Wayne Swan plans to crank up the Ageing Population Myth

31 12 2012

This is a guest post by Mark O’Connor whose website is at www.australianpoet.com http://t3.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQbtsVA7j6PTZsreKNggykcP4FV0i8VZLIyqzQJXCtiIbkxSiXS

Paddy Weaver  reports that the government has begun to pre-leak material from the next Inter-generational Report, due out early in the new year. Many of these leaks indicate a mis-emphasis we should be ready to query.

It seems a major thrust of the report will be to head off concerns at the huge infrastructure costs of our ever-expanding population. (These costs are usually estimated at at least $200,000 per extra Australian). Australia’s population will cross the 23 million line in 2013, re-sparking the population debate.

kelvinthomsonMPLabor MP Kelvin Thomson  has argued that these infrastructure costs have almost  bankrupted state governments, forcing severe cuts to infrastructure and services, and driving Labor out of office in several states. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kelvin_Thomson –  section on Political Theorist.)  The Report aims to spike such concerns  by cranking up fears of a revenue crisis caused by “our ageing population”.

The Report’s suggested remedy — you guessed it — is to increase immigration to keep the population “young”. Such arguments are a now traditional use, or misuse, of the Inter-generational Reports, begun by Peter Costello and continued by Wayne Swan. Though in opposing parties, these two treasurers have both been  one-eyed promoters of  growth at all costs.

Yet the Ageing Population Scare has been repeatedly refuted. It is the young not the old who are most economically helpless and need most care; and, though we will have more old people and fewer children in future,  the percentage of those in their working years will not greatly change. Dr Ben Spies Butcher, lecturer in Economy and Society at Macquarie University, says that despite the constant talking-up of a potential ageing crisis, “the evidence of a problem is minimal”, and “there is little evidence that population ageing will hurt the budget”.

[See Ben Spies Butcher, “The myth of the ageing ‘crisis’”, The Conversation, 26 April 2011.
cf. Ben Spies Butcher, “What ageing crisis?”, 31 January 2011. http://www.abc.net.au/rn/lifematters/stories/2011/3124413.htm.]

Indeed as Dr Jane O’Sullivan of University of Queensland has  shown, the costs of population growth exceed the projected costs of population ageing by 30 to one. “Can we really be so stupid?,” she asks.  See also http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-0270.2011.02125.x/pdf

Similarly, in the UK, the Select Committee on Economic Affairs of the House of Lords concluded that: “Arguments in favour of high immigration to defuse the ‘pensions time bomb’ do not stand up to scrutiny”. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200203/ldselect/ldeconaf/179/179.pdf.

For a list of “myths” the committee rejected, see Sir Andrew Green, “Devastating demolition of the case for mass immigration”, Daily Mail, 31 March 2008.
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-552449/Devastating-demolition-case-mass-immigration.html#ixzz1KV3RDTYm e.g. “The Government’s key claim that immigration increases Britain’s overall gross domestic product (GDP) is dismissed as ‘irrelevant and misleading’ – even though, as the report points out, it is a claim that has been ‘persistently emphasised’.”

Jane O’Sullivan, “The downward spiral of hasty population growth”, On Line Opinion, 8 March 2010.
http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=10137&page=0. Jane N. O’Sullivan, “Submission to the Issues Paper on a Sustainable Population Strategy for Australia”, 2011, pp. 16-19.

In Australia the newly formed the Stable Population Party has used social media and especially tweets to point out the omnipresent costs of population growth, and the number of fiscal problems that would be solved by reducing Australia’s population growth (which, according to the demographer Graeme Hugo, is more than 3 times the average of advanced nations). Here are some samples of the Stable Population Party’s tweets, which have been widely sent to the media and to community groups – it may be their success that is forcing Swan to shore up the growth lobby:

WA LibLabs can’t deliver new #Perth hospitals, so why should we accept population explosion?

Carmageddon hits #Melbourne, as LibLabGreen pop’n explosion wears down roads http://www.theage.com.au/drive/roads-and-traffic/carmageddon-hits-melbourne-20121227-2bxwc.html …

Holidaymakers clog #Brisbane highways to the coasts, as LibLab pop’n explosion policies ruin #Qld holidays http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/queensland/holidaymakers-clog-highways-to-the-coasts-20121227-2bx7m.html …

Youth jobs dry up – unemployment @ 20% (as #LibLabs push ferocious job comp from foreign ‘students’) http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/youth-jobs-dry-up-unemployment-rate-nears-20-per-cent/story-e6freuy9-1226543761159?sv=150e614f552fee96c32e7c0bdca04723#.UNvDp92cjvo.twitter …

WA BOILING FROGS: Dog box living, agriculture & dams to plummet, sprawl to Peel http://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/a/-/wa/15711484/planners-prepare-for-population-explosion/ …

Naive Coalition backs down on infrastructure (It can’t afford Aus pop’n explosion either) http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/political-news/coalition-backdown-on-roads-promise-20121225-2bvap.html …

‘O’Farrell hits turbulence over airport’ but #StablePopulation ELIMINATES 2nd #Sydney airpoirt issue http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/ofarrell-hits-turbulence-over-airport-20121225-2bvat.html …

WA: #Perth pushed into ‘population explosion’ by vested interests http://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/a/-/wa/15711484/planners-prepare-for-population-explosion/ … But choice is coming in 2013…

The last Inter-generational Report was notable for dubious presentation of the economic evidence about the effects of ageing. Under political pressure its authors made it sound as if  ” The tax take will fall at exactly the same time as health care and aged care costs are rising.” However, economist Dr Richard Denniss, of the Australia Institute, points out that this is the exact opposite of Treasury’s projections which predict the tax rate will soar despite the ageing of the population.

