The Dynamics of Depletion

27 06 2017

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

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

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

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

nicolefoss

Nicole Foss

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

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

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

 

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Using Energy to Extract Energy – The Dynamics of Depletion

 

brian-selfie

Brian Davey

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Energy Return on Energy Invested

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

eroei

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Renewable Energy systems to the rescue?

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

eroei-renewables

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

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

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

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

hall

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

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

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

mining-australia

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

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

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

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Healthy soil is the real key to feeding the world

6 04 2017

Image 20170329 8557 1q1xe1z
Planting a diverse blend of crops and cover crops, and not tilling, helps promote soil health.
Catherine Ulitsky, USDA/Flickr, CC BY

David R. Montgomery, University of Washington

One of the biggest modern myths about agriculture is that organic farming is inherently sustainable. It can be, but it isn’t necessarily. After all, soil erosion from chemical-free tilled fields undermined the Roman Empire and other ancient societies around the world. Other agricultural myths hinder recognizing the potential to restore degraded soils to feed the world using fewer agrochemicals.

When I embarked on a six-month trip to visit farms around the world to research my forthcoming book, “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life,” the innovative farmers I met showed me that regenerative farming practices can restore the world’s agricultural soils. In both the developed and developing worlds, these farmers rapidly rebuilt the fertility of their degraded soil, which then allowed them to maintain high yields using far less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.

Their experiences, and the results that I saw on their farms in North and South Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ghana and Costa Rica, offer compelling evidence that the key to sustaining highly productive agriculture lies in rebuilding healthy, fertile soil. This journey also led me to question three pillars of conventional wisdom about today’s industrialized agrochemical agriculture: that it feeds the world, is a more efficient way to produce food and will be necessary to feed the future.

Myth 1: Large-scale agriculture feeds the world today

According to a recent U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, family farms produce over three-quarters of the world’s food. The FAO also estimates that almost three-quarters of all farms worldwide are smaller than one hectare – about 2.5 acres, or the size of a typical city block.

Enter a caption

A Ugandan farmer transports bananas to market. Most food consumed in the developing world is grown on small family farms.
Svetlana Edmeades/IFPRI/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Only about 1 percent of Americans are farmers today. Yet most of the world’s farmers work the land to feed themselves and their families. So while conventional industrialized agriculture feeds the developed world, most of the world’s farmers work small family farms. A 2016 Environmental Working Group report found that almost 90 percent of U.S. agricultural exports went to developed countries with few hungry people.

Of course the world needs commercial agriculture, unless we all want to live on and work our own farms. But are large industrial farms really the best, let alone the only, way forward? This question leads us to a second myth.

Myth 2: Large farms are more efficient

Many high-volume industrial processes exhibit efficiencies at large scale that decrease inputs per unit of production. The more widgets you make, the more efficiently you can make each one. But agriculture is different. A 1989 National Research Council study concluded that “well-managed alternative farming systems nearly always use less synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics per unit of production than conventional farms.”

And while mechanization can provide cost and labor efficiencies on large farms, bigger farms do not necessarily produce more food. According to a 1992 agricultural census report, small, diversified farms produce more than twice as much food per acre than large farms do.

Even the World Bank endorses small farms as the way to increase agricultural output in developing nations where food security remains a pressing issue. While large farms excel at producing a lot of a particular crop – like corn or wheat – small diversified farms produce more food and more kinds of food per hectare overall.

Myth 3: Conventional farming is necessary to feed the world

We’ve all heard proponents of conventional agriculture claim that organic farming is a recipe for global starvation because it produces lower yields. The most extensive yield comparison to date, a 2015 meta-analysis of 115 studies, found that organic production averaged almost 20 percent less than conventionally grown crops, a finding similar to those of prior studies.

But the study went a step further, comparing crop yields on conventional farms to those on organic farms where cover crops were planted and crops were rotated to build soil health. These techniques shrank the yield gap to below 10 percent.

The authors concluded that the actual gap may be much smaller, as they found “evidence of bias in the meta-dataset toward studies reporting higher conventional yields.” In other words, the basis for claims that organic agriculture can’t feed the world depend as much on specific farming methods as on the type of farm.

Cover crops planted on wheat fields in The Dalles, Oregon.
Garrett Duyck, NRCS/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Consider too that about a quarter of all food produced worldwide is never eaten. Each year the United States alone throws out 133 billion pounds of food, more than enough to feed the nearly 50 million Americans who regularly face hunger. So even taken at face value, the oft-cited yield gap between conventional and organic farming is smaller than the amount of food we routinely throw away.

Building healthy soil

Conventional farming practices that degrade soil health undermine humanity’s ability to continue feeding everyone over the long run. Regenerative practices like those used on the farms and ranches I visited show that we can readily improve soil fertility on both large farms in the U.S. and on small subsistence farms in the tropics.

I no longer see debates about the future of agriculture as simply conventional versus organic. In my view, we’ve oversimplified the complexity of the land and underutilized the ingenuity of farmers. I now see adopting farming practices that build soil health as the key to a stable and resilient agriculture. And the farmers I visited had cracked this code, adapting no-till methods, cover cropping and complex rotations to their particular soil, environmental and socioeconomic conditions.

Whether they were organic or still used some fertilizers and pesticides, the farms I visited that adopted this transformational suite of practices all reported harvests that consistently matched or exceeded those from neighboring conventional farms after a short transition period. Another message was as simple as it was clear: Farmers who restored their soil used fewer inputs to produce higher yields, which translated into higher profits.

No matter how one looks at it, we can be certain that agriculture will soon face another revolution. For agriculture today runs on abundant, cheap oil for fuel and to make fertilizer – and our supply of cheap oil will not last forever. There are already enough people on the planet that we have less than a year’s supply of food for the global population on hand at any one time. This simple fact has critical implications for society.

So how do we speed the adoption of a more resilient agriculture? Creating demonstration farms would help, as would carrying out system-scale research to evaluate what works best to adapt specific practices to general principles in different settings.

We also need to reframe our agricultural policies and subsidies. It makes no sense to continue incentivizing conventional practices that degrade soil fertility. We must begin supporting and rewarding farmers who adopt regenerative practices.

