Archive for the ‘Limits to Growth’ Category
This post was therefore not published yesterday (i.e. International Workers’ Day).
Since publishing my book, I have been contacted by a number of academics in a variety of countries who are doing – or have done – research into climate change scepticism (i.e. similar to that which I did for my MA – the basis of my book). As well as being very enthusiastic about my research, they have all asked me why I did not get it published in an academic journal. However, the answer to this question is simple: I did not rate my chances as an unknown, sole author, while not doing a PhD. I am therefore now actively pursuing the possibility of doing both.
However, to get to the point, having established these contacts, it is obvious to me that, along with ‘Agenda 21’, the concept of a ‘New World Order’ conspiracy is one that I did not mention in my dissertation two years ago. Although one is merely a subset of the other, Wikipedia is a good place to start if you are unfamiliar with these terms:
– Agenda 21 is a non-binding, voluntarily implemented action plan of the United Nations with regard to sustainable development. It is a product of the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. It is an action agenda for the UN, other multilateral organizations, and individual governments around the world that can be executed at local, national, and global levels.
– The common theme in conspiracy theories about a New World Order is that a secretive… elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian world government… Significant occurrences in politics and finance… and current events are seen as steps in an on-going plot to achieve world domination through secret political gatherings and decision-making processes.
Christopher Monckton, the third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, is fond of mentioning Agenda 21 in his speeches (e.g. here and here), but I have still not come across anyone (maybe I have just not looked hard enough) who frequently refers explicitly to the New World Order (NWO). Having said that, NWO conspiracy theory is the basis of James Delingpole’s stupid Watermelons books.
The trouble is, of course, that, whereas the organised nature of the campaign to discredit climate science and scientists is a very well-documented conspiracy fact, the idea that there is a global conspiracy to bring about an NWO is a delusion. Indeed, it may even be a form of vestigial anti-Semitism. I say this because Hitler believed the Jews were intent on establishing an NWO. However, as well as being entirely discredited long before the start of World War Two (WW2), this idea was – and is – entirely intellectually incoherent. In the decades preceding WW2, Jews were simultaneously accused of plotting to bring about an NWO and derided for being obsessed with making money. Despite this, even today, anti-Semitic organisations such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood indoctrinate their followers into believing that there is an NWO conspiracy – they just call it ‘Zionism’. But that is another story.
Certainly, from the beginning of the Cold War onwards, belief in an NWO and/or characterisation of the USSR as the “evil empire” or “Red Menace”, acted as a recruiting sergeant for libertarians and free-market economists everywhere. Furthermore, as Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have clearly documented, in their book Merchants of Doubt, it was a bunch of neo-conservative physicists, whose worldview was forged in the Cold War era, who laid the foundations of the campaign to dispute climate science for ideological reasons. In the twilight years of the USSR (before the Berlin Wall came down), it was they who convinced President George Bush to resist much of what the first Rio Earth Summit sought to do in 1992… The USA had decided that the new enemy was “environmentalism”. People may think this is simplistic but the German Minister for the Environment at the time, Klaus Topfer, is on record as having said this is how he perceived the USA’s position at the time (See Timothy Luke’s ‘A Rough Road out of Rio’ (2000) – PDF available here).
Sadly, the idea that environmentalism is the enemy of progress is complete bullshit.
I’m sorry to be so blunt but, there really is no better word for it. However, this is sad for a variety of reasons:
– So many have been – and still are – convinced that concern for the environment is a form of Communism (or Fascism).
– This powerful delusion has been responsible for the failure of international efforts to prevent the environmental catastrophe that is now unfolding.
– The failure of climate scientists to explain their message in such as way as to shatter this delusion may result in things getting much worse than they might have done.
– The World’s politicians are yet to wake up to (or admit) the reality that simply curtailing the increase in global CO2 emissions will never solve the problem.
What we needed was ecological modernisation (i.e. modifications to the way we do things so as to make them more ecologically-friendly and environmentally-sustainable). Instead, what we have got is economic stagnation (because perpetual growth in consumption and accelerating resource depletion was always going to run into trouble eventually).
The questions that therefore remain are whether climate change sceptics are going to continue to try to perpetuate:
– The myth that Communists realised they could not win power in Western democracies so therefore invented the Green Party instead.
– The myth that there is a left-wing conspiracy to over-tax and over-regulate people (so as to make everyone poorer).
– The myth that we need not worry about the finite nature of the Earth’s mineral resources or its ability to deal with our pollution simply because of human ingenuity (Prometheanism) or Nature’s bounty (Cornucopianism).
I really do think it is time to admit that the game is up, the NWO does not exist:
– The only environmental conspiracy is that which seeks to deny the truth that human activity is irreversibly altering the Earth’s climate.
– The only political conspiracy is that which seeks to under-tax and under-regulate industry (so as to make a few people richer).
– The amount of energy received from the Sun is effectively constant and therefore, by powering industrialised civilisation using the fossilised energy received by the Earth over millions of years, the Carbon Era has been neither physically nor environmentally sustainable.
So, then, the NWO conspiracy does not exist. However, that is not the end of the story.
Sadly, as I pointed out three months ago now, the CO2 fairy does not exist either: Given the history of exponentially growing demand for fossil fuels (and therefore CO2 emissions), it will be a very long time until carbon capture and storage (CCS) could possibly begin to solve our problem. Indeed, the technology is still at the experimental stage and, even once the best method of CCS is identified, it will then have to be made operational on a global basis such that sequestration exceeds emissions. Only then would the atmospheric concentration of CO2 begin to fall. This will therefore never happen unless global emissions are massively reduced.
The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones; and we have a limited carbon budget that we simply cannot exceed and expect to retain a habitable planet. Therefore, wherever their use is easily substitutable, we need to phase out the use of fossil fuels as soon as possible. And, yes, that is the end of story.
Today’s post is that which was intended for last Monday. However, thanks to the happy coincidence of incoming information, Monday’s post was taken up with summarising an 11-year old presentation by Dr Albert A. Bartlett, entitled ‘Arithmetic, Population and Energy’, which is the best summary I have yet seen of the insidious problems caused by exponential growth. Even if you think you understand the maths – and are familiar with concepts such as doubling time and illustrations such as 264 grains of rice on a chessboard – it is still worth watching the a series of eight 9-minute videos, or entire presentation, posted on YouTube. This is primarily because of all the evidence Bartlett presents, which suggests that anyone who says exponential growth and/or resource depletion is not a problem is either stupid or a liar. It really is that simple.
