The Dynamics of Depletion

27 06 2017

Originally published on the Automatic Earth, this further article on ERoEI and resource depletion ties all the things you need to understand about Limits to Growth in one neat package. 

Over the years, I have written many articles on the topic of EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Invested); there’s a whole chapter on it in the Automatic Earth Primer Guide 2017 that Nicole Foss assembled recently, which contains 17 well worth reading articles.

Since EROEI is still the most important energy issue there is, and not the price of oil or some new gas find or a set of windmills or solar panels or thorium as the media will lead you to believe, it can’t hurt to repeat it once again. Brian Davey wrote this item on his site CredoEconomics, it is part of his book “Credo”.

The reason I believe it can’t hurt to repeat this is because not nearly enough people understand that in the end, everything, the survival of our world, our way of life, is all about the ‘quality’ of energy, and about what we get in return when we drill and pump and build infrastructure; what remains when we subtract all the energy used to ‘generate’ energy, from (or at) the bottom line is all that’s left…….

nicolefoss

Nicole Foss

Nicole Foss: Energy is the master resource – the capacity to do work. Our modern society is the result of the enormous energy subsidy we have enjoyed in the form of fossil fuels, specifically fossil fuels with a very high energy profit ratio (EROEI). Energy surplus drove expansion, intensification, and the development of socioeconomic complexity, but now we stand on the edge of the net energy cliff. The surplus energy, beyond that which has to be reinvested in future energy production, is rapidly diminishing.

We would have to greatly increase gross production to make up for reduced energy profit ratio, but production is flat to falling so this is no longer an option. As both gross production and the energy profit ratio fall, the net energy available for all society’s other purposes will fall even more quickly than gross production declines would suggest. Every society rests on a minimum energy profit ratio. The implication of falling below that minimum for industrial society, as we are now poised to do, is that society will be forced to simplify.

A plethora of energy fantasies is making the rounds at the moment. Whether based on unconventional oil and gas or renewables (that are not actually renewable), these are stories we tell ourselves in order to deny that we are facing any kind of future energy scarcity, or that supply could be in any way a concern. They are an attempt to maintain the fiction that our society can continue in its current form, or even increase in complexity. This is a vain attempt to deny the existence of non-negotiable limits to growth. The touted alternatives are not energy sources for our current society, because low EROEI energy sources cannot sustain a society complex enough to produce them.

 

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Using Energy to Extract Energy – The Dynamics of Depletion

 

brian-selfie

Brian Davey

Brian Davey: The “Limits to Growth Study” of 1972 was deeply controversial and criticised by many economists. Over 40 years later, it seems remarkably prophetic and on track in its predictions. The crucial concept of Energy Return on Energy Invested is explained and the flaws in neoclassical reasoning which EROI highlights.

The continued functioning of the energy system is a “hub interdependency” that has become essential to the management of the increasing complexity of our society. The energy input into the UK economy is about 50 to 70 times as great as what the labour force could generate if working full time only with the power of their muscles, fuelled up with food. It is fossil fuels, refined to be used in vehicles and motors or converted into electricity that have created power inputs that makes possible the multiple round- about arrangements in a high complex economy. The other “hub interdependency” is a money and transaction system for exchange which has to continue to function to make vast production and trade networks viable. Without payment systems nothing functions.

Yet, as I will show, both types of hub interdependencies could conceivably fail. The smooth running of the energy system is dependent on ample supplies of cheaply available fossil fuels. However, there has been a rising cost of extracting and refining oil, gas and coal. Quite soon there is likely to be an absolute decline in their availability. To this should be added the climatic consequences of burning more carbon based fuels. To make the situation even worse, if the economy gets into difficulty because of rising energy costs then so too will the financial system – which can then have a knock-on consequence for the money system. The two hub interdependencies could break down together.

“Solutions” put forward by the techno optimists almost always assume growing complexity and new uses for energy with an increased energy cost. But this begs the question- because the problem is the growing cost of energy and its polluting and climate changing consequences.

 

The “Limits to Growth” study of 1972 – and its 40 year after evaluation

It was a view similar to this that underpinned the methodology of a famous study from the early 1970s. A group called the Club of Rome decided to commission a group of system scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to explore how far economic growth would continue to be possible. Their research used a series of computer model runs based on various scenarios of the future. It was published in 1972 and produced an instant storm. Most economists were up in arms that their shibboleth, economic growth, had been challenged. (Meadows, Meadows, Randers, & BehrensIII, 1972)

This was because its message was that growth could continue for some time by running down “natural capital” (depletion) and degrading “ecological system services” (pollution) but that it could not go on forever. An analogy would be spending more than one earns. This is possible as long as one has savings to run down, or by running up debts payable in the future. However, a day of reckoning inevitably occurs. The MIT scientists ran a number of computer generated scenarios of the future including a “business as usual” projection, called the “standard run” which hit a global crisis in 2030.

It is now over 40 years since the original Limits to Growth study was published so it is legitimate to compare what was predicted in 1972 against what actually happened. This has now been done twice by Graham Turner who works at the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). Turner did this with data for the rst 30 years and then for 40 years of data. His conclusion is as follows:

The Limits to Growth standard run scenario produced 40 years ago continues to align well with historical data that has been updated in this paper following a 30-year comparison by the author. The scenario results in collapse of the global economy and environment and subsequently, the population. Although the modelled fall in population occurs after about 2030 – with death rates reversing contemporary trends and rising from 2020 onward – the general onset of collapse first appears at about 2015 when per capita industrial output begins a sharp decline. (Turner, 2012)

So what brings about the collapse? In the Limits to Growth model there are essentially two kinds of limiting restraints. On the one hand, limitations on resource inputs (materials and energy). On the other hand, waste/pollution restraints which degrade the ecological system and human society (particularly climate change).

Turner finds that, so far it, is the former rather than the latter that is the more important. What happens is that, as resources like fossil fuels deplete, they become more expensive to extract. More industrial output has to be set aside for the extraction process and less industrial output is available for other purposes.

With signficant capital subsequently going into resource extraction, there is insufficient available to fully replace degrading capital within the industrial sector itself. Consequently, despite heightened industrial activity attempting to satisfy multiple demands from all sectors and the population, actual industrial output per capita begins to fall precipitously, from about 2015, while pollution from the industrial activity continues to grow. The reduction of inputs produced per capita. Similarly, services (e.g., health and education) are not maintained due to insufficient capital and inputs.

Diminishing per capita supply of services and food cause a rise in the death rate from about 2020 (and somewhat lower rise in the birth rate, due to reduced birth control options). The global population therefore falls, at about half a billion per decade, starting at about 2030. Following the collapse, the output of the World3 model for the standard run (figure 1 to figure 3) shows that average living standards for the aggregate population (material wealth, food and services per capita) resemble those of the early 20th century. (Turner, 2012, p. 121)

 

Energy Return on Energy Invested

A similar analysis has been made by Hall and Klitgaard. They argue that to run a modern society it is necessary that the energy return on energy invested must be at least 15 to 1. To understand why this should be so consider the following diagram from a lecture by Hall. (Hall, 2012)

eroei

The diagram illustrates the idea of the energy return on energy invested. For every 100 Mega Joules of energy tapped in an oil flow from a well, 10 MJ are needed to tap the well, leaving 90 MJ. A narrow measure of energy returned on energy invested at the wellhead in this example would therefore be 100 to 10 or 10 to 1.

