Interesting times ahead…..

29 11 2018

Very few people join all the dots, and as usual, Gail Tverberg does her best to do so here again…. There are so many signals on the web now pointing to a major reset it’s not funny.

Low Oil Prices: An Indication of Major Problems Ahead?

Many people, including most Peak Oilers, expect that oil prices will rise endlessly. They expect rising oil prices because, over time, companies find it necessary to access more difficult-to-extract oil. Accessing such oil tends to be increasingly expensive because it tends to require the use of greater quantities of resources and more advanced technology. This issue is sometimes referred to as diminishing returns. Figure 1 shows how oil prices might be expected to rise, if the higher costs encountered as a result of diminishing returns can be fully recovered from the ultimate customers of this oil.

In my view, this analysis suggesting ever-rising prices is incomplete. After a point, prices can’t really keep up with rising costs because the wages of many workers lag behind the growing cost of extraction.

The economy is a networked system facing many pressures, including a growing level of debt and the rising use of technology. When these pressures are considered, my analysis indicates that oil prices may fall too low for producers, rather than rise too high for consumers. Oil companies may close down if prices remain too low. Because of this, low oil prices should be of just as much concern as high oil prices.

In recent years, we have heard a great deal about the possibility of Peak Oil, including high oil prices. If the issue we are facing is really prices that are too low for producers, then there seems to be the possibility of a different limits issue, called Collapse. Many early economies seem to have collapsed as they reached resource limits. Collapse seems to be characterized by growing wealth disparity, inadequate wages for non-elite workers, failing governments, debt defaults, resource wars, and epidemics. Eventually, population associated with collapsed economies may fall very low or completely disappear. As Collapse approaches, commodity prices seem to be low, rather than high.

The low oil prices we have been seeing recently fit in disturbingly well with the hypothesis that the world economy is reaching affordability limits for a wide range of commodities, nearly all of which are subject to diminishing returns. This is a different problem than most researchers have been concerned about. In this article, I explain this situation further.

One thing that is a little confusing is the relative roles of diminishing returns and efficiency. I see diminishing returns as being more or less the opposite of growing efficiency.

The fact that inflation-adjusted oil prices are now much higher than they were in the 1940s to 1960s is a sign that for oil, the contest between diminishing returns and efficiency has basically been won by diminishing returns for over 40 years.

Oil Prices Cannot Rise Endlessly

It makes no sense for oil prices to rise endlessly, for what is inherently growing inefficiency. Endlessly rising prices for oil would be similar to paying a human laborer more and more for building widgets, during a time that that laborer becomes increasingly disabled. If the number of widgets that the worker can produce in one hour decreases by 50%, logically that worker’s wages should fall by 50%, not rise to make up for his/her growing inefficiency.

The problem with paying higher prices for what is equivalent to growing inefficiency can be hidden for a while, if the economy is growing rapidly enough. The way that the growing inefficiency is hidden is by adding Debt and Complexity (Figure 4).

Growing complexity is very closely related to “Technology will save us.” Growing complexity involves the use of more advanced machinery and ever-more specialized workers. Businesses become larger and more hierarchical. International trade becomes increasingly important. Financial products such as derivatives become common.

Growing debt goes hand in hand with growing complexity. Businesses need growing debt to support capital expenditures for their new technology. Consumers find growing debt helpful in affording major purchases, such as homes and vehicles. Governments make debt-like promises of pensions to citizen. Thanks to these promised pensions, families can have fewer children and devote fewer years to child care at home.

The problem with adding complexity and adding debt is that they, too, reach diminishing returns. The easiest (and cheapest) fixes tend to be added first. For example, irrigating a field in a dry area may be an easy and cheap way to fix a problem with inadequate food supply. There may be other approaches that could be used as well, such as breeding crops that do well with little rainfall, but the payback on this investment may be smaller and later.

A major drawback of adding complexity is that doing so tends to increase wage and wealth disparity. When an employer pays high wages to supervisory workers and highly skilled workers, this leaves fewer funds with which to pay less skilled workers. Furthermore, the huge amount of capital goods required in this more complex economy tends to disproportionately benefit workers who are already highly paid. This happens because the owners of shares of stock in companies tend to overlap with employees who are already highly paid. Low paid employees can’t afford such purchases.

The net result of greater wage and wealth disparity is that it becomes increasingly difficult to keep prices high enough for oil producers. The many workers with low wages find it difficult to afford homes and families of their own. Their low purchasing power tends to hold down prices of commodities of all kinds. The higher wages of the highly trained and supervisory staff don’t make up for the shortfall in commodity demand because these highly paid workers spend their wages differently. They tend to spend proportionately more on services rather than on commodity-intensive goods. For example, they may send their children to elite colleges and pay for tax avoidance services. These services use relatively little in the way of commodities.

Once the Economy Slows Too Much, the Whole System Tends to Implode

A growing economy can hide a multitude of problems. Paying back debt with interest is easy, if a worker finds his wages growing. In fact, it doesn’t matter if the growth that supports his growing wages comes from inflationary growth or “real” growth, since debt repayment is typically not adjusted for inflation.

Both real growth and inflationary growth help workers have enough funds left at the end of the period for other goods they need, despite repaying debt with interest.

Once the economy stops growing, the whole system tends to implode. Wage disparity becomes a huge problem. It becomes impossible to repay debt with interest. Young people find that their standards of living are lower than those of their parents. Investments do not appear to be worthwhile without government subsidies. Businesses find that economies of scale no longer work to their advantage. Pension promises become overwhelming, compared to the wages of young people.

The Real Situation with Oil Prices

The real situation with oil prices–and in fact with respect to commodity prices in general–is approximately like that shown in Figure 6.

What tends to happen is that oil prices tend to fall farther and farther behind what producers require, if they are truly to make adequate reinvestment in new fields and also pay high taxes to their governments. This should not be too surprising because oil prices represent a compromise between what citizens can afford and what producers require.

In the years before diminishing returns became too much of a problem (back before 2005, for example), it was possible to find prices that were within an acceptable range for both sellers and buyers. As diminishing returns has become an increasing problem, the price that consumers can afford has tended to fall increasingly far below the price that producers require. This is why oil prices at first fall a little too low for producers, and eventually seem likely to fall far below what producers need to stay in business. The problem is that no price works for both producers and consumers.

