Sunday, January 28, 2018

Who will drink the last glass of water in Cape Town?

Because Cape Town sits between picturesque beaches and mountains, it is a favored travel destination. And, its weather during the summer is described as "almost too perfect." That's in part because it rains very little in the summer in this second most populous city in South Africa.

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink

Trouble is, starting in 2015 the rainy season never arrived. One year, then two years and now three years of extreme drought have brought the city's water supplies almost to exhaustion. Barring extraordinary rains or even more draconian cutbacks in water usage than have already occurred, Cape Town officials say they will have to turn off water to most household taps and businesses sometime in April. They're calling it "Day Zero." Hospitals and essential public facilities will be exempt. Most residents would have to line up at designated water supply stations for a daily allocation of 25 liters.

Cape Town's current troubles were not necessarily foreseeable in the usual sense. Yearly long-range weather forecasts raised no alarms when they were released since they did not predict an extreme drought for that year.

The causes of the city's water problems are, in fact, multiple. First, Cape Town's population has risen 80 percent since 1994 (the end of white rule) to 3.75 million people putting extraordinary demands on its water system. Second, average rainfall has been gradually decreasing for decades and has reached its lowest since 1933. Comparable records before that are not available. One calculation cited in the above linked article is that the current drought is the worst in more than 300 years. Another calculation suggests the multi-year drought is a once-in-a-millennium event. Third, climate change is almost certainly increasing the likelihood of such a drought though there is no way to prove the link to this particular drought.

There may, however, be water for the city to harvest. Underground tunnels that channel runoff and storm water from the nearby mountains are one source. But that's not an immediate solution (because of the new infrastructure that would have to be built), nor one currently being considered by the city. Small-scale containerized desalination plants are expected to be installed to take advantage of Cape Town's seaside location. But they won't solve the problem either. They aren't big enough. When completed the three plants will produce a total of 9 million liters per day. The city currently consumes 600 million liters per day though its conservation plan calls for a reduction to 500 million liters.

While Cape Town's water problems might have been broadly predictable—along the lines of "there will be a water shortage at some point"—the current shortage suggests that the effects of climate change can and will continue to surprise us with their suddenness and severity. Just to be clear, the city is not going to "run out" of water completely as some reports assert. But, on its current trajectory Cape Town will be the first major city in the world to shut off taps to most of its users because of a water supply crisis.

For now, there won't be a "last glass of water" from Cape Town's taps as I've implied in my title. But if there ever is, it will likely be consumed by one of the millions of tourists who visit Cape Town each year. As The Christian Science Monitor reports: "Some central and downtown areas could be exempt from the [water] cut-off for the sake of tourism and business."

So tied are the city's fortunes to visitors that the locals may be forced to watch as those visitors sip from their water glasses in Cape Town's restaurants and caf├ęs—while the locals stand in line for their daily water ration. Can Cape Town remain a tourist haven long under the burden of such a contrast?

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons


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 the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The energy of Bitcoin, the information economy and the (possible) decentralization of the world

The near vertical rise and fall in price of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin in recent months has been accompanied by reporting about the energy used to run the Bitcoin network. The amount is enormous, more than enough to supply the entire country of Ireland.

Many other cryptocurrencies operate under less energy-intensive designs. But the more than 1,000 other digital coins beyond Bitcoin certainly use a considerable amount of energy though there is no overall estimate I'm aware of. (For the technically minded, here is a discussion of two popular methods associated with validating transactions, one of which is considerably less energy-intensive.)

We'd like to think that the information economy of which these newfangled currencies are part bears lightly on the broader environment. But as I pointed out in my piece "The Unbearable Lightness of Information," much of what happens in the information economy is simply focused on extracting more resources more quickly to create more goods and services for more customers. The physical economy isn't disappearing. It is merely being exploited more completely using digital information.

And beyond this, "Every person who works in the so-called information sector of the economy must be housed, clothed, schooled, provided transportation, provisioned with household goods, given opportunities for entertainment and recreation, [and] supplied with a wide array of public services."

Having said all this, I find one aspect of the blockchain technology behind the explosion in digital currencies to be promising. This technology offers a possible path for decentralizing banking and finance and myriad other Internet-related services we've come to rely on from big corporations. By creating a highly efficient transparent network with accounts readable by anyone and validation done by anyone who is willing to set up the necessary equipment, these networks make possible much wider use of micropayments to small service providers. That could make centralized Internet-based services obsolete over time in many areas and bring power back to system users.