Once we see through myths of modern agriculture, practices that build soil health become the lens through which to assess strategies for feeding us all over the long haul. Why am I so confident that regenerative farming practices can prove both productive and economical? The farmers I met showed me they already are.

David R. Montgomery, Professor of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.





Mass Extinction and Mass Insanity

16 12 2016

I was very taken and moved by this article from the Automatic Earth, written by Raul Ilargi Meijer….

I’m too busy setting up my market garden right now to write anything, so a big thank you to Raul for this content you should all read.

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Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back …

Springsteen, Atlantic City

“Erwin Schrodinger (1945) has described life as a system in steady-state thermodynamic disequilibrium that maintains its constant distance from equilibrium (death) by feeding on low entropy from its environment – that is, by exchanging high-entropy outputs for low-entropy inputs. The same statement would hold verbatium as a physical description of our economic process. A corollary of this statement is that an organism cannot live in a medium of its own waste products.”
Herman Daly and Kenneth Townsend

 

What drives our economies is waste. Not need, or even demand. Waste. 2nd law of thermodynamics. It drives our lives, period.

First of all, don’t tell me you’re trying to stop the ongoing extinction of nature and wildlife on this planet, or the destruction of life in general. Don’t even tell me you’re trying. Don’t tell me it’s climate change that we should focus on (that’s just a small part of the story), and you’re driving an electric car and you’re separating your trash or things like that. That would only mean you’re attempting to willfully ignore your share of destruction, because if you do it, so will others, and the planet can’t take anymore of your behavior.

This is the big one. And the only ones amongst us who don’t think so are those who don’t want to. Who think it’s easier to argue that some problems are too big for them to tackle, that they should be left to others to solve. But why should we, why should anyone, worry about elections or even wars, when it becomes obvious we’re fast approaching a time when such things don’t matter much anymore?

The latest WWF Living Planet Report shows us that the planet is a whole lot less alive than it used to be. And that we killed that life. That we replaced it with metal, bricks, plastic and concrete. Mass consumption leads to mass extinction. And that is fully predictable, it always was; there’s nothing new there.

We killed 58% of all vertebrate wildlife just between 1970 and 2012, and at a rate of 2% per year we will have massacred close to 70% of it by 2020, just 4 years from now. So what does it matter who’s president of just one of the many countries we invented on this planet? Why don’t we address what’s really crucial to our very survival instead?

 

 

The latest report from the WWF should have us all abandon whatever it is we’re doing, and make acting to prevent further annihilation of our living world the key driver in our everyday lives, every hour of every day, every single one of us. Anything else is just not good enough, and anything else will see us, that self-nominated intelligent species, annihilated in the process.

Granted, there may be a few decrepit and probably halfway mutant specimens of our species left, living in conditions we couldn’t even begin, nor dare, to imagine, with what will be left of their intelligence wondering how our intelligence could have ever let this happen. You’d almost wish they’ll understand as little as we ever did; that some form of ignorance equal to ours will soften their pain.

It’s important to note that the report does not describe a stagnant situation, there’s no state of affairs, not something still, it describes an ongoing and deteriorating process. That is, we don’t get to choose to stop the ongoing wildlife annihilation at 70%; we are witnessing, and indeed we are actively involved in, raising that number by 2% every year that we ‘live’ (can we even call it that anymore, are you alive when you murder all life around you?) in this world.

This is our only home.

 

Without the natural world that we were born into, or rather that our species, our ancestors, were born into, we have zero chance of survival. Because it is the natural world that has allowed for, and created, the conditions that made it possible for mankind to emerge and develop in the first place. And we are nowhere near making an earth 2.0; the notion itself is preposterous. A few thousand years of man ‘understanding’ his world is no match for billions of years of evolution. That’s the worst insult to whatever intelligence it is that we do have.

Much has been made through the years of our ability to adapt to changing circumstances, and much of that is just as much hubris as so much of what we tell ourselves, but the big question should be WHY we would volunteer to find out to what extent we can adapt to a world that has sustained the losses we cause it to suffer. Even if we could to a degree adapt to that, why should we want to?

Two thirds of our world is gone, and it’s we who have murdered it, and what’s worse – judging from our lifestyles- we seem to have hardly noticed at all. If we don’t stop what we’ve been doing, this can lead to one outcome only: we will murder ourselves too. Our perhaps biggest problem (even if we have quite a few) in this regard is our ability and propensity to deny this, as we deny any and all -serious, consequential- wrongdoing.

 

 

There are allegedly serious and smart people working on, dreaming of, and getting billions in subsidies for, fantasies of human colonies on Mars. This is advertized as a sign of progress and intelligence. But that can only be true if we can acknowledge that our intelligence and our insanity are identical twins. Because it is insane to destroy the planet on which we depend one-on-one for everything that allows us to live, and at the same time dream of human life on another planet.

While I see no reason to address the likes of King of Subsidies Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking is different. Unfortunately, in Hawking’s case, with all his intelligence, it’s his philosophical capacity that goes missing.

Humanity Will Not Survive Another 1,000 Years If We Don’t Escape Our Planet

Professor Stephen Hawking has warned humanity will not survive another 1,000 years on Earth unless the human race finds another planet to live on. [..] Professor Hawking, 74, reflected on the understanding of the universe garnered from breakthroughs over the past five decades, describing 2016 as a “glorious time to be alive and doing research into theoretical physics”. “Our picture of the universe has changed a great deal in the last 50 years and I am happy if I have made a small contribution,“ he went on.

”The fact that we humans, who are ourselves mere fundamental particles of nature, have been able to come this close to understanding the laws that govern us and the universe is certainly a triumph.” Highlighting “ambitious” experiments that will give an even more precise picture of the universe, he continued: “We will map the position of millions of galaxies with the help of [super] computers like Cosmos. We will better understand our place in the universe.”

“But we must also continue to go into space for the future of humanity. I don’t think we will survive another 1,000 years without escaping beyond our fragile planet.”