However, to get a fuller picture we have to extend this kind of analysis. Of the net energy at the wellhead, 90 MJ, some energy has to be used to refine the oil and produce the by-products, leaving only 63 MJ.

Then, to transport the refined product to its point of use takes another 5 MJ leaving 58MJ. But of course, the infrastructure of roads and transport also requires energy for construction and maintenance before any of the refined oil can be used to power a vehicle to go from A to B. By this final stage there is only 20.5 MJ of the original 100MJ left.

We now have to take into account that depletion means that, at well heads around the world, the energy to produce energy is increasing. It takes energy to prospect for oil and gas and if the wells are smaller and more difficult to tap because, for example, they are out at sea under a huge amount of rock. Then it will take more energy to get the oil out in the first place.

So, instead of requiring 10MJ to produce the 100 MJ, let us imagine that it now takes 20 MJ. At the other end of the chain there would thus, only be 10.5MJ – a dramatic reduction in petroleum available to society.

The concept of Energy Return on Energy Invested is a ratio in physical quantities and it helps us to understand the flaw in neoclassical economic reasoning that draws on the idea of “the invisible hand” and the price mechanism. In simplistic economic thinking, markets should have no problems coping with depletion because a depleting resource will become more expensive. As its price rises, so the argument goes, the search for new sources of energy and substitutes will be incentivised while people and companies will adapt their purchases to rising prices. For example, if it is the price of energy that is rising then this will incentivise greater energy efficiency. Basta! Problem solved…

Except the problem is not solved… there are two flaws in the reasoning. Firstly, if the price of energy rises then so too does the cost of extracting energy – because energy is needed to extract energy. There will be gas and oil wells in favourable locations which are relatively cheap to tap, and the rising energy price will mean that the companies that own these wells will make a lot of money. This is what economists call “rent”. However, there will be some wells that are “marginal” because the underlying geology and location are not so favourable. If energy prices rise at these locations then rising energy prices will also put up the energy costs of production. Indeed, when the energy returned on energy invested falls as low as 1 to 1, the increase in the costs of energy inputs will cancel out any gains in revenues from higher priced energy outputs. As is clear when the EROI is less than one, energy extraction will not be profitable at any price.

Secondly, energy prices cannot in any case rise beyond a certain point without crashing the economy. The market for energy is not like the market for cans of baked beans. Energy is necessary for virtually every activity in the economy, for all production and all services. The price of energy is a big deal – energy prices going up and down have a similar significance to interest rates going up or down. There are “macro-economic” consequences for the level of activity in the economy. Thus, in the words of one analyst, Chris Skrebowski, there is a rise in the price of oil, gas and coal at which:

the cost of incremental supply exceeds the price economies can pay without destroying growth at a given point in time.(Skrebowski, 2011)

This kind of analysis has been further developed by Steven Kopits of the Douglas-Westwood consultancy. In a lecture to the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy in February of 2014, he explained how conventional “legacy” oil production peaked in 2005 and has not increased since. All the increase in oil production since that date has been from unconventional sources like the Alberta Tar sands, from shale oil or natural gas liquids that are a by-product of shale gas production. This is despite a massive increase in investment by the oil industry that has not yielded any increase in “conventional oil” production but has merely served to slow what would otherwise have been a faster decline.

More specifically, the total spend on upstream oil and gas exploration and production from 2005 to 2013 was $4 trillion. Of that amount, $3.5 trillion was spent on the “legacy” oil and gas system. This is a sum of money equal to the GDP of Germany. Despite all that investment in conventional oil production, it fell by 1 million barrels a day. By way of comparison, investment of $1.5 trillion between 1998 and 2005 yielded an increase in oil production of 8.6 million barrels a day.

Further to this, unfortunately for the oil industry, it has not been possible for oil prices to rise high enough to cover the increasing capital expenditure and operating costs. This is because high oil prices lead to recessionary conditions and slow or no growth in the economy. Because prices are not rising fast enough and costs are increasing, the costs of the independent oil majors are rising at 2 to 3% a year more than their revenues. Overall profitability is falling and some oil majors have had to borrow and sell assets to pay dividends. The next stage in this crisis has then been that investment projects are being cancelled – which suggests that oil production will soon begin to fall more rapidly.

The situation can be understood by reference to the nursery story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Goldilocks tries three kinds of porridge – some that is too hot, some that is too cold and some where the temperature is somewhere in the middle and therefore just right. The working assumption of mainstream economists is that there is an oil price that is not too high to undermine economic growth but also not too low so that the oil companies cannot cover their extraction costs – a price that is just right. The problem is that the Goldilocks situation no longer describes what is happening. Another story provides a better metaphor – that story is “Catch 22”. According to Kopits, the vast majority of the publically quoted oil majors require oil prices of over $100 a barrel to achieve positive cash flow and nearly a half need more than $120 a barrel.

But it is these oil prices that drag down the economies of the OECD economies. For several years, however, there have been some countries that have been able to afford the higher prices. The countries that have coped with the high energy prices best are the so called “emerging non OECD countries” and above all China. China has been bidding away an increasing part of the oil production and continuing to grow while higher energy prices have led to stagnation in the OECD economies. (Kopits, 2014)

Since the oil price is never “just right” it follows that it must oscillate between a price that is too high for macro-economic stability or too low to make it a paying proposition for high cost producers of oil (or gas) to invest in expanding production. In late 2014 we can see this drama at work. The faltering global economy has a lower demand for oil but OPEC, under the leadership of Saudi Arabia, have decided not to reduce oil production in order to keep oil prices from falling. On the contrary they want prices to fall. This is because they want to drive US shale oil and gas producers out of business.

The shale industry is described elsewhere in this book – suffice it here to refer to the claim of many commentators that the shale oil and gas boom in the United States is a bubble. A lot of money borrowed from Wall Street has been invested in the industry in anticipation of high profits but given the speed at which wells deplete it is doubtful whether many of the companies will be able to cover their debts. What has been possible so far has been largely because quantitative easing means capital for this industry has been made available with very low interest rates. There is a range of extraction production costs for different oil and gas wells and fields depending on the differing geology in different places. In some “sweet spots” the yield compared to cost is high but in a large number of cases the costs of production have been high and it is being said that it will be impossible to make money at the price to which oil has fallen ($65 in late 2014). This in turn could mean that companies funding their operations with junk bonds could find it difficult to service their debt. If interest rates rise the difficulty would become greater. Because the shale oil and gas sector has been so crucial to expansion in the USA then a large number of bankruptcies could have wider repercussions throughout the wider US and world economy.

 

Renewable Energy systems to the rescue?