Conceivably, you could take back control of your personal information instead of trusting someone else to handle it securely (a need reinforced by regular major data breaches such as the Equifax debacle). In the area of data backup and storage, you could choose to deal with many small distributed providers of data storage instead of dealing with one large company. Think Napster (with a small fee) for storage as opposed to large cloud services companies such as Amazon.

Right now the accessibility and security issues related to participating in these incipient networks are formidable for average people. But those pushing blockchain technology are hard at work on these issues.

Perhaps of most interest to me is the application of blockchain to energy markets. Already Rocky Mountain Institute is leading efforts to develop blockchain technology for these markets. Three candidates for the technology are customer billing, renewable energy certificates, and peer-to-peer energy sharing networks.

Saying one understands all the implications of blockchain technology today would be similar to saying one understands all the implications of the Internet in the early 1990s.

Apart from the headline-grabbing fortunes made by early entrants into the blockchain world, there seem to be much more profound implications to this technology. While Bitcoin is getting most of the attention, it is very much a single-purpose vehicle for those who want to store wealth in a currency not controlled by central banks. I'll leave predictions about Bitcoin's future to others.

But the future of blockchain in general seems worthy of attention. The biggest threat it poses to the established order is the possibility of decentralizing wealth and power. Whether it will accomplish that to any degree is unknowable. But it is worth thinking about if you can avert your eyes from the current frenzy in the cryptocurrency marketplace.

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 the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Protagoras and the Anthropocene: Can man still be the measure of all things?

The ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras is famous for his saying that man is the measure of all things. Though we don't know much about Protagoras or his written work except for quotations appearing in other ancient works, the general view is that Protagoras was the father of moral relativism in philosophy.

The Protagoras's complete statement has been translated as follows: "Of all things the measure is man, of the things that are, that [or "how"] they are, and of things that are not, that [or "how"] they are not." It is unlikely that Protagoras believed that physical truths about the natural world such as the freezing point of water depended on one's personal standpoint.

But under Protagoras's tutelage in matters of values, we are left only with the measuring instrument called "man" (or more inclusively "humans"). In the age of the Anthropocene—that still-not-official geologic age in which humans are designated as the most potent geologic force on the planet—those issues thought to relate solely to the lives of humans do NOT, it turns out, relate simply to humans.

While we may choose to celebrate the material progress of humankind, we do so heedless of the wider costs to the stability of the biosphere. Those who focus only on measures that exclusively relate to what we regard as human well-being miss the broader picture and mislead their audience. (They often say "the world" is getting better when they mean certain measures of human well-being are moving in a direction we regard as good.)

But, human civilization thrives under very specific environmental conditions, namely the ones experienced since the end of the last ice age. That age, the Holocene, has been marked by a moderately warm and stable climate which made possible agriculture and the concomitant rise of cities.

General advances for humans such as rising incomes (and thus consumption) and better access to health services are unalloyed positives only if the continuously degrading indices of biospheric stability are ignored. Two concepts, planetary boundaries and tipping points, inform us about the risks.

Planetary boundaries identified by the Stockholm Resilience Centre number nine and include such things as climate change, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, and biodiversity, called "biosphere integrity." The Centre reports that humans have passed four of the nine boundaries: "climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change, altered biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen)."

The word "boundaries" implies that with the right actions we could cross back over them and thus return to a safe zone. (In practical terms this would mean moving back into a zone of lower risk.)

Tipping points, however, imply a journey to the land of no return. Researchers reporting on the planetary boundaries believe that in the areas of climate and biosphere integrity, the planet is in danger of moving toward a new irreversible state, "a much less hospitable state, damaging efforts to reduce poverty and leading to a deterioration of human well-being in many parts of the world, including wealthy countries."

I am reminded of the man falling from a 100-story building who, when asked at the 50th floor by someone near a window how he's doing, replies, "Fine so far." Tipping points seem unimportant or even nonexistent until you reach them. Conceivably, human well-being could on average continue to increase for many indicators for years to come, only to be dramatically reversed when planetary tipping points kick in.

The mathematical way of talking about this is that tipping points can represent a kind of step function or nonlinear response on a graph. Much of the sanguine talk of continued human progress is premised on the absence of sudden nonlinear turns or step functions in the graphs of the key indicators of planetary health. The data to date give us little reason to expect gradual change for all indicators or to believe that we can adapt successfully to all the changes we face if we don't alter our current course.

