Saturday, March 26, 2011

Plastics now and forever!


The work on this blog has been at a standstill for half a year. There are two reasons for that. All texts here are translations of my original Swedish-language texts about different aspects of peak oil and related subjects. Due to lack of time, I have (and will) prioritize my Swedish-language blog. The second reason is that I had so much work to do that also my Swedish-language blog was in hibernation during the last three months of 2010.

The die-hard reader will always have the option of google-translating my Swedish-language texts into the language of your choice. I have for example recently written a series of texts about "peak oil computing". I have also written a series of texts about recent unrest and uprisings in the Arab world (using Egypt as a prism) that have little to do with a thirst for democracy and much to do with public dissatisfaction the plight of the dirt-poor and with the effects of resource challenges such as oil, food and water.

Anyway, this is the independent sequel of my last blog post about Alan Weisman's book "The World Without Us" which I published here almost half a year ago. In the preceding text, I did not cover the one chapter in the book that dealt with plastic ("Polymers Are Forever"), but rather saved that discussion for this text. First, a super-brief introduction to the connection between plastic and oil, by the (Swedish-language) blogger Jonas sustainable blog:

"In principle, all plastics is made from raw materials derived from oil. Packages, bottles, electronics, furniture, shoes and clothes. All is largely made of plastic. In many applications, plastics is superior to other materials with regards to density and strength. It is also cheap to manufacture plastic products."

The use of plastic materials has virtually exploded after World War II. Small (2 mm) plastic cylinders called “nurdles” is the raw material of the plastic industry. These cylinders are melted and then shaped into anything and everything. We produce more than 5 000 000 000 million nurdles each year (100 billion kilograms). The U.S. is a net exporter of plastic and 4.6% of all petroleum in the U.S. is used to produce plastics (2006).

Of all the plastics ever made, only a minor part has been recycled or burned. Unlike cardboard or aluminium bottles, not all plastic is equal:

There are so many different types [of plastics], and so much of it really can’t be recovered because either volumes aren’t sufficient or it really doesn’t have a lot of value in terms of the marketplace”

The rest of all plastic ever made, maybe up to 1 billion tons (the U.S. produces 30 million tons of new plastics each year), is still out there somewhere in the environment. Until evolution produces microbes with plastic-degrading enzymes, there is nothing in nature that can break down plastic. This can be compares with the discussion about vulcanized rubber in the previous text.

Plastic on land which is not buried in a garbage dump is broken down slowly by the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays - but plastic in water is another story. Plastic floating on a water surface is cooled down and may be protected from the sun’s rays by algae. Plastic that does not float in the water is completely safe from UV rays.

Unfortunately, a not unsignificant share of the plastics that have been produced over the past 60 years has ended up in the oceans. For some decades, the same forces that break down stones into sand over time - wind, waves and tides – have grinded down plastic into smaller and smaller pieces. Over time plastic pieces have thus become smaller plastic pieces and then even smaller plastic pieces - but there is no evidence that plastic of any size or shape is chemically degraded and disappears from the seas.

Jellyfish and birds eat small colorful plastic balls in the belief that they are fish eggs (yellow-brown ones are mistakenly taken for krill). For some reason, nurdles and other small plastic fragments unfortunately act as magnets for a variety of hazardous chemicals. What are the effects when the extremely unpleasant PCB chemicals (previously used as softeners in plastics but banned in the late 1970's) are released from the 1960's plastics it is bound to during hundreds of years to come in a worst-case scenario? Nobody knows.

When plastics is broken down into smaller and smaller pieces, it finds its way further and further down the marine food chain. We can be horrified by images of dead birds, animals choking on plastic bags or entangled in the left-behind plastics from a six-pack of beer in the woods, but what happens when krill or even smaller plankton ingest plastic particles? These creatures can not break down the plastics, and if a sufficiently small organism eats a sufficiently small plastic particle, one of two things can happen. Either the plastic particle is not small enough, gets stuck in the intestinal canal and kills the organism, or the plastic particle is small enough and passes right through the organism.

But what happens on the way? Could it be that the plastic particle emits chemicals that have been bound to it, or that the particle at some future date (if or when it finally breaks down) will give off substances that are toxic, or in other ways dangerous to living organisms? Nobody knows, but we know that all living things in the oceans, including the smallest of organisms at the bottom of the marine food chain, will soon ingest a dose of plastic particles. Will the nasty coloring chemicals that are often found in brightly colored plastics become concentrated higher up in the food chain? Nobody knows.

If we humans disappeared from the face of the earth tomorrow, the plastic we have manufactured would persist for a long time. Plastics has been around for only a few decades, and that is not long enough for us to know what the long term effects that these materials have. We may note that of all the hundreds of different kinds of plastics there are, none has died a natural death yet, and we thus have very little knowledge about what such a death looks like. One may reflect upon the fact that just as there is a lot that we don't know about the dangers of plastic, there was a lot we didn't know and could not have guessed about the dangers of fossil fuels 100 years ago (noise, exhaust fumes, smog, carcinogens, global warming etc.).

Since most plastics floats, the majority of all that there is in the oceans is transported by currents and accumulates on our beaches and in other places. The most conspicuous place where plastic flock when it is about to “die” was discovered (or rather made known to the general public) in the late 1990s and is located in the Pacific between Hawaii and California. That is the home of the country- or maybe even continent-sized North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

In this huge floating rubbish dump, much of what has blown into the water during the last 50 years in an area the size of half of all Pacific coastlines eventually end up. There are endless amounts of plastic bags, plastic caps, plastic cups, plastic foil, fishing nets, balloons and so on. The total amount of plastic in this artificial continent is unknown but was estimated to weigh 3 million tons and to cover more than 25 million square kilometers in 2005 (i.e. almost 60 times larger than a large European country such as Sweden).

The image of a continent of plastic is actually misleading, since most of the "continent" only consists of (strongly) elevated concentrations of plastic particles at or near the surface of the ocean. These particles can not be seen from a satellite, and the only way to determine the boundary is by taking samples of water and analyze them. Since there is no established boundary between "normal" and "elevated" levels of debris, the estimated size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch varies by up to a factor of 20.

In addition to the plastics that is located at or near the surface (i.e. most of it), there are plastics in the depths of the sea as well as somewhere inbetween. Since the floating garbage patch is located in international waters, individual states tend not to worry about it too much. Some of those who visit the garbage patch describe the visit as surreal – here you are in the middle of nowhere, thousands of miles from land, encountering both familiar and strange artefacts that suddenly pop up - a motorcycle tire, a life jacket, a construction worker's hard hat and so on. An expedition to the garbage patch found that:

”plastic debris was present in 100 consecutive samples taken at varying depths and net sizes along a 1,700 miles (2,700 km) path through the patch. The survey also confirmed that while the debris field does contain large pieces, it is on the whole made up of smaller items which increase in concentration towards the Gyre's centre, and these 'confetti-like' pieces are clearly visible just beneath the surface.”

Last year, similar plastics graveyards were discovered/mapped in the Atlantic (the North Atlantic garbage patch) and in the Indian Ocean (the Indian Ocean garbage patch), but we now know that there are no fewer than five such gyres in the oceans where plastic is accumulated. They are identified and studied in the project 5 Gyres.

Since most of the plastics in the oceans is not found in large islands of plastics, but rather in numerous tiny small pieces, there is no good way to clean it up. In addition, the oceans are sort of large, which makes cleanup impractical, to say the least. The bottom line is that the only way to limit the amount of plastics in the oceans is to use less plastics and be more careful about what happens with it when and after we throw it away.

In a public relations ploy from last year, Swedish global appliance maker Electrolux scooped up plastics from a number of gyres and built six "showcase vacuum cleaners" from it. This seems rather sympathetic, since the company’s stated goal was to:

“bring attention to the issues of plastic pollution and the scarcity of recycled plastics needed for making sustainable home appliances”

Electrolux for sure have pinpointed the problem, but the solution - "sustainable" home appliances - feels a bit strained. Anyway, Electrolux has put together a nice video (50 seconds) about the “Vac from the sea" project which is worth watching.

Another multi-million dollar high-profile-PR-project that I feel ambivalent about is the three-month Plastiki expedition of last year - conducted in a catamaran built from recycled plastic. I get similar vibes from this project as I do when Al Gore on the one hand preaches about reduced energy use, but on the other hand owns several luxury homes and flies a private jet. The driving person behind Plastiki, David de Rothschild, illuminates my own ambivalence towards the project:

”People hear it's a kid from a wealthy European family with a beard who's an environmentalist (and think), 'Surely this must be a stunt.' But I'm not afraid of drawing fire. Our culture has slowly disassociated itself from nature. But that's a model that has failed us. We must rethink it."

