The End of Growth, Seven Years Later

12 04 2018

I wrote The End of Growth in the months following the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008 (the book was published in North America in 2011), with the goal of helping to put that crisis in proper perspective. I argued that persistent economic growth is not “normal” in either an ecological or a historical frame of reference, and that a major threat to the continuation of growth (such as was posed by the 2008 crisis) is best interpreted as a signal that the global economy is approaching inevitable growth limits as the larger ecological systems of which it is a part become depleted, degraded, and destabilized.”

This is not an entirely new way of thinking about the economy. Starting in the 1960s, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Kenneth Boulding, and Herman Daly laid the foundations for an economics that correctly situates human society within the context of Earth’s limited natural energy flows and resource stocks. In 1972, the landmark study The Limits to Growth argued that the rapid global economic expansion that began in the twentieth century would almost certainly end and reverse itself in the twenty-first due largely to resource depletion and pollution. These have remained minority views among economists for decades; however, I argued that they are well founded, and that we are now seeing the confirmation of Limits to Growth warnings.

However, three things have changed since The End of Growth first appeared in North America. There are clear signs that growth is becoming more difficult to achieve worldwide. Impacts from slowing growth are appearing in the social and political spheres. And both analysts and grassroots social movements are starting to regard growth as the cause, rather than the solution, to worsening ecological and social crises. Let’s explore these developments one by one.

Signs that growth has run its course. This book argues at some length that ongoing, annual global GDP growth is very nearly finished. However, the years since the 2008 crash have seen some semblance of “recovery,” in that growth, as conventionally measured, has revived. Is the book’s thesis thereby refuted? I would argue to the contrary. The effort required to achieve the “recovery” was truly astonishing. Trillions of dollars, euros, and yuan were created and spent by central banks to prop up the global financial system. More trillions were called into existence through government deficit spending. Some analysts point out that, in the U.S. at least, during the decade since 2008 the dollar amount of cumulative government deficit spending has exceeded the dollar amount of GDP growth.

Government and central bank efforts to forestall collapse effectively piled more debt onto a system already drowning in debt (the world total debt level, at $180 trillion, is higher now than before the 2008 crisis, and is approximately 300 percent of world GDP). As I argue in Chapter 2 (extrapolating the analysis of economists Hyman Minsky and Irving Fisher), the accumulation of debt, undertaken in order to generate wealth and economic expansion, is subject to the law of diminishing returns, and is likely to end in a massive de-leveraging event—as has occurred in similar situations throughout history. A new book by business strategist and financial consultant Graham Summers calls our current situation The Everything Bubblein that when the government bonds that serve as the foundation of our current financial system are in a bubble, all risk assets (everything in the financial world) is effectively a bubble too. Thus efforts contributing to the “recovery” since 2008 did not solve our underlying economic problems, but only hid them; the end-of-growth reckoning was not canceled, only postponed. There have been no significant reforms to the financial system or efforts to reduce society’s reliance on unsustainable debt. The “recovery” was therefore merely a temporary reprieve, and we should not fool ourselves into thinking that it can be replicated or extended much further.

Meanwhile, fundamental non-financial system dynamics are also leading toward economic contraction. As discussed in Chapter 3, the costs of climate change continue to soar. In 2017, the total bill for climate related disasters in the US alone was $306 billion—not enough to tip the economy into recession, but far above the $46 billion cost for the previous year. However, these disaster costs do not include the snowballing economic consequences of shifting weather patterns and declining biodiversity. Even if GDP growth can still be achieved in these circumstances, it is, to use a term coined by Herman Daly, “uneconomic growth,” in that it reflects or creates a decline in overall quality of life.

In the book, I discuss the accumulating impacts of fossil fuel depletion. In recent years, many energy experts have adopted the view that fossil fuel resources are large enough that depletion poses no economic threat to society. However, it is important to remember that industry harvests coal, oil, and natural gas using the low-hanging fruit principle. Thus the resources being extracted today are generally more expensive and difficult to access than those recovered decades ago. This higher-cost trend is accelerating, even though it is not yet fully reflected in fossil fuel prices or total production levels. One symptom of the trend is the declining profitability of the oil industry. During the past four years, the five largest oil companies were unable to pay for new investments and dividends without selling assets or taking on more debt; in 2017, according to FactSet, the companies spent $31 billion more than they generated from operations. Smaller companies that specialize in production of U.S. tight oil, using hydrofracturing and horizontal drilling, are in an even worse bind. In 2017, two-thirds of U.S. tight oil was produced at a financial loss. The oil industry’s only hope for profitability is higher prices—but higher prices would undercut demand for petroleum and eat away at economic growth. Meanwhile, global oil discoveries have declined to the slowest pace since 1947. And evidence suggests the current tight oil and shale gas boom in the U.S. will be short-lived, due to the limited size and highly variable quality of geological reservoirs. Altogether, depletion is posing a fast-accelerating challenge to the viability of the fossil fuel industry—which, for the past two centuries, has been the key to industrial society’s expansion.

Could the challenges to economic growth posed by fossil fuel depletion be overcome through a shift to renewable energy source? In 2015-2016, I worked with David Fridley of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to explore the likely opportunities and constraints involved in a hypothetical societal shift to all-renewable energy. We found that such a shift would entail massive restructuring of energy end use (in transportation, manufacturing, food systems, and building operations) that would likely match the required investment in energy generation infrastructure. We concluded that the only way to make such a shift affordable and practically feasible over a relatively brief time (three or four decades) would be to reduce overall energy usage substantially, especially in high-use countries such as the United States. Doing so would likely be incompatible with GDP growth.

Social and political impacts from slowing growth. After decades of falling food and energy costs as a percentage of GDP, those costs stabilized and started growing at the start of the new century. Then came the financial crisis of 2008. Now, despite a decade of “recovery” following that crisis, not everyone is feeling the joy. Most of the increase in wealth and income since 2011 has gone to the top one percent of earners—the investor class, which is in position to benefit from government and central bank policies designed to shore up the financial system. Wages and salaries as a share of total GDP have fallen by about 5 percent since 2000, while corporate profits, rents, and interest income have increased by about the same percentage. As a result, the majority has seen gradual erosion in quality of life. This erosion is felt especially by the young, women, people of color, and those with few marketable skills. A consumer confidence report by the University of Michigan in March 2018 showed that, for the first time since such surveys have been undertaken, Americans younger than 35 are less optimistic about the economy than older Americans. This unease appears well-founded: research by Stanford economist Raj Chetty and colleagues has found that about 90 percent of Americans born in the 1940s earned more than their parents by the time they turned 30, while only about half of those born in the 1980s can say the same (figures were adjusted for inflation and household size).

Americans are feeling more anxious, depressed, and dissatisfied with their lives than they did in 2009, and happiness, or what researchers call “subjective well-being,” is declining among those surveyed in a detailed study by the Gallup Organization and the healthcare information service Sharecare.

Increasing inequality and declining future prospects are recipes for social unrest, political polarization, and the rise of populist or authoritarian politicians. Since 2008, authoritarian regimes have become more numerous, according to the Democracy Index compiled by “The Economist” magazine. The Democracy Index report for 2017 “records the worst decline in global democracy in years. Not a single region recorded an improvement in its average score since 2016, as countries grapple with increasingly divided electorates. Freedom of expression in particular is facing new challenges from both state and non-state actors. . . .”

The trend toward authoritarian leadership is most glaringly apparent in the United States, a nation now listed by the Index as a “flawed democracy.” Donald Trump gained election in 2016 promising to “Make America Great Again”; his electoral strategy centered on pitting one social-ethnic group (citizens of European-American heritage) against others (immigrants, African-Americans, and Latinos), while demonizing his political opponents. These tactics echo those of historic and emerging authoritarian politicians in Europe, The Philippines, and elsewhere.

Post-growth or De-growth analysts and movements. Increasing numbers of people regard the rapid global economic growth seen in the past few decades as metaphorically cancerous, since it was purchased at the expense of resource depletion, waste generation, and pollution, with severe impacts on global natural life support systems. Economic inequality has worsened and quality of life is crumbling. Growth of this sort has to end, voluntarily or otherwise.

Indeed, it’s become clear to many climate researchers and other environmental scientists that addressing climate change, resource depletion, and the biodiversity extinction crisis requires deliberately shrinking the economy. For example, British scientist Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research estimates that staying under the agreed-upon 2 degree Celsius ceiling for global warming in a way that allots poor countries their fair share of the carbon budget would require rich countries to reduce emissions by 10 percent per year—which would be incompatible with economic growth in those nations. And a new study in the journal Nature Sustainability concludes that:

[N]o country [currently] meets basic needs for its citizens at a globally sustainable level of resource use. Physical needs such as nutrition, sanitation, access to electricity and the elimination of extreme poverty could likely be met for all people without transgressing planetary boundaries. However, the universal achievement of more qualitative goals (for example, high life satisfaction) would require a level of resource use that is 2–6 times the sustainable level. . . . [O]ur findings suggest that the pursuit of universal human development, which is the ambition of the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals], has the potential to undermine the Earth-system processes upon which development ultimately depends. But this does not need to be the case. A more hopeful scenario would see the SDGs shift the agenda away from growth towards an economic model where the goal is sustainable and equitable human well-being. [emphasis added}

Meanwhile, biologist E. O. Wilson has suggested that the only effective way to counter the biodiversity extinction crisis is to reserve half the world’s land and sea area for other species. It is difficult to imagine this happening in the context of continued economic expansion.