Affordability Issues Affect All Commodity Prices, Not Just Oil

We are dealing with a situation in which a growing share of workers (and would be workers) find it difficult to afford a home and family, because of wage disparity issues. Some workers have been displaced from their jobs by robots or by globalization. Some spend many years in advanced schooling and are left with large amounts of debt, making it difficult to afford a home, a family, and other things that many in the older generation were able to take for granted. Many of today’s workers are in low-wage countries; they cannot afford very much of the output of the world economy.

At the same time, diminishing returns affect nearly all commodities, just as they affect oil. Mineral ores are affected by diminishing returns because the highest grade ores tend to be extracted first. Food production is also subject to diminishing returns because population keeps rising, but arable land does not. As a result, each year it is necessary to grow more food per arable acre, leading to a need for more complexity (more irrigation or more fertilizer, or better hybrid seed), often at higher cost.

When the problem of growing wage disparity is matched up with the problem of diminishing returns for the many different types of commodity production, the same problem occurs that occurs with oil. Prices of a wide range of commodities tend to fall below the cost of production–first by a little and, if the debt bubble pops, by a whole lot.

We hear people say, “Of course oil prices will rise. Oil is a necessity.” The thing that they don’t realize is that the problem affects a much bigger “package” of commodities than just oil prices. In fact, finished goods and services of all kinds made with these commodities are also affected, including new homes and vehicles. Thus, the pattern we see of low oil prices, relative to what is required for true profitability, is really an extremely widespread problem.

Interest Rate Policies Affect Affordability

Commodity prices bear surprisingly little relationship to the cost of production. Instead, they seem to depend more on interest rate policies of government agencies. If interest rates rise or fall, this tends to have a big impact on household budgets, because monthly auto payments and home payments depend on interest rates. For example, US interest rates spiked in 1981.

This spike in interest rates led to a major cutback in energy consumption and in GDP growth.

Oil prices began to slide, with the higher interest rates.

Figure 11 indicates that the popping of a debt bubble (mostly relating to US sub-prime housing) sent oil prices down in 2008. Once interest rates were lowered through the US adoption of Quantitative Easing (QE), oil prices rose again. They fell again, when the US discontinued QE.

While these charts show oil prices, there is a tendency for a broad range of commodity prices to move more or less together. This happens because the commodity price issue seems to be driven to a significant extent by the affordability of finished goods and services, including homes, automobiles, and restaurant food.

If the collapse of a major debt bubble occurs again, the world seems likely to experience impacts somewhat similar to those in 2008, depending, of course, on the location(s) and size(s) of the debt bubble(s). A wide variety of commodity prices are likely to fall very low; asset prices may also be affected. This time, however, government organizations seem to have fewer tools for pulling the world economy out of a prolonged slump because interest rates are already very low. Thus, the issues are likely to look more like a widespread economic problem (including far too low commodity prices) than an oil problem.

Lack of Growth in Energy Consumption Per Capita Seems to Lead to Collapse Scenarios

When we look back, the good times from an economic viewpoint occurred when energy consumption per capita (top red parts on Figure 12) were rising rapidly.

The bad times for the economy were the valleys in Figure 12. Separate labels for these valleys have been added in Figure 13. If energy consumption is not growing relative to the rising world population, collapse in at least a part of the world economy tends to occur.

The laws of physics tell us that energy consumption is required for movement and for heat. These are the basic processes involved in GDP generation, and in electricity transmission. Thus, it is logical to believe that energy consumption is required for GDP growth. We can see in Figure 9 that growth in energy consumption tends to come before GDP growth, strongly suggesting that it is the cause of GDP growth. This further confirms what the laws of physics tell us.

The fact that partial collapses tend to occur when the growth in energy consumption per capita falls too low is further confirmation of the way the economics system really operates. The Panic of 1857occurred when the asset price bubble enabled by the California Gold Rush collapsed. Home, farm, and commodity prices fell very low. The problems ultimately were finally resolved in the US Civil War (1861 to 1865).

Similarly, the Depression of the 1930s was preceded by a stock market crash in 1929. During the Great Depression, wage disparity was a major problem. Commodity prices fell very low, as did farm prices. The issues of the Depression were not fully resolved until World War II.

At this point, world growth in energy consumption per capita seems to be falling again. We are also starting to see evidence of some of the same problems associated with earlier collapses: growing wage disparity, growing debt bubbles, and increasingly war-like behavior by world leaders. We should be aware that today’s low oil prices, together with these other symptoms of economic distress, may be pointing to yet another collapse scenario on the horizon.

Oil’s Role in the Economy Is Different From What Many Have Assumed

We have heard for a long time that the world is running out of oil, and we need to find substitutes. The story should have been, “Affordability of all commodities is falling too low, because of diminishing returns and growing wage disparity. We need to find rapidly rising quantities of very, very cheap energy products. We need a cheap substitute for oil. We cannot afford to substitute high-cost energy products for low-cost energy products. High-cost energy products affect the economy too adversely.”

In fact, the whole “Peak Oil” story is not really right. Neither is the “Renewables will save us” story, especially if the renewables require subsidies and are not very scalable. Energy prices can never be expected to rise high enough for renewables to become economic.

The issues we should truly be concerned about are Collapse, as encountered by many economies previously. If Collapse occurs, it seems likely to cut off production of many commodities, including oil and much of the food supply, indirectly because of low prices.

Low oil prices and low prices of other commodities are signs that we truly should be concerned about. Too many people have missed this point. They have been taken in by the false models of economists and by the confusion of Peak Oilers. At this point, we should start considering the very real possibility that our next world problem is likely to be Collapse of at least a portion of the world economy.

Interesting times seem to be ahead.

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The Third Industrial Revolution

21 08 2018

I belong to a degrowth group on facebook. The owner of this group posted a link to a youtube video titled “The Third Industrial Revolution: A Radical New Sharing Economy”. I downloaded it sight unseen so that I could watch it on my TV while it’s Jeremy_Rifkinpissing down with rain outside and I frankly have nothing else better to do……. luckily for those up North in terrible drought, we’ll be sending some your way next weekend. I’ve never liked Jeremy Rifkin’s crazy ideas, and had I realised he was the star attraction of this film, I probably would not have downloaded it in the first place, but having done so, and under the abovemnetioned weather conditions, I went ahead anyway……

The first half hour was for me the best part, because he clearly explains – with some crucial left out items – why we’re in deep shit. What really leaves me flumoxed is how someone who clearly understands thermodynamics and entropy cannot come to grips with their repercussions.

