January 16, 2008

Global Suicide Pact: The End of Cheap

This last Autumn, I heard three pieces of news that put me off writing about environmental, agricultural and energy issues ever since the last brick fell into place. I was like, 'surely the presidential primary fights and various human rights concerns make cheerier reading than this, for indeed, exposure to these facts verges on animal cruelty.'

Then, there was the fourth thing, a sinking realization that, if I were that sort of person, would have been followed by an attempt to drink myself to death over the holidays. But drinking a lot gives me migraines, which I clearly fear more than death. Also, a person ought not give in to the sin of despair.

These are the things I learned:

1. We've likely hit peak oil.
2. We've likely passed the tipping point for climate stability.
3. We're likely to lose the Arctic ice cap by 2013, or sooner.
4. No one is preparing to respond to these crises at the scale they demand.

It's true, I don't have a link for that last assertion and if it doesn't seem obvious, maybe I should elaborate on a couple of the other points. The end of cheap oil, which is what peak oil means, is also the end of cheap food. Not only are we past the stability point of 350 ppm (parts per million) of atmospheric carbon dioxide at 383 ppm, but according to the book "Global Warning" by Paul Brown, we've also added the equivalent of 45 ppm of CO2 in excess nitrogen oxides and methane to the atmosphere. That puts us at the equivalent of 428 ppm of global atmospheric CO2, a far cry from the pre-industrial levels of 280 ppm. James Lovelock, a respected life sciences visionary who once believed that we didn't have the capacity to really damage our climate, now projects that at the end of this century the world might only be able to support 500 million people.

See, that's comparatively the good news.

The Bad News

The bad news is that Congress was very, very excited last year to pass an energy bill out of which the big news was that "[t]he Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards are increased to a fleet-wide average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020."

Seven years after the Arctic is likely to be ice free enough for oil drilling platforms to be up and running where it used to sit, the United States, user of the lion's share of the world's energy, will have mandated fleet efficiency standards 5 mpg lower than Europe's are today. Tell me that this sounds like doing enough to you.

Sen. John Kerry, one of the good guys in the climate fight, held a conference call last November to talk about the Lieberman-Warner climate bill. He acknowledged that the next decade was crucial for making changes. These were the big ideas ... (drum roll) ... Give subsidies to demonstration projects that would study whether or not 'clean' coal and carbon capture technologies can be implemented. Funding nuclear energy as "part of the mix," while admitting that the long time frame for building nuclear plants meant it wouldn't be helpful during the next critical decade. Waiting for a new president and the hope of 2-3 Google equivalents in the energy sector over the decade.

That's the plan, folks. That's it. No matter who wins the presidency next year, that's the leading edge of possibility in the Congress they'll have to work with.

Because the reality of Washington, DC is that certain things aren't politically possible in this company town. (Which company? All of them.) Even when the reality outside DC, well, as Bill McKibben said:

... The problem lies in how one defines reality. Physics and chemistry demand swift and deep cuts in carbon emissions; political realism says to move slowly. In that fight, there's really only one choice. The tax code can be amended, but the laws of nature can't. ...

And so, we come to an end. The end of cheap. It's the end of paying nothing for a pleasant, comfortable climate, because it will now be very expensive to keep the climate from killing billions of us. If that's possible. It's the end of cheap energy, which will mean sharply reduced standards of living. If we're stupid, or if our leaders are.


Energy is the capacity to do work. On this planet, virtually all energy comes from the sun, and is captured by plants to do the useful work of turning CO2 into the sugars that power all oxygen-breathing beings. Every type of work, every good and service and leisure activity needs energy. For the whole of the industrial era, we've substituted ever greater quantities of stored solar energy in the form of fossil fuels for our current energy stock in the form of plant tissue and animal muscle power.

It can be hard to understand exactly how much energy we do use compared to what people used to have available. Difficult to picture. Yet as James Howard Kunstler explained in "The Long Emergency," it represents an amount of work that our species has never before been able to perform on its own, and may never again be able to:

Before fossil fuels - namely, coal, oil, and natural gas - came into general use, fewer than one billion human beings inhabited the earth. Today, after roughly two centuries of fossil fuels, and with extraction now at an all-time high, the planet supports six and a half billion people. ... Fossil fuels provided for each person in an industrialized country the equivalent of having hundreds of slaves constantly at his or her disposal.

... Nothing really matches oil for power, versatility, transportability, or ease of storage. ... Oil led the human race to a threshold of nearly godlike power to transform the world. It was right there in the ground, easy to get. We used it as if there was no tomorrow. Now there may not be one."

In other words, if the weather and sea level rise (h/t Bill in Portland Maine) doesn't knock off a few billion of us, starving in the dark certainly will.

That is not the future fate that would be waiting for us if we'd followed a path of environmental sanity. It doesn't have to be the fate that we end up with. But it will be if political reality doesn't merge with the actual reality we're presented with. It will be if the economic leading lights who are allowed to dictate resource use keep telling us that it's too expensive to act to preserve the lives of 6 billion people, so we might as well just keep doing what we're doing and hope that The Market presents a solution to the biggest market failure in history.

Markets don't do anything. People do. Markets represent a series of relationships that provide incentives. People invent things like high capacity batteries, foil strip solar collectors, they figure out how to make diesel fuel from algae grown on already ruined land. And here we come to a problem.

The Bottleneck

If your neighbor figured out a better plow design a couple hundred years ago, you could copy it. You can't make solar power foil in your garage. As individuals, we're specialized in our work, which takes up most of our productive time and pays for the myriad of fossil fuel servants we depend on. If complex innovations aren't implemented by the actors we depend on for goods and services, corporations and governments, they might as well not exist.

Our governments and corporations have taken the path of least resistance, dragging their feet and doing virtually nothing because it's been cheap. Which is to say, profitable. As life runs on energy, large institutions run on money. Corporations make money, which goes to hire their very own politicians, who then make laws that favor existing corporations at the expense of threatening innovations that might choke off their money supply.

This is killing us. And not nearly as slowly as we'd thought it might.

If we are addicted to oil, out of our animal need for the energy with which to carry out the necessary tasks of our lives, we are enslaved to the logic of money. Enslaved; because slavery is the product of a human choice, not biological necessity. We can't eat money and we can't use it to cook with, but we've been set up to live or die by the dictates of its Chicago School priests.

It's a tragedy in the classic mold where the protagonists could have been saved right to the end, but for the worse demons of their nature and the cruel inflexibility of those around them. Don't you find yourself cringing at the end of stories like that of King Lear, or Oedipus, or Antigone, and saying something that starts with, "If only ..."

Welcome to our global suicide pact.

Posted by natasha at January 16, 2008 01:21 AM | Environment | Technorati links |

After climate change, the next biggest problem is going to be the expense of nitrogen fixing, which uses petrochemical-based fertilizers and increases food production by a couple of orders of magnitude from nature's rate of production.

Food or energy may become the question in the near future for a lot of people. And as surely as the British refused to send food to the Irish when their potato crops failed, because it was against their notion of free enterprise, I fear we will do the same to keep our SUVs running.

Posted by: palamedes at January 16, 2008 07:38 AM

Consumer Spending down

Posted by: ccoaler at January 16, 2008 09:28 AM

just starting Lovelock's "the revenge of Gaia" something to the tune of being lucky if we pull off some sort of "sustainable retreat"

Posted by: benmerc at January 16, 2008 06:55 PM