Finally a few words about the images of dead birds above. The photos were taken by photographer Chris Jordan and are part of a series of thirty equally scary images, "Midway: Message from the gyre" (2009). Jordan writes about this project:

”These photographs of albatross chicks were made in September, 2009, on Midway Atoll, a tiny stretch of sand and coral near the middle of the North Pacific. The nesting babies are fed bellies-full of plastic by their parents, who soar out over the vast polluted ocean collecting what looks to them like food to bring back to their young. On this diet of human trash, every year tens of thousands of albatross chicks die on Midway from starvation, toxicity, and choking. To document this phenomenon as faithfully as possible, not a single piece of plastic in any of these photographs was moved, placed, manipulated, arranged, or altered in any way. These images depict the actual stomach contents of baby birds in one of the world's most remote marine sanctuaries, more than 2000 miles from the nearest continent.“

All of his images thus show albatross chicks that died from suffocation, starvation or poisoning and whose decay allows us to see what their "last meal" contained. An albatross normally lives for 50 years and an albatross female lays only one egg once a year or once every second year. This slow reproductive cycle makes the demise of every single albatross chick extra tragic. It has been estimated that up to 40% of all albatross chicks die as a result of their involuntary plastics-eating orgies. Our plastics consumption has increased by nearly 10% annually in recent years and one of many problems is all the plastic bottles which are used only once and then thrown away. Some of these bottles find their way to the sea and finally end up in a gyre far away from you.


Saturday, October 2, 2010

"The world without us" by Weisman (2007)

Alan Weisman’s book “The World Without Us” (2007) is perhaps the book with the least obvious connection to Peak Oil among the books I have chosen to write about on this blog so far. However, by putting on my Peak Oil glasses, it is possible to find an intersting enough angle from which to approach the book.

The book is based on a thought experiment - what would happen if all humans disappeared from the surface of Earth from one day to the next? "Picture a world from which we all suddenly vanished. Tomorrow '. What would happen to everything we have built? What would happen to the artifacts we leave behind us?

Weisman describes what would happen to our pets and zoo animals, our skyscrapers and roads, our bridges and houses. In a fascinating chapter, he describes what has happened to the district Varosha, which is located in an untouched no man's land in Cyprus ever since its sudden abandonment in 1974. Similarly, he describes what has happened to the city of Pripyat as nature has gradually regained the city and its surrounding areas since the abandonment of the city due to the nearby Chernobyl accident in 1986.

Weisman laconically observes man's hubris and folly - there are so many examples of both in the book that you quickly lose count. What is there for example to say about a lake (next to a factory for chemical weapons in Denver) that is so toxic that ducks die just moments after they land in the water, and aluminum-bottomed boats rot away in less than a month? I suspect that Weisman expects mankind (or at least all human civilization) will disappear from the face of the Earth sometime between tomorrow and a hundred years from now. However, the author maintains his poker face through the book and it is ultimately impossible to determine his attitude to man's disappearance.

The book is exciting and it sold very well in the U.S. What I briefly will focus on in this text, are those parts of the book that specifically deal with energy issues. I also intend to write a follow-up on blog post about plastics – a fantastically flexible petroleum product - by using the book’s chapter about plastics as a springboard for further thoughts on that matter. For the audio-visually oriented blog reader who does not want to read the book "The World Without Us", I can recommend the film Aftermath: Population Zero, and the 20 episodes long post-apocalyptic-science-fiction-speculative-documentary-television series Life After People.

So... what would we humans leave behind us on Earth if we suddenly disappeared? It would not be our illuminated cities, for sure, because without people the flow of electricity would quickly come to an end. We have on the other hand quite some reprocessed uranium lying around. Naturally occurring uranium in the earth's crust consists of 0.7 percent U-235 (half-life 700 million years). We humans enrich (concentrate) this uranium isotope, and in the U.S. alone there are 500 000 tons of depleted uranium (half-life 4.5 billion years). Depleted uranium is a heavy and tough metal with several applications, for example armor-piercing grenades. After having been fired, such grenades will keep emitting radiation throughout the earth's remaining lifetime...

Almost all radioactive waste (fuel rods as well as gloves) is now stored "temporarily" at various locations above ground - in the U.S. there is only one place for permanent storage below ground, and there they do not handle the really toxic stuff, but only "low-and midlevel waste". With humans gone, there will sooner or later be a fire close to radioactive waste, and radioactive ashes will then spread across oceans and continents. (Even today, with humans present, the control is not always the best - many accidents have occurred where radioactive waste has leaked out).

In Sellafield in England, liquid radioactive waste is mixed with molten glass and large glass block are then stored in air-conditioned warehouses. In this case, there is no need for a fire - a permanent lack of electric power is enough for temperatures to begin to rise and accident to become a given. The same goes for all the basins of cooling water which for many decades have served as "temporary" storage locations for spent fuel rods. When the water evaporates, the temperature in the basins rises both literally and metaphorically. There are nearly 450 nuclear power plants on Earth. Perhaps all this radioactivity (which will be around for billions of years), will give rise to exciting new mutations that will compensate for all plant and animal species we humans have made extinct? Or will this simply be the last time we give the finger to the rest of the planet from beyond our graves?

Two other long-lasting “gifts” that we leave behind us are a result of coal mining - "mountaintop removal", which disfigures the landscape, and a "redesigned" atmosphere. In this context, humanity is an increasingly violent volcanic eruption that has lasted without interruption since the 1700s. The geological cycle will eventually bring CO2 levels back to what existed before humans began to influene the climate, but it will take approximately 100 000 years. Or longer.

On a somewhat smaller level, we will leave a lot of (car) tires behind us. When natural rubber is vulcanized (heated and mixed with finely powdered sulfur), the end product is one big molecule. Since World War II, we can produce synthetic rubber instead of natural rubber with the help of the oil-extracted hydrocarbons styrene/polystyrene and butadiene (today there are many different kinds of synthetic rubber, but this combination is still used in 50% of the total synthetic rubber production). The world's largest rubber factory (Goodyear) is located in Texas, conveniently connected to some of the world's largest oil refineries and to the industrial megaplex that stretches from Houston and 80 km along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

The process of vulcanizing rubber is unfortunately irreversible - you can not melt down a tire and produce something else out of it. Tires are here to stay, and until evolution produces a microbe that likes to eat its hydrocarbons spiked with sulfur, only ozone and ultraviolet rays can break down the rubber-sulfur atoms. You could by all means burn the tires, but that is hardly a good idea:

”With all that carbon in tires, they can also be burned, releasing considerable energy, which makes them hard to extinguish, along with surprising amounts of oily soot that contains some noxious components we invented in a hurry during World War II.”

In the United States, on average one third of a billion tires are thrown away annually (one tire per person). Add to that the tires from the rest of the world. We might not leave as much as a trillion tires behind us on earth, but by now we have probably enriched the environment with hundreds of billions of virtually non-degradable car tires.

Some of the longest-lasting man-made artifacts are located in Texas, along the Gulf of Mexico coast. There are approximately 500 underground salt domes located hundreds of meters below ground and whose contents have been dissolved by water (being pumped in by humans), and whose walls consist of impermeable salt crystals. The domes are used as a place for storage fossil gases, including the most hazardous and flammable ones, such as ethylene. The best thing future explorers can do is to leave these dangerous substance where they are (stored under extreme pressure), but how could they know? A topic that Weisman touches on several times in the book is the challenge of communicating that some places are dangerous, or in some other way making future explorers understand that they should leave certain locations alone (e.g. storage locations for uranium).

What would happen to all above-ground structures in this huge industrial park? Weisman refers to all the products resulting from the refining process in an almost poetic manner: “the geometry of petro-chemistry: circles, spheres, and cylinders – some tall and thin, some short and fla, some wide and round."

If someone has time to press the stop button, there would be no immediate danger, but the petrochemical products would eventually leak out or be dissolved in the air as the tanks rust away. If instead the whole machinery would continue to run but unmonitored, pressures and temperatures would remain high and the outcome would be widespread explosions and fires.

Maybe a big chain reaction would burn up the whole caboodle - possibly during a period of several weeks, or perhaps as a long series of more isolated incidents which are spread out over time.