A ‘Third Industrial Revolution’ Would Seal Our Fate — Why Jeremy Rifkin is Dead Wrong

For me, it was extraordinarily hard to find where to start my criticism — not because of the lack of strength of his arguments, but simply because it is just plain hard to even know where to start! Explaining in the face of such universal ignorance of simple ecological limits and boundaries, and for such a long (1 3/4 hours) presentation, I fear I may ramble a bit during this difficult essay.

While I hope this post won’t offend anyone, I just think that some of us have to speak up to show him and his admirers that our generation blindly following his progressivist ideas  – at least not in its entirety – is almost as dumb as doing nothing at all…..

His ideas are not ‘radically new’. they are just a new version of the same old ‘more is better’ paradigm — more technology, more energy, more people, more jobs, more work, more impact, more control. He is after all a business man, and his main problem is that he simply doesn’t get the growth problem…. Maybe we have to try something that really is completely new:

Small is better. Simple is better. Local is better. Independent is better.

Less technology, less pollution, fewer cars (to be fair, he does say we’ll reduce the number of cars by 85%), fewer airplanes,  highways, fewer shopping malls, less noise, less trade, less work, less destruction, less disruption, less control, less worries… This doesn’t sound so bad after all, does it? But it is the complete opposite of what Rifkin has in mind for this world……

He makes it quite clear that in his ‘radically’ new economy, everything is smart. Smart phones, smart vehicles, smart roads and smart houses…..  he talks of retrofitting houses, which I know from experience does not work. Once you’ve built a lemon, a lemon it remains. That’s why I’m going through all the hassles of building my own…

There are serious concerns, expressed many times in this very blog, about the environmental impact that such changes would bring about. As far as we know it is highly unlikely that we have sufficient reserves of resources for producing so called “green/clean” technologies, on a global scale, good enough to replace the current, all-encompassing, fossil fuel-based system……

From what I saw in the video, there will be markets, corporations, stocks, products, consumers, factories, roads, cars, drones, workers, bosses, currency, more debts, taxes, laws — which all seems an awful lot like the system we currently have…. A truly ‘radical’ new economy would, surely, not see the exact same elements as its predecessor?

Rifkin forgets that there already was a “sharing economy”, usually referred to as ‘gift economy’ by anthropologists, and that this original sharing economy lasted for over 95% of our species’ two-hundred-thousand-years existence here on Earth. Ironically, this ancient economic system happens to be the closest to a sustainable form of economy that we have ever known. No resource was overexploited, no ecosystem disrupted and absolutely no pollution resulted….  and most of that was the result of infinitesimally smaller population numbers.

While it’s obvious Rifkin has some understanding of science, he remains an economist after all! Here are some of his failings as I see them…..

Chemistry

Chemistry matters because when we look at the periodic table of elements, we see all there is in our world. In the whole Universe actually… There are only 118 elements available to us. And we will never find replacements for those elements, they simply do not exist…… Of increasing interest are 17 different Rare Earth Elements (REE’s), elements 57–71 (the lanthanides) and scandium and yttrium, most of which are used to create solar panels, batteries, magnets, displays and touchscreens, hardware and other advanced technological appliances.

Figure 1. Slide by Alicia Valero showing that almost the entire periodic table of elements is used for computers.

To obtain them we have to rape and pillage the biosphere. This puts us into a predicament that Rifkin fails to address.  Those elements are used because of their unique and desirable qualities, such as the ability to absorb certain wavelengths (particularly efficient in the case of solar panels), produce strong magnets for the massive generators used in wind turbines, and colorful lights for the displays of our mobile phones, computers and TV’s.

Of the 17 REE’s, the only one that is not found in smartphones is the radioactive promethium! I guess the line is drawn at putting radioactive stuff to one’s ear….. Modern smartphones contain almost three quarters of all the elements in the periodic table, and all of them are essential for those devices to function. It is chemically not possible to create something like a smartphone without certain elements; and it is impossible to obtain those elements without destroying vast swaths of the already battered environment.

Geology

From a geological point of view Rifkin’s plans are highly unlikely. We simply don’t have enough resources left to do any of his proposed ‘revolutions’ in the realms of energy and communication.

Biology

Overshoot is what happens when a species follows simple biological laws: if you increase the food availability of any species, its population will increase, period. This is what we humans have done for the past 10,000 years, since the widespread adoption of agriculture. As a result of the food surplus that industrial agriculture creates (as opposed to the “just-enough” food quantity obtained by foragers), human population exploded. The biggest increase in human population was directly caused by the “Green” Revolution, when fossil fuelled chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides were first used on a continental scale. It was like agriculture on steroids…..

I didn’t realise Rifkin was a vegetarian/vegan activist until watching this. He yet again displays his ignorance of the difference between industrial animal husbandry and regenerative agriculture, which, in my not so humble opinion, will be the third revolution…. Maybe someone needs to invent smart cows! Just kidding…….

The fact that Rifkin fails to adequately address overpopulation is reason enough for me to question his competence.

Ecology

Ecosystems function best and are at their most stable, resilient and effective when all components stay within their naturally imposed limits. From an ecological view, anthropocentrism has no foundation whatsoever. Instead of controlling our environment, we would have to let go of all control and hand the reins back to Mother Nature…… Ecosystems are networks (Rifkin, fond of technological and digital metaphors, would probably call them an ‘Internet’!) that seem resilient even when they suffer severe damage. But once a ‘tipping point’ is reached, like human overshoot, collapse is rapid and ruthless. The first of those tipping points might be reached as soon as the 2020’s mark, with increasingly extreme weather events threatening breadbasket regions around the world. Rifkin’s assertion that we have forty years to fix the mess just blew me away…..

Like it or not, we are inevitably a part of the ecosystem surrounding us, whether we act like it or not. Everything we do – and nothing we do is sustainable – has a direct impact on our immediate environment. Thanks to globalization, ecosystems are now impacted on a global scale.

The extraction and processing of REM’s needed to produce all our technology is directlysamarco connected to the destruction of ecosystems all around the globe. Several major ecological catastrophes were directly caused by the mining and extraction of REE’s, such as the Samarco tailings dam collapse (2015) in Brazil or the silicon tetrachloride spill by a solar energy company in Henan province, China (2008). As implied by  recent, peer reviewed study (paywall) in the prestigious journal Nature, there is no reason to believe that this risk is going to decrease if global demand rises as predicted by all involved scholars and institutions.

