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 Too Much Power

If we modern humans are, in effect, addicted to power, perhaps we need something like a collective twelve-step program.

This article, the third in a series, is based on the author’s forthcoming book, POWER: LIMITS AND PROSPECTS FOR HUMAN SURVIVAL. You can read the first article in the series here, and the second here. For information about the book and how to join a pre-release reading and discussion group, please go to postcarbon.org/power.

Do some people have too much power over others? Do we humans have too much power over the natural world? These questions get to the heart of our biggest global problems. They also force us to think critically about the way society is organized, and about our own behavior. We often tend to give knee-jerk answers, but too much is at stake for that. We need to think critically and contextually.

First, what do we mean by power? While the word is used many ways, there are primarily just two kinds of power: physical power and social power. Physical power can be defined as the rate of energy transfer, or as the use of energy to do something; social power is the ability of one person or a group to influence the thoughts and behavior of others.

Nature provides examples of excessive physical power. The wildfires in Sonoma County, California, where I live, can burn with many gigawatts of power. A gigawatt of electrical power that’s controlled via power lines, transformers, and circuits can supply light, heat, and internet connections to a small-to-medium-sized city. A gigawatt of radiative power unleashed in a firestorm can torch that same community in just a few hours. We humans can likewise physically overpower our surroundings by using the concentrated energy of fossil fuels to over-harvest natural resources, or by dumping wastes in quantities that nature can’t harmlessly absorb.

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The Most Colossal Planning Failure in Human History

A couple of days ago I happened to pick up an old book gathering dust on one of my office shelves—Palmer Putnam’s Energy in the Futurepublished in 1953. Here was a time capsule of energy concerns from nearly a lifetime ago—and it got me to thinking along the lines of Howard Baker’s famous question during the Watergate hearings: “What did [w]e know, and when did [w]e know it?”  That is, what did we know back then about the climate and energy conundrum that threatens to undermine civilization today?

The fossil fuel age had begun over a century prior to 1953, and it was known by then that coal, oil, and natural gas represent millions of years’ worth of stored ancient sunlight. At the start, these fuels had appeared capable of supplying useful energy to society in seemingly endless quantities. Since everything we do depends on energy, having much more of it meant we could do far more farming, mining, fishing, manufacturing, and transporting than was previously possible. The result was an economic miracle. Between 1820 and today, human population has grown eight-fold, while per-capita energy usage has also grown eight-fold. We went from horse-drawn carts to jetliners in just a few generations.

But there were a couple of snags. One was that, though initially abundant, fossil fuels are nonrenewable and therefore subject to depletion. The second was that extracting and burning these fuels pollutes air and water, subtly but surely changing the chemistry of our planet’s atmosphere and oceans. Neither issue seemed compelling to the majority of people who first benefitted from coal, oil, and gas.

So, back to Putnam’s book. This thick tome wasn’t a best seller, but it was considered authoritative, and it found a place on the desks of serious policy makers…

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Heinberg on what to do at home

Heinberg on what to do at home

Preface. A quick summary:

Best investment: insulate exterior walls, ceiling, and floors for energy savings. Other good changes were to plant a garden and fruit-and-nut orchard, and buy solar hot water heater, solar food dryer, solar cooker, chickens, energy-efficient appliances

Lessons learned: It is expensive, especially energy storage. Solar cookers work mainly in the summer.

In the future there will ll be more bikes and ebikes than cars. There needs to be much more local production of food and other goods to shorten supply chains.

Bottom line: there’s very little we can do as individuals, we can’t mine for the minerals we need, few of us can grow all of our food, despite all these investments Heinberg still heavily depends on the greater world for food, electricity, and clothes, cars and most other objects in our lives can’t be home-made. What is required to make a transition is much bigger than most people imagine.

***

Richard Heinberg. 2020. If My House Were the World: The Renewable Energy Transition Via Chickens and Solar Cookers. Resilience.org

For the past two decades, my wife Janet and I have been trying to transition our home to a post-fossil-fuel future. I say “trying,” because the experiment is incomplete and only somewhat successful. It doesn’t offer an exact model for how the rest of the world might make the shift to renewable energy; nevertheless, there’s quite a bit that we’ve learned that could be illuminating for others as they contemplate what it will take to minimize climate change by replacing coal, oil, and gas with cleaner energy sources.