Although it seems obvious that the depletion of fossil fuels can and should lead to the expansion of renewable energy systems like wind and solar power, we should beware of believing that renewable energy systems are a panacea that can rescue consumer society and its continued growth path. A very similar net energy analysis can, and ought to be done for the potential of renewable energy to match that already done for fossil fuels.

eroei-renewables

Before we get over-enthusiastic about the potential for renewable energy, we have to be aware of the need to subtract the energy costs particular to renewable energy systems from the gross energy that renewable energy systems generate. Not only must energy be used to manufacture and install the wind turbines, the solar panels and so on, but for a renewable based economy to be able to function, it must also devote energy to the creation of energy storage. This would allow for the fact that, when the wind and the sun are generating energy, is not necessarily the time when it is wanted.

Furthermore, the places where, for example, solar and wind potential are at this best – offshore for wind or in deserts without dust storms near the equator for solar – are usually a long distance from centres of use. Once again, a great deal of energy, materials and money must be spent getting the energy from where it is generated to where it will be used. For example, the “Energie Wende” (Energy Transformation) in Germany is involving huge effort, financial and energy costs, creating a transmission corridor to carry electricity from North Sea wind turbines down to Bavaria where the demand is greatest. Similarly, plans to develop concentrated solar power in North Africa for use in northern Europe which, if they ever come to anything, will require major investments in energy transmission. A further issue, connected to the requirement for energy storage, is the need for energy carriers which are not based on electricity. As before, conversions to put a current energy flux into a stored form, involve an energy cost.

Just as with fossil fuels, sources of renewable energy are of variable yield depending on local conditions: offshore wind is better than onshore for wind speed and wind reliability; there is more solar energy nearer the equator; some areas have less cloud cover; wave energy on the Atlantic coasts of the UK are much better than on other coastlines like those of the Irish Sea or North Sea. If we make a Ricardian assumption that best net yielding resources are developed first, then subsequent yields will be progressively inferior. In more conventional jargon – just as there are diminishing returns for fossil energy as fossil energy resources deplete, so there will eventually be diminishing returns for renewable energy systems. No doubt new technologies will partly buck this trend but the trend is there nonetheless. It is for reasons such as these that some energy experts are sceptical about the global potential of renewable energy to meet the energy demand of a growing economy. For example, two Australian academics at Monash University argue that world energy demand would grow to 1,000 EJ (EJ = 10 18 J) or more by 2050 if growth continued on the course of recent decades. Their analysis then looks at each renewable energy resource in turn, bearing in mind the energy costs of developing wind, solar, hydropower, biomass etc., taking into account diminishing returns, and bearing in mind too that climate change may limit the potential of renewable energy. (For example, river flow rates may change affecting hydropower). Their conclusion: “We nd that when the energy costs of energy are considered, it is unlikely that renewable energy can provide anywhere near a 1000 EJ by 2050.” (Moriarty & Honnery, 2012)

Now let’s put these insights back into a bigger picture of the future of the economy. In a presentation to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil and Gas, Charles Hall showed a number of diagrams to express the consequences of depletion and rising energy costs of energy. I have taken just two of these diagrams here – comparing 1970 with what might be the case in 2030. (Hall C. , 2012) What they show is how the economy produces different sorts of stuff. Some of the production is consumer goods, either staples (essentials) or discretionary (luxury) goods. The rest of production is devoted to goods that are used in production i.e. investment goods in the form of machinery, equipment, buildings, roads, infrastracture and their maintenance. Some of these investment goods must take the form of energy acquisition equipment. As a society runs up against energy depletion and other problems, more and more production must go into energy acquisition, infrastructure and maintenance. Less and less is available for consumption, and particularly for discretionary consumption.

hall

Whether the economy would evolve in this way can be questioned. As we have seen, the increasing needs of the oil and gas sector implies a transfer of resources from elsewhere through rising prices. However, the rest of the economy cannot actually pay this extra without crashing. That is what the above diagrams show – a transfer of resources from discretionary consumption to investment in energy infrastructure. But such a transfer would be crushing for the other sectors and their decline would likely drag down the whole economy.

Over the last few years, central banks have had a policy of quantitative easing to try to keep interest rates low. The economy cannot pay high energy prices AND high interest rates so, in effect, the policy has been to try to bring down interest rates as low as possible to counter the stagnation. However, this has not really created production growth, it has instead created a succession of asset price bubbles. The underlying trend continues to be one of stagnation, decline and crisis and it will get a lot worse when oil production starts to fall more rapidly as a result of investment cut backs. The severity of the recessions may be variable in different countries because competitive strength in this model goes to those countries where energy is used most efficiently and which can afford to pay somewhat higher prices for energy. Such countries are likely to do better but will not escape the general decline if they stay wedded to the conventional growth model. Whatever the variability, this is still a dead end and, at some point, people will see that entirely different ways of thinking about economy and ecology are needed – unless they get drawn into conflicts and wars over energy by psychopathic policy idiots. There is no way out of the Catch 22 within the growth economy model. That’s why degrowth is needed.

Further ideas can be extrapolated from Hall’s way of presenting the end of the road for the growth economy. The only real option as a source for extra resources to be ploughed into changing the energy sector is from what Hall calls “discretionary consumption” aka luxury consumption. It would not be possible to take from “staples” without undermining the ability of ordinary people to survive day to day. Implicit here is a social justice agenda for the post growth – post carbon economy. Transferring resources out of the luxury consumption of the rich is a necessary part of the process of finding the wherewithal for energy conservation work and for developing renewable energy resources. These will be expensive and the resources cannot come from anywhere else than out of the consumption of the rich. It should be remembered too that the problems of depletion do not just apply to fossil energy extraction coal, oil and gas) but apply across all forms of mineral extraction. All minerals are depleted by use and that means the grade or ore declines over time. Projecting the consequences into the future ought to frighten the growth enthusiasts. To take in how industrial production can hit a brick wall of steeply rising costs, consider the following graph which shows the declining quality of ore grades mined in Australia.

mining-australia

As ores deplete there is a deterioration of ore grades. That means that more rock has to be shifted and processed to refine and extract the desired raw material, requiring more energy and leaving more wastes. This is occurring in parallel to the depletion in energy sources which means that more energy has to be used to extract a given quantity of energy and therefore, in turn, to extract from a given quantity of ore. Thus, the energy requirements to extract energy are rising at the very same time as the amount of energy required to extract given quantities of minerals are rising. More energy is needed just at the time that energy is itself becoming more expensive.

Now, on top of that, add to the picture the growing demand for minerals and materials if the economy is to grow.

At least there has been a recognition and acknowledgement in recent years that environmental problems exist. The problem is now somewhat different – the problem is the incredibly naive faith that markets and technology can solve all problems and keep on going. The main criticism of the limits to growth study was the claim that problems would be anticipated in forward markets and would then be made the subject of high tech innovation. In the next chapter, the destructive effects of these innovations are examined in more depth.