At the Informa Australia’s Population 2050 conference in Melbourne in September 2011,  Dr Denniss was scathing about such mis-readings of the Inter-generational Report: “The latest Inter-generational Report for Australia says by 2050 we will be so rich that at current tax rates government will be swimming in money….  The scare stuff is put in the part called Costs of Ageing.  The admission that these costs are in fact small is to be found tucked away in a section rivetingly titled Methodological Issues…  So, you’ve been tricked. There’s plenty of money if we just leave tax rates where they are – or even stop lowering them so often.” [Quoted in Big Australia? Yes/No, by Mark O’Connor, Jessica Brown and Oliver Hartwich, Pantera Press 2012 ]

The Ageing Population Scare is full of contradictions. Here is how I summed them up in Big Australia? Yes/No,  Pantera Press 2012.

A key indicator of a successful, prosperous and advanced society is the proportion of people who live long and healthy lives. By definition, such nations have an older average age than those where life is short, disease and conflict are rife, and birth control unknown or unaffordable. Switzerland, the Netherlands and Norway are examples of countries with populations that are ageing sooner and more dramatically than Australia’s.[i] In contrast, Congo, Burundi and Zimbabwe, with a median age of no more than 18 years, have no “ageing problem”.[ii] Where would you rather live?  Successful European countries and Japan have not tried to use immigration to suppress the ageing of their populations – not that such tactics could work for long because migrants, too, get old.[iii]  Indeed migration thickens Australia’s demographic bulge in the 20- to 50-year age group, exactly where it is already thickest.[iv]Without migration, our age profile is heading roughly in the right direction, towards having similar numbers of people in each age group.
It is often suggested that an ageing population is much more expensive because of higher health costs and greater demand for aged care and pensions. In reality most health care costs are incurred in the last 12 months of life, regardless of age.[v] We are living longer because we are staying healthier for a longer period.[vi] Government spending on health has increased, but largely because treatments are more expensive.[vii]

 Most older Australians live independently in the community. Only 7 per cent of those aged over 70 are cared for in government-subsidised residential aged care.[viii] In fact, older people are more likely to be givers than receivers of care. They provide childcare for 19 per cent of children under 12[ix] and primary care for 21 per cent of people with disabilities.[x]

The Australian Institute of Family Studies says: “Australians aged over 65 years contribute almost $39 billion per year in unpaid caring and voluntary work and, if the unpaid contribution of those aged 55 to 64 years is included, this contribution rises to $74.5 billion per annum”.[xi] An Australia Institute study confirms this, suggesting that up until the age of 75, net transfers of money and help flow from the old to the young.[xii]

The huge costs of a young population are also often overlooked. It is the young and not the old who are the most economically dependent. There will be more old people, but fewer children, so the proportion of people in their working years will remain high.[xiii] Contrast that with South Africa where a young population of 50 million has only 11 million taxpayers. . .

Why is the Ageing Population Scare so immune to evidence, like some vampire that keeps ignoring a stake through its heart.   Basically the growth lobby loves this scare  because they know that people are worried about their personal ageing — after all, old age is what is going to kill us all if nothing else gets in first. Their PR people believe it should be possible to get people to transfer this worry from their own lives to society as a whole. The trick is not to put the ageing argument front and centre, where it may attract refutation and fall apart, but to throw it in as a distractor at the end of, say, an argument that employers should be allowed to import pre-trained foreign workers because Australian award wages and apprenticeship costs are too high — than add, “Besides, more migrants will help solve our ageing population crisis.”However it seems the Inter-generational Report will put the ageing population argument front and centre where it may attract criticism and ridicule. I believe Swan deserves both.–Mark O’Connor

[i] Department for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Sustainable Development Panel Report, Canberra, 2010, p. 264. Available at: www.environment.gov.au/sustainability/population/publications/issues-paper.html

[ii] Central Intelligence Agency, “Field Listing: Median Age”, The World Fact Book, updated weekly, available at: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2177.html (Accessed 2 May 2011.)

[iii] As the Jones report noted back in 1994, p. 100,

“The myth that immigration is an effective tool for either permanently or in the short term reducing the average age of the population has been punctured by simple demographic analysis. Australia still has a relatively

youthful age structure and the population will continue to age slowly for

some decades. The Committee, as does the Government, accepts that

immigration is an inappropriate tool to counter demographic ageing, if

indeed demographic ageing is a problem.”