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On a finite planet, maintaining endless economic growth is not a viable option

On a finite planet, maintaining endless economic growth is not a viable option

Cooperative conservatism could help to get us off growth with minimum pain and maximum gain, says Richard Heinberg. —

Richard Heinberg

“Both the U.S. economy and the global economy have expanded dramatically in the past century, as have life expectancies and material progress. Economists raised in this period of plenty assume that growth is good, necessary even, and should continue forever and ever without end, amen. Growth delivers jobs, returns on investment and higher tax revenues. What’s not to like? We’ve gotten so accustomed to growth that governments, corporations and banks now depend on it. It’s no exaggeration to say that we’re collectively addicted to growth. The trouble is, a bigger economy uses more stuff than a smaller one, and we happen to live on a finite planet…. Engineering a happy conclusion to the growth binge of the past century might be challenging. But it’s not impossible. Granted, we’re talking about an unprecedented, coordinated economic shift that would require political will and courage. Perhaps we could think of it as cooperative conservatism (since its goal would be to conserve nature while maximizing mutual aid). It would require a lot of creative thinking on everyone’s part.” — Richard Heinberg, Post Carbon Institute

Richard Heinberg is an American journalist and educator who has written extensively on energy, economic, and ecological issues, including oil depletion. He presently serves as the senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.

Below is my repost of Richard’s latest contribution delivered with concise clarity and with my added subheadings, text highlighting, selected bulletted formatting, and images. Alternatively, to read his original piece on the Post Carbon Institute’s website, click on the following linked title.

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 A simple way to understand what’s happening … and what to do

The world seems to be coming apart at the seams. It’s critical to understand why, so that we can avoid the worst and find the best responses so as to move toward the environmentally and socially healthy future we want. It turns out that there’s a relatively simple frame for gaining such understanding.

This straightforward explanation proposes that the main force driving societal change is available energy—an assertion that’s backed by a substantial amount of scientific research. Those with the patience and curiosity to investigate further can find other contributing factors to societal evolution—technology, investment, laws regarding property rights, histories of injustice, and more, many of which entail complex systemic interactions that take time to tease apart and comprehend mentally. These are important. But not as important as energy.

Energy is necessary in order for any organism to do anything whatsoever. For humans, food is energy that powers labor. But, in addition, people long ago learned how to harness energy from fire, water, and wind. Using firewood, paddlewheels, and sails, we built agrarian societies with irrigation systems, cities, cathedrals, mills, and seagoing ships, and created some pretty great art, music, and literature along the way. People also used energy from various sources to engage in wars and conquests, and to enslave millions of others in order to steal the fruits of their forced labor. In addition, humans deforested enormous regions to harvest firewood, and ruined millions of acres of soil with unsustainable farming methods.

When humans started using fossil fuels, a couple of centuries ago, they gained access to millions of years’ worth of solar energy that nature had gathered, stored, and transformed into energy sources that were far superior, at least over the short term, to firewood. It was a game-changing moment.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Has oil peaked?

Last month, the world’s 4th largest oil company—BP—predicted that the world will never again consume as much petroleum as it did last year. So, have we finally hit peak oil? And if so, what does that mean for our economy and our world?

There was fierce controversy in the first decade of this century over claims by petroleum geologists and energy commentators that peak oil was imminent (I was a figure in that debate, writing several books on the topic). Most of those early claims were based on analysis of oil depletion and consequent supply constraints. BP, however, is talking about a peak in oil demand—which, according to its forecast, could fall by more than 10 percent this decade and as much as 50 percent over the next 20 years if the world takes strong action to limit climate change.

Source: PeakOilBarrel.com; production in thousands of barrels per day.

Numbers from the US Energy Information Administration’s Monthly Review tell us that world oil production (not counting biofuels and natural gas liquids) actually hit its zenith, so far at least, in November 2018, nearly reaching 84.5 million barrels per day. After that, production rates stalled, then plummeted in response to collapsing demand during the coronavirus pandemic. The current production level stands at about 76 mb/d.

Many early peak oil analysts predicted that the maximum rate of oil production would be achieved in the 2005-to-2010 timeframe, after which supplies would decline minimally at first, then more rapidly, causing prices to skyrocket and the economy to crash.

Those forecasters were partly right and partly wrong. Conventional oil production did plateau starting in 2005, and oil prices soared in 2007, helping trigger the Great Recession.

