Sunday, December 10, 2017

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break from posting this week. I expect to post again on Sunday, December 17.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Human well-being, economic growth and so-called decoupling

Some people claim that humans—called breatharians—can live on air alone. Others claim we can have economic growth without increasing our resource use, so-called decoupling. Neither claim withstands scrutiny though here I am only going to deal with the second one.

Hidden beneath the claim of decoupling is the assertion that human well-being and economic growth are synonymous. But, human well-being is far from a one-dimensional economic variable linked unalterably to more income and consumption. So, saying that economic growth must at some point come to an end to maintain the habitability of the planet is not the same as saying that human well-being must also stop improving.

On the contrary, a stable society in harmony with the workings of the natural world in a way that maintains the habitability of the biosphere for humans would seem to be an essential characteristic of a society which offers a high degree of well-being to humans. Destroying that habitability through endless economic growth then is contrary to human well-being in the long run.

All of this should seem obvious. But so often the advocates of growth or "sustainable" growth tell us that ending growth would destroy the chance for countless people to attain well-being in our modern industrial world. While that has some truth within the narrow context that measures well-being as a function of economic output, it misses the point above. An uninhabitable world is really, really bad for human well-being.

The answer these advocates say is economic growth decoupled from increased resource use. But as two recent papers suggest, this is an oxymoron.

As "Is Decoupling GDP Growth from Environmental Impact Possible?" explains,while society has been getting gradually more efficient at producing goods and services, we are not anywhere near economic growth without increased resource use. The apparent decoupling in Germany and some other countries is probably due to the following factors:

1) substitution of one resource for another; 2) the financialization of one or more components of GDP that involves increasing monetary flows without a concomitant rise in material and/or energy throughput, and 3) the exporting of environmental impact to another nation or region of the world (i.e. the separation of production and consumption).

Moreover, there are limits to how efficient we can be. Each increment of efficiency becomes more and more expensive, rising steeply and prohibitively as we approach zero increase in resource use for any increment of growth—or as we move toward zero resource use from current levels while achieving the same level of economic output, a no-growth scenario. In short, we are never going to become breatharians.

A second paper suggests that matters are even worse because we are using the wrong measure.  Instead of using output per unit of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), we should be looking at resource use per capita. By that measure resource use has become far less efficient, expanding by 60 percent per person between 1900 and 2009. Of course, the goods and services provided have also expanded greatly. (But here again we would be making a direct and proportional link between human well-being and consumption when well-being is much more complex.)

The authors contrast this finding with one that claims that resource consumption dropped by 63 percent in that period—a claim that is true within the narrow context of output per unit of GDP, a measure of relative impact (relative to money) rather than absolute impact on the planet.

We humans would like to believe that we can achieve a society with all the material benefits we enjoy today widely distributed across the globe—but without the material. We can't do that without destroying the habitability of the planet. What we can do is focus on what really produces human well-being (and not just GDP growth) and make that the locus of our efforts while finding ways to reduce our impact on the planet on an absolute rather than a relative basis.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Be kind, it's all connected

In a conversation over the holiday I posited to a friend that the modern worldview which guides human action practically worldwide has all the hallmarks of a religion. I contended that this "religion" is at the root of our ecological predicament and that changing the current perilous trajectory of humankind would entail the adoption of an ecologically sound religion to replace it.

When I say religion, I mean "worldview," and I believe the two are synonymous. Even if one has a supposedly secular worldview that relies on economics, psychology, biology or any other field for an explanation of how the world works, it will inevitably look like a religion since such worldviews have unquestioned (and often unquestionable!) premises and may make claims to explain all the social and/or physical phenomena we experience. These secular worldviews tend to be reductionist, describing the interactions of humans with one another and the physical world as nothing but a product of economic laws, human psychology or biological imperatives.

One cannot invent a religion. Religions either grow out of an accretion of spiritual and philosophical traditions over time or they start with a charismatic figure who brings a new set of ideas and standards into a society and is later labelled a divine prophet or the originator of a new philosophy or discipline.

I've tried to imagine what the shape of an ecologically sound religion/worldview might be. My friend wisely offered the following humble beginning: "Be kind. It's all connected."

