Sunday, July 16, 2017

Pi's tiger and the Anthropocene

Science studies scholar Bruno Latour is fond of the film "Life of Pi" for the metaphor it provides for our current predicament. The main character of the film, Pi, ends up in a lifeboat with a tiger, and not a friendly one. Though Pi builds a raft to give himself distance from the tiger, he must still tie the raft to the lifeboat which holds all the supplies--food, fresh water, and, as we see later, flares. Ultimately, the destruction of his raft forces him to return to the lifeboat and find a way to live with the tiger.

In "Life of Pi" there is no peaceable kingdom like the one depicted by painter and Quaker minister Edward Hicks in the 62 surviving versions of his composition of that name. In "The Peaceable Kingdom" predator lies down with prey and no harm results--a reference to verses in Isaiah depicting an age in which "[t]he wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them."

In "Life of Pi" viewers are constantly in a state of anxiety about Pi's fate. The tiger cannot be tamed. And so it is with the biosphere as we enter the Anthropocene, a geological era defined by the large impacts of humans on the Earth and its cycles. As a post-Enlightenment culture, we have long believed that we are now free of the tyranny of nature. We can learn its ways and master it through our knowledge and ingenuity.

But it turns out that mastery over the Earth is an illusion fostered by its huge resources relative to human populations (until now) and the discovery of fossil fuels that have allowed humans to harness tens of millions of years of stored solar energy in just a couple of centuries.

As the dean of the steady-state economists Herman Daly has explained in his essay "Economics in a Full World":

As the world becomes full of us and our stuff, it becomes empty of what was here before. To deal with this new pattern of scarcity, scientists need to develop a “full world” economics to replace our traditional “empty world” economics.

In the full world we now live in, we are sitting cheek by jowl with Pi's tiger. The tiger, of course, is the natural world which we have sought to put at a distance. We imagined that we could disentangle ourselves from its fate. But we cannot. Because as much as we might wish that humans and nature could be in separate categories, they aren't.

The tiger coming at us now is simply the full world pressing down upon us. The effects of the vast stream of entropy that human civilization produces cannot be placed "out there" any more; nor can we simply run away to a new place to avoid it. The effects we humans are having are so great and ubiquitous that we are close to naming a new geologic era of the Earth after ourselves as mentioned above.

Although Pi eventually finds his way back to civilization and the tiger parts with him and enters the forest, we have no such possibility. We must now dance with the tiger, give him some territory (as Pi does), and limit ourselves in our exploitation of the biosphere's (and lithosphere's) resources.

Nature, it turns out, is not a passive object, but an active agent. It reacts mightily to our provocations. Pi's father tells him early in the film that a tiger can never be regarded as a friend, that any feelings Pi thinks he sees in the tiger's eyes are just projections of Pi's own.

At the end of the film, Pi tells us that he believes he has seen a glimmer of the tiger's own feelings and that these feelings are not always geared to hunting and eating, but at times akin to accommodation if not mutual respect. In this he may have something of value for our comparison. For the biosphere itself is made to sustain us and we are made to thrive in it. But if we fail to understand its rhythms and its limits, it will snarl at us and even injure us for our injuries to it.

Our fear should be that the biosphere's response will end up being all out of proportion to our provocations. In this regard, it is Pi's father who is right about the tiger and by extension the biosphere. The biosphere will not develop sympathy for our current predicament. It can only remorselessly react. That notion should guide our actions as we move about in the only lifeboat we have, the thin membrane encircling the Earth that makes our existence possible.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Syfy's 'The Expanse': The imperial project unhinged

Syfy channel's political/military thriller "The Expanse," set hundreds of years in the future, seems eerily resonant with our own era. The two major powers of the solar system, Earth and Mars, have been locked in a cold war for decades. Exploited populations working and living in the asteroid belt--an area that supplies crucial raw materials to both empires--become the flashpoint for what could turn out to be a civilization-destroying hot war between the two imperial powers.

As it turns out, projecting the centuries-old imperial expansion project here on contemporary Earth into outer space is really no stretch at all. There is frequent coverage in the media today of schemes for landing humans on Mars and establishing colonies. And, there is also talk of extracting resources from asteroids. Empires need raw materials and when they run low, those empires, whether they are political or merely economic, seek new sources of supply.