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What If Preventing Collapse Isn’t Profitable?

What If Preventing Collapse Isn’t Profitable?

The real downside of the green-profit narrative has been that it created the assumption in many people’s minds that the solution to climate change and other environmental dilemmas is technical, and that policy makers and industrialists will implement it for us, so that the way we live doesn’t need to change in any fundamental way. That’s never been true.

Smoky skies from the northern California wildfires casts a reddish color in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. (Photo: Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)

Smoky skies from the northern California wildfires casts a reddish color in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. (Photo: Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)

The notion that modern industrial civilization is fundamentally unsustainable and is therefore likely to collapse at some point is not a new one. Even before the Limits to Growth report of 1972, many ecologists were concerned that our continual expansion of population and consumption, based on the ever-increasing rate at which we burn finite supplies of fossil fuels, would eventually lead to crises of resource depletion and pollution (including climate change) as well as catastrophic loss of wild nature. Dystopian outcomes would inevitably follow.

This apprehension led environmentalists to strategize ways to avert collapse. The obvious solution was, in large measure, to persuade policy makers to curtail growth in population and consumption, while mandating a phase-out of fossil fuels. But convincing political and business leaders to do these things proved difficult-to-impossible.

It’s time to ask: is there something fundamentally wrong with the eco-opportunity message?”

The folks in charge used the following arguments to justify their refusal to act.

Population Growth: The choice of whether or not to reproduce is a basic human right, said the authorities. Seeking to interfere with that right also violates religious freedoms. Besides, population growth helps economic growth (see “Economic Growth,” below).

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Doom or denial: Is there another path?

Doom or denial: Is there another path?

I was recently asked to comment on a dustup between some members of Extinction Rebellion (see Thomas Nicholas, Galen Hall, and Colleen Schmidt, “The Faulty Science, Doomism, and Flawed Conclusions of Deep Adaptation”) and Jem Bendell, founder of Deep Adaptation (see his “Letter to Deep Adaptation Advocate Volunteers about Misrepresentations of the Agenda and Movement”). Since the issues raised in this controversy seem relevant to readers of Resilience.org, I thought it might be worthwhile to accept the invitation and weigh in.

For those not familiar, Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation (DA) takes as its starting point the judgment that, because of unfolding human-induced climate impacts, the near-term utter collapse of society is nearly inevitable. Extinction Rebellion (XR) is an activist movement that uses civil disobedience to compel government action to avoid climate tipping points that would lock in trends leading ultimately to ecological and social collapse. In simplistic terms, you could say that Deep Adaptation is about accepting and coping with the reality of climate-driven collapse while Extinction Rebellion is about acting to prevent it.

The nub of the controversy is this: some folks involved in Extinction Rebellion think that Bendell is being too fatalistic, thereby discouraging his followers from taking actions that might still save civilization and global ecosystems. Bendell, in his response, accuses his critics of ignoring evidence and misrepresenting his views.

I don’t propose to plunge into the weeds, adjudicating each point raised in each essay. Instead, I prefer to step back and offer my own interpretation of the evidence, and then discuss the subtext of the dispute.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Avalanche

Avalanche

How bad could it get? For the United States, it seems there is no bottom.

Back in March, I wrote that the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic would likely shape its economic, political, and geopolitical fortunes for years or decades to come. Four months later, it’s time for a check-in. How’s that pandemic response going?

Not so well, it seems. The US has the world’s highest number of cases and deaths overall. And of the world’s 25 worst hotspots for transmission, in terms of new cases per day per million of population, 15 are US states.

Early success at “flattening the curve” of the graph of new cases reported daily was followed by a re-opening of the economy that was premature (i.e., before sufficient capacity for testing and contact tracing had been put in place), resulting in a surge of new cases.

Source: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/us/

The only good news the Trump administration can point to is a fairly stable and low death rate as compared to the number of new cases. This “low” death rate (hundreds are still dying each day) is attributable to improving treatment methods for patients who have been infected, a lower average age of those infected, and an understandable lag between the infection trend and the deaths trend. If the last of these factors is significant, then the number of daily deaths will start climbing soon—as the last few days’ numbers already seem to indicate.

In addition, the United States is one of the countries hardest hit economically by the pandemic. Its latest unemployment rate stands at 11.1 percent (which doesn’t include discouraged workers), as compared to Germany’s 5.5 percent, Japan’s 2.6 percent, and the UK’s 4 percent.

