Standing with Our Toes Over the Edge

What we humans optimistically call civilization these days is only the most recent of many civilizations that have come and gone, rising to shine briefly, then slowly decline, fail and disappear into the basement storage room of history. Our turn is coming, perhaps sooner than anyone expects.

Not long after I escaped from my obligatory military service in the 1970s, I studied Earth Science at a small “Normal” school (what we now call a teacher’s college) in Western Nebraska. My major professor, Dr. Larry Agenbroad, was a charismatic figure in the classroom and the field, much the favorite of the female contingent of our academic cohort. And he was wise in the ways of Earth and Mankind. Alas, he is no longer alive to pass on his knowledge.

In classes in geomorphology he taught us some very practical geological wisdom, such as don’t build your house in a flood plain or on the slope of an “extinct” volcano.

He also taught us that modern industrial agriculture had been developed during a geologic period of unusually stable, warm and wet weather, called the Holocene, and that one of these days conditions would change and we would be unable to grow enough food to feed an exponentially expanding human population.

In a petroleum geology class, he taught us about, as you might guess, petroleum, the sticky remains of ancient sunlight, turned into a concentrated energy source by time, pressure, temperature and Standard Oil. He mentioned in passing that this resource is finite, that when it is gone there will be no replacement, and we had better be thinking of making it last as long as possible if want to keep on the current path of civilization.

Dr. Agenbroad’s vision has come back to haunt us all.

Our civilization has two great challenges before it right now, challenges that have no solutions, that humans cannot forestall, that are as  inevitable as sunrise and sunset:  Peak Oil and Climate Change.

Peak Oil is the point at which annual oil consumption surpasses the annual amount of oil we discover in new oil fields. This point has passed globally. Climate Change is the slow change of global climate conditions through the phases of glacial and interglacial periods that the world has experienced for the past 2.6 million years.

The “oil crisis” of the early 1970s brought Peak Oil to public attention. There’s nothing like sitting in a long line of cars at a gas station to make you realize oil is a finite resource. At about the same time, meteorologists noticed that global temperatures were declining and they began talking about the dangers of global climate variation.

These two observations got some people to start thinking about the future of civilization. Unfortunately, those doing the thinking were an integral part of the military-industrial complex, and the result was the oil wars of Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan, attempts to consolidate control of the last large untapped oil reserves in the world.

This new direction in United States foreign policy was hatched in George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force, officially called the National Energy Policy Development Group (NEPDG) of 2001. In over 10 months of secret meetings, government officials met with petroleum, coal, nuclear, natural gas, and electricity industry representatives and lobbyists to decide how to conduct the future energy polices of the United States government.

Meanwhile, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Bank, who up to then had pretty much held a stranglehold on the global economy, suddenly realized that if world petroleum supplies ran short, the Global Economy was going into the toilet in a big way. The result was the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), created to give policy advice to world governments on how to deal with human caused climate change (aka Global Warming).

That advice was, and is, rich countries give lots of money to poor countries, as guilt payment for the climate change the rich countries have caused, to bring poor countries into the Global Economy before it collapses under the weight of its own impossibility.

All of these national and international shenanigans were a last ditch attempt to control the uncontrollable, to solve the problems for which there are no solutions, and to try to avoid those unavoidable realities of Peak Oil and Climate Change.

As Albert Einstein noted in the 1940s:

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Peak Oil is the result of building a high energy, high consumption civilization on a finite resource, with insufficient resources to continue when the finite source runs out. It’s as if I won a lottery and bought a mansion that requires more monthly expenses to maintain than I make in my regular salary. Once the lottery winnings are spent, I don’t have enough money to pay the regular expenses, and the house is foreclosed.

The IPCC is an attempt to find a technological fix for climate change, to “stop” global warming” so our burgeoning population and it’s constantly growing economy can continue indefinitely.

But climate change is not the problem. Climate change has continued for millennia, long before humans came on the scene. The problem is that humans have built a civilization based on the assumption of a static climate, that will continue into the future indefinitely, as it has for the past 100 years.

A simple geology class would disabuse even a freshman college student of that myth.

The twin challenges humans face today, Peak Oil and Climate Change, we ourselves created by way of our highly technocratic civilization. Our energy intensive technology is the problem, not the solution. Further technology cannot “solve” these problems, they can only make them worse.

When you’re standing on the precipice with your toes dangling out over the edge, you can do one of two things: you can take a step backwards, or, if you don’t like moving backwards, you can turn around and take a step forward.

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Wind Power “Rescues” New York Nuke

nuclear_wind

In a recent article in Bloomberg Business, Naureen Malik described how wind power helped make up for lost electricity production in New York state when a nuclear power plant was partially shut down.

 

A nuclear reactor that supplies Manhattan unexpectedly went offline Monday night, though you wouldn’t know it to look at power prices.