New economic thinking has contributed to recent discussions about how to understand and adapt to the end of growth. Post-Keynesian economists, such as Steve Keen, argue that conventional economic theory has two fatal blind spots. One is that an overly large private debt to GDP ratio can cause deflation and depression; the other is that energy is key driver of production (in conventional economic theory, the role of energy is barely considered at all). Without a proper understanding of debt, custodians of the financial system have no way to avoid periodic debt deflation events; and without an understanding of energy’s crucial role in the economy, conventional economists are unable to properly explain the ultimate source of growth and are therefore clueless about a primary growth limit.

The End of Growth discusses hopeful new initiatives and social experiments that could help society adapt to a post-growth regime. These include alternative economic arrangements such as the sharing economy—which is much more widely talked about today than when the book first appeared (and has also come in for some criticism); likewise the idea of a universal basic income.

Transition, a post-growth social movement discussed in Chapter 7, continues to expand, having spread now to over 50 countries, with thousands of groups in towns, villages, cities, universities, and schools. Its projects include promoting local food, local renewable energy, local investment, and local currency; some groups have opened repair cafes and tool libraries as ways of reducing consumption. Likewise, the degrowth movement in Europe, also discussed in Chapter 7, continues to broaden its appeal. In 2017, for the first time ever, a political party—the Five-Star Movement in Italy—successfully ran on a platform that included mention of degrowth. In the wake of that victory it seems particularly appropriate that an Italian language edition of this book will be published later this year.

*          *          *

The End of Growth may have appeared a few years ahead of its time. After all, the years 2012-2017 saw an increase, rather than continued fall, of U.S. and global GDP. The optics, as they say, were not good for the book’s central claim. But was its warning really premature? After all, the point of warnings is to convince people to alter behavior so as to avert harm or to pre-adapt to coming change. Harm and change of the kinds described in the book are no less certain today.

In the long run, we really won’t have any option other than to adapt to limits. The rapid economic growth the world witnessed in the twentieth century was a one-time-only phenomenon resulting from scientific research, technological development, advertising, consumer spending, and borrowing; crucially, it was ultimately fed by depleting, non-renewable fossil fuels—primarily petroleum. We are now living at the tail end of that era.

Politicians and conventional economists continue to call for more growth. This is, to use a tired and ugly metaphor, beating a dead horse. Belief among the general public in the possibility and benefit of further economic growth is eroding. And the harder we push human systems toward growth limits, the further and faster those systems will snap back as limits are exceeded. Whatever growth remains to be wrung from the system will come at the cost of future generations and the rest of nature, and will likely continue to disproportionately benefit the already wealthy. Those who hold their hands on the levers of national public policy, large corporations, and even philanthropy are missing end-of-growth signals because they are the only ones still benefiting from continued growth.

The next cyclical recession may be just around the corner. After the last one, the global economy was patched together with metaphorical hairpins and chewing gum. The next is likely to be much worse, as central banks and governments have already deployed most of their ammunition. The end of growth has been postponed as long as is humanly possible. It’s far past time to come to terms with ecological reality and make a deliberate transition to a post-growth regime.

heinberg-thumb-200x200Richard Heinberg is the author of thirteen books including: – Our Renewable Future: Laying  the Path for One Hundred Percent Clean Energy, co-authored with David Fridley (2016) – Afterburn (2015) – Snake Oil (July 2013) – The End of Growth (August 2011) – The Post Carbon Reader (2010) (editor) – Blackout: Coal, Climate, and the Last…

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 Juggling Live Hand Grenades

6 04 2018

heinberg

Richard Heinberg

Richard Heinberg. 2017-4-25. Juggling Live Hand Grenades. Post Carbon Institute.

Here are a few useful recent contributions to the global sustainability conversation, with relevant comments interspersed. Toward the end of this essay I offer some general thoughts about converging challenges to the civilizational system.

  1. “Oil Extraction, Economic Growth, and Oil Price Dynamics,” by Aude Illig and Ian Schiller. BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality, March 2017, 2:1.

Once upon a time it was assumed that as world oil supplies were depleted and burned, prices would simply march upward until they either crashed the economy or incentivized both substitute fuels and changes to systems that use petroleum (mainly transportation). With a little hindsight—that is, in view of the past decade of extreme oil price volatility—it’s obvious that that assumption was simplistic and useless for planning purposes. Illig’s and Schiller’s paper is an effort to find a more realistic and rigorously supported (i.e., with lots of data and equations) explanation for the behavior of oil prices and the economy as the oil resource further depletes.

The authors find, in short, that before oil production begins to decline, high prices incentivize new production without affecting demand too much, while low prices incentivize rising demand without reducing production too much. The economy grows. It’s a self-balancing, self-regulating system that’s familiar territory to every trained economist.

However, because oil is a key factor of economic production, a depleting non-renewable resource, and is hard to replace, conventional economic theory does a lousy job describing the declining phase of extraction. It turns out that once depletion has proceeded to the point where extraction rates start to decline, the relationship between oil prices and the economy shifts significantly. Now high prices kill demand without doing much to incentivize new production that’s actually profitable), while low prices kill production without doing much to increase demand. The system becomes sEnter a captionelf-destabilizing, the economy stagnates or contracts, the oil industry invests less in future production capacity, and oil production rates begin to fall faster and faster.

The authors conclude:

Our analysis and empirical evidence are consistent with oil being a fundamental quantity in economic production. Our analysis indicates that once the contraction period for oil extraction begins, price dynamics will accelerate the decline in extraction rates: extraction rates decline because of a decrease in profitability of the extraction business. . . . We believe that the contraction period in oil extraction has begun and that policy makers should be making contingency plans.

As I was reading this paper, the following thoughts crossed my mind. Perhaps the real deficiency of the peak oil “movement” was not its inability to forecast the exact timing of the peak (at least one prominent contributor to the discussion, petroleum geologist Jean Laherrère, made in 2002 what could turn out to have been an astonishingly accurate estimate for the global conventional oil peak in 2010, and global unconventional oil peak in 2015). Rather, its shortcoming was twofold: 1) it didn’t appreciate the complexity of the likely (and, as noted above, poorly understood) price-economy dynamics that would accompany the peak, and 2) it lacked capacity to significantly influence policy makers. Of course, the purpose of the peak oil movement’s efforts was not to score points with forecasting precision but to change the trajectory of society so that the inevitable peak in world oil production, whenever it occurred, would not result in economic collapse. The Hirsch Report of 2005 showed that that change of trajectory would need to start at least a decade before the peak in order to achieve the goal of averting collapse. As it turned out, the peak oil movement did provide society with a decade of warning, but there was no trajectory change on the part of policy makers. Instead, many pundits clouded the issue by spending that crucial decade deriding the peak oil argument because of insufficient predictive accuracy on the part of some of its proponents. And now? See this article:

  1. “Saudi Aramco Chief Warns of Looming Oil Shortage,” by Anjli Raval and Ed Crooks, Financial Times, April 14, 2017.

The message itself should be no surprise. Everyone who’s been paying attention to the oil industry knows that investments in future production capacity have fallen dramatically in the past three years as prices have languished. It’s important to have some longer-term historical perspective, though: today’s price of $50 per barrel is actually a high price for the fuel in the post-WWII era, even taking inflation into account. The industry’s problem isn’t really that prices are too low; it’s that the costs of finding and producing the remaining oil are too highIn any case, with prices not high enough to generate profits, the industry has no choice but to cut back on investments, and that means production will soon start to lag. Again, anyone who’s paying attention knows this.

What’s remarkable is hearing the head of Saudi Arabia’s state energy company convey the news. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Amin Nasser, chief executive of Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil producing company, said on Friday that 20 [million] barrels a day in future production capacity was required to meet demand growth and offset natural field declines in the coming years. “That is a lot of production capacity, and the investments we now see coming back—which are mostly smaller and shorter term—are not going to be enough to get us there,” he said at the Columbia University Energy Summit in New York. Mr. Nasser said that the oil market was getting closer to rebalancing supply and demand, but the short-term market still points to a surplus as U.S. drilling rig levels rise and growth in shale output returns. Even so, he said it was not enough to meet supplies required in the coming years, which were “falling behind substantially.” About $1 [trillion] in oil and gas investments had been deferred and cancelled since the oil downturn began in 2014.

Mr. Nasser went on to point out that conventional oil discoveries have more than halved during the past four years.

The Saudis have never promoted the notion of peak oil. Their mantra has always been, “supplies are sufficient.” Now their tune has changed—though Mr. Nasser’s statement does not mention peak oil by name. No doubt he would argue that resources are plentiful; the problem lies with prices and investment levels. Yes, of course. Never mention depletion; that would give away the game.

  1. “How Does Energy Resource Depletion Affect Prosperity? Mathematics of a Minimum Energy Return on Investment (EROI),” by Adam R. Brandt. BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality, (2017) 2:2.

Adam Brandt’s latest paper follows on work by Charlie Hall and others, inquiring whether there is a minimum energy return on investment (EROI) required in order for industrial societies to function. Unfortunately EROI calculations tend to be slippery because they depend upon system boundaries. Draw a close boundary around an energy production system and you are likely to arrive at a higher EROI calculation; draw a wide boundary, and the EROI ratio will be lower. That’s why some EROI calculations for solar PV are in the range of 20:1 while others are closer to 2:1. That’s a very wide divergence, with enormous practical implications.