But if there was a chain reaction in which several petrochemical plants burned up at the same time, many extremely toxic substances would be emitted into the air simultaneously (such as hydrogen cyanide, the active component in the WWII extermination camp gas Zyklon B). In the worst case scenario, this would cause a chemical “mini-nuclear winter” with dire consequences to say the least:

”They would also release chlorinated compounds like dioxins and furans from burning plastics. And you’d get lead, chromium, and mercury attached to the soot. Europe and North America, with the biggest concentrations of refineries and chemical plants, would be the most contaminated. But the clouds would disperse through the world. The next generation of plants and animals, the ones that didn’t die, might need to mutate”

In this less than cheerful tone, I end this text about what we humans would leave behind us if we disappeared from the earth's surface from one day to the next. Since the reason for our disappearance is a mystery in the book, it is difficult to know whether Weisman’s excursions into unknown territory represent a happy or unhappy ending for mankind. As a contrast to all the toxins and all the misery that we would leave behind us, our mysterious disappearance would also mean that most plants and animals on earth would flourish, since plants and animals would thrive where there are no people. An interesting example referred to by Weisman (in addition to Chernobyl which was mentioned above), is the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, and other similar areas of conflict in the world that are too dangerous for people to stay in. In practice, those areas function as nature reserves and they are teeming with biodiversity.

"The World Without Us" also has a very interesting chapter about plastics that I have not touched on here. Rather, I intend to write another text with that chapter as a starting point. I conclude this blog text with a question that you may ponder in the meantime. There is an infinite number of gadgets made of plastic in today's society. But what happens to the plastic after we throw them away?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Reinventing collapse" by Orlov (2008)

There are many books that warn of impending climate change, environmental disasters or other calamities. Peak Oil may be regarded as one of those "other" calamities that could bring our civilization to its knees. Sometimes - rarely - I read about climate scientists and other researchers who privately are approaching the conviction that we’ve come to the end of the road, that regardless of what we do from now on it will be too little, too late, or that it still might be possible to do something effective, but that nothing will happen in time since public support and political will are missing (think Copenhagen).

In case you share those views, you should probably not exhibit them in a public debate, because that would immediately make most people view you as failed, incompetent, idiotic or at least as an oddball. Thus, since no one knows anything for certain about the future and since we all hope for the best, even people who are pessimistic about the future show a (probably somewhat strained) "positive attitude" when speaking publicly:

You see, most people don’t want to be too alarmed, and they don’t want to hear about problems to which there are no ready solutions. So world-savers frequently try to tailor their public statements so that large numbers of people won’t be frightened to the point of despair and paralysis. How many times have I been told, “Keep it positive! Emphasize solutions!” Yet I can’t tell you how often I’ve sat down with an activist whose latest policy paper is all about solutions, and in heart-to-heart conversation they reveal that they don’t really think our species has much of a chance of avoiding major catastrophe, maybe even extinction.

Similarly, there are many books that spend lots of efforts to carefully build up and impose realistic (and scary) threats, but then ends with one or more substantially shallower sections about what we should do - preferably immediately - to relatively painlessly "save the world":

"many of the book authors now writing about peak oil, climate change, species extinction and myriad other urgent environmental and resource topics usually end their otherwise grim analyses with [...] "the happy chapter," a chapter with solutions and responses which will supposedly help us to avert catastrophe."

As I have pointed out earlier, it may therefore feel almost refreshing when someone who actually believes that we are moving towards cataclysmic change also describes what the changes will be like.

Dmitry Orlov's book "Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet example and American Prospects" (2008) is such a book. Dmitry Orlov has a background that makes him especially suited to depict collapse dynamics. He is not a scientist nor an "expert", but characterizes himself as an "eyewitness". He lived his first 12 years in the Soviet Union and in the aftermath of the Soviet empire's collapse a decade later, he undertook numerous business and family trips back to his old country. As an ethnic Russian who had lived half his life in the United States, he was located in-between two cultures and could easily slip between watching the events "from within" (as a Russian) and "from the outside" (as an American). His unique perspective, his sharp eye, his offbeat analyses and his sardonic sense of humor makes his book a real gem.

The book's message is as actually a real downer, but Orlov’s intelligence, black humor and very Russian naturally indifferent attitude - "to a Russian, 'hard worker' sounded a lot like 'fool'" - makes the book a very pleasant reading experience. The book is full of resigned shrugs regarding the possibility for any individual to prevent the coming societal collapse. We're not talking about saving the world here - the best we can hope for is to save our own skins! Orlov believes, however, that a collapse in no way is the final end:

Civilizations do collapse [but] the process can take many centuries. What tends to collapse rather suddenly […] is the economy. […] There is a part of the population that is most vulnerable: the young, the old and the infirm; the foolish and suicidal. There is another part of the population that can survive indefinitely on insects and tree bark. Most people fall somewhere in between.

Communism coming to an end and the Soviet social system collapsing did not lead to total anarchy overnight. Although violence and insecurity increased, the vast majority of people survived from one day to the next and from one year to the next. Still, the experience of getting through those years was like someone pulling the rug out from under your feet, not just once, but several times, and every time you tried to stand up again, the rules had changed - and usually for the worse. Dmitry calls this process "loss of normalcy".

The fundamental question that Orlov is preoccupied with in his book is: What can we learn from the Soviet Union's collapse and what is to be expected when the U.S. collapses? (NOTE: when the U.S. collapses - at some point during Orlov’s lifetime – not if). The book begins with a comparison between U.S.A ("the U.S.") and the Soviet Union ("the S.U."). Unlike other such comparisons, this one is not about the ways in which the empires are (were) different from each other, but instead about how they are similar in area after area. They both wanted what every superpower strives for - technological development, economic growth, full employment and world domination - they just happened to have some different ideas about the means to achieve these goals.

The ingredients I like to put in my superpower collapse soup are: a severe and chronic shortfall in the production of crude oil (that magic addictive elixir of industrial economies), a severe and worsening foreign trade deficit, a runaway military budget and ballooning foreign debt. The heat and agitation can be provided most efficaciously by a humiliating military defeat and widespread fear of a looming catastrophe. […] It took a couple of decades for the United States to catch up, but now all the ingredients are in the pot and starting to simmer. […] Let us not even try to imagine that this will all just blow over. Make no mistake about it: this soup will be served, and it will not be tasty!

This is followed by a comparison between the Soviet and the U.S. in area after area (accommodation, transportation, food, medicine, education, work, religion etc.). What is interesting is that from a collapse perspective, the U.S. is much worse off than the S.U. in area after area. The reason for this is (somewhat counter-intuitively) that as everything functioned so poorly in the S.U., people were already inadvertently collapse-prepared and they were used to solve many problems by and for themselves. The U.S. is instead like a well-lubricated machine, but this unfortunately means that people and social structures will be more unprepared to face the consequences of a failing society. The very worst scenario, according to Orlov, is a perfectly functioning, growing economy that one day suddenly collapses.

An example of accidental collapse preparation is the fact that many Russians had a little patch where they grew their own food. Although these small kitchen gardens only represented 10% of the agricultural land, they accounted for 90% of domestic food production. When society collapsed, many people already had a habit of taking care of (some of) their own food supplies, and the kitchen gardens saved many lives.

In spite of the monumental failures of Soviet agriculture, the overall structure of Soviet-style food delivery proved to be paradoxially resilient in the face of economic collapse […] there was no starvation and very little malnutrition. But will fate be as kind to the United States?

In the U.S. (and in Sweden), most people are totally dependent on a large and complex system for growing and distributing food and on the fact that the supermarket shelves are replenished every day. On top of that, U.S. citizens also need copious amounts of (affordable) gasoline to refuel their cars so that they can get to the supermarket in the first place.

Orlov points out other equally fascinating paradoxes. Since there was no profit motive in the Soviet Union, there was no incentive for planned obsolesensce in the few consumer products that were produced. Instead, they constructed simple, functional and sturdy (but oh-so-ugly) refrigerators that were sufficiently durable and repairable to function long after production of a model was stopped.

This may be compared with my a-few-years-old-but-broken pot rack from swanky Myresjökök (it's in the corner cabinet of my kitchen). To reduce the life expectancy, Myresjökök has chosen to complement the robust stainless steel rack with a few small plastic details that hold the rack in place in the cabinet - and already when the pot rack was brand new, I knew that the plastic parts would be worn out, become brittle and sooner rather than later would break (much sooner than the metal in the rack itself of course). The rack is virtually impossible to repair for a layperson, and if the manufacturer decides to not keep these small plastic details (worth a dollar or so) in stock (with no profit margin), I will have to buy a new rack for more than 400 USD, or learn to do without ... That is how the (over)mature capitalist consumer society works today. My loss, someone else's gain.