It is not surprising that humans look to themselves as arbiters of what's important in the life and processes of the biosphere. Humans, like every other species, seek their own survival and well-being first. But our overreliance on humans as the measure of all things is the very posture which has put us on the road to potentially catastrophic changes in climate and other planetary systems, changes that threaten our very survival.

The time has come to put away man as the measure of all things and look to much broader measures for an assessment of our well-being and the well-being of all those systems upon which ours depends.

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 the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Hawaii's existential choice: Tourism, food and survival

Hawaiians used to feed themselves quite easily on this island paradise. With the arrival of Europeans and Americans came European and American ideas about plantation agriculture. Hawaii became a producer of coffee, sugar, pineapple, papaya, rice and other plantation crops.

While destroying Hawaii's diverse food system, the growers created a prosperous agricultural trading economy with mainland markets as customers. But competition from low-cost producers elsewhere has more recently devastated that economy. The last remaining sugar plantation closed in 2016.

The decline of the previously large sugar and pineapple industries now make Hawaii much more dependent on tourism as a source of income. Tourists are Hawaii's largest industry. They spent $15.6 billion in 2016 on vacations there representing about 18.5 percent of the total economy. That certainly underestimates their importance as many additional support services are needed to maintain the businesses that service the tourists.

As tourism has grown, land used for agriculture has declined by 68 percent since 1980. Some of the former plantation operators have turned themselves into land development companies to take advantage of the tourism and real estate boom.

The result is that Hawaii—a lush, fertile group of islands with the ability to grow crops year round—now imports 90 percent of its food.

Importing food is not a problem in and of itself. It turns out that some of the world's top food importing nations such as China, the United States and Germany are also top food exporters. They choose to specialize in what they grow most efficiently and export some of it, while importing foodstuffs which other countries are more efficient at growing by reason of climate, soil, water availability, labor costs and other factors. For countries such as China, the United States and Germany, disruptions in food imports might represent a mere inconvenience. Americans might feel deprived without bananas at their morning table, but they would have the option  of choosing apples, pears or other fruit instead.

Hawaii could make policy that would encourage more food growing. But such policies are likely to raise the cost of government through agricultural subsidies. If Hawaii were an independent country, it could impose import duties on certain agricultural products in order to encourage local production of them.

But subsidies and other available measures—unless they are focused on building a diverse agriculture—might simply bring Hawaii back toward a plantation economy, not an economy that could actually feed the people of Hawaii. Here Hawaii faces two problems. A census done by Hawaii's still then independent government in 1850 put the population at around 84,000. The 2010 census showed a population of more than 1.3 million according to Hawaiian state census information.

Using current agricultural lands, it would be difficult to feed a population that has grown more than 10 times (let alone the tourists who add another 220,000 people daily to the population)—even if crops were broadly diversified. In all likelihood much more land would have to be put under cultivation and many more people would have to be engaged in growing food in residential vegetable gardens, truck farms and large polyculture farm operations.

The second problem is that so long as the tourists keep coming, there is little impetus to reverse the trend in Hawaiian agriculture. The assumption is that the tourists will simply keep coming and coming forever. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States and the deep recession of 2008 and 2009 taught Hawaiians that there will be significant disruptions in tourist traffic, but that that traffic will always come back. Have they learned the right lesson?

Other importers of food aren't so fortunate as Hawaii which even in the worst situation would receive aid from the U.S. federal government. Countries such as Afghanistan, Myanmar, Niger, and Yemen, in fact, 34 countries in all "are unable to produce their own food due to water and land limitations."

For many in these countries getting their daily sustenance is a life and death struggle. The modern global economy has forced countries to specialize. This works well for those properly positioned with the appropriate infrastructure and skilled workforce. Without these many countries simply become sources of raw commodities for the factories and mills of advanced countries—and that's if those developing countries are lucky enough to have such an endowment.

Some day Hawaii may have to contemplate what it will do without tourism or at least less of it. For that matter, it may have to contemplate what it will do without the heavy U.S. military presence which represents the second largest part of the Hawaiian economy.

Specialization has its advantages. But it can also bring frightening vulnerabilities. A whole city of beautiful hotel rooms means little if few people come to stay in them. Hedging against such a day may just be too painful for Hawaiians to contemplate—which is the very reason they should start thinking about it right now.

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 the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.