Source: Wind Rescues New York Power After Nuclear Plant Shutdown – Bloomberg Business

The article implies that clean wind energy generation substituted for dirty fossil fuel and nuclear energy production, and, as an extra added attraction, turned out to be cheaper. This conclusion is tempered a bit by the admission toward the end of the article that natural gas power plants were also brought on line to take up the slack.

Promises of a solar and wind energy future with energy consumption just like today cast a deceptive glow on the horizon, as renewable energy sources require fossil fuel subsidies, since they are produced (mined, transported, forged, manufactured, assembled, transported, installed, maintained, dismantled and recycled) using fossil fuels. We can’t produce renewable energy technology using only renewable energy sources. We can’t pull ourselves up by our own renewable bootstraps.

Nevertheless, energy companies are erecting thousands of acres of wind farms on ridge tops around the world, papering desert floors with solar panel arrays, and constructing huge centralized solar mirror arrays in attempts to concentrate solar and wind energy so it can be distributed and sold in the existing electricity grid. This is being touted as the solution to Global Warming, claiming that this will produce fewer CO2 emissions than oil, coal, and natural gas.

While it remains to be seen if solar and wind can replace all fossil fuels, it is abundantly clear that wind and solar technologies also bring with them their own unique environmental consequences.

Wind turbines are hell on birds and bats, especially raptors that have floated serenely for centuries in the same windy places now sought out by wind turbine installers, and for the same reason: abundant, reliable  energy from the wind.

Wind turbines are shockingly noisy, as my wife and I discovered while hiking in the hills above Livermore, California, home to an extensive array of large wind turbines. We began hearing the sound before we topped a ridge, with nothing in sight to explain the noise and vibration. As we walked over the top , we saw the turbine blades spinning above the ridge and realized the sound we had been hearing from over a quarter mile away on the other side of the ridge was from a wind farm. In addition, the previously undeveloped ridge slopes had been carved and graded with a series of roads for the installation and continuing maintenance of the turbines.

Solar panels don’t have turbine blades, but they do require vast swaths of previously undeveloped land for their installation, access roads and chain link fencing to keep out all the critters that were displaced in the solar installation.

Solar mirror arrays concentrate the energy of sunlight into a tight fiery beam that hits a target and heats a liquid medium that is used to generate electricity. Any hapless flying creatures that enter the invisible beam are burned to a crisp instantly.

The benign image of renewable green energy resources depicted behind a herd of deer or antelope is belied by the reality of their destructive impacts on the natural habitat they occupy.

The truth is, there’s no free lunch, there’s not even a relatively inexpensive snack. Producing and consuming energy, even renewable energy, results in destruction of natural habitats, toxic waste production, the death, disruption and displacement of wildlife, and challenges to the health and safety of humans.

In a world of finite resources, any unlimited growth and development causes more problems than benefits for all of life on the planet.

 

The Global Phone Booth

cell library

Yesterday, I rode my bicycle to the library. You remember the library, the place with books on shelves, uncomfortable chairs to sit on and read, blond wood tables, squeaky wood floors, and the woman at the massive desk in front of the card files who scowled and shushed anyone who dared talk above a whisper.

What? Libraries aren’t like that anymore? Sad, but all too true.

Nowadays, people talk in the library, not only above a whisper, but at full volume. Activities at one end of the building echo through the entire edifice, making reading an illusory occupation. The clack of computer keys drowns out the soft turning of pages, and the bip and boop of the electronic check-out devices competes with the voices of library staff trying to explain how to use them.

The one thing I didn’t expect, the one thing for which I have zero tolerance, was the cell phone conversation going on in the corner of the Fiction section, where I was attempting to read the dust jacket copy of my next foray into the predictable world of Robert Parker and his gumshoe Spencer.

I looked up with my best incredulous Peter Lorre expression, and whispered, “Please, no cell phone calls in the library.” Suffice it to say the budding social relationship between library patrons went downhill from there.

Bias alert: My wife and I have never owned a cell phone, do not now own a cell phone and never will own a cell phone.

I first encountered a cell phone in 1995. My brother, a radiologist, had one. He handed the wee plastic thingie to me and said, “Here, you can talk to Mom.” I ended up talking to my sister-in-law because my mother was a mile ahead of her in another car heading north on the Denali Highway, the car with no cell phone in it.

Cell phones have to be the singularly most destructively indispensable device never needed by human beings. Who’d have guessed that the clunky car phone found in Mercedes Benz luxury cars in the 80s would turn into the tiny pack-of-cards sized ubiquitous center of obsession of 4.1 billion people 30 years later?

Cell phones are environmentally destructive, requiring mining, transportation and disposal of rare minerals and toxic waste products.