Green Clean Smart technology

It should be obvious by now, especially to all followers of this blog, that neither solar panels, wind turbines, hydroelectric facilities, and electric cars, nor smartphones, computers and other high-tech gadgets come even close to being what might be termed “green” or “clean”. But what Rifkin proposes is nothing short of megalomania.

Smartphones (smart vehicles, smart roads, smart houses, smart toilets and any other ‘smart’ gadget), computers, televisions, electric cars, wind turbines, solar panels, lasers, camera lenses, missiles and numerous other technologies all contain a broad spectrum of rare earth elements (REE’s), without which the production of those gadgets would be utterly impossible (strictly chemically speaking). The production and use of ‘screens’ technology alone, according to Jancovici, consumes one third of all the electricity produced worldwide….. The growth of renewables cannot even keep up with the growth of the internet.

Rifkin makes much ado about a meeting he had with Angela Merkel – herself a scientist – and the amount of renewable energy deployed in Germany, claiming Germany gets 30% of its electricity from these technologies. This isn’t even true…. it might be correct on paper, and on perfect days even more might be generated, but his hopium filled rhetoric would have you believe his dream is already happening…..  it isn’t. The recent demolition of a historic church to clear the way for the expansion of an open-cast brown coal mine has outraged locals in western Germany and environmentalists, as politicians moot giving up their own clean energy targets…….

Many of the minerals needed to produce smartphones and electric vehicles are considered ‘conflict minerals’ and are mined under slave-like conditions in Congo and other ‘undeveloped’ countries. The most common conflict minerals, cassiterite (a byproduct of tin mining), wolframite (extracted from tungsten), coltan (extracted from tantalum), cobalt, and gold ore, are all mined in eastern Congo. There is ample evidence to assume that Western corporations have a high economic interest in the region remaining unstable, since they get much better prices for the minerals desperately needed for the production of mobile phones, laptops, and other digital technology

It is impossible to produce even a single smartphone without causing enormous damage to the biosphere in the process. As the graphic above shows (click on it for a larger view), the materials and compounds come from all corners of the world and have to be transported conveniently and cheaply for the industry to continue to function properly and profitably. Container vessels are the backbone of the global economy, and without them nothing would function. They can’t be replaced with anything “renewable”, since no electric engine has as yet been invented that can move such masses over distances longer than 80km!!  The 16 biggest container ships (out of a total of about 100,000 vessels) produce as much pollution as all the cars in the world….

In case you’ve never heard this before, the shipping lobby works hard to hide and downplay their impact on climate breakdown from the public.  The UN body that polices the world’s shipping business, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), has been absent without leave when it comes to avoiding or even addressing pollution caused by those ships.  By international law, nobody is allowed to burn the thick, sulphur-laden fuel  called bunker oil,  yet the shipping industry does not have to comply with that law. And sulphur is far from being the only pollutant. Every year it is estimated that container vessels belch out one billion tons of CO2 , as much as the entire aviation industry……. click on image for larger view.

Deindustrialise or perish

When we take a careful look at our species’ short history, it becomes obvious in which direction we must go. We got along quite well before people started thinking that they were better than other creatures, and better than their fellow men, the new mindset that emerged after the Agricultural Revolution……..entropy

If we want to stop pathological behavior, pollution, destruction, violence, chronic depression and mental health problems, discontent, and exploitation, if we want to share real things, communicate meaningfully, live in harmony with the biosphere, and nurture the world around us, we have to recognize our true Nature:  The Nature within us, the Wilderness that still lays deep in our heart, and the Nature and the Wilderness that are still around us, the biosphere, at the edges of the wastelands we’ve created and in between the cracks in the asphalt and the concrete we’ve coated the living Earth with, and that they are actually the same.





Earth Battery

2 07 2018

I don’t know how this podcast ever flew under the radar, but it’s ‘must listen to’ material….. two of my favourite peakniks, Chris Martenson and Tom Murphy, discuss our predicaments in the clearest possible way.

The standout for me was Tom calling our fossil fuels sources a gigantic solar battery in which millions of years of solar energy was stored, only to be virtually short circuited to be discharged in what is the blink of an eyelid in geological terms……

 





Delusions of Grandeur in Building a Low-Carbon Future

31 01 2018

With many thanks from Ugo Bardi who first published this on Cassandra’s Legacy…… 

Some excerpts from Carey King’s excellent paper titled “Delusion of Grandeur in building a low-carbon future” (2016). By all means worth reading: it identifies the delusionary approach of some policy proposals. Image Credit: K. Cantner, AGI.

…. the outcomes of economic models used to inform policymakers and policies like the Paris Agreement are fundamentally flawed to the point of being completely delusional. It isn’t the specific economic assumptions related to the “low-carbon” transition that are the problem, but structural flaws in the economic models themselves.

There is a very real trade-off between the rate at which we address climate change and the amount of economic growth we can expect during the transition to a low-carbon economy, but most economic models insufficiently address this trade-off, and thus are incapable of assessing the transition. If we ignore this trade-off, or worse, we rely on models that are built on faulty premises, then we risk politicians and citizens revolting against the energy transition midway into it when the substantial growth and prosperity they’ve been told to expect will accompany the low-carbon transition don’t materialize. It is important to note that citizens are also told that doubling-down on fossil energy also only provides growth and prosperity. But this is a major point of this article: mainstream economic models can’t tell the difference. There are foreseeable feedbacks of a fast transition to a low-carbon economy that increase the risk of major recessions.

The AR5 indicates that if the world invests enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over time — such that total annual greenhouse gas emissions are practically zero by 2100 — to stay within the 450 ppm and 2-degree-Celsius target, then the modeled decline in the size of the economy relative to business-as-usual scenarios is typically less than 10 percent. In other words, instead of the economy in 2100 being 300 to 800 percent larger than in 2010 without any mitigation, it is only 270 to 720 percent larger with full mitigation. Meanwhile, there is no reported possibility of a smaller future economy. Apparently, we’ll be much richer in the future no matter if we mitigate greenhouse gas emissions or not.

This result is delusional and doesn’t pass the smell test.