However, I should also wish to draw attention to two further happy coincidences – two recent posts by fellow bloggers that are well worth reading:
1. “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” – another post about Bartlett’s presentation by Jules Bywater-Lees.
2. The Great Unmentionable by George Monbiot – a self-explanatory post by Paul Handover.
Today, then, I will finally get round to summarising the recently-published paper by economist Partha S. Dasgupta and biologist Paul R. Ehrlich, entitled ‘Pervasive Externalities at the Population, Consumption, and Environment Nexus’. As I said on Monday, the abstract is viewable on the Science journal website, but, having done a quick Google search, I found the entire paper published as a PDF by Dasgupta on the website of Cambridge University. Here, then, is my summary of the paper:
‘Pervasive Externalities at the Population, Consumption, and Environment Nexus’, by Partha S. Dasgupta and Paul R. Ehrlich.
Introduction (in lieu of Abstract)
The authors start by pointing out that externalities (i.e. unintended consequences) in economics are widely acknowledged but generally relate to human use of the natural environment. Thus, people talk about our collective failure to value the essential ecosystem services Nature provides. In strict contrast to this, the authors suggest that the adverse consequences of resource consumption and population growth are generally not acknowledged.
The authors then begin by suggesting that birth rates in Europe began to decline 400 years ago as a result of improvements in the standard of living of most people because, almost counter intuitively, it led to people delaying marriage and childbirth until they could afford to set up their own household. However, birth rates in developed countries have since fallen much further and faster with improvements to the education and emancipation of women; and the advent and acceptance of contraception.
The authors note that, today, population growth is greatest in poor countries. However, unlike Bartlett, they do not acknowledge that per-capita rates of consumption make modest population growth in wealthy countries even more problematic. Instead, the authors focus on the factors that continue to encourage high birth rates in poor countries (in sub-Saharan Africa in particular).
Under the title ‘pro-natalist institutions’, the authors discuss societal norms such as the fostering of children by non-biological parents; communal land tenure (as opposed to the division of land amongst children that could discourage large families). Although seemingly careful not to mention the effect of religious beliefs, the largely “unmet need” for family planning is acknowledged. The authors also seem to be optimistic that lowering birth rates can be achieved faster through increasing access to contraception than it may be by improving education. Irrespective of how it is achieved, the authors acknowledge that achieving it will be essential to halting global human population growth. Notwithstanding, for the moment, that the ecological carrying capacity of the planet may have already been exceeded, the authors point out that whether or not global human population growth stabilises depends mainly on average family size in the future.
Under the title ‘conformity’, the authors discuss the reality that people continue to have large families long after the original reason for doing so (e.g. high infant mortality and lack of good healthcare or social welfare) has diminished or disappeared. On a more positive note, the authors suggest that the desire to conform can be broken if a big enough minority can be encouraged to modify their behaviour (i.e. and defy convention).
Under the title ‘breakdown of the commons and the added need for labour’, the authors discuss the externalities arising from the predominance of subsistence economies. These are the things that keep poor people poor, such as the labour intensive nature of many agricultural practices in the absence of mechanisation; and the fact that children who are fetching water, gathering fuel, working the land, or looking after animals are often missing out on being educated as a result.
The authors start by stating the obvious: the consumption (and depletion) of resources has consequences for both current and future generations. In terms of consequences for people alive today, the most obvious adverse consequence of resource consumption – or rather pollution by the waste being generated – is highlighted as being ongoing global climate disruption. The authors then focus on what drives us to consume things and to do ‘competitively’ and ‘conspicuously’ (i.e. to equate consumption with progress, fulfilment, and happiness). Here too, the authors highlight the troubling reality of social conformity as a driver of persistently self-destructive behaviour.
Once again, the authors acknowledge previous discussion (in academic literature) of anthropogenic impacts upon the environment and choose to focus on those that are detrimental. They suggest that these can be categorised as either unidirectional or reciprocal: the former being impacts the authors describe as “externalities each party inflicts… on all others, as in the case of unmanaged common property resources”. The authors then highlight that, unlike commonly owned resources at a local level, global resources that are not owned by anybody (such as the atmosphere and the fish in the sea) tend to be become polluted or over-exploited.
Difficulties in Enacting Policies to Counter Externalities
The authors begin their discussion of all of the above by lamenting the popular misconception by economists of Nature as something that is “a fixed, indestructible factor of production”. This rather opaque statement incorporates a variety of fallacies, including that Nature has only instrumental value; that it has an infinite capacity to provide resources for our use; and that it has an infinite capacity to assimilate (or recycle) the wastes we generate. These are all serious misperceptions of reality: Nature’s resources are finite and its essential ecosystem services are non-substitutable. For example, if human activity continues to decimate bee populations, at what point will it start to impact upon our ability to grow fruit and cereal crops? Indeed, is this not already happening?
As in many other discussions of the environment, the authors highlight the non-linearity of many processes in Nature; and the existence of positive (i.e. self-reinforcing or mutually-destructive) feedback mechanisms. Thus, they construct the population consumption environment nexus as three corners of a triangle with each having an effect upon – and being affected by – the others. Towards the end of their discussion, the authors highlight the fact that 15 of the 24 major ecosystem services examined in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment were found to be either degraded or currently subjected to unsustainable use.
Even more worryingly, they cite the conclusions of numerous other studies that, if all 7 billion of the people on the planet today were to squander resources at the rate at which those who are already wealthy do, “at least two more Earths would be needed to support everyone on a sustained basis”. Considering the consensus view of UN statisticians that, on its current trajectory, the world population could exceed 10 billion by 2050, the authors make the obvious point that, if realised, “the demands made on the Earth system will prove to be even more unsustainable”.
