Monday, December 24, 2007

Holiday break

I'm taking a short break from posting and expect to post again on Sunday, January 6. Until then, enjoy the holidays!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The third rail of world politics

Subway stations post stern warnings about getting near the tracks not only because one might get run over, but also because those tracks often include an exposed, electrified third rail that powers the subway trains. That fact has given birth to a common metaphor in the United States where it is often said that the U. S. Social Security system is the third rail of American politics; touch it and you die. Politically, that is.

But there is another broader issue that seems to have become the third rail of world politics: overpopulation. This week in an astounding piece in USA Today, the newspaper told us that U. S. fertility rates had returned to the replacement value of 2.1 (that is, 2.1 births per woman on average) after being below replacement since 1971. This was deemed good because "[a] high fertility rate is important to industrialized nations. When birthrates are low, there are fewer people to fill jobs and support the elderly." Ergo, the low fertility rates of Italy, Germany, Japan, Russia, and South Korea (all mentioned in the article) must be bad. These countries were said to be "struggling with low birthrates and aging populations." In fact, some of these low fertility countries are now providing government incentives for larger families.

Within the narrow measures of economic competitiveness and public pension support for the elderly the labels of good and bad might be applicable. But what about the environmental degradation and resource depletion that are resulting from overpopulation in these very same countries? Not a single word!

Is there any explanation for this glaring omission? Probably, there are many. But one explanation is sticking in my mind. The explanation comes courtesy of Albert Barlett, the retired University of Colorado physics professor who has spent his retirement warning the world about the dangers of exponential growth. Barlett reminds us in a recently published essay included in an anthology entitled The Future of Sustainability that carrying capacity can be imported from other countries. That means that the damage resulting from overpopulation in the countries mentioned in the article is not always visible within those countries. Only Russia, for example, is self-sufficient in energy. And, Russia, Japan and South Korea must import considerable amounts of food. Much of the raw material for the factories in all the countries mentioned is imported from other countries, mostly so-called developing countries, from their mines, their fields, their fisheries and their forests.

So it is no wonder that the reporters at USA Today didn't notice the deleterious effects of overpopulation on these so-called industrialized nations. As those countries import carrying capacity, they also export environmental degradation and resource depletion. Everything looks fine to most people in the importing nations. For example, while Japanese consumers are helping to strip the world of its remaining forests, the country preserves its own forests and enjoys a forest cover of around 67 percent.

The damage does, however, show up on the evening news as a conflict in some distant, dusty country where forests are being leveled and rivers are being drained. The conflict is usually put down to some ethnic or religious rivalry. Often a quick recap of the last few centuries of history in such places is provided for the sole purpose of proving that "these people have never gotten along."

Even if some politicians, policymakers and reporters in wealthy countries can see beyond the daily mirage of plenty to the overpopulation problem, they do not want to touch it. Those who advocate for measures to reduce population often find themselves accused of one or more of the following motivations: 1) a desire to kill the old and the infirm, 2) a desire to force people to have abortions, 3) a desire to prevent poor countries from achieving political and military power, 4) a genocidal mania aimed at reducing the population of certain minorities, and 5) a pathological attachment to animals and nature coupled with a desire to preserve the world for nonhumans. I can tell you from personal experience that it doesn't really matter how many times you say the word "voluntary" in front of the words "family planning," you will still be under suspicion.

Of course, those wishing to avoid all taint of unsavory or paranoid accusations will simply call you "anti-growth." This automatically makes you an enemy of the poor who will have no hope of bettering themselves under your plan for population reduction. If you answer this charge by suggesting that perhaps we should redistribute the world's wealth more equitably while simultaneously reducing population, they will call you a "socialist" if they're trying to be polite or a "communist" if they're not.

One thing you can be sure of. No defensible ecological argument will be made to refute you.

It is not obvious to me how to change the discourse on population. I usually avoid it in my initial discussions with people about our ecological predicament. If someone asks about population during a question and answer session, I respond as well as I can. Sometimes a well-informed questioner surmises that I simply must understand the connection between overpopulation and our environmental and resource problems. Such a questioner will phrase his or her query this way: "How come you didn't talk about overpopulation? That's at the root of all our problems."