In his paper, Brandt largely avoids the boundary question and therefore doesn’t attempt to come up with a hard number for a minimum societal EROI. What he does is to validate the general notion of minimum EROI; he also notes that society’s overall EROI has been falling during the last decade. Brandt likewise offers support for the notion of an EROI “cliff”: that is, if EROI is greater than 10:1, the practical impact of an incremental rise or decline in the ratio is relatively small; however, if EROI is below 10:1, each increment becomes much more significant. This also supports Ugo Bardi’s idea of the “Seneca cliff,” according to which societal decline following a peak in energy production, consumption, and EROI may be far quicker than the build-up to the peak.

  1. “Burden of Proof: A Comprehensive Review of the Feasibility of 100% Renewable-Electricity Systems,” by B.P. Heard, B.W. Brook, T.M.L. Wigley, and C.J.A. Bradshaw. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Volume 76, September 2017, Pages 1122–1133.

This study largely underscores what David Fridley and I wrote in our recent book Our Renewable Future. None of the plans reviewed here (including those by Mark Jacobson and co-authors) passes muster. Clearly, it is possible to reduce fossil fuels while partly replacing them with wind and solar, using current fossil generation capacity as a fallback (this is already happening in many countries). But getting to 100 percent renewables will be very difficult and expensive. It will ultimately require a dramatic reduction in energy usage, and a redesign of entire systems (food, transport, buildings, and manufacturing), as we detail in our book.

  1. “Social Instability Lies Ahead, Researcher Says,” by Peter Turchin. January 4, 2017, Phys.org.

Over a decade ago, ecologist Peter Turchin began developing a science he calls cliodynamics, which treats history using empirical methods including statistical analysis and modeling. He has applied the same methods to his home country, the United States, and arrives at startling conclusions.

My research showed that about 40 seemingly disparate (but, according to cliodynamics, related) social indicators experienced turning points during the 1970s. Historically, such developments have served as leading indicators of political turmoil. My model indicated that social instability and political violence would peak in the 2020s.

Turchin sees the recent U.S. presidential election as confirming his forecast: “We seem to be well on track for the 2020s instability peak. . . . If anything, the negative trends seem to be accelerating.” He regards Donald Trump as more of a symptom, rather than a driver, of these trends.

The author’s model tracks factors including “growing income and wealth inequality, stagnating and even declining well-being of most Americans, growing political fragmentation and governmental dysfunction.” Often social scientists focus on just one of these issues; but in Turchin’s view, “these developments are all interconnected. Our society is a system in which different parts affect each other, often in unexpected ways.

One issue he gives special weight is what he calls “elite overproduction,” where a society generates more elites than can practically participate in shaping policy. The result is increasing competition among the elites that wastes resources needlessly and drives overall social decline and disintegration. He sees plenty of historical antecedents where elite overproduction drove waves of political violence. In today’s America there are far more millionaires than was the case only a couple of decades ago, and rich people tend to be more politically active than poor ones. This causes increasing political polarization (millionaires funding extreme candidates), erodes cooperation, and results in a political class that is incapable of solving real problems.

I think Turchin’s method of identifying and tracking social variables, using history as a guide, is relevant and useful. And it certainly offers a sober warning about where America is headed during the next few years. However, I would argue that in the current instance his method actually misses several layers of threat. Historical societies were not subject to the same extraordinary boom-bust cycle driven by the use of fossil fuels as our civilization saw during the past century. Nor did they experience such rapid population growth as we’ve experienced in recent decades (Syria and Egypt saw 4 percent per annum growth in the years after 1960), nor were they subject to global anthropogenic climate change. Thus the case for near-term societal and ecosystem collapse is actually stronger than the one he makes.

Some Concluding Thoughts

Maintaining a civilization is always a delicate balancing act that is sooner or later destined to fail. Some combination of population pressure, resource depletion, economic inequality, pollution, and climate change has undermined every complex society since the beginnings of recorded history roughly seven thousand years ago. Urban centers managed to flourish for a while by importing resources from their peripheries, exporting wastes and disorder beyond their borders, and using social stratification to generate temporary surpluses of wealth. But these processes are all subject to the law of diminishing returns: eventually, every boom turns to bust. In some respects the cycles of civilizational advance and decline mirror the adaptive cycle in ecological systems, where the crash of one cycle clears the way for the start of a new one. Maybe civilization will have yet another chance, and possibly the next iteration will be better, built on mutual aid and balance with nature. We should be planting the seeds now.

Yet while modern civilization is subject to cyclical constraints, in our case the boom has been fueled to an unprecedented extreme by a one-time-only energy subsidy from tens of millions of years’ worth of bio-energy transformed into fossil fuels by agonizingly slow geological processes. One way or another, our locomotive of industrial progress is destined to run off the rails, and because we’ve chugged to such perilous heights of population size and consumption rates, we have a long way to fall—much further than any previous civilization.

Perhaps a few million people globally know enough of history, anthropology, environmental science, and ecological economics to have arrived at general understandings and expectations along these lines. For those who are paying attention, only the specific details of the inevitable processes of societal simplification and economic/population shrinkage remain unknown.

There’s a small cottage industry of websites and commenters keeping track of signs of imminent collapse and hypothesizing various possible future collapse trajectories. Efforts to this end may have practical usefulness for those who hope to escape the worst of the mayhem in the process—which is likely to be prolonged and uneven—and perhaps even improve lives by building community resilience. However, many collapsitarians are quite admittedly just indulging a morbid fascination with history’s greatest train wreck. In many of my writings I try my best to avoid morbid fascination and focus on practical usefulness. But every so often it’s helpful to step back and take it all in. It’s quite a show.





Puerto Rico. Advanced showing of what collapse looks like.

30 09 2017

Puerto Rico now seems to be the first nation state, such as it is, to be destroyed by climate change……

maria_goe_2017263.0Now of course I am not saying that Hurrican Maria was caused by climate change, but the likelihood of it being hit twice in a week by two such powerful storms can only be put down to the unusually hot waters of the Atlantic Ocean. That it was totally destroyed can only be put down to bad management, and a history of US laisser faire with regards to its economy. Puerto Rico is a colony of the USA, not a state. It’s been treated by rich US citizens (including Donald Trump) as somewhere to go for idyllic tropical holidays, and not much else. For these things to happen, Puerto Rico was made to borrow well beyond its capacity to repay, it was bankrupt before the hurricane, there are no words to describe its position today. Except perhaps as a failed state, except it was never really a state in charge of its own destiny. And it now seems to be abondoned by the US, tossed into the garbage like an old unwanted disused toy.PR1

The one resource that stands out as lacking is diesel…..

This from the Organic Prepper…:

Hospitals are struggling to keep people alive.

And speaking of hospitals, 59 of the 69 on the island were, according to the Department of Defense, “operating on unknown status.”

Only 11 of 69 hospitals on Puerto Rico have power or are running on generators, FEMA reports. That means there’s limited access to X-ray machines and other diagnostic and life-saving equipment. Few operating rooms are open, which is scary, considering an influx of patients with storm-related injuries. (source)

A hospital in San Juan reported that two people in intensive care died when the diesel fueling the generator ran out. The children’s hospital has 12 little ones who depend on ventilators to survive, and once they ran out of fuel, they have gotten by on donations. FEMA has delivered diesel fuel to 19 hospitals.

But many darkened hospitals are unable to help patients who need it most.

Without sufficient power, X-ray machines, CT scans, and machines for cardiac catheterization do not function, and generators are not powerful enough to make them work. Only one in five operating rooms is functioning. Diesel is hard to find. And with a shortage of fresh water, another concern looms: a possible public health crisis because of unsanitary conditions…

The hospitals have been crippled by floods, damage and shortages of diesel. The governor said that 20 of the island’s hospitals are in working order. The rest are not operational, and health officials are now trying to determine whether it is because they lack generators, fuel or have suffered structural damage. All five of the hospitals in Arecibo, Puerto Rico’s largest city in terms of size, not population, are closed. (source)

PR2Now who would have thought that diesel keeps people alive………? On an island running on 100% renewables? The latest reports say the island may not get its electricity back for 12 months…..

There is of course also no food and water, and it’s a week now since Maria lashed those poor people. FEMA apparently dropped 4.4 million meals there, for 3.5 million people. You do the maths. Yet it appears that earlier in the 20th Century, Puerto Rico produced 70% of its food; but thanks to American management and love affair with debt, this slowly made all that disappear making the island fat and lazy and reliant on ever more debt to survive instead of concentrating on self sufficiency. After all, money is more important than food, right…….?

There is hardly any potable water.

Nearly half the people in Puerto Rico are without potable drinking water. The tap water that is restored has to be boiled and filtered, and others are finding water where they can. You can expect a health crisis soon due to waterborne illnesses. When I researched my book about water preparedness, I learned that waterborne illness is one of the deadliest threats post-disaster. Although FEMA has delivered 6.5 million liters of water, on an island with 3.4 million people, it isn’t enough.

Isabel Rullán is the co-founder and managing director of a non-profit group called ConPRmetidos. She is very concerned about the water situation. She said that even if people were able to acquire water “they may not have the power or means to boil or purify it.”