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INDUSTRY IN A LOW ENERGY FUTURE: TURNING TO NETWORK THEORY FOR SOLUTIONS

15 03 2016

This is Simon Michaux’s follow up to his article on the Implications of Peak Energy

Simon Michaux

SIMON MICHAUX

Dr Simon Michaux has a Bach App Sc in Physics and Geology and a PhD in mining engineering. He has worked in the mining industry for 18 years in various capacities. He has worked in industry funded mining research, coal exploration and in the commercial sector in an engineering company as a consultant. Areas of technical interest have been: Geometallurgy; mineral processing in comminution, flotation and leaching; blasting; mining geology; geophysics; feasibility studies; mining investment; and industrial sustainability.

There is a macro-scale pattern unfolding under all of us. Every non-renewable natural resource we depend upon is now depleting to the point of peak extraction, or will soon. Industrial systems that are heavily dependent on energy reserves and metal resources are now at serious risk of collapse as production of those raw materials will soon not be able to meet demand, since easy to access reserves will be exhausted, leaving low-grade stocks that are expensive or technically challenging to extract. All living systems on the planet are under stress and are also heavily degrading. Natural systems of all kinds are being depleted in the name of economic development, and the planet’s climate is also undergoing change.

Our culture’s fundamental belief that there are no limits and growth is good, is related to the belief that all resources are infinite. Humans, like all animals on the planet, are biologically driven to consume and expand – it’s a built-in survival mechanism. Yet, as this is a finite planet and our exploitation of these natural resources is exponential in form, there will come a point where severe volatility and resource scarcity will become a reality.

Energy is the rate determining step, which facilitates the continued application of technology with economies of scale. As studies have shown, total world fossil fuel supply is close to peak, driven by peak of oil production. What’s more, putting all energy sources together gives a snapshot of our industrial capability and suggests that peak total energy is projected to be approximately in the year 2017.

energy sources

The industrial systems vital for our society to function are supported by each of these energy sources in quite different ways, and they are not interchangeable easily. A compelling case can be made that that our society and its industrial sector energy supply faces a fundamental problem, that is systemic in nature.

Our industrial requirements will have to be met with a fundamentally different approach to anything we have achieved before. We need to stop depending on non-renewable natural resources and stop the material requirements of the human societal footprint growing exponentially. Mining will continue but according to a radically different business model, and with a very different mandate.

NETWORK SYSTEMS THEORY

Network theory and systems thinking has some insights to what the required new system of industrialisation could look like. Our human society, its economic and social interactions could be modelled as a system, where each activity could be a connection, for example the transport of goods, or the consumption of electricity. Nodes are where many connections intersect. For example, most activities involve a finance transfer thus will engage the services of a bank. The bank is a node, where many connections are able to function through. Not all nodes are equal though in regard to the number of connections they facilitate. The node of a car manufacturing business, for instance, will have many fewer connections than, say, the European Union Bank.

Image: NASA / Flickr CC BY NC 2.0
Image: NASA / Flickr CC BY NC 2.0

If connections are broken due to circumstance (using a city example, heavy storms and flooding could temporarily interrupt power supply to an individual neighbourhood) then the network is smaller in size but it still functions (power is still being supplied to other parts of the power grid). But if that same storm causes the power station used for electricity generation (a node) to shut down, then every consumer attached to that power station will lose power. The whole grid will crash.

The complexity of a network is supported by and defined by the energy inputs that support it. Our current complex system is supported by cheap abundant high density energy – oil. Complex system networks are not made ‘in situ’, but are grown over time from simple system networks.

What does all this mean for the current industrial grid? Peak total energy means the node of energy supply is about to be disrupted. All links in the network system supported by energy will be logistically traumatized. As it stands, any replacement energy is less dense per unit volume than oil, and requires extensive infrastructure to be built. Think of the amount of energy invested in the creation of our current system over time – without plentiful, easy to access energy, the replacement network system will need to be less complex than the current one, once fully operational. It will also take time for the network to reach full complexity.

The old system cannot function because input energy is sourced from non-renewable natural resources, all of which are depleting or soon will. As energy is the master resource, it defines what happens with all other resource systems. Any replacement system that is a practical option will have to have certain signatures.

PROGNOSIS

Due to energy constraints, all industrial output would have to be sourced from a geographically local area. This would affect everything from raw material consumption, water consumption to waste disposal. Product delivery to market would also be changed. All of this would have to become as close to net zero footprint in terms of source material and waste disposal. Industrial output would have to be simpler. Technology cannot be as complex as it is now. This implies that manufacturing goods will require more effort on our part, which means that we would have to value ‘stuff’ differently. All waste products will also require greater effort to dispose of, meaning that if they could be recycled, reused or repurposed, there would be less strain on the system to function. Maintaining QA/QC material standards and equipment maintenance would all have to be done within a relatively local geographic region. These challenging statements represent practical limits of a low energy future. As this represents quite a paradigm shift from our current state of exponential consumption based on whim, the most difficult but significant task in front of us is a revolution in perception and a restructuring of governance.

Political systems like capitalism, socialism, communism, fascism, etc. are all built in the context of unlimited natural resources. Whatever the new system looks like, it won’t be anything like what has been seen before. We can call it what we like. Planning will have to be projected over 50 to 60 years into the future but be flexible to evolve organically to its environs. The current system is very centralised, whereas the new system would have to be very decentralised due to energy constraints. The flow of information will become very important.

The Great Acceleration indicators, published by IGBP in collaboration with the Stockholm Resilience Centre
The Great Acceleration indicators, published by IGBP in collaboration with the Stockholm Resilience Centre

From a civilisation network systems footprint viewpoint, we must ask ourselves how we can develop an economy that offers enough for everyone, forever. Real world systems and their inputs must reflect this, and the familiar exponential curves of today’s economy must move to flat line or sinusoidal wave functions. We also need to ask what profile human civilisation has amongst the natural environment. Dynamic natural systems must be able to operate unhindered, where natural capital and biodiversity is allowed to recover. The new economic framework must appreciate that inputs and outputs to all systems must be stable over time.

There are two related conceptual ideas which could be a starting point to help us develop the above requirements: the circular economy and the steady state economy. In a future in which peak energy has dramatically changed the rules of the game, these concepts are required to maintain our industrial capacity. It is not a question of choice, as our natural resources are being depleted at an exponential rate. The timing is now. The next 100 years will be very different to the last 100 years.





Ugo Bardi on Food Systems Complexity

19 07 2015

Ugo Bardi

Ugo Bardi

Can you think of something worse than a wicked problem? Yes, it is perfectly possible: it is a wicked solution. That is, a solution that not only does nothing to solve the problem, but, actually, worsens it. Unfortunately, if you work in system dynamics, you soon learn that most complex systems are not only wicked, but suffer from wicked solutions (see, e.g.here).

This said, let’s get to one of the most wicked problems I can think of: that of the world’s food supply. I’ll try to report here at least a little of what I learned at the recent conference on this subject, jointly held by FAO and the Italian Chapter of the System Dynamics Society. Two days of discussions held in Rome during a monster heat wave that put under heavy strain the air conditioning system of the conference room and made walking from there to one’s hotel a task comparable to walking on an alien planet: it brought the distinct feeling that you needed a refrigerated space suit. But it was worth being there.