[iv] cf. Michael Lardelli (on population pyramids), “Booms in immigration are the problem, not the solution”, On Line Opinion, 20 May 2010.


[v] Michele Raitano, “The Impact of Death-Related Costs on Health-Care Expenditure: A Survey”, European Network of Economic Policy Research Institutes (ENEPRI) Report No. 17, February 2006, available at: http://www.enepri.org/files/Publications/RR17.pdf  (Accessed 2 May 2011.)

[vi] James Vaupel, “Biodemography of human ageing”, Nature, 25 March 2010, Vol. 464, pp. 536-542, available at: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v464/n7288/full/nature08984.html

[vii] Judith Healy, “The Benefits of an Ageing Population”, The Australian Institute, Discussion Paper No. 63,  March 2004, pp. 27-29, available at: http://www.tai.org.au/documents/dp_fulltext/DP63.pdf

[viii] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare research cited in “Evaluation of the impact of accreditation on the delivery of quality of care and quality of life to residents in Australian Government subsidised residential aged care homes – Final Report”,  Department of Health and Ageing, Commonwealth of Australia, 2007, available at: http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/ageing-iar-final-report.htm~ageing-iar-final-report-3.htm (Accessed 2 May 2011.)

[ix] ABS Australian Social Trends June 2010 Pub. No. 4102.0, “Childcare” available at: http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Main+Features50Jun+2010

[x]David de Vaus, Matthew Gray and David Stanton, “Measuring the value of unpaid household, caring and voluntary work of older Australians”, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Commonwealth of Australia 2003, p. 4, available at:

http://www.aifs.gov.au/institute/pubs/respaper/RP34.pdf (Accessed 2 May 2011.)

Note also the graph showing the projected need for health care workers in Long-Term Physical Implications, p. 97. It disproves the claim that a smaller Australia will have to find a much higher proportion of them.

[xi] David de Vaus et. al., op. cit., p. viii.

[xii] Judith Healy, op. cit.

[xiii] Jane N. O’Sullivan, “Submission to the Issues Paper on a Sustainable Population Strategy for Australia”,  2011,  pp. 16-17.

Also, note that the percentage who will be in their working years also improves when these are defined as the years between 20 and 69.  (The traditional notion that a person’s working years are from  15 to 64 is now badly out of date. It leads to a serious under-count of those too young to work, and an over-count of those too old.)  See also the Sustainable Development Panel Report, op. cit., p. 41

Have we fired the Clathrate Gun?

29 12 2012

I haven’t finished it yet, but my daughter gave me a great book this Christmas, and I’m really enjoying it;  it’s called “Bullspotting”, by Loren Collins.  The internet can be a frustrating double edged sword.  Full of amazing information, and also full of utter bullshit……  telling them apart is sometimes easy, but also often a challenge.  The one issue that feeds such a dichotomy is Climate Change.  If Climate Change wasn’t so important, it wouldn’t matter, but forget the fiscal cliff and Peak Oil, they can be dealt with and they will be survived; whereas if the climate goes AWOL, you can kiss humanity goodbye.  One such dilemma I recently came across was when another blogger told me atmospheric methane concentration had stopped rising.  So I did my duty and investigated, and sure enough, Google turned up a whole heap of graphs that demonstrated this.  Trouble is, all those charts ended five years ago…… and five years can be a long time in Climate Science.

Yesterday, I posted an article here which I lifted from Xraymike’s blog, and have since “pulled” in the interest of fraternity in the blogosphere.  I know XRM from the good old days of the Chris Martenson website before it became Peak Prosperity, a place now full of people worrying about their gold and their guns.  I urge you all to read it if you missed it here.  Mike did a great job parsing through the information to turn it into a lucid argument.

I would prefer to not believe its contents mind you.  Raising the globe’s temperature by 6°C within fifty years is a truly gruesome thought, and the jury’s still out, because Mark Cochrane, a climate scientist who started the only thread worth reading on Peak Prosperity these days recently wrote this when asked about such a prospect:

“Getting 6 C by 2050 seems farfetched unless we intentionally trigger the so-called clathrate gun. Even then, I am not sure that it is likely to happen that quickly simply due to the thermal inertia of the oceans and glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica. Roughly 90-95% of the incipient energy imbalance goes into warming or melting water. We’ve warmed by around 0.7C in the last 30 years or so. Getting an extra >5C in the next 40 years would require truly massive changes in greenhouse gases and Earth’s albedo. This certainly wouldn’t mean that all is well if we don’t manage this incredible feat of climate suicide in 40 odd years. We may get there yet around 2100.

Such rapid warming would lead to greatly accelerated mass loss from the icesheets in Greenland, Western Antarctica and increases from East Antarctica. Melting those giant ice blocks would be a giant heat sink that would attenuate the rise in temperature but it would do so at the cost of flooding the worlds oceans very quickly. In other words, although we might not warm so fast the cost would be rapid sea level rise of several meters this century, flooding coastlines and yielding terrible storms. As things stand, most estimates are for 1-5 meters, which will make many, many cities untenable.