Each cell phone uses 4,221 megajoules of energy per year (equivalent of 32 gallons of gasoline). Cell phones are so cheap and easily disposable, each year 140,000,000 are discarded and replaced, adding 80,000 pounds of lead to leach into the earth, depositing 4.7 tons of gold and 49 tons of silver scattered into landfills across the globe. It takes the equivalent of 584,000 gallons of gas to charge all the cell phones in use on Earth every day.

The support structure for that unnecessary chat with a friend inside the house in front of which one is parked consists of cell phone towers, microwave systems, satellites blasted leagues into space and bazillions of ergs of energy coursing through the earth, the air and outer space. The total energy involved in maintaining cell phone conversations around the world would light the homes and heat the dinners of millions of families around the world too poor to afford a cell phone connection.

These are just the physical effects. The social changes wrought by cell phones are enormous and largely unappreciated.

In a world obsessed with computer privacy, cell phone communicators carry on their conversations in a loud voice in public places (such as libraries), unconcerned about anyone listening in, even to their most intimate discussions. Cell phones are easily tracked and monitored, even without court orders and government mandates. The cell phone user’s location can be triangulated and pinpointed by anyone with proper tools and incentives.

If that isn’t bad enough, cell phones have crappy audio quality. The most frequent question asked on a cell phone (following the obligatory “Where are you?) is “What? followed closely by “Huh?” And that’s for stationary cell phones. Add motion and car wind noise and cell phone conversions rival bus station announcements for incomprehensibility.

Judging by our daily walks, cell phones have become a handy excuse to avoid eye contact and affable greetings among the few other pedestrians we encounter. One of our favorite past times is to watch a cell phoner walk toward us, eyes in rapt contact with the tiny glowing screen, whereupon we loudly say, “Look up!” just before they would bump into us. They look up, startled, jerked back into consciousness of their surroundings.

That’s the real price of cell phones: unawareness. Those walking about lifting their electronic teat to their face every ten seconds are oblivious of the world around them. They carry their digital cocoon with them, their minds far, far away, wrapped in the febrile vibrations of cell phone towers, satellites and tiny flat computers. Cell phoners driving automobiles are frequently known to drive into telephone poles, their eyes glued to the tiny screen as their vertical target approaches.

One might think that cell phones are becoming a force of evolution, an unnatural selection process reducing the adaptation of Homo cellphonensis to existing environmental conditions.

One might hope.

It would take a library full of reports to document the negative effects of cell phones and cell phone technology to the Earth and all its inhabitants.

But then, who reads, with all that computer power at your fingertips?

Who pays attention?

Who thinks?

Digital Media is not the Same as Print

    As I grew up, in the analog world, I was taught cursive handwriting, reading skills and critical thinking skills because the written word was the medium of cultural transmission. Throughout my work life, I worked in visual media, first photography and motion picture film, then video, and finally, reluctantly, digital imagery and computer graphics, web pages and email.

    As a photography lab manager and museum curator, I was concerned first and foremost with archival preservation of text and images. I quickly learned that the only archival preservation process is printing on low-acid materials, stored in archival containers and kept in stable storage environments.

    Nothing else lasts.

    No other information storage process is archival. All digital media will be lost in the future, unless it is transferred to archival materials, or constantly copied to the latest digital format in use. Left to their own devices, all digital media will degrade in 25 to 50 years, resulting in permanent information lost absent any further curatorial processes.

    As we contemplate a future with less energy available for industrial processes, the prospect for digital information storage is grim. Digital storage requires immense amounts of reliable energy, available on demand 24 hours a day. No one knows how long we can keep up this energy intensive practice, much less how it can be expanded to meet exponentially growing information demands.
   
     Also, and maybe even more importantly, watching a video on a computer, or other electronic device, is not the same as reading a book. Information processing in the human brain functions differently when observing visual imagery than when reading printed words. Something about the left to right perception, translation of words to thoughts, pausing for reflection and review, create a perception completely different between the two media.

    Studies show that understanding and retention are less when watching visual material on a computer than reading the same content in a physical book. Taking notes by hand results in greater retention of the material than typing it into a computer. I know this from my own experience. Using a laptop, I can take notes of a meeting far faster and more accurately than writing by hand in a notebook, but I remember and understand less when written on the keyboard.

    I would caution against depending on a “tools course for visual literacy” for students coming into the world. Teach them the basics first, reading, writing and maths, then, when they’ve mastered the analog tools, teach them the digital shortcuts.

The Future is the Here and Now – Only More So

The future changes faster than we can keep up.

Here within the confines of our Coastal County, the future is changing so fast that local government officials and institutions haven’t kept up with the way the future was, let alone with what the future is fast becoming.

City and County governments are still responding to the current economic implosion by promoting more and more economic and infrastructure growth, not realizing that it is growth that is creating the local economic implosion.

As I’ve said several times before, bureaucracy plans for the past, rarely for the future.