First of all, should we say that the world’s food supply is a “problem”? Yes, if you note that about half of the world’s human population is undernourished; if not really starving. And of the remaining half, a large fraction is not nourished right, because obesity and type II diabetes are rampant diseases – they said at the conference that if the trend continues, half of the world’s population is going to suffer from diabetes.

So, if we have a problem, is it really “wicked”? Yes, it is, in the sense that finding a good solution is extremely difficult and the results are often the opposite than those intended at the beginning. The food supply system is a devilishly complex system and it involves a series of cross linked subsystems interacting with each other. Food production is one thing, but food supply is a completely different story, involving transportation, distribution, storage, refrigeration, financial factors, cultural factors and is affected by climate change, soil conservation, population, cultural factors…… and more, including the fact that people don’t just eat “calories”, they need to eat food; that is a balanced mix of nutrients. In such a system, everything you touch reverberates on everything else. It is a classic case of the concept known in biology as “you can’t do just one thing.”

globalfoodsystemOnce you obtain even a vague glimpse of the complexity of the food supply system – as you can do in two days of full immersion in a conference – then you can also understand how poor and disingenuous often are the efforts to “solve the problem”. The basic mistake that almost everyone does here (and not just in the case of the food supply system) is trying to linearize the system.

Linearizing a complex system means that you act on a single element of it, hoping that all the rest won’t change as a consequence. It is the “look, it is simple” approach: favored by politicians (*). It goes like this, “look, it is simple: we just do this and the problem will be solved”. What is meant with “this” varies with the situation; with the food system, it often involves some technological trick to raise the agricultural yields. In some quarters that involves the loud cry “let’s go GMOs!” (genetically modified organisms).

Unfortunately, even assuming that agricultural yields can be increased in terms of calories produced using GMOs (possible, but only in industrialized agricultural systems), then the result is a cascade of effects which reverberate in the whole system; typically transforming a resilient rural production system into a fragile, partly industrialized, production system – to say nothing about the fact that these technologies often worsen the food’s nutritional quality. And, assuming that it is possible to increase yields, how do you find the financial resources to build up the infrastructure needed to manage the increased agricultural yield? You need trucks, refrigerators, storage facilities, and more. Even if you can manage to upgrade all that, very often, the result is simply to make the system more vulnerable to external shocks such as increases in the cost of supplies such as fuels and fertilizers.

There are other egregious examples of how deeply flawed is the “‘look, it is simple” strategy. One is the idea that we can solve the problem by getting rid of food waste. Great, but how exactly can you do that and how much would that cost? (**) And who would pay for the necessary upgrade of the whole distribution infrastructure? Another “look, it is simple” approach is ‘if we all went vegetarian, there would be plenty of food for everyone’. In part, it is true, but it is not so simple, either. Again, there is a question of distribution and transportation, and the fact that rich westerners buy “green food” in their supermarkets has little impact on the situation of the poor in the rest of the world. And then, some kinds of “green” food are bulky and hence difficult to transport; also they spoil easily, and so you need refrigeration, and so on. Something similar holds for the “let’s go local” strategy. How do you deal with the unavoidable fluctuations in local production? Once upon a time, these fluctuations were the cause of periodic famines which were accepted as a fact of life. Going back to that is not exactly a way to “solve the food supply problem.”

A different way to tackle the problem is focussed on reducing the human population. But, also here, we often make the “look, it is simple” mistake. What do we know exactly on the mechanisms that generate overpopulation, and how do we intervene on them? Sometimes, proposers of this approach seem to think that all what we need to do is to drop condoms on poor countries (at least it is better than dropping bombs on them). But suppose that you can reduce population in non traumatic ways, then you intervene into a system where “population” means a complex mix of different social and economic niches: you have urban, peri-urban, and rural population; a population reduction may mean shifting people from one sector to the other, it may involve losing producing capabilities in the rural areas, or, on the contrary, reduced capabilities of financing production if you could lower population in urban areas. Again, population reduction, alone, is a linear approach that won’t work as it is supposed to do, even if it could be implemented.

Facing the complexity of the system, listening to the experts discussing it, you get a chilling sensation that it is a system truly too difficult for human beings to grasp. You would have to be at the same time an expert in agriculture, in logistics, in nutrition, in finance, in population dynamics, and much more. One thing I noticed, as a modest expert in energy and fossil fuels, is how food experts normally don’t realize that the availability of fossil fuels must necessarily go down in the near future. That will have enormous effects on agriculture: think of fertilizers, mechanization, transportation, refrigeration, and more. But I didn’t see these effects taken into account in most models presented. Several researchers showed diagrams extrapolating current trends into the future as if oil production were to keep increasing for the rest of the century and more.

The same is true for climate change: I didn’t see at the conference much being said about the extreme effects that rapid climate change could have on agriculture. It is understandable: we have good models telling us how temperatures will rise, and how that will affect some of the planet’s subsystems (e.g. sea levels), but no models that could tell us how the agricultural system will react to shifting weather patterns, different temperatures, droughts or floods. Just think of how deeply agricultural yields in India are linked to the yearly monsoon pattern and you can only shiver at the thought of what might happen if climate change would affect that.

So, the impression I got from the conference is that nobody is really grasping the complexity of the problem; neither at the overshootlevel of single persons, nor at the level of organizations. For instance, I never heard a crucial term used in world dynamics, which is “overshoot”. That is, it is true that right now we can produce roughly enough food – measured in calories – for the current population. But for how long will we be able to do that? In several cases I could describe the approaches I have seen as trying to fix a mechanical watch using a hammer. Or to steer a transatlantic liner using a toothpick stuck into the propeller.

But there are also positive elements coming from the Rome conference. One is that the FAO, although a large, and sometimes clumsy, organization understands how system dynamics is a tool that could help a lot policy makers to do better in managing the food supply system. And, possibly, helping them device better ideas to “solve the food problem”. That’s more difficult than it seems: system dynamics is not for everyone and teaching it to bureaucrats is like teaching dogs to solve equations: it takes a lot of work and it doesn’t work so well. Then, system dynamics practitioners are often victim of the “spaghetti diagram” syndrome, which consists in drawing complex models full of little arrows going from somewhere to somewhere else, and then watching the mess they created and nodding in a show of internal satisfaction. But it is also true that, at the conference, I saw a lot of good will among the various actors in the field to find a common language. This is a good thing, difficult, but promising.

In the end, what is the solution to the “food supply problem”? If you ask me, I would try to propose a concept: “in a complex system, there are neither problems, nor solutions. There is only change and adaptation.” As a corollary, I could say that you can solve a problem (or try to) but you can’t solve a change (not even try to). You can only adapt to change, hopefully in a non traumatic manner.

Seen in this sense, the best way to tackle the present food supply situation, is not to seek for impossible (wicked) solutions (e.g. GMOs) but to increase the resilience of the system. That involves working at the local level and interacting with all the actors working in the food supply system. It is a sensible approach. FAO is already following it and it can insure a reasonable supply even in the presence of the unavoidable shocks that are going to arrive as the result of climate change and energy supply problems. Can system dynamics help? Probably yes. Of course, there is a lot of work to do, but the Rome conference was a good start.