So it is, then, that the authors end their discussion of the issues by considering the prospects for technology alone to solve this problem. They start by noting that technology does not operate in a vacuum (i.e. it too consumes resources) and that innovators respond to incentives (so government policies are important). Reflecting recent pronouncements by the IMF, the authors highlight the fact that Nature’s essential ecosystem services are currently grossly under-valued (e.g. the price of fossil fuels does not currently reflect the damage our use of them does to our environment). The authors also cite historical and empirical evidence that suggests that innovation and technology has historically increased unemployment; and archaeological evidence that past civilisations collapsed as a result of degradation of their environment or an inability to respond fast enough to environmental change. This should be of great concern to all humans alive today, because the current rates of environmental change are almost certainly unprecedented in the period of time over which such civilisations have existed.
I will let the authors’ conclusion speak for itself:
Although their magnitudes are likely to differ across societies, owing to differences in societal histories, institutions, customs, and ecologies, the reproductive and consumption externalities we have identified here share striking commonalities. Moreover, the analysis has uncovered reasons why technological innovations since the Industrial Revolution have been rapacious in their reliance on natural capital. We have shown that the externalities studied in this paper are not self-correcting. Therefore, the analysis we have presented points to a spiralling socio-environmental process, giving credence to the presumption that the pattern of contemporary economic growth is unsustainable.
This post has been prompted by an exchange of comments I have been having with Patrice Ayme – on my previous post (i.e. here) – that I feel deserves wider exposure and/or appreciation. However, if you have not the faintest idea what I might be on about, please be patient: This post is not too long and, if you read to the end, I believe all will become clear.
The image shown here is the cover of one of the two main course texts I had to buy in order to do my MA in Environmental Politics at Keele University in 2010-11. It is an excellent introduction to the subject of environmental politics and the concept of discourse analysis.
It is in this book that John Dryzek puts forward his own particular method of discourse analysis – analysing the things people say or have written – suggesting examination of: (a) the basic entities people recognise or appear to construct; (b) the assumptions they make about natural relationships; (c) the agents they recognise and motivations they assume; and (d) the key metaphors and rhetorical devices they use.
In the sphere of environmental politics, Dryzek suggests that it is possible to classify people on the basis of whether they appear to believe sustainability can be achieved by reformation of the status quo; and the extent to which they are thinking “outside the box”; as follows:
After Dryzek Box 1.1 on page 15 of The Politics of the Earth (2005).
In essence, economic rationalists assume market forces can be used to solve environmental problems; whereas ecological modernisers think it will take more than that.
This then was the starting point for my discourse analysis of climate change scepticism, which I have now published as The Denial of Science. However, in order to propose a similar classification of climate change scepticism, it was necessary to take Dryzek’s basic idea and combine it with what I have called the ‘Six Pillars of Climate Change Denial’ that I extracted from Robert Henson’s The Rough Guide to Climate Change:
The atmosphere may not be warming; but if it is, this is probably due to natural variation; but if it isn’t, the amount of warming is probably not significant; but if it is, the benefits should outweigh the disadvantages; but if they don’t, technology should be able to solve problems as they arise; but if it can’t, we shouldn’t wreck the economy to fix the problem (after Henson 2008: 257).
As I explain in my book, I simplified this summary of the positions adopted by those who are supposedly sceptical, in order to produce my Dryzek-style classification of climate change denial, as follows:
(1 – ACD is not happening)
(4 – ACD is not worth fixing)
(2 – ACD is not significant)
(3 – ACD is not problematic)
Contrarians are those refuse to acknowledge the nature of reality.
Cornucopians are those (like Julian Simon) who do not believe action is yet required to address any anticipated effects of anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD). They are named after Cornucopia, the horn of the goat Amalthea in Greek mythology, which Zeus endowed with a supernatural power to provide an unlimited supply of food etc.. As such, Cornucopians have unlimited confidence in the abundant supply of natural resources; the ability of natural systems to absorb pollutants; and their corrective capacity to mitigate human activities.
Economic Rationalists are defined and discussed by Dryzek (2005: 121-42) but, for the sake of argument, can here be taken to be synonymous with Karl Marx’s “money fetishism” as cited in Elster (1986); and/or Herman Daly’s “growthmania” (1974).
Prometheans are those (like Bjorn Lomborg) who propose radical technological solutions including environmental stabilisation of the atmosphere by means of geo-engineering. They are named after Prometheus, one of the Titans of Greek mythology, who stole fire from Zeus and so vastly increased the human capacity to manipulate the world. As such, Prometheans have unlimited confidence in the ability of technology to overcome environmental problems.
In a nutshell, my discourse analysis of climate change scepticism (i.e. the most prominent climate change sceptics in the UK) appears to suggest that the majority of these “sceptics” are either contrarians or economic rationalists. However, I suspect that as the outright denial of reality and the need to address the problem of ACD both become increasingly untenable, I think more and more people will try and find solace in either cornucopian or promethean beliefs.
In the discussion that I alluded to at the outset of this post, Patrice Ayme did not like the way in which I appeared to disparage the importance of human ingenuity (by suggesting that people who believe in both Cornucopianism and Prometheanism are deluded). I am pleased to say that we have now resolved any misunderstanding by agreeing that Prometheanism is the best option. However, crucially, we also agree that, in order to avert an ecological catastrophe, we will also need to modify our behaviour. That is to say, neither faith in Nature’s bounty (Cornucopianism) nor faith in human ingenuity (Prometheanism) should be used to deny our responsibility for causing the problem or to abdicate responsibility for doing everything we can to minimise its consequences.
Great stuff, hey? All we need to do now is get those with the power to make policy decisions to do the right thing.
Dear George Osborne, Chancellor Merkel, EU Commission, Citizens of Cyprus, and people everywhere,
Please accept my condolences for your loss(es) and my sincerest wish that you will now stop lying to yourselves; and face-up to the nature of reality.
Further to the comment by Lionel Smith (below), this is what page 159 of Stephen Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell looks like:
This is the problem that we have with exponential growth.
The UK Home Office is currently running a hard hitting campaign to highlight the common truth that both victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse cannot recognise (or admit) the nature of their situation. The campaign is entitled, ‘If you could see yourself would you see abuse?’ Here is an example:
Is this where humanity is at today? Are we in denial about what we have done – and are doing – to the planet? I think many of us are. Therefore:
– On Monday, I re-published an article written by the Executive Director of CIWEM, Nick Reeves, highlighting the modern delusion that perpetual growth can be sustainable.
– On Wednesday, I published a summary of a conversation with a technological optimist who seems to want to insist that human ingenuity means that resources are effectively infinite.
