SATURDAY, JULY 25, 2015
Eric Lee, A-SOCIATED PRESS
TOPICS: SUSTAINABILITY, FROM THE WIRES, PROSPERITY, TRANSITION, HISTORY
TUCSON (A-P) — For the past 300 years increasing numbers of humans have been living in the pulse, an exuberance of growth, occasioned by the Industrial Revolution fueled by coal, oil, natural gas, and in the 20th century partly by nuclear fission and hydroelectric built using fossil fuels. With the exception of a few tribes fighting against illegal logging in their forest, all humans (to a degree proportional to monetary income) have been subsumed by the global growth economy which drives the illegal logging. Those making $1 a day aren't buying their food at the local store (or much else) and they hand wash their clothes, but they're still doing something to make a buck that profits those who make more.
In England in the 1600's the roasting process used to make charcoal from wood was adapted to coal. The result was an extremely hot-burning, relatively clean fuel (like charcoal) called coke. The use of coke in iron and steel production paved the way for the Industrial Revolution. In 1712 the steam engine was invented to pump water from coal mines and its use, along with other engines of industry, spread exponentially. By the 1730's Americans were scraping up coal off the surface of outcrops and selling it in bushel baskets. The first commercial coal mine opened in 1748 in Virginia. Americans, who still had too many trees, were still using charcoal to smelt iron until the 1830's when they also switched from whale oil to alcohol/turpentine "burning fluid" in response to peak trees and peak whales. Exponential growth is what characterizes the Industrial Revolution—the pulse we are living in.
China, and to a lesser degree India, are late comers to the pulse. It's hard to beat cheap labor, coal and plenty (for a time) of each. Note the trend in U.S. manufacturing jobs during the same period.
The developed world may be post-peak but consumption of cheap stuff from pre-peak China is masking, temporarily, the early signs of descent. The middle class is contracting. Cheap solar and other consumer goods are fueled by cheap coal in China that makes it with help from cheap labor. The doubling of the Chinese extractive economy every 7 to 10 years is not sustainable. Consumers may still wander the aisles of Wal-Mart 24/7, so life still seems prosperous, but it cannot last.
Emergy use of world’s economy from renewable (green) sources and non-renewable sources. M.T. Brown, S. Ulgiati 2011
Most of Australia's coal is exported, fueling growth in eastern Asia. China uses half of world coal production, which is why cheap is cheap. Costs are kept down by avoiding pollution control (not to mention quality control), a practice likely to continue until dead bodies pile up on the streets, which hasn't happened yet (or been reported), so it's all good (for profitable growth). When China peaks, the world will have peaked and be forced to transition, kicking and screaming like spoiled brats if that's the way the spoiled decide to play it. The growth of the Chinese economy in the 21st century looks like that of the exponential growth of the U.S. economy circa 1940. China is extracting resources from Africa, Australia, their own country, wherever they can. When China peaks, the planet will have been taken and there will be no Planet B. If there were a Planet B and it could be taken, perhaps it should not be taken.
In recent years peak petroleum has been masked from American eyes by a secondary pulse due to fracking. U.S. domestic oil production may exceed the 1970's peak. If a new peak is set it will still be a peak followed by descent. By giving Iran $150 billion for their oil to finance their jihad (their "inner spiritual struggle"), the global pulse can be extended a bit. In the not so long run of time, however, the Hubbert curve will fit.
The overfishing of Atlantic Cod ended in 1992 for some reason. During the exponential growth in the harvesting of cod, profits being made lead to more boats joining in the frenzy. The outcome could have been foreseen and by some was, but collapse happens. If, in the early 1980's, one were to focus on the apparent recovery, the big picture would be missed. The fishery has yet to recover.
The number of farms (and farmers) has declined with the rise of corporate fossil-fueled agribusiness. Farm size decreased after the plantations lost their slave labor, then increased as energy slaves were developed. Less than 9% of "farms" produce 63% of agricultural products in the USA. On average, each bite of food an American eats has traveled 1,500 miles (2400 km). This can be expected to change.
Some oversellers of alternative food production ways and means may think that unleashing an army of permaculturally trained master gardeners will increase agricultural productivity, but the oversold should know what they are buying into. We will go back to natural, "organic," pre-industrial methods and develop a few new ones, but yields will not increase nor equal the amount of industrially produced foods 90% made out of fossil fuel energy inputs.
The Hopi have been engaged in sustainable corn farming for 1,300 years. The Puebloans, dependent on rainfall in a semi-arid region with 10 inches of rain per year, harvested about 4 bushels of corn per acre along with squash and beans. Early Midwest American farmers in areas allowing dryland farming because of favorable rainfall, got 26 bu/ac. This level of productivity was likely unsustainable because newly cleared land is subject to soil mining and excess erosion, the over extraction of soil fertility by repeated cropping. So how are Midwest farmers getting 150 bu/ac today? Do they just know so much more? Well, they know how to turn fossil fuel inputs into corn. Without fossil fuels, figure planting a field once every three to fifteen years (or leave fallow longer depending on soil and cover crop) and expect a sustainable yield of 20 bushels per acre, which will have to feed the farm animals and farmers with some left over for some city folks too.
