Articles in topic "Environment/Sustainability"
Posted by nate hagens on August 31, 2013 - 1:33am
For a few years, on Saturdays, theoildrum.com hosted a "Campfire" discussion - with a focus not on charts and graphs, but more on the social science glue connecting the many subjects revolving around energy, the environment and society. Rather than a place to discover correct answers, the forum was intended to be a sandbox where folks interested in the broader implications of our human ecosystem could interact with peers in a cross disciplinary conversation. This sort of “systems overview” has been one of the strong points of the eclectic mix of commenters who helped make TOD unique. We had a weekly Campfire here for a couple years because the dialogue was so diverse and high level.
Before we break Camp, I still hope there will be more insights from the assembled gurus and thinkers who hang out here. Below I provide a brief outline of homo sapiens history in several 'Acts' and then ask theoildrum readers how it could play out. Folks will disagree on specifics, yet it is clear that our current trajectory is unsustainable. The latin name for our species - homo 'sapiens' was perhaps ill-chosen, for given the behaviors accompanying our current moon shot in consumption and population, we are proving to be more clever than wise. We have turned into problem solvers as opposed to visionaries - or at least, our visions have limits measured in human lifespans, or perhaps election cycles. With so much focus on the near term, we've lost awareness of the brighter beacon - despite the fact we are at the material and energetic apex of industrial civilization, throughput and science, we have no real ethic, no blueprint, for the long-term trajectory of our species and our planet’s ecosystems. Scientific evidence shows existential risk for the species, seas, forests, and carrying capacity, being alarmed is the only non-sociopathic response. But will that alarm suffice to steer us away from disaster? How might various things happen in the real world of path-dependence, luck, and emergent effects? And the larger question - to what end are these precursor events happening today?
"Say, How about we turn the site into an Archive?"
Below the fold, following a short history of homo sapiens, I invite oildrum readers to share their visions of what a (more) sustainable human system might look like, not now, and not in the next 20-30 years from now, but in the year 2100 or distant future.
Under what conditions will a technology be able to survive the energy contraction associated with the depletion of fossil fuels? Which types of technologies are sustainable in a world that can only make use of resources that it is producing on its own rather than relying on resources that it inherited from the past? This article, co-authored by Dr. Rodrigo Castro of the University of Buenos Aires, proposes emergy as a physically sound metric of sustainability. Without taking emergy into account, long-term energy analysis may lead to erroneous conclusions with potentially catastrophic consequences.
This is a guest post by Philip A. Rutter, B. L. Rutter-Daywater, and S. J. Wiegrefe. Phil Rutter is the Founding President of The American Chestnut Foundation; trained in ecology and evolution, he has been working in SE Minnesota for 35 years on domesticating several woody plant genera for commodity agriculture-style food production. I know Phil personally and believe in woody agriculture as a partial response to the energy/environmental constraints we face, (and just planted 300 hazelnut seedlings this spring).
In any attempt to comprehend a puzzle, or choose a new path forward, the first requirement is to see and comprehend each of the possibilities. We wish to bring to the attention of the energy community a potential food and biomass energy paradigm, previously unknown, to your considerations.
Our current agricultural paradigm choices include either “industrial” agriculture; large scale with extensive fossil fuel inputs, or the “organic” routes, usually deemed insufficiently productive by professional agronomists. Claims that agriculture can yield significant energy, while also producing the necessary food for the world, are a matter of rancorous dispute.
The current article will present a 3rd paradigm, depending on newly domesticated woody plants for primary food production, equal to industrial agriculture. These crops capture far more solar input than row-crops can; and always also produce wood; some of which will always be available for energy purposes. This work has been quietly underway for 35 years; farmers are now growing the crops. We here present basics on how the energetics work, practices, outputs, and the state of the art.
If you’re one of those humans who actually eats food, like I am, then a non-negligible part of your energy allocation goes into food production. As an approximate rule-of-thumb, each kilocalorie ingested by Americans consumes 10 kilocalories of fossil fuel energy to plant, fertilize, harvest, transport, and prepare. The energy investment can easily exceed a person’s household energy usage—as is the case for me. But much like household energy, we control what we stick in our mouths, and can make energy-conscious choices that result in substantial reductions of energy consumption. I now call myself a flexitarian, a term acknowledging that my body is a flex-fuel vehicle, but also that I need not be rigid about my food choices in order to still make a substantial impact on the energy front.
An earlier post on how many miles per gallon a human gets while walking or biking touched on the fact that fossil fuels undergird our food supply. As a result, walking to the grocery store effectively uses as much fossil fuel as would a typical sedan. The lesson is not to walk less, but to change that 10:1 ratio for the better by eating more smartly. Once upon a time, we put less than one kilocalorie of energy into food production per kilocalorie obtained (or else we and our draft animals would have starved to death). So the 10:1 ratio is not at all inescapable, and depends strongly on the foods we choose to eat.
The post below shares Nate Hagen's timeless address to President Obama about the importance of energy in our society, written in January 2009. It goes into how energy ties into our economic system, the importance of energy quality, and discusses policy options to deal with decreasing availability of high quality energy supply.
The post/letter below is very important to me, as it brings together much of what I have worked on the past few years. We are at a major crossroads in the history of our nation and our world - the juncture where financial capital no longer can function as an effective marker for real capital. The crisis we face is the product of our own success - therefore it is highly unlikely to be fixed with the same policies and thinking that steered us to the present precipice. There are dozens if not hundreds of salient aspects of our supply and demand situation, each with its own cheerleaders, opponents and unaware. Unless one casts a wide boundary net, myopic focus on any particular issue runs the risk of creating more long term harm than good. In this letter, I attempt to highlight our situation's most critical components, not claiming other issues are unimportant, but that the following principles likely trump/supercede the others:
1) It is energy, not money, that powers our economies. Money is only a marker for real capital and the divergence is large and growing at an accelerating pace.