The first two words are familiar to anyone affiliated with a religion. It is the equivalent of "Love thy neighbor." But the second phrase creates an altogether more expansive meaning for the first, implying that we should not only be kind to our fellow humans, but to all nonhuman entities, animate and inanimate.

Just embracing such an attitude would mark a profound shift in consciousness. Achieving it in practice would necessarily be a revolution in modern society—overturning practically everything we now do under the influence of a consciousness that does not give any autonomous value to natural entities. Instead, those entities are valued only for what we can extract from them for our benefit.

It seems axiomatic that in a connected world our kindness to nonhuman entities would redound to our benefit. We would probably not continue to undermine the habitability of the biosphere as much as we do. On the other hand, we would be obliged to create a much larger space for nonhuman participants in the biosphere and that would mean a significant reduction in what we call our "standard of living."

That seems like a reasonable tradeoff if it means that human culture would continue for a long time into the future instead of being threatened with extinction. Right now, however, we have made a devil's bargain which few people comprehend. We've traded away durability for near-term comfort. And, we've mistakenly classified our level of comfort as an index of the durability of our culture. Most people believe the structures and processes we've concocted are hardy when they are, in fact, fragile and prone to collapse.

A new religion/worldview would have to convince us as a species that the seeming tradeoff of less comfort for more durability is worthwhile. How that could happen remains opaque. But it points to a problem more basic than our flawed physical infrastructure. The very way we imagine the world is making it impossible to change our current perilous course.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Agriculture and climate change: Is farming really a moveable feast?

There is a notion afoot that our agricultural production can simply migrate toward the poles in the face of climate change as areas in lower latitudes overheat and dry up. Few people contemplate what such a move would entail and whether it would actually be feasible.

One assumption behind this falsely reassuring idea is that soil quality is somehow roughly uniform across the planet. But, of course, this is completely false. Soil quality and composition vary widely, often within walking distance on the same farm. Farmers simply moving north (or south in the Southern Hemisphere) in response to climate change will not automatically encounter soil suitable for farming.

We must also consider that lands not previously farmed may very well be forested. Knocking down the trees and clearing the stumps might make such lands arable. But the loss of carbon storage that trees represent would only make climate change worse.

Quite often we think of rural areas as being undeveloped. But nothing could be further from the truth. Agricultural regions have complex networks involving roads, communications and electricity grids, irrigation systems, grain elevators, farm supply and machinery merchants, rail depots, agricultural research stations and field projects, government-sponsored agricultural assistance centers and the specialists attached to them, and entire towns which act as gathering places and service centers for those working in rural communities. All of this would have to be duplicated in newly opened agricultural lands for which pioneering settlers would have to be recruited. These pioneers would have to want to live in previously unsettled or sparsely settled areas with few amenities.

Unlike previous eras when farming was a way of life for most people and owning farmland was seen as a path to self-sufficiency and independence, these new pioneers will be adopting or continuing an occupation that millions are desperately fleeing around the world—in favor of the excitement and opportunities of the city.

Even if such rural migrations were subsidized (or forced—gasp!), they would take time, probably decades. All the while climate change would be bearing down on crop yields around the world. Would such a grand development project make up for ongoing declines in existing farmland production?

This is just one "solution" offered to us by what I will call the "adaptationists." The trouble is there can be no assurance that their solutions will actually work. A better approach would be to prevent further climate change as much as we are able (knowing that the lags in the Earth's climate system will make more change inevitable for the next several decades). The schemes being offered these days include emergency measures such as throwing sulfates into the upper atmosphere to reflect sunlight and constructing large mirrors between the Earth and the Sun to do the same.

The trouble with these approaches is they are all untried, and we have only the smallest inkling of their unintended consequences. Could we end up with a situation that is worse than otherwise would have been the case?

It is important to remember that when it comes to Earth systems, it is impossible to do just one thing. Whenever we do something, we affect the entire system, and we, as limited beings, cannot understand all the possible consequences ahead of time. We think we are acting on objects, and it turns out that we are acting on networks.