She added that the problem went beyond access to drinking water — it was becoming a real public health concern.

Compounding that issue was hospitals lacking diesel and being unable to take new patients, she said.

“There’s so much contamination right now, there’s so many areas that are flooded and have oil, garbage in the water, there’s debris everywhere,” she said by phone.

“We’re going to have a lot of people that are potentially and unfortunately going to get sick and may die,” she said. (source)

According to the Department of Defense, 56% of the island has potable water, but in one town, Arecibo, the only fresh water comes froma single fire hydrant. (source)

70,000 people were evacuated (to God knows where….) because a 90 year old dam could fail any day. As there’s no money – I can only surmise – the dam was not inspected for four years, when such an old piece of infrastructure should have yearly assessments. As we know here, crumbling infrastructure is the first sign of collapse.hurricane-maria-puerto-rico-dam

I could not help, however, thinking that this might be an opportunity. Puerto Rico could tell the USA to go to hell, and take its debts along for the ride. After all, its chances of paying it back now really are zero..! Not everyone will make it of course. The injured, elderly, diabetics, those in blacked out hospitals, not to mention those with no idea of how to deal in a post technology world, will almost certainly die. As I often say, nobody gets out alive. It’s how you check out that matters.

In all that destruction, there are many resources left. No shortage of building materials, perhaps even enough left over solar panels and peripherals to generate a modicum of electricity to run tools…. I can’t tell, not many people are thinking straight yet, and the media is so fickle that most bulletins are about what some clown rapper is going to sing at a footy grand final, Houston and Florida are already off the media screens. Why would anyone be interested in the beginning of global collapse…?

Richard HeinbergRichard Heinberg is thinking straight…. this article has just hit my newsfeed as I type:

A shrinking economy, a government unable to make debt payments, and a land vulnerable to rising seas and extreme weather: for those who are paying attention, this sounds like a premonition of global events in coming years. World debt levels have soared over the past decade as central banks have struggled to recover from the 2008 global financial crisis. Climate change is quickly moving from abstract scenarios to grim reality. World economic growth is slowing (economists obtusely call this “secular stagnation”), and is likely set to go into reverse as we hit the limits to growth that were first discussed almost a half-century ago. Could Puerto Rico’s present presage our own future?

If so, then we should all care a great deal about how the United States responds to the crisis in Puerto Rico. This could be an opportunity to prepare for metaphoric (and occasionally real) storms bearing down on everyone.

It’s relatively easy to give advice from the sidelines, but I do so having visited Puerto Rico in 2013, where I gave a presentation in the Puerto Rican Senate at the invitation of the Center for Sustainable Development Studies of the Universidad Metropolitana. There I warned of the inevitable end of world economic growth and recommended that Puerto Rico pave the way in preparing for it. The advice I gave then seems even more relevant now:

  • Invest in resilience. More shocks are on the way, so build redundancy in critical systems and promote pro-social behavior so that people’s first reflex is to share and to help one another.
  • Promote local food. Taking advantage of the island’s climate, follow the Cuban model for incentivizing careers in farming and increase domestic food production using permaculture methods.
  • Treat population decline as an opportunity. Lots of people will no doubt leave Puerto Rico as a result of the storm. This represents a cultural and human loss, but it also opens the way to making the size of the population of the island more congruent with its carrying capacity in terms of land area and natural resources.
  • Rethink transportation. The island’s current highway-automobile dominance needs to give way to increased use of bicycles, and to the provision of streetcars and and light rail. An interim program of ride- and car-sharing could help with the transition.
  • Repudiate debt. Use aid money to build a sharing economy, not to pay off creditors. Take a page from the European “degrowth” movement. An island currency and a Commonwealth bank could help stabilize the economy.
  • Build a different energy system. Patching up the old PREPA electricity generating and distribution system would be a waste of money. That system is both corrupt and unsustainable. Instead, invest reconstruction funds in distributed local renewables and low-power infrastructure.

Richard took the words right out of my mouth….. but what will the authorities do? Obviously nothing since Richard’s vist four years ago. Maybe this disaster will put a fire in ther bellies. Will it do the same elsewhere? i doubt it….. but I’m an old cynic! I have little doubt that Puerto Rico will be offered more debt money to ‘rebuild’ stuff that will be destroyed in the next storm.

Richard finishes with……

Obviously, the Puerto Rican people have immediate needs for food, water, fuel, and medical care. We mainland Americans should be doing all we can to make sure that help reaches those in the throes of crisis. But Puerto Ricans—all Americans, indeed all humans—should be thinking longer-term about what kind of society is sustainable and resilient in this time of increasing vulnerability to disasters of all kinds.

How could you disagree……?

 

 





Watching the Hurricane’s Path

8 09 2017

I can really relate to this latest article by Richard Heinberg….  I still get people saying to me “you’ve been saying this for twenty years, and look, nothing’s happened…” Yet, every day, we are one day closer to the inevitable outcome, just like watching the hurricane coming from your favourite armchair…

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heinbergIt’s an eerie experience. You’ve just heard that another hurricane has formed in the Atlantic, and that it’s headed toward land. You search for NOAA’s National Hurricane Center website so you can see the forecast path for the storm. You’re horrified at the implications, and you bookmark the site. You check in every few hours to see forecast updates. You know in general terms what’s coming—devastation for the lives of thousands, maybe millions of people. Then a few days later you begin to see the sad, shocking photos and videos of destruction.

Thanks to modern science and technology—satellites and computers—we have days of warning before a hurricane hits. That’s extremely helpful: while people can’t move their houses and all their possessions, they can board up windows, stock up on food and water, and perhaps get out of town. Huge storms are far less deadly than they would be if we didn’t have modern weather forecasting.

Science and technology have also enabled us to forecast “storms” of another kind. Using computers and data about population, energy, pollution, natural resources, and economic trends, it’s possible to generate scenarios for the future of industrial civilization. The first group of researchers to do this  in 1972, found that the “base case,” or most likely scenario, showed essentially the collapse of society: in the early-to-middle decades of the 21st century, industrial production would peak and begin to decline sharply; so would food production and (with a lag of a few years) population. For decades scientists have been updating the software and plugging in new and better data, but ever-more-powerful computers keep spitting out the same base-case scenario.

One of the factors the 1972 researchers thought would be of increasing significance was climate change. Now, 45 years later, many thousands of scientists around the world are feeding their supercomputers data on carbon emissions, carbon cycles, carbon sinks, climate sensitivity, climate feedbacks, and more. They likewise see a “hurricane” on the way: we are altering the chemistry of the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans so significantly, and so quickly, that dire consequences are almost certain, if not already here. Later this century we’ll see storms, droughts, heat waves, and wildfires like none on record. Agriculture will likely be impacted severely.

Ever since I read the 1972 report on Limits to Growth, I’ve had that same eerie feeling as when looking at the charts on the NOAA website. Only the feeling is deeper, more pervasive, and (of course) long-lasting. A storm is coming. We should batten down the hatches.

But, 45 years down the line, the storm is no longer far away. In fact, the photos and videos of destruction are starting to come in. No nations have bothered to make sensible efforts to minimize the storm’s impact by reducing fossil fuel consumption, stabilizing population at 1970s levels, or reconfiguring their economy so it doesn’t require continuous growth in resource and energy usage. Why didn’t we do those sensible things, even though we had plenty of warning?

Our failure to respond has a lot to do with the long time lag. We humans are much better at dealing with immediate threats than ones years ahead. In effect, we have an internal discount rate that we apply to possible disasters, depending on their temporal proximity.

Given a long-term threat, some of us are more likely to develop complicated rationales for doing nothing. After all, averting a really big disaster may require substantial inconvenience. Getting out of the way of a hurricane might mean packing up your most treasured belongings, driving a couple of hundred miles, and trying to find a motel that’s not already overbooked (that is, if you are among the fortunate with the resources to do so).  Minimizing the threat of global overshoot might mean changing our entire economic system—from how we grow food to how we get to work and what kind of work we do. Escaping the hurricane engages our survival instincts; we don’t have time to doubt the weatherman. But given a few decades to think about it, we might come up with lots of (ultimately wrongheaded but carefully reasoned nonetheless) reasons why our current economic system is really just fine, and why global overshoot really isn’t a threat.

Those of us who aren’t so good at coming up with such rationalizations are stuck with the eerie feeling that something very bad is about to happen—maybe in Florida this weekend, maybe everywhere before long. Here’s my recommendation, based on a few decades of watching all kinds of storm charts: please pay attention to the weatherman. Stop finding reasons why you really don’t have to change or prepare. Make your way to higher ground. And be sure to help your neighbors.





Systemic Change Driven by Moral Awakening Is Our Only Hope

17 08 2017

heinbergAnother brilliant article from Richard Heinberg……

Our core ecological problem is not climate change. It is overshoot, of which global warming is a symptom. Overshoot is a systemic issue. Over the past century-and-a-half, enormous amounts of cheap energy from fossil fuels enabled the rapid growth of resource extraction, manufacturing and consumption; and these in turn led to population increase, pollution and loss of natural habitat and hence biodiversity.