Another difference between Russia and the United States is that Russia is a rich country that is (more than) self-sufficient in terms of energy. This made it possible, although not easy, for Russia to "bounce back" after the collapse. The U.S. is instead the world's largest energy importer. Who will be interested in selling energy to the U.S. at a point in time when the mighty U.S. economy is a thing of the past? Thus, on this point as well, the U.S. has a weaker position than Russia when it comes to getting through a collapse safe and sound.

What then is recommended by Orlov and his likes, who like bloodhounds have an unrivaled sense of smell in regards to detecting and analysing systemic weaknesses? A less laconic person than Orlov who has uncovered many fundamental problems with the "system" writes as follows:

"I have written ad nauseam about the impending financial cataclysm that awaits our nation. I have spent countless hours documenting the unsustainable path of our politicians' financial decisions and lack of courage in addressing the forthcoming tragedy that grows closer by the day. Our political system is so corrupt and dysfunctional that there is absolutely no chance that our path will be altered at the voting booth".

The author is obviously very frustrated, and the reason for his frustration is the expectation that "the system" should work better than it does. Orlov has no such expectations, and his view is therefore very different and strange to us Swedes who essentially have high confidence in politicians and the political system:

"The Soviet Union had a single, entrenched, systemically corrupt political party, which held a monopoly on power, The US has two entrenched, systemically corrupt political parties, whose positions are often indistinguishable and which together hold a monopoly on power. […] It is a tribute to the intelligence of the American people that so few of them bother to vote […] the American version [of democracy] is little more than window-dressing for the real business of politics, which happens behind closed doors and mainly involves the exchange of vast sums of money.”

Although people often bemoan political apathy as if it were a grave social ill, it seems to me that this is just as it should be. Why should essentially powerless people want to engage in a humiliating farce designed to demonstrate the legitimacy of those who wield the power?"

Orlov’s faith in political solutions can not be any lower than it already is. At one point he writes that "politics has great potential for making a bad situation worse". What Orlov instead praises are people without strong convictions - people who mind their own business and who do what needs to be done, and refrain from being bothered about how others should live their lives.

"The Russian people are exceptionally patient: even in the worst of post-collapse times, they did not riot and […] They coped as best they could. The safest group of people to be with in a crisis is one that does not share strong ideological convictions

The fact that Orlov has little confidence in the possibilities of changing the world politically does not mean that he advocates apathy on a personal level. On the contrary. It is only when we stop listening to politicians and stop caring about what is being said on TV or in the newspapers that we can start to prepare ourselves and change our own lives - although it is extremely difficult to act on knowledge which is contradicted by our everyday experiences and by most of the people around us.

Rather than attempting to […] stop the world and point it in a different direction – it seems far better to turn inward and work to transform yourself into someone who might stand a chance, given the world’s assumed trajectory.

Good ways to prepare include physical changes (keeping fit and in good health), psychological changes and changes in habits (including learning new things).

A recurring argument used by Orlov is that a collapse tends to make (economic) weaknesses into strengths, and vice versa (food production, consumer products etc.). He takes this idea to its logical endpoint where his ideas become completely absurd - or not. It is not easy to decide whether to take his proposal seriously, since his perspective is so unusual and counter-intuitive:

"It is not necessary for the United States to embrace the tenets of command economy and central planning […] We have our own methods that are working almost as well. I call them ”boondoggles.” They are solutions to problems that result in more severe problems than those they attempt to solve. […] The combined weigth of all these boondoggles is slowly but surely pushing us all down. If it pushes us down far enough, then economic collapse, when it arrives, will be like falling out of a ground-floor window."

It seems to me that Orlov should judge the 2008-2009 economic crisis and its impact in the U.S. as something Good on the whole. Based on the belief that an economic collapse is inevitable, it seems preferable to the author that "a few at a time" (all the losers of the crisis) get the "opportunity" to cope with a crumbling existence, and the "privilege" as pioneers (on the road that many more soon will wander) to invent creative ways to cope with fewer resources. This should in any case be much better than if all at once have to handle the dire consequences of a collapse, with anarchy and chaos luring around the corner.

I do not think I misinterpret Orlov. Elsewhere in the book he says that the best way to prepare for an economic collapse is to try to live, as far as possible, as if the collapse has already happened. Get by with as little money as possible and make yourself independent of the regular economy ("demonetize"). Grow your own food. Operate in the gray area between the black and the white economy by trading favors and strive towards obtaining robust networks of friends, acquaintances and contacts. Learn to repair things that break and take care of what others throw away. In short, learn to live without a "silver lining".

To Orlov, the poor and those who manage to live on the margins ("conscientious economic underachievers and various categories of the creatively underemployed") are the unsung heroes of our time. We need to draw inspiration from them and from ”Those parts of the population that have recent or continuing experience with circumstances that have forced them to provide for their mutual welfare – recent immigrant groups, minorities and the poor.

The opposite of living on the margin is to tightly connect your destiny to the current economic system. Such a thightly coupled relationship will hurt a lot when the financial system collapses. After the Soviet collapse, it turned out to be the successful middle-aged men who were the most psychologically vulnerable. After their careers ended, their savings evaporated and their properties become worthless, all their self-esteem disappeared. They tended to be overrepresented among those who drank themselves to death and among those who committed suicide.

Although Orlov's book is slim (160 pages), I have had time to highlight only some parts of it. If you want to learn more about what the future might look like and how to prepare yourself, I recommend that you read the entire book. Not only is the book funny and pleasant to read, but there is also value in reading a text with such a strange and thought-provoking perspective!

If you (despite my recommendations) do not want to buy the book, there are some previously written texts on the internet covering parts of the book's content:
- "Post-Soviet Lessons for a Post-American Century" (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3) (2005)
- "Closing the 'Collapse gap': The USSR was better prepared for collapse than the U.S." (2006)
- Orlov’s blog, Club Orlov, has a very low volume but high quality
- On the site "Creative loafing" there is a text about Orlov’s book and a few related books.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Peak Oil, "Big Education" and "Big Science"

.Image: Big Education; graduation ceremony

Image: Big Science; Linear Accelerator interior, Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, 1957

My previous text discussed the set of arguments I use to try to explain what each member of society should know, worry about and act upon before peak oil strikes us with full force. In this text, I develop some ideas that relate to, but didn't quite fit the previous text. It starts out a little rambling but moves on the the issue of peak oil and higher education/research in the second half of the text. You can jump there directly if that is your main cup of tea, I've made it easy to find.

Peak oil is unfortunately a new idea to most people, and the natural reaction for someone who has never heard about it is to instinctively simply push all this worrysome new meme away and carry on living life as usual, as before.

Unfortunately, peak oil will not disappear just because we choose not to think about it. We still have a date with peak oil in the future, and the time of this date is approaching relentlessly and without regard to what we happen to think or feel. (Think of the Titanic as a ship that had a date with an iceberg.) But in the case of peak oil, it is not so much a date as a "shotgun marriage" that will last forever after.

One of, if not the main problem with peak oil is this great ignorance. Comprehension among too many of our non-PO-educated friends is and will remain sadly inadequate as we are moving towards the chaotic post-peak-oil era. NOTE: In order to avoid being accused of being overly pessimistic I would like to stress that some things most likely will turn out for the better compared to today - but only after we have passed through a turbulent and confusing period.

In plain language: We have no idea what life will look like on the other side of peak oil and how long it will take to get there. But there is no doubt (to me) that the transition will be painful. Major social change is always painful. Individuals will suffer when entire business areas (for example air travel) are eradicated and people loose their jobs, and when things we have taken for granted are denied to us not only temporarily, but for all time (holidays in Thailand, or to able to buy what we like on a Saturday afternoon in the shopping mall).

But back to the topic of societal ignorance and misunderstandings in relation to peak oil. To not understand what is happening and why it happens naturally reduces the chances of making the right decisions and doing the right things at the right time - both on an individual and a societal level. Until the very end, individuals will get into debt to buy new, fancy cars for tens of thousands of dollars, and we will continue to build new airports and new highways until the very end. A guy who sat across me at a party last year told me he had just bought a house in Thailand and he hoped to be able to visit it a few weeks every year and rent out to tourists the rest of the time. I wish him good luck but I don't expect he will have much.