H/t: Stefano Armenia, Vanessa Armendariz, Olivio Argenti and all the organizers of the joint Sydic/FAO conference in Rome

Notes.

* Once you tackle the food problem, you can’t ignore the “third world” situation. As a consequence, the conference was not just among Westerners and the debate took a wider aspect that also involved different ways of seeing the world. One particularly interesting discussion I had was with a Mexican researcher. According to her opinion, “linearizing” complex problems is a typical (and rather wicked) characteristic of the Western way of thinking. She countered this linear vision with the “circular” approach that, according to her, is typical of ancient Meso-American cultures, such as the Maya and others. That approach, she said, could help a lot the world to tackle wicked problems without worsening them. I just report this opinion; personally I don’t have sufficient knowledge to judge it. However, it seems true to me that there is something wicked in the way Western thought tends to mold everything and everyone on its own image.

** In the food system, the idea that “look, it is simple: just let’s get rid of waste” is exactly parallel to the “zero waste” approach for urban and industrial waste. I have some experience in this field, and I can tell you that, the way it is often proposed, the “zero waste” idea simply can’t work. It involves high costs and it just makes the system more and more fragile and vulnerable to shocks. That doesn’t mean that waste is unavoidable; not at all. If you can’t build up a “zero waste” industrial system, you can build up subsystems that will process and eliminate that waste. These subsystems, however, cannot work using the same logic of the standard industrial system; they have to be tailored to operate on low yield resources. In practice, it is the “participatory management” approach, (see, e.g.,the work of Prof. Gutberlet). It can be done with urban waste, but also with food waste and it is another way to increase the resilience of the system.





Joseph Tainter on sustainability

6 07 2015

These videos are part of an online course being taught at the University of California, “ICS 5: Global Disruption and Information Technology”. Only a portion of the course material is accessible via YouTube.

How complexity is not in favour of sustainability

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s6pxoclz4H0&feature=youtu.be

And part II about innovation and its drawbacks…..

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s6pxoclz4H0&feature=youtu.be





Meet David Korowicz

29 12 2014

David Korowicz

David Korowicz

David Korowicz was mentioned by Dave Kimble in a recent comment he left below Ugo Bardi’s Seneca cliff post, and I have heard Nicole Foss also mention him as an excellent systems analyst well worth following; so, seeing as I had not yet bothered to take the time to look him up, this morning I found a fascinating youtube film of him giving a lecture at the The New Emergency Conference.

David Korowicz documents the disturbing growth in the complexity of trade and financial networks and in the various types of infrastructure. He sees the collapse process as a system of re-enforcing feedbacks that cut investment in energy and R&D and cause supply chains and IT networks to break down.

David Korowicz is a physicist who studies the interactions between economics, energy, climate change, food security, supply chains, and complexity. He is on the executive of Feasta and an independent consultant. He is former head of research for The Ecology Foundation, and was recently appointed to the council of Comhar, Ireland’s Sustainable Development Partnership.

As an aside, but relevant to this piece, my friend Ted Trainer has had an article published about the simpler life on The Conversation you might all like to read (and support by commenting!)





Eye opening comment from an independent Council Alderman

16 09 2014

This most interesting blog article from a Hobart City Council Alderman, Eva Ruzicka, explains why Council rates never go down, and how growth and, more to the point, incremental growth in the complexity of how governments at all levels no longer has any choice on how to run its day to day affairs, due to ever more stupid and unsustainable regulations.

If you ever needed more proof that we have to live more simply so we may simply live…….  look no further.

And the other big question on the election trail….

Alderman Eva Ruzicka

Alderman Eva Ruzicka

If there is one thing that people get feisty about, it’s the rates bill. Why is it so high? Why does it never go down? And why do people try to get elected by saying they’ll vote for lower rates and then we never hear from them again once they’re occupying the comfy chairs around the Council table?

I’m tempted to answer that you’re living in a Western capitalist economy predicated on growth and if you want the benefits you’ll have put up with paradigm of exponential increase. But I suspect that won’t win much in the way of plaudits, and it is a bit politically philosophical when you’re trying to put bread on the table and pay off the mortgage.

What I can say is that historically, things might have been different if we’d elected accountants, rather than politicians. When elected people have avoided increasing rates or increased municipal debt, later generations have had to stump up.

And this is the nub of it. You have to go back to where it all started, and for this, have a look at the history books. Tasmania (or Van Diemen’s Land as it was then) wasn’t settled for any economic reasons. It was settled to stop the French from taking possession.

So there wasn’t any business case for the English government of the day to fund the prison camp from the Colonial Chest – other than just barely meeting the costs of running a dumping ground for the surplus population who tried to make a living any way they could outside the punitive property laws of the day.

When word got out the island was highly suitable for farming and grazing, we had all sorts coming here to make a fortune by taking up the land from the Palawa/Pakana by force, and being subsidised with free land and convict labour.

And when the Napoleonic Wars were finally ceased, guess what? England did the usual trick of saying, stand on your own two feet, we can’t afford to subsidise you anymore. So when Tasmania the colony did in 1856, it then got successive colonial governments that were excellent at running up large debts with overseas banks, but useless at providing the services a growing population demanded. Let a form of local government do it, they said.

And local government did.

Albeit very reluctantly, because while the carrot of local control (for which read those land owners and magistrates who got to impose their ideas of moral behaviour on the free, convict and ex-convict population) was tempting, no money came with it. Sound familiar?

(Cost-shifting is a time-honoured practice where central and local governments are concerned. Local government get the responsibility to provide the services that everyone expects central government to do, but bad luck bunnies, you’ll also have to find the funds. Don’t get me started on this today – perhaps another post another time.)

Nonetheless, by the end of the century, there was a proliferation of Councils, Town Boards, Road Trusts, schools, cemeteries, various agricultural pest control boards, jetties, marine boards, libraries, water trusts, and so on. By the time the Colonial parliamentarian, Dr John McCall, got all the Mayors of the day into a room well away from the press to discuss the delicate matter of reform, there were over three hundred various types of authority that came under the wing of local government.

You have to remember also that once was, most of the population of the island effectively lived, worked and died in the same locality, and rarely, if ever, left it. Local councils diversified to the extent their ratepayers wanted various services within their municipal boundaries – hence the diversity. And still there wasn’t sufficient money to go around because the Tasmanian population just wasn’t there.

(It’s a policy problem I’ll be writing more on – the lack of population impacting on local government.)

Reform was needed, and reform followed throughout the 20th century.

Yet still, money is the nub of it. The 49 Councils existing up to 1993 relied on State and Federal funding to cover activities the ratebase could not. Years of not wanting to incur debt, or incurring debt without sufficient raising the rates, or simply just not raising the rates because it was politically unpopular, set the scene for more financial reforms in the noughties. And life got more complex too, with increased State and Federal legislation and improvements concerning water, sewerage, planning, building, plumbing, health, parks, recreation, roads and rubbish management.