Some recent food for thought on that score came out in the last week in Nature Geoscience showing much of the western Antarctic icesheet is warming twice as fast as predicted (see BBC article here, and Bromwich et al 2012 abstract here))”

“The map is just correlation coefficients but the warming has been 2.4C between 1958 and 2010. While Greenland gets much of the press, the Western Antarctic ice sheet may be more unstable because most of it is currently grounded below the waterline. Basically the ice is frozen to the ground or still too heavy to lift but once the water level gets higher, then much of the sheet could rapidly float (just like an ice cube in your glass) and collapse with an ultimate 5 m sea level implication. The big brother in East Antarctica only has 30% below water line but that is another 20-25 m of sea level. Ultimately, if we somehow manage to stay on the ‘business as usual’ emissions path then over the next few centuries we will have changed coastlines world wide with 10s of meters of sea level rise (See Hansen new pdf).

Lest you think he is just a harbinger of doom touting positive feedbacks, Hansen and Sato (2012) see exponential increases in the rate of ice melting/sea level rise with a 5-10 year doubling time, they ultimately believe that once we reach about 1 m of sea level increase that strong negative feedbacks from all of the melting icebergs will dampen the temperature rise and hence slow the exponential rate of increased melting. I can’t grab the figure from the pdf, but if you go to the Hansen and Sato pdf linked above and scroll down to Figure 9 you will see the future simulations with (left) and without (right) ice melt. As you can see the melting would lead to a much cooler North Atlantic and a moderate cooler Southern Ocean with an overall global amelioration of land temperature increases. If you think the ice will somehow hold off from melting, plan for a heck of a lot warmer near future.

Overall, if we manage to keep finding more and more fossil fuels to burn or accidentally release (melting permafrost etc) then we will have an atmosphere akin to what existed 32 million years ago before Antarctica froze up. It would take a while, hundreds to thousands of years, but we’d be putting an end to ice ages for the foreseeable future.”

Much of what Mark talks about is covered in XRM’s blog entry, which is why I copied it here to begin with.

So the key question now is, “have we triggered the so-called clathrate gun” ?

Someone who definitely thinks we have is Guy McPherson.  He recently pointed me to those hemp wearing hippies in the IEA, the energy agency for developed countries who said earlier this year that “without a major shift away from coal, average global temperatures could rise by 6 degrees Celsius by 2050, leading to devastating climate change.”  So there you have it…. even the Devil says so….!

Our only saviour might well be a physical phenomenon called “phase change”.  Get a saucepan full of cold water, and put it your stove with a thermometer in the water.  The heat from the stove will raise the water temperature to 100°C, but will then stop rising even though the stove is still on.  So where is all the heat going?  it’s actually being “used up” turning water into steam.  Phase Change.  Exactly the same thing that happens when you melt ice, another phase change.

I’m told it takes some 80 times more energy to melt ice than it does to raise it the last degree just before it melts.  And that is where all the heat we have now trapped beneath our blanket of CO2 and now growing levels of CH4 has been going; instead of raising air temperatures, it’s melting ice.  And all the deniers on the net will tell you it hasn’t warmed in 16 years…..  so the ice melted by magic.

Obviously, Hansen and Sato quoted above know about phase change, it’s physics 101.  Therefore there can only be one reason for a fast tracked 6°C temperature rise: we are trapping way more energy than we used to, and the methane timebomb has started ticking.  We have reached a tipping point, simultaneously, the ice is melting and the temperature is going up too.  The deniers must be silenced.  They are one hell of a dangerous group of people who think gambling with our kids’ future is OK.

As an aside, while the post I pulled last night was still up, Don, a frequent visitor here left this comment:

Hi Mike,
I came across a good article today that among other things gave some very good hints for how to achieve using less. Its a long read but has lots of excellent info, particularly with regard to political collapse and disintegration. The location is:


All retch and no vomit…..

21 12 2012

I just HAD to share this with you………

Preparing for Collapse: Non-Attachment, NOT Detachment

21 12 2012

Guest post by Dave Pollard.pollard

This essay was originally published at http://howtosavetheworld.ca/2012/12/20/preparing-for-collapse-non-attachment-not-detachment/

There is something seemingly unfathomable to the human mind about exponential curves. As I wrote last fall:

There is an old story about the invention of the chessboard, in which the inventor as his reward asks for one grain of wheat on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, and doubling until all 64 squares are full. The seemingly modest request adds up to many times more than all the wheat the world has ever produced. The purpose of the story is to teach about our inability to grasp the impact and unsustainability of accelerating increases in anything, particularly in the final stages. Even when more than half of the squares have been filled the inventor’s request still seems manageable. It is only when it is too late that its impossibility is realized.

Even when almost all the squares have been filled, the request still seems manageable. We are now living in a world where almost all the squares have been filled. We have used up the easy-to-get half of the Earth’s resources, which accumulated over billions of years. We have used most of that in the last two centuries, and most of that in the last two decades. In the process we have destabilized the planet’s climate systems. We are nearing what is now being called “peak everything”.