The tragedy is that we may have gained some knowledge of natural laws and the universe, but we are completely clueless when it comes to keeping ourselves from destroying our world. Mars is an easy cop-out. But Mars doesn’t solve a thing. Because it’s -obviously- not the ‘fragile planet’ earth that is a threat to mankind, it’s mankind itself. How then can escaping to another planet solve its problems?

What exactly is wrong with saying that we will have to make it here on planet earth? Is it that we’ve already broken and murdered so much? And if that’s the reason, what does that say about us, and what does it say about what we would do to a next planet, even provided we could settle on it (we can’t) ? Doesn’t it say that we are our own worst enemies? And doesn’t the very idea of settling the ‘next planet’ imply that we had better settle things right here first? Like sort of a first condition before we go to Mars, if we ever do?

In order to survive, we don’t need to escape our planet, we need to escape ourselves. Not nearly as easy. Much harder than escaping to Mars. Which already is nothing but a pipedream to begin with.

Moreover, if we can accept that settling things here first before going to Mars is a prerequisite for going there in the first place, we wouldn’t need to go anymore, right?

 

 

We treat this entire extinction episode as if it’s something we’re watching from the outside in, as if it’s something we’re not really a part of. I’ve seen various undoubtedly very well-intentioned ‘green people’, ‘sustainable people’, react to the WWF report by pointing to signs that there is still hope, pointing to projects that reverse some of the decline, chinook salmon on the North American Pacific coast, Malawi farmers that no longer use chemical fertilizers, a giant sanctuary in the Antarctic etc.

That, too, is a form of insanity. Because it serves to lull people into a state of complacency that is entirely unwarranted. And that can therefore only serve to make things worse. There is no reversal, there is no turnaround. It’s like saying if a body doesn’t fall straight down in a continuous line, it doesn’t fall down at all.

The role that green, sustainability, conservationist groups play in our societies has shifted dramatically, and we have failed completely to see this change (as have they). These groups have become integral parts of our societies, instead of a force on the outside warning about what happens within.

Conservationist groups today serve as apologists for the havoc mankind unleashes on its world: all people have to do is donate money at Christmas, and conservation will be taken care of. Recycle a few bottles and plastic wrappings and you’re doing your part to save the planet. It is utterly insane. It’s as insane as the destruction itself. It’s denial writ large, and in the flesh.

It’s not advertized that way, but that doesn’t mean it’s not how it works. Saying that ‘it’s not too late’ is not a call to action as many people continue to believe. It’s just dirt poor psychology. It provides people with the impression, which rapidly turns into an excuse, that there is still time left. As almost 70% of all vertebrates, those animals that are closest to us, have disappeared. When would they say time is up? At 80%, 90%?

 

 

We do not understand why, or even that, we are such a tragically destructive species. And perhaps we can’t. Perhaps that is where our intelligence stops, at providing insight into ourselves. Even the most ‘aware’ amongst us will still tend to disparage their own roles in what goes on. Even they will make whatever it is they still do, and that they know is hurtful to the ecosystem, seem smaller than it is.

Even they will search for apologies for their own behavior, tell themselves they must do certain things in order to live in the society they were born in, drive kids to school, yada yada. We all do that. We soothe our consciences by telling ourselves we mean well, and then getting into our cars to go pick up a carton of milk. Or engage in an equally blind act. There’s too many to mention.

Every species that finds a large amount of free energy reacts the same way: proliferation. The unconscious drive is to use up the energy as fast as possible. If only we could understand that. But understanding it would get in the way of the principle itself. The only thing we can do to stop the extinction is for all of us to use a lot less energy. But because energy consumption provides wealth and -more importantly- political power, we will not do that. We instead tell ourselves all we need to do is use different forms of energy.

Our inbuilt talent for denying and lying (to ourselves and others) makes it impossible for us to see that we have an inbuilt talent for denying and lying in the first place. Or, put another way, seeing that we haven’t been able to stop ourselves from putting the planet into the dismal shape it is in now, why should we keep on believing that we will be able to stop ourselves in the future?

Thing is, an apology for our own behavior is also an apology for everyone else’s. As long as you keep buying things wrapped in plastic, you have no right, you lose your right, to blame the industry that produces the plastic.

 

 

We see ourselves as highly intelligent, and -as a consequence- we see ourselves as a species driven by reason. But we are not. Which can be easily demonstrated by a ‘reverse question’: why, if we are so smart, do we find ourselves in the predicament of having destroyed two thirds of our planet?

Do we have a rational argument to execute that destruction? Of course not, we’ll say. But then why do we do it if rationality drives us? This is a question that should forever cure us of the idea that we are driven by reason. But we’re not listening to the answer to that question. We’re denying, we’re even denying the question itself.

It’s the same question, and the same answer, by the way, that will NOT have us ‘abandon whatever it is we do’ when we read today that 70% of all wildlife will be gone by 2020, that 58% was gone by 2012 and we destroy it at a rate of 2% per year. We’re much more likely to worry much more about some report that says returns on our retirement plans will be much lower than we thought. Or about the economic growth that is too low (as if that is possible with 70% of wildlife gone).

After all, if destroying 70% of wildlife is not enough for a call to action, what would be? 80%? 90? 99%? I bet you that would be too late. And no, relying on conservationist groups to take care of it for us is not a viable route. Because that same 70% number spells out loud and clear what miserable failures these groups have turned out to be.

We ‘assume’ we’re intelligent, because that makes us feel good. Well, it doesn’t make the planet feel good. What drives us is not reason. What drives us is the part of our brains that we share in common with amoeba and bacteria and all other more ‘primitive forms of life, that gobbles up excess energy as fast as possible, in order to restore a balance. Our ‘rational’, human, brain serves one function, and one only: to find ‘rational’ excuses for what our primitive brain has just made us do.

We’re all intelligent enough to understand that driving a hybrid car or an electric car does nothing to halt the havoc we do to our world, but there are still millions of these things being sold. So perhaps we could say that we’re at the same time intelligent enough, and we’re not.

We can see ourselves destroying our world, but we can not stop ourselves from continuing the destruction. Here’s something I wrote 5 years ago:

Most. Tragic. Species. Ever.