Anyone who said (and continues to say) amalgamation of Councils should lower rates is either ignorant of the changes in local government practice or just wishing out loud wistfully.

As one recent example, take water and sewerage. Okay, so its operation was taken off local government just recently but it still owns the asset. Why? The big Councils were able to sort out their problems, but for smaller ones, provision of clean water and adequate sewerage was just beyond their financial ratebase ability, and neither could they reasonably service the level of debt needed to get the job done to the high level of health and safety legislation. It’s been argued that the problems of water and sewerage were being sorted out at the local government level, but for State parliamentarians, particularly some of those in the seat of Lyons and Braddon, progress weren’t fast enough when people flooded their offices with complaints over water alerts. Hence, TasWater’s accelerated program of water and sewerage reform outside of Hobart and Launceston today. And this isn’t to say we shouldn’t all have clean water and adequate sewerage – we should. But how it has been gone about is not exactly creating less cost to the consumer.

Another big complexity is financial reform. Simple accounting is now replaced with accrual accounting and Councils now have to take into account asset depreciation, equity, debt repayment, on-costs, annual operating costs, long term 20 year budgets and financial plans, asset renewal programs, auditing, financial probity, etc. etc. Now the impact of decisions can be tracked across the whole organisation and into the future in the modelling of setting rates. (And we can see the impact on ratepayers today of past decisions where Aldermen refused to raise rates in election years.)

Okay, now I start to sound like an accountant, but bear with me. Here’s a plain English example of how things have got more complex in the last 50 years.

The people want a BBQ in the local park. Council either has the money to pay for building up front or it raises a loan to do it, say $2000 for a simply concrete slab, brick and steel plate BBQ, labour costs included, and some donated bricks and cement from the local businesses. And as people wanted to boil a billy to go with the sausages, a tap was provided that anyone could turn off and on. And a simple wood slab table and bench set were sat beside the BBQ. We’re talking about 20-50 years ago.

The BBQ is built, and lots of families and their friends used it, especially in the summer months when everyone visited in the holidays. So many people from out of town in fact, that Council ends up cleaning the BBQ and making sure there is a wood supply because of the complaints about cleanliness and people using the park’s trees for the BBQ. Have to encourage the visitors – good for local business.

And as the hole in the ozone layer got bigger and the Slip! Slop! Slap! campaign took hold, the local people asked for a cover shelter. And then for more chairs and tables for families to use, and they had to be under cover too. Eventually everyone uses the asset so much, it wears out and vandals have their way tagging the park furniture on bored winter afternoons, and for some reason, people keep nicking the tap fittings and firewood.

So then the local people ask for an electric BBQ replacement. As Council neither has the up-front cash or wants to raise the full loan to do it, it works with the local community group to raise the funds and eventually makes up the shortfall with a grant sourced from the local parliamentarian who is due for re-election. The shortfall is added to the rates budget.

Voila! A new BBQ with a renewed cover shelter and upgraded, vandal proof chairs and tables and shelters, and because we all wanted it to look good, some landscaping with trees and shrubs that provides wind shelter and a form of privacy between the tables of the many families now using the BBQ area. And the tap has been converted to an in ground sprinkler system, with a more secure drinks fountain with a dog bowl attached at the base. There is no longer worn out lawn under the tables but a lovely mulch soft-fall. New cost, say very little change out of $300,000, because of the grant, but actual bill of say $550,000.

The community and the elected members all get to enjoy a celebratory community BBQ when the power is switched on and have their picture in the paper. Everyone’s happy, it’s a wonderful place and the older folks reminisce about using the last one when they were kids, and how they’d like to form the same sorts of memories for their grand-kids.

So what’s the problem?

The asset was built either with a loan that had to be repaid, as well as interest and charges, and/or rates that have to be raised. So the initial cost of $2000 may well have been more as interest rates shifted around or Councillors didn’t want to raise the rates that year to finally pay off the loan.

The cost of cleaning and wood supply has to be added to the Council’s budget, as well as the increase in manpower needed to service the BBQ on a regular basis.

No money was put aside for replacement for the BBQ, tables and chairs or the nicked taps, so when the new electric BBQ with the new park furniture was provided, no money was there to pay for it. A lot of Council officer time (time equals wages costs here) was spent designing the new asset, engaging with the local community and consulting about it, as well as the planning, building and plumbing costs and requirements. The cost of providing water from a vandal proof tap has to also be factored in, as today water has to be paid for, and there is the added cost of maintaining the new landscaping. And there was the officer time spent in trying to source the funds through the grant process, and reporting the whole shebang to the Council for discussion and, finally, a decision.

In terms of asset management, there was no asset depreciation or replacement put aside for the old BBQ. Further, the cost of the new equipment was much, much higher as it had to meet Australian Standards requirements, let alone the fact that Councils now have to meet planning, building and plumbing rules just like everyone else. These are hidden costs no one really had to contend with in the past and now have become mainstream in local government practice because State and Federal governments demand it, and risk management decisions in the Courts have created them.

So now the Council, under 21st century accounting rules, has to put money aside for replacement/depreciation, asset development and annual operating costs, and it has to meet various health and safety obligations and Australian Standards in replacing the old BBQ. This is the financial iceberg under the upfront cost of the BBQ. You not only have to pay for building, you also have to budget for maintenance, depreciation and replacement.

All in all, while this is a somewhat potted explanation, it should explain why a rates bill continues to grow.

So in answer to the questions, why are rates always rising? The real cost of local government is like a financial iceberg. At some time, the elected members are taken into a budget workshop and get to see the full horror of the finances as the iceberg of electoral promises rolls over. We get to see there’s more than just the tip. The real cost has become a hazard to political shipping when you least expect it. And so rates are raised, after careful noting of CPI, and a sounding of the electorate’s mood. In Hobart City Council, the Aldermen are fully aware of the finances, and get to find out the real costs and impacts.

And that is why rates bills never get lower. The community demands more, it pays more. More complex local government processes cost more. We could cut the rates to zero, but at some stage, someone has pay for replacement of what we all use. If not you, then your children and grandchildren in a disproportionate amount if we won’t foot part of the bill today. We could cut the rates to zero, but would you then be satisfied with the loss of services?

Carefully spent taxes bring civilisation – not political promises to cut rates.





Requiem for a Species

20 01 2014

Dave Pollard

Dave Pollard

Another top post from Dave Pollard whom I still read even when travelling……..  sometimes I think reading people like Dave is the only way I stay sane.

Originally posted here……

I‘ve added professor Clive Hamilton’s new book Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change to my “Save the World Reading List” (retroactively). It’s the natural next step after the 15 essential readings and really sums up where we (our species and our planet) are now.

Clive starts out by saying what climate scientists know but are afraid to say:

Over the last five years, almost every advance in climate science has painted a more disturbing picture of the future. The reluctant conclusion of the most eminent climate scientists is that the world is now on the path to a very unpleasant future and it is too late to stop it. Behind the facade of scientific detachment, the climate scientists themselves now evince a mood of barely suppressed panic. No one is willing to say publicly what the climate science is telling us: that we can no longer prevent global warming that will this century bring about a radically transformed world that is much more hostile to the survival and flourishing of life. This is no longer an expectation of what might happen if we do not act soon; this will happen, even if the most optimistic assessment of how the world might respond to the climate disruption is validated.