And there is certainly nothing “normal” to human eyes in what mathematicians call a “normal curve”, at least when time is the independent variable. We always seem to perceive the future as much like the present, only more so, and our favourite works of utopian and dystopian fiction turn out to be mostly somewhat hyperbolised reflections on the best or worst of the world as it was when the authors wrote them.

Even when we try to conceive of the downside of the normal curve — sharp at first and then tailing off slowly — we can only see everything going backwards, back to the way it was when the curve was at that height before. A simple, rapid decline, like those that befell previous civilizations and unsustainable cultures, is unimaginable. We can’t picture it because it’s never been that way for us. Even the current set of collapsnik writers, like James Kunstler, portray a post-collapse future that is almost nostalgically like the old American West.

In recent months, we have seen the news from climate scientists become exponentially worse. A decade ago we were hand-wringing about a 1C rise in average global temperature by 2100. A year ago it was a 2C rise by 2050 and a 4C rise by 2100. Now it appears all but certain that our failure to consider the “positive feedback loops” inherent in our astonishingly delicately-balanced climate systems made us absurdly optimistic, and a 6C rise by 2050 is quite possible. I can’t blame you if you haven’t been keeping up — neither had I. Two recent videos, one by Grist’s David Roberts and a second, even more recent one by fellow collapsnik Guy McPherson, will bring you up to speed.

The message of these videos, and the data underlying them, is simple, but it’s a lot like hearing news of a terrible and sudden loss in the family, the death of someone you knew was at risk but somehow believed would get through it, or at least last a while longer. It’s too soon. It can’t be that fast. We cannot accept it, as the trickster piles a mountain of grain onto the third-to-last square of the chessboard.

The message is two-fold:

Not only are we fucked, but it’s coming much sooner than we expected. It’s coming in the first half of this century, not the second. By 2050 life for all but the simplest and most well-protected species on this planet will almost certainly be impossible, except for small numbers in a few marginal areas.
The whole issue of mitigation and the need for activism is now more-or-less moot. Even if we were to collectively and massively change our behaviour starting tomorrow, it would only delay collapse by a few years, and quite possible make the collapse even more catastrophic. Until recently there was at least a chance that perhaps a combination of behaviour change and the reduced availability of cheap fossil fuels might combine to pull us back from the brink, or at least make a much-changed and simpler life possible for a much smaller population of humans and other creatures. That chance is gone.

The climate scientists, abetted by the ecological economists, have pronounced the certain and imminent (i.e. within most of our lifetimes) death of the vast majority of life on our planet, including the human species. Now, we can mourn. Most of our human family will continue to fall into one of the three categories of non-acceptance of this pronouncement that I wrote about in my If We Had a Better Story post:

The incredulous: Those who either know so little or haven’t had the opportunity to think about what they know, that they find the idea of collapse preposterous, unimaginable, and/or unthinkable.
The hopeful: Those who believe that collapse is not inevitable or can be significantly mitigated, or believe that even if it is inevitable and can’t be significantly mitigated, we should try anyway.
The deniers: Those who are intimidated or offended by, or overwhelmed with anger and/or guilt at, the very idea of collapse.

None of these are unusual reactions to horrific news, but they’re likely to be crazy-making to those of us who are past this stage, and trying to get on with preparing ourselves and those we love for what is to come.

The most intriguing reaction is from collapsniks like Derrick Jensen and John Duffy who, against hope, want us to work (as they do, indefatigably and to their great credit) to kill the economy. John starts out his essay by saying “We are going to go extinct.” and near the end says:

If we want to not die, then we need to stop doing the things that are going to kill us… We need deindustrialisation, and we need to wring the bloody neck of capitalism, before hanging it, drawing it, quartering it, and setting the remaining bits of its corpse on fire to make sure it can’t rise from the dead like the unholy zombie that it is… This is all to say, I can’t fight my enemies and my allies at the same time. Liberals, lefties, environmentalists and everyone else who purports to give a damn has to give up on being capitalism apologists who somehow think we can keep this gravy train of mass consumption going.

It’s a great rant, but he’s like the lover of the recently-declared-dead patient who insists on trying CPR interminably and punching the people trying to take the defibrillators away from him. Or, perhaps, he’s like the angry griever trying to assemble a posse to kill the ones he believes caused the death of the one he loves. It’s understandable, but it’s futile. It’s too late.

In the comments to John’s post, Paul Chefurka writes:

I’m not particularly angry or outraged any more. Once I was, but now I’m just fascinated, amazed, amused, bemused, curious. I attach no moral dimension to this unfolding any more, though once I did. Now there is no blame, no more agonized wishes to rewrite the past, no more fearful visions of a shattered future.

We are what we are, we did what we did, we ended up here.

I’m very curious to see what comes next. Aren’t you?