But here is where "The Expanse" comes unhinged. Engaging in regular interplanetary flights requires a lot of energy. Rather than using elongated journeys powered by the gravity of planets to sling one's ship toward its destination (in an effort to save fuel), the ship captains of "The Expanse" burn a lot of fuel to take more direct routes. (The fuel seems like conventional rocket fuel, but we'll assume that's not the case.)

We find out in the first season that the source of this energy is fusion. All well and good. The attainment of fusion energy and its refinement over possibly centuries could power such a civilization. (We will leave aside for now the question of the effects of constant exposure to low gravity and cosmic radiation on the human body and brain.)

But if such copious and cheap fusion power were to become available, there would be no need to exploit the asteroid belt for rich ores. Instead that power could be used to get all the raw materials an advanced human civilization needs from sources available practically anywhere on Earth (or probably Mars). Granite--hardly something in short supply--contains almost all of the minerals we need albeit in very small concentrations. Mining granite in the required quantities and extracting trace elements from it would produce a lot of waste, but we'd have a lot of energy available to do it and deal with the waste.

Seawater is filled with minerals as well. And, we currently get many minerals from it. With enough cheap energy seawater could be mined even for minerals in very tiny concentrations. The air contains inert gases such as helium, neon, argon and krypton that are already available to us through existing methods. These would become cheaper to extract. And, of course, with huge amounts of cheap energy, seawater could easily be desalinated to provide drinking and irrigation water to any population within a few hundred miles of a coast.

The structure of society could and probably would be highly decentralized as most of the necessary resources would be locally available. Every community would have its own fusion and resource extraction complex. And thus empires--which are built on new resources taken from newly subdued lands (or, in this case, planets and asteroids)--would become irrelevant. Why go halfway across the solar system when everything you need is right at your doorstep because you now have the energy to extract it and mitigate the resulting waste?

In writing all this, I am not prophesying a space-faring human culture. Nor am I convinced that fusion power will be easily and quickly harnessed. The technical challenges may turn out to be so great that our current civilization will dissolve before we can succeed at taming fusion.

Rather, I am trying to show how our contemporary misconceptions about energy and the complex resource flows in our society lead to narratives that mislead us about the challenges we actually face.

"The Expanse" is fun to watch, and its subject matter maps well with our current political and military dramas. You can certainly enjoy it on that level. But take its assumptions about energy and resource flows and their effects on our political and social lives with a grain of salt. Those assumptions don't map well onto our material lives, even for an advanced civilization presumed to exist many hundreds of years in the future.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Can we live without progress?

To a person alive today it is hard to fathom that the ancient Greeks regarded themselves as living in an age of decline. These are the people who gave us the philosophers Socrates and Plato, the playwrights Sophocles and Euripides, the mathematician Pythagoras, the scientist and polymath Archimedes, and the first person to formulate atomic theory, Democritus. These are the people who designed and built the Parthenon and created the sculpture we so admire today in our museums. And yet, the ancient Greeks believed that the Golden Age, a period of unprecedented peace, prosperity, and cultural achievement, already lay deep in the past.

A friend recently asked if we who are alive today could bear to live in such an age. Our modern lives are premised on the idea that tomorrow will not only be different, but also better. He said this attitude has made us inattentive. We feel we don't have to pay attention to the details of life because we know their destination in advance, namely, progress.

In the sciences we speak of progress--greater knowledge, better instruments, new investigatory techniques, more comprehensive theories. But we rarely speak of progress in the arts. We tend to believe that art changes, while science advances. We do not think of James Joyce's novels as new and improved versions of Thomas Hardy's. We simply say that they are different.

Can we imagine an existence in which tomorrow may be different from yesterday, but may not necessarily represent an advance? Can we imagine a whole lifetime of such days? And, perhaps the most vexing question of all: Is it possible that we have actually been living in such a world without knowing it?

This question, of course, begets another one: What do we mean by progress? Generally speaking, we are offered the following metrics: more people living longer, healthier lives and enjoying greater material prosperity year after year (that is, ever increasing per capita consumption). We may also be told that our knowledge of the natural and social worlds is growing rapidly and that this knowledge is part of the reason for our prosperity.

When speaking of progress, we tend to leave out the side effects--some of them very dangerous--such as climate change, toxic pollution, soil erosion, fisheries collapse, species extinction, and myriad other ongoing environmental cataclysms that have the potential to destroy our civilization.