The ecology movement in the 1970s benefitted from a strong infusion of systems thinking, which was in vogue at the time (ecology—the study of the relationships between organisms and their environments—is an inherently systemic discipline, as opposed to studies like chemistry that focus on reducing complex phenomena to their components). As a result, many of the best environmental writers of the era framed the modern human predicament in terms that revealed the deep linkages between environmental symptoms and the way human society operates. Limits to Growth (1972)an outgrowth of the systems research of Jay Forrester, investigated the interactions between population growth, industrial production, food production, resource depletion and pollution. Overshoot (1982), by William Catton, named our systemic problem and described its origins and development in a style any literate person could appreciate. Many more excellent books from the era could be cited.

However, in recent decades, as climate change has come to dominate environmental concerns, there has been a significant shift in the discussion. Today, most environmental reporting is focused laser-like on climate change, and systemic links between it and other worsening ecological dilemmas (such as overpopulation, species extinctions, water and air pollution, and loss of topsoil and fresh water) are seldom highlighted. It’s not that climate change isn’t a big deal. As a symptom, it’s a real doozy. There’s never been anything quite like it, and climate scientists and climate-response advocacy groups are right to ring the loudest of alarm bells. But our failure to see climate change in context may be our undoing.

If climate change can be framed as an isolated problem for which there is a technological solution, the minds of economists and policy makers can continue to graze in familiar pastures. Technology—in this case, solarwindand nuclear power generators, as well as batteries, electric cars, heat pumps and, if all else fails, solar radiation management via atmospheric aerosols—centers our thinking on subjects like financial investment and industrial production. Discussion participants don’t have to develop the ability to think systemically, nor do they need to understand the Earth system and how human systems fit into it. All they need trouble themselves with is the prospect of shifting some investments, setting tasks for engineers and managing the resulting industrial-economic transformation so as to ensure that new jobs in green industries compensate for jobs lost in coal mines.

The strategy of buying time with a techno-fix presumes either that we will be able to institute systemic change at some unspecified point in the future even though we can’t do it just now (a weak argument on its face), or that climate change and all of our other symptomatic crises will in fact be amenable to technological fixes. The latter thought-path is again a comfortable one for managers and investors. After all, everybody loves technology. It already does nearly everything for us. During the last century it solved a host of problems: it cured diseases, expanded food production, sped up transportation and provided us with information and entertainment in quantities and varieties no one could previously have imagined. Why shouldn’t it be able to solve climate change and all the rest of our problems?

Of course, ignoring the systemic nature of our dilemma just means that as soon as we get one symptom corralled, another is likely to break loose. But, crucially, is climate change, taken as an isolated problem, fully treatable with technology? Color me doubtful. I say this having spent many months poring over the relevant data with David Fridley of the energy analysis program at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Our resulting book, Our Renewable Futureconcluded that nuclear power is too expensive and risky; meanwhile, solar and wind power both suffer from intermittency, which (once these sources begin to provide a large percentage of total electrical power) will require a combination of three strategies on a grand scale: energy storage, redundant production capacity and demand adaptation. At the same time, we in industrial nations will have to adapt most of our current energy usage (which occurs in industrial processes, building heating and transportation) to electricity. Altogether, the energy transition promises to be an enormous undertaking, unprecedented in its requirements for investment and substitution. When David and I stepped back to assess the enormity of the task, we could see no way to maintain current quantities of global energy production during the transition, much less to increase energy supplies so as to power ongoing economic growth. The biggest transitional hurdle is scale: the world uses an enormous amount of energy currently; only if that quantity can be reduced significantly, especially in industrial nations, could we imagine a credible pathway toward a post-carbon future.

Downsizing the world’s energy supplies would, effectively, also downsize industrial processes of resource extraction, manufacturing, transportation, and waste management. That’s a systemic intervention, of exactly the kind called for by the ecologists of the 1970s who coined the mantra, “Reduce, reuse and recycle.” It gets to the heart of the overshoot dilemma—as does population stabilization and reduction, another necessary strategy. But it’s also a notion to which technocrats, industrialists, and investors are virulently allergic.

The ecological argument is, at its core, a moral one—as I explain in more detail in a just-released manifesto replete with sidebars and graphics (“There’s No App for That: Technology and Morality in the Age of Climate Change, Overpopulation, and Biodiversity Loss”). Any systems thinker who understands overshoot and prescribes powerdown as a treatment is effectively engaging in an intervention with an addictive behavior. Society is addicted to growth, and that’s having terrible consequences for the planet and, increasingly, for us as well. We have to change our collective and individual behavior and give up something we depend on—power over our environment. We must restrain ourselves, like an alcoholic foreswearing booze. That requires honesty and soul-searching.

In its early years the environmental movement made that moral argument, and it worked up to a point. Concern over rapid population growth led to family planning efforts around the world. Concern over biodiversity declines led to habitat protection. Concern over air and water pollution led to a slew of regulations. These efforts weren’t sufficient, but they showed that framing our systemic problem in moral terms could get at least some traction.

Why didn’t the environmental movement fully succeed? Some theorists now calling themselves “bright greens” or “eco-modernists” have abandoned the moral fight altogether. Their justification for doing so is that people want a vision of the future that’s cheery and that doesn’t require sacrifice. Now, they say, only a technological fix offers any hope. The essential point of this essay (and my manifesto) is simply that, even if the moral argument fails, a techno-fix won’t work either. A gargantuan investment in technology (whether next-generation nuclear power or solar radiation geo-engineering) is being billed as our last hope. But in reality it’s no hope at all.

The reason for the failure thus far of the environmental movement wasn’t that it appealed to humanity’s moral sentiments—that was in fact the movement’s great strength. The effort fell short because it wasn’t able to alter industrial society’s central organizing principle, which is also its fatal flaw: its dogged pursuit of growth at all cost. Now we’re at the point where we must finally either succeed in overcoming growthism or face the failure not just of the environmental movement, but of civilization itself.

The good news is that systemic change is fractal in nature: it implies, indeed it requires, action at every level of society. We can start with our own individual choices and behavior; we can work within our communities. We needn’t wait for a cathartic global or national sea change. And even if our efforts cannot “save” consumerist industrial civilization, they could still succeed in planting the seeds of a regenerative human culture worthy of survival.

There’s more good news: Once we humans choose to restrain our numbers and our rates of consumption, technology can assist our efforts. Machines can help us monitor our progress, and there are relatively simple technologies that can help deliver needed services with less energy usage and environmental damage. Some ways of deploying technology could even help us clean up the atmosphere and restore ecosystems.

But machines can’t make the key choices that will set us on a sustainable path. Systemic change driven by moral awakening: it’s not just our last hope; it’s the only real hope we’ve ever had.





More gnashing of teeth

7 02 2017

The Über-Lie

By Richard Heinberg, Post Carbon Institute

heinbergNevertheless, even as political events spiral toward (perhaps intended) chaos, I wish once again, as I’ve done countless times before, to point to a lie even bigger than the ones being served up by the new administration…It is the lie that human society can continue growing its population and consumption levels indefinitely on our finite planet, and never suffer consequences.

This is an excellent article from Richard Heinberg, the writer who sent me on my current life voyage all those years ago. Hot on the heels of my attempt yesterday of explaining where global politics are heading, Richard (whom I met years ago and even had a meal with…) does a better job than I could ever possibly muster.  Enjoy……

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Our new American president is famous for spinning whoppers. Falsehoods, fabrications, distortions, deceptions—they’re all in a day’s work. The result is an increasingly adversarial relationship between the administration and the press, which may in fact be the point of the exercise: as conservative commentators Scott McKay suggests in The American Spectator, “The hacks covering Trump are as lazy as they are partisan, so feeding them . . . manufactured controversies over [the size of] inaugural crowds is a guaranteed way of keeping them occupied while things of real substance are done.”

But are some matters of real substance (such as last week’s ban on entry by residents of seven Muslim-dominated nations) themselves being used to hide even deeper and more significant shifts in power and governance? Steve “I want to bring everything crashing down” Bannon, who has proclaimed himself an enemy of Washington’s political class, is a member of a small cabal (also including Trump, Stephen Miller, Reince Priebus, and Jared Kushner) that appears to be consolidating nearly complete federal governmental power, drafting executive orders, and formulating political strategy—all without paper trail or oversight of any kind. The more outrage and confusion they create, the more effective is their smokescreen for the dismantling of governmental norms and institutions.

There’s no point downplaying the seriousness of what is up. Some commentators are describing it as a coup d’etat in progress; there is definitely the potential for blood in the streets at some point.

Nevertheless, even as political events spiral toward (perhaps intended) chaos, I wish once again, as I’ve done countless times before, to point to a lie even bigger than the ones being served up by the new administration—one that predates the new presidency, but whose deconstruction is essential for understanding the dawning Trumpocene era. I’m referring to a lie that is leading us toward not just political violence but, potentially, much worse. It is an untruth that’s both durable and bipartisan; one that the business community, nearly all professional economists, and politicians around the globe reiterate ceaselessly. It is the lie that human society can continue growing its population and consumption levels indefinitely on our finite planet, and never suffer consequences.

Yes, this lie has been debunked periodically, starting decades ago. A discussion about planetary limits erupted into prominence in the 1970s and faded, yet has never really gone away. But now those limits are becoming less and less theoretical, more and more real. I would argue that the emergence of the Trump administration is a symptom of that shift from forecast to actuality.