Well, now I can refer those questioners to this piece.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Charlie Hall's balloon graph

My latest column for Scitizen entitled "Charlie Hall's Balloon Graph" has now been posted. Here is the teaser:

Energy researcher Charlie Hall's balloon graph challenges the notion that alternative energy sources will provide a smooth transition to a post-fossil fuel society. Scale and energy return remain huge obstacles. Read more...

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Welcome to Fantasy Air

Airlines and the government agencies that oversee them are projecting stunning growth for air travel and air freight over the next couple of decades. That seems to fit with the story of the amazing rise of the Asian economies, particularly China and India. And, it is consistent with the clear-sailing-ahead outlook of several prominent energy forecasters. The U. S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is actually predicting a 1 percent annual drop in the price of aviation fuel between now and 2020.

Welcome to Fantasy Air! According to the aviation powers that be there is nary a cloud in the sky for aviation growth.

Enter Roger Bezdek. Bezdek flew to Houston recently to tell an attentive, peak oil aware audience that the future of the airlines which had brought most of them there is much bleaker than airline passengers, employees, executives or even professional forecasters realize. Speaking at the 2007 World Oil Conference organized by the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas--USA, the energy consultant and co-author of the Hirsch Report prophesied neither the total demise of the airline industry nor the sparkling exponential growth so prominent in official forecasts. Instead, airlines are set to enter an era of relentless decline.

Bezdek's forecast is, of course, premised on the idea that world peak oil production will occur soon. His actual projections are based on the assumption (but not the prediction) that oil will peak in 2008. What Bezdek finds by "reverse engineering" the official forecast is that the main factor that will drive air transport is the trend in GDP, not fuel costs as so many people have assumed. His study showed that even with today's high fuel costs, airlines are growing and prospering with one of their main problems now being undercapacity.

But since airline growth is linked to growth in the general economy and since peak oil is expected to cause a general decline in GDP, air transport will follow that general decline. Bezdek provides two scenarios, one based on a 1 percent annual decline in GDP through 2026 (labeled "Optimistic Peak Oil Forecast") and a second based on a 2 percent decline (labeled "Pessimistic Peak Oil Forecast"). He concludes: "[I]n both scenarios, passenger traffic declines faster than GDP, passenger revenues decline faster than traffic, and air cargo declines faster than passenger traffic or revenues."

He projects that:

  • Hundreds of billions of dollars of investment will be "stranded."
  • Some airlines will disappear or may have to be rescued by governments.
  • Airport and aviation infrastructure projects will be cancelled.
  • Bonds for airports, airport industrial parks, infrastructure projects, etc. will likely default, cascading throughout the financial sector.
  • Problems will cascade well beyond the aviation sector.

It is this last point which is most important. The aviation industry may turn out to be a microcosm of the broader economy. This has disturbing implications for many infrastructure projects now currently underway or planned for the next several years. Because peak oil is not widely recognized by government infrastructure planners, new highways, new airports and new infrastructure for sprawl continue to be built. And, there are plans for further rapid expansion well into the fourth decade of this century. The underlying assumption, of course, is that liquid fuels will be cheap and plentiful for decades to come.

As for airlines, Bezdek says, their problems may end up being even worse than his forecast suggests. As liquid fuels become less available and more expensive, critical sectors of the economy such as agriculture, health care and emergency services will likely be given special priority for what fuel is available. He asks a question that answers itself: "What is more important: Food or cheap air fares to Las Vegas and Vail?"

That question and many more like it are ones which Bezdek expects us to face in the not too distant future.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The pathos of Derrick Jensen

Author Derrick Jensen is as rare a person as you will ever meet. He is so keenly attuned to the natural world that he feels every knife cut civilization inflicts on it. With every word he speaks he seems to be saying, "If you could feel the Earth's pain as I do, you would spend every moment of your existence trying to stop it."