Paul didn’t get a terribly sympathetic response, so I wrote to Paul and asked him how he had managed to reach this stage of acceptance. I also asked him about a gorgeously-written and deeply-moving recent article in Orion, Gaze Even Here, about “evoking a consciousness of brokenness”, in which the author, Trebbe Johnson, says that she and her companions found solace in spending time “gazing” at clearcuts and videos of animals dying in oil-slicks until their grief and anger and revulsion turned to curiosity, acceptance, compassion and even love. I mentioned that some people in my circles had seen my attempts at non-attachment, at letting go of what I know I cannot change, as detachment, as an emotional shutting down or turning away. Paul replied:

I’ve faced the same accusations about detachment. They generally come from activists for whom action is the inner imperative, and who have no exposure to Buddhist principles. Also, they haven’t hit bottom yet, which is why the still think that action is an answer. Only once someone hits the bottom and bounces off the rocks do they usually start looking for truly radical responses like non-attachment.

As a first thought – perhaps what Ms. Johnson is suggesting isn’t really that radical at all. What she’s suggesting is a starting point for someone who wants to wake up in this new world. It’s where Joanna Macy begins as well. The bigger question may be, where do you go once you’ve taken the grief on board – how do you find the will to move, and how do you pick your direction? This is where doing deep inner work around grief, shame and the Shadow come in.

Out of that work comes the beginning of non-attachment. To people who conflate it with detachment, I explain that non-attachment is what allows me to confront the big issues directly, to engage fully but not be paralysed by emotion. It’s not an abdication of feeling, but a way of seeing the world around me with complete clarity and doing what the world needs, rather than being selfish and getting mired in my own suffering.

Sometimes that helps people understand, but for a lot of activists it’s still a step too far. They are still focused on their own suffering, and in order to validate their response they have defined that suffering as a virtue. It’s not, it’s a trap. Non-attachment is the most functional way out that I’ve discovered so far.

What are the elements of non-attachment that might be applied to coping with the knowledge of the inevitable collapse of organized society amidst the chaos of economic collapse and runaway climate change? What makes sense to gaze at, and what should we, for our own sanity, leave unseen? How can we be, and act, in a fully engaged, joyful, curious, productive, useful-to-others way, without becoming either “detached” (emotionally disconnected or inured) or exhausted? Here are some of my early thoughts on this:

1. We cannot, must not, prescribe one “right” behaviour or approach for everyone. We are all different, and the best way for each of us to cope will be different. What’s important is to patiently wait for those we care about to realize what is ahead, and then support them to find their own way to cope with it productively.

2. I think it could help to develop, working with climate scientists and enlightened (non-classical) economists and energy analysts and artists and musicians and film-makers, a set of nuanced, candid, non-idealized, non-sensationalized visions or stories of what our world in collapse will look like, by 2020, 2030, 2040 and 2050, and then, as Trebbe might put it, to “gaze” at them. These stories would be based on data, and on an appreciation of history of how people behave in an accelerating (but not relentless) series of cascading crises where there is no scapegoat, no one to blame, where everyone is largely in the same boat. These stories would be focused on what collapse will mean for the day-to-day lives of people living in cities, towns, the country, in nations at different levels of “development”. My guess is that for most of the world, in the already-struggling nations and places, life will not be much different, except that the death rate (mostly from disease and malnutrition) will be somewhat higher and the birth rate much lower. We have a lot to learn, I think, from people in the third world, in impoverished cities, and in the streets, who are already living with collapse. The image below shows in red/purple/white areas that, due to climate change-induced chronic drought, will be largely uninhabitable within a few decades, so our stories for them, billions of people, would likely be stories of migration. The stories would be varied, and stark, and, perhaps to our surprise, inspiring and astonishing.

Map of serious chronic drought areas, per research simulations by UCAR/NCAR, an agency of the National Science Foundation. This map is forecasts for the 2060s, but is based on outdated climate change data, so it is likely to come true considerably earlier. Thanks to resilience.org for the link.

3. Perhaps most importantly, we will all be better off, I think, if we were to learn non-attachment, empathy, presence, resilience, relocalisation, community building, and a host of other skills and capacities, technical and ‘soft’, so that we can tolerate the changes we will face to our way of living and the very foolish actions many (with the most to lose, in wealth or power) will inevitably try to do, unsuccessfully, to “control” the situation. We must expect the emergence of charismatic dictators, genocides, civil wars, geo-engineering, the burning of almost everything flammable for fuel and electricity, and cults, and deal with them the best we can without letting them unhinge us. We may be fortunate enough that as our centralized systems collapse, the resources for possible authoritarian atrocities will rapidly diminish, so the decline could be relatively peaceful, if not free of suffering or misery. We may well discover that crisis brings out the best in us, but should be prepared in case it brings out, in some, the worst. We may find that, with a sufficient voluntary decrease in birth rates (not an unlikely scenario), over the coming decades we might reach a human population level well below one billion without a dramatic increase in death rates, though we should be prepared for a rising death toll and what it may do to our collective psyches. In all of this, non-attachment and presence can enable us to live, even through these crises, lives of love and joy and appreciation for the miracle of life.