If we who think of oil and energy as critical factors are right, and if our way of thinking turns out to be a good “lens” through which we can understand our world today and tomorrow, then the absence of this lens will make people not see the connections, become confused, make the wrong decisions, throw good money after bad and accuse the wrong parties when the effects of their choices in life collide with a non-cooperating reality. Such a “lens” through which we interpret and understand data and processes is what researchers usually call a "theory". And without one, our thoughts are easily led in the wrong direction. Richard Heinberg has expressed it as follows:

''...yet people won't be talking about the oil peak. They'll be talking about the unemployment figures. They'll be talking about the high price of food. They'll be talking about the fact that you can't get on an airliner and travel anymore because the airline industry has collapsed, there are only a few carriers still in business and tickets are astronomically expensive. They'll be talking about the latest war or terrorist incidents. They will have completely lost sight of the one event that caused all of those effects.''

Peak oil, higher education and research

Regarding my own area, higher education, I take for granted that it will at best shrink considerably in size and scope. As late as in the early 1950's less than 5% of an age cohort in England, France or Australia went on to higher education/university studies - and that still represented a doubling compared to only a decade or two earlier (according to Alison Wolf in her great book "Does Education Matter?: Myths about Education and Economic growth").

Today in Sweden, virtually everyone with the capacity (and some without it) start senior high school at the age of 16 (98-99% of an age cohort). Furthermore, about 40% of an age cohort now commence some sort of higher (university) education before the age of 25. There is (or has been) a political (Social Democratic) goal that 50% of an age cohort should proceed to higher education, but I don’t know the exact reason why. The general arguments I have encountered are precariously weak in their logic and vaguely refers to slogans about "democracy", "competing with the rest of the world" or perhaps something about "preparing for the knowledge societey". I assume that the whole thing is half dogma and half a disguised (and expensive) measure to reduce unemployment numbers among the youth.

The last figure I pull out my magic hat is that up to 3% of an age cohort in Sweden nowadays study to complete a Ph.D. degree. I can not remember if this figure refers to people who start or who finish their Ph.D. studies – in any case it results in quite a few Ph.D. students – approximately 3,000 new ones each year in a small country such as Sweden! Of course, all those long years in school cost a lot of money, and the educational-industrial complex is another line of “business” that peak oil will substantially reduce the size of.

I believe that if we will afford to maintain higher education and research (which of course anyway has to shrink in size and scope), we will see substantial changes in priorities within and between different research areas and academic disciplines. It is hardly a wild guess that there will be less funds allocated to "big science", that is, large-scale projects usually funded by a government or groups of governments, with a Big Budget, Big Staffs, Big Laboratories and Big Machines. There will be less funding for researchers interested in large particle accelerators and in the origins of the universe. We can just forget about projects that require lots of scientists and terribly expensive equipment in order to achieve incremental (and marginal) results of doubtful practical utility.

Quite recently (June 22) I read on the front of the magazine Computer Sweden that "KTH [the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden] invests 133 million" SEK - 20 million USD - in buying a new supercomputer which will be one of the fastest computers in Europe (temporarily of course). I find it hard to understand why an expense of 133 million is called an "investment". A more proper headline would be that "KTH spend 133 million". The negative equivalent to "KTH invests" would be “KTH wastes 133 million”. In any case, it is hard to believe that anyone 10-20 years from now will receive funding to by a gadget for 133 million SEK, with the possible exception of energy research in some much-needed area.

But a computer for 20 million USD is a drop in the ocean compared to the more than 6 000 million Euros that France and the rest of Europe now have to fork up for the 2012 construction of an experimental fusion power plant (ITER). The project is now on shaky economic ground after the financial crisis and as the costs are running away from what was earlier projected and budgeted (and that is even before any actual construction has started). There are other partners in the project (U.S., Russia, Japan, Korea, China, India), and the total estimated cost for this experimental power plant is currently 16 000 million Euros. And the costs might become significantly higher if we take into consideration that they have grown by 10 000 million Euros (!) compared to calculations made back in 2001. I will happily bet (and give the generous odds 5 to 1) that this fusion power plant will never be completed. Is there anyone who dares to bet against me? Construction is planned to take 10 years and I will generously let my offer stand until 2030. The fight for money has already begun and "researchers in other fields [are] wondering whether their funding will suffer if funds are diverted to ITER".

Overall, today's specialization in the research community (where people qualify themselves by knowing a lot in increasingly smaller areas), is likely to decrease as the number of scientists and the amount of available money for research decrease. To know more and more about less and less will become a dead end, whereas the ability to connect various areas will become more interesting. Perhaps the interest in some "soft" social sciences such as psychology, sociology, political science and peace/conflict research will increase - provided that those research fields start to investigate peak oil-related questions:

- How can we live together in a world of shrinking resources?
- How can we provide treatment / therapy to people who are addicted to shopping but who are no longer able get their "fix"?
- What do we do with middle-aged skilled careerists who have lost their job, their car and their house, and consequently their identity, their drive and their motivation?
- How can we understand the (coming) popular movement of gardening?
- How can we deal with young people’s (justified) disappointment and aggression towards the generation of their parents?
- What are we to do with all Peak Oil refugees when they knocks on our door and want to enter? Or with climate terrorists with little or nothing to loose?
- How do we phase out all the benefits that the state has generously offered without having too many people suffer too much?
- How should society cope with declining stock markets (which will also affect our pensions)?
- How do we create institutions at a local level that can work towards reducing dependency on the rest of the world?
- How do we rebuild our strategic basic industries which left Sweden 20 or 50 years ago?
- How do we transform our agriculture to become less energy intensive?
- What kind of health care can we afford in the future? How should it be organized? How do you explain in a pedagogical way that surgery X or medicine Y is no longer available?
- How do we create a primary and high school curriculums (and find teachers) who can prepare our youth for the real 21st century?
... and so on ...

Of course, energy research will be of immense interest. Maybe there are also lessons to be learned from the use of technology in today's developing countries (for example on the use of mobile technology and low-tech off-grid energy solutions)? Just the idea of a reversed transfer of knowledge from developing countries to more developed countries is staggering...

Of course, researchers will no longer be able to travel back and forth all over the world to attend conferences, so the transfer of knowledge between researchers will by neccessity become more regional (or can the Internet make up for decreased mobility?). Swedish researchers (as well as the population in general) will have to put up with travelling only in Europe, or maybe, as time goes by, only in Scandinavia, or Sweden. This contraction will of course affect which languages our youth will learn in primary school and high school. We ought to experience a renaissance of languages spoken in areas geographically close to us (not the least Norwegian and Danish), and a decreased interest in "exotic" languages such as Arabic, Japanese and Chinese.

One last guess that does not feel too daring is that economics in its present form will be discredited and kicked to the dust bin of history in the same way that scientific communism was non-honorably retired 20 years ago. My guess is that as the world changes, traditional neoclassical economists in particular will be depicted as Quislings of our time or even as accomplices to the crash, and they will become as popular as racial anthropologists are in today's university world.

Nevertheless, we need some kind of economic theories, and the ones I believe are most likely to suceed are the (presently) radical ideas of biophysical and ecological economics. The non-negotiable starting point for these theories is what the Earth can bear - how extensive our human (economic) activities can be without destroying our environment and our ability to create wealth even in the (far) future. When we move from expansion to contraction, we also move from the economy of opportunities to the economy of restrictions - or why not the economy of the real world.

In the 1800s we hunted whales to the end of the world, on journeys that lasted several years, in order to illuminate our homes. When whales began to run low, we were saved by the discovery of kerosene, but what will save us this time? Many are those who have read too many fairy tales or watched too many movies to be able to imagine a story without a happy ending. Those are the people who got frustrated when Obama or BP simply failed to fix that oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico right away. At best, they suspect monumental incompetence and at worst they suspect a conspiracy. They have a skewed picture of reality, because they are convinced that every challenge can be solved by American know-how, and that a group of brilliant-but-misunderstood scientists somewhere had a solution, but were hampered by evil bureaucrats or the governments from once and for all plugging that hole (see "American faith in magic Technological exacerbates frustration with the Gulf of Mexico oil leak").

Unfortunately, I personally believe there of courser aren't any guarantees of happy endings except in fictional stories - products created for a mass market – whose purpose is to make us feel comfortable. The last 200 years has been one long success story - at least for us here in the West. Unfortunately, the good times will not last forever. What irritates me is that we have not used the good times to prepare for the bad.

In the Bible, Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream of seven fat and seven lean cows as representing seven good years to be followed by seven years of poor harvests. Pharaoh had the Egyptians prepare by storing food during the good years, and they survived the crisis (hooray!). But we have lived with an unprecedented abundance, without giving tomorrow more than a fleeting thought once every leap year. Instead of starting to slow down, we continue to press the pedal to the metal right into the hairpin curve.