Consider population. There were one billion of us on Planet Earth in 1800. Now there are 7.5 billion, all needing jobs, housing, food, and clothing. From time immemorial there were natural population checks—disease and famine. Bad things. But during the last century or so we defeated those population checks. Famines became rare and lots of diseases can now be cured. Modern agriculture grows food in astounding quantities. That’s all good (for people anyway—for ecosystems, not so much). But the result is that human population has grown with unprecedented speed.

Some say this is not a problem, because the rate of population growth is slowing: that rate was two percent per year in the 1960s; now it’s one percent. Yet because one percent of 7.5 billion is more than two percent of 3 billion (which was the world population in 1960), the actual number of people we’re now adding annually is the highest ever: over eighty million—the equivalent of Tokyo, New York, Mexico City, and London added together. Much of that population growth is occurring in countries that are already having a hard time taking care of their people. The result? Failed states, political unrest, and rivers of refugees.

Per capita consumption of just about everything also grew during past decades, and political and economic systems came to depend upon economic growth to provide returns on investments, expanding tax revenues, and positive poll numbers for politicians. Nearly all of that consumption growth depended on fossil fuels to provide energy for raw materials extraction, manufacturing, and transport. But fossil fuels are finite and by now we’ve used the best of them. We are not making the transition to alternative energy sources fast enough to avert crisis (if it is even possible for alternative energy sources to maintain current levels of production and transport). At the same time, we have depleted other essential resources, including topsoil, forests, minerals, and fish. As we extract and use resources, we create pollution—including greenhouse gasses, which cause climate change.

Depletion and pollution eventually act as a brake on further economic growth even in the wealthiest nations. Then, as the engine of the economy slows, workers find their incomes leveling off and declining—a phenomenon also related to the globalization of production, which elites have pursued in order to maximize profits.

Declining wages have resulted in the upwelling of anti-immigrant and anti-globalization sentiments among a large swath of the American populace, and those sentiments have in turn served up Donald Trump. Here we are. It’s perfectly understandable that people are angry and want change. Why not vote for a vain huckster who promises to “Make America Great Again”? However, unless we deal with deeper biophysical problems (population, consumption, depletion, and pollution), as well as the policies that elites have used to forestall the effects of economic contraction for themselves (globalization, financialization, automation, a massive increase in debt, and a resulting spike in economic inequality), America certainly won’t be “great again”; instead, we’ll just proceed through the five stages of collapse helpfully identified by Dmitry Orlov.

Rather than coming to grips with our society’s fundamental biophysical contradictions, we have clung to the convenient lies that markets will always provide, and that there are plenty of resources for as many humans as we can ever possibly want to crowd onto this little planet. And if people are struggling, that must be the fault of [insert preferred boogeyman or group here]. No doubt many people will continue adhering to these lies even as the evidence around us increasingly shows that modern industrial society has already entered a trajectory of decline.

While Trump is a symptom of both the end of economic growth and of the denial of that new reality, events didn’t have to flow in his direction. Liberals could have taken up the issues of declining wages and globalization (as Bernie Sanders did) and even immigration reform. For example, Colin Hines, former head of Greenpeace’s International Economics Unit and author of Localization: A Global Manifesto, has just released a new book, Progressive Protectionism, in which he argues that “We must make the progressive case for controlling our borders, and restricting not just migration but the free movement of goods, services and capital where it threatens environment, wellbeing and social cohesion.”

But instead of well-thought out policies tackling the extremely complex issues of global trade, immigration, and living wages, we have hastily written executive orders that upend the lives of innocents. Two teams (liberal and conservative) are lined up on the national playing field, with positions on all significant issues divvied up between them. As the heat of tempers rises, our options are narrowed to choosing which team to cheer for; there is no time to question our own team’s issues. That’s just one of the downsides of increasing political polarization—which Trump is exacerbating dramatically.

Just as Team Trump covers its actions with a smokescreen of controversial falsehoods, our society hides its biggest lie of all—the lie of guaranteed, unending economic growth—behind a camouflage of political controversies. Even in relatively calm times, the über-lie was watertight: almost no one questioned it. Like all lies, it served to divert attention from an unwanted truth—the truth of our collective vulnerability to depletion, pollution, and the law of diminishing returns. Now that truth is more hidden than ever.

Our new government shows nothing but contempt for environmentalists and it plans to exit Paris climate agreement. Denial reigns! Chaos threatens! So why bother bringing up the obscured reality of limits to growth now, when immediate crises demand instant action? It’s objectively too late to restrain population and consumption growth so as to avert what ecologists of the 1970s called a “hard landing.” Now we’ve fully embarked on the age of consequences, and there are fires to put out. Yes, the times have moved on, but the truth is still the truth, and I would argue that it’s only by understanding the biophysical wellsprings of change that can we successfully adapt, and recognize whatever opportunities come our way as the pace of contraction accelerates to the point that decline can no longer successfully be hidden by the elite’s strategies.

Perhaps Donald Trump succeeded because his promises spoke to what civilizations in decline tend to want to hear. It could be argued that the pluralistic, secular, cosmopolitan, tolerant, constitutional democratic nation state is a political arrangement appropriate for a growing economy buoyed by pervasive optimism. (On a scale much smaller than contemporary America, ancient Greece and Rome during their early expansionary periods provided examples of this kind of political-social arrangement). As societies contract, people turn fearful, angry, and pessimistic—and fear, anger, and pessimism fairly dripped from Trump’s inaugural address. In periods of decline, strongmen tend to arise promising to restore past glories and to defeat domestic and foreign enemies. Repressive kleptocracies are the rule rather than the exception.

If that’s what we see developing around us and we want something different, we will have to propose economic, political, and social forms that are appropriate to the biophysical realities increasingly confronting us—and that embody or promote cultural values that we wish to promote or preserve. Look for good historic examples. Imagine new strategies. What program will speak to people’s actual needs and concerns at this moment in history? Promising a return to an economy and way of life that characterized a past moment is pointless, and it may propel demagogues to power. But there is always a range of possible responses to the reality of the present. What’s needed is a new hard-nosed sort of optimism (based on an honest acknowledgment of previously denied truths) as an alternative to the lies of divisive bullies who take advantage of the elites’ failures in order to promote their own patently greedy interests. What that actually means in concrete terms I hope to propose in more detail in future essays.





Another sublime article on ERoEI

26 05 2016

ERoEI for Beginners

Not sure if I can come to terms with the concept of kite flying with wind turbines, but there you go……  doesn’t make renewables look good, that’s for sure.  Reblogged from Euan’s excellent website…..

The Energy Return on Energy Invested (ERoEI or EROI) of any energy gathering system is a measure of that system’s efficiency. The concept was originally derived in ecology and has been transferred to analyse human industrial society. In today’s energy mix, hydroelectric power ± nuclear power have values > 50. At the other end of the scale, solar PV and biofuels have values <5.

It is assumed that ERoEI >5 to 7 is required for modern society to function. This marks the edge of The Net Energy Cliff and it is clear that new Green technologies designed to save humanity from CO2 may kill humanity through energy starvation instead. Fossil fuels remain comfortably away from the cliff edge but march closer to it for every year that passes. The Cheetah symbolises an energy system living on the edge.

I first came across the concept of Energy Return on Energy Invested (ERoEI) several years ago in Richard Heinberg’s book The Party’s Over [1]. I had never contemplated the concept before and I was immediately struck by its importance. If we used more energy to get the energy we need to survive then we will surely perish.

Shortly thereafter I joined The Oil Drum crew and had the great pleasure of meeting Professor Charles Hall,  the Godfather of ERoEI analysis who developed the concept during his PhD studies and first published the term in 1977. ERoEI would become a point of focus for Oil Drum posts. Nate Hagens and David Murphy, both Oil Drum crew, have now completed PhDs on ERoEI analysis aided and abetted by the conversation that the Oil Drum enabled.

But recently I have received this via email from Nate:

10 years on the same questions and issues are being addressed – (and maybe 40 years on for Charlie). A new tier of people are aware of EROI but it is still very fringe idea?

Are we wrong to believe that ERoEI is a fundamentally important metric of energy acquisition or is it simply that the work done to date is not sufficiently rigorous or presented in a way that economists and policy makers can understand. At this point I will cast out a bold idea that money was invented as a proxy for energy because ERoEI was too complex to fathom.

And I have this via email from my friend Luis de Sousa who did not like the Ferroni and Hopkirk paper [3] nor my post reviewing it:

On the grand scheme of things: PV ERoEI estimates range from 30 down to 0.8. Before asking the IEA (or whomever) to start using ERoEI, the community producing these estimates must come down to a common, accepted methodology for its assessment. As it stands now, EROEI is not far from useless to energy policy.

And while I disagree with Luis on a number of issues, on this statement I totally concur. So what has gone wrong? Professor Hall points out that it is not the concept that is at fault but non-rigorous application of certain rules that must be followed in the analysis. In this post I will endeavour to review the main issues and uncertainties, and while it is labelled “for Beginners”, I will flirt with an intermediate level of complexity.

What is ERoEI?

ERoEI is simply the ratio of energy gathered to the amount of energy used to gather the energy (the energy invested):

ERoEI = energy gathered / energy invested

Note that in common vernacular the term energy production is used. But in fact humans produce very little energy, but what distinguishes us from other species is that we have become very efficient at gathering energy that already exists and building machines that can convert the energy to goods (motor cars, televisions and computers) and services (heat and light and mobility) that collectively define our wealth.