A final thought, and one that perhaps is the most unimaginable of all for those of us brought up to believe the way we live now is the only way to live. What’s on the right side of the normal curve, after collapse, isn’t another growth cycle. It’s the proverbial long tail. We may become an endangered species by century’s end, but we’re unlikely to become extinct for several millennia after that — just increasingly few in numbers and increasingly irrelevant to the ecosystems and recovery of the planet from yet another great extinction. Without vast amounts of cheap energy to power technology, we’re just not going to be very well adapted to post 21st-century Earth. Just as we don’t notice the 200 species going extinct every day, I doubt that the species that thrive after the great extinction will notice the death of the last of the species that once believed it could rule the Earth forever.

Thanks to Tree for the link to the Orion article, to the authors of the articles/videos cited above, to Sue Bullock for the link to Kill the Economy, to John Duffy for the link to the Grist video, and to Paul Chefurka for the ideas prompting this article.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.

It’s the nett energy stupid…..

18 12 2012

Or what is the big deal about Energy Return on Energy Invested

Another stinker (must be at least 37° again today), and it looks like another storm in the offing.  In the end, we only got 26mm last night, more lightning than rain…. but all donations gratefully accepted!

There’s so much hype these days about how America will become energy self sufficient because of all the shale deposits being mined.  It’s hard to explain to people new to the energy cliff exactly how much difference good and bad ERoEI makes to the running of our civilisation.  Everything, not least the maintenance of all the stuff that is already here, relies on available surplus energy to keep our living arrangements humming.

Before we discovered energy dense oil and coal and how to exploit it to the max, everything was done by hand.  Or hoof.  I always have to laugh when people say to me it’s impossible to run society on 100% renewable energy.  Exactly how do they think we got to here before oil and coal were exploited to death?  Magic?  Yes my friends, 200 years ago, everything ran on renewables…. biomass for food and firewood, wind and water for power to grind grains, and biomass powered by solar energy.

Speaking of firewood, you would be amazed at how much curry I get from some quarters for burning the stuff in the AGA.  I’m not surprised that some people equate firewood with smoky pollution, because a lot of people who burn wood in places like Launceston and Armidale really are environmental criminals, or just plain lazy sods…. so when I found this chart below (source), I was just staggered…

It’s very obvious with just a cursory glance at this why the industrial revolution was so successful.  With coal at 80:1 and the oil discovered prior to the 1930′s at 100:1, who in their right mind would do heavy work with muscle power?  The jump to less than half that in the next three bars, hydroelectricity and post US Peak petroleum, also clearly shows why there was an energy crunch in 1973 and 1980.  All of a sudden, some 50% of all surplus energy disappeared…..  and it all had to be replaced with ever more imported oil (at least in the US, by far the biggest economy of the time).

But what really caught my eye was the bar for firewood……..  Firewood has today the same ERoEI as imported oil in 2005, the largely accepted year global Peak Oil occurred…!  I cannot wait for the next time some clot starts sparring with me on some ABC forum about my firewood habits; I’ll be able to tell him that firewood is more efficient than NUCLEAR…!  That’s so amazing, even I have difficulty believing it.  Except of course that firewood is used exclusively to generate heat, unlike electricity, an energy source that is unequalled for running computers, lights, TVs and charging your iGadgets, but terrible for making heat….

When you think of how electric heat is made, by burning a fossil fuel a long way away to heat water up and make steam to drive a turbine that drives a generator, and feeding the resulting electricity down some long wires, through 1, 2 and sometimes 3 transformers to your house where you re convert it to heat is complete stupidity.  Compare that to using a gas stove where the fossil fuel is lit directly under the saucepan, and it’s a no brainer as to which method is best.

Enter firewood, which is renewable (it grows on trees!) and, if sustainably replanted, is also Carbon neutral, and yes I can see why firewood has such a high ERoEI.  Just don’t expect to run your laptop off it.

Anyhow, this chart doesn’t have a bar for shale oil, but I expect if there was, it would be right next to the tar sands one…..  The future will not run on shale oil and tar sands, those two terrible fuels are only possible while we still have that good stuff from before 2005……  and after that?  Better start planting lots and lots of trees.

Sweet rain……

17 12 2012

It’s 3AM.  I’m writing this now because we were woken up by the most amazing display of lightning we’ve seen in at least 15 years (we think..).  Better still, it’s pissing down, best rain since the flooding we had in February. After another 40° day and at least 30° for maybe three weeks now, we’d left all the windows open overnight, and rain’s come in through the clerestory windows… but who cares, wet is good right now, we can mop the floors with pure rainwater!

It’s been so dry that it will take several such events to fill the cracks in the places I don’t have the water to apply to.  Our neighbours’ concreted in posts are loose in places along the fences because the earth has shrunk so much.  Our goats are drinking three times as much water as they usually do, there is not a scrap of moisture left in the grass.

