Monday, September 29, 2014

The Ostrich Factor

Garrett Hardin was a lad who not only thought a lot, but could also think well.  I recently discovered a Hardin book I had not heard of, The Ostrich Factor — Our Population Myopia (1998).  Hardin was an interesting blend of an ecological conservative, and a growth-hating political conservative who detested economists.  I hoped that this book would provide fresh insights on the huge and difficult problem of overpopulation.

After Living Within Limits was published in 1993, critics noted that Hardin complained about overpopulation, but failed to provide a remedy.  Hardin admitted that he had been intimidated by the explosive taboo on the subject, which incinerates every dreamer who blunders into it, foolishly preaching common sense.  Hence, the ostrich factor — never touch 800-volt issues that are surrounded by large piles of scorched skeletons.  You can’t win, so bury your head in the sand, and have a nice day!

There is a widespread fantasy, drilled into us by cultural myths, that our society is guided by reason and elevated moral principles.  It’s silly nonsense, but we have a hard time seeing this.  Many people waste their entire lives, sad victims of the tragedy of the consumers — powerful myths that compel us to spend our lives working, in order to move as much stuff as possible from nature to landfills, in order to gain the respect of our peer group, which suffers from the same mass hysteria.  Well-trained consumers never question 800-volt myths.

Modern society is focused on the individual, not the community or ecosystem.  I am all that matters.  If I can gain status and respect by wiping out forests or fisheries, or throwing the planet’s climate out of balance, I will.  I don’t care that I’m leaving behind a wasteland for future generations.  Of course, if future generations were able to vote today, or if we were raised in a sane culture, our world would be radically different and far healthier.

Hardin was fascinated by the poisonous power of taboos, and he invited an imaginary Martian into his book, to observe our society as an objective outsider.  (I wish he had used humans from the future.)  The two of them explored uncomfortable notions that will make some readers squirm and snarl.  They provide us with intense lessons about the powerful headlock that taboos have on our ability to think.  Taboos push many commonsense ideas off limits, severely handicapping our freedom to think, forcing many to live like two-year olds, ecological psychopaths, or chronically depressed shoppers.

Taboos vary from place to place and time to time.  I was surprised to see that Hardin only mentioned abortion once, with regard to a quote from 1886, describing a situation where abortion was legal, but contraception was not.  In that scenario, many physicians chose to break the law against providing contraception.

It is important to understand that many wild cultures had customs that encouraged population stability.  Their ongoing survival depended entirely on food from the surrounding wild ecosystem, and too many mouths led to painful problems.  Their utmost concern was the health and stability of the community, not the whims of individuals.  They shared and cooperated.  It was obvious to them that the carrying capacity of their ecosystem had genuine limits.  For us, living in a temporary wonderland of supermarkets, limits are hard to imagine — until we crash into them.

The emergence of agriculture redefined carrying capacity, which varied from year to year, depending on the harvest.  Limits on breeding weakened or vanished.  Hardin quoted Tertullian, a third century Christian thinker from Tunisia, who was spooked by the misery of overpopulation (when the global population was 150 million).

Tertullian wrote, “As our demands grow greater, our complaints against nature’s inadequacy are heard by all.  The scourges of pestilence, famine, wars, and earthquakes have come to be regarded as a blessing to overcrowded nations, since they serve to prune away the luxuriant growth of the human race.”

Like Tertullian, Reverend Malthus (1766-1834) also lived in an era of turbulent growth, and he became a notorious heretic for reminding society about the existence of carrying capacity.  Two hundred years later, he remains fiercely detested, mostly by people who have never read him, because he pointed out a serious 800-volt issue, a super-taboo.  Never, never, never suggest that there are limits to growth!

Perpetual growth on a finite planet is obviously impossible, obviously insane, and insanely destructive.  Sustainable growth is an oxymoron.  But few goofy myths are more powerful.  We are constantly reminded that perpetual growth is the purpose of life.  Grow or die!  Our official religion is Growth Forever.  Fanatical believers are called optimistic, and optimism is “good.”  Hardin disagreed, “At the present rate of population growth, it’s difficult to be optimistic about the future.”

With regard to population, our culture asserts two rights simultaneously.  (1) Right to life.  The UN decrees that “every man, woman, and child has the inalienable right to be free from hunger and malnutrition.”  (2) Right to limitless reproductive freedom.  “Every woman has the right — perhaps with the agreement of her mate(s) — to determine how many children she shall produce.”

There are no natural rights; rights are legal inventions.  Note that these two sacred rights are not accompanied by sacred responsibilities.  Hardin concluded that overpopulation would not be resolved by the voluntary choices of individual families.  In a finite world, unrestricted freedom is intolerable.  Survival is mandatory; freedom is not.  Effective solutions should be based on community-sensitive rules, ideally produced by a policy of “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.”  Our wild ancestors generally succeeded in doing this, because their cultures saw limits as being perfectly normal, not draconian.

Hardin knew that “coercion” is an obscene word in a culture that worships individualism, but he noted that we submit to coercion when we stop for red lights, or when we bike on the right side of the road.  Coercion is often reciprocal.  Money is coercion.  There are many things we will eagerly do for money that we would never do for free.  We are often coerced by nothing more than a sweet “pretty please.”