This began by gathering fire wood and food and progressed to gathering coal, oil and natural gas. This led to gathering U and Th and learning how to convert this to enormous amounts of thermal and electrical energy. And now we attempt to gather solar energy through photovoltaics, wind turbines and liquid biofuels.

The prosperity of humanity depends upon the efficiency with which we gather energy. 100 years ago and 50 years ago we hit several jackpots in the form of vast coal, oil and gas deposits. These were so rich and large that energy virtually spewed out of them for next to no energy or financial investment. Examples include the Black Thunder coal field (USA), the Ghawar oil field (Saudi Arabia) and the Urengoy gas field (Russia) to name but a few. But these supergiant deposits are now to varying degrees used up. And as global population has grown together with expectations of prosperity that are founded on energy gathering activities, humanity has had to expand its energy gathering horizons to nuclear power, solar power and energy from waste. And it is known that some of the strategies deployed have very low ERoEI, for example corn ethanol is around 1 to 2 [2] and solar PV between 1 and 5 [2,3] depending upon where it is sited and the boundaries used to estimate energy costs. Consider that an ERoEI greater than 5 to 7 is deemed necessary to sustain the society we know (see below) then it is apparent that we may be committing energy and economic suicide by deliberately moving away from fossil fuels.

Low ERoEI is expected to correlate with high cost and in the normal run of events investors should steer clear of such poor investment returns. But the global energy system is now dictated by climate concern, and any scheme that portends to produce energy with no CO2 is embraced by policymakers everywhere and financial arrangements are put in place to enable deployment, regardless of the ERoEI.

Net Energy

Net energy is the close cousin of ERoEI being the surplus energy made available to society from our energy gathering activities. It is defined simply as:

net energy = ERoEI-1

If we have ERoEI = 1, then the net energy is zero. We use as much energy to gather energy as energy gathered. The “1” always represents the energy invested. If ERoEI falls below 1 we end up with an energy sink. Low ERoEI systems are effectively energy conversions where it may be convenient or politically expedient for us to convert one energy carrier into another with little or no energy gain. Corn ethanol is a good example where fertiliser, natural gas, diesel, electricity, land, water and labour gets converted into ethanol, a liquid fuel that can go in our cars. But it does leave the question why we don’t just use liquefied natural gas as a transport fuel in the first place and save on all the bother that creating corn ethanol involves?

The Net Energy Cliff

Many years ago during a late night blogging session on The Oil Drum, and following a post by Nate Hagens, I came up with a way of plotting ERoEI that for many provided an instantaneous understanding of its importance. The graph has become known as the net energy cliff, following nomenclature of Nate and others.

Figure 1 The Net Energy Cliff shows how with declining ERoEI society must commit ever larger amounts of available energy to energy gathering activities. Below ERoEI = 5 to 7 such large numbers of people would be working for the energy industries that there would not be enough people left to fill all the other positions our current altruistic society offers.

The graph plots net energy as a % of ERoEI and shows how energy for society (in blue) varies with ERoEI. In red is the balance being the energy used to gather energy.

It is the shape of the boundary between blue and red that is of interest. If we start at 50 and work our way down the ERoEI scale moving to the right, we see that energy invested (red) increases very slowly from 2% at ERoEI=50 to 10% at ERoEI=10. But beyond 10, the energy invested increases exponentially to 20% at ERoEI=5 and to 50% at ERoEI=2. At ERoEI = 1, 100% of the energy used is spent gathering energy and we are left with zero gain.

This is important because it is the blue segment that is available for society to use. This pays for infrastructure, capital projects, mining and manufacturing, agriculture, food processing and retailing, education, healthcare and welfare, defence and government. In fact it is the amount of net energy that powers everything in society as we know it today. The net energy from past energy gathering has accumulated to create what we identify as capital and wealth. Nothing could be more important, and yet the concept remains on the fringe of energy policy and public awareness. One of the problems is that measuring ERoEI consistently is difficult to do. One problem is retaining objectivity. If you manufacture PV modules you are unlikely to claim that the ERoEI is less than 5, and there are a multitude of variables that can be adjusted to provide whatever answer is deemed to be good.

This depiction of Net Energy is also useful in defining that all energy and labour can be divided into energy and labour used in the energy industries and the industries that support them and energy and labour used by society that consumes the surpluses produced by the energy industries. More on this later.

It has been assumed by many that ERoEI > 7 was required for the industrial society we live in to function although the source of this assertion remains elusive. But the blue-red boundary provides a clear visual picture of why this may be so. Below 7 and humanity falls off the net energy cliff where a too large portion of our human resources and capital need to be invested in simply staying alive to the detriment of the services provided by net energy such as health care, education and pensions.

System boundaries

Energy Inputs

One of the main uncertainties in ERoEI analysis is where to set the system boundaries. I have not found a simple text or graphic that adequately explains this vital concept.

Figure 2 A simplified scheme for an energy system divided into construction, operation and decommissioning with accumulated inputs and outputs. Graphic from this excellent presentation by Prieto and Hall

Figure 2 provides an illustration of the life cycle of an energy system divided into three stages 1) construction, 2) operation and 3) decommissioning. Energy inputs occur at each stage but energy outputs will normally only occur during the operational phase. It should be straight forward to account for all the energy inputs and outputs to calculate ERoEI but it isn’t. For example many / most of our energy systems today are still operational. We do not yet have final numbers for oil produced from single fields. And the decommissioning energy costs are not yet known. Most wind turbines ever built are still operational, producing energy and the ultimate energy produced will depend upon how long they last. And then perhaps some turbines are offered a new lease of life via refurbishment etc.

Energy inputs can normally be divided as follows [2]:

  1. On site energy consumption
  2. Energy embedded in materials used
  3. Energy consumed by labour
  4. Auxiliary services

Moving from 1 to 4 may be considered expansion of the ERoEI boundary where energy embedded in materials and energy consumed by labour are added to on-site energy consumption. There follows some examples of ambiguity that remains in deciding what to include and what to leave out. These examples are given for purely illustrative purposes.

No one should question that the electricity used by a PV factory should be included. But do you include electricity / energy used to heat or cool the factory? Or just the electricity used to run the machines? Including heating or cooling  introduces a site specific variable which will mean that the energy inputs to a PV panel may vary according to where it was manufactured. There are many such site specific variables like transport, energy costs, labour energy costs, health and safety energy costs etc, which when combined in our globalised market has made China the lowest energy cost centre for PV manufacturing today.

It is clear to me that the energy cost of all materials used in the energy production process must be included. And this should include materials consumed at the construction, operational and decommissioning stages. In the oil industry this will include the materials in the oil platform, the helicopter and the onshore office. In the solar PV industry this will include all the materials in the panels, in the factory, and in the support gantries and inverter. As a general rule of thumb, massive energy gathering systems that contain a huge amount of materials will have reduced ERoEI because of the energy embedded in those materials.

It is also clear to me that the energy cost of all labour should be included in the ERoEI analysis for construction, operation and decommissioning. But it is far less clear how it should be calculated. The energy consumed by labourers varies greatly from country to country and with time. Should we just include the energy consumed by a labourer on his/her 8 hour shift? Or should we include the full 24/7? Should the energy consumed by labourers getting to and from work be included? – of course it should. Should the energy consumed on vacations be included? – not so clear. And how can any of this be calculated in the first place?

The standard way to calculate the energy cost of labour is to examine the energy intensity of GDP. For most countries, the total amount of primary energy consumed  is roughly known and the total GDP is known. This provides a means of converting MJ to $ and we can then look at the $ earnings of a labourer to get a rough handle on the notional energy use that may be attributed to his salary scale. This is far from perfect but is currently the only practical method available.

Auxiliary services become even more difficult to differentiate. Some argue that the energy cost of the highway network, power distribution network and services like schools and hospitals should be pro-rated into new energy production systems. My own preference is to generally exclude these items from an ERoEI analysis unless there are good reasons for not doing so. I think it is useful to go back to the question are we expending energy on energy gathering or are we expending energy on society and most of the infrastructure upon which new energy systems depend was built using prior surpluses allocated to society. In my view it becomes too complex to pro-rate these into an ERoEI calculation. The power grid delivering power to the PV factory already existed. But if a new power line needs to be built to export renewable electricity then that should be accounted for.

Energy Outputs

One might imagine that measuring the energy output would be more straightforward, but it is not so. Many earlier studies on the ERoEI of oil set a boundary at the well head or on site tank farm. And it is relatively straightforward to measure the oil production from a field like Forties in the North Sea. But crude oil itself is rarely used directly as a fuel. It is the refined products that are used. To actually use the oil we need to ship or pipe it to shore and then on to a refinery. The energy cost of transport may add 10% to energy inputs and refining may add yet another 10%. It has been suggested that one approach is to calculate ERoEI at Point of Use. Crude oil on an offshore platform is of no use to anyone. Gasoline in a filling station is what we want and all the energy inputs involved in getting the gasoline to the forecourt need to be counted.

But here we meet another dilemma. The refinery may produce paraffin and gasoline. The ERoEI of both are likely to be similar at the refinery gate. But the gasoline is burned in an engine to produce kinetic energy used for transport and in so doing about 70% of the energy is lost as waste heat. The paraffin may be burned in a stove with near 100% conversion efficiency to space heating. Do we reduce the ERoEI of gasoline by 70% to reflect energy losses during use?