– Today, I want to bring things full-circle to consider the ultimate problem, the numbers of human beings on the planet.
How Many People Can Live On Planet Earth?
This was the title of a BBC Horizon programme first broadcast just over a year ago, narrated by Sir David Attenborough. If you have never seen it – and even if you have – it is well worth watching. However, at nearly an hour long, many may not watch it, so I will summarise it below.
In his own lifetime, octogenarian, Sir David has witnessed the human population of the planet triple. It is now seven times what it was before the Industrial Revolution; and the UN predict that, unless ecological limits intervene to prevent it, there could be anything between 9 and 15 billion by the end of this Century. A great deal depends on the education and emancipation of women: Given the health and freedom to choose, well-educated women choose not to have big families. Therefore, authoritarian government policies including enforced sterilisation and fines for having more than one child are not required.
However, all that is required to ensure that there will be over 9 billion humans by 2050 is for all the teenagers alive today to survive to be grandparents. This is the problem; and the programme examines three reasons why it is a problem, namely: Water, Food, and Energy.
The programme points out that there is no more water on the Earth today than there was 4600 million years ago: Most of it is salty and will kill you if you drink it; and most of the 1% that is fresh water is locked-up in glaciers and ice caps. Already, today, 1 billion people do not have access to clean water. Is it really sensible to suggest that water scarcity is not going to be a problem in the future when it is already one now?
Growing food needs lots of water; a very significant proportion of available freshwater is already used for agriculture. In the last 50 years land-locked surface water drainage systems like those that feed the Aral Sea (in the former USSR) and Lake Chad (in Africa) have been so over-exploited for agricultural purposes that, today, both bodies of water have almost disappeared (i.e. they are about 10% of their former size).
The mechanisation of farming and the widespread use of artificial pesticides and fertilisers (derived from hydrocarbons and phosphate) enabled massive increases in agricultural productivity and efficiency. In the last half century alone, such technology has resulted in a fivefold increase in crop yields. Surely, it is delusional to think this can continue indefinitely? To borrow a phrase from the sphere of stock market traders, “past performance does not guarantee future returns on your investment”. Talking of investment, many governments (like China) are already buying up land in other countries to feed their own people: This has already produced the insane situation in which countries like Ethiopia (that cannot feed their own people) are being used by foreign governments to grow food that is then exported to be consumed by others. Where is the justice in that?
More humans will use more energy and, unless each one of us starts using much less of it, there will soon not be enough to go around. This is already a genuine concern to many governments around the World (although many do not admit it publicly).
Here in the UK, we face record high energy prices and increasing energy insecurity as a result of the failure of successive governments to plan ahead; and encourage as many people as possible to become energy-independent (by generating their own electricity from renewable sources). Had they done this, we would not now need to consider implementing massive new power distribution networks that will disfigure our countryside far more than do any number of windfarms. Therefore, with the possible exception of the long term implications of an ageing population, the failure to facilitate the decentralisation and decarbonisation of our power generation systems is probably the greatest political failure in modern Britain.
On a global scale, therefore, it is little wonder that Clive Hamilton has described the anthropogenic climate disruption that we now see unfolding around us as “a failure of modern politics”.
Towards the end of the programme, Sir David Attenborough cites the work of Professor William E. Rees at the University of British Columbia. It is Rees that first came up with the concept of ecological carrying capacity. Attenborough summarises Rees’ work by saying that the Earth might be able to support 15 billion people if everyone was living like people in many poor countries today but only 1.5 billion if everyone was living like people do in the USA. There are many who think even this is insanely optimistic: This is because the greater the amount by which we humans exceed the Earth’s ecological carrying capacity, the greater the amount by which that capacity is ultimately reduced. That being the case, the fact that the Earth supported 1 billion humans for tens of thousands of years prior to the Industrial Revolution may well now be irrelevant. http://www.greatchange.org/ophuls,ecological_scarcity.html
So, then, is it about time that we humans admitted that we have been guilty of domestic abuse on a planetary scale? I for one think that it is.
Does that make me anti-human, anti-progress, anti-Western, or anti-Capitalist? No, it does not: As I said on Wednesday, it just makes me an environmental realist. It just makes me someone who recognises that, unless we stop abusing our environment, we will eventually make life impossible for many millions if not billions of our fellow humans; and consign a significant proportion of all known life-forms to the pages of our natural history textbooks. As one of my regular readers, Pendantry, would undoubtedly point out, I think we really are living in The Age of Stupid.
* “Sustainable Growth” is a term invented by World Leaders last year at the Rio+20 Summit in Brazil. On a finite planet with finite resources, it is a physical impossibility; it is an oxymoron; to talk about it is as delusional as pretending you will live for ever. I’m sorry, but, as with climate change, denying the nature of reality changes nothing.
As an experienced geologist and hydrogeologist, I am a Fellow of the Geological Society of London (GSL) and a Member of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM). As such, the GSL has previously published a 500-word “soapbox” item written by me, entitled ‘Know Your Limits!’, in their Geoscientist magazine.
However, I believe this has now been surpassed by an article written by CIWEM’s Executive Director, Nick Reeves, just published in CIWEM’s monthly WEM magazine. Having obtained the permission of both author and publisher, I am delighted to reproduce the article, entitled ‘The Growth Delusion and Handlebar Tape’, in full below.
Other than to say that Nick Reeves has an admirable track-record for speaking his mind and saying things very few people in positions like his are willing to say – such as his support for Latin American style environmentalism in ‘The Human Rights of Mother Earth’ (July 2011) – I do not really want to comment further at this point. However, the conflict between notions of sustainable development and resource depletion will be picked-up in another longer-than-normal post later this week. Therefore, without further ado, here is the 1800-word article by Nick Reeves:
The world is running on empty says CIWEM executive director Nick Reeves
How do you successfully break a mistaken and destructive intellectual and economic consensus? How do you persuade world leaders that 21st century problems cannot be fixed with 20th century economics?
The UK is no longer a front-line developed nation and has fallen behind Brazil in the league table of economic powers. It will take a lot more than handlebar tape to get a grip on things. We need to think in different terms and get a proper fix on our place in a world that is running on empty.