As bad as they are, these statistics don’t fully capture the situation. If the US federal government had a long-range plan for weathering the pandemic, perhaps the death and suffering would be justifiable. But evidently there is no realistic plan.

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United States: An Obituary

United States: An Obituary

The United States of America was problematic from the start. It was founded on genocide and slavery, and, while frequently congratulating itself on the rights and freedoms it granted its citizens, never managed to confront the demons in its past. The question would arise repeatedly, generation after generation: rights and freedoms for whom?

Nevertheless, the immigrants who founded a nation on a stolen continent managed to show up in the right place at the right time. The luck of geography and history insulated them from most wars in Europe, while supplying them with vast forests, navigable rivers, rich topsoils, valuable minerals, and much of the world’s most easily accessible coal, oil, and natural gas.

The result, after a century-and-a-half of wealth accumulation and industrial buildup, was global dominance. America invented and taught the world the magic formula of consumerism: cheap energy + advertising + consumer credit = ever-growing levels of commerce, employment, tax revenue, and return on investment. The transformation of nature into quantifiable wealth via energy, technology, capital investment, and labor had never before occurred so rapidly, or on so grand a scale.

The 20th century was without question the American century. After World War II, which was fought at a distance from American soil, the dollar became the world’s reserve currency, and there could be little doubt who was in charge. Even though politicians in Washington insisted that their nation led by example and shouldn’t be thought of as an empire, any other nation’s hesitance to adhere to US rules resulted in a CIA-engineered coup, an invasion, or economic sanctions.

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Nobody takes the renewable energy transition seriously

Nobody takes the renewable energy transition seriously

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Despite all the demands from climate activists, scientists, and even policy makers, hardly a single country is taking the shift to renewable energy seriously. Even countries and regions that claim to be working toward an energy transition are failing to do what would be required in order for the transition to succeed. What’s behind this surprising and disturbing state of affairs?

The energy transition is a big job, it’s complicated, and it needs to be done quickly if we are to avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change. Therefore, it can’t just be left to the whims of the market. Yes, if solar panels produce electricity cheaper than coal power plants do, then more households and businesses will buy solar panels. But the energy transition demands far more than this: it requires either finding ways to hook up millions of new intermittent power sources in such a way as to provide electricity that matches demand day and night, summer and winter, or giving up on the luxury of having 24-7 access to power at our fingertips. And it requires finding ways to curtail the energy demands of manufacturing and transport systems and to run those streamlined systems on renewable electricity rather than solid, liquid, or gaseous fuels.

In short, it requires a plan. Small teams of academic researchers have already attempted to provide transition plans, but so far these are little more than schematic suggestions based on assumptions that are typically over-optimistic and untested. A serious plan would, of course, be constantly revised on the basis of new findings and changing circumstances. Nevertheless, without a serious and detailed plan, and one endorsed by high-level policy makers, we cannot hope to achieve much.

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Review: Planet of the Humans

Review: Planet of the Humans

A few days ago, Emily Atkin posted a reaction to Michael Moore’s latest film, Planet of the Humans (directed and narrated by Jeff Gibbs), in which she began by admitting that she hadn’t seen the film yet. When writers take that approach, you know there’s already blood in the water. (She has since watched the film and written an actual review. Full disclosure: I’m in the film, included as one of the “good guys.” But I don’t intend to let that fact distort my comments in this review.)

The film is controversial because it makes two big claims: first, that renewable energy is a sham; second, that big environmental organizations—by promoting solar and wind power—have sold their souls to billionaire investors.

I feel fairly confident commenting on the first of these claims, regarding renewable energy, having spent a year working with David Fridley of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to assess the prospects for a complete transition to solar and wind power.

We found that the transition to renewables is going far too slowly to make much of a difference during the crucial next couple of decades, and would be gobsmackingly expensive if we were to try replacing all fossil fuel use with solar and wind. We also found, as the film underscores again and again, that the intermittency of sunshine and wind is a real problem—one that can only be solved with energy storage (batteries, pumped hydro, or compressed air, all of which are costly in money and energy terms); or with source redundancy (building way more generation capacity than you’re likely to need at any one time, and connecting far-flung generators on a super-grid); or demand management (which entails adapting our behavior to using energy only when it’s available).