This introduces the concept of energy quality where we know that final energy conversions are in three main forms 1) heat 2) motion and 3) electricity that has a myriad of different uses. Is it really possible to compare these very different energy outputs using the single umbrella of ERoEI? The routine followed by ERoEI analysts to date is to adjust ERoEI for energy quality though I’m unsure how that is done [2]. Another option that I like is to hypothetically normalise all outputs to a single datum, for example MWh of electricity (see below). But this again gets to a level of complexity that is beyond this blog post.

There are some other important energy quality factors. Dispatch for electricity is one. Producing a vast amount of electricity from wind on a stormy Sunday night has little to no value. While the ability to produce electricity on demand at 6 pm on a freezing Wednesday evening in January (NH) is of great value. Curtailed wind should clearly be deducted from wind energy produced in the ERoEI calculation. Just like the oil spilled from the Deep Water Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico should not be counted as oil produced from the Macondo field.

External environmental factors may also have to be considered as part of the energy quality assessment. It is clear that the oil spilled from the Deep Water Horizon had to be cleared up immediately and the energy cost of doing so almost bankrupted BP. But it is less clear that the energy cost of eliminating CO2 emissions needs to be borne by the energy production industries. For example, the cost of carbon capture and storage would fall on the consumer and not the energy producer.

Using energy proxies

In ERoEI analysis direct energy use can normally be measured, for example gas and diesel used on an oil platform or the electricity used in a factory. But the indirect energy consumed by, for example materials and labour, are less easy to measure and are often based on proxies.  It is nearly impossible to measure the energy embedded in an offshore oil platform. Instead the mass of steel and the number of man days of labour used in construction can be estimated and from these the energy expended and now embedded in the platform can be estimated.

As already discussed, the standard way of estimating the energy cost of labour is to use the energy intensity of GDP data from the countries in question combined with workers salaries.

For materials Murphy et al [2] provide this useful summary (Figure 3)

Figure 3 The estimated energy content of common materials [2]

From this the most striking feature is the vast range within certain materials and between materials. For example aluminium ranges from 100 to 272 GJ/tonne. Steel 9 to 32 GJ/tonne. Part of this will be down to methodological differences in the way the numbers are derived. But part of it may be down to real differences reflecting different energy efficiencies of smelting plants.

ERoEI of Global Fuels and Energy Flows

So what is the current status of ERoEI in the global energy mix? Hall et al 2014 [4] provide the following summary table which is the foundation of the summary graph below.

Figure 4 Summary of the ERoEI for a range of fuels and renewable energies.

Figure 5 Placing main energy sources on The Net Energy Cliff framework shows that hydro-electric power, high altitude kites and perhaps nuclear power have very high ERoEI and embracing these technologies may prevent humanity from falling off the Net Energy Cliff. The new bright Green energies of bio-fuels, solar PV and buffered wind (see below) are already over the cliff edge and if we continue to embrace these technologies human society may perish as we expend too large a portion of our energy endowment simply getting energy. Fossil fuels remain comfortably to the left of the cliff edge but are marching ever closer towards it with every year that passes. Eeq = electricity equivalent (see below).

In order to compare fossil fuels with electricity flows on a single diagram it is essential to reduce all of the energy types to a common datum. Its quite simply not valid to compare the ERoEI of coal at the mine mouth with nuclear power since in converting the coal to electricity, much of the energy is lost. The easiest route is to rebase everything to electricity equivalent (Eeq) where I follow the BP convention and adjust the ERoEI of  fossil fuels by a factor of 0.38 to account for energy conversion losses in a modern power station.

In an earlier thread, Owen posted a link to a pre-print by Weisbach et al [5] who follow similar methodology reporting all data as electricity. To a large extent their numbers are similar to those reported here with the exception of nuclear that is quoted to be  75. Weisbach report values for solar PV and wind that are “buffered” to include the energy cost of intermittency. This reduces the ERoEI for solar PV by about half and wind by a factor of 4. “Buffered” ERoEIs are therefore also included in Figure 6.

The inclusion of high altitude kite is based on a calculation provided by site sponsor KiteGen. I have checked the calculation and am satisfied that the ERoEI is potentially >>50. This will be the subject of another post. But suffice to say here that wind speed at altitude may be double that on the ground and power increases by the cube of wind speed. And the mass of the KiteGen structure is a small fraction of a large wind turbine. Hence it is theoretically straightforward to reach an ERoEI at altitude that is many multiples of the ERoEI of a wind turbine.

Figure 6 At altitude the wind speed may be double that on the ground. Accessing that kinetic energy resource provides potential for a 2 to 4 fold uplift in the power available for wind generation. This calculation does not include further uplift from higher capacity factor and reduced intermittency at altitude.

The key and fundamental observation from Figure 6 is that three energy sources potentially have ERoEI >> 50 making them vastly superior to all others using this metric. These are hydroelectric power, possibly nuclear power (depending upon whose numbers are believed) and possibly high altitude wind power once the technology matures.

These primary high ERoEI sources are followed by coal and natural gas which are the most viable and easily accessible energy sources for electricity today. And yet energy policies are dictating that coal be phased out. This will not matter for so long as natural gas remains plentiful at high ERoEI. The high ERoEI group may also include nuclear power depending upon whose ERoEI numbers one believes.

Biofuels are already over the net energy cliff and should never have been pursued in the first place. Solar PV is at best marginal, at worst an energy sink.

There is a vast range in estimates for nuclear power from 5 to 75 [4, 5]and it is difficult to make sense of these numbers. Nuclear power either sits close to the cliff edge or is a high ERoEI low carbon saviour of humanity. Oil will not be used for electricity production and the fact it sits close to the cliff edge today in Eeq form does not matter too much since the energy quality of oil has a special status as an essential transport fuel and this will unlikely change much in the decades ahead.

Concluding thoughts

The concept of ERoEI is vital to understanding the human energy system. 50 years ago, our principal sources of energy – oil, gas and coal – had such high net energy return that no one need bother or worry about ERoEI. Vast amounts of net energy were simply available for all who had the level of technological development to build a power station and a transmission grid. It is part of human nature to “high grade” mineral deposits targeting the richest seams first. In economic terms these return the biggest profit and in energy terms when it comes to oil, gas and coal, they return the highest levels of net energy. An inevitable consequence of this aspect of human nature commonly known as greed is that we have already used up the highest ERoEI fossil fuel resources and as time passes the ERoEI of new resources is steadily falling. This translates to a higher price required to bring on that marginal barrel of oil.

At the present time, our energy web comprises a myriad of different resources. The legacy supergiants – Ghawar, Black Thunder and Urengoy et al – are still there in the mix supplemented by a vast range of lower ERoEI (more expensive) resources. The greatest risk to human society today is the notion that we can somehow replace high ERoEI fossil fuels with new renewable energies like solar PV and biofuels. These exist within the energy web because they are subsidised by the co-existing high ERoEI fossil fuels. The subsidy occurs at multiple levels from fossil fuels used to create the renewable devices and biofuels to fossil fuels providing the load balancing services. Fossil fuels provide the monetary wealth to pay the subsidies. Society is at great risk from Greens promoting the new renewable agenda to politicians and school children whilst ignoring the thermodynamic impossibility of current solar PV technology and biofuels ever being able to power human society unaided. The mass closure of coal fired power stations may prove to be fatal for many should blackouts occur.

Wind power, and in particular high altitude wind power, may be different although in the case of ground-based wind turbines care must be taken in moving offshore to ever larger devices that consume ever larger quantities of energy in their creation. And to be viable, ground based turbines must be able to prove they can deliver dispatchable power without subsidies.

It is proposed that money was invented as a means of exchange for the work energy does on our behalf. If we lived in a society with a single global currency (the EJ) and without taxes or subsidies, then money may represent a fair proxy for ERoEI although distortions would remain from the different efficiencies with which that money (EJ) was spent. However, in the real world, different currencies, interest rates, debts, taxes and subsidies exist that allow the thermodynamic rules of the energy world to be bent, albeit temporarily. We are at risk of exchanging gold for dirt.

Acknowledgement

The post was much improved by comments provided by Prof Charles Hall.

References

[1] Richard Heinberg: The Party’s Over – oil, war and the fate of industrial societies. Pub by Clairview 2003

[2] David J. Murphy 1,*, Charles A.S. Hall 2, Michael Dale 3 and Cutler Cleveland 4: Order from Chaos: A Preliminary Protocol for Determining the EROI of Fuels (2011): Sustainability 2011, 3, 1888-1907; doi:10.3390/su3101888

[3] Ferruccio Ferroni and Robert J. Hopkirk 2016: Energy Return on Energy Invested (ERoEI) for photovoltaic solar systems in regions of moderate insolation: Energy Policy 94 (2016) 336–344

[4] Charles A.S. Hall n, Jessica G. Lambert, Stephen B. Balogh: EROI of different fuels and the implications for society: Energy Policy 64 (2014) 141–152

[5] D. Weißbacha,b, G. Ruprechta, A. Hukea,c, K. Czerskia,b, S. Gottlieba, A. Husseina,d (Preprint): Energy intensities, EROIs, and energy payback times of electricity generating power plants