Our Coastal County has reached a state of permanent diminishing returns, in which continued investment in increasingly complex infrastructure results in an increasing inability of the County to maintain and pay for what it already has, let alone what it continues to build. As complexity increases, non-lineal returns take over, such that historic methods of responding to municipal crises no longer work; even worse, they are counterproductive, producing more problems than solutions.

For example, the recent $6.5 million permanent pink permeable pavement shortcut through Arana Gulch, rammed through the City Council as a Public Works make-work project, has resulted in an expanded physical infrastructure handed over to City Parks and Recreation, who have no funds, staff, resources nor even any desire to adequately maintain it. The two extravagant (“wandering beyond”) bridges and their connecting cement umbilicus will remain a financial drain on County coffers until they crumble in well deserved decay and return to the earth from whence they came.

As William Howard Kuntsler tells us, eloquently: “The future is telling us very clearly: get smaller, get finer, get more local, get less complex, get less grandiose, do it now.” (The Broken Template)

This means get off the growth wagon, tell AMBAG what they can do with their continued, unrealistic demands that the County accommodate growth in a world of finite resources. There’s not enough water here for the people who live here now. “Water neutral development” is just a poor euphemism for increased efficiency and reduced per capita consumption, which is held hostage and ultimately overshadowed by population increase. We cannot optimize our way out of the reality of finite resources. Ocean water desalination is no answer either, as finite energy is as restrictive as water, in the long run more so. The post-fracking future bending toward us is the death knell of cheap energy and the inevitable long slide down the muddy slope of energy availability.

The future is less, not more.

And that’s a good thing. Without the distractions of the new and bigger and glitzier, we can relearn to be content with the present, the adequate and sufficient, the resilient, the modest, the tried and true.

We can settle into our own and become indigenous to this place where we live. 

Coming to the wrong conclusions about Peak Oil


This article from Australia Demand for oil to outstrip supply within two years conflates Peak Oil with energy demand, assuming that Peak Oil means oil demand exceeds supply. Peak Oil actually means that point at which oil production irreversibly declines. Current projections, based on rather iffey reserve estimates, suggest that global Peak Oil will be realized some time in the next five years.

The article in “Perth Now” reaches the following conclusions:

“Energy will be king in the coming decades, and we must exploit our (bountiful) resources wisely, while preparing ourselves for much higher prices and potentially lower domestic economic activity (aside from coal and LNG exports).”

Energy has always been king in human societies, whether it was for hunting mammoths, domesticating animals, building steam engines or flying across the Atlantic. Our major human “revolutions:” agricultural, industrial and informational have all revolved around and been inspired by energy concerns.

As to exploiting “our” bountiful resources, it seems there’s been too much of that going on around our poor beleaguered planet of late. Who says they’re our resources to exploit in the first place, anyway? Seems like us Johnny-Come-Latelys on the evolutionary scene owe a bit of forbearance to those species who preceded us and made it possible for us to keep on evolving, if indeed, we ever did.

Economic activity and prices are inventions of this one particular species egotistically called Homo sapiens. They’re not real, at least in the same way that air and water and sun and photosynthesis are real, important and essential. We got along quite well for 100,000 years or so without economics and prices. Seems like the neighborhood has gone rapidly downhill since their invention.

Can we get along with “much higher prices and potentially lower domestic economic activity?” Sure we can. We did quite well during World War II. Prospered even. Well, some of us did anyway. That’s part of the problem.

The whole idea of steadily increasing domestic activity is oversold, and a bad deal to begin with that never got any better. It may have temporarily lined the pockets of a few, while others, including furred and feathered and scaled others, two-legged, four legged and finned, have done rather poorly. Their prospects don’t look any better for the future.

Unless, of course, we get off this obsession with growth for growth sake and devolve back to some semblance of balance, real balance, not the right-wing “I get more balance than you do” concept. “Much higher prices and potentially lower domestic economic activity” will help considerably in that regard, of course, encouraging folks to consume less, stay at home, walk and bicycle more, work fewer hours, grow gardens full of good food and flowers, increasingly contemplate the natural scenery of their neighborhoods with sublime satisfaction. Gather up all the growth maniacs and put them on a secluded island somewhere, ringed with all of our excess military hardware so they cant’ escape. Let ’em grow there, in isolation.

Energy will indeed become king in coming decades, but in terms of saving it rather than expending it. The relaxing “clop,clop” of horses hooves will replace the mind-altering roar of captive automotive horses, with sound systems set on stun. Our streets will return to the commons, where we will meet with our neighbors for convivial conversation, where our dogs will bask undisturbed in the sun, where trees will provide welcome shade, moisture and beauty, where the edges will be marked with flowers and grass rather than hard concrete curbing.

With the End of the Age of Oil we will also come to the End of the Age of Automomotive Oppression.