The economic crisis of 2007 was a car crash in slow-motion. The driver wasn’t fit. And it was frustrating because nobody warned us and the banks danced to the speculative tune. Now economists can calculate a much more dangerous event that is being greeted with even less concern: our world is rapidly running out of resources – of water, energy, metals, phosphorous and food. The data is not in dispute. The market is reflecting what our leaders ignore.
The Industrial Revolution allowed us to make technological progress in delivering resources, outweighing the increasing marginal effort to dig ever deeper and chase lower-quality ores, for instance. The average price of 33 commodities (equally weighted) declined by 70 per cent (after inflation) between 1900 and 2002. Then, abruptly and without any particular crisis, prices reversed and in ten years the average commodity tripled to give back the advantage of the previous 100 years. It is perhaps the most important ‘phase’ change of modern times, yet it attracted, remarkably, little attention or concern.
The causes are not hidden: there has been an explosion in population and consumption since 1800 and the birth of the ‘Hydrocarbon Age’. Global population has increased from one billion to seven billion, tripling even in my lifetime. At the same time, consumption of hydrocarbons and some metals increased one hundredfold. Initially, with few people and extensive high-grade resources, this did not show in prices, but more recently, with population growing still faster than ever in absolute terms, we have had to absorb an unprecedented surge in demand per capita from India, with its 1.2 billion people (growing at over seven per cent a year) and China, with almost 1.3 billion (growing for over 20 years at ten per cent a year), a rate that will double consumption every seven years. China last year accounted for a jaw-dropping 53 per cent of the world’s cement use, 48 per cent of its iron ore and 47 per cent of all the coal used. How could reserves not wither away under this attack and prices not rise? We have every reason to be fearful.
Low-cost, high-grade coal, oil and natural gas – the backbone of the Industrial Revolution – will be a distant memory by 2050. Much higher cost remnants will still be available but they will not be able to drive our growth, our population and, most critically, our food supply, as before. Conventional food production is dependent desperately on oil for insecticide, pesticide and fertiliser, and for transportation over thousands of miles. Modern agriculture is an industry that converts oil into food.
It will require brave political decisions to survive the loss of depleted hydrocarbons without risking economic collapse. If we permit the population to grow to the levels predicted, and if we don’t curb our greed, we must find the capital – while we still have it – to build very large-scale, very smart electricity grids, across Europe and North America, fed by increasingly efficient wind and solar power and other renewables that may come on stream.
Once they are built, the marginal operating cost will be much lower than our present hydrocarbon-dependent system and, critically, cost will be constantly falling while hydrocarbon costs rise. This will be a great threat to the giant hydrocarbon multi-nationals, several of which fund well-organised obfuscation and propaganda campaigns to reinforce our wishful thinking. Carbon dioxide has lost its greenhouse effect, they say, and coal is clean! In the US, even larger investments are made: Congress is bribed (legally) to ignore both climate science and the logic of finite resources.
Metal resources are the stuff of nightmares because entropy is merciless. Every time you use a metal, some is lost. European countries recycle between 40 per cent and 80 per cent – the US is worse – yet at even 90 per cent these precious resources will slip through our fingers. So frugality is needed, because even an economy with zero increase in physical output will slowly lose its metals. But which politician has the nerve to talk about the necessary zero growth in population and physical output?
The most immediately threatening shortage is in our food supply, and not just from oil constraints. The bigger threats lie in four limiting inputs: water, soil, potassium and phosphorus. We build homes and grow food in deserts and over-pump irreplaceable underground water. (Already, about 300 million Indians and Chinese, among others, are fed by over-pumping reserves that will inevitably run out.) We waste over half our global water supply and we totally mis-price it. For most countries, all of this can be fixed. Yet some over-populated, poor nations have a more intractable problem and water scarcity will cause increasing friction for them. Water wars is here. It’s happening now.
Land availability and erosion are also limiting our ability to grow food. Over the millennia, we have lost about one-third of our land, turning it into desert and stone. We build new cities on our best river valley soil, which is replaceable only with more marginal land. There are no New Worlds or new Midwests. The land we have – eroded by wind and water – loses one per cent of its soil each year, about 100 times the rate of natural replacement. If sustained, this erosion would bring our species to its knees. But the problem can be solved relatively easily by moving towards no-till, in which crop residues protect the soil against the elements. We need to move rapidly, though: to 100 per cent from less than ten per cent, globally, today.
The limits on phosphorous and potassium are terminal potentially. They are elements and cannot be made. There is no substitute for them. They are vital for the growth of all living things, vegetable or animal (we humans are one per cent phosphorus by body weight). And these irreplaceable nutrients on which modern agriculture depends are mined and are steadily depleting. So what will happen when the reserves run out?
The only glimmer of hope would be if the world went organic – nurturing the soil with worms, fungi and complex micro-organisms and avoiding use of pesticides and insecticides. Organic farming extends critical fertiliser resources many times, perhaps at best approaching the rate of natural replacement from bedrock. However, organic farming is just one per cent of the agricultural total, and we will, typically, wait for a greater crisis in fertiliser prices before we move.
Finally, global warming’s most reliable consequence is weather extremes – droughts and floods, which have badly hit production, will continue to do so. Far from being alarmist, scientists have consistently under-predicted the speed of environmental decline, failed to address population growth, and so we slalom our way to hell. Scientists, with a few brave exceptions, are fearful of being criticised as doom-sayers and exaggerators – a terrible academic crime – even though underestimating, in this case, is far more dangerous and irresponsible. (Arctic ice-melt is already at levels that, 15 years ago, were predicted for 2050.)
Both population and yield per acre for grains are growing at 1.2 per cent a year. A stand-off? You bet. Population growth will slow, but so will productivity as we approach the limits of each grain species. How, with no safety margin, will we find the extra grain necessary to produce meat for the growing middle class of developing nations when a single pound of dressed beef displaces 30 pounds of grain?
There will be a single painful answer to all of these questions – rationing through price. We the rich nations can and will be careless with our resources for decades longer, but only at the cost of pushing prices up unnecessarily fast and thereby inadvertently forcing the poor into malnutrition and outright starvation. A typical developed country now spends ten per cent of its income on food; Egypt spends 40 per cent. You can see easily that, if food prices triple again in the next 30 years as they did in the past ten, the numbers will not compute. A growth-reducing and lifestyle-eroding irritant for us will become life and death for them.