Hardin thought that one world government was impossible, because there is not a single world culture.  Trying to get different cultures to agree on anything is a challenge for advocates of multiculturalism.  Because of this, Hardin offered no silver bullet solution for the world.  Each culture will have to design its own method for limiting population.

Predicaments have no solutions, but problems do.  Overpopulation is merely a temporary problem, and there are two solutions.  (1) We can make a commonsense effort to live below carrying capacity.  (2) We can bury our heads in the sand, make no effort to influence the future, and let Big Mama Nature mercilessly do the dirty work.  The commonsense approach saves a lot of wear and tear on the ecosystem, and makes life far less hellish.  It is enthusiastically endorsed by the spirits of future generations.

Hardin, Garrett, The Ostrich Factor — Our Population Myopia, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998.

The Water Wheel

My great-grandfather, Richard E. Rees, was born in 1843 in the hamlet of Cwmbelan in the parish of Llangurig, Wales.  It had a stream with a waterfall.  Beside the waterfall was the flannel factory, built in the 1830s.  The factory was powered by a waterwheel, which had an iron frame.  Cwmbelan was in sheep country, and the flannel was made from wool.

In the wake of the last ice age, much of Britain was a lush rainforest.  It was home to animals like the beaver, boar, elk, reindeer, wisent (bison), antelope, lynx, wolf, bear, wolverine, lion, spotted hyena, elephant, black rhino, and hippopotamus.  They are all gone now, laments George Monbiot.  The rainforest was on the path to extinction by 2,100 years ago.  By and by, the land was infested with domesticated herbivores, the white plague, and they continue to prevent the forest from healing.  Monbiot calls this a sheepwreck.

Richard E. Rees worked in the factory as a boy.  Before Richard’s first birthday, his father died from “decline” at the age of 23.  Around 1853, his mother Sarah, and her three sons moved to Dowlais, in the hills of southern Wales, where there were booming coal and iron industries.  Richard mined coal for 10 years in Dowlais, 2 years in Pennsylvania, and 53 years in Ohio — 65 years!

The production of coal and iron enabled the rise of the Industrial Revolution.  It also enabled the rise of coal-powered mills in northern England, which led to the demise of the flannel factory in Cwmbelan.  In England, a coal-powered mill could spin as much yarn as 200,000 folks.  Many lost their livelihoods, as did Sarah Rees, who was a handloom weaver.  In Dowlais, she managed the Green Dragon pub.

So, was the waterwheel in Cwmbelan a sustainable source of energy?  Yes indeed, according to the trendy new definition of sustainable.  But the factory was part of an ongoing web of disruptive processes.  It was built in a former rainforest, the former home of many now-extinct species.  Domesticated sheep were such helpless dimwits that all wolves had to be exterminated.  The iron used to make the wheel was mined, smelted, and fabricated by intensely unsustainable industries.  Before the factory, flannel had been made by hand, in a low-impact manner.

Jeanette Armstrong is an Okanagan elder in British Columbia, and she is not at all fond of this new homocentric concept of sustainability — “sustaining the human abuse to a certain level, and keeping it at a level that it doesn’t quite destroy everything.”  Armstrong prefers traditional ecocentric sustainability, which cares for the wellbeing of the entire family of life.  This would be similar to the way the wild Welsh tribes lived long ago, in a healthy paradise — clean water, clean air, and abundant salmon and wild game.  Instead of controlling and exploiting their ecosystem, they adapted to it.

“Industrial societies are unsustainable,” concluded sustainability experts Michael and Joyce Huesemann in their book Techno-Fix.  “Long term sustainability can be achieved only if the use of limited non-renewable metals and minerals is discontinued or severely curtailed.”  This is obvious to those who understand ecological history, and to those raised in traditional societies. 

Our 10,000-year experiment in homocentric domination has been a spectacular failure.  Seven-point-something billion people are now approaching the brink of disaster.  It’s time to learn the original meaning of sustainability, as out-of-control climate change and peak energy push us into a slower, simpler muscle-powered future.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Snake Oil: Fracking’s False Promise

When a dark and furious storm is racing in, and the tornado sirens are howling, smart folks stop staring at their cell phones, and head for shelter.  But what if the cell phones were streaming messages that the storm warnings were a hoax, and there was nothing to fear?  Twenty years ago, Peak Oil was a ridiculous absurdity conjured up by notorious idiots on the lunatic fringe.  Ten years ago, it had become an acceptable topic for polite conversation.  Today, an extremely effective disinformation campaign has inspired many to toss their energy concerns out the window.

This made Richard Heinberg hopping mad, so he wrote Snake Oil to set the record straight.  He’s been blasting the warning sirens for more than ten years, via a series of books.  Nobody sane disputes that fossil energy is finite and non-renewable.  Nobody sane disputes that our current path has an expiration date.  The argument is over when that date arrives.  For most folks, something that may become a problem 50 to 100 years from now is simply not worth thinking about.  Heinberg is getting strong whiffs of trouble right now.