Another flawed piece of the framework in the IAMs is that they assume that factors in the economy during and after a low-carbon transition will remain at or return to the statistically positive trends of the last several decades — the trend of growth, the trend of high employment levels, the trend of technological innovation. Those positive trends change over time, however, so it is faulty to assume they’ll continue at historic levels independent of the need for rapid changes in the energy system. They also assume that energy costs will not significantly increase over the long term. Further, they extrapolate trends in growth, employment and technology from the past and current carbon-based economy to apply to a future decarbonized economy in ways that represent guesswork at best, and ideology at worst.

Perhaps most importantly, IAMs do not consider the substantial negative feedback between high energy costs and overall economic growth. Negative feedback means that when one factor increases (energy prices, for example), another factor consequently decreases. Many of us know from practical experience that if gasoline costs too much — like when it was near $4 per gallon in 2008 — it may eat into our budget to such an extent that we can’t pay all our bills or can’t pursue hobbies. On a personal level, then, we see that increased gas prices cause decreased discretionary spending — a negative feedback. This idea can be extended to the entire economy’s budget and income.
….. the models currently answer a question that is barely useful: “If the economy grows this much, what types of energy investments can we make, and at what rate?” The models should address the question we really need to answer: “If we make these energy investments at this rate, what happens to the economy?”

There is a fundamental conflict between achieving low- or zero-carbon energy systems and growing an economy. Both the scale and rate of change during a low-carbon transition matter. So, let’s create macroeconomic models that can plausibly replicate historical trends of the most important energy and economic variables in times of high energy investment, recession and growth, so that we have confidence that we can ask relevant and informative questions about how low-carbon investments impact economic growth. Let’s stop deluding ourselves by using models that assume answers we want to see.

Read the complete paper (open access) at this link





The Bumpy Road Down, Part 3

17 01 2018

Irv Mills has now published the third episode in his “Bumpy Road Down” series. It’s gotten a lot of interest on Facebook, and I think his own blog is getting a lot of hits too, as the interest in collapse ramps up everywhere as more and more people are waking up to the fact most things are going awry in the world….

I’ve already told him I disagree with his collapse diagram. For starters, the carrying capacity line is neither straight nor flat. So much farm land, particularly in India and North America has been decimated by fossil fuled fertilisers, that re-instating them to their former organic glory will be a huge challenge that will require a long time during which a lot of people will unfortunately starve. On top of this, we have wrecked global fisheries, which were an important pre FF source of food…  My best take on this is Paul Chefruka’s diagram which I published with his article here…  It too shows a bumpy road down, and no carrying capacity limit. I think the post FF carrying capacity will be the same as the pre FF carrying capacity, only worse thanks to the ecological damage our insane use of FFs has caused. How one quatifies this, I don’t know, but I’m sure it would take a lot of research.

Anyhow, enjoy the read, and make sure you comment, I’m always interested in what you think. Leave comments at Irv’s site too….  I’m sure he’d like the feedback!

 

IrvMills

Irv Mills

In the last post in this series I talked about the next financial crash and how it may well be serious enough to spread into the non-financial sectors of the economy and effect supply chains and critical systems in ways that we did not see in the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08. Systems that most of us depend on for the necessities of life may fail and many kollapsniks see this leading immediately and inevitably to a hard, fast and permanent crash of industrial civilization.

I disagree, seeing this as just one more bump on the road down, the cyclic pattern of crash and partial recovery that I believe will characterize the rest of the age of scarcity.

To understand why I hold this opinion, I said we need to do a couple of things:

1) take a systems dynamic approach to the events we are talking about. Specifically, we need to look at what happens when overshoot occurs in nature, in systems like the one we inhabit. Which is, after all, a subset of the ecosphere. Overshoot is a common enough phenomenon and usually works in fairly predictable ways.

2) look at the sort of things governments, communities and individuals can do to limit the damage of a financial crash and its spread to other critical systems.

Today we are going to do that.

(Note: all three of the graphs below are smoothed out, idealized and imprecise representations of the processes they illustrate. The point is to allow me to make some points visually. I hope not to get into much in the way of quibbling over minor details, of which no doubt a few are missing, inaccurate or outright wrong.)

So, first, let’s take a look at how overshoot works. Take moment or two with your favourite search engine and you will find a graph that looks something like this:

1) typical overshoot situation with constant carrying capacity

The green line shows the behaviour over time of the population of a species which finds itself initially at a level well below the carrying capacity of its environment (the dashed blue line). Because that environment provides lots of whatever the species need to grow, it does grow. This tendency to grow in response to favourable conditions seems to be an inhernet property of life. As is always the case, this is exponential growth—it starts out slowly but eventually reaches a point where it takes off and quickly exceeds the carrying capacity of the environment.

What happens then is interesting, especially since we currently find ourselves in just such a situation. You get some oscillation of the species population, above and below the carrying capacity, until it finally settles out somewhat below the carrying capacity.

First, let’s be clear that it is possible to exceed carrying capacity in the short run, at the cost of damaging the environment and reducing its capacity—overpopulation has a negative effect on that capacity. There is also some time delay built in to the effect of population growth, as newly born individuals add relatively little to the species impact on the environment compared to what they will add once they have grown up. The negative feedback and the time delay result in the oscillation shown in the graph.

Of course, the straight line representing carrying capacity would actually have some peaks and valleys, corresponding to how the environment responds to the stress of overpopulation and how it recovers when the population falls. If we idealized both the blue and green lines into something like a sine wave, we would see that the variation in the carrying capacity leads the variation in the population by about 90 degrees.

The red line, by the way, represents a fast and permanent collapse. In order for this to happen the carrying capacity has to fall all the way down to basically nothing. This can happen for a variety of reasons, but overshoot isn’t one of them, because as soon as the population falls off below the carrying capacity, the stress on the environment is relieved and it begins to recover.

There is, in fact, no such thing as a “balance of nature” and it is by no means inevitable that the oscillations damp out and the population settles down just below the carrying capacity. In many cases what we actually get is the situation in the next graph, where populations oscillate on an ongoing basis.

2) continual oscillation of predator and prey populations such as foxes and rabbits

You might think that the population of rabbits and foxes in an ecosystem would level out at steady values, but that is not in fact what is observed.