Greater income equality in such countries and better education, especially for women, would help lower population growth and increase productivity. Less corruption and more efficient distribution of the food available, especially in India, would buy decades of time. But this is who we are: a species given to corruption, incompetence and self-interest. Capitalism sucks because it believes that its remit is exclusively to make maximum short-term profits – come hell or high water.
We could solve all our problems if only we were the efficient, rational human beings of standard economic theory and had politicians willing to think in the long-term interest of their people rather than their own. Perhaps later, as the crisis grows, as failing states threaten to destabilise global politics (resource pricing already played its part in the Arab spring) and China throws its increasing weight around in its correctly perceived great need for more resources, the developed world will act with resolve, as the US, the UK and others did so well in the World War II. We must hope so.
Fortress North America with (per capita) five times the water and seven times the arable land of China, has the capability and willingness to ignore this global problem for now. Yet eventually it, too, will be dragged kicking and screaming into world turmoil – just as it feared would happen in the 1930s – and share the pain.
In the meantime, countries such as Egypt, with surging populations, escalating food import bills and widening trade deficits, cannot afford to feed their people. Who will do it for them? We rich countries cannot even make the tough political decisions required to keep our own resource prices down, let alone worry about others. This attitude is epitomised by the use of one-third of the US corn crop (the world’s biggest) for desperately inefficient ethanol production as a subsidy for already rich farmers. To fill a 4×4′s tank once would displace enough maize to feed one Indian farmer for a year. One day, this will be seen as the moral equivalent of shooting some of the world’s poorest people, but more painful.
…but this isn’t one of them.
Or is it?
The trouble is, of course, that removing all the subsidies and tax breaks given to the fossil fuel industry (which are delaying the creation of a free market in power generation) will make fossil fuels even more expensive.
In the USA, the fiscal cliff was narrowly avoided by last-minute agreement on budget cuts (hence the above choice). However, the fiscal cliff arose out of over-spending and economic stagnation; and both of these can be blamed – at least in part – on rising fuel prices.
In the UK, fossil fuels are already more than twice as expensive as they are in the USA (as they have been for decades). However, as a result of a weakening currency, they are now expected to reach an all-time record next month.
Even if we ignore the impossibility of perpetual growth in resource consumption and waste generation on a finite planet — and the consequential reality that we cannot rely on perpetual economic growth to pay-off the massive debts denying it has caused — we all need power to heat and light our homes; and get us to and from work.
The end of the era of cheap energy is therefore cited by many as the reason for the end of growth. This is a reality the World urgently needs to take on board. This will require radical thinking; and radical changes in policy in all areas of government policy. Thus, Richard Heinberg has been proven right:
Is it time to go “cold turkey”?
Sadly, electric cars are not going to be the answer; unless the electricity is generated from renewable or nuclear energy. Therefore, since the latter will take decades to become a reality – and our governments are still not doing as much as they could to invest in renewable energy – power generation capacity is clearly developing into a serious problem.
Here in the UK, we are facing a double-whammy: Record-breaking high fuel prices and the EU-enforced early-retirement of 10% of our oldest (and most-polluting) coal-fired power stations. Therefore, unless we, as individual consumers, invest in renewable energy, we will soon be paying more than ever for something whose supply will be more uncertain than ever. Believe me, if I could install solar PV panels on my roof I would. Sadly, without a job, I cannot.
Sadly, too, opposition to the radical solutions needed for us to resolve our problems is unwelcome irrespective of its origin: Denying that we have a problem is just as much an impediment to implementing solutions as is disregarding potential solutions for ideological reasons. For example, if our governments had not given up on fast breed reactor programmes in the 1980s (as a consequence of the campaign for nuclear disarmament mutating into ideological opposition to civil nuclear power generation) we would probably by now have solved the technical problems and be extracting uranium from sea water (wherein there is more of it than there is beneath our feet).
Must we embrace nuclear power?
In the long-run, yes, I think we must. The only thing that will make this unnecessary is the increasing possibility that Nature will soon intervene – and reduce the global human population to pre-Industrial levels (i.e. 1 billion). However, in the meantime, an awful lot of poor people need low-tech solutions. The good news is that such solutions definitely exist and, as Stephen Leahy pointed out over the weekend (reposting an item from over 3 years ago): “Bringing clean energy to billions costs far less than fossil fuel subsidies”.
Will we choose to fail or choose to succeed?
Just how long, I wonder, until expensive energy (and therefore expensive food) causes social instability?
What will our governments do then? Admit they were wrong and make radical changes, or send the Army on to the streets to maintain order? Sadly, I think we know the answer to that one – Jared Diamond gave it to us several years ago:
I appear to have a habit of posting items starting with the words “What on Earth..”. Here, then, is another one to add to that list…
A few weeks ago, one of the regular contributors to discussion on this blog (Pendantry), brought the work of Professor Guy McPherson (University of Arizona) to my attention. I must admit that I was a bit lazy and just watched the video embedded on Pendantry’s blog. However, in my defence, that was partly because I was shocked by what I saw and heard. Even though I have since embedded the same video on this blog, I had still done little more than scratch the surface to examine the huge amount of research to which McPherson refers. Here and now, I intend to put that right.
Having worked out how to get Professor McPherson’s attention (by inserting a link in my post to a specific post on his blog), he has since graciously joined the discussion. In welcoming him to my blog, I said this:
…Thanks also for providing a link to the new article on your brilliantly-named Nature Bats Last blog… I had thereby also found the Think Progress article by Joe Romm, highlighting the fact that, even today, the IPCC is still not incorporating the effects of positive feedback mechanisms into its projections. This would be truly incredible, were it not for the fact that I understand the pressure the IPCC is put under to avoid being “alarmist”… What amazes me, therefore, is that there are not more scientists like you who are speaking out about the way in which humanity is sleepwalking to catastrophe. However, I know, you say this is because they want to keep their jobs. What about [preserving] the lives of their children? By 2030, I will have reached retirement age, but my children will only be in their early 30s; they may even still be childless…
So, then, I am reluctantly coming round to Professor Guy McPherson’s view that both mainstream climate scientists and climate change sceptics are equally guilty of believing what they want to believe and seeing only what they want to see. This is because, when you investigate the ten positive feedback loops that McPherson has recently highlighted (see below) you realise that, in doing so, he is referring to the results of peer-reviewed research; all of which is already in the public domain.
