancient Greeks from creating art, architecture, literature and philosophy that we still admire and learn from today. Could humans once again learn to value change without demanding that it be progress? In truth, our fate depends on the answer to that question.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Taking a short break - no post this week or next

An exceptionally heavy workload and travel schedule have conspired to prevent me from writing this week and next. I expect to post again on Sunday, July 2.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Can we create a durable future?

It is hard to imagine anyone today building something as durable as the Roman Colosseum. Most of the damage we see to the 2,000 year-old stadium comes from two earthquakes and the persistent looting of its marble, stone and brass infrastructure by humans using them for other building projects. Were it not for these unfortunate depredations, the Colosseum might be largely intact today.

We pen fantasies about the durability of our culture in science fiction novels, television programs and movies set hundreds and even thousands of years from now. By then we humans will supposedly be moving with magical ease at speeds greater than light, zipping through the known universe aided by voice-command convenience (or maybe even thought-comand convenience).

But our age seems to be populated by buildings and cultural artifacts that are designed for impermanence. It's not that we are technically incapable of making things that are durable when we want to, especially when it feeds our desire to turn science fiction into fact. NASA's Mars Rovers launched in 2003 were designed for a mission of 90 Martian solar days. The Spirit rover operated until 2010. The Opportunity rover is still operating.

We have even more impressive longevity from the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 space probes sent in 1977 to study the outer planets, that is, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Both spacecraft were designed for 5-year lifetimes and both are still working after almost 40 years. Voyager 1 has reached interstellar space where it continues to send back data. Voyager 2 will join it in two or three years. NASA expects to continue to receive data for another decade or so from both.

On Earth we would consider such durability to be over-engineering, too costly for our purposes. We build computers to be obsolete in less than 2 years. We build shopping malls, office parks and other commercial and industrial buildings with the idea that they will be abandoned or torn down in perhaps two or three decades. I am reminded of a New Yorker cartoon in which a developer looking at a model of his newly commissioned building remarks: "Great design, but when it comes time, a bitch to implode."

Nothing lasts forever. And, a society that has no dynamism, that does not change with changing circumstances, cannot survive. But it is we who are creating the change that we have to adapt to. It is we humans who are causing climate change. It is we humans who are causing rapid depletion of soil, water and energy resources. It is we humans who are increasing our environmental footprint in sheer numbers and in consumption per person.

We've initiated a feedback loop that has no end--except catastrophe. What would more durable arrangements look like? If we turn to those arrangements that have withstood the test of time, we have a starting point:

1. Small units of governance. The city of Rome has been continuously inhabited for more than 2,500 years. The Roman Empire, for all its durability, came and went even as the city lived on.

2. Small-scale agriculture and craft. Agriculturally based villages with craft industry have thousands of years behind them. This way of living is being crushed by modern industrial farming and its need for ever increasing scale. But the local food movement and the desire of many to know where their food comes from have breathed new life into small-scale farming.

3. Trade in luxury goods. Some exotic and valuable items have long been traded across large distances because a particular climate is suitable for certain produce, for example, tea or coffee--or the know-how and infrastructure is well-developed, silk from China, for example. What this point implies is that necessities are better produced closer to home to ensure a continuous and adequate supply.

4. Locations favorable to agriculture and navigation. It should be no surprise that many of the world's most important and long-lived cities are ports. Water has been historically a primary mode of transport. It is also, of course, essential to prosperous agriculture, either from adequate rains or from flowing rivers that can be diverted for irrigation.

All of these will seem obvious to anyone who has thought about the topic, sometimes through the lens of what is called "relocalization." In its simplest form this merely means returning the production of daily necessities closer to where we live. That seems straightforward enough; but the complex webs of trade and logistics we now have that bring us those necessities will be difficult to abandon. For those wanting to build more durable arrangements, this implies building them alongside the global system we have now. (It does NOT, however, mean abandoning the knowledge we have gained in the industrial age, but rather using it more wisely to attain our goals.)

Building a relocalized system may seem unduly duplicative and wasteful. And, it will be until it isn't, that is, until the global system stops serving our needs. In many ways that system already has stopped serving us if you count as one of our needs the desire to build a durable human culture that can thrive far into the future.

The fantasy of a spacefaring society has us fixated on an ever evolving technological future that asks us to abandon one set of gadgets for another almost continuously--all premised on the availability of unlimited resources and a climate crisis that somehow won't turn out to be a crisis. Few people are even contemplating the need to build a durable society because few imagine ever needing one.