We have done exactly the same that any primitive life form would do when faced with a surplus, of food, energy, and in our case credit, cheap money. We spent it all as fast as we can. Lest less abundant times arrive. It’s an instinct, it comes from our more primitive brain segments, not our more “rational” frontal cortex. It’s not that we’re in principle, or talent, more devious or malicious than more primitive life forms. It’s that we use our more advanced brains to help us execute the same devastation our primitive brain drives us to, but much much worse.

That’s what makes us the most tragic species imaginable. We’ll fight each other, even our children, over the last few scraps falling off the table, and kill off everything in our path to get there. And when we’re done, we’ll find a way to rationalize to ourselves why we were right to do so. We can be aware of watching ourselves do what we do, but we can’t help ourselves from doing it. Most. Tragic. Species. Ever.

The greatest miracle you will ever see, that you could ever hope to see, is so miraculous you can’t even recognize it for what it is. We don’t know what the word beautiful means anymore. Or the word valuable. We’ve lost all of that, and are well on our way, well over 70% of it, to losing the rest too.

 

 

 

PS Please note I could not gather all sources for all pictures here, but I’d be more than happy to add them. It’s not that I don’t recognize the effort that goes into them; it’s an emotional thing.





On decommisioning nuclear reactors

25 07 2016

Some of the stuff in this article simply beggars belief…..  like “they weren’t designed with decommissioning in mind”.  Seriousy..?  That is just mindboggling.  And the decommissioning costs, at a time the world’s financial system is on the verge of collapse is similarly gobsmacking…… I’m so glad there are no nukes in Australia after reading that lot.

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[Below are excerpts from the 7 March 2012 NewScientist article: How to dismantle a nuclear reactor ] about the costs and challenges of dismantling nuclear power plants in Europe] Hat tip to energyskeptic.com

decommisioning-nuclear-reactor
By the start of 2012, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, 138 commercial power reactors had been permanently shut down with at least 80 expected to join the queue for decommissioning in the coming decade – more if other governments join Germany in deciding to phase out nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster in Japan last year.

And yet, so far, only 17 of these have been dismantled and made permanently safe. That’s because decommissioning is difficult, time-consuming and expensive.

A standard American or French-designed pressurised water reactor (PWR) – the most common reactor design now in operation – will produce more than 100,000 tonnes of waste, about a tenth of it significantly radioactive, including the steel reactor vessel, control rods, piping and pumps. Decommissioning just a single one generally costs up to half a billion dollars.

Decommissioning Germany’s Soviet-designed power plant at Greifswald produced more than half a million tonnes of radioactive waste. The UK’s 26 gas-cooled Magnox reactors produce similar amounts and will eventually cost up to a billion dollars each to decommission. That’s because they weren’t designed with decommissioning in mind.

The many variations also mean that there is no agreed-upon standard for how to go about the process. If you want to decommission a nuclear power plant, you have three options. The first is the fastest: remove the fuel, then take the reactor apart as swiftly as possible, storing the radioactive material somewhere safe to await a final burial place.  The second approach is to remove the fuel but lock up the reactor, letting its troublesome radioactive isotopes decay, which makes dismantling easier – much later.  The third option is to simply entomb the reactor where it is.

Even when the reactor can be dismantled, where do you put the radioactive waste? Even the least contaminated material – old overalls, steel heat exchangers and toilets – must be carefully separated and sent to specially licensed landfill sites. Not every country has such designated facilities. Intermediate-level waste, contrary to its name, is even more of a problem because it may require deep ground burial alongside the high-level spent fuel.

In 1976, a British Royal Commission said no more nuclear power plants should be built until the waste disposal problems were resolved. Thirty-five years on, nothing much has changed.

sources:





TIME IS SHORT: REASONING TO RESISTANCE

6 07 2016

15 Realities of our Global Environmental Crisis

By Deep Green Resistance

  1. Industrial civilization is not, and can never be, sustainable.

Any social system based on the use of non-renewable resources is by definition unsustainable. Non-renewable means it will eventually run out. If you hyper-exploit your non-renewable surroundings, you will deplete them and die. Even for your renewable surroundings like trees, if you exploit them faster than they can regenerate, you will deplete them and die. This is precisely what civilization has been doing for its 10,000-year campaign – running through soil, rivers, and forests as well as metal, coal, and oil.

  1. Industrial civilization is causing a global collapse of life.

Due to industrial civilization’s insatiable appetite for growth, we have exceeded the planet’s carrying capacity. Once the carrying capacity of an area is surpassed, the ecological community is severely damages, and the longer the overshoot lasts, the worse the damage, until the population eventually collapses. This collapse is happening now. Every 24 hours up to 200 species become extinct. 90% of the large fish in the oceans are gone. 98% of native forests, 99% of wetlands, and 99% of native grasslands have been wiped out.

bossen-wereldwijd-steeds-verder-gefragmenteerd-

  1. Industrial civilization is based on and requires ongoing systematic violence to operate.

This way of life is based on the perceived right of the powerful to take whatever resources they want. All land on which industrial civilization is now based on land that was taken by force from its original inhabitants, and shaped using processes – industrial forestry, mining, smelting – that violently shape the world to industrial ends. Traditional communities do not often voluntarily give up or sell resources on which their communities and homes are based and do not willingly allow their landbases to be damaged so that other resources – gold, oil, and so on – can be extracted. It follows that those who want the resources will do what they can to acquire these resources by any means necessary. Resource extraction cannot be accomplished without force and exploitation.

  1. In order for the world as we know it to exist on a day-to-day basis, a vast and growing degree of destruction and death must occur.

Industrialization is a process of taking entire communities of living beings and turning them into commodities and dead zones. Trace every industrial artifact back to its source­ and you find the same devastation: mining, clear-cuts, dams, agriculture, and now tar sands, mountaintop removal, and wind farms. These atrocities, and others like them, happen all around us, every day, just to keep things running normally. There is no kinder, greener version of industrial civilization that will do the trick of leaving us a living planet.