The problem is that the vast majority of mainstream scientists are refusing to join the dots and admit that these 10 feedback loops are going to interfere with – and mutually reinforce – each other. It also does not help that the IPCC is still not incorporating these feedback loops into its projections (link below).
I started by reading what is currently the most popular post on McPherson’s blog, Climate-change summary and update, which starts by listing a nasty-looking trend in large-scale projections of global average temperature rise:
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (late 2007): 1 C by 2100
- Hadley Centre for Meteorological Research (late 2008): 2 C by 2100
- United Nations Environment Programme (mid 2009): 3.5 C by 2100
- Hadley Centre for Meteorological Research (October 2009): 4 C by 2060
- Global Carbon Project, Copenhagen Diagnosis (November 2009): 6 C by 2100
- International Energy Agency (November 2010): 3.5 C by 2050
- United Nations Environment Programme (December 2010): up to 5 C by 2050
Having done this, McPherson then goes on to list the 10 Positive Feedback Mechanisms that he has identified from recent research. Below, I have reproduced his list and, where they were missing, inserted links to more information in each case.
10 positive feedback mechanisms:
Methane hydrates are bubbling out the Arctic Ocean (Science, March 2010)
Warm Atlantic water is defrosting the Arctic as it shoots through the Fram Strait (Science, January 2011)
Siberian methane vents have increased… to about a kilometer across in 2011 (Tellus, February 2011)
Drought in the Amazon triggered the release of more carbon than the USA in 2010 (Science, February 2011)
Peat in the world’s boreal forests is decomposing at an astonishing rate (Nature Comms., November 2011)
Methane is being released from the Antarctic (Nature, August 2012)
Russian forest and bog fires are growing (NASA, August 2012)
Cracking of glaciers accelerates in the presence of increased carbon dioxide (J. of App. Physics, October 2012)
Exposure to sunlight increases [is] accelerating thawing of the permafrost (PNAS, February 2013)
Arctic drilling was fast-tracked by the Obama administration during the summer of 2012
Having listed these, McPherson then points out that the only one of these over which humanity has any control (and can therefore choose to stop or reverse) is the decision to drill for oil in the Arctic. The same could be said for all unconventional fossil fuels. However, acknowledging this reality, McPherson then adds… “Because we’ve entered the era of expensive oil, I can’t imagine we’ll voluntarily terminate the process of drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic (or anywhere else).”
For the sake of brevity, I will not comment on all of these mechanisms but, for those that are interested, here are some of the more notable responses I found (both dismissive and concerned) on the Internet.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arctic_methane_release (includes a good list of references);
http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/01/31/1524981/why-climate-scientists-have-consistently-underestimated-key-global-warming-impacts/ (discussed below).
As intimated above, I want to focus on the fact that the IPCC is still not including any of these positive feedback mechanisms and is therefore continuing to be overly optimistic (i.e. under-reporting the nature, scale and urgency of the problems we have now created by failing to decarbonise our economies already).
Why is the IPCC being unduly optimistic?
Writing in the Scientific American magazine 6 years ago, in an article entitled ‘Conservative Climate’, David Biello gave us all the answer:
By excluding statements that provoked disagreement and adhering strictly to data published in peer-reviewed journals, the IPCC has generated a conservative document that may underestimate the changes that will result from a warming world, much as its 2001 report did.
The IPCC was set up by conservative political leaders in the 1980s (Reagan, Thatcher and Gorbachov) but its hands were tied from the start; its complicated internal and external review process (i.e. government-appointed reviewers) ensuring that it never publishes anything that is too scary. By refusing to countenance the possibility that more pessimistic opinions amongst the scientific community might actually be coming from those that are being the most objective, it has completely inverted the well-respected precautionary principle; and promoted instead the wait and see approach of climate sceptics everywhere.
However, the IPCC has not just wasted 6 years, it has wasted 20 years; and things are now getting serious: If you are not convinced, then I would invite you to read what Joe Romm on the Think Progress website has to say about all of this: He starts by informing the reader that the thawing of the permafrost will release “a staggering 1.5 trillion tons of frozen carbon, about twice as much carbon as contained in the atmosphere, much of which would be released as methane… 25 times as potent a heat-trapping gas as CO2 over a 100 year time horizon, but 72 to 100 times as potent over 20 years!”Therefore, with reference to the above graph, the thawing permafrost is already releasing 0.2 Gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere on an annual basis. You don’t have to be a mathematical genius to realise that, in the short term, even this has the warming potential of 20 Gigatons of carbon, which is twice the global anthropogenic carbon emissions in 2010. Given that the thawing of the permafrost is something we cannot now stop; and it is not going to be possible to capture and burn all this methane, the fact that the quantities being released are projected to quadruple between now and 2030 is not good news.
It is little wonder, then, that Dave Roberts posted an item on the Grist website almost a year ago, entitled: Climate change is simple: We do something or we’re screwed.
If you have not done so already, please join Bill McKibben’s 350.org and/or join a local group promoting sustainable responses to the approaching socio-economic meltdown: To me, and many others who are not ideologically blinded to the nature of reality, this now seems to be the inevitable consequence of the refusal of our carbon-based civilisation to acknowledge the impossibility of perpetual growth on a finite planet.
I therefore fear that it may be time to “brace for impact!”.
I happened to turn on the BBC News TV channel over the weekend and caught the tail-end of the video below – entitled India’s Water Crisis. However, upon investigation, I discovered this had been first broadcast over six months ago. If you have not seen this, I really do think you should watch it. It is only 22 minutes long but, if even that would be a challenge, you could watch and listen to this 3-minute audio slide show on the BBC website instead.
As part of my MA, I researched the water supply problems China faces in the Yellow River basin, which I summarised on my blog last year (starting here). In this video, narrated and presented by Jill McGivering, we see a depressingly-familiar picture unfolded in graphic detail; regarding India’s most sacred river – the Ganges: For example, at Varanasi, the River Ganges is now one of the most polluted rivers in the World – due to the amounts of untreated sewage, industrial effluent, and cremated bodies that are being continually put into it there. The latter is an issue that I touched upon over a year ago (in ‘The pollution of death’ [14 December 2011]).