Networks have a way of pushing back at attempts to upend them. But frequently we cannot even see the networks we are affecting until they begin to react to our prodding, often in unforeseen and dangerous ways.

We do not know exactly how our agricultural networks will react as they are forced to change in response to the climate chaos we have unleashed. But we can take a much more humble stance by acknowledging that we cannot confidently predict that simply moving our current system toward the poles will allow us to produce all that we are going to need.

We may be faced with adopting systemic changes that include new ways of growing, more people in more places engaged in growing, changing what we grow and eat, and growing much more of what we eat closer to where it is eaten. Some of these changes are already taking place. But they will likely deepen and widen as climate change bears down more and more on our agricultural systems worldwide.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break from posting this week. I expect to post again on Sunday, November 19.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Look at the big picture, avoid groupthink, remember history

A friend of mine recently outlined as follows his method for thinking about important issues: Look at the big picture, avoid groupthink, and remember history.

First, the big picture. People too often think only about the narrow field in which they work or the community or nation in which they live. But whatever the topic, there is always a context that includes the rest of world and the interplay of actors and forces in many locales and fields of endeavor.

Let me provide an illustration (not one provided by my friend). If I want to understand the state of renewable energy in the United States, I'd certainly want to know also the state of that industry in other countries including their regulatory regimes; the structure of their industry whether public, private or a combination; and the state of research and development. I'd also want to know how renewable energy fits into the total picture of energy use, for example, its current share of consumption compared to competing sources of energy and its growth rate. Further, I'd want to know about the emergence of electric vehicles, a major new user of electricity, and about the industry that produces them. I wouldn't stop there, but what I've outlined so far conveys the scope of inquiry that I'm recommending.

Next I'd want to check into any relevant claims made in the media and by family members, friends, and co-workers in order to avoid groupthink, that is, believing something merely because I've heard it from others. For example, if someone claims that the dominant form of energy in human society in 2030 will be solar (and someone did), I would want to find the basis for such a claim if there is one and also see if the current trends suggest that this is likely. Just because some smart people believe that something will happen doesn't mean that it will.

Finally, I'd want to know something about the history of the renewable energy industry in America and abroad. What does that history tell me about what is likely to happen in the future? And based on what we know about the history of energy transitions in the past from coal to oil and then to natural gas, are various claims about the speed of the current energy transition to renewable energy plausible? Of course, no one can know the future. But when people make claims about the future that have no precedent, we should be skeptical and cautious.

Of course, these steps—looking at the big picture, avoiding groupthink, and remembering history—require time, concentration and reflection. It's simply not possible to do such research for every issue that crosses one's path. So, humans take shortcuts much of the time. They focus on what they know from their own experience. They recall what they've already read in the media and heard from those they know. They dispense with any serious study of the history of a subject, assuming that current knowledge is all that they need. (For minor daily issues this process may indeed suffice.)

Beyond the difficulty of doing one's own research, there is the difficulty of standing apart from friends, family, co-workers and others in one's social circle. Voicing an opinion that runs counter to the prevailing view can net one ridicule, dismissal and even social exclusion. Moreover, most people don't want to believe that the world they've constructed in their heads may be flawed, perhaps dangerously flawed. If you are the person telling them this, you will probably not be in line for thanks.

The greatest difficulty comes when our research produces information that challenges our own foundational beliefs. This potentially creates a crisis that could require acceptance of a whole new worldview. If accepted, this new worldview can strain relations with practically everyone close to us who may not only be surprised but possibly dismayed by our sudden change of outlook.

There are very few people who can engage in such independent inquiry on a regular basis and retain their mental balance. Being open at all times to the possibility of changing one's worldview can be anxiety-producing and exhausting. In order to maintain peace of mind most people avoid any thorough examination of topics that could force an alteration of their worldview.

It's no wonder then that our political, economic, and social culture encourages people to avoid the big picture, succumb to groupthink, and ignore history. It's much easier to maintain our peace of mind if we simply conform our opinions with those around us and avoid a tedious examination of the facts.