If we start at a moment when there are relatively few of each species, we see that the population of rabbits (the prey, dashed blue line) grows rapidly. It is well below the carrying capacity of the ecosystem for rabbits and there are relatively few foxes (the predators, green line). But the increasing number of rabbits make hunting easier for the foxes, and their population starts to increase too. Eventually there are enough foxes to overhunt the rabbits, resulting in a crash in the rabbit population. This is followed by a crash in the fox population, since there are no longer enough rabbits to support it. This brings us back to where we started and the cycle carries on.

The reason the cycle can carry on indefinitely is that the foxes limit the rabbit population so that it never exceeds the carrying capacity of the ecosystem for rabbits—the plants the rabbits are eating never get over grazed.

The situation for the human population of this planet is, as you might expect, more complex.

The impact (I) that the human population has on our environment is determined not just by the size of that population (P), but also by the level of affluence (A) we are living at and effectiveness of the technology (T) we are using to maintain that affluence.

This gives us the famous equation, I=PAT. Since I am going to be using the term “T” in another equation shortly, I’ll change this to I=PAD, where “D” stands for decoupling. Decoupling is the use of technology to produce affluence at a lower cost to thge environment and it is a number between 0 and 1, with 0 being the goal we would aim for, eliminating our impact altogether. In fact it is proving so difficult to get decoupling anywhere near zero that it is very unlikely to be the solution to our problems.

Carrying capacity (C) also works somewhat differently for human populations.

We can increase the size (S) of our environment by expanding into new areas of the world and habitats previously occupied by other species or by “indigenous” humans.

We can tap into forms of energy (E) beyond just food. For somewhere between two and three million years we’ve been using fire for landscaping, for cooking our food and for heating our shelters. In each case we were using the energy in burning biomass to increase the carrying capacity of our environment, increase the value of our food, and/or expand the range of environments that we can live in. For the last few hundred years we’ve been using the energy of fossil fuels to radically increase the carrying capacity of our environment in many seemingly clever ways.

Since whatever method we use to acquire energy consumes energy in the process, it’s actually the energy that is left over, available for use (the surplus energy) that’s important. This is best expressed as “Energy Returned on Energy Invested”, EROEI. This is a dimensionless number and the larger it is, the more surplus energy. When the EROEI is equal to one, the process is just breaking even and there is no point in doing it—we want a much higher EROEI.

Hunter-gatherer and pre-industrial agricultural societies managed average EROEI’s in the high single digits at best. Industrial societies based on fossil fuels in the twentieth century had EROEI’s many times that high, which made possible high levels of growth and the development and use of technologies which had previously been completely out of reach. Today the average global EROEI is around 11.

Which brings us to our use of tools and technology (T). With just Neolithic technology (fire, stone tools, weaving, tanning, pottery, boats, agriculture) we spread over the whole planet except for the Antarctic, occupying and thriving in environments very different from the ones where we evolved. Since the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution our use of technology has exploded. And not just material technology, but financial, organizational and information technologies as well. All of which has enabled both our population and affluence to grow at heretofore unprecedented rates.

So, the carrying capacity of this planet for the human race can be represented by the equation C=SET. Clearly, I (Impact) must be less than C (carrying capacity) or we are in overshoot. And since sometime in the late 1970s we have indeed been in overshoot. Currently the level of overshoot is around 60%. That is, our impact on the environment is 1.6 times what can be sustained on an ongoing basis.

3) oscillating overshoot with declining carrying capacity

From left side of this graph to point “a” we see the long and very slow growth of the human population before the discovery of the New World. After point “a” the carrying capacity began to increase significantly as the size of our environment effectively took a large jump with the European settlement of the New World, as the use of fossil fuels greatly increased the amount of surplus energy available and as we developed numerous new technologies to use that energy. Human impact increased with the carrying capacity, as our population grew and affluence increased.

The growth of carrying capacity continued until the last quarter of the twentieth century, point “b”, when depletion of fossil fuels and reduction of their EROEI, diminishing returns on technological innovation and stress on the environment from human activities started to reduce the carrying capacity.

Human impact has continued to grow since then, and is now so far above carrying capacity that one has to expect a crash in the near future, point “c”. As I said in my last post, this is likely to start with a financial crash. The financial sector of the economy, since it deals largely with non-material things that don’t have much inertia, can change very quickly. It is currently under a lot of strain from huge amounts of risky debt. I favour a scenario where a spike in the price of oil, brought about as the current surplus of oil bottoms out, sets off a currency crash in one of more countries, leading to a wave of bankruptcies and governments defaulting on their debts. After point “c” human impact will start to decrease rapidly, primarily due to the effect of the financial crash on affluence.

Note that I have again included a red line (and a light blue line), which represent a fast and permanent crash of both carrying capacity and population. This is possible and some would argue that climate change and ocean acidification (among other things) may be damaging the environment enough to make it the most likely outcome. I don’t think so. The ecosphere is amazingly resilient, once human impact is reduced. People have gotten the wrong impression about this because we have been playing the silly game of upping our impact and then wondering why the situation keeps getting worse, as if it wasn’t our fault.

To the right is a little chart that contains some shocking information. The top 20% of the human population (in terms of affluence) is responsible for 76.6% of our impact. A financial crash will be very hard on those top 20% and in the process will drastically reduce human impact. Sadly, myself and most of my readers are in that top 20%.

Referring back to diagram 3, I expect that at point “d”, where “I” is finally less than “C”, the carrying capacity will begin to recover, and a while later at point “e”, human impact will begin to increase once again as well.

Remember also that carrying capacity is defined by C=SET, and there is much that humanity can do to change the value of “T” in that equation. I am by no means saying that we will find a “solution” to our problems based on material technology. What I mean is that a major factor in the big decrease in carrying capacity during the upcoming crash will be the failure of our financial and organizational technology to cope with the situation. And there is a lot we can do to reorganize our financial, economic and political systems to work better under the new conditions. Once we are forced to do it. So I do expect there will be a recovery after this crash.

It is very likely that during the crash the financial chaos will spread to the rest of the economy and that there will be some reduction in the growth rate of our population as the support structures provide by industrial civilization fail completely in some parts of the world. But it seems likely that human population will continue to grow until it once again outstrips carrying capacity, at point “f”. And then at point “g” we will have another crash. I suspect depletion of fossil fuels, water for irrigation and phosphorous for fertilizer, and the effects of climate change will lead to a collapse of agriculture in many parts of the world. Famine and epidemics will at that point start to rapidly reduce our population and eventually reduce it back below a once more reduced carrying capacity (point “h”) and another recovery will begin (point “i”).