We humans like the novelty afforded to us by our rapidly changing society. The world of information and communications technology has brought that novelty to us in addictive oversupply through ever more powerful cellphones and other electronic devices. What strikes me about this supposed novelty is its overwhelming sameness. It seems like novelty largely because new participants appear. But it is actually monotony itself because the stories we are told are as relentlessly interchangeable as they are shallow.

The durable society is not a dull society. It is rather a deeper society. We get to spend more time with the very landscape of our lives--the people, the buildings, the everyday objects, and the activities--than the frantic pace of the electronic message now allows us. The slow food movement is one expression of this desire for deeper engagement.

That deeper engagement is really the foundation of a durable future. It should come as no surprise then that it is difficult to build a durable future in a world that people don't have time to understand...with others they don't really know.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Baumol's cost disease, productivity and the future of growth

William Baumol, one of the most famous economists you've never heard of, died recently. Baumol's fame came out of the observation that there are sectors of the economy in which productivity is rising swiftly, for example, manufacturing, and sectors where it is rising slowly or not at all, for example, string quartet performances.

The conclusion he drew from observing the behavior of wages in these sectors was that wages had to rise in the low-productivity growth sectors even as they do in high-productivity growth sectors. This is because people will over time simply leave the low-productivity growth sectors for the better wages of the other sectors. This theory became known as Baumol's cost disease.

In practice, society still values string quartet performances enough to pay their practitioners sufficiently to keep them playing. Baumol extended his theory to any economic sector in which personal service is essential to that sector. Examples include education, health care, child care, and legal services. As it turns out, nobody (yet) wants a robot lawyer or nanny.

Baumol's theory explains why costs are rising so fast for educational institutions, health care organizations, municipal governments, and performing arts groups. Their productivity increases are limited, but their relative costs for labor continue to rise because of their low-productivity growth compared to other parts of the economy. In more productive sectors, rising wages can be offset by rising productivity which allows costs per hour of labor to remain level or, in some cases, decline.

Baumol realized that even in the mid-1960s when he first formulated his ideas (see here and here), technology was already enabling performing artists to reach larger and larger audiences through television, radio and record players. That certainly increased their productivity by allowing many more people to enjoy a particular performance. But these technologies and their more recent variants do not increase the number of performances that an artist can do.

The broader implication of Baumol is that as societies expand their service sectors, it is inevitable that overall productivity growth will decline. And that can mean that overall economic growth will tend to decline as well. We have certainly seen progressively slower growth in mature world economies over time, particularly since the 2008-2009 recession.

All attempts to reduce overall costs across entire low-productivity sectors (as opposed to small facets of them) have essentially come to naught--unless the sector is simply disappearing. (For example, does anyone remember the typesetting business which was wiped out by the advent of software capable of handling that task on a graphic designer's desktop computer?)

Some attempts have been made to reduce the cost of education. Back in the mid-1990s the University of Michigan proclaimed that it would become a million-person institution with its distance learning program. It took 20 years before the university created what it calls Massive Open Online Courses. They are free (though you can pay a fee to get a nice certificate of completion). Paying customers, however, still want actual live teachers in front of them just as they still crave live performers of music and plays. And, they want the recognized credentials that are included with attendance at the live instruction venue.

Municipalities provide a wide range of services including public safety, fire protection, building code enforcement, and public health. All of these services require people whose productivity is difficult to enhance on par with what is happening in manufacturing, particular high-technology manufacturing.

We have now accepted that maintaining an opera company or a symphony orchestra will cost more than ticket receipts can raise. What Baumol suggests is that we will have to be prepared to pay ever higher prices for those services we want from low-productivity growth sectors such as health care and education so long as productivity continues to grow relatively faster in other sectors.

With exceptionally low overall productivity growth in the United States and the world, it is likely that Baumol's cost disease is catching up with us--even if it isn't the only cause of that low growth.

The fantasy that we can make all services continuously more efficient simply can't get past the human factor in many cases. And, where that factor is being eliminated or reduced--for example, automated bank tellers, self-serve restaurants, and online learning--we are finding increasing bifurcation of the marketplace. The human touch is being reserved more and more for those who can afford it: private banking, high-end sit down restaurants, and ever more expensive college educations (that come with actual personal connections to instructors and with bona fide credentials).

Is our future one in which only the rich are inoculated against Baumol's cost disease? The alternative is increased public subsidies for those services which we deem socially important in order to make them widely available.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.