Before he came to town last week, I had read only some scattered essays by Jensen and had never before seen him speak. At first I tried to take notes. But then I gave up and simply let the wave of pathos emanating from this man wash over me. He was at turns erudite, crude, poetic, caustic, and misty-eyed--as gifted a performer as I have ever seen. But what was his performance about?

He spoke at length about patriarchy, conquest, empire, slavery, wage slavery, cruelty to women, cruelty to minorities, cruelty to indigenous people. He plumbed the depths of the modern psyche, our attachment to machines and their effect on our brains. He talked about the effect of language on perception. Is that a forest full of trees--an oak here, a walnut there, with a black squirrel scurrying around the trunk and a sparrow alighting on a limb--or is it simply lumber waiting to be cut? Sometimes the forest is euphemistically referred to as a "natural resource" by environmentalist and forestry company executive alike.

Do you understand how exploited and damaged you really are? As long as you think about how you might get a bigger piece of the pie, you are trapped. As long as you think social justice is about getting a bigger piece of the pie for others who are deprived, you are trapped. All of your normal, civilization-derived concepts are likely traps. Can you see your way through them? Let Derrick Jensen help you.

And, he does. But not directly. As an audience member you are simply following him around as he destroys one notion after another about what constitutes justice, what constitutes truth and what constitutes peace. Jensen is an environmentalist so he must be for peace, right? No, not really, not if you take into account the tremendous violence that modern societies inflict on nature, even while they are at nominal peace with one another. You'll never overcome that violence by working for peace. You must resist the foundations of civilization, sometimes with violence.

How about justice? Surely, we must share the fruits of civilization more widely with the poor. No, those fruits aren't worth sharing because they are poisonous. OK, but surely we would be better off by choosing to keep some of the machines brought to us by modern civilization while discarding others that are known to be bad? Those machines are the product of a civilization built on violence and oppression. The violence and oppression are built right into the machines. How will you filter that out?

Jensen's own childhood seems to have been the point of departure for his analysis. An abusive home life seems to have led him not to the provinces of psychology, but to those of sociology. He does not ask what type of monster his father was. He asks what kind of society produces fathers who are monsters. His answer has led him to the conclusion that fathers can't be fixed until civilization is fixed.

He ostensibly came to talk about his latest book, Endgame. Can industrial civilization survive? Answer: No. Is there anything we can do to make a gradual transition from industrial civilization to a peaceful, sustainable world? Answer: There is, but we won't do it.

Are you saying that industrial civilization is so harmful to humans and nonhumans alike that we ought to hasten its inevitable demise? Answer: It is and we should. Won't a lot of people die if we bring down industrial civilization today? Yes, but a lot more will die if it continues to expand before meeting its inevitable demise; and, the damage won't be inflicted just on human beings, but on all the creatures of the biosphere, injuring and wiping out vast numbers of them even while changing the climate and basic habitability of the planet.

Aren't you, Derrick Jensen, inflicting damage yourself on the biosphere by doing what you do, traveling, publishing books, using electronic communications? Answer: It is inevitable. No one can escape this contradiction. But that doesn't mean we have to accept it and do nothing. Aren't you really just using the tools of the master to try to dismantle the master's house? Answer: Yes, and I'll borrow my neighbor's tools and your tools and steal some tools from Wal-Mart if I have to.

I wondered whether Derrick Jensen believes that there was a pre-agricultural golden age of hunter-gatherers who were neither exploitive of one another nor damaging to the environment. I'm not quite sure based on this one encounter. But I think he would like to find out if such an arrangement would at least be healthier for the humans and other beings on planet Earth.

There is one thing I am sure Jensen believes: Nature is not the remorseless, amoral force that modern civilization assumes it to be. And, despite all our colossal abuse of it, the actors of nature continue to try to do their appointed work of keeping it running. "Nature is waiting to welcome us back," he assures us. But, do we really want to go back?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

What should members of the peak oil movement call themselves?