  1. This way of being is not natural.

Humans and their immediate evolutionary predecessors lived sustainably for at least a million years. It is not “human nature” to destroy one’s habitat. The “centralization of political power, the separation of classes, the lifetime division of labor, the mechanization of production, the magnification of military power, the economic exploitation of the weak, and the universal introduction of slavery and forced labor for both industrial and military purposes”[1] are only chief features of civilization, and are constant throughout its history.

  1. Industrial civilization is only possible with cheap energy.

The only reason industrial processes such as large-scale agriculture and mining even function is because of cheap oil; without that, industrial processes go back to depending on slavery and serfdom, as in most of the history of civilization.

  1. Peak oil, and hence the era of cheap oil, has passed.

Peak oil is the point at which oil production hits its maximum rate. Peak oil has passed and extraction will decline from this point onwards. This rapid decline in the availability of global energy will result in increasing economic disruption and upset. The increasing cost and decreasing supply of energy will undermine manufacturing and transportation and cause global economic turmoil. Individuals, companies, and even states will go bankrupt. International trade will nosedive because of a global depression. The poor will be unable to cope with the increasing cost of basic goods, and eventually the financial limits will result in large-scale energy-intensive manufacturing becoming impossible – resulting in, among other things – the collapse of agricultural infrastructure, and the associated transportation and distribution network.

At this point in time, there are no good short-term outcomes for global human society. The collapse of industrial civilization is inevitable, with or without our input, it’s just a matter of time. The problem is that every day the gears of this destructive system continue grinding is another day it wages war on the natural world. With up to 200 species and more than 80,000 acres of rainforest being wiped out daily as just some of the atrocities occurring systematically to keep our lifestyles afloat, the sooner this collapse is induced the better.

  1. “Green technologies” and “renewable energy” are not sustainable and will not save the planet.

Solar panels and wind turbines aren’t made out of nothing.  These “green” technologies are made out of metals, plastics, and chemicals. These products have been mined out of the ground, transported vast distances, processed and manufactured in big factories, and require regular maintenance. Each of these stages causes widespread environmental destruction, and each of these stages is only possible with the mass use of cheap energy from fossil fuels. Neither fossil fuels nor mined minerals will ever be sustainable; by definition, they will run out. Even recycled materials must undergo extremely energy-intensive production processes before they can be reused.[2]

1280px-Havvindparken_Sheringham_Shoal

  1. Personal consumption habits will not save the planet.

Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption for organized political resistance. Personal consumption habits — changing light bulbs, going vegan, shorter showers, recycling, taking public transport — have nothing to do with shifting power away from corporations, or stopping the growth economy that is destroying the planet. Besides, 90% of the water used by humans is used by agriculture and industry. Three quarters of energy is consumed and 95% of waste is produced by commercial, industrial, corporate, agricultural and military industries. By blaming the individual, we are accepting capitalism’s redefinition of us from citizens to consumers, reducing our potential forms of resistance to consuming and not consuming.

  1. There will not be a mass voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living.

The current material systems of power make any chance of significant social or political reform impossible. Those in power get too many benefits from destroying the planet to allow systematic changes which would reduce their privilege. Keeping this system running is worth more to them than the human and non-human lives destroyed by the extraction, processing, and utilization of natural resources.

  1. We are afraid.

The primary reason we don’t resist is because we are afraid. We know if we act decisively to protect the places and creatures we love or if we act decisively to stop corporate exploitation of the poor, that those in power will come down on us with the full power of the state. We can talk all we want about how we live in a democracy, and we can talk all we want about the consent of the governed. But what it really comes down to is that if you effectively oppose the will of those in power, they will try to kill you. We need to make that explicit so we can face the situation we’re in: those in power are killing the planet and they are exploiting the poor, and we are not stopping them because we are afraid. This is how authoritarian regimes and abusers work: they make their victims and bystanders afraid to act.

  1. If we only fight within the system, we lose.

Things will not suddenly change by using the same approaches we’ve been using for the past 30 years. When nothing is working to stop or even slow the destruction’s acceleration, then it is time to change your strategy. Until now, most of our tactics and discourse (whether civil disobedience, writing letters and books, carrying signs, protecting small patches of forest, filing lawsuits, or conducting scientific research) remain firmly embedded in whatever actions are authorized by the overarching structures that permit the destruction in the first place.

Strip_coal_mining

  1. Dismantling industrial civilization is the only rational, permanent solution.

Our strategies until now have failed because neither our violent nor nonviolent responses are attempts to rid us of industrial civilization itself. By allowing the framing conditions to remain, we guarantee a continuation of the behaviors these framing conditions necessitate. If we do not put a halt to it, civilization will continue to immiserate the vast majority of humans and to degrade the planet until it (civilization, and probably the planet) collapses. The longer we wait for civilization to crash – or we ourselves bring it down – the messier will be the crash, and the worse things will be for those humans and nonhumans who live during it, and for those who come after.

  1. Militant resistance works.

Study of past social insurgencies and resistance movements shows that specific types of asymmetric warfare strategies are extremely effective.

  1. We must build a culture of resistance.

Some things, including a living planet, that are worth fighting for at any cost, when other means of stopping the abuses have been exhausted. One of the good things about industrial civilization being so ubiquitously destructive, is that no matter where you look – no matter what your gifts, no matter where your heart lies – there’s desperately important work to be done. Some of us need to file timber sales appeals and lawsuits. Some need to help family farmers or work on other sustainable agriculture issues. Some need to work on rape crisis hot lines, or at battered women’s shelters. Some need to work on fair trade, or on stopping international trade altogether. Some of us need to take down dams, oil pipelines, mining equipment, and electrical infrastructure. [NOTE: I am NOT in favor of taking down dams…]

We need to fight for what we love, fight harder than we have ever thought we could fight, because the bottom line is that any option in which industrial civilization remains, results in a dead planet.

 

Parts of this article were drawn from Deep Green Resistance: A Strategy to Save the Planet, by Aric McBay, Lierre Keith, and Derrick Jensen.

[1] Lewis Mumford, Myth of the Machine, Volume 2,  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970, page 186.

[2] Recycled materials also usually degrade over time, limiting their recycling potential.





Why we are so bad at dealing with Limits to Growth..