Dmity Orlov argues that if we put our trust in an intervention from "outside", the only "reasonable" hope is that friendly extraterrestrials will show up just in time to save humanity (all seven billion) and our consumption-addicted society. As if.

I think our grandchildren will hear many, many stories and moralizing tales about arrogance, wastefulness, gluttony and short-term thinking and that many of the stories will have unhappy endings ("that’s what happens if you don’t..."). These stories will constitute an appropriate training for entry into a tough world, and also a good way to mentally work through challenges and changes happening around us in Sweden and abroad.

In all honesty I am more pessimistic about our (society's) lack of understanding and our inability to cope with peak oil, than I am about peak oil itself. Thus, if we used our still-considerable resources to immediately start preparing society for peak oil, then I would not be very worried at all. And if pigs could fly...

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Points of departure

Figure. Optical illusion of simultaneous expansion and contraction.

The Swedish blogger Ylven recently wrote a text [in Swedish] about how clueless people are when she tries to explain what peak oil is, even though she leaves plenty of (grim) hints about what it will mean. Either people do not understand the problem at all, or they understand the problem but believe that "everything will be fine". Maybe they have eaten too many Chinese fortune cookies, because, as you may know, such cookies contain only positive messages. When I had some guests over earlier this spring, I told my guests that on my fortune cookie the surprising message was "Oil will peak and you will starve" (everyone in this particular company understood the joke). Looking at my joke in a different light, you may find the seeds of both a public educational campaign as well as a business idea which I gladly share with you - "Peak Fortune Cookies" - with messages such as "Oil will peak and your car will run out of gas", "Oil will peak and you will eat turnip and bark bread", "Oil will peak and you will lose your job", or why not "Oil will peak and you will be drafted to fight a resource war"?

I’m a university teacher and by now I have been able to sneak in some peak oil information as background to other things I talk about a couple of times. The reaction I get from the audience is usually the same as Ylven gets even though I have a "captive audience" who can not immediately stand up and leave the room. Based on a couple of these experiences, I have had to think long and hard about some of the starting points I have personally come to take for granted, and I now emphasize these in my talks in order to increase the likelihood of my point to be understood by the audience. These starting points are assumptions that I have incorporated into my own world view and also arguments that might persuade others. These assumptions are interrelated and they form a logical chain that is easy to follow but hard(er) to refute:

1 Peak oil is now. And if not exactly now, then at least very soon. But already today’s "normal" oil price is many times higher than the price a decade ago, and no one believes that the long-term trend will be broken and that the price will go down in the future. It is difficult today to imagine how we could increase oil production significantly over a longer period of time. Instead, we need to run faster and faster and chase harder- and-harder-to-find oil just to manage to remain in the same place (see the red queen). This claim can be backed up by tables and graphs.

2 Peak Oil is a predicament, not a problem. A problem can be solved, but a predicament has to be handled or countered by adopting better or worse strategies. A predicament can not once and for all be "solved" or "overcome". The fact that we will all die one day is an example of a predicament. You may extend or shorten your life (for example by eating healthy food and exercising or by smoking and taking risks in traffic), but in the end it makes no difference, for you will in any case die. You can not cheat the Reaper; he is standing somewhere, waiting to take you into his arms for the final embrace.

3 Peak oil = peak energy. Oil accounts for around 37% of global energy use and up to 95% of all transport depends on oil. When oil becomes (more) expensive it will become expensive to transport goods (globalization stops) and to transport people (travelling will become prohibitively expensive). No single type of energy and no combination of energy sources may cover up for the steady shortfall in oil production by a few percent per year. In addition, we have already picked "the lowest hanging fruit" also with regards to coal and gas, which together with oil constitute 85% of the global energy production. Furthermore and as the icing on the cake, it is said that there are some problems nowadays having to do with the climate as a result of us burning up all those non-renewable fossil fuels...

4 Peak Oil = Peak Economy. There is a strong correlation between energy consumption and economic growth. We can for sure hope for "decoupling" - to be able to have continued economic growth while maintaining or even reducing energy use - but no country has ever managed this Indian rope trick and that does not bode well. Maybe we are high on energy, listening a little to closely to the voice of intoxication, but it will unfortunately all too soon be replaced by a massive hangover.

The second point (above) is by the way an argument with unmatched know-it-all qualities. If you first explain what a predicament is by using death as an example, you may then easily move on and explain why Peak Gold (which occurred a decade ago) is a good example of a finite-resource predicament. As for the mining of gold, for each year you get less gold for the money (the investments) - from 12 grams of gold per metric ton of ore in 1950 to 3 grams of gold today. Gold is a good example of why the production of all non-renewable resources will always ultimately reach a peak and then begin to fall and/or why we have to run faster for each year to remain on the same spot (mine more ore to get the same amount of gold).

With this groundwork in place, any further objections to any of the arguments above may be rejected with a claim that the person objecting is suffering from denial and is trying to convert a Peak Oil predicament into a problem that may be fairly easily solved (with new technologies - electric vehicles, new energy sources - wind or nuclear power, redressing economic inequalities in the world or in a specific country, by mobilizing unparallelled political will, global agreements or some other miracle cure).

In any case, at around this point I usually stop bringing forward relatively cocksure claims (which if necessary may be backed up), and instead take a more humble stance. This is also where it starts to get really interesting when I further claim that:

5 The future will bring "disruptive" changes. (From Peak Fortune Cookies: "Oil will peak and you will face disruptive changes"). We will face many and big changes in the coming decades, but when haven't we in the previous decades? But the big point here is that the "direction" of these changes will be changed: Peak oil implies Big Changes. But not changes within the framework of the current system, but changes of the framework itself. Obama trump card was "change" ("Change We Can Believe In"). In the election campaign, “change” was a call full of promises, something to hope for and believe in. Unfortunately, the changes that await us will hardly be welcomed by anyone.

I imagine that somewhere during the coming decade (2010-2020), or at the latest in the decade thereafter, we will experience a shift from an expanding system (increasing amount of energy, more natural resources being exploited, increasing global population, more wealth, better welfare, people's expectations about the future being bright and so on) to a system in a state of contraction and shrinking.

We have lived with an expanding system for a few hundred years and all our economic and political structures (as well as our expectations for the future) are therefore adapted to a world of More, Better, Bigger, Faster, More Advanced, Newer, Cheaper and Two-For-The-Price-Of-One. The political challenges of distributing the material surplus of a growing cake is of course a breeze compared to the political challenges of distributing the cutbacks and austerity measures of a shrinking cake. This spring's riots in Greece has given us a foretaste of the problems we are facing. The change from the former (an expanding system) to the latter (a contracting system) will thus be "difficult". As you understand, this is a gross understatement, since (all) our current structures are ill-suited to manage this new reality.

If I allow myself to be a little bit pessimistic, I can not exclude the possibility that all of our current political structures (including a democratic government and perhaps the nation-state itself) will appear to be dysfunctional and break down as they are shown to be unable to cope with the problems we will face in the coming decades. Think of "failed states" such as Somalia, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Congo, Afghanistan etc. These are places where the state has withdrawn from many of its commitments (healthcare, education, police and judiciary, infrastructure, etc.) and where small groups/clans /regions must cope as best they can and not seldom in competition with other groups/clans/regions.

This is by all means a speculative worst-case scenario, but I in any case feel very certain about my claim that we will experience disruptive changes where the direction of the changes and societal "development" (or rather, degradation) will break off from what we and our parents have become accustomed to regard as normal (expansion and better times just around the corner).

To specify exactly what this will mean - what will happen, in what order and on what timescale - is of course an infinitely harder task. Despite the difficulties, it is these issues that interest me the most, rather than issues about production volumes and the exact time and date of peak oil, i.e. issues that Kjell Aleklett’s research group in Uppsala is mainly dealing with. What captures my interest is not "When will peak oil happen?" but rather "What happens next?". And although specific predictions are difficult or impossible to make, broad development lines are at least possible to comment or speculate on.

Some of my earlier texts have dealt with such questions about what might happen when energy becomes more expensive, for example "Energy free of charge", "Transportation free of charge" and “Death of Rationalization”.

I have some semi-developed ideas related to the text above, and I might concretize them in a follow-up to this post.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

"Is Eco Ok?" (Formas Fokuserar 2003)


The Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning (Formas) publishes “Formas Fokuserar” (“Formas Focuses”) - a series of paperback books where Swedish researchers have their say and write short, simple texts on current issues. The book "Is Eco Ok? On organic farming in Sweden" (2003) was the first book, and by now Formas has published some 15 books in the series. The books are usually a few hundred pages long, but this particular book is very neat (smaller in size than a pocket book) and thin (115 pages). Nevertheless, the book contains no less than 13 texts by 18 different authors. Most of the authors have connections to (different departments at) the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU).