Beyond point “i” it is hard to say much about exact details or how many more crashes will take place. But the trend of continued oscillation with decreases in both carrying capacity and human impact will continue. The downward trend is because our current system relies on non-renewable resources that we are using up. That trend will continue until our impact can be sustained solely by renewable resources. Along the way we will go through some very hard times (point “i” and subsequent valleys in the green line) because of the damage done to the planet in the process. But eventually, with our impact drastically reduced, the ecosystems will recover. I expect that at this point we will have retained some of our technology and because of this the overall carrying capacity and our population/impact will settle out a bit above what it was in pre-industrial times.

One further thing I want to emphasize is how uneven this whole process will be. Yes it is likely that the impending financial crash, because it involves systems that are highly interconnected and global in scale, will be felt to some extent over the whole planet. But the degree to which the financial chaos spreads to the rest of the economy will vary greatly from place to place. And subsequent crashes, once the high degree of global interconnection has been broken, will most likely occur at different times in different places.

Wherever people are not completely dependent on global supply chains, the effects will be less severe. To the extent that they are not ravaged by climate change, some parts of the developing world where subsistence agriculture is practiced may continue on with little change. Unfortunately many areas will suffer the ravages of climate change—droughts, flooding and heat waves. Many countries (particularly in Africa and the Middle East) do not produce enough food for their own populations. With supply chains broken and agriculture struggling everywhere, these areas will find it difficult to continue importing the food they rely on. Supplies of energy and water will also prove problematical.

I am well aware that all these graphs and explanations do not constitute a proof of my assertions about the bumpy road down. But I hope I have succeeded in making what I’m trying to say much clearer. It’s up to you to decide if there is anything to it or not, now that you know what “it” is.

The other area I wanted to touch on today is the sort of things governments, communities and individuals can do to limit the damage when a financial crash spreads to other critical systems.

As the financial crash starts to gain momentum, governments will (to whatever extent they can) use the same tools as they did in 2008 to get things under control— loans and bailouts for faltering businesses, and keeping interest rates very low. It also seems likely that, as the situation worsens, “bail-ins” will be used as well, where depositors are required to accept discounts on their deposits to reduce the pressure on failing banks. And “haircuts” where bond holders have to accept discounts on the value of those bonds in order to reduce the pressure on the governments that issued them.

These efforts will have mixed results and the crash will no doubt spread to the non-financial sectors of the economy. Many governments will try switching failing critical systems over to a direct command “martial law” economy. This will be done with varying degrees of skill (or ineptitude as the case may be) and varying degrees of co-operation from their citizens. Vital materials which are in short supply due to supply chain and production breakdowns will be placed under government control and rationed (food, energy—especially diesel fuel, water treatment and medical supplies), and attempts will be made to patch supply chains and production facilities back together with whatever comes to hand.

I have no doubt that this can be made to work, at least to some extent. It does require convincing the public that it is necessary and that it is being done fairly—applied equally to the rich and powerful as it is to the poor and weak. And inevitably there will be thriving black markets.

Governments that already operate some of these systems directly will be better prepared and experience greater success. System that have been contracted out to the lowest bidder—companies that are primarily responsible to their stock holders rather than their customers—may fail in a variety of ghastly ways.

On the other hand, I think there will also be quite a bit of quiet heroism on the part of companies and individuals in critical industries whose job it is to keep things working. These folks are for the most part competent and highly motivated, and their efforts will be more successful than you might think.

Some governments will be so successful that their citizens may hardly be aware that anything is going on. In other countries, people will be reduced to relying almost entirely on what can be done locally, with locally available resources. Right wing capitalist governments whose primary obligation is to the rich and power will begin to practice wholesale abandonment of the poor and unfortunate.

There are also things that can be done by local communities, families and individuals to be more self sufficient—to be able to carry on during those periods when industrial society fails to supply the necessities. Increasing local inventories in order to be more resilient in response to supply chain failures would be a good beginning. But just being clear about what the necessities are and not wasting resources try to maintain luxuries will be one of the biggest challenges. The first step is realizing that much of what we consider necessary is, in fact, not.

So, as I’ve already said, I’m expecting a recovery, or rather a series of recoveries after a series of crashes. These crises are going to cause some changes in the way things work, resulting in a very different world. We’ll have a look at the trends that will lead to that new world in my next post.





A response to Changing the Conversation

8 12 2017

Ed. Note: Richard Smith’s article, Climate Crisis and Managed Deindustrialization: Debating Alternatives to Ecological Collapse, which Saral is responding to this post, can be found on Resilience.org here, or here on DTM where I republished it. My only gripe with Saral’s essay is the total lack of mention of debt abolition…..  canceling debt is the only way forward when we start talking about what to do about all the job losses.

By Saral Sarkar, originally published by Saral Sarkar blog

In his article,1 Richard calls upon his readers to “change the conversation”. He asks, “What are your thoughts?” He says, if we don’t “come up with a viable alternative, our goose is cooked.” I fully agree. So I join the conversation, in order to improve it.

Let me first say I appreciate Richard’s article very much. It is very useful, indeed necessary, to also present one’s cause in a short article – for those who are interested but, for whatever reason, cannot read a whole book. Richard has ably presented the eco-socialist case against both capitalism and “green” capitalism.

But the alternative Richard has come up with is deficient in one very important respect, namely in respect of viability. Allow me to present here my comradely criticisms. It will be short.

Is only Capitalism the Problem?

(1) Richard writes, “Capitalism, not population is the main driver of planetary ecological collapse … .”. It sounds like an echo of statements from old-Marxist-socialism. It is not serious. Is Richard telling us that, while we are fighting a long-drawn-out battle against capitalism in order to overcome it, we can allow population to continuously grow without risking any further destruction of the environment? Should we then think that a world population of ten billion by 2050 would not be any problem?

I would agree if Richard would say that capitalism is, because of its growth compulsion, one of the main drivers of ecological collapse. But anybody who has learnt even a little about ecology knows that in any particular eco-region, exponential growth of any one species leads to collapse of its ecological balance. If we now think of the planet Earth as one whole eco-region and consider all the scientific reports on rapid bio-diversity loss and rapid dwindling of the numbers of larger animals, then we cannot but correlate these facts with the exponential growth of our own species, homo sapiens sapiens, the latter being the cause of the former two.