15 05 2016

ilargi

Raul Ilargi

I know I am prone to say “this is the best thing I have read in years”, but honestly, this essay by Ilargi of The Automatic Earth fame is something else……  read and enjoy, and share widely.  Originally published here…. and republished with the intent of spreading the word.

 

“As individuals we need to drastically reduce our dependence on the runaway big systems, banking, the grid, transport etc., that we ourselves built like so many sorcerers apprentices, because as societies we can’t fix the runaway problems with those systems, and they are certain to drag us down with them if we let them.”

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I came upon this quote a few weeks ago in an interview that Der Spiegel had with Dennis Meadows, co-author of the Limits to Growth report published by the Club of Rome 40 years ago. Yes, the report that has been much maligned and later largely rehabilitated. But that’s not my topic here, and neither is Meadows himself. It’s the quote, and it pretty much hasn’t left me alone since I read it.

Here’s the short version:

[..] … we are going to evolve through crisis, not through proactive change.

And here it is in its context:

‘Limits to Growth’ Author Dennis Meadows ‘Humanity Is Still on the Way to Destroying Itself’

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Professor Meadows, 40 years ago you published “The Limits to Growth” together with your wife and colleagues, a book that made you the intellectual father of the environmental movement. The core message of the book remains valid today: Humanity is ruthlessly exploiting global resources and is on the way to destroying itself. Do you believe that the ultimate collapse of our economic system can still be avoided?

Meadows: The problem that faces our societies is that we have developed industries and policies that were appropriate at a certain moment, but now start to reduce human welfare, like for example the oil and car industry. Their political and financial power is so great and they can prevent change. It is my expectation that they will succeed. This means that we are going to evolve through crisis, not through proactive change.

I don’t really think that Dennis Meadows understands how true that is. I may be wrong, but I think he’s talking about a specific case here . While what he makes me ponder is that perhaps this is all we have, and always, that it’s a universal truth. That we can never solve our real big problems through proactive change. That we can only get to a next step by letting the main problems we face grow into full-blown crises, and that our only answer is to let that happen.

And then we come out on the other side, or we don’t, but it’s not because we find the answer to the problem itself, we simply adapt to what there is at the other side of the full-blown crisis we were once again unable to halt in its tracks. Adapt like rats do, and crocodiles, cockroaches, no more and no less.

This offers a nearly completely ignored insight into the way we deal with problems. We don’t change course in order to prevent ourselves from hitting boundaries. We hit the wall face first, and only then do we pick up the pieces and take it from there.

Jacques Cousteau was once quite blunt about it:

The road to the future leads us smack into the wall. We simply ricochet off the alternatives that destiny offers: a demographic explosion that triggers social chaos and spreads death, nuclear delirium and the quasi-annihilation of the species… Our survival is no more than a question of 25, 50 or perhaps 100 years.

Without getting into specific predictions the way Cousteau did: If that is as true as I suspect it is, the one thing it means is that we fool ourselves a whole lot. The entire picture we have created about ourselves, consciously, sub-consciously, un-consciously, you name it, is abjectly false. At least the one I think we have. Which is that we see ourselves as capable of engineering proactive changes in order to prevent crises from blowing up.

That erroneous self-image leads us to one thing only: the phantom prospect of a techno-fix becomes an excuse for not acting. In that regard, it may be good to remember that one of the basic tenets of the Limits to Growth report was that variables like world population, industrialization and resource depletion grow exponentially, while the (techno) answer to them grows only linearly.

First, I should perhaps define what sorts of problems I’m talking about. Sure, people build dams and dikes to keep water from flooding their lands. And we did almost eradicate smallpox. But there will always be another flood coming, or a storm, and there will always be another disease popping up (viruses and bacteria adapt faster than we do).

In a broader sense, we have gotten rid of some diseases, but gotten some new ones in return. And yes, average life expectancy has gone up, but it’s dependent entirely on the affordability and availability of lots of drugs, which in turn depend on oil being available.

And if I can be not PC for a moment, this all leads to another double problem. 1) A gigantic population explosion with a lot of members that 2) are, if not weaklings, certainly on average much weaker physically than their ancestors. Which is perhaps sort of fine as long as those drugs are there, but not when they’re not.

It’s quite simple, isn’t it? Increasing wealth makes us destroy ancient multi-generational family structures (re: the nuclear family, re: old-age homes), societal community structures (who knows their neighbors, and engages in meaningful activity with them?), and the very planet that has provided the means for increasing our wealth (and our population!).

And in our drive towards what we think are more riches, we are incapable of seeing these consequences. Let alone doing something about them. We have become so dependent, as modern western men and women, on the blessings of our energy surplus and technology that 9 out of 10 of us wouldn’t survive if we had to do without them.

Nice efforts, in other words, but no radical solutions. And yes, we did fly to the moon, too, but not flying to the moon wasn’t a problem to start with.

Maybe the universal truth I suspect there is in Meadows’ quote applies “specifically” to a “specific” kind of problem: The ones we create ourselves.

We can’t reasonably expect to control nature, and we shouldn’t feel stupid if we can’t (not exactly a general view to begin with, I know). And while one approach to storms and epidemics is undoubtedly better than another, both will come to back to haunt us no matter what we do. So as far as natural threats go, it’s a given that when the big one hits we can only evolve through crisis. We can mitigate. At best.

However: we can create problems ourselves too. And not just that. We can create problems that we can’t solve. Where the problem evolves at an exponential rate, and our understanding of it only grows linearly. That’s what that quote is about for me, and that’s what I think is sorely missing from our picture of ourselves.

In order to solve problems we ourselves create, we need to understand these problems. And since we are the ones who create them, we need to first understand ourselves to understand our problems.

Moreover, we will never be able to either understand or solve our crises if we don’t acknowledge how we – tend to – deal with them. That is, we don’t avoid or circumvent them, we walk right into them and, if we’re lucky, come out at the other end.

Point in case: we’re not solving any of our current problems, and what’s more: as societies, we’re not even seriously trying, we’re merely paying lip service. To a large extent this is because our interests are too different. To a lesser extent (or is it?) this is because we – inadvertently – allow the more psychopathic among us to play an outsize role in our societies.