To contain our anxiety we tell ourselves that this is the price of progress. The politicians ask,"Which would you rather save, your jobs or some obscure species of fish?" Of course, the predicament we face is not so easily dismissed.

Another friend pointed out the disconnect between the United Nations' recent announcement that world population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050, up from 7.5 billion today, while the organization also warns of the devastating consequences of climate change for world food supplies in the future. Might not billions die of malnutrition and hunger before 2050 arrives as climate change continues to move faster than we have previously estimated?

And yet, the news is filled with predictions of fantastic leaps forward in artificial intelligence, robotics, and biotechnology without reference to the dangers we face--both from these fields themselves and from our environmental problems--that could put an end to and even reverse what we call progress.

One of the world's most prominent climate scientists, Tim Garrett, believes that our economic system simply cannot bring about the emissions reductions needed to stop climate change. Economic activity and carbon emissions are too closely linked.

This is just another way of saying that the idea of progress is embedded in the social and economic system, and that we cannot attack carbon emissions without attacking the idea of progress itself. Here is the question Garrett is really posing: If the progress we've made since the beginning of industrial civilization only leads to a complete reversal of all our supposed gains in the long run, can we really call what is happening progress?

And so, we must ask: Could we live in a world in which the idea of progress is abandoned? Could we stand the thought that tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that might feel endlessly the same, our personal power neither increasing nor diminishing--or worse yet, possibly diminishing somewhat over time.

Living without the hope of progress didn't stop the ancient Greeks from creating art, architecture, literature and philosophy that we still admire and learn from today. Could humans once again learn to value change without demanding that it be progress? In truth, our fate depends on the answer to that question.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Taking a short break - no post this week or next

An exceptionally heavy workload and travel schedule have conspired to prevent me from writing this week and next. I expect to post again on Sunday, July 2.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Can we create a durable future?

It is hard to imagine anyone today building something as durable as the Roman Colosseum. Most of the damage we see to the 2,000 year-old stadium comes from two earthquakes and the persistent looting of its marble, stone and brass infrastructure by humans using them for other building projects. Were it not for these unfortunate depredations, the Colosseum might be largely intact today.

We pen fantasies about the durability of our culture in science fiction novels, television programs and movies set hundreds and even thousands of years from now. By then we humans will supposedly be moving with magical ease at speeds greater than light, zipping through the known universe aided by voice-command convenience (or maybe even thought-comand convenience).

But our age seems to be populated by buildings and cultural artifacts that are designed for impermanence. It's not that we are technically incapable of making things that are durable when we want to, especially when it feeds our desire to turn science fiction into fact. NASA's Mars Rovers launched in 2003 were designed for a mission of 90 Martian solar days. The Spirit rover operated until 2010. The Opportunity rover is still operating.

We have even more impressive longevity from the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 space probes sent in 1977 to study the outer planets, that is, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Both spacecraft were designed for 5-year lifetimes and both are still working after almost 40 years. Voyager 1 has reached interstellar space where it continues to send back data. Voyager 2 will join it in two or three years. NASA expects to continue to receive data for another decade or so from both.

On Earth we would consider such durability to be over-engineering, too costly for our purposes. We build computers to be obsolete in less than 2 years. We build shopping malls, office parks and other commercial and industrial buildings with the idea that they will be abandoned or torn down in perhaps two or three decades. I am reminded of a New Yorker cartoon in which a developer looking at a model of his newly commissioned building remarks: "Great design, but when it comes time, a bitch to implode."

Nothing lasts forever. And, a society that has no dynamism, that does not change with changing circumstances, cannot survive. But it is we who are creating the change that we have to adapt to. It is we humans who are causing climate change. It is we humans who are causing rapid depletion of soil, water and energy resources. It is we humans who are increasing our environmental footprint in sheer numbers and in consumption per person.

We've initiated a feedback loop that has no end--except catastrophe. What would more durable arrangements look like? If we turn to those arrangements that have withstood the test of time, we have a starting point:

1. Small units of governance. The city of Rome has been continuously inhabited for more than 2,500 years. The Roman Empire, for all its durability, came and went even as the city lived on.

2. Small-scale agriculture and craft. Agriculturally based villages with craft industry have thousands of years behind them. This way of living is being crushed by modern industrial farming and its need for ever increasing scale. But the local food movement and the desire of many to know where their food comes from have breathed new life into small-scale farming.