Language is important. Language is the primary way in which humans coordinate their vast enterprises and their daily tasks. And yet, despite this importance the peak oil movement has been fumbling around trying to figure out what to call its members. One thing is certain though. If we don't label ourselves, someone will do it for us. So, I propose to examine some of the terms that are currently in use and suggest a label. I'm certainly open to other suggestions. But, in this piece I hope to do some preliminary pruning.

Some who criticize the peak oil movement have already created labels such as "peakist" and "doomer" to fit their agendas. The first label is awkward (perhaps intentionally so), and the second is clearly derogatory. Let's take these terms in order:

Peakist. If you label an opponent something no one can understand, it creates confusion and difficulty. "Peakist" is an invented word which in isolation doesn't really mean anything in any context. Can we really expect someone unfamiliar with peak oil to grasp the significance of "peakist" in a passing mention on television or radio? In addition, the word sounds like "pique" which means a feeling of irritation or resentment over having one's pride injured, not a particularly positive association. "Peakist" appears to have originated with a Cambridge Energy Research Associates report entitled Why the Peak Oil Theory Falls Down: Myths, Legends, and the Future of Oil Resources. That's hardly a friendly source. Why would members of the peak oil movement adopt a label given to them by the world's foremost oil cornucopians in a sneering paper that attempts to debunk their views?

Doomer. This label is self-explanatory. No doubt there are some people in the peak oil movement who wear this label proudly. Their pessimistic turn of mind or their honest best guess tells them that the future of humankind is very grim indeed. But no one should believe that this label imparts much credibility to those who wear it by choice or who are labeled as such by others.

Now, let's look at three other terms often used by members of the movement in an attempt to define themselves:

Peak oil advocate. This is a very strange formulation. Peak oil is not a program for which one can advocate. And, almost no one in the peak oil movement is saying we ought to do things which make peak oil arrive earlier. We are not advocating for a peak. The word "advocate," because of its literal meaning, can make the term "peak oil advocate" start to seem synonymous with doomer, only worse. The so-called advocate will mistakenly be seen by some to be advocating for the doom which the doomers merely claim is inevitable.

Peak oiler. This label has an informal, friendly ring to it. But as an habitual designation, it hardly seems much better than "peak oil advocate." For the casual listener, the term "peak oiler" is opaque. It sounds vaguely like someone associated with a now defunct professional football team. And, when we describe a person as oily, we don't mean it as a compliment. "Peak oiler" fails because it isn't really informative and because the word "oiler" has confusing and even unfavorable associations in the minds of many.

Peak oil believer. This label appears to get closer to the mark. But, it may come as a shock to many in the peak oil movement that much of what they believe is actually conventional wisdom. Nearly every credible scientist or energy analyst agrees that at some point world oil production will peak and then decline. The disagreement is over the timing and the severity of the consequences. The label "peak oil believer" in this context becomes misleading. First, those in the peak oil movement believe specifically that peak oil is not very far away, usually saying it will come no later than 2020. The term "peak oil believer," however, doesn't communicate this nuance. Second, the word "believer" makes the peak oil issue sound as if it were a matter of faith and one with cultish overtones to boot. There is no reason to classify peak oil with matters of faith. We have enough geological evidence and historical experience to conclude that there will be a peak in world oil production at some point. The burden ought to be on the cornucopians to explain their faith in continued abundance in the face of the current evidence. Of course, some of the harshest critics of the peak oil movement also accept that there will be a peak--just not very soon. And, these critics might reasonably be called "peak oil believers" as well. Therefore, on all counts, this label doesn't really work.

So, what then shall we call ourselves as members of the peak oil movement? In some quarters I've been hearing the term "peak oil activist." Perhaps it's not a perfect term; many associate the term "activist" primarily with leftist political causes. But this term has advantages. It implies that there is something we can do about the problem of peak oil. It implies that there is something that needs to be done today about it. It implies that the person who takes on the label is engaged in doing what needs to be done. And, it implies that there is a movement behind this person, just as there is behind nearly every environmental or political activist.

"Peak oil activist" avoids the disadvantages of the other labels and has many positive connotations. For now, I'm voting for this one unless someone can show me something better.