Of course there are lots of people who do great things individually or in small groups, for themselves and their immediate surroundings, but far too many of us draw the conclusion from this that such great things can be extended to any larger scale we can think of. And that is a problem in itself: it’s hard for us to realize that many things don’t scale up well. A case in point, though hardly anyone seems to realize it, is that solving problems itself doesn’t scale up well.

Now, it is hard enough for individuals to know themselves, but it’s something altogether different, more complex and far more challenging for the individuals in a society, to sufficiently know that society in order to correctly identify its problems, find solutions, and successfully implement them. In general, the larger the scale of the group, the society, the harder this is.

Meadows makes a perhaps somewhat confusing distinction between universal and global problems, but it does work:

You see, there are two kinds of big problems. One I call universal problems, the other I call global problems. They both affect everybody. The difference is: Universal problems can be solved by small groups of people because they don’t have to wait for others. You can clean up the air in Hanover without having to wait for Beijing or Mexico City to do the same.

Global problems, however, cannot be solved in a single place. There’s no way Hanover can solve climate change or stop the spread of nuclear weapons. For that to happen, people in China, the US and Russia must also do something. But on the global problems, we will make no progress.

So how do we deal with problems that are global? It’s deceptively simple: We don’t.

All we need to do is look at the three big problems – if not already outright crises – we have right now. And see how are we doing. I’ll leave aside No More War and No More Hunger for now, though they could serve as good examples of why we fail.

There is a more or less general recognition that we face three global problems/crises. Finance, energy and climate change. Climate change should really be seen as part of the larger overall pollution problem. As such, it is closely linked to the energy problem in that both problems are direct consequences of the 2nd law of thermodynamics. If you use energy, you produce waste; use more energy and you produce more waste. And there is a point where you can use too much, and not be able to survive in the waste you yourself have produced.

Erwin Schrödinger described it this way, as quoted by Herman Daly:

Erwin Schrodinger [..] has described life as a system in steady-state thermodynamic disequilibrium that maintains its constant distance from equilibrium (death) by feeding on low entropy from its environment — that is, by exchanging high-entropy outputs for low-entropy inputs. The same statement would hold verbatim as a physical description of our economic process. A corollary of this statement is an organism cannot live in a medium of its own waste products.

The energy crisis flows seamlessly into the climate/pollution crisis. If properly defined, that is. But it hardly ever is. Our answer to our energy problems is to first of all find more and after that maybe mitigate the worst by finding a source that’s less polluting.

So we change a lightbulb and get a hybrid car. That’s perhaps an answer to the universal problem, and only perhaps, but it in no way answers the global one. With a growing population and a growing average per capita consumption, both energy demand and pollution keep rising inexorably. And the best we can do is pay lip service. Sure, we sign up for less CO2 and less waste of energy, but we draw the line at losing global competitiveness.

The bottom line is that we may have good intentions, but we utterly fail when it comes to solutions. And if we fail with regards to energy, we fail when it comes to the climate and our broader living environment, also known as the earth.

We can only solve our climate/pollution problem if we use a whole lot less energy resources. Not just individually, but as a world population. Since that population is growing, those of us that use most energy will need to shrink our consumption more every passing day. And every day we don’t do that leads to more poisoned rivers, empty seas and oceans, barren and infertile soil. But we refuse to even properly define the problem, let alone – even try to – solve it.

Anyway, so our energy problem needs to be much better defined than it presently is. It’s not that we’re running out, but that we use too much of it and kill the medium we live in, and thereby ourselves, in the process. But how much are we willing to give up? And even if we are, won’t someone else simply use up anyway what we decided not to? Global problems blow real time.

The more we look at this, the more we find we look just like the reindeer on Matthew Island, the bacteria in the petri dish, and the yeast in the wine vat. We burn through all surplus energy as fast as we can find ways to burn it. The main difference, the one that makes us tragic, is that we can see ourselves do it, not that we can stop ourselves from doing it.

Nope, we’ll burn through it all if we can (but we can’t ’cause we’ll suffocate in our own waste first). And if we’re lucky (though that’s a point of contention) we’ll be left alive to be picking up the pieces when we’re done.

Our third big global problem is finance slash money slash economy. It not only has the shortest timeframe, it also invokes the highest level of denial and delusion, and the combination may not be entirely coincidental. The only thing our “leaders” do is try and keep the baby going at our expense, and we let them. We’ve created a zombie and all we’re trying to do is keep it walking so everyone including ourselves will believe it’s still alive. That way the zombie can eat us from within.

We’re like a deer in a pair of headlights, standing still as can be and putting our faith in whoever it is we put in the driver’s seat. And too, what is it, stubborn, thick headed?, to consider the option that maybe the driver likes deer meat.

Our debt levels, in the US, Europe and Japan, just about all of them and from whatever angle you look, are higher than they’ve been at any point in human history, and all we’ve done now for five years plus running is trust a band of bankers and shady officials to fix it all for us, just because we’re scared stiff and we think we’re too stupid to know what’s going on anyway. You know, they should know because they have the degrees and/or the money to show for it. That those can also be used for something 180 degrees removed from the greater good doesn’t seem to register.

We are incapable of solving our home made problems and crises for a whole series of reasons. We’re not just bad at it, we can’t do it at all. We’re incapable of solving the big problems, the global ones.

We evolve the way Stephen Jay Gould described evolution: through punctuated equilibrium. That is, we pass through bottlenecks, forced upon us by the circumstances of nature, only in the case of the present global issues we are nature itself. And there’s nothing we can do about it. If we don’t manage to understand this dynamic, and very soon, those bottlenecks will become awfully narrow passages, with room for ever fewer of us to pass through.

As individuals we need to drastically reduce our dependence on the runaway big systems, banking, the grid, transport etc., that we ourselves built like so many sorcerers apprentices, because as societies we can’t fix the runaway problems with those systems, and they are certain to drag us down with them if we let them.