3. Trade in luxury goods. Some exotic and valuable items have long been traded across large distances because a particular climate is suitable for certain produce, for example, tea or coffee--or the know-how and infrastructure is well-developed, silk from China, for example. What this point implies is that necessities are better produced closer to home to ensure a continuous and adequate supply.

4. Locations favorable to agriculture and navigation. It should be no surprise that many of the world's most important and long-lived cities are ports. Water has been historically a primary mode of transport. It is also, of course, essential to prosperous agriculture, either from adequate rains or from flowing rivers that can be diverted for irrigation.

All of these will seem obvious to anyone who has thought about the topic, sometimes through the lens of what is called "relocalization." In its simplest form this merely means returning the production of daily necessities closer to where we live. That seems straightforward enough; but the complex webs of trade and logistics we now have that bring us those necessities will be difficult to abandon. For those wanting to build more durable arrangements, this implies building them alongside the global system we have now. (It does NOT, however, mean abandoning the knowledge we have gained in the industrial age, but rather using it more wisely to attain our goals.)

Building a relocalized system may seem unduly duplicative and wasteful. And, it will be until it isn't, that is, until the global system stops serving our needs. In many ways that system already has stopped serving us if you count as one of our needs the desire to build a durable human culture that can thrive far into the future.

The fantasy of a spacefaring society has us fixated on an ever evolving technological future that asks us to abandon one set of gadgets for another almost continuously--all premised on the availability of unlimited resources and a climate crisis that somehow won't turn out to be a crisis. Few people are even contemplating the need to build a durable society because few imagine ever needing one.

We humans like the novelty afforded to us by our rapidly changing society. The world of information and communications technology has brought that novelty to us in addictive oversupply through ever more powerful cellphones and other electronic devices. What strikes me about this supposed novelty is its overwhelming sameness. It seems like novelty largely because new participants appear. But it is actually monotony itself because the stories we are told are as relentlessly interchangeable as they are shallow.

The durable society is not a dull society. It is rather a deeper society. We get to spend more time with the very landscape of our lives--the people, the buildings, the everyday objects, and the activities--than the frantic pace of the electronic message now allows us. The slow food movement is one expression of this desire for deeper engagement.

That deeper engagement is really the foundation of a durable future. It should come as no surprise then that it is difficult to build a durable future in a world that people don't have time to understand...with others they don't really know.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Baumol's cost disease, productivity and the future of growth

William Baumol, one of the most famous economists you've never heard of, died recently. Baumol's fame came out of the observation that there are sectors of the economy in which productivity is rising swiftly, for example, manufacturing, and sectors where it is rising slowly or not at all, for example, string quartet performances.

The conclusion he drew from observing the behavior of wages in these sectors was that wages had to rise in the low-productivity growth sectors even as they do in high-productivity growth sectors. This is because people will over time simply leave the low-productivity growth sectors for the better wages of the other sectors. This theory became known as Baumol's cost disease.

In practice, society still values string quartet performances enough to pay their practitioners sufficiently to keep them playing. Baumol extended his theory to any economic sector in which personal service is essential to that sector. Examples include education, health care, child care, and legal services. As it turns out, nobody (yet) wants a robot lawyer or nanny.

Baumol's theory explains why costs are rising so fast for educational institutions, health care organizations, municipal governments, and performing arts groups. Their productivity increases are limited, but their relative costs for labor continue to rise because of their low-productivity growth compared to other parts of the economy. In more productive sectors, rising wages can be offset by rising productivity which allows costs per hour of labor to remain level or, in some cases, decline.

Baumol realized that even in the mid-1960s when he first formulated his ideas (see here and here), technology was already enabling performing artists to reach larger and larger audiences through television, radio and record players. That certainly increased their productivity by allowing many more people to enjoy a particular performance. But these technologies and their more recent variants do not increase the number of performances that an artist can do.

The broader implication of Baumol is that as societies expand their service sectors, it is inevitable that overall productivity growth will decline. And that can mean that overall economic growth will tend to decline as well. We have certainly seen progressively slower growth in mature world economies over time, particularly since the 2008-2009 recession.

All attempts to reduce overall costs across entire low-productivity sectors (as opposed to small facets of them) have essentially come to naught--unless the sector is simply disappearing. (For example, does anyone remember the typesetting business which was wiped out by the advent of software capable of handling that task on a graphic designer's desktop computer?)