The production of conventional oil and gas is close to peak, but new technology has enabled production of unconventional oil and gas.  We are now extracting oil and gas from shale.  We’re cooking oil out of tar sands bitumen.  We are drilling in deep waters offshore.  This energy is far more expensive to produce.

Today, for each barrel of new oil we discover, we consume four or five barrels pumped from elderly fields.  In 1930, oil was as cheap as four cents per barrel.  In 2002, a barrel of oil cost $25, and in 2012 it was $110 (with a $150 spike in 2008).  Deep water drilling is economically possible when the price is $90 or more.  Existing tar sands projects can continue production at $60, but new tar sands projects need at least $80.  Almost all drilling requires $70.  The era of cheap energy is over.

A hundred years ago, drilling in ideal locations led to mighty gushers of black gold.  It only took one unit of energy to extract 100 units of energy.  So, the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) was 100:1.  By 1990, the EROEI of U.S. oil production had fallen to 40:1.  In 2013, it was about 10:1.  Tar sands, oil shale, and biofuels are all less than 5:1, and at this level, the economy gets dizzy, wobbly, and sweaty.

Every gold rush produces a few winners and legions of losers.  In order to drum up the necessary investment funding, it is customary to make highly exaggerated estimates of the immense wealth just waiting to be reeled in by wise guys (like you).  I recall industry hucksters once proclaimed that the Caspian Sea province contained up to 400 billion barrels of oil.  By 2001, after ten years of intensive work on prime sites, far less than 20 billion barrels were produced, according to petroleum geologist Colin Campbell.

Everyone agrees that the production of unconventional oil and gas has delayed our blind date with disaster a bit.  Is this delay years, decades, or centuries?  Heinberg introduces us to petroleum geologists who believe that U.S. gas and oil production will begin its decline by 2020.  “Production from shale gas wells typically declines 80 to 95 percent in the first 36 months of operation.  Given steep shale gas well decline rates and low recovery efficiency, the United States may actually have fewer than 10 years of shale gas supply at the current rate of consumption.”  In the North Dakota oil fields, 1,400 new wells have to be drilled every year, just to maintain current production, according to a story in Financial Times (27 Aug 2014).

Today, everyone has spent their entire lives in an era of rising energy production and economic growth, just like our parents did.  But economic growth is getting dodgy.  It’s being kept on life support by skyrocketing levels of debt.  As energy production approaches its decline phase, prices are sure to rise.  There will come a day when economic growth goes extinct.  Without economic growth, our way of life will eventually become a hilarious story told by the campfires of our descendants.

Should we be making serious plans for the coming challenges?  “Heck no,” says the energy industry.  Our treasure of unconventional energy is the equivalent of two Saudi Arabias!  We now have a 100-year supply of gas, according Daniel Yergin.  T. Boone Pickens says 160 years.  Aubrey McClendon says 200 years.  Even 100 years is daffy.  How was it calculated?  “Simply by taking the highest imaginable resource estimate for each play, then taking the very best imaginable recovery rate, then adding up the numbers.”  This results in projections that have no relationship to reality.

The Bakken and Eagle Ford deposits produce more than 80 percent of U.S. tight oil.  David Hughes, author of Drill, Baby, Drill, estimated that the combined production of both deposits will end up being the equivalent of ten months of U.S. consumption.  The U.S. Geological Service (USGS) estimated that Bakken contains 3.65 billion barrels of recoverable oil — about six weeks of current global consumption.  The U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) predicted that Bakken oil will peak in 2017.

Tim Morgan is a consultant who does a lot of work for investment bankers.  In his eye-opening 2013 report, Perfect Storm, he concluded, “the economy as we have known it for more than two centuries, will cease to be viable at some point within the next ten or so years unless, of course, some way is found to reverse the trend.”

Heinberg recommends that we shift to renewable energy with utmost speed.  Hmmm.  Solar panels and wind turbines have a limited lifespan.  Using them, repairing them, and replacing them requires the existence of an extremely unsustainable industrial civilization.  This civilization is unlikely to last long as it gets strangled by energy shortages and hammered by social unrest.  We’ll be forced to make a painful transition to muscle-powered agriculture, which cannot feed seven billion.  Somewhere along the line, televisions, laptops, and refrigerators will become useless ballast.  Even if scientists invented a way to extract affordable energy for another 200 years, it would be a foolish thing to do.  We’ve burned far too much carbon already.

I wonder if it might be more useful to voyage into the realm of unconventional thinking, on a sacred mission to explore a lot of big questions.  Over and over, we are told that cool people work really hard, become really prosperous, and buy lots of really cool stuff.  To me, that sounds like a tragic waste of the precious gift of life.  It’s causing lots of irreparable damage for no good reason.  We weren’t born to live like this.  We were born for a life of freedom, to enjoy a normal and natural standard of living.  Imagine that.

The book is short, full of helpful charts and graphs, well documented, and delightfully easy to read and understand.  The book’s Introduction can be read HERE.

Heinberg, Richard, Snake Oil — Fracking’s False Promise, Post Carbon Institute, Santa Rosa, California, 2013.