Limits to growth: policies to steer the economy away from disaster

21 04 2016

Samuel Alexander, University of Melbourne

If the rich nations in the world keep growing their economies by 2% each year and by 2050 the poorest nations catch up, the global economy of more than 9 billion people will be around 15 times larger than it is now, in terms of gross domestic product (GDP). If the global economy then grows by 3% to the end of the century, it will be 60 times larger than now.

The existing economy is already environmentally unsustainable. It is utterly implausible to think we can “decouple” economic growth from environmental impact so significantly, especially since recent decades of extraordinary technological advancement have only increased our impacts on the planet, not reduced them.

Moreover, if you asked politicians whether they’d rather have 4% growth than 3%, they’d all say yes. This makes the growth trajectory outlined above all the more absurd.

Others have shown why limitless growth is a recipe for disaster. I’ve argued that living in a degrowth economy would actually increase well-being, both socially and environmentally. But what would it take to get there?

In a new paper published by the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, I look at government policies that could facilitate a planned transition beyond growth – and I reflect on the huge obstacles lying in the way.

Measuring progress

First, we need to know what we’re aiming for.

It is now widely recognised that GDP – the monetary value of all goods and services produced in an economy – is a deeply flawed measure of progress.

GDP can be growing while our environment is being degraded, inequality is worsening, and social well-being is stagnant or falling. Better indicators of progress include the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), which accounts for a wide range of social, economic and environmental factors.

Cap resources and energy

Environmental impact is driven by demand for resources and energy. It is now clear that the planet cannot possibly support current or bigger populations if developing nations used the same amount of resources and energy as developed nations.

Demand can be reduced through efficiency gains (doing more with less), but these gains tend to be reinvested in more growth and consumption, rather than reducing impacts.

A post-growth economy would therefore need diminishing “resource caps” to achieve sustainability. These would aim to limit a nation’s consumption to a “fair share” of available resources. This in turn would stimulate efficiency, technological innovation and recycling, thereby minimising waste.

This means that a post-growth economy will need to produce and consume in far less resource-intensive ways, which will almost certainly mean reduced GDP. There will of course be scope to progress in other ways, such as increased leisure time and community engagement.

Work less, live more

Growth in GDP is often defended on the grounds that it is required to keep unemployment at manageable levels. So jobs will have to maintained in other ways.

Even though GDP has been growing quite consistently in recent decades, many Westerners, including Australians, still seem to be locked into a culture of overwork.

By reducing the average working week to 28 hours, a post-growth economy would share the available work among the working population. This would minimise or eliminate unemployment even in a non-growing or contracting economy.

Lower income would mean we would have less stuff, reducing environmental impact, but we would receive more freedom in exchange. Planned degrowth is therefore very different to unplanned recession.

Redirect public spending

Governments are the most significant player in any economy and have the most spending power. Taking limits to growth seriously will require a fundamental rethink of how public funds are invested and spent.

Among other things, this would include a swift divestment from the fossil fuel economy and reinvestment in renewable energy systems. But just as important is investing in efficiency and reducing energy demand through behaviour change. Obviously, it will be much easier to transition to 100% renewable energy if energy demand is a fraction of what it is today.

We could fund this transition by redirecting funds from military spending (climate change is, after all, a security threat), cutting fossil fuel subsidies and putting an adequate price on carbon.

Reform banking and finance

Banking and finance systems essentially have a “growth imperative” built into their structures. Money is loaned into existence by private banks as interest-bearing debt. Paying back the debt plus the interest requires an expansion of the monetary supply.

There is so much public and private debt today that the only way it could be paid back is via decades of continued growth.

So we need deep reform of banking and finance systems. We’d also need to cancel debt in some circumstances, especially in developing nations that are being suffocated by interest payments to rich world lenders.

The population question

Then there’s population. Many people assume that population growth will slow when the developing world gets rich, but to globalise affluence would be environmentally catastrophic. It is absolutely imperative therefore that nations around the world unite to confront the population challenge directly.

Population policies will inevitably be controversial but the world needs bold and equitable leadership on this issue, because current trends suggest we are heading for 11 billion by the end of this century.

Anyone who casually dismisses the idea that there is a limit to how many people Earth can support should be given a Petri dish with a swab of bacteria. Watch as the colony grows until it consumes all of the available nutrients or is poisoned by its own waste.

The first thing needed is a global fund that focuses on providing the education, empowerment and contraception required to minimise the estimated 87 million unintended pregnancies worldwide every year.

Eliminating poverty

The conventional path to poverty alleviation is the strategy of GDP growth, on the assumption that “a rising tide will lift all boats”. But, as I’ve argued, a rising tide will sink all boats.

Poverty alleviation must be achieved more directly, via redistribution of wealth and power, both nationally and internationally. In other words (and to change the metaphor), a post-growth economy would eliminate poverty not by baking an ever-larger pie (which isn’t working) but by sharing it differently.

The richest 62 people on the planet own more than the poorest half of humanity. Dwell on that for a moment, and then dare to tell me that redistribution is not an imperative of justice.

So what’s stopping us?

Despite these post-growth policy proposals seeming coherent, they face at least four huge obstacles – which may be insurmountable.

First, the paradigm of growth is deeply embedded in national governments, especially in the developed world. At the cultural level, the expectation of ever-increasing affluence is as strong as ever. I am not so deluded as to think otherwise.

Second, these policies would directly undermine the economic interests of the most powerful corporations and institutions in society, so fierce resistance should be expected.

Third, and perhaps most challenging, is that in a globalised world these policies would likely trigger either capital flight or economic collapse, or both. For example, how would the stock markets react to this policy agenda?

Finally, there is also a geopolitical risk in being first to adopt these policies. Reduced military spending, for instance, would reduce a nation’s relative power.

So if these “top-down” policies are unlikely to work, it would seem to follow that if a post-growth economy is to emerge, it may have to be driven into existence from below, with communities coming together to build the new economy at the grassroots level.

And if we face a future where the growth economy grows itself to death, which seems to be the most likely scenario, then building up local resilience and self-sufficiency now will prove to be time and energy well spent.

In the end, it is likely that only when a deep crisis arrives will an ethics of sufficiency come to inform our economic thinking and practice more broadly.

The Conversation

Samuel Alexander, Research fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.