Some attempts have been made to reduce the cost of education. Back in the mid-1990s the University of Michigan proclaimed that it would become a million-person institution with its distance learning program. It took 20 years before the university created what it calls Massive Open Online Courses. They are free (though you can pay a fee to get a nice certificate of completion). Paying customers, however, still want actual live teachers in front of them just as they still crave live performers of music and plays. And, they want the recognized credentials that are included with attendance at the live instruction venue.

Municipalities provide a wide range of services including public safety, fire protection, building code enforcement, and public health. All of these services require people whose productivity is difficult to enhance on par with what is happening in manufacturing, particular high-technology manufacturing.

We have now accepted that maintaining an opera company or a symphony orchestra will cost more than ticket receipts can raise. What Baumol suggests is that we will have to be prepared to pay ever higher prices for those services we want from low-productivity growth sectors such as health care and education so long as productivity continues to grow relatively faster in other sectors.

With exceptionally low overall productivity growth in the United States and the world, it is likely that Baumol's cost disease is catching up with us--even if it isn't the only cause of that low growth.

The fantasy that we can make all services continuously more efficient simply can't get past the human factor in many cases. And, where that factor is being eliminated or reduced--for example, automated bank tellers, self-serve restaurants, and online learning--we are finding increasing bifurcation of the marketplace. The human touch is being reserved more and more for those who can afford it: private banking, high-end sit down restaurants, and ever more expensive college educations (that come with actual personal connections to instructors and with bona fide credentials).

Is our future one in which only the rich are inoculated against Baumol's cost disease? The alternative is increased public subsidies for those services which we deem socially important in order to make them widely available.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Anti-progress: The case of airline travel

We are so used to rapid progress in so many fields, especially in the communications devices and computers that we can hold in our hands and that keep getting cheaper. In addition, the media is filled with thrilling advances in biotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence. It's hard to imagine that there might areas of our lives in which progress has not only ceased but been reversed.

One area with which many readers are certainly familiar is air travel. I was struck by Robert Gordon's account of this phenomenon in his marvelous tome, The Rise and Fall of American Growth. Here is what Gordon discovers:

  1. Speed and comfort in the passenger airline industry have not improved since the 1960s.
  2. In fact, comfort has declined as airlines have squeezed more seats into the same amount of space. To get the same amount of space which the typical airline passenger enjoyed in 1977, that passenger must pay on average an extra $59. Gordon prices the discomfort of staying in the cheap seats at $15, since most people don't pay the extra fee.
  3. Passengers must now pay for meals previously included in their air fares which he estimates at $8 per meal.
  4. Passengers must now pay for checked bags previously included in their air fares which Gordon estimates at $25 per bag.
  5. He estimates that the cost of the meal, the discomfort and the checked bags amount to a 24 percent unmeasured price increase from 2008 to 2014 for a now inferior service.
  6. Gordon estimates that 200 million additional hours of passenger time are wasted each year in post-2001 airline security checks that he believes are an overreaction to one major failure, namely, the security of airline cockpit doors.
  7. He acknowledges that for those opting out of the extras, sitting hungry in a cramped seat is somewhat offset by the proliferation of entertainment options now available during flights.
  8. Despite what we've been led to believe, there has been almost no decline in the inflation-adjusted passenger price per mile since airline deregulation was initiated in 1978. The great decline in price occurred before then due to the increasing size and efficiency of airliners. What people saw after 1978 was a wider variation in fares depending when you booked.

Since airlines are one of the most energy-intensive industries in the world, the question arises whether the reversing of progress in airline travel is related to energy prices. For fuel alone the percent of operating costs varied between 2004 and 2015 from a low of 17 percent in 2004 to a high of almost 37 percent in 2015.

Airlines struggled with high fuel prices from 2011 through 2014 when oil hovered around $100 per barrel consistently. Now that prices have dropped, the airlines are certainly enjoying higher profits. (See link above.) But their drive to raise prices and cram more passengers in each plane seems to have coincided with pressure from fuel costs.

Thus, high energy costs appear to have the ability to degrade or reverse progress in a key area of the economy. And, any reprieve from those high costs may be short if an analysis done by HSBC Global Research, the research arm of the huge multinational bank of the same name, is correct.

The point is that the notion that everything in our lives is getting better and better, faster and faster isn't borne out in reality. Gordon's book provides abundant examples. But the example of air travel seems particularly appropriate to ponder on this travel-filled holiday weekend.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.