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Fraying Food System May Be Our Next Crisis

Fraying Food System May Be Our Next Crisis

If you’re already overwhelmed with news of the pandemic and are coping with depression, read no further. However, if you’re a crisis responder by inclination or profession, you might start thinking food.

Experts who study what makes societies sustainable (or unsustainable) have been warning for decades that our modern food system is packed with ticking bombs. The ways we grow, process, package, and distribute food depend overwhelmingly on finite, depleting, and polluting fossil fuels. Industrial agriculture contributes to climate change, and results in soil erosion and salinization. Ammonia-based fertilizers create “dead zones” near river deltas while petrochemical pesticides and herbicides pollute air and water. Modern agriculture also contributes to deforestation and biodiversity loss. Monocrops—huge fields of genetically uniform corn and soybeans—are especially vulnerable to pests and diseases. Long supply chains make localities increasingly dependent on distant suppliers. The system tends to exploit low-wage workers. And food is often unequally distributed and even unhealthful, contributing to poor nutrition as well as diabetes and other diseases.

Whatever is unsustainable must, by definition, end at some point, and critics of our present food system say that a crisis is increasingly likely (just as public health professionals had long warned of the growing likelihood of a global pandemic).

And yet, year after year, decade after decade, crop yields have increased. The famine that ecologist Paul Ehrlich cautioned about in his 1968 book The Population Bomb never materialized. Indeed, our ability to feed an exponentially growing human population is frequently touted as a primary benefit of modern industrial agriculture and globalization.

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Earth Day 50, Under Lockdown

Earth Day 50, Under Lockdown

April 22 was supposed to be a day of global celebration and protest. Fifty years ago, up to ten percent of Americans participated in thousands of local events on the first Earth Day. That mass action, which would have been widely commemorated this year, propelled early environmental policy victories that, in the U.S., included the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970), as well as the passage of the Clean Water Act (1972) and the Endangered Species Act (1973).

But nature threw a curveball—a virus that has us all huddling indoors and physically distancing ourselves when we occasionally venture out for food or exercise. Instead of massing in parks and at city halls on a spring day, North American nature lovers will be clicking and swiping to attend online digital Earth Day events.

A revival of interest in this annual occasion was long overdue. The past five decades saw early policy successes fade gradually into an apathetic status quo. New regulations, passed in the 1970s up through the ’90s, had reduced sulfur dioxide pollution from coal power plants, cleaned up rivers, and greatly reduced the smog in big cities like Los Angeles. Pro-business commentators took this as evidence that the world’s environmental problems were essentially solved. But most pollution had just moved overseas to China and India, where so many of our products are now manufactured. On the whole, Earth is far more polluted today than it was in 1970. Indeed, so much plastic is accumulating in the oceans that, by 2050, it may outweigh all the fish.

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Pandemic Response Requires Post-Growth Economic Thinking

Pandemic Response Requires Post-Growth Economic Thinking

The end of growth is painful. We had a foretaste of it in 2008, but the current crisis promises to be much worse.

New Yorkers make some noise to show appreciation to healthcare workers due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, in Manhattan, New York City, United States on April 8, 2020. (Photo: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
New Yorkers make some noise to show appreciation to healthcare workers due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, in Manhattan, New York City, United States on April 8, 2020. (Photo: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Amid a horrific human tragedy of sickness and death, much of it taking place in hospitals staffed by brave but overworked and under-equipped doctors and nurses, we are all learning once again what it feels like when economic growth comes to a shuddering stop and the economy goes into reverse—shrinking and consuming itself. Millions have been thrown out of work, untold numbers of businesses shuttered. The St. Louis Federal Reserve estimates that Q2 unemployment could clock in as high as 32.1 percent (for comparison, unemployment at the depths of the Great Depression was 25 percent, and during the Great Recession of 2008-2010 it peaked at 10 percent). Though radical measures must now be adopted to slow the spread of the coronavirus, those measures are having toxic side effects on the economy.

Yet, economic growth was bound to end at some point, with or without the virus. A few moments of critical thought confirm that the exponential expansion of the economy—whose physical processes inevitably entail extracting natural resources and dumping polluting wastes—is destined to reach limits, given the obvious and verifiable fact that we live on a finite planet.

However, we also happen to live in a human social world in which a decades-long spurt of economic and population growth, based on the snowballing exploitation of a finite supply of fossil fuels, has become normalized, so that world leaders have come to agree that growth can and must continue forever.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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