Although the book is aimed towards an interested general public, parts of the contents was quite unfamiliar to me, and I learned a few new things when I read the book: "Manure is composed of feces, urine, bedding straw, feed residues and water. Depending on consistency, manure is classified as liquid, semi-liquid, solid or deep litter."

I have previously written [in Swedish] about other books that deal with agriculture's dependency on oil. In this book, however, energy and oil plays a subordinate role and you have to figure out the connection yourself since none of the authors have (or barely even mention) such a perspective. Instead, the starting point of the book, as formulated in the introduction, is that "Scientists do not agree on which type of cultivation is best for human health and the environment - conventional or organic. What do they really know about the differences? That is the question this book wants to answer."

Although the book is seven years old, a debate flared up in Sweden recently pertaining to the book’s main question; which kind of agriculture is best - conventional or organic? Marit Paulsson (Swedish member of the European Parliament and mainly involved in agricultural politics) published a new book where she claimed that conventional agriculture is our only hope if we want to grow enough food for all of mankind. "Yields are lower in organic farming. The surface of the earth is not big enough to grow organic food for everyone, therefore it is not a sustainable global solution. It is more important to find pesticides that are better than the ones used today."

A week later, DN (the largest morning newspaper in Sweden) published a longer article where both critics and proponents of organic food stated their claims. The claim that organic food has smaller yields and is therefore a problem from a global perspective is only partly true. The biggest problem during the past few decades is not that there is not enough food on Earth, but that the poorest people don't have enough buying power to compete for the food that is produced.

For us living in the rich countries food has never been cheaper - we have never spent such a small fraction of our income (around 10%) on buying food as we do today. The problem is that there are no incentives to grow food for paupers who can not pay for themselves, and that we in the richer countries are not prepared to spend a whole lot of money on buying and giving away food to the poor. If the 25% poorest people on earth (living on $1.50 per day or less) were ten times richer, we would automatically (due to market mechanisms) grow more food and less bio-fuels for cars. In addition, we would grow more crops for humans and less crops for animals (meat production is inefficient). And we would throw away less food. I see hunger today more as an effect of the uneven distribution of wealth, than as a matter of an absolute and inevitable global food deficit.

The arguments for or against, and the differences between the two types of cultivation (organic and conventional) are various and multidimensional. Consequently, there are often uncertainties about the results of different studies, and there is room for different players (who have different ideological and economic interests to defend) to interpret the findings in different ways. The issue is further complicated by the fact that there may be larger differences within one type of cultivation than between the two types, depending on for example agricultural intensity, the lay of the land (landscape) and the farmer’s attitude to biodiversity. But let us start from the beginning and go through the dividing lines.

Conventional agriculture uses inorganic fertilizers and chemical pesticides. Organic agriculture instead uses alternative methods and stresses the need to harness natural processes. Organic farming in Sweden is today largely equivalent to KRAV-certified food. KRAV is an acronym for the Swedish Association for Alternative Cultivation, an organization that was founded in 1985. KRAV establishes minimum requirements that must be fulfilled for certification, and inspects the production at all KRAV farms at least once a year. Farmers may follow KRAV rules by personal conviction and/or for economic reasons.

As for fertilizers (which provides nutrients to the soil), conventional farming uses inorganic fertilizers and organic farming uses manure (animal poop :-). Neither is good in too large quantities, and since manure is a 'live' product, it is more difficult to dose.

Previously, crops and livestock were integrated on the farm and nutrients circulated naturally between them. Now the animals disappear from the mid-Swedish farms and areas for grazing are there replaced by grain production. The grain is then transported to the southern parts of Sweden where the animals are nowadays located. In order to compensate for the absence of animals in mid-Sweden, farmers have to add inorganic fertilizers. In southern Sweden, the number of farms is decreasing, but the number of animals on the remaining farms is increasing. There, large amounts of manure tends to become a waste product rather than an asset.

There is simply no incentive to take care of manure in conventional farming since inorganic fertilizer is used instead. One weakness is that excessive use of inorganic fertilizers is based on the undeniably doubtful assumption that there will always be cheap phosphorus and cheap natural gas available to produce these fertilizers in the future.

The second difference between conventional and organic farming has to do with the use of pesticides. In the old days, weeds and pests were kept under control by letting different plant species follow each other (crop rotation). These methods have been replaced by a more one-sided, high-yielding and economically profitable agriculture. You can now grow the same crops for many years in a row and solve the resulting problems (weeds and pests) by using chemical pesticides. During the first half of the 20th century, weeds were removed by hand. With the help of large mechanized farm machinery, it is now possible to fight weeds and pests at 10 kilometers per hour and 12 meters wide at a time.

Unfortunately chemical pesticides used in agriculture contain at least 140 different substances. They are sprayed directly on crops which are used as food for humans or to feed animals, and pesticides are actually poisons whose purpose is to harm living organisms. Traces of pesticides are found in the food we eat and in the water we drink, but in small quantities and below legal limits. However, little is known about possible long term effects and about the interactions between different substances. There is no evidence that the substances we use today have long-term health effects on humans, but some pesticides are persistent and could cause long-term problems which in the worst case takes a lifetime to make themselves known. Something we can be quite certain of is that pesticides have indirect effects that are quite unfavorable:

"pesticides have led to changes in flora and fauna of the agricultural landscape and is one of the reasons why biodiversity is reduced. [...] Food availability in the form of insects, spiders and weeds is reduced. This has caused bird life to decline greatly since the 1970's. An important aspect of plant protection is that the pest's natural enemies are disfavored by the chemical substances, which in turn may lead to an increased need for pesticides. "

Biological diversity may in this context be viewed as an insurance. If the environment and the climate changes, species which do not seem important today may prove to be so tomorrow. Historically, agriculture has led to increased biodiversity. However, during the past 60 years, with agriculture developing towards more specialized and large-scale farms, biodiversity has instead decreased. Biodiversity benefits from that which characterizes organic and conventional agriculture - the absence of pesticides, grazing animals that add organic manure to the ground, crop rotation, micro-climates/small habitats in the landscape etc.

Large-scale farming has also reduced the genetic diversity of cultivated crops and animals in recent decades. Globalized breeding and processing of crops is accelerating this trend and threatens to replace the more local varieties with high yielding animals and genetically modified crops (GMOs). By optimizing on a single factor - such as economic efficiency – one must always sacrifice on other factors - such as biological efficiency. Reduced genetic variation and larger production units makes the food system more vulnerable, for example by increasing the risk that a disease will have a huge impact on the global food production system.

The equivalent of pesticides for animals is the routine deworming with chemical substances that is used in conventional agriculture. Organic farming has not been able to develop alternative methods that achieves the same result, although farmers in the old days knew quite a lot about how to limit the impact of parasites.

In addition to the keywords environment and health (both for animals and consumers), questions about food and agriculture seem to revolve less around facts about specific sub-issues than around perceptions of the whole. An example is the fact that consumer perceptions are not always consistent with what is actually best for the animals. We navigate a wide range of perceptions and forces encompassing ideology, ethics, lifestyles, environment and profitability, and we judge things based on ideological, utopian, scientific and pragmatic ideas.

A perspective that is sparsely represented in this book is the question of how sustainable current agricultural practices are based on their dependence on oil. A very good (50 minutes long) documentary from the BBC, "A farm for the future", is all about this. The book mentions in a few places that a lot of fossil energy is needed to produce inorganic fertilizers and that organic farming uses less energy than conventional farming. These facts are not emphasized though since the knowledge of a near-term peak in global oil productions and an understanding of the implications thereof did/does not yet exist in the minds of the man-on-the-street (or the run-of-the-mill researcher in the ivory tower of academia).

It is frighteningly clear - from a peak oil perspective - that conventional farming won't be conventional for that much longer. Unlike Marit Paulsen, I would argue that it is conventional agriculture that is not sustainable in the long run. An fossil-free organic farm is sustainable – but it may unfortunately prove to be the case that what is unsustainable is 6.7 billion persons on Earth (and counting...). That organic farming does not use chemical fertilizers and pesticides is a necessary but not sufficient condition for sustainability in the long run. Today, we face the challenge of finding alternatives to mechanized, oil-consuming farming, and simultaneously produce enough food for everyone. Food is likely to become more expensive in the future, and what does that mean for the poor people of the world who do have no access to land in the urbanized present?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Yemen's Insoluble Problems

Image: For how long will he stay happy?