The problems the above practices cause are compounded by the fact that the flow in the Ganges is kept very low as a result of the amount of water abstracted from it in order to provide water for cities like India’s capital – New Delhi.
Meanwhile, the groundwater table in rural areas is falling faster than it has ever been known to in the past – not really that surprising given that it is being abstracted faster than ever – because there are more people living in India than ever before.
People who say population growth in the developing world is a non-problem need to watch this video; stop trying to pick a fight with history and science; and start dealing with the nature of reality: All our environmental problems are limits to growth phenomena; and we will not begin to solve them until ideologically-prejudiced economists, politicians, religious leaders – and unduly optimistic people everywhere – stop denying the nature of reality.
If they do not embrace reality soon, I am seriously concerned about the potential for civil disorder and even war that would seem an almost inevitable consequence of water scarcity such as we now see in rural India; where people are already spending a fifth (20%) of their income on water.
Over recent days, I have promoted and engaged in – but mainly observed – online discussions regarding the feasibility of modern civilisation meeting its projected energy needs from renewables alone. Some say we can (and must) do this; whereas others say we might need (but cannot possibly hope) to do so… I remain confused and hope that, by posting this, I may facilitate some polite discussion of the issues by people whose knowledge of the subject is better than my own. First of all, however, some context:
A few weeks ago, I posted an item on my blog that included a video of an old Nova programme (originally broadcast in 2007), which featured Dr Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) – who has proposed a 40 year plan to decarbonise the USA’s power generation systems without resorting to nuclear power (i.e. renewables alone). However, when I asked fellow blogger Schalk Cloete to review this, he declared himself thoroughly sceptical; and referred me to a piece he had written on the subject of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which includes the following assertions:
On average, the surface of the earth receives about 180 W/m2 over a 24 hour period, but, because energy does not like to be concentrated, we can only get access to small amounts of this solar energy influx. More specifically; solar panels made from common materials which are sufficiently abundant for mass production typically manage to convert about 10% of the incoming solar radiation to useful electricity and solar thermal is even worse. When considered relative to the solar radiation falling on the total plant area, a large solar thermal power plant produces electricity at an efficiency of less than 3%.
Solar panels therefore can generate about 18 W/m2 of electricity on average while solar thermal is restricted to about 5 W/m2. This implies that you would need 5.5 m2 of solar panels or 20 m2 of solar thermal power plant to power a single traditional 100 W light bulb 24/7 (if you have the energy storage capacity to smooth out the intermittent nature of solar power of course).
In an attempt to promote discussion of this, I posted a link to it on Peter Sinclair’s Climate Denial Crock of the Week (with some interesting results). Schalk has also prompted further discussion by commenting on a more recent post (although Peter Sinclair now appears to be ignoring him).
Schalk has since provided me with a more carefully considered critique of the Lovins plan (as detailed in his book Reinventing Fire – see RMI website link above), which he has kindly granted me permission to publish here:
I spent some time on Youtube and the internet in general to get more informed about Dr. Lovins’ ideas. His strong emphasis on demand reduction through efficiency is definitely a step in the right direction and I strongly support that. The profit-driven private enterprise route also makes a lot of sense and, if green business practices can in fact give an obvious competitive advantage, it will definitely be adopted very rapidly. However, I can still see many challenges, the most important of which I summarize below:
- The enormous scale of this challenge. The requirements in terms of energy, capital, materials and specialized human labor needed to revamp all of our buildings and industry, our entire transport fleet and, most importantly, our entire energy industry is truly colossal and I still think that it will require many decades to get the job done.
- The gradual unraveling of our great Ponzi scheme economy will make innovation very challenging through greater uncertainty, tight credit markets and increasing social welfare demands.
- Some success with demand reduction will once again make fossil fuels dirt cheap. For example, we just need to cut our oil use by about 10% in order to get off unconventional oil and slash crude prices by a factor of five.
- Putting theory into practice in the real world is always harder than it seems. For example, Dr. Lovins has been working on these ideas since 1976 already and, although he has been doing excellent work for almost four decades, his impact is hardly earth-shattering.
That being said, however, I definitely think his ideas are a lot more feasible than others advocating a massive government-sponsored renewable energy revolution. In essence, he goes one level down from government to private enterprise for the purpose of increasing the efficiency of this great transition. Personally, I think we need to go another level down from there to the individual consumer in order to get access to loads of environmental, economic and societal benefits that do not require any energy, capital or natural resources. I don’t see how we can get through this transition unscathed without liberally tapping into these totally free benefits.
Therefore, since I remain completely bemused by all this, I invite anybody who can reconcile Schalk’s assertions (i.e. quoted and/or linked to above) with the infographic image (below) to which I have been referred by Roger Lambert (i.e. a contributor to the recent discussion linked to above).
To me, Schalk’s assertions regarding the low energy-conversion efficiency of all forms of renewable power generation (compared to burning fossil fuels, nuclear power, and even photosynthesis) are incontrovertible facts; facts which do not appear to accord with the information on the above infographic. Furthermore, in light of the agreement of people like Dr Samuel Alexander of the Simplicity Institute (e.g. as seen here in this part of a serialisation of his Alexander’s paper on Learning from Dogs), I would also like to know what our chances are of replacing fossil fuel use with renewable power generation in the timescale that climate scientists say we need to act (i.e. years not decades).
As things stand, my provisional conclusion is as stated on Learning from Dogs:
…Dr Alexander provides the solution to the conundrum that has been troubling me: He too acknowledges that we have no way (neither renewables or nuclear) to power anticipated economic or population growth but says that we must also get off fossil fuels as quickly as possible… His solution is not just energy efficiency or even self-sufficiency (i.e. independence) – it is far more radical. What scares me, however, is that this too is impossible: In 1968, Garrett Hardin (Tragedy of the Commons) said that solving the problem would require mutual restraint to be exercised by all of us, but this is never going to happen. Therefore, I think I know how the story will end… Humanity will refuse to change and therefore William Ophuls will be proven correct – If we fail to heed the warning signs, like an aeroplane landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier is brought to rest by a steel cable, nature will intervene (to re-establish a balance between supply and demand).
I am, however, not an expert on renewable energy; and I would like to know who is mistaken here because – one things seems clear – someone definitely is.