Such has been the way up. We've been there, done that, and to some degree the way up has been prosperous for (almost) all humans (but not so much for most other organisms). North Americans, Europeans, Japanese, and Australians, who make up 20 per cent of the world's population, are consuming more than 80 per cent of the world's resources. Never have the rich gotten richer (rich: they who can afford to have machines or other humans wash their clothes). Still, pre-transition, those making a dollar a day have hopes of making two dollars a day. Those who can buy a pair of shoes this year can still hope for a bicycle in the distant future, and those who have a bicycle can still hope for a motor scooter and then a car. When the global economy transitions to negative growth, those making a dollar a day will merely give up hopes for a bicycle and make their own shoes (they or their parents probably know how), and others will hope to keep their bicycle in good repair.
The above is for oil and natural gas. Coal will take a few decades longer to burn up. Perhaps before then remaining coal will just spontaneously burn itself thanks to global warming. As oil and gas dwindle, will the rich be oversold on renewable energy? Will dirty coal be used to placate their concerns? Will they feel good about putting solar panels on their roof?
People would rather feel-good believe than know.
Will a few solar panels be better than no electricity? Yes. Could solar PV be used to make more PV? Unknown. To the extent that alternative energy is net positive, will it fuel growth? No. Will it meet basic human needs? Some.
The 1972 "Limits to Growth" was assumed by those who didn't read it to predict apocalypse soon, and since it didn't happen, the book's thesis was dismissable. I read it and recall getting the impression, based on evidence and reasoning presented, that the most likely story would be that hard limits would be reached by 2070, with 2030 to 2070 being a likely range. It hasn't happened yet, but neither has 2070. The thesis was that there are limits to growth. There were many possible futures but limitless growth is not one of them. One possible future, foreseeable in 1972, may yet to be. If not, it will be one like it.
The take home message of the book was missed by most then and still is. The effort to misunderstand and demonize the message is telling.
For the dollar-a-dayers the transition will be easy. For everyone else, in proportion to monetary income, not so easy. Not that there will ever be a shortage of money, just a shortage of real wealth to exchange for it and a longage of demand. Those who grow subsistence crops for family consumption and occasionally sell a trinket to a tourist to buy a Coke when in town will barely notice the transition or the passing of tourists. The aisle walkers of Wal-Mart will notice.
The transition will occasion a rethinking of "prosperous," and early adapters can get a head start. The way down can indeed be prosperous, but only for ex-hyper-consumers who redefine their vision of prosperity. "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone." — Thoreau.
Those who think a person is rich in proportion to the size of their home and the amount of stuff filling it (and its garage and outbuildings) will have a less prosperous future. Those who, insofar as they need concern themselves with material things, think that prosperity is having enough will be able to thrive. "He who knows that enough is enough will always have enough." — Laozi
He who knows when enough is enough will not overshoot and always have enough. Wealth as 'more and more' was an easy sell that merely required a shameless pandering to dreams of avarice. But that too shall pass away.
Note: So far as I know I've never had an original thought and every sentence should be referenced, meaning every phrase is plagiarized—I just don't know from where. I suppose I could google every phrase and annotate them, but that would be tedious for all. Some bits and pieces I do know where they came from. I recently wrote "some of those who chose descent into maelström" which is appropriated from an Edgar Allan Poe story. Then there is the image above. Click on it and go to the site I stole it from with minor modifications (I'm a Kopimist since what appears proprietary and original is an illusion and the only honest thing we can say of acts of creation is that "it came to me"). At least if I steal an image I host it and don't just link to it.
The title is a tweaked version of the Odum's "A Prosperous Way Down" from which a number of to-dos were kopied. I happened to read H.T. Odum's "Environment, Power, and Society" when it was a new book back in the early 1970's. In ways too complex to follow, my every thought since has been to some extent shaped by Odum's grasp of reality (and that of others). To say the course of my life was altered may be understatement.
In science it is not uncommon that those responsible for paradigm shifts are overlooked by many and most during their lifetime. I consider Odum to be as requisite to understanding the biosphere/life as Kepler was to understanding the solar system. To summarize Odum in three words I'd go with "system over self," and, yes, that is a paradigm shift from business-as-usual thinking and it leads to other shifts.
I have no grasp of "self" apart from "system" within which we selves are embedded. We have neither a truly separate nor individuated existence and our star stuff will reenter the system as a water drop in a waterfall will reenter the stream (every phrase of this sentence is plagiarized and I'm not going to cite sources, though I could). The better part of "my" DNA I share with a cabbage. Any grasp of things to come is best based on what-is and what has been insofar as we humans can best discern. Without a little help from Odum and ilk we may have no better chance to prosper than of flying to the moon by relying on Cyrano de Bergerac without Kepler. Compared to going to the moon, getting through the 21st century and emerging prosperous may be more challenging. Odum was one of the earliest and best macroscopists. More are needed.