In my previous text about Yemen, I wrote about how we in recent years have been able to watch this poor country slowly run out of its only significant export product - oil. While this is bad enough, it is not, unfortunately, the only problem facing Yemen. In this second and final text about Yemen, I describe the cavalcade of problems facing the country besides falling oil production and dwindling oil exports.

If Yemeni oil is running short, what else can a poor, overpopulated country with few natural resources export? Besides oil, the main exports have been agricultural products and cheap manpower to richer neighbors (who send money home, known as "remittance"). Since Yemen’s problems are so numerous and large, this text could be very long. I have tried to keep the length down by listing some additional challenges that Yemen faces in bullets:

- The unemployment rate is between 20 and 40 percent. Despite this, a few thousand refugees from Somalia arrive every month. These refugees now amount to at least 150-200 000 persons and they further increasing competition for jobs, and, presumably, social tension.

- 20 years ago, a relatively large number of tourists visited Yemen. The numbers have declined and fell further when the Al-Qaeda began to attack tourists in 2007. Today, tourism has fallen by at least 90% compared to the peak years. Many of those who now visit the country are Yemenis living abroad traveling home to see their families.

- Yemen has high military expenditures and is fighting against Al-Qaeda in the east, separatists in the south and, especially, (possibly Iranian-backed) rebel clans in the north. The rebels in the north threaten to draw Saudi Arabia into an armed conflict. For Al-Qaeda, Yemen has become an important country (they thrive in collapsing states). For strategic and geopolitical reasons, the United States are also being drawn into Yemen, which may become “the next Afghanistan". 'An impoverished country that is strategically located on one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, Yemen has declared war on Al-Qaeda under pressure from Washington and Saudi Arabia. " In January this year, Obama said "So as president, I've made it a priority to strengthen our partnership with the Yemeni government".

- If Yemen advances from being a "failing state" to become a full-fledged "failed state" (they are currently in 18th place on the 'failed state index"), stability in the region will deteriorate further. With increased rebel, pirate and terrorist activities, it may be difficult for oil tankers and container ships to pass through one of the world’s most important sea lanes (with Yemen in the north and the "failed state winner" Somalia in the south) on their way to the Suez. Needless to say, traveling around Africa is a long and costly detour.

- The country has a very high rate of malnutrition - over one third of the population is undernourished (which is comparable to the poorest countries in Africa). Nearly half of the children between two and five years old are undernourished and show signs of stunted growth:

[The boy] is 18 months old and severely undernourished. In an effort to save his life, his parents traveled a long way to the therapeutic feeding centre here in Taez Town, leaving behind another seven children, all under the age of 15. […] The baby […] had hardly eaten in days. He looked miserable, with sunken eyes and a dry mouth. When [he] did not show signs of improvement, his desperate family – facing a huge hospital expense – took him home. “We decided to take him back to where he belongs and trust God for his salvation,” said the boy’s mother.

- In addition to oil, agriculture has been an important part of Yemen’s economy. But deforestation, soil erosion and expanding deserts make it difficult to maintain production. However, the biggest problem is the dry climate and water scarcity which has been "resolved" by (illegal) drilling of new wells to pump up groundwater. Over time, traditional crops which do not need much rain have been replaced by fruits and vegetables requireing irrigation.

- 50 years ago, an estimated 50 000 people lived in the capital Sana’a. To provide today's two million inhabitants with water is an enormous challenge, not least because the city is located 2,000 meters above sea level. Sana’a’s own groundwater is on the decline and is expected to run out completely in a few years. There have been talks about moving the capital as the situation is changing from bad to untenable.

- Did I mention the endemic corruption? The heavy administration? That the current President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been in office for more than 30 years (first in North Yemen and during the last 20 years in the united Yemen)? No? I may come back to that later ... if I get a small gift "under the table".

If you scrape on the surface, you will find many more other problems that could be highlighted. One historical example is how Yemen just two months after unification in 1990 bet on the wrong horse by supporting Iraq in the Gulf War - despite the fact that Kuwait and Saudi Arabia (until then) had provided important financial assistance to the country. As an effect of this gaffe, Saudi Arabia took the opportunity to expel almost one million Yemeni guest workers.

A contemporary example shows how several of the factors above interact. A camp with refugees from the unrest in the north houses 10 000 refugees. They people are poor and the children are undernourished. "Few of the displaced are used to washing regularly because water is scarce in Yemen, and few use toilets, preferring to leave waste in the open." This presents a problem when 10 000 people live close together and there are now fears of outbreaks of cholera in the camp.

In addition to geo-political and humanitarian problems that follow from reduced oil exports, a large and growing population, extreme poverty, internal strife and political instability, there is another major concern - perhaps the greatest of them all – which I would like to shed some light on, namely food and water.

"Yemen's water share per capita is less than 100 cubic meters a year, compared to the water poverty line of 1,000 cubic meters.” World average is 2500 m3 of water per person per year.

There is a shortage of water in large parts of the Middle East, but poverty and lawlessness makes the problem more difficult to address in Yemen than in most other places. Unlike wealthier neighbors, Yemen can not afford to build desalination plants, and tribal flare-ups and civil unrest makes it dangerous for engineers and hydrologists to travel to many parts of the country. Even water purification is difficult in Yemen. Existing facilities are poorly managed and some priests "have declared the reuse of wastewater to be a violation of Islamic principles".

Wells are drying up and the price of water has quadrupled in less than five years. The government is trying to prevent farmers from drilling new wells to the (rapidly receding) underground aquifers, but has little power – especially far away from the capital. It is easy to see a vicious circle with water scarcity and rising violence as its two main components.

A special problem for Yemen in particular is the strong cultural position of the mildly narcotic plant qat (khat). Most Yemeni men (and some women and even children) chew qat daily (some men can chew qat for 5-10 hours or more per day - see the picture above). "By 4 in the afternoon, most men walking the streets of Sana'a are high, or about to get high." Since qat reduces appetite, it contributes to malnutrition. In 2007, the World Bank noted that

"Qat […] drains the family budget; has adverse health effects; negatively affects work performance and thus contributes to poverty. Weaning consumers from the qat habit will be difficult, because its production accounts for some 6 percent of GDP and 14 percent of total employment. Qat consumption requires around 10 percent of the household budget of all income groups, which comes at the expense of basic food, education and health."

I have seen other (official) reports that almost half (!) of the money in some households is spent on buying qat. In addition, qat is a very thirsty plant that grows better when it gets more water. Different data indicate that between one quarter and one half (!) of all the water in this dry and thirsty country is used for growing qat. The output of qat has been growing every year, not the least because it is an easy plant to grow and because farmers earn much more by growing qat than by growing food. According to some reports, qat cultivation has increased 10-fold between 1970 and 2000 and has continued to grow explosively during the last 10 years. Like so many other things, qat cultivation is interconnected with other problems in a seemingly insoluble cluster:

"Despite the danger, Yemen isn't about to go cold turkey anytime soon. Not only are most of the country's leaders landowners deeply involved in khat production, the leaf may be one of the few things still holding Yemen together. [...] "Khat plays a big role in keeping people calm, and keeping them off the streets. But it's also delaying change. It's hard to convince people to act now."

It is hard to finish these two texts about Yemen with a "happy chapter" about how everything, despite all the problems, will be fine in the end for the 25 million people living in the country today (or the 60 million who are "estimated" to live there in 2050 - how that could ever happen). The best I can think of is to point out that Yemen, as far as I know, has not been affected by AIDS – in contrast to many poor countries in Africa...

But even without AIDS, Yemen is a dry, overpopulated, poor and violent country that lives on borrowed time. It is difficult to see how even very generous loans and assistance could keep an increasing societal disintegration at bay even during the next few years. Likely effects of a societal disintegration are migration, famine, growing lawlessness and more. We can expect to read more about Yemen in the newspapers in the near future (just as there are reports today about trouble in and around Somalia). A foretaste of what’s to come was given on Christmas Day, when the "underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt to blow up an American passenger plane put the perpetrator’s Yemeni Al-Qaeda training in the spotlight.

Here is a recent text that does not really add much to my two texts about Yemen, but that still supports these texts by describing the interconnected problems of water, violence, qat, al-Qaeda and the fact that the Yemeni capital Sana’a may become a ghost town within a decade or two. "Yemeni water trader Mohammed al-Tawwa runs his diesel pumps day and night, but gets less and less from his well in Sana’a, which experts say could become the world's first capital city to run dry".