That we have survived six months with hardly a drop of rain though is testament of how well Permaculture works.  All that effort to build up the soil to be moisture retaining, all that mulching, all the planting on contour, all of it has paid off…  While almost everyone around us has run out of water, we’ve been soldiering on with what we had left.  It had come down to moving water from the house tank to the garden by hand and watering the animals from “our tank”, but it was amazingly still half full yesterday morning.  It’s times like these having a water efficient house really comes into its own.  While it’s hard to gauge exactly how much rain we’re having in the pitch black, from experience I know there’s a chance we could have the garden tank 1/3 full again at sunrise, and I won’t have to water anything for the first time in months……

We’ve been living off Greek salads of late, using what’s growing well now, tomatoes, cucumbers, basil.  The bananas are pumping, and we just robbed another 35 kilos of honey two days ago.  And the corn is to die for, so sweet and moist…  Never let a small drought get you down (too much…!)  I have to say my respect for farmers who prevail out west without rain for years has risen substantially, though I doubt any of them would have a house garden in those conditions and would be buying all their food.  Why they stay out there always puzzles me.  How they do it doesn’t; with fossil fuels you can do anything…….

The rain and lightning have stopped, I’m going back to bed a happy Permie!

Put to the test

2 12 2012

It’s such a small world.  While our goat was taking her turn for the worse in the milking shed the other day, I was at the doctor’s surgery – nothing “serious”, just trying to work out why I feel so lethargic – and on the waiting room table was an ABC mag called Organic Gardening; in it was an article about Linda Cockburn and her partner’s latest adventures in self sufficiency.

You may never have heard of Linda (I’ve never met her myself…  though we are now “friends” on FB!), but she and Trev attempted to live just 30km from here for a year on as low a footprint as humanly possible, and all on a suburban block with very little money.  It was a bit of an exercise in deprivation (I thought at the time), but nonetheless very inspiring. Linda wrote a book, and appeared on local media extolling the virtues of what they were doing in Gympie….. and then seemingly disappeared from the face of the Earth.  At least I never heard anything about them ever again.  And there they were, all over the magazine’s pages, living in…… TASMANIA!  And not just anywhere in Tassie, but Geeveston near where my mates Monte and Kristina (and their respective partners Rebecca and Craige) live too, and where I have pretty well decided now I’d like to settle if we ever make it down…. There’s even one perfect block of land there right now that I would buy if only we had the bloody money…

But here we are, still in QLD and put to the test at that.  This morning, I pumped the last 2000 litres out of the garden tank (which when full holds 11 times that much water) into the header tank.  Three days worth of watering, if I’m careful…  Mercifully, the house tank is still half full.  We drink far less water than the garden (hurrah for beer and cider…!).  It’s six months since we had any decent rain.  We’ve gone from record rainfall (and flooding – we got our entire annual quota before the end of March), and since then we’ve barely had 50mm, most of that a week ago when SE QLD got a battering with super cells storms delivering hailstones the size of cricket balls in some areas.  Luckily not here, but while most places were blessed with around 100mm of rain, we got 38…….  I’ve never seen Cooran this dry.

Worse, we’ve had 30° plus temperatures for a week, and the evaporation rate is unbelievable.  34° yesterday, 35° today, and tomorrow we’re expecting at least 40° (and a storm, please please please……) with no relief in sight.

It doesn’t help of course that in an attempt to be self sufficient in as much as possible, we have a go at “everything”…..  except our land is too small for that when conditions go pear shaped.  Which, let’s face it, they now clearly have.  I think we have outgrown the carrying capacity of the land we have here, the goats have not much feed left, and even the empty block next door is looking sad.  Never before have I felt so jealous of my mate Serge’s spring….!

Being the realist that I am, I can’t stop wondering what would we do in a post shit hits the fan situation?  Now our goat’s gone, we can still drive to the shops and buy milk and cheese and yogurt.  We can still order in a tanker load of water if the storm doesn’t deliver tomorrow.  With fossil fuels, you can do anything.  But what would we do if fuel is no longer available.

Glenda pointed out to me when Shove died that after the crash, most other people would be in no position to not do as we do, and that as a result, the community might have made a bit of a comeback, other people around here might also have goats to allow us to replenish our herd, or perhaps we could at least buy milk from them without driving to the shops.  Which is why I optimistically believe the crash to be the solution.  But it’s a big ask though, because virtually no one else around here is prepared, whereas at least in Geeveston there are some people who are as ready as we may be.

The people who live in Cooran really would prefer to live in Noosa but can’t afford it.  They might aspire to country living, but do nothing about it.  Because they can still drive to the shops…. When I’m in Geeveston, I feel that the people there are genuine country people, not people who aspire to live in Noosa.

Cooran people, on the whole, don’t care how much water they use, because they can just call the water tanker for another load.  People just don’t care.  They won’t do anything to adjust their pretentious lifestyles.  I know some even sneer at me….  Except I know I will have the last laugh, if we survive this bloody drought, and if the shit doesn’t hit the fan just yet…..  I’m really feeling the pressure, and Tassie beckons even more every day……  I really detest these QLD summers.  But we shall overcome.