In the first four chapters, he reviews the science of climate change (including the methane release and other positive feedback loops that auto-accelerate greenhouse gases), explains why we have passed the tipping point, why we (and our politicians) want growth to continue forever, how our consumerist culture has evolved, why we’re prone to believe greenwashing, the psychology of denial, and the inevitability of the emergence of dangerous, corporatist-funded “junk science”.

Chapter 5 describes the civilized human’s disconnection from nature that has allowed all of this to happen. Clive explains the malleability of our mental constructs of reality, self, and belonging and how they (we) have changed our worldview. (The chapter includes a fascinating and succinct statement of the Gaia Hypothesis written by Plato in the 4th century BCE!)

In Chapter 6, he deconstructs the discredited ‘fixes’ to global warming: carbon capture, the switch to renewables, substituting nuclear energy, and the use of climate engineering (geoengineering). I think he underestimates the perils of nuclear energy (not only the massive cost of reactors and how they would bankrupt our already-overstretched economy, but the challenge to post-civilization societies of preventing, for the next million years, the last century’s human-made radioactive wastes from causing even greater devastation for millennia to come). But otherwise this examination of proposed fixes is a good update to George Monbiot’s Heat. Chapter 6 includes an interesting and terrifying review of the politics of geoengineering, focused on the deranged proposals of right-wing darlings Edward Teller and Lowell Wood, that leads to the horrific conclusion that, because it’s so inexpensive and tempting to desperate, arrogant people, unilateral geoengineering efforts are not only likely, but probably inevitable.

In Chapter 7, Clive explains what we can expect, based on the latest projections, when runaway climate change hits us full-bore over the next few decades:

  • the uncontrollable burning of most of the world’s remaining tropical, subtropical and temperate forests due to latent heat
  • the prevalence of desertification, disappearance of glacial melt, massive water shortages and endemic high rates of heat-related deaths in the world’s temperate zones (including the Western US and Canada; worst in Southern Europe, the Middle East, much Southeast Asia and most of Mexico and Central America)
  • an ice-free world, with a commensurate rise, sooner or later, of 50-70m in sea levels
  • unprecedented and chronic floods, storms and monsoons
  • the death of almost all ocean life
  • large-scale collapse of human infrastructure not designed for such extreme and frequent weather events
  • massive numbers of climate change refugees, migrating (mostly north) thousands of miles in search of lands that are still habitable and arable

He dismisses human plans for resilience and adaptation in the face of such catastrophic (and specifically unpredictable) events, and says instead we must prepare for “a process of continuous transformation” of the way we live — societies and cultures in a constants state of rapid flux. He confesses:

It was only in September 2008, after reading a number of new books, reports and scientific papers, that I finally allowed myself to make the shift and admit that we simply are not going to act with anything like the urgency required… The climate crisis for the human species is now an existential one. On one level I felt relief: relief at finally admitting what my rational brain had been telling me; relief at no longer having to spend energy on false hopes; and relief at being able to let go of some anger at the politicians, business executives and climate sceptics who are largely responsible for delaying action against global warming until it became too late…

We [now] have no chance of preventing emissions rising well above a number of critical tipping points that will spark uncontrollable climate change. The Earth’s climate [will now] enter a chaotic era lasting thousands of years before natural processes eventually establish some sort of equilibrium. Whether human beings [will] still be a force on the planet, or even survive, is a moot point. One thing seems certain: there will be far fewer of us.

The final chapter on “what to do” focuses largely on learning to accept and deal with grief and loss. Clive explains:

For those who confront the facts and emotional meaning of climate change, the [death we mourn] is the loss of the future. [Our grief] is often marked by shock and disbelief, followed by… anger, anxiety, longing, depression, and emptiness [which we suppress through] numbness, pretence that the loss has not occurred, aggression directed at those seen as responsible, and self-blame… [Denial and avoidance are] defences against the feelings of despair that the climate science rationally entails…

Healthy grieving requires a gradual ‘withdrawal of emotional investment in the hopes, dreams and expectations of the future’ on which our life has been constructed. [But] after detaching from the old future [it is our nature to] construct and attach to a new future. Yet we cannot build a new conception of the future until we allow the old one to die, and Joanna Macy reminds us that we need to have the courage to allow ourselves to [first] descend into hopelessness.

afterculture
conception of art after the collapse of civilization culture by afterculture

This is the reason, I think, why I am now driven to write upbeat imaginative stories set several millennia in the future, once the crisis has passed. It is easier and perhaps healthier to see the coming collapse not as the end of something, but as a period of disequilibrium, a challenge, that we must endure in order that our descendants can live in a much better society than the one we live in today. It’s an attitude of willingness for self-sacrifice that many of our ancestors shared.

Clive goes on to explain how the loss of our future brings about a loss of meaning, and so we have to create a new story about ourselves and our purpose.

He suggests that we will reach the point at which, as much as we respect the law, we will have a moral obligation to ignore it, to mitigate or at least briefly delay the onset of runaway climate change through illegal actions. As I have written lately, I think that is a matter both of personal conscience and personal worldview: I have come to appreciate, through my study of complex systems, that such actions, useful as they may be in achieving short-term benefits for those we care about, will ultimately have no long-term effect, and they entail considerable personal risk as our surveillance society anticipates and ramps up efforts to suppress such actions ruthlessly. But I also appreciate and admire those willing to fight the system despite those personal risks and its ultimate futility.

I come back to the four safer actions we can take now to prepare, I think, for the convulsive period ahead:

  • Live an exemplary, joyful, present life: Be a model of living in the present, joyously, every day, living a life that’s aware, generous, responsible, sustainable and full of learning, wonder and love. Rather than dwell on the future or the past or what could have been done or is going to happen, focus on making the world better for yourself and those immediately around you now. Perform what Adam Gopnik calls “a thousand small sanities“. Seek to exemplify what Richard Holloway calls “an attitude of contemplative gratitude“.
  • Re-learn essential skills and knowledge that will make you and your community more self-sufficient and resilient when centralized global systems — governments, big corporations, trade, industrial agriculture, energy etc. — fall apart. Learn to make clothes, or to grow your own food organically, or how to mentor a student to learn how to learn, or how to facilitate a group to work more effectively together. And learn more about yourself as well — how to make yourself well, what triggers you or frightens you (and why), what you do really well, and what you really care about.
  • Discover your neighbours and connect with them, and learn how to build and live in community, where sharing is more important than owning. Learn how to care about, and even love, people you really don’t like very much. When hierarchies collapse, what we’ll be left with is community. Get to know yours.
  • Work with others to help them, and you, to heal from the damage this culture has already done to us, physically and emotionally, and to cope with the fear, the guilt and the grief we all start to feel when we realize what we have done to this planet, with the best of intentions, and what we’re going to face as a consequence.