No doubt, capitalism – together with the development of technologies, especially agricultural and medical technologies – has largely enabled the huge growth of human numbers in the last two hundred years. But human population growth has been occurring even in pre-capitalist and pre-medieval eras, albeit at a slower rate. Parallel to this, also environmental destruction has been occurring and growing in these eras.

It is not good to tell our readers only half the truth. The whole truth is succinctly stated in the equation:

I = P  x  A  x  T

where I stands for ecological impact (we can also call it ecological destruction), P for population, T for Technology and A for affluence. All these three factors are highly variable. Let me here also quote Paul Ehrlich, one of my teachers in political ecology. Addressing leftists, he once wrote, “Whatever [be] your cause, it is a lost cause unless we control population [growth]”. Note the phrase “whatever your cause”. Ehrlich meant to say, and I too think so, the cause may be environmental protection, saving the earth, protecting biodiversity, overcoming poverty and unemployment, women’s liberation, preventing racist and ethnic conflicts and cleansings, preventing huge unwelcome migration flows, preventing crime, fighting modern-day slavery, bringing peace in the world, creating a socialist world order etc. etc. etc., in all cases stopping population growth is a very important factor. Sure, that will in no case be enough. But that is an essential part of the solutions.

Note that in the equation cited above, there is no mention of capitalism. Instead, we find there the two factors technology and affluence. We can call (and we generally do call) the product of T x A (production of affluence by means of industrial technologies) industrialism, of which there has until now been two main varieties: the capitalist one and the planned socialist one (of the soviet type). Nothing will be gained for saving the ecological balance of the Earth if only capitalism is replaced with socialism, and ruling socialists then try to increase production at a higher rate, which they must do under the pressure of a growing population which, moreover, develops higher ambitions and aspirations, and demands all the good things that middle class Americans enjoy.

(2) Modern-day old-socialists do not deny the existence of an ecological problem. They have also developed several pseudo-solutions such as “clean” and “renewable” energies and materials, efficiency revolution, decoupling of GDP growth from resource use etc.

It’s good that Richard rejects the idea that green capitalism can save us. But why can’t it? “Because”, he writes, “companies can’t commit economic suicide to save the humans. There’s just no solution to our crisis within the framework of any conceivable capitalism.” This is good, but not enough. Because there are old-socialists (I know many in Germany) who believe that it is only individual capitalists/companies and the system capitalism that are preventing a rapid transition to 100 percent clean renewable energies and 100 percent recycling of all materials. Thanks to these possibilities, they believe, old-socialist type of industrialism, and even economic and population growth, can be reconciled with the requirements of sustainability. I don’t think that is possible, and I have also earlier elaborately explained why.2 Said briefly, “renewable energies” are neither clean nor renewable, and 100 percent recycling is impossible because the Entropy Law also applies to matter. What Richard thinks is not clear from this article of his. It is necessary to make his thoughts on this point clear.

Is Bottom-up Democracy of Any Use in the Transition Period?

(3) Richard writes, “Rational planning requires bottom-up democracy.” I do not understand the connection between the two, planning and democracy. At the most, one could say that for better planning for the villages, the planning commission should also listen to the villagers. But at the national level? Should, e.g., the inhabitants of each and every 500 souls village in the Ganges basin codetermine in a bottom up democratic planning process how the waters of the said river and its tributaries should be distributed among ca. 500 million inhabitants of the basin? If that were ever to be attempted, the result would be chaos, not planning. Moreover, how do you ensure that the villagers are capable of understanding the national interest and overcoming their particular interests? Such phrases are only illusions.

In his 6th thesis, Richard sketches a rosy, idealistic picture of a future eco-socialist society and its citizens. That may be attractive for him, me and other eco-socialists. But this future lies in distant future. First we would need a long transition period of contracting economies, and that would cause a lot of pain to millions of people spoilt by consumerism or promises of a consumerist future. We shall have to convince such people, and that would be an altogether difficult job. We should tell them the truth, namely that austerity is necessary for saving the earth. We can promise them only one thing, namely that all the pains and burdens as well as the benefits of austerity will be equitably distributed among all.

What to Do About Jobs?

(4) Richard writes: “Needless to say, retrenching and closing down such industries would mean job losses, millions of jobs from here to ChinaYet if we don’t shut down those unsustainable industries, we’re doomed.” And then he puts the question “What to do?” We can be sure that all people who wholly depend on a paid job for their livelihood, whom we must also win over, will confront us with this jobs question. Let me finish my contribution to this conversation with an answer to this question. 

There is not much use talking to ourselves, the already converted. We need to start work, immediately and all over the world, especially in those countries where poverty and unemployment is very high. We know that, generally, these countries are also those where population growth is very high. People from the rich countries cannot simply tell their people, sorry, we have to close down many factories and we cannot further invest in industrializing your countries. But the former can tell the latter that they can help them in controlling population growth. The latter will understand easily that it is an immediately effective way to reduce poverty and unemployment. A massive educative campaign will of course be necessary in addition to concrete monetary and technical help.

In the rich countries, contrary to what Richard perhaps thinks, it will not be possible to provide new equivalent jobs to replace those jobs we need to abolish. For such countries, reducing working hours and job-sharing in the short term, and, in the long term, ostracizing automation and labor-saving technologies, and using labor-intensive methods of production instead, are together the only solution. That is already known. Another thing that would be needed is to negate free trade and international competition. However, it must also be said openly that high wages and salaries cannot be earned under such circumstances. 

We eco-socialist activists must begin the work with a massive world-wide political campaign in favor of such ideas and policies.

Notes and References

1. Smith, Richard (2017) “ Climate Crisis and Managed Deindustrialization: Debating Alternatives to Ecological Collapse.”
https://forhumanliberation.blogspot.de/2017/11/2753-climate-crisis-and-managed.html
and
https://www.commondreams.org/views/2017/11/21/climate-crisis-and-managed-deindustrialization-debating-alternatives-ecological

2. My views expressed in this article have been elaborately presented in my book:
Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism? – A Critical Analysis of Humanity’s Fundamental Choices (1999). London: Zed Books,  and in various articles published in my blog-site
www.eco-socialist.blogspot.com





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…

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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.