However, the price we potentially pay is that we will get blindsided by what in retrospect seems an obvious problem. That's when most people finally adjust their worldview to new realities. But by then, any damage is generally already done.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Devolution everywhere: Spain, Italy, Britain and the problems of complexity

The narrative about Catalan independence is that two major cities, Madrid and Barcelona, are competing for power, and one has decided that the best path forward is to declare independence from Spain and free itself of Madrid's dominance.

There is certainly something to this narrative. As CNN reports:

Catalonia accounts for nearly a fifth of Spain's economy, and leads all regions in producing 25% of the country's exports.

It contributes much more in taxes (21% of the country's total) than it gets back from the government.

Independence supporters have seized on the imbalance, arguing that stopping transfers to Madrid would turn Catalonia's budget deficit into a surplus.

Catalonia has a proven record of attracting investment, with nearly a third of all foreign companies in Spain choosing the regional capital of Barcelona as their base.

But the spread of independence-seeking across Europe points to something more than just sibling rivalry. In 2016 British voters shocked the world by voting narrowly to withdraw from the European Union (EU). Just this month two of Italy's richest regions held non-binding referendums on seeking increased autonomy from the central government. More than 95 percent of those voting said yes.

The immediate effects of Britain withdrawing from the EU and of Catalonia becoming independent (if, in fact, either actually ends up happening) could be quite negative economically, cutting both off from established trade arrangements that power their economies. (The vague desire for more autonomy among the provinces of Veneto and Lombardy in Italy does not yet spell economic and political divorce.)

Given this outcome, why would the people of Britain and Catalonia seek to disconnect from central authorities? For Britain perhaps the impetus was that most of the people of Britain did not feel they were sharing in the prosperity generated by the country's affiliation with the EU. Certainly the financial elite centered in and around London have prospered, but not necessarily the rest of the country.

In Catalonia, the problem seems reversed. The Catalans are prospering just fine. But Madrid is siphoning off the fruits of Catalan labor and ingenuity and providing little in return.

Both complaints point to a larger and yet conceptually invisible problem. Joseph Tainter in his momentous study entitled The Collapse of Complex Societies explains that complexity is a strategy for societies to respond to challenges. At first complexity works well to solve problems. Later in the life of a society, complexity—a new bureaucracy here, another layer of complexity in the infrastructure there—continues to work but with diminishing returns. Finally, a society now used to solving its problems successfully with greater and greater complexity is blinded by this success and cannot see the point when the returns from complexity turn negative.

The key here is that the returns from complexity are not evenly distributed. And, when such returns go negative, those implementing the changes that increase complexity—usually the people in power—may, in fact, benefit while the majority suffer. And, the negative returns may not just be economic. They may also have to do with perceived status, the workings of justice, public safety, and any number of other civic functions.

When people perceive these reductions in their well-being compared to others, they seek common cause with those closest to them whom they assume feel similarly aggrieved.

Here in the United States I frequently ask friends how much they think San Francisco, Portland and Seattle listen to the dictates coming out of Washington, D.C. The dispute over so-called sanctuary cities for undocumented immigrants is but one example of failure to cooperate with federal authorities. Gov. Jerry Brown sounded more like the president of California than its governor when in the wake of Donald Trump's victory he told the American Geophysical Union that if the federal government shut down satellite collection of climate data,“California will launch its own damn satellites.”

In an age which seems to call out for transnational solutions to climate change, pollution, deforestation, species extinction, and myriad social, economic, and health issues including wealth inequality, cybercrime, and possible pandemics—in such an age we are faced with the strange centrifugal force of devolution as many people lose faith in centralized authorities to solve their problems.

The hugely complex, tightly networked systems within which we live now in communications, trade, transportation and finance have provided unparalleled (but poorly distributed) wealth. They exhibit the economies of scale that attract us because they produce low prices for the goods and services we want. But more and more people are coming to believe that these systems lack the responsiveness needed to address their daily problems.

What they don't necessarily understand is that these systems because of their high efficiency are also very fragile. Their very efficiency means they have little redundancy, and it is redundancy which creates resilience. For this reason, the devolution we see emerging politically may someday be forced upon us in other areas of our lives whether we are prepared for it or not.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.