2) All energy is not equal- each energy investment entails different input costs, and has different output quality, often not recognized by the market system, nor by many environmentalists. We are at peak oil globally and are likely approaching the net energy cliff for the USA
3) We can likely deal with energy decline, but our current economic system of claims and wealth distribution cannot. It is likely that collective policy responses to resource depletion (more debt) will create another form of bottleneck in the form of currency dislocations or social reactions to jubiliee.
4) The highest odds for arriving at a better energy future lie in exploration of, understanding of, and ultimate jettisoning of our cultural addiction/habituation to conspicuous consumption. Ends and then means.
In a recent post, I discovered something rather alarming–the fact that in the last decade (2000 to 2010) both world energy consumption and the CO2 emissions from this energy consumption were rising as fast as GDP for the world as a whole. This relationship is especially strange, because prior to 2000, it appeared as though decoupling was taking place: GDP was growing more rapidly than energy use and CO2 emissions. And even after 2000, many countries continued to report decoupling.
I decided to sift through individual country results, to see if I could see a pattern emerging behind these changing results. When I did this, I found three major groupings of countries:
1. Southeast Asia, excluding Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. This group has been rapidly industrializing. In total, the group’s energy consumption has grown as rapidly as GDP in the last decade, and CO2 emissions have grown faster than GDP. This group includes China, India, Korea, Vietnam, and a long list of other countries in Southeast Asia, including nearby islands.
2. Middle Eastern Countries. This group showed energy use growing more rapidly than GDP, suggesting that it was taking more energy to extract oil and to pacify its population, over time. I included all countries in this group that BP includes in its Middle Eastern grouping, even though Israel (and perhaps some other countries) do not fit the pattern well.
3. Rest of the World. This group is the only group showing a favorable trend in energy growth relative to GDP growth, even in the last decade, although the pace of improvement has slowed. Two reasons for this favorable trend seem to be (a) continued growth of services, such as financial service, healthcare, and education, which use relatively little energy and (b) outsourcing of a major portion of heavy industry to Southeast Asia.
When we look at CO2 emissions broken out into these three categories, the shift over time is quite surprising:
The vast majority of the CO2 increase since 1980 has taken place in the Southeast Asia and the Middle Eastern areas!
It looks to me as though 2012 is likely to be a truly awful financial year, with several crises converging:
- Either very high oil prices or recession,
- The US governmental debt limit crisis,
- The Euro crisis,
- The Chinese debt problem,
- Debt deleveraging in the US and elsewhere,
- Further MENA (Middle East/North Africa) political problems, and
- Conflict between need for greater resources and pollution issues.
It seems to me that we may be reaching “Limits to Growth,” as foretold in the book by the same name in 1972. The book modeled the consequences of a rapidly growing world population and finite resource supplies. A wide range of scenarios was tested, but the result in nearly all scenarios was overshoot and collapse, with the timing of collapse typically being in the 2010 to 2075 time period.
The authors of Limits to Growth did not model the full interactions of the system. One element omitted was how debt would impact the system. Another item omitted was how prices for oil and other resources would affect the system.
If a person follows through the expected effects of high oil prices and debt, the financial system would appear to be the most vulnerable part of the system. The financial system would also appear to be what telegraphs problems from one part of the system to another. Unless a solution is found, failure of the financial system could ultimately bring down the whole system.
Joseph Tainter and Tadeusz Patzek are authors of a soon-to-be-released book called Drilling Down: The Gulf Oil Debacle and Our Energy Dilemma. This book is part of Charles Hall's Briefs in Energy series with the publisher Springer. An earlier book in this series was The Limits to Growth Revisited, by Ugo Bardi.
The new book, Drilling Down, is not simply the story of the Gulf oil spill (although it does tell this story, quite well). Tainter and Patzek use the story of Gulf oil spill as the background for discussing the energy-complexity spiral, and its relationship to this accident.
The energy-complexity spiral occurs because the availability of abundant, inexpensive energy permits increased complexity. Complexity has the advantage of allowing society to solve more problems, but it has the disadvantage of being more costly–that is requiring more energy for its creation. The need for more energy (and the fact that Energy Return on Energy Investment (EROEI) is declining) leads to a need for more complexity to obtain this additional energy, assuring that the cycle continues. With growing complexity, there is an increased risk of accidents that can be expected because of the complex nature of the system, but which are hard for participants to foresee.
It is clear there are limits to the pollution a given ecosystem can absorb, the level of resources that can be depleted, and debt that can be incurred. Despite concerns of many about these limits we are far from tackling any of these problems on a meaningful scale. The question is why this is the case and if we (the Human Race) have the knowledge and capability to live within such limits on Planet Earth?
In this post, different modeling approaches to gain insights into sustainability will be discussed. We hope that readers will contribute their thinking of what a sustainable ecosystem would look like, and how to map the road towards it. One of the parts of this post is the initial outline of a project to model a human ecosystem from cradle to grave. This project will be carried out by the Institute for Integrated Economic Research (IIER), an institute in which Nate Hagens and myself are involved. Also IIER is looking for individuals to participate in this project, and encourages anyone with a passion for working on resources and energy consumption to take a look at our job advert and contact us via recruiting at iier dot ch.
Posted by Ugo Bardi on August 31, 2011 - 11:04am
"It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid."