“Facing the New Reality: Preparing Poor America for Harder Times Ahead”
A Special Report from the Community Action Partnership
Partnership's New Report Frames a Future of Scarcity
The Community Action Partnership is pleased to present this special report, Facing the New Reality: Preparing Poor America for Harder Times Ahead.
The report deals with the combined effects of resource depletion,
climate change, and economic turmoil as they are expected to impact low
income families and communities, and the Community Action Agencies and
other organizations working with this population, in the months and
years to come.
Facing the New Reality is not a policy paper nor does it represent a
formal policy of the Partnership. Feedback to the Partnership office
is running about 50/50 in enthusiastic support versus dour uneasiness. The Partnership’s Strategic Initiatives Task Force has been examining
this complex set of issues for well over a year with full transparency. Presentations at the past four annual conventions, updates through our e
news and Promise magazine, and through other communications. We
recognize that the severity of this prognosis mean seem exaggerated to
some people. Conversely, the U.S. Department of Defense, Johns Hopkins
University and other highly-respected agencies and organizations are
focusing on the impact of major national and international oil, energy,
food, water and other resource shortages and potential crises.
Click here to read online
Click here to download a printable version.
The New Reality Initiative is a multi-year program of the Community Action Partnership. As part of that program, the Partnership web site hosts a regular blog entitled the "Weekly New Reality Check" written by Peter Kilde. Mr. Kilde is a CAP Director from Wisconsin who is also Third Vice Chair of the Community Action Partnership Board of Directors and serves as chair of the board's Strategic Initiatives Task Force. The views expressed by Mr. Kilde in the Weekly New Reality Check and by the various authors he cites in these posts, are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the official positions or views of the Community Action Partnership or its member agencies.
NEW REALITY CHECK
Peter Kilde, Chair, Partnership Strategic Initiatives Task Force
Lyin' in Winter, Part 1, Denial | February 27, 2014
The last New Realty Check closed with a brief description of winter 2013 - 14 as we are experiencing it in west central Wisconsin. Well, two weeks on and the plot thickens; as does the snow, the damaging ice dams on poorly and even on reasonably well insulated rooftops, the depth of the frost line now freezing municipal water and sewer systems across the region, and the pile of emergency fuel assistance applications on our intake worker's desk. And the forecast is for nighttime lows of -11F to -18F for several days ahead. This is real temperature, not wind chill. Wind chill tonight is -36F. Even for winter-hearty Wisconsinites, this weird winter has been hard.
It is not surprising, then, to hear the smug voices of climate change deniers ridiculing global warming once again because they happen to be cold at the moment. Sigh. And, since environmental degradation, especially climate change, is one of the three mega-trends (along with resource depletion and economic turmoil) that are driving the New Reality, this post takes a look at the question: Is weird winter weather related to climate change? To answer this question, we turn first to an article published a couple of days ago on the British web site, Yale Environmental 360. The article is entitled: "Is Weird Winter Weather Related to Climate Change?" and seems like a pretty good place to start. Here are a couple of relevant excerpts, the first making the important point that the impact of climate change on weather is a global phenomena, though we experience the effects locally:
- This year, the jet [stream] has been unusually far north in the Pacific, bringing balmy weather to Alaska. But across the Atlantic it has been unusually far south, unusually persistent, and 30 percent faster than normal. It has sent more than 30 storms, many of them much larger and more intense than normal, crashing into the shores of Britain in the past three months. With the storms have come high winds and heavy rains almost every day, delivering amounts of precipitation unseen in records going back more than a century — and probably exceeding anything else in the last 250 years, according to the Met Office [the British Government Meteorological Office] report.
- At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago this month, climatologist Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University linked "this bizarre winter" to climate change, and in particular to changes in the jet stream caused by a warming Arctic. "Weather patterns are changing," she said. "We can expect more of the same." (This final sentence should be of some concern to those who find this winter's California drought, Alaskan avalanches, Wisconsin heating fuel crisis, Atlanta ice storms or Pennsylvania power outages to be serious issues. - phk)
And while the article properly notes that it is very difficult to prove that climate change actually has caused these specific perturbations of the jet stream, it does make this rather more important point:
- Data from weather stations around the world reveal more extreme precipitation events — and more droughts, too. This is firmly in line with the predictions of climate models and is "what is expected from fundamental physics," says the Met Office. A warmer atmosphere will contain more energy, and more moisture from evaporation, says Woollings. It already does. And, in general, more energy and moisture will mean wetter storms in many places.
This is a very interesting and informative article. Here is the link: http://e360.yale.edu/feature/is_weird_winter_weather_related_to_climate_change/2742/
From my perspective, however, even this does not quite get it right. The point is not whether climate change has caused this or that flood, drought, tornado, hurricane or temperature extreme. The New Reality is that the planet has warmed up by 1.8 degrees F and that all the weather we now experience, even the "normal" stuff, is causally related to that change. So if we want to know what impact climate change has had on weather, then, like the no-see otter above, we just have to open our eyes, ears, and minds, and look around. We're in it. We cannot escape it.
Another baffling aspect of this weird winter is the extent to which the mainstream media still generally covers all these weather disaster stories as if these weather extremes are unexpected, unique, surprising events. So we move on to the next question; Should this come as a surprise? To answer that, we turn to climate advocate, environmental author and 360.org founder, Bill McKibben's recent Democracy Now interview entitled: "This Should Not Come as a Surprise." He is talking about, amongst other things, this weird Winter. An excerpt:
- None of this should come as a surprise if people have been paying attention. It’s exactly what climate scientists and climate campaigners have been saying now for the better part of two decades. I mean, I wrote the first book about this for a general audience literally 25 years ago. And these are exactly the sort of things scientists said would happen. They’re happening somewhat more quickly and on a somewhat larger scale, mostly because scientists are, by their nature, conservative and underpredict. But the fear of scientists is palpable. That’s why so many of them are out there getting arrested to stop things like the Keystone pipeline, speaking out in all the ways that they can think of.
This text/audio/or video interview also leads into next bi-week's post: The Lyin' in Winter - Part 2: Environmental Justice. The link: http://www.democracynow.org/2014/2/13/this_should_not_come_as_a
The connections between weather extremes and the work of Community Action are everywhere, and have been much discussed in these New Reality Check posts in connection with food prices, disaster relief and such. This harsh winter in particular, has increased the cost and hardship of being poor as both heating fuel prices and the amount of fuel needed to heat a home have risen dramatically. Cars get poorer mileage in the extreme cold, and the older, more worn out cars low income families often have to rely on are more prone to failure and repair as starting systems and other components are stressed. The list goes on.
As program operators, the effects of weird weather can be very immediate. Our agency, to pick one example, has developed several tax-credit affordable housing projects. In addition to higher energy costs, snow removal costs at one of our 24-unit projects that were $1802 for all of 2011, were $7565 for 2013. In January 2014 alone, snow removal cost $2,345 for a project that struggles to break even with $10,750 per month in total rent revenues. February will likely be worse. As we dip into dwindling reserves to pay these bills, this kind of persistent weather could put this much needed affordable housing at risk of insolvency. The list goes on.
Beyond that, Community Action is largely a creature of government; or more precisely, of an electorate whose will is manifest through representative government's policies, laws and programs. Our fate is subject then, to the resources and effective capacity of government to function, so we need to pay attention to the impact on local and state governments when a severe winter breaks budgets as well as pipes. An excellent New York Times article last week shows how this is unfolding over large areas of America in a piece titled: (you guessed it) "A Severe Winter Breaks Budgets as Well as Pipes:"
- SYRACUSE — Century-old water mains here have ruptured behind City Hall, popped in residential areas and split under the city’s bar and restaurant district. The mayor says she has personally reported three breaks, while exhausted crews work 18-hour shifts in subfreezing temperatures to repair the damage.
In Detroit, a break in a 30-inch main flooded a southwest neighborhood on Tuesday, turning streets into streams and stalling cars in water above their hubcaps. As city workers pumped away the water, and police officers and firefighters rescued stranded motorists, icebergs formed above the blacktop, locking some vehicles into place until the next thaw.
The exceptionally cold and stormy winter battering the Midwest, South and Northeast has forced cities and states to put road crews on double shifts and step up purchases of asphalt, trying to keep up with an epidemic of potholes. They have also bought and spread so much salt that there is a shortage in the Mid-Atlantic States, with more storms expected.
With revenues and staffing still below pre-recession levels, many local and state governments face a new financial strain from storm-related increases in spending on overtime pay, contractors and supplies. On Saturday, another snowfall covered the Northeast, a reminder that winter is far from finished.
Cities still do not have a lot of cash available, so this particular storm season is having a really severe impact on their budgets... Whoever is paying, the repair work will be extensive and expensive....In Baltimore, 353 water mains ruptured in January, about one-third as many as in all of 2013. South Carolina officials estimated that a single weather system last month drained $2 million from the state’s budget....In addition to the direct costs to governments, harsh weather can also mean lower tax revenue by slowing economic activity. A downtown Syracuse water main break on — no kidding — Water Street left a deep crater in front of the Miss Syracuse diner....
And so it goes. With climate related costs rising and tax revenues shrinking, what are the prospects for increased government funding for the alleviation of poverty? Well, on that front there might actually, possibly, be a little good news, but it contains two big "ifs." We take this up in Part 2, two weeks down the road.
As a person who has spent many hours standing in front of video projections of graphs and facts and figures, trying to explain the New Reality to yet another mostly perplexed audience, (‘Facts’, Conrad wrote, in Lord Jim, ‘as if facts could prove anything.’) I am very sensitive to the need to be able to communicate this stuff both more effectively and to a wider range of listeners. Fortunately, another group of British folks; environmentally oriented writers, poets and artists for the most part, have chosen to put their talents in service to the same end through an initiative called the Dark Mountain Project. The piece I have selected for this week's "Digging Deeper" section is a recent Dark Mountain post by Paul Kingsnorth, raised in the south of England, about the recent severe flooding noted above in England's version of this weird winter. It is titled: "The Rising of the Waters." A sample:
A climb up Dark Mountain, like a climb up the tallest tree in last month's post, is not for everyone; not for the weak and not for the fearful. But like backpacking in the Tetons, if you are experienced and well conditioned enough to make the trek, the landscape is wild and beautiful and well worth the effort. Even hopeful in its own way. Here is the link: http://dark-mountain.net/blog/the-rising-of-the-waters-a-call-for-submissions-for-dark-mountain-book-6/
- For the last few weeks, the south of England has been flooded, to a degree that hasn’t been seen for years – even though ‘the floods’ have become, quietly unacknowledged, an annual event now. Gradually, quietly but entirely inexorably, everything I knew is sinking.
The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is at record levels , and we are continuing to pump the stuff up there at an accelerating pace . From here on in, it is all change; to what degree and at what speed, we have no idea.We are not in control, and we don’t like it.
What is interesting to me personally is to see this hitting the south of England so hard. For a long time, environmentalists have been telling us that it is the poor who will be hit hardest by climate change. Of course, they are right in many ways. The flooding of Bangladesh is going to be much worse for its people than the flooding of England. Nevertheless, what we can see here is people in one of the richest countries in the world taking the full force of the climate shift that is now beginning. It has been happening elsewhere for a long time; it will keep happening, everywhere. This is just my small, local perspective on a shift that is taking place across the planet. The reality of that shift – of its scale, likely depth and inevitability – is only just beginning to seep into the public consciousness. But like the flood waters, it can’t be held back. In the end, it will cover everything.
It is easy to imagine that what we currently call progress will continue in the same direction, until everyone in the world is a car-driving consumer with a flight to the moon booked for their holiday. It is equally easy, and strangely comforting, to imagine everything falling apart in rapid period of time; a total and immediate collapse, from which there will be no recovery.
What is much harder – what seems almost impossible sometimes – is to imagine a gradual grinding down of our civilization. What is harder it is to imagine another century of floods, with the waters rising higher every year. No apocalypse and no bases on Mars. No industrial collapse followed by a return to hunter gathering, and no Singularity either. Just a gradual, messy, winding-down of everything we once believed we were entitled to.
The New Reality Quiz
First, last bi-week's quiz question: Noted climate scientist, James Hanson, has calculated that the heat gain trapped on planet Earth as a direct result of the man-made pollution already dumped in the atmosphere, is the energy equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima sized atomic bomb explosions every: A) year, B) month, C) week, or D) day? Answer: D) 400,000 Hiroshima sized atomic bomb explosions every 24 hours. I have a post queued up on Big Numbers. Could be helpful as we try to really understand this stuff.
This week's New Reality Quiz Question: OK, if you made it all the way down to the bottom of this post, you need a softball. Here 'tis. The title of this post is a pun. On what?
Back on March 14th with the thrilling conclusion to: The Lyin' in Winter.
Love Letters | February 14, 2014
This St. Valentine's Day New Reality Check is based on a letter exchange - or rather our more common 21st century equivalent; an email exchange - between two folks whose love is not merely sentimental or romantic or limited to one another. It is an email exchange between two men who have demonstrated their love for their fellow humans and our shared planet through countless volunteer hours of research, deep thought, and skillful writing, intended to help all of us understand and prepare for a very challenging time; the present and the near future. Both of these guys have spent a lot of time in the tallest tree noted in the last post, and both see the same view when they look out in the direction in which we are all headed: They see the collapse of industrial civilization. What they are dealing with in this exchange specifically is: When is this collapse likely to come, and what metrics will help us figure that out?
Now in most of the circles in which most of us mingle, this would be written off as crazy talk. We simply cannot imagine the reality of our techno-advanced, strong and multi-splendored civilization ever actually, really, somehow collapsing; but I would advise against taking too much comfort in that failure of imagination. With the notable exceptions of some very dramatic events - like having an atomic bomb dropped on one of your peaceful cites, or watching volcanic eruptions or tidal waves obliterate your civilization before your eyes - the historical record shows that most folks in the middle of the collapse of their powerful, multi-splendored civilizations have not seen nor understood what was going on around them even as it was happening. A good case in point is probably the most studied collapse in human history, the fall of Rome. It turns out that Rome had been consuming itself for many decades in order to keep the shell of its empire intact (a process John Michael Greer terms "catabolic collapse") by 410 CE when the Visigoth army was at its undefended gates. By this time, Rome had consumed the resources necessary in order to effectively project its interests all over its dwindling empire by militarily superiority alone. So of necessity, they had developed some expertise in co-opting their enemies through diplomacy and assimilating them; essentially turning them into Romans (Which is of course what any and everyone would want to be, right?) and making them part of Eternal Rome, the 1100 hundred year old empire that would last forever. So they sent their diplomatic "A" Team out to negotiate such a deal with the Visigoth King, Alaric. The negotiations went something like this:
TEAM ROME: OK, it looks like you are pretty well poised to raze the city, so what do you want?
ALARIC: All of your property, the total surrender of your armies, and to have all your women and children become our slaves.
TEAM ROME (somewhat taken aback): Yea Gods! Why, whatever will you give us in return?
ALARIC (somewhat bemused): Your lives.
As Thomas Cahill wrote in his fascinating history: How the Irish Saved Civilization: "That Rome should ever fall was unthinkable to Romans: its foundations were unassailable, sturdily sunk in a storied past and steadily built on for eleven centuries and more..... Eternal Rome..hardly foresaw its doom." And yet collapse it did, and most decidedly so. And so it has happened many times to many civilizations before and since. If fact, you really don't have to go back any farther than the global credit crisis of 2008 for clear evidence that our current industrial global civilization could indeed collapse; a reality even recognized by a President not especially known for either his keen intellect or eloquence, but who pretty much nailed it with his famous observation: "This sucker could go down!"
The point of all this is simply that some form of collapse is really not out of the question just because it is not a topic of accepted conversation in the popular discourse. At the very least, given the enormity of what is at stake, the case for collapse is worthy of the most careful study. So, on to our "love letters:" the featured content for this New Reality Check post.
The exchange is between two men who have both appeared in earlier New Reality Checks; Dmitry Orlav and Ugo Bardi. As you may recall, Dmitry was a participant in the 2010 Facing the New Reality retreat and an author featured in the subsequent "Facing the New Reality" report, and a "mini general session" presenter at our 2010 Annual Conference in Boston. Dmitry Blogs at "ClubOrlov." Ugo Bardi is a professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Florence, Italy. (Not too far from Rome, actually.) Ugo blogs at "Cassandra's Legacy." Two sites I visit with some regularity.
This exchange was posted on "ClubOrlov" last Tuesday. Here are a couple of excerpts:
- DMITRY: Over the past half a decade I've made a number of detailed predictions about collapse: how it is likely to unfold, what its various manifestations are likely to be, and how it will affect various groups and categories of people. But I have remained purposefully vague about the timing of collapse and its various stages, being careful to always append “give or take half a decade” to my dire prognostications. I wasn't withholding information or being coy; I really had no way of calculating when collapse will happen—until five days ago, when, out of the blue, I received the following email from Ugo Bardi:
- UGO: I'm trying to draw a parallel between the collapse of the Soviet Union [in 1991] and the impending collapse of Italy. There are, as always, similarities and differences. In particular, the Soviet Union collapsed almost immediately after that oil production flattened out and started declining. On the contrary, the Italian government survives despite a loss of 36% in oil consumption.....[T]he Italian system is based largely on income tax and property tax. The government is losing revenues on commodity taxes (e.g. on gasoline) but it can compensate with property taxes. Italians, on the average, are “rich,” in the sense that they have savings in banks and most of them own their homes. So, the government can tax their properties and their savings. As long as Italians still have something taxable, then the government will survive. It will disappear only when it has managed to strip citizens completely of everything they have.
- DMITRY: Very interesting article. Yes, the entire southern tier of the EU is in some early stage of collapse, but so far it hadn't occurred to me to draw parallels between it and USSR. Now that you mention it, the parallel is obvious: it is financial collapse triggered by something having to do with oil, but with polarities reversed, and delayed by a period of wealth destruction.... Now, I can see parallels to this in what is happening now in the US and in the EU, but with all the polarities reversed: here [in America] oil flows in and money flows out, and the coup de grace [will be] high oil prices ..[the purchase of which] has to be fueled by credit....where a unit of new debt now produces much less than a unit of economic growth. Financial collapse always comes first: all sorts of financial arrangements unravel as the center becomes unable to float the periphery, and in response the periphery starts to withhold economic cooperation. [This also played a big part of Rome's collapse. - phk] The result is a breakdown in supply chains, shutdown of production, and, shortly thereafter, shutdown of commerce.... This, then, is the key distinction: the USSR collapsed promptly because it was already skin and bones, whereas the US and the EU still have plenty of subcutaneous fat to burn through. But they are, in fact, burning through it. And so, the conclusion is, collapse will come, but here it will take a little longer.
And so here is the outline of the method for calculating the timing of collapses:
The full discussion is much richer and more nuanced than just these excerpts, and well worth the read, which can be found here: http://cluborlov.blogspot.com/2014/02/how-to-time-collapses.html#more
- Find out when the collapse clock starts running by looking for a significant drop in energy consumption
- Calculate how long the clock is going to run by dividing the total wealth of the citizenry by the economic shortfall of the shrinking economy
Some may view this piece as anti-government, but I don't think that's necessarily the case. These guys just read history, where we find it pretty clear that governments in general will do pretty much anything they believe they have to do in order to stay in power. This is neither all bad nor all good, but it is the reality.
Finally, the barbarians likely to appear at our undefended gates - especially if business as usual remains our only plan - will be much less compassionate than even the hard-nosed Alaric. In fact, they are incapable of compassion because they are neither human nor animal. These Visigoths are the laws of physics, biology, chemistry, geology and mathematics; and they don't care about us humans at all.
Once again, the main Community Action connection to this piece is the fact that any manifestation of economic or political collapse will surely hit the poor first and hardest, as it always does and always will. Beyond that, of course, is the imperative to build local economies and food systems to reduce dependency on the larger systems that are more prone to the kinds of systemic failure discussed in this piece.
Both of these serious intellectuals have much to offer as we move further into the New Reality. Ugo Bardi's "Cassandra's Legacy" site is great for several reasons, including the international perspective also found on Dmitry's "ClubOrlov" and the "FEASTA" site featured in the last post. You could spend weeks on these three sites without wasting any of your time. Dmitry's books, Reinventing Collapse and The Five Stages of CollapseT are also, as you might expect, excellent, witty, and right on point for this topic.
The New Reality Quiz
First, last bi-week's quiz question: One huge dimension of the New Reality that we have not addressed in any great length is the world's increasing population. This is extremely important because all of the resource and environmental problems featured in the New Reality Initiative can be correctly viewed as problems of human over-consumption; a combination of both how much resource individual consumers consume, and how many consumers are consuming it. So, planet Earth is currently adding 1 million new human consumers (births minus deaths) every A) month, B) week, C) four and a half days, D) day and a half? Answer: C) every four and a half days. Something is going to break, if it hasn't already.
This bi-week's quiz question:
Speaking of dropping atomic bombs on peaceful cities (Note: This could be a candidate for Worst Segue Ever), noted climate scientist, James Hanson, has calculated that the heat gain trapped on planet Earth as a direct result of the man-made pollution already dumped in the atmosphere, is the energy equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima sized atomic bomb explosions every: A) year, B) month, C) week, or D) day?
Back on February 28th with some info on this really cold winter, at least for us non-Californians. (We just found out that the city sewer system that serves our office building here in Glenwood City, Wisconsin, has frozen up. We have no water. Many of our clients can't get propane for their heating systems, or have to pay COD prices that have tripled in the last couple of weeks. Many others who heat with wood or have wood-fired back-up systems have already burned through their winter firewood supplies. Welcome to the New Reality.)
From the Tallest Tree | January 31, 2014
On a cold morning after the President's State of the Union address, we try in this post to get our heads above the dense surrounding forest in order to assess the State of the New Reality heading into 2014. The tall tree we are climbing to get this view is a paper by John Sharry of the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainably (Feasta) in Ireland. The paper is entitled: "Hope in the Face of Disaster - Creating a sustainable, viable, future path for civilization."
A couple of thoughts before we begin the climb: First, I have been following Feasta for a number of years and have been consistently impressed by the quality, sophistication and depth of their work. In their words: "Feasta was launched in Dublin in October 1998 to explore the economic, cultural and environmental characteristics of a truly sustainable society, and to disseminate the results of this exploration to the widest relevant audience." I am pretty sure we will hear from these folks again, so we can add Feasta to the choir of helpful voices that the New Reality Check has assembled to help guide us through the tangled and dangerous forest ahead.
Second, the author of this particular piece is a practicing clinical psychologist. His insight into why it is that we as a society have - so far - so utterly failed to address the compelling demands and solid evidence supporting New Reality issues, is probably the most useful contribution of this post.
Here is how the author summarizes the paper:
- Taking a long term view, this paper explores the many crises that civilization and humanity will face over the coming decades some of which are already starting to have an impact. The paper proposes a central cause to these crises and particularly explores the widespread psychological inertia in the face of these vast problems. Some potential constructive choices that individuals, communities and nations could yet make are outlined.
This is kind of a tough climb, so strap on your safety gear and let's get started; pulling ourselves up by the topic headings of the paper. Each heading will be followed by a brief quote from that section of the paper; an executive summary of sorts. Once we have taken in the whole view, John Sharry will share his compelling analysis of why we have failed to respond effectively to these challenges, and offer some realistic hope for moving forward.
The Illusion of Progress: (from the introductory parable) ‘We are heading the wrong way, we are headed towards disaster’ [the philosopher] shouted.
‘Shut up’ the engineer and scientist replied in unison ‘we are making great progress’.
Economic instability/Financial System Weakness: Many countries have completely unsustainable levels of debt that simply cannot be paid back and when a future crisis happens central banks and nation states will have less capacity to intervene (having spent most of their reserves to stabilize the system since 2008). Despite these problems there is widespread denial about the scale of the financial problems we face. As the economist and founder of Feasta, Richard Douthwaite notes:
Few of us think that anything radical has to be done. We assure each other that minor tinkering, like holding an inquiry, beefing up the regulatory system and limiting bankers’ bonuses, will be enough to allow us to carry on living pretty much as we do now for the foreseeable future.
Resource Shortage: Our world economy is so dependent on the cheap availability of oil, that even a small restriction in supply has the potential to collapse the entire system or plunge the world economy into depression....Current and future resource constraints are not just limited to oil and indeed almost all the vital resources on which we depend are being depleted at exponential rates.
Ecological Destruction: The health of the ocean is spiraling downwards far more rapidly than we had thought. We are seeing greater change, happening faster, and the effects are more imminent than previously anticipated....People are just not aware of the massive roles that the oceans play in the Earth’s systems. Phytoplankton produce 40 per cent of the oxygen in the atmosphere, for example, and 90 per cent of all life is in the oceans… The situation should be of the gravest concern to everyone since everyone will be affected by changes in the ability of the ocean to support life on Earth.
Climate Change: As if the problems above weren’t bad enough, by far the most serious issue to come is global warming caused by human CO2 emissions leading to catastrophic climate change – this is biggest elephant in the room....Already, we are beginning to see the early stages of this in increased rates of flooding, severe heat waves and sea level rises but worse is to come. For many years, 2 degrees was proposed as the safe limit that civilization could tolerate but this looks likely to be breached on our current economic trajectory. As Prof Kevin Anderson of the Tyndal Centre notes
There is now little to no chance of maintaining the rise in global mean surface temperature at below 2 ̊C, despite repeated high-level statements to the contrary. The thing is, if 2 degrees C is extremely dangerous, 4 degrees C is absolutely catastrophic. In fact, according to the latest science, says Anderson, “a 4 degrees C future is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable”.
What is the Basic Problem? ..[M]odern civilization is collectively caught in the following terrible bind: In order to avoid collapse the modern economy requires continual growth and thus the increased exploitation of natural resources; however, economic growth depletes the earth’s resource base on which the economy depends and so will eventually collapse....This means that whatever choice we make we are facing into some form of decline and collapse. However, the earlier we choose ecologically sensitive alternatives to our current economic growth model, the more manageable such collapse and decline might be....In simple terms we are reaching the limits of the natural world and things will not be the same in the future. Already, we are feeling the tremors of the future shocks to come. World agricultural output is declining, the availability of crucial natural resources such as fresh water, fish stocks, arable land are all declining. Fossil fuels are increasingly harder to access or cause increasing environmental damage as they are exploited. The mining of tars sands and the boom in worldwide fracking are examples of this, both of which are barely economically viable.
Why is No One Listening? Despite increasing and overwhelming scientific certainty about climate change, there is a parallel increase in denial of the facts by the public. ...So why would this be? Why would people choose to deny the serious problems of the future posed by not just by climate change, but also by resource depletion, and environmental destruction? Why would people deny such serious problems when they are becoming most apparent? Why would we turn away from corrective action at the hour of our direst need? While people have suggested the answer to this lies in the existence of well organized vested interests in the energy and fossil fuels industries and this is indeed true, I think there is also a collective failing in our human psychology that explains this rampant denial.
Denial, Fear and Loss: The only pain that we can avoid in life is the pain caused by trying to avoid pain. - RD Laing
In many ways our collective behavior in response to the prospect of climate change and environmental destruction is similar to the behavior of a seriously addicted person. We in the West are addicted to availability of cheap oil and the consumerist economy that it provides us. ...Picking perceived ‘holes’ in the evidence about climate, however tenuous, or clinging to ‘vague solutions’, however unrealistic are all powered by denial. ...The recent growth of the number of ‘climate deniers’ and ‘climate ignorers’ can be explained by an increased awareness (on one level) of the problems and a resultant desperation to deny the facts and put them out of collective awareness.
Over Optimism and Collective Denial: One of the most striking things about the response to the current predicament is the lack of leadership and/ or collective denial that is endemic across our mainstream institutions. Our political masters, the mainstream media and most of our economists all agree that we must continue the economic growth or our ‘business as usual’ model, despite the patent unsustainability of this pathway and the harm it causes.
When Denial is Punctured: Crisis can be a time of opportunity and change, as well as trauma, and fracture.
...[O]ur collective denial [will] be punctured. Once this happens this will of course be a very perilous time. People, who have been hitherto in comfortable denial, will become fearful and desperate and may embark on desperate actions leading to social unrest, war and society breakdown. We need to be prepared to manage these social difficulties in the future which is likely to be as significant as managing the economy.
The famous psychologist Kubler Ross proposed a model of the individual’s response to bereavement or pending loss as going through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. ..Interestingly, many writers in the environmental field describe their own personal journey of awareness in similar terms. They describe a period of denial, before having a ‘climate change moment’ when they realize that the world on which they depend is unsustainable. This if often followed by a period of despair and finally by some acceptance and a commitment to constructive action.
Responding Constructively: I find it useful to conceptualize four stages to help individuals change which may provide a helpful framework in considering how we might collectively face the serious problems of resource depletion, climate change and economic collapse that are ahead of us. These four stages are
1) Honestly accepting the reality in which we find ourselves
2) Creating a meaningful vision/purposeful goal of how to live in the face of such reality
3) Focusing on constructive action
4) Building a community of support
Honestly Accepting Reality: We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us. - Joseph Campbell
For us to wake up to the sheer scale of the problems we face will indeed require great honesty and bravery. It will be particularly hard for us to accept our responsibility – that is it was our actions which caused all these problems in the first place through our refusal to abandon a harmful economic model. Hardest of all will be to accept that the problem is not fixable, that much of what we have done is irreversible.
Creating a Positive Vision: Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out. - Vaclav Havel
Once a realistic and grounded appreciation of reality is achieved the next step is to create a vision for living in the face of this reality.... For example, setting goals for more community oriented sustainable living, where people rely on their own resources to live, can be a more healthy and happy choice than the choice to live in our isolated, individual consumer societies.
Taking Constructive Action: Facing the current economic and environmental crises, there never has been such an urgent need for constructive action. Such action is both about arresting our business as usual path to destruction and finding alternative pathways as well as trying to adapt and build resilience in the face coming crises. ..if we wait until major crises hit and our economies are shattered then not only will our action be too late, it will also be impossible as we will have little economic infrastructure to put plans into action. You won’t be able to build flood walls or alternative energy sources if your economy is in chaos. Early preventative action, to build resilience or to reduce future problems, is always preferable and the sooner we act the better.
Personal Resilience and Preparedness: Simple things like prioritizing one’s health, getting fit, learning useful skills and accumulating resources that will be of enduring value in challenging times all create personal resilience....Building personal resilience is not just about building capacity to deal with future crises, the benefits also extend to how you live your life now. ...One of the most important benefits of a personal acceptance of the more challenging future we face is how it can alter a person’s appreciation of their current life. Realizing the potential losses in the future, many people choose to live more deliberately and with great appreciation of what they have as they sense none of this may be available in the future.
Community Resilience: Whereas in the past villages and towns depended more on locally produced food and energy, currently now locally grown food makes up less than 2% of produce and local energy production amounts to even less. This means that towns are extremely vulnerable to any global disruption to energy or food supply. [So] grassroots movements such as Transition towns are about galvanizing local people and communities into positive constructive action. Rather than sitting back, complaining about what is wrong or being fearful about the future, the Transition movement puts people in touch with like-minded people who can act together to make a difference. These projects connect people with their neighbors, provide meaningful community work and build social capital within communities. The personal psychological benefits of such constructive community action [emphasis mine - phk] are enormous.
National Resilience: With the common enemy of the Nazis, political leadership was strong and communities were galvanized into action. The ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign to encourage locally produced food was extremely successful....In the face of crisis, it is possible to conceive that current national politics could be transformed and reoriented in a similar way. Climate change and carbon emissions could become common enemies and national goals could be set for energy and food independence.
International Cooperation and Resilience: As a result the problems associated with unsustainable growth such as climate change, environmental damage and resource destruction are all truly global problems... While is possible that the stress of reduced resources and climate chaos could lead to fracture and conflict between nations, there is also the possibility that this could lead to more global awareness and force agreed global solutions as people work harder together to survive.
Building a Community of Support: While there is a myriad of future challenges facing humanity that are already beginning to impact, the future still is unpredictable and open to choice. ..If we strive now to honestly face the reality of our predicament, set meaningful goals that bind us together and take constructive action, then we can build a future worth living for.
- end -
It should be clear by now that if this is the executive summary, the full paper must have some heft. It does, a full 15 pages worth. But it is very good, and well worth the time. Here is the link: http://www.feasta.org/2014/01/08/hope-in-the-face-of-disaster-creating-a-sustainable-viable-future-path-for-civilisation/
Actually, it is difficult to find parts of this paper that are not relevant to Community Action now and in the years ahead. Like the rest of America, most of us are in denial, not only for the reasons noted by John Sharry, but also due to the sense of being overwhelmed by the day to day crises faced by our low income families and by our own agencies' struggles to meet rising needs with shrinking resources. Still, this does not alter the realities summarized in this piece, and we need to find the courage and resources to come up with a hopeful but realistic vision and action plan of our own.
My introduction to Feasta was their 2010 Book: Fleeing Vesuvius: Overcoming the Risks of Economic and Environmental Collapse. I was drawn to the book in part because it included a chapter by New Reality author and friend, Nate Hagens, but soon realized that all these Feasta folks operate on a very high conceptual and intellectual level. A great place to go for a deeper dig.
The New Reality Quiz
First, last bi-week's quiz question: One of the essential resources that is becoming increasingly scarce these days is fresh water; much of which is used in the US to grow fruits and vegetables in California. So, how many gallons of water does it take to grow a single peach in Kern County, California? A) 2 gallons, B) 5 gallons, C) 63 gallons, or D) 142 gallons? Answer: D) an amazing 142 gallons per peach! For most of us 99%ers, it has been our usual practice to make some of our food buying choices, like whether or not to buy a peach, based on; "How much does it cost?" It may be prudent to start asking ourselves, "How much did this peach cost the planet?" (Note before the California Peach Growers Association comes after me: this point applies equally to all other food purchase choices.)
This Bi-week's New Reality Quiz Question
One huge dimension of the New Reality that we have not addressed in any great length is the world's increasing population. This is extremely important because all of the resource and environmental problems featured in the New Reality Initiative can be correctly viewed as problems of human over-consumption; a combination of both how much resource individual consumers consume, and how many consumers are consuming it. So, planet Earth is currently adding 1 million new human consumers (births minus deaths) every A) month, B) week, C) four and a half days, D) day and a half?
Back on February 14th with the answer to this, er, Valentine's Day quiz.
Toward Managing Scarcity | January 17, 2014
The New Reality Check concluded its discussion of limits last bi-week with this John Michael Greer quote from his "Overview" piece in the "Facing the New Reality" report: "The work of social service agencies in the years ahead thus will have to shift from seeking a fairer distribution of abundance to the much harder task of managing scarcity." In this post, we begin to explore how it is that we might go about doing just that.
A good place to start, it seems to me, would be to look at how we apportion out what resources, or wealth, we have right now. This week's featured article by former US Labor Secretary, Robert Reich: "The Year of the Great Re-distribution," makes the unequivocal case that we have a very long way to go in the "fairer distribution of abundance" department before we even get to the much trickier "managing scarcity" bit. It's a short but powerful piece and well worth the read, but for the busy New Reality executive on the go, a couple of summarizing quotes:
- 2013 was a banner year for profits. Where did those profits come from? Here’s where redistribution comes in. American corporations didn’t make most of their money from increased sales (although their foreign sales did increase). They made their big bucks mostly by reducing their costs — especially their biggest single cost: wages.
- ...[C]orporate profits have been increasing throughout this recovery (they grew over 18 percent in 2013 alone) while wages have been dropping. Corporate earnings now represent the largest share of the gross domestic product — and wages the smallest share of GDP — than at any time since records have been kept. Hence, the Great Redistribution.
- ...America has been redistributing upward for some time – after all, “trickle-down” economics turned out to be trickle up — but we outdid ourselves in 2013. At a time of record inequality and decreasing mobility, America conducted a Great Redistribution upward.
Here is the link: http://www.nationofchange.org/year-great-redistribution-1388931380
In Osawatomie, Kansas on December 6th, President Obama gave a stirring speech on the American economy. In it, he called our growing income inequality "the defining issue of our time," further noting: "..."for most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded. Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people. Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefited from that success. Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and their investments -- wealthier than ever before. But everybody else struggled with costs that were growing and paychecks that weren't -- and too many families found themselves racking up more and more debt just to keep up." With this speech, the President also placed income inequality high on the issue agenda for the 2014 mid-term election. This is a very positive development which may give us a small platform from which to do a little education of our own on the even greater income challenges American families will face as resource depletion, environmental degradation, and soaring debt, conspire to move our society away from the Age of Abundance and deeper into the Age of Scarcity.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's launch of the War on Poverty. As both Robert Reich and President Obama make clear, the great cause of economic justice in America is now losing ground to an economic and tax structure that increasingly increases (yup, that's what it does) injustice and inequality. If we hope to have any success in the next 50 years, we have to change the way the game is played. Support for any policies that effectively reduce America's growing income and wealth inequity would be a great place to start.
While Reich's piece makes a tight, compelling case for this increasing inequity, David Simon, creator of the critically acclaimed TV program The Wire, took this whole reality to a deeper level of understanding in a speech he gave recently in Sydney, Australia. Entitled "There are Now Two Americas. My Country is a Horror Show:" this speech does two things very well. It conveys what "income inequality" really means in America these days, and it begins to seriously take up the question of what kind of economic system is needed if we are going to turn this ship around. A couple of excerpts:
- There's no barbed wire around West Baltimore or around East Baltimore, around Pimlico, the areas in my city that have been utterly divorced from the American experience that I know. But there might as well be.
- ...And so in my country you're seeing a horror show. You're seeing a retrenchment in terms of family income, you're seeing the abandonment of basic services, such as public education, functional public education. You're seeing the underclass hunted through an alleged war on dangerous drugs that is in fact merely a war on the poor and has turned us into the most incarcerative state in the history of mankind, in terms of the sheer numbers of people we've put in American prisons and the percentage of Americans we put into prisons. No other country on the face of the Earth jails people at the number and rate that we are.
- ... Mistaking capitalism for a blueprint as to how to build a society strikes me as a really dangerous idea in a bad way. Capitalism is a remarkable engine again for producing wealth. It's a great tool to have in your toolbox if you're trying to build a society and have that society advance. You wouldn't want to go forward at this point without it. But it's not a blueprint for how to build the just society. There are other metrics besides that quarterly profit report.
- ... And one of the things that capital would want unequivocally and for certain is the diminishment of labor. They would want labor to be diminished because labor's a cost. And if labor is diminished, let's translate that: in human terms, it means human beings are worth less.
- ... The idea that the market will solve such things as environmental concerns, as our racial divides, as our class distinctions, our problems with educating and incorporating one generation of workers into the economy after the other when that economy is changing; the idea that the market is going to heed all of the human concerns and still maximize profit is juvenile. It's a juvenile notion and it's still being argued in my country passionately and we're going down the tubes. And it terrifies me because I'm astonished at how comfortable we are in absolving ourselves of what is basically a moral choice. Are we all in this together or are we all not?
This is a very compelling and helpful piece. Warning! This piece contains, er, colorful language and (gasp!) references to Karl Marx. The link: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/08/david-simon-capitalism-marx-two-americas-wire
The New Reality Check Quiz First, last bi-week's quiz question: The following text is excerpted from an advertisement for photovoltaic solar electric panels that appeared in a popular national magazine. The question will be to figure out when it appeared:
Ever since Archimedes, men have been searching for the secret of the sun.
For it is know that the same kindly rays that help the flowers and the grains and the fruits to grow also send us almost limitless power. It is nearly as much every three days as in all known reserves of coal, oil and uranium.
If this energy could be put to use - there would be enough to turn every wheel and light every lamp that mankind would ever need.
Wow! So this lovely prose and extremely positive view of our energy future appeared in: A)1938, B)1956), C)1968, or D)1976?
Answer? B)1956, of course. The ad was in National Geographic; placed there by the photovoltaic solar panel inventor; Bell Laboratories. They were all excited about the great potential of PV for, amongst other things, "telephony." Imagine where we would be in reduced fossil fuel dependence today if we had invested more or our fossil fuel "capital" over the past 58 years in PV production rather than squandering it on SUV production. Check out the ad.
This bi-week's New Reality Quiz Question: One of the essential resources that is becoming increasingly scarce these days is fresh water; much of which is used in the US to grow fruits and vegetables in California. So, how many gallons of water does it take to grow a single peach in Kern County, California? A) 2 gallons, B) 5 gallons, C) 63 gallons, or D) 142 gallons?
A closing note: The two articles featured in this post were sent from a father (Thanks, Jeff for the Robert Reich piece) and his son (Thanks, Jake, for the David Simon piece) who follow the New Reality Check. And thanks to my wife for finding the great PV ad featured in the quiz. Such referrals and any feedback about what you read here are most welcome and appreciated.
Back on January 31st with a great overview of where things now stand across the wide range of most New Reality issues; a re-grounding as we launch into 2014.
Learning to Love Limits | January 2, 2014
The New Reality Check launches into 2014 with the realization that we have entered the Age of Limits, and that it is in our best interest to get a good understanding of what that means for our lives and wellbeing. We also start with the radical, some Americans might say heretical, notion that limits are a good thing. Author Wendell Berry lays a deep and solid foundation for this idea in an article that originally appeared in Harper's magazine in 2008 entitled" "Faustian Economics: Hell Hath No Limits"; our featured article for this post.
First, a brief comment on this new voice in the New Reality choir. Prolific poet, novelist, social commentator and fiercely eloquent cultural critic, Wendell Berry is one of the most influential writers in recent American history. On March 2, 2011, this fact was acknowledged in the White House where President Obama awarded him the National Humanities Metal. His landmark 1977 Book: The Unsettling of America, Culture and Agriculture, spoke loudly and clearly to a new generation of farmers, back to the landers, and environmentalists (people like, oh I don't know, me), and pretty much launched the Sustainable Agriculture movement in America; arguably one of the most successful and enduring environmental movements to date. Wendell Berry is a farmer himself, spending most of his adult life farming with horses on a small place in Kentucky. To be fair, he has ruffled more than a few feathers all along both wings of the conservative to progressive spectrum over the years, but I believe that unfolding history will be very kind to Wendell Berry in the challenging decades ahead.
Wendell's argument in support of limits in "Faustian Economics" is like really good coffee; deep, rich, and complex. Too deep and complex, in fact, for me to try and summarize it here. Instead, I will quote a few passages in the hope that they entice you, dear reader, to take on the whole piece. A couple of sips, if you will, in hopes that you order that coffee, a large, for here.
- The general reaction to the apparent end of the era of cheap fossil fuel, as to other readily foreseeable curtailments, has been to delay any sort of reckoning. The strategies of delay, so far, have been sort of a willed oblivion, or.... the familiar unscientific faith that "science will find the answer", or .... a dogged belief that what we call the American Way of Life will prove somehow indestructible. We will keep on consuming, spending, wasting, and driving as before, at any cost to anything and everybody but ourselves....
(Perhaps by devoting more and more of our already abused cropland to fuel production we will at last cure ourselves of obesity and become fashionably skeletal, hungry but - thank God! - still driving.)..
The world ending fire of industrial fundamentalism may already be burning in our engines and our factories...
In keeping with our unrestrained consumptiveness, the commonly accepted basis of our economy is the supposed possibility of limitless growth, limitless wants, limitless wealth, limitless natural resources, limitless energy, and limitless debt. The idea of a limitless economy implies and requires a doctrine of general human limitlessness: All are entitled to pursue without limit whatever they conceive as desirable - a license that classifies the most exalted Christian capitalist with the lowliest pornographer...
We are, after all, trying now to deal with the failure of scientists, technicians, and politicians to "think up" a version of human continuance that is economically probable and ecologically responsible, or perhaps even imaginable...
But Wendell also reminds of that we have a choice:
- As earthly creatures, we live, because we must, within natural limits, which we may describe by such names as "Earth" or "ecosystem" or "watershed" or "place." But as humans, we may elect to respond to this necessary placement by the self-restraints implied in neighborliness, stewardship, thrift, temperance, generosity, care, kindness, friendship, loyalty, and love.
Doesn't sound too bad to me. In fact, it sounds a lot like the core values of Community Action. Here is the link to this piece, of which these excerpts offer only a slight glimpse. Pour another cup of coffee and allow yourself the luxury of Wendell Berry's rich prose and his profound appreciation of limits: http://www.scribd.com/fullscreen/144737117?access_key=key-23q4qqrb6k38qbwmzah1&allow_share=true&escape=false&view_mode=scroll
At the very least, see the value statement above. Beyond that, I am reminded of John Michael Greer's conclusion to the introduction of the Partnership's "Facing the New Reality" report: "The work of social service agencies in the years ahead thus will have to shift from seeking a fairer distribution of abundance to the much harder task of managing scarcity." Limits are our future. Wendell Berry's closing pretty much nails it: ".. we will have to reexamine the economic structures of our lives, and conform them to the tolerances and limits of our earthly places. Where there is no more, our one choice is to make the most and the best of what we have."
Digging around in the forty some books and countless shorter pieces that are the legacy of Wendell Berry is a very rewarding endeavor. A good start would be the book noted above, The Unsettling of America, Culture in Agriculture. Still in print and widely available.
The New Reality Quiz
First, the last question: For as long as I have been following this issue, methane (CH4) has generally been reported to be about 20X as powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide (CO2) over the first 20 years that it is in the atmosphere. Several recent studies have revised this calculation so that the UN International Panel on Climate Change now reports that methane is: A) only 5X B) only 8X C) 34X or D) 86X as powerful a greenhouse gas as CO2 over 20 years. Next bi-week; the answer -and the answer to why this is really, really important. Answer: D)86X as powerful a greenhouse gas as CO2 over 20 years. Why is this really, really important? Because the popular narrative, fueled and funded by the natural gas industry, would have us believe that natural gas (methane) is the clean, safe alternative to coal. They point out that it releases about half the CO2 as coal when it is burned. True enough. They conveniently fail to point out, however, that at a minimum, 3% of all natural gas is released to the atmosphere in the extraction and distribution process prior to that final consumption, and given the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas, using natural gas to generate electricity is actually worse, or "dirtier", than burning coal. So natural gas is not the "answer" to the climate damaging effects of burning coal. Sorry.
This bi-week's quiz question:
The following text is excerpted from an advertisement for photovoltaic solar electric panels that appeared in a popular national magazine. The question will be to figure out when it appeared:
Ever since Archimedes, men have been searching for the secret of the sun.
For it is know that the same kindly rays that help the flowers and the grains and the fruits to grow also send us almost limitless power. It is nearly as much every three days as in all known reserves of coal, oil and uranium.
If this energy could be put to use - there would be enough to turn every wheel and light every lamp that mankind would ever need.
Wow! So this lovely prose and extremely positive view of our energy future appeared in: A)1938, B)1956), C)1968, or D)1976?
Happy New Year everybody! Back on January 17th.
The Saddest and Most Hopeful True Story I Know: Part 2 - The Hopeful Part | December 20, 2013
The last New Reality post touched on the magnificent civilizations that were present in the Western Hemisphere before the arrival of Columbus, and on the colossally tragic, if unintended, waves of genocide that followed his "discovery." This week we literally dig a little deeper into those pre-Columbian civilizations and focus on a part of their sophisticated agricultural practice that could literally be a lifesaver for our deeply endangered global industrial society. It is the story of Terra Preta.
With a repeat of the same apology noted in the last post for the sweeping over-simplification required by this format, the story of Terra Preta ("black earth" or "black land") goes something like this: For at least 4000 years before Columbus, the indigenous Americans, primarily in Amazonia, had been enriching soil with charcoal, pottery chards and other materials, in order to enhance the fertility of the famously poor soils in that region. The increase in the fertility of these "Terra Preta" soils was dramatic; in fact, they remain remarkably fertile to this day. Here are couple of visuals to illustrate the point : First, these photos comparing the fertility of typical Amazonian soil (left) with Terra Preta (right):
For a second visual, this five minute National Geographic clip from 2008 sheds more light on this amazing soil: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/11/081119-lost-cities-amazon.html
The National Geographic clip also hints at the another remarkable part of this story, which is the scale of this Terra Preta soil creation. Several sources now estimate that as much as 10% of the vast Amazonian Basin surface area was Terra Preta, often built up to a depth of six feet or more. Indeed, it now appears as though there was enough of this fertile soil to support the large cities and many millions of inhabitants that were the focus of Part 1 of this post. In fact, new aerial archeological mapping technologies are showing that some of what we have long believed to be primeval Rain Forests are actually the dense growth that exploded on land that had once been intensely managed urban environments of pre-Columbian civilizations.
Which gets us closer to the real story of this post: the hopeful part. In the period following the massive human die-off in the Americas, (AD 1500 - 1850) Europe and North America experienced the depths of what is called the Little Ice Age, where exceptionally long and cold winters were the norm, often with devastating effects on agriculture and human mortality (This is the hopeful part? Bear with me.. ) The painting at the top of this post, the Hunters in the Snow by Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel the Elder was painted in 1565, about the time the first major die-off in the Americas had run its course. It depicts discouraged hunters returning with their dogs from an unsuccessful mid-winter hunting expedition.
A theory is emerging which links these events in this way: When up to 100 million native Americans died of European diseases, their highly fertile farm fields and clearings went fallow and erupted in uncontrolled plant growth; most areas soon becoming forests, as they had been before this large scale human agriculture. This rapid growth took so much heat-trapping CO2 out the atmosphere that the planet quickly and dramatically cooled down, causing the worst effects of the Little Ice Age.
Which gets us, at long last, to the point. Today we have passed 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, a level of CO2 not seen in a million years and believed by many scientists to pose the biggest threat to our species (along with many other species) in human history. What is needed now is not just a reduction in our ever-increasing contributions to atmospheric CO2, but a way to remove the vast quantity of excess CO2 that is up there already. Enter Terra Preta.
The process of building and farming with Terra Preta soil effectively removes CO2 from the atmosphere in two ways. First, this form of charcoal, generally known as biochar today, when incorporated into farm fields, traps carbon directly in the soil for up to several hundred years. This carbon was removed from the air as the plants it was made from were growing. Second, the significant increase in fertility from these enriched soils greatly enhances the growth, and therefore the carbon-removing efficiency, of crops planted in them. This carbon generally returns to the atmosphere as plants decompose, but is removed if these crops are harvested and processed in a way that sequesters that carbon.
At least one company, CoolPlanet, is proposing to do just that; and to do it on a scale that could actually have a significant positive impact on getting atmospheric CO2 back down to safe levels. While they are at it, they also propose to address our growing challenges in liquid fuel production and, as a side benefit, to take a big bite out of world poverty.
Hard to believe? Well frankly, yes; but take a look, and then this post will close with some thoughts on how to think about something like this. The link is a 14 minute video of a presentation CoolPlanet founder Mike Cheiky gave at this year's Biochar conference. Here is what Albert Bates says of the presentation.
Mike Cheiky says that with 2% of the world’s arable land they could drag industrial civilization back to carbon neutrality. With 3%, they could cleanse 100 ppm CO2 from the atmosphere in 40 years (to 300 ppm if we begin right now). Meanwhile, the projected price of the Cool Fuel produced would be $1.50/gal in today’s dollars.
The clip can be found about halfway down in this Albert Bates article: "Post-Modern Moonshots". The link: http://peaksurfer.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/post-modern-moonshots.html
Watched it? OK, some thoughts. CoolPlanet's pitch could be just so much snake oil, but over the past decade I have studied all kinds of supposedly great techno-schemes that promised to save us from economic and environmental disaster, and so far anyway, this is the most promising of the very few that have yet to become derailed and crash into the brick wall of Reality. Most have, and badly. So I will keep a lookout for this idea's critics and report back if this scheme follows the trajectory of the much-vaunted hydrogen economy of a decade ago; a bad idea that sounded so great it actually became the focus of a major energy speech by then President George W. Bush. Then some physicist actually pulled out her calculator and proved that it would take more energy to extract and distribute that hydrogen than you would ever get out of it. Oops. So far Cool Planet's bio-char idea has escaped that fate, and I am impressed by the fact that energy savvy investors like BP, Conoco, GE etc. are buying in. I also love the distributed small factory model and, of course, the economic opportunities to be provided for currently impoverished parts of the world.
A final thought. The human predicament at this time goes far beyond what even a great idea like CoolPlanet's could solve, but this project could certainly buy some time, maybe even enough time for other ideas to emerge which will help make the transition to a more realistic way of inhabiting the planet less horrific than the course we are on now. If so, it will also mean that the great civilizations of the pre-Columbian Americas - civilizations which the forbearers of our industrial culture effectively annihilated - may have reached forward 500 years from the grave and given us the key to saving our greedy, expansionist, short-sighted and techno-dazzled society. I have been thinking about this for over a month, and cannot find the words to fully express the poignancey of this tragic, yet somehow wondrous, irony.
Low income families, of course, share much of the common fate of our entire society in these potentially very perilous times. Yet there is also a more, down to earth connection to this story. The apparent ability of Terra Preta to increase the food-growing productivity of the small and marginal plots of land available to our low income families and communities, could be very helpful in easing these populations through the difficult periods ahead. Community Action could be instrumental in facilitating this important movement toward a more localized, productive and even healthier food production system for low income communities.
Albert Bates is another one of those New Reality thought leaders whose work could be very valuable to our work, and to the larger project of getting our society through to a more viable future. One of the original founders and leaders of The Farm in Tennessee, Albert's life and story reminds me of Robert Kennedy's famous quote: "There are those who look at things the way they are and ask why...I dream of things that never were and ask why not?" Albert is one of those dreamers who asked why not, and along with his community, brought some remarkable dreams to life. In 2010 he wrote the book: The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change. A good read both on climate change and on the promise and potential of biochar.
The New Reality Quiz
First, last week's quiz question: Last month, a ballot initiative in Washington State that would require food labels to note if any of their ingredients were genetically modified organisms (GMOs); was defeated by the voters by a margin of 3%. Opponents of the initiative spent $22 million on their successful effort to defeat this measure. Of that $22 Million, how much was contributed by the residents of Washington State: A)$550 B)$5,500 C)$55,000 or D)$550,000? Answer: A)$550. Almost makes you wonder if large sums of money injected by out-of-state special interests might have an undue influence in the outcome of local voting decisions.
This bi-week's quiz question:
For as long as I have been following this issue, methane (CH4)has generally been reported to be about 20X as powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide (CO2) over the first 20 years that it is in the atmosphere. Several recent studies have revised this calculation so that the UN International Panel on Climate Change now reports that methane is: A) only 5X B)only 8X C)34X or D)86X as powerful a greenhouse gas as CO2 over 20 years. Next bi-week; the answer -and the answer to why this is really, really important.
Happy Holidays, all. Back on January 3, 2014
The Saddest and Most Hopeful True Story I Know: Part 1 - The Sad Part | November 14, 2013
Like most white boys raised in South Dakota the 1950's and 60's, I played Cowboys and Indians for hours on end. Usually, I was a six-gun totin' Cowboy with deadly aim, killing savages by the dozen and rescuing cute settler daughters from certain and horrid death, but sometimes I got out my target bow and took the other side, mostly taking out my violent imaginings on innocent trees in our small town neighborhood. (We didn't see many actual Indians in my home town of Miller, South Dakota, because until 1959, any Indian who showed up in town would be arrested, jailed, and forced to work on the county road crew for a few days. No crime required. No questions asked. The one contact I recall was on a bright spring morning in 1961 when my brother's genuine rattlesnake-skin wallet with $10 in it turned up missing from a side porch on our house. My mother recalled seeing an Indian in town earlier that day, which she told the police when she reported the theft. The cop, of course, had seen the Indian too, and went out and arrested him. The Indian had the wallet.) In any event, the Indians of my childhood were bareback riding, half-naked, long-haired prairie dwellers who lived in small teepee villages and mostly hunted buffalo or fought white people. Later, the picture got a bit more nuanced with some book learning about the woodland Indians out east and the Iroquois Federation and the Pueblo Indians in the Southwest and all, but that was about it for my childhood education about our indigenous brothers and sisters.
The preponderance of current archeological research, however, paints a picture of the pre-Columbian Americas that could hardly be more at odds with that youthful misperception. That archeological record increasingly reveals that by 1491, between 50 and 100 million people lived in the Western Hemisphere; and lived in remarkably advanced, complex, culturally rich and commercially interconnected societies that traded liberally from deep in South America to the Pacific Northwest and up the Mississippi and Eastern Seaboard. They practiced very intensive agriculture and wildlife management. Their population density in many areas exceeded that of Europe at that time, and their cities were generally larger and in many ways superior in design and architectural achievement to those of the white folks who arrived on their shores in 1492.
So, what happened, and why has it taken us 500 hundred years to figure this out? Well, that's the saddest story I know. With deep apologies for the severe over-simplification that this format requires, here is the basic story: When Columbus and his sick and emaciated crew, and the fat rats breeding in the dank holds of their ships, finally arrived on an island in what is now called the Bahamas in 1492, they brought with them measles, smallpox, plague, influenza and tuberculosis, and began sharing these, along with the blessings of Christianity, with the heathen natives. The natives, in turn, continued to intermingle and trade with each other throughout the hemisphere, and thanks to a quirk of genetics and differently evolved immune systems, wherever they went they carried these horrific diseases to ever more indigenous Americans until, by 1570 or so, 90 to 95% of all the indigenous people in the Americas were dead. These great civilizations were shattered and the few survivors retreated into the woods and prairies to become the "Indian" cultures "discovered" by the early adventures, explorers, fur traders, missionaries and settlers a hundred or more years later. (And with every new European contact, new waves of cholera, viral hepatitis, typhus, or malaria, would decimate these emerging populations and cultures.) By that time, many of the great cities and irrigated farm fields and fish weirs and vast clearings - maintained by fire to manage wildlife for centuries by the pre-Columbians - had lain fallow for that hundred years and grown back into what appeared to the newcomers to be vast, pristine, old-growth forests. The Europeans thought they had landed on a continent where, according to a popular high school textbook published as recently as 1987 stated, the Americas before Columbus was: "empty of mankind and its works" and the story of Europeans in the New World: "is the story of the creation of a civilization where none had existed." In fact, it was nothing of the kind. It was a silent graveyard where a hundred million ghosts stood watch over the deteriorating remains of the greatest tragedy in human history.
In order for those of us who are the genetic or cultural descendents of Europeans to get a sense of this unspeakable, if (mostly) unintended, genocide; image if Columbus had returned to Spain with a similar Pandora's box of diseases for which the Europeans had no immunity, and 95% of the European population had been killed off by 1570. Imagine the overgrown ruins of an unfinished St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, or shabby little river towns called Paris or London or Berlin; no Versailles, no Louvre, no Bach, no Beethoven, and with no sufficient population to maintain them, no Amsterdam or Venice or Chartres Cathedral. The Black Death plagues that had ravished Europe were tame by comparison, taking maybe 30% of the population. The fertile fields of Burgundy and the Aquitaine would be dense, old growth forests. Maybe the Turks or the Moors would have seized the opportunity and easily defeated the remnant population; greatly expanding the Islamic world. Maybe they too, and their great cultures, would have been lost to the pestilence. What happened here in the Americas was that tragic.
In 2002, American journalist and author Charles C. Mann wrote and article in the Atlantic Monthly titled "1491". A good start on this remarkable history if you don't have a lot of time. The link: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/03/1491/302445/
To me, the most important word in this post so far is the word "unintended". The Europeans, for all their faults and virtues, had no intention of killing a hundred million people. Yet this was the result of their actions. In the same way, the people and corporations that provide us with electricity, gasoline, home heating, cars, airplanes, fast food, slow food, I pads and flat screen TVs, have no intention of killing anybody. But the collective impact of this highly resource- intensive consumer-based economy is on course to far eclipse the tragedy depicted in the history above. Yes, it is that serious, and it is the poor, of course, who are already being hit first and hardest by these adverse environmental and economic impacts. This is our business, like it or not.
In 2005, Charles Mann published his great work: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. This should be mandatory reading in all high schools. A fascinating, serious and important book.
The New Reality Quiz First, last bi-week's quiz question: According to a recent article in Forbes magazine, four US banks (JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Citibank, and Bank of America) hold 93% of the derivative contracts owned by all American companies. This amounts to A) $458 Billion B) $2.6 Trillion C) $22.8 Trillion, or D) $207.4 Trillion? (Hint: the entire Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of America, our official measure of all economic activity in the country, is pegged this year at $15.5 Trillion.) Answer: A breathtaking $207.4 Trillion, or 13.4 years worth of the entire GDP of America!! So how dangerous and insane and detached from reality is this? Well, that answer will have to wait for another post.
This bi-week's quiz question: Last month, a ballot initiative in Washington State that would require food labels to note if any of their ingredients were genetically modified organisms (GMOs); was defeated by the voters by a margin of 3%. Opponents of the initiative spent $22 million on their successful effort to defeat this measure. Of that $22 Million, how much was contributed by the residents of Washington State: A)$550 B)$5,500 C)$55,000 or D)$550,000?
An apology. At the end of my last post, I promised that I would be back on December 6th with "something a little more encouraging." Fail. As I got into this, it became clear that this post was a two-parter, so I will now promise to be back with something a little more encouraging on December 20th; just in time for Christmas!
Madness | November 14, 2013
Yesterday, I poured over mainstream news sources looking for some acknowledgement that global warming played a role in the massively powerful Typhoon Haiyan that has wreaked such sweeping and deadly devastation in the Philippines. Even in long articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, MSNBC, and the Chicago Tribune, there was nothing. Not a hint. The alternative press; the Nation and Democracy Now, were pretty good, but the mainstream press was pathetic, as usual, on this extremely important issue. In the meantime, by sheer and eerie coincidence, the United Nations was opening its latest Climate Change Conference, the 19th COP (Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) in Warsaw, Poland. Here is what Naderev Saño, the Philippine delegate to the conference, said in his speech at the opening session:
What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness.
Mr. Saño is absolutely right. He had a lot more to say too; all of it a strong and clear appeal to both the head and the heart. Here are a couple more excerpts:
Despite the massive efforts that my country had exerted in preparing for the onslaught of this monster of a storm, it was just a force too powerful and even as a nation familiar with storms, Haiyan was nothing we have ever experienced before, or perhaps nothing that any country has ever experienced before.
To anyone outside who continues to deny the reality that is climate change, I dare them, I dare them to get off their ivory towers and away from the comfort of their armchairs. I dare them to go to the islands of the Pacific, the Caribbean, the Indian ocean and see the impacts of rising sea levels; to the mountainous regions of the Himalayas and the Andes to see communities confronting glacial floods, to the Arctic where communities grapple with the fast dwindling sea ice caps, to the large deltas of the Mekong, the Ganges, the Amazon, the Nile where lives and livelihoods are drowned, to the hills of Central America that confronts similar monstrous hurricanes, to the vast savannas of Africa where climate change has likewise become a matter of life and death as food and water become scarce.
Not to forget the monster hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern seaboard of North America as well as the fires that razed Down Under. And if that is not enough, you may want to pay a visit to the Philippines right now.
In the end, Naderev Saño not only gives our ineffective inaction against climate change its proper name - Madness - he also conveys the seriousness with which we must respond to this issue with his own commitment:
We cannot solve climate change when we seek to spew more emissions. I express this with all due sincerity. In solidarity with my countrymen who are struggling to find food back home and with my brother who has not had food for the last 3 days, with all due respect and I mean no disrespect for your kind hospitality, I will now commence a voluntary fasting for the climate.
This means I will voluntarily refrain from eating food during this COP (Conferences of the Parties to the UNFCCC) until a meaningful outcome is in sight, until concrete pledges have been made to ensure mobilization of resources for the Green Climate Fund (GFC). We cannot afford a COP with an empty GCF, until the promise of the operationalization of a loss and damage mechanism has been fulfilled, until there is assurance on finance for adaptation, until we see real ambition on climate action in accordance with the principles we have so upheld.
This is a very moving speech, linked here in its entirety: http://www.rappler.com/thought-leaders/43476-stop-this-climate-crisis-madness
Compare Naderev Saño's characterization with this comment Exxon/Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson made in June, 2012, regarding climate change: "We have spent our entire existence adapting. We'll adapt," he said. "It's an engineering problem and there will be an engineering solution." Notice any difference in tone? For better or worse, we humans tend to form our opinions and beliefs based on what we perceive to be the opinions and beliefs of most of the other humans with whom we most closely identify and empathize. This is why Mr. Saño's voice is so important, especially to those of us who identify and empathize with people in poverty. To Rex Tillerson, no doubt tucked away in secure and opulent surroundings, climate change may look like an engineering problem. But to the terrified and impoverished victims of Haiyan, it's another Reality all together.
As of this writing, Haiyan has been officially designated as the most powerful typhoon ever to make landfall in recorded history. The early estimate of 10,000 casualties may have been, miraculously, too high, but the actual number will surely rise as the full scale of the carnage is revealed and second stage of the disaster - hundreds of thousands of storm survivors now stranded without water, food or shelter - begins to take its toll.
In the Philippines, as we see everywhere, it is the poor who are most vulnerable to natural disasters like Haiyan. We see the same devastating effects when tornadoes hit mobile homes, the most common form of rural low-income housing in America. Mobile homes have no basements or strong rooms that can shelter families from these powerful winds, with predictable and deadly results.
We have another connection to this story in the person of John Ehrmann. Dr. Ehrmann, a close personal friend, was the volunteer facilitator of our 2010 Facing the New Reality retreat. As managing director of the Meridian Institute, he is now also on the planning team for the New Reality Initiative's current project; a proposed intensive workshop for America's foundation leadership. This exciting project is a collaboration between the Community Action Partnership, the Meridian Institute, the Aspen Institute and ASPO - USA. (more on this later) The connection to this piece is the fact that John, who is very involved with numerous international climate and other environmental issues, is in Warsaw this week, leading a workshop session at the same UN COP climate conference. Odds are pretty good that he was in the room when the speech highlighted in this post was delivered.
It turns out that Naderev Saño's moving speech is not just an impassioned response to Typhoon Haiyan. Listen here for his brief but powerful testimony to the Conferences of the Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC in Doha, Qatar one year ago, in the immediate aftermath of another devastating storm in the Philippines, Typhoon Bopha: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OpI-PD6weG8&feature=youtu.be
Another great piece was posted this week on Foreign Policy in Focus' web site; "Hello Warsaw, this is Haiyan Calling." Authored by Walden Bello, a member of the Philippine House of Representatives, this piece deepens our understanding of the challenges faced in getting the Warsaw COP to adopt decisive measures, even in the presence of another massive climate change disaster. This brief article also sheds some light on an Old Reality; the reluctance of our species' sub-groups to put the whole species interests above what they perceive to be their own. Thus we drift ever closer to irreversible climate catastrophe. Here is the link: http://fpif.org/hello-warsaw-haiyan-calling/
The New Reality Quiz
First, last bi-week's quiz question: While Ceres may be the most recent sailing vessel to ply a North American river, the first one was likely a Viking ship over 1000 years ago. These remarkable vessels, and the remarkable sailors who built and sailed them, travelled far up rivers as well as traversing open oceans from the eastern Mediterranean to the cold and ferocious North Atlantic, where the Vikings established settlements in Iceland, Greenland and Nova Scotia. What material did they use to make sails for their ships in these harsh conditions, and how long, on average, did a Viking sail last? Answer: Hand spun (of course) wool, and they lasted about 30 years, or as they would say in AD 1000; a lifetime.
This week's quiz question: According to a recent article in Forbes magazine, four US banks (JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Citibank, and Bank of America) hold 93% of the derivative contracts owned by all American companies. This amounts to A) $458 Billion B) $2.6 Trillion C) $22.8 Trillion, or D) $207.4 Trillion? (Hint: the entire Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of America, our official measure of all economic activity in the country, is pegged this year at $15.5 Trillion.)
Back on December 6th with something a little more encouraging. Happy Thanksgiving!
Fifteen Tons and What Do You Get | October 30, 2013
Well in this case, you get a glimpse into a possible sustainable future. The story that is our featured link this week appeared today in the New York Times just as I was about to begin drafting the New Reality Check, and it immediately knocked the piece I was about to feature all the way into mid-November. I love this story for the same reason I selected the piece featured in the last post: It offers that increasingly rare combination of Reality and Optimism. The story is not complicated, though it no doubt took some serious effort to pull this off. A few folks in Vermont and New York state created the Vermont Sail Freight Project, did some fundraising, built a sailing cargo barge and began marketing locally produced foods down the Hudson River all the way to the Big (but probably not organic) Apple itself, New York City. In so doing, they also checked just about every box on the Get-Ready-for-the-New-Reality Check List. Here is the basic experience:
The boat, loaded with 15 tons of cargo from 30 farms, is about to complete its maiden voyage down the Hudson. The crew has been hosting daily dockside markets at port towns from Hudson to Yonkers, selling pantry staples, like wild birch syrup, heirloom beans and Atlantic-harvested seaweed, and fresh produce, like blue fingerling potatoes from Juniper Hill Farm in Wadhams, N.Y., and shiso from Grange Co-Packer Cooperative in Essex, N.Y., which von Tscharner Fleming co-founded.
On Saturday, Ceres (the name of the boat) will arrive in the city, docking at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for a market and party in the warehouse of the seafood importer Agger Fish (3 p.m. to 5 p.m. in Building No. 313). The local rooftop farm Brooklyn Grange will sell produce at the event, which features rickshaw delivery service, pumpkin carving, art and music. On Sunday, the festivities cross the East River to the New Amsterdam Market on South Street (11 a.m. to 4 p.m.), located at the defunct Old Fulton Fish Market. On Monday, a prix fixe dinner using ingredients from the boat, with cider and beer pairings, takes place at Jimmy’s No. 43 in the East Village. To make the most of the return voyage, Ceres will head north carrying fair-trade cocoa beans and pickling jars for its producers. The partners plan to repeat this journey several times next year.
This does not sound to me like life in Hell. In fact, as a former sailor and current local fresh food freak, this sounds positively splendid. Of much more importance to the New Reality project, this enterprise is a great example of the kinds of initiatives we need to encourage all over the country in order to prepare for the relatively near future. Several years ago when I was first trying to figure out how Community Action and the rest of society might respond to this brave new world, I summarized that mission in three sentences, stipulating that we must:
1. Dramatically reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and non-renewable resources.
2. Build the capacity of our local and regional economies to meet their own needs using their own resource base.
3. Foster local community development based on mutual assistance and cooperation.
Check, check and check for the Vermont Sail Freight Project. Bon Voyage and many happy returns! Here is the link:
When the Partnership convened the Facing the New Reality retreat in August of 2010 at the Wye River Conference Center in Maryland, one of the presenting experts was David Reid. Mr. Reid had just finished the second season of a project he had developed which was very similar to the Vermont Sail Freight Project. Reid's Sail Transport Company was using a fleet of re-fitted luxury sailboats (picked up cheap after the market crash) as cargo vessels; rounding up fresh produce and other food products from local producers around Puget Sound and marketing their goods around Seattle using pedal-powered delivery, er, things. It was a memorable presentation on many levels, particularly as a concrete example of an effective adaptation to the events we all saw coming. Unfortunately, while I have had some ongoing contact with almost all of the Wye River folks, I have lost Mr. Reid, last seen sailing off in the general direction of Australia after co-writing with me the "Transportation" essay in the New Reality Report. I do know, however, that the Seattle Sail Transport Company was still going strong as recently as 2012.
Finally, while I do not get a sense that either of these projects connected much with low-income customers, there is little reason why they couldn't. Food produced locally with minimal energy requirements often cost less than similar products moved hundreds or thousands of miles in refrigerated ships, trains, and trucks, and those will only get more expensive to purchase as oil gets more expensive to extract. On the producer side, for several years our CAP agency has worked with farmer's markets and other local food enterprises, and most of these producers are low-income themselves; growing and selling some produce to help make ends meet.
There was another sailor at the Wye River conference; New Reality author and friend, Dmitry Orlov. Dmitry lives on a sailboat with his wife and infant son, usually in Boston Harbor. He has given a great deal of study to the informal community life of what he calls the "Sea Gypsies" as a viable adaptation to the economic collapse which he believes to be inevitable as the New Reality progresses. While it is obvious that Sea Gypsies will not be a huge part of future society (there just aren't that many sea-going sailboats out there), his thinking on such a life is very useful in helping to think through viable strategies for us landlubbers. His extended 2011 blog piece "Sailing Craft for a Post-Collapse World" is a very interesting read on the whole subject of post-industrial transportation. Link here:
The New Reality Quiz
First, last bi-week's question: What is the most venomous creature on Earth? Answer: the box jellyfish, Chironex fleckeri. If you find yourself in the tentacles of one of these babies, you will have between two and four minutes to get your accounts in order. Who cares? Well, with the impact of the Anthropocene on the world's oceans, the box jellyfish and their many cousins are moving in vast numbers into the voids left by overfishing and damage to other species' habitats all over the globe; in some cases crowding out most other marine fauna and doing great damage to a global fishing food resource that is already 90% diminished from its peak. Pretty nasty.
This bi-week's question: While Ceres may be the most recent sailing vessel to ply a North American river, the first one was likely a Viking ship over 1000 years ago. These remarkable vessels, and the remarkable sailors who built and sailed them, travelled far up rivers as well as traversing open oceans from the eastern Mediterranean to the cold and ferocious North Atlantic, where the Vikings established settlements in Iceland, Greenland and Nova Scotia. What material did they use to make sails for their ships in these harsh conditions, and how long, on average, did a Viking sail last?
Back on November 15th.
Time Travel: Part 3 of our 2-part series | October 16, 2013
Well, it was supposed to be a two-part series, but on the same day that I posted Part 2, a fellow in Australia posted a really interesting piece from the perspective of a person looking back from 2033; a short speech entitled “The Hour is Darkest Before the Dawn: Crisis as Opportunity” which was presented at the Festival of Ideas on the University of Melbourne campus. I found that I couldn’t resist the opportunity to expand the Time Travel series. While I confess that I am not familiar with the author, Samuel Alexander, or The Simplicity Collective he is representing, I think he makes some very important “retroactive predictions” in this little talk, and provides something I like to offer in the New Reality Check whenever I find it: a little realistic optimism.
As for the realism part, Mr. Alexander makes no rosy predictions about industrial society coming to its senses and making the necessary changes and sacrifices needed to avert wide-spread hardship and calamity. In his words:
- As I look back from the year 2033, I would like to be able to tell you that the transition to our low-carbon society was smooth and rational. I would like to be able to tell you that, as a democracy, we shaped our nation with sensible, evidence-based decisions, and built a just and sustainable world through intelligent planning and bold leadership. I would like to be able to tell you that people did not suffer, and that our ecosystems are not permanently damaged. I would like to be able to tell you that the leatherback turtle and the orange-bellied parrot are not extinct.
- When looking back over the last few decades, one has to acknowledge that the global economy resembled, not an obedient servant, but a snake aggressively eating its own tail – a snake seemingly unaware that it was consuming its own life-support system. When the global economy finally choked on its own growth fetish, what was surprising was not how quickly it transformed into something else, but rather why so few people had foreseen its inevitable demise.
Near as I can tell from our collective response to climate change, resource depletion and economic turmoil so far, I suspect that he gets it about right with this summary of how we came to live within the physical limits of our planet:
- The economic depression we lived through meant that most people had very little discretionary income, so we found ourselves sharing more (because we had to), growing more of our own food (because we had to), biking more and leaving our cars in the driveway (because we had to), travelling less, mending our clothes, reusing our waste (because we had to) – all of which reduced our ecological footprint.
But he ends that same paragraph with this optimistic vision:
- But somehow, at the same time, we were living more. That is to say, consumer culture was forcefully taken from us, so we had to create a new culture of consumption. We embraced a simpler way of living – and, much to our own surprise, we found it to be good. If it was not always comfortable, it was, at least, fulfilling. This is the paradox of simplicity, the wisdom of which had been lost in the consumer age: less can be more.
Is this optimistic vision warranted? Hard to say, but it is possible, and that is what keeps my despair at bay as I read of the 20,000 to 80,000 panicked beef cattle that suffocated to death in the intense, freak blizzard in South Dakota (my childhood home state) last week - and all the other clear signs that future the New Reality report urges us to prepare for, has begun arriving. To quote Miles Horton again, “The future is malleable.” Still true, but it’s late, and the longer we delay the fewer options for meaningful change remain. Time to get busy… Here is the link: http://simplicitycollective.com/the-hour-is-darkest-just-before-dawn-crisis-as-opportunity
In the New Reality report I raised the hackles on a few Community Action necks with these words, which I wrote in the margin of Greer’s overview: “In the New Reality, the mission of CAP’s may need to shift from eliminating poverty to creating new understandings and new forms of wealth in a contracting economy.” I not only think that history is affirming that idea, I also think, as this week’s featured link suggests, that this may be the most optimistic vision that we can realistically hope for. But more importantly, it might also be the best.
What I found most compelling when I read “The Hour is Darkest Before the Dawn: Crisis as Opportunity” was the total surrender to the notion that collectively, as a society, we will not take the rational steps required in order to prevent, mitigate or adapt to the new Age of Limits; until we have no choice. (This is not to say that individuals and even some communities will not adequately prepare. Motivating the greatest number of low-income families and communities to do just that - to prepare - is, in fact, the main purpose of the New Reality initiative.) So a key question is: Why can’t we as a society respond rationally to the clear evidence piling up all around us that cries out “CHANGE WHILE YOU STILL CAN!!?” Environmental writer Rebecca Solnit takes a good whack at this question in a piece linked here entitled: “Bigger Than That: (The Difficulty of) Looking at Climate Change.” She may well be right:
- Some things are so big you don’t see them, or you don’t want to think about them, or you almost can’t think about them. Climate change is one of those things. It’s impossible to see the whole, because it’s everything. It’s not just a seven-story-tall black wave about to engulf your town, it’s a complete system thrashing out of control, so that it threatens to become too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet, too wild, too destructive, too erratic for many plants and animals that depend on reliable annual cycles. It affects the entire surface of the Earth and every living thing, from the highest peaks to the depths of the oceans, from one pole to the other, from the tropics to the tundra, likely for millennia -- and it’s not just coming like that wave, it’s already here.
- It’s not only bigger than everything else, it’s bigger than everything else put together. But it’s not a sudden event like a massacre or a flood or a fire, even though it includes floods, fires, heat waves, and wild weather. It’s an incremental shift over decades, over centuries. It’s the definition of the big picture itself, the far-too-big picture. Which is why we have so much news about everything else, or so it seems.
And if you need another reason to check out this excellent article, the answer to this week’s New Reality Quiz is also embedded in here. OOOooo… Here tis: http://www.resilience.org/stories/2013-10-11/bigger-than-that-the-difficulty-of-looking-at-climate-change
The New Reality Quiz First, last bi-week’s quiz question: Like many things, carbon dioxide (CO2) is neither good nor bad in itself, but is either essential to life or destructive of life depending on whether or not its levels are in proper balance with the rest of the environment. Without it, life as we know it would not have come into existence, yet most carbon dioxide is manufactured by life, specifically by bacteria. So where did the original carbon dioxide come from in the first place? The Answer: Volcanoes, and Geysers and Vents (Oh my!) Somehow in the greater secularization of society we have lost much reverence for the one-off, wildly improbable miracle that is life on this planet. What we don’t revere, we are less motivated to preserve, and that has contributed greatly to our worsening predicament.
With that in mind, here is This bi-week’s quiz question: What is the most venomous creature on Earth?
Time Travel Part 2 — Forward: Waaaaaaayyy Forward | October 3, 2013
On a brisk morning in late May (actually, on a record-shattering, freezing cold morning in late May) I found myself across the outdoor breakfast table from the Green Wizard himself, John Michael Greer. With the characteristic eye twinkle of a brilliant mind enjoying itself, Greer was talking about someday writing a novel set in the far, far distant future, millions to hundreds of millions of year from now. When the discussion turned to which of today’s critters would evolve into intelligent species long after humans had gone extinct, we both agreed that raccoons were a pretty good bet. If memory serves (a pretty big “if” in my case), my suggestion that crows would likely follow was dismissed since they lack the ability to manipulate objects by “hand”, something Greer thought key to eventually evolving advanced intelligence. Not one to argue with a wizard, at least over breakfast, I backed off on the crows, but secretly remained convinced that crows had a shot.
So I was pretty delighted to see that crows’ descendents, the corvins, did indeed achieve great intelligence a mere 100 million years from now in Greer’s September 4th post, and this bi-week’s featured link: “The Next 10 Billion Years”.
Besides having a little fun, Greer was making a serious point - actually a lot of serious points - about how our society today views the future, and how these perspectives contribute to our Great Failing to adequately respond to the screamingly obvious messages we are getting every day that we have to do something really hard: We Have To Change. Here is a sample from his first timeframe, a mere 10 years out:
- Among those who recognize that something’s wrong, one widely accepted viewpoint holds that fusion power, artificial intelligence, and interstellar migration will shortly solve all our problems, and therefore we don’t have to change the way we live. Another, equally popular, insists that total human extinction is scarcely a decade away, and therefore we don’t have to change the way we live. Most people who worry about the future accept one or the other claim, while the last chance for meaningful systemic change slips silently away.
A bit chilling perhaps, but our collective response to the New Reality so far suggests that Greer’s speculation has some merit.
The hundred-year-out frame which follows serves as a stern warning for the business as usual (BAU) crowd and their even more dominant cousins, the too-little-too-late majority of the half-awake who believe that swapping out light bulbs, recycling some of the trash and driving a Prius puts them on the “Saving the Planet” side of the ledger. It doesn’t. And the consequences of that little misunderstanding are pretty grim. (Don’t get me wrong. These energy-conserving measures are fine, they just don’t come close to getting the average American lifestyle anywhere near the energy and resource use levels needed to be environmentally sustainable, let alone to reverse the damage already done to our basic life support systems.)
But John Michael’s point runs much deeper. Rather than putting all our energy and resources into trying to escape the fate of all species and all life - death and extinction giving rise to new life and new species - we should perhaps accept this inescapable fate and put our energy and resources into making the best of it, and even celebrating the wonder of it all.
As time marches on, in Greer’s future, things tend to cycle around, so in a million years:
- The Earth is in an ice age; great ice sheets cover much of the northern hemisphere and spread from mountain ranges all over the world, and sea level is 150 meters lower than today. To the people living at this time, who have never known anything else, this seems perfectly normal. Metals have become rare geological specimens—for millennia now, most human societies have used renewable ceramic-bioplastic composites instead—and the very existence of fossil fuels has long since been forgotten. The 664th global human civilization is at its peak, lofting aerostat towns into the skies and building great floating cities on the seas; its long afternoon will eventually draw to an end after scores of generations, and when it falls, other civilizations will rise in its place.
Quite a read. Just wait til you get to the advanced civilizations descended from (wait for it…. ) clams! Here is the link: http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2013/09/the-next-ten-billion-years.html
Making the best of it for Community Action has always meant making things the best they can be for everybody, not just the middle class and the affluent. I am convinced that if we put our time, energy and resources toward that end as opposed to the scramble to rise to the top on the backs and efforts of others, we will all be happier. The scientific evidence on happiness supports this view as well; a good topic for a future post. I think we limit ourselves by framing the issue of poverty as “you should give up more so everybody gets enough” when the real message should be closer to Red Green’s philosophy “We are all in this together. Keep your stick on the ice (i.e. play fair).”
Digging 10 Billion years into the future is a daunting mental stretch on its own, but I have found it very useful in understanding our present predicament to get a grasp on the almost unimaginable time scales that have led up to it. The single resource that has been most helpful to me in this regard is the book I recommended last bi-week: The Time Before History: Five Million Years of Human Impact by Collin Tudge. (1997) In fact, most of the book is about the eons that led up to the first appearance of humans. So if you weren’t convinced on September 20th, here’s another nudge. And if you are really interested in this kind of time travel, Ugo Bardi from the University of Florence, Italy, responds to Greer’s piece, which was a response to his earlier “Next Ten Billion Years” piece, with a very different but also very compelling non-cyclical vision, here: http://cassandralegacy.blogspot.com/2013/09/the-next-ten-billion-years-ii.html
The New Reality Quiz
First, last week’s quiz question: What city famously identified with addressing climate change is currently enduring one if its most devastating effects? Answer: Kyoto, Japan, the city where the famous Kyoto Protocol was created. It is described here:
- The Kyoto Protocol treaty was negotiated in December 1997 at the city of Kyoto, Japan and came into force February 16th, 2005.
"The Kyoto Protocol is a legally binding agreement under which industrialized countries will reduce their collective emissions of greenhouse gases by 5.2% compared to the year 1990 (but note that, compared to the emissions levels that would be expected by 2010 without the Protocol, this target represents a 29% cut). The goal is to lower overall emissions from six greenhouse gases - carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur hexafluoride, HFCs, and PFCs - calculated as an average over the five-year period of 2008-12. National targets range from 8% reductions for the European Union and some others to 7% for the US, 6% for Japan, 0% for Russia, and permitted increases of 8% for Australia and 10% for Iceland."
This legally binding agreement was based on what the best science at the time believed was necessary to avert the worst impacts of Global Warming. It was signed by 191 countries, but most notably, not by the United States. So how did we do on the goal of reducing greenhouse gasses by 5.2% below 1990 levels? It’s a bit mixed. While some important countries have hit these targets including, somewhat ironically, the hold-out United States (which managed this not so much by intention as by having the Great Recession) the overall world-wide amount of greenhouse gasses emitted since 1990 has increased by 37%; which most likely played a large role in the intensity of the massive typhoon which flooded, ironically again, Kyoto, Japan two weeks ago.
This bi-week’s quiz question: Like many things, carbon dioxide (CO2) is neither good nor bad in itself, but is either essential to life or destructive of life depending on whether or not its levels are in proper balance with the rest of the environment. Without it, life as we know it would not have come into existence, yet most carbon dioxide is manufactured by life, specifically by bacteria. So where did the original carbon dioxide come from in the first place?
Back on October 18th
Time Travel Part 1 — Backwards: Homo Not-So-Sapiensl | September 20, 2013
There are a lot of questions out there about how a species as intelligent as we humans, manage time and time again to get ourselves into the direst of predicaments; none more extreme than the one we are in now; a mass extinction event of unprecedented swiftness and scope stretching over a perilous landscape in all directions. (No exaggeration. Here is the link: http://news.sciencemag.org/2011/03/are-we-middle-sixth-mass-extinction
And pretty much all the result of, you guessed it, the actions of what we (almost) all believe to be the most intelligent species in the history of the planet. According to my trusty American Heritage College Dictionary, the word “sapient” means “Having great wisdom and discernment.” (Hmmm… It should be noted, of course, that mostly white, western-educated humans gave this approbation to themselves. One wonders if the Sockeye Salmon or Passenger Pigeon might take a slightly different view. Or for that matter, some of the indigenous human cultures we have, er, developed.) In any event, getting a handle on human behavior seems like a pretty useful endeavor right now as we are going to have to figure out how to change much of that behavior pretty quickly and pretty dramatically if we hope to navigate the emerging New Reality with any success at all.
So this bi-week and next, the New Reality Check will be doing a little time travelling, first with New Reality author, Dr. Nate Hagens. Nate is a very bright, interesting and well respected thinker across the spectrum of New Reality issues. An MBA with several years of experience managing hedge funds on Wall Street, Nate wised up, dropped out, became a leader in the Peak Oil movement, and got a PhD in Natural Resources from the State University of New York. He is now writing, working with the Swiss and US based Institute for Integrated Economic Research, and growing garlic in Wisconsin.
His piece is entitled; “Towards Homo Sapiens – A Movie Script.” It appeared in the Oil Drum, a highly regarded energy web site that Nate edited for awhile but which is now closing. (It’s a long story.) In any event, this piece takes a good stab at a question raised by the New Reality Check previously: “What are people and why do they act that way?” He does this in a most interesting, informative and entertaining way, and clearly addresses the question of whether humans, especially acting en mass as societies, are really all that wise, or if we have just confused wisdom with cleverness. This outtake from the opening paragraph sums up the problem addressed in the piece:
- The latin name for our species - homo 'sapiens' was perhaps ill-chosen, for given the behaviors accompanying our current moon shot in consumption and population, we are proving to be more clever than wise. We have turned into problem solvers as opposed to visionaries - or at least, our visions have limits measured in human lifespans, or perhaps election cycles. With so much focus on the near term, we've lost awareness of the brighter beacon - despite the fact we are at the material and energetic apex of industrial civilization, throughput and science, we have no real ethic, no blueprint, for the long-term trajectory of our species and our planet’s ecosystems. Scientific evidence shows existential risk for the species, seas, forests, and carrying capacity, being alarmed is the only non-sociopathic response. But will that alarm suffice to steer us away from disaster? How might various things happen in the real world of path-dependence, luck, and emergent effects? And the larger question - to what end are these precursor events happening today?
There is plenty more food for thought in this piece. Here is the link: http://www.theoildrum.com/node/10220
At the end of Nate’s piece, he poses a number of questions about the year 2100 and beyond. While this may hardly seem relevant now with the wolves at the door and all the challenges our agencies and communities face today and over the next few years, this particular present had its roots in a past that failed to properly plan ahead for their future and set the stage for most of our present predicament. Yet as the great American change agent Myles Horton so forcefully reminded us in his retirement farewell: “The future is malleable.” We can still take action to make the best possible future, but business as usual won’t get that job done.
As noted in an earlier post, The Time Before History: Five Million Years of Human Impact (1997) by Collin Tudge is a fascinating read and great travel guide for this kind of trip.
The New Reality Quiz
First last week’s quiz question: At this time, the total biomass of humans and their livestock outweighs wild vertebrates by a ratio of: A) 2:1, B) 10:1. C) 50:1, or D) 100:1. ANSWER C) 50:1 (Bonus point for noting where this little quiz question originated)
This bi-week’s Quiz Question
What city famously identified with addressing climate change is currently enduring one if its most devastating effects?
Back on October 4th.
Snake Oil | September 6, 2013
There were a couple of remarkable claims made on CNBC last week, and the most remarkable thing about them is that, outside of a few of our Peak Oil friends, hardly anybody at all remarked on them. On August 28th, a talking head on CNBC (Simon Hobbs at 10:31 AM Eastern time) had the following question for his two oil experts, John Kildauf and Addison Armstrong: "For the first time ever, if we have military action, it will be with the United States as a net exporter of crude. Does that change the situation?" Same day, same channel, US Senator John McCain clearly implied the same view when he said: “As you know, better than I do, that Iraq is now a major exporter of oil. If Iraq descends into the chaos that they are headed towards, then that will impact the world’s oil supply. Maybe not ours, we are now energy exporters (emphasis mine), as you know, but the whole world is dependent upon a stable supply of oil, and that could be very dangerous.” You can watch it here. The quote is at the 7 minute mark, but the context is also very significant: http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?play=1&video=3000194579
In both instances, these claims that the US is a net exporter of oil went unchallenged. So what? What makes this remarkable? Well, here are three reasons.
This widespread disconnection from reality is a very serious problem which gets us to today’s featured links about our friend Richard Heinberg’s new book: Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future. I just read this book and would be happy to review it, but since I have a CAP agency to run and John Michael Greer has recently written an excellent piece on the book, I am going to defer to him. From his August 21, 2013 post, “Well and Truly Fracked”, we get this distillation of Snake Oil:
- It is not true. The US is a major net importer of crude oil. In fact according to the US Department of Energy – Energy Information Administration (EIA), our net import of crude as of last week was 8.2 million barrels each day (mmbd). (http://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/pet_move_wkly_dc_nus-z00_mbblpd_w.htm ) while total US production of crude oil per day is less than half that at only 7.6 mmbd, which we require in addition to the imported 8.2 mmbd. (http://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/hist/LeafHandler.ashx?n=PET&s=WCRFPUS2&f=W )
We are pretty much the opposite of being net oil exporters. In fact, the only country in the world that imports more oil than America is China, and they didn’t claim that honor until this last May. We are totally dependent on the world oil markets for over half of the crude oil we absolutely depend on for virtually every aspect of American life.
- Senator John McCain, who came very close to being the President and remains one of the most powerful men in America and considered an expert on national security, is not so concerned about the impact mid-east oil disruptions would have on America because of this totally wrong belief. Few things are a bigger threat to our national security than major disruptions in the world oil markets that would restrict our huge daily oil fix. Yet, he is making key military and policy decisions falsely informed that false understanding. Still, I am really not picking on McCain here, because much more importantly than his misperception is the fact that he is not alone. Not by a long shot.
- Nobody in the mainstream press said anything, presumably because they all believe the same thing, presumably because they buy the false but widely accepted story that “fracking” technology has solved Americas oil supply concerns for decades to come. Big mistake. (NOTE 1: A perfectly fair question at this time would be; “Why should I believe a CAP director from a small town in rural Wisconsin rather than all these experts?” Great question. My answer is that I rarely if ever ask you to believe me. I point you to solid sources and ask you to judge for yourselves. In this case, the source is the US Government’s very own Energy Information Administration which is charged with keeping an eye on this vital national interest for America. Pull up the charts (links above) and take a look. The real question here is; Why don’t these experts take few seconds to do the same?)(NOTE 2: One real barrier to wide understanding of this problem is that there is no standard definition of “oil.” Sometimes it is good, old fashioned crude oil, sometimes crude + lease condensate, sometimes crude plus stuff that is not real oil, like the bitumen from Canadian tar sands or even bio-diesel, sometimes it’s BOE, which is “barrel of oil equivalent”, which can be almost any fuel, like corn ethanol, that can get liquefied, so the numbers often don’t match up very well. We do export some refinery products made from some of that imported oil, but even factoring that in leaves us with a net import of 6.9 mmbd of oil energy. And those refinery products are a big part of our economy which would suffer if imports were restricted. Still, no combination of all of the above gets us around the simple fact that the US imports, says the EIA, 8.2 million barrels of crude oil every day. Period.)
Here is the link to Greer’s piece: http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2013/08/well-and-truly-fracked.html
Heinberg makes four points in the book, each of which could usefully be put on the business end of a branding iron and applied to the tender backsides of pundits and politicians alike. First, the loudly ballyhooed claims that fracking promises a new age of limitless cheap energy for Americans are pure malarkey, based on a patchwork of unjustifiable assumptions and outright fabrications that wildly overstate potential production and tacitly ignore all the downsides of a far from flawless technology. Second, in the usual fashion of today’s American economy, fracking piles up short term profits for a few by loading immense long term costs on local communities, natural systems, and future generations.
Third, a significant proportion of the hoopla over fracking is being orchestrated by those wonderful folks on Wall Street who brought you last decade’s housing bubble and bust, and the same kind of financial shenanigans that nearly capsized the global economy in 2008 and 2009 are being applied with gusto to a burgeoning bubble in shale leases and the like. Fourth, and most critically, the increasingly frantic cheerleading being devoted to the fracking industry these days is simply one more delay in the process of coming to grips with the real crisis of our time—the need to decouple as much as possible of industrial society from its current dependence on fossil fuels.
While I try to find some practical suggestions on how Community Action might respond to the issues raised in the New Reality Check, this one rather defies mitigation or any response other than the blanket; “This isn’t going to end well. Get ready.”
As NOTE 2 above suggests, we need to take some responsibility to educate ourselves on the many important issues raised in the New Reality report and blogs. Relying on mainstream media sound bites and political rhetoric just isn’t going to get us the information we really need. Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future is an important antidote to all that misinformation out there on this very important topic. For the wired, it’s a cheap download and a quick and interesting read. For the rest of us, it’s a good book available from all the usual sources.
The New Reality Quiz
First, last bi-week’s question: In the course of an average day, an average contemporary American teenager will use about 250 different words. In Shakespeare’s England, late 16th to early 17th centuries, about how many different words would an average teenager use in an average day? A) 100, B) 175, C) 450, or D) 2000? Answer: 2000. What does this surprising fact have to do with the New Reality? I am tempted to say “nothing”, but I’m not so sure. Keep it in mind for the next New Reality Check when we do a little time travelling with another friend and New Reality author, Dr. Nate Hagens.
This bi-week’s New Reality Quiz question: At this time, the total biomass of humans and their livestock outweigh wild vertebrates by a ratio of: A) 2:1, B) 10:1. C) 50:1, or D) 100:1.
Weigh that. The New Reality Check will be back on September 20th.
A Clearer Connection | August 16, 2013
One of the most important aspects of the New Reality Initiative is the understanding that over time, the fundamental issues raised in the Facing the New Reality report move from the abstract to the real; from predictions to current events. We have already seen many examples of this from economic stagnation for the 95% of the economy we all inhabit to the daily spectacle of a Congress paralyzed by an unsolvable debt dilemma. But nowhere is this more evident than in the arena of climate change, and fewer reports have made the connection between climate change and the economic and food security needs of low-income Americans more clearly than this headline from a recent New York Times article, and this bi-week’s featured Link: “With Too Much Rain in the South, Too Little Produce on the Shelves”
Day after day, the rains have come to a part of the country that relies on the hot summer sun for everything from backyard tomato sandwiches to billions of dollars in commercial row crops, fruit and peanuts.
Through June, Georgia (rainfall) was 34 percent above normal, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center. Both South Carolina and North Carolina were about 25 percent above normal. Alabama’s rainfall was up 22 percent.
The weather is a particular shock because more than two-thirds of the region was abnormally dry or suffering a drought last year.
Although the total cost to farmers has yet to be tallied, agricultural officials in several states in the Deep South predict severe losses this year that could be in the billions of dollars.
“Nobody’s ever seen it this wet this long,” said Randy Ellis, a Georgia farmer who grows wheat and watermelons, the latter of which end up at East Coast grocery stores.
Click here for the link.
For many low income workers, the agricultural economy is their livelihood, and for almost all of us, it is our primary if not sole source of food. And it’s not just in the Deep South where the impact of climate change on food supplies is evident. Much of the Midwest has also gone from drought to drowning, while in the northern tier, this year’s record cold and late spring lingered so long that many fields were never even planted at all. Just a couple of weeks ago, I took the photo above of one such field on my way to work in west central Wisconsin. It’s a pretty common sight around here this year, but something I don’t recall ever seeing before in my 63 Wisconsin summers.
Between the impact of climate change on food supplies and prices and the recent US House of Representatives passage of a farm bill that would cut all 47,635,297 low income US residents out of its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP), the New Reality is that food security in America is becoming very seriously threatened. The best protection our families and communities have from these impacts is participation in the burgeoning local foods movement. We in Community Action can do this, and many are.
Last week WISCAP, the Wisconsin CAP association, held their annual Board Retreat. During the meeting, the director of the multi-state United Migrant Opportunity Services (UMOS), one of the three special purpose organizations receiving some Wisconsin Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) funds, gave us his program update. He talked movingly about the impact the the drought in the west and excessive rainfall in the south is having on poor migrant families: no crops means no work. And for UMOS, fewer workers means fewer enrollees in their Migrant Head Start programs, which then fails to meet its grant obligations. And so it goes. He particularity stressed the problem in Missouri, which was getting up to another 10 inches of torrential rain literally as he spoke. (http://www.ydr.com/nation-world/ci_23822818/heavy-rain-causes-deadly-flash-flooding-midwest ) It was a reminder to me of how much we have relied on some norms of weather, and how deeply it undermines our security to lose faith in even such a common feature of daily life. For a poignant article on this issue, I recommend a piece titled “The Discontent of our Winter: Are Reliable Seasons Gone for Good?” by Sandra Steingraber, which appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of Orion Magazine.
The New Reality Quiz
First, last week’s question: According to one Georgetown University researcher, President Obama only mentions the poor in one quarter of his speeches and public pronouncements. What recent US President mentioned them in fully two thirds of his public communications? Answer: Ronald Reagan (So, does this mean that Ronal Reagan cared for the condition of the poor more than twice as much as Barak Obama does? I rather doubt it, but frankly, we will never know. What it does suggest to me, however, is that the audience to which these messages are crafted to appeal, primarily the middle class, cares much less about the welfare of poor families when their own economic security is threatened. And that is part of the New Reality.)
This tri-week’s quiz question:
In the course of an average day, an average contemporary American teenager will use about 250 different words. In Shakespeare’s England, late 16th to early 17th centuries, about how many different words would an average teenager use in an average day? A) 100, B) 175, C) 450, or D) 2000?
Note: I am off for a week’s vacation, then on to Chicago for the great Community Action Partnership Annual Conference, so the New Reality Check will return on September 6th.
Cancel the Apocalypse | August 2, 2013
While I didn’t originally intend to turn the New Reality Check into a Summer Short Film Festival, the summer fare has turned out to be just that. This installment is another TEDx talk, a fifteen minute presentation by Andrew Simms entitled (surprise) “Cancel the Apocalypse”. Now, I must confess that I had not heard of Mr. Simms before viewing this video, but I do expect to dig a little deeper into his work going forward. He is an author and a Fellow at the New Economics Foundation, a British think-tank founded in 1986 with the aim of working for a "new model of wealth creation, based on equality, diversity and economic stability". Andrew Simms is also a rather rare creature for these New Reality posts: He is (shudder) an optimist! So what’s he doing here? Well, he’s passed the most fundamental test for gaining access to this post; he’s also a realist, of sorts.
This talk is about his new book; Cancel the Apocalypse: the New Path to Prosperity (2013), in which he makes the case for the possibility of a very hopeful new reality, and makes it by creating a fictional country he calls Goodland. The reality part is that he bases his positive argument on remarkable and inspiring transformations that are already taking place all over the world right now in all the areas that are major themes of the New Reality Initiative.
It would be too easy, perhaps, to fall into the bright-new-green-technology-that-will-save-the-planet- and-keep-us-all-happily-motoring-along trap here, and take Andrew Simms message as; “See, everything is going to be OK.” Big mistake. There is a yawning chasm between what could happen and what will happen, and that chasm is filled with seven billion humans mostly headed in other directions. In other words, just because there may be a “Path to Prosperity” doesn’t mean that we as a global society will take it. A careful listen to Mr. Simms also reveals that taking this path requires massive changes in the way our civilization conducts itself. Still, the fact that such a path may be possible is both encouraging and helpful, and Andrew Simms is to be commended for that.
Preparing for (and to an ever greater extent, adapting to) the major challenges of the New Reality daily unfolding all around us requires many things. Things like money, planning, and concrete action. But before we get busy mobilizing any of these, we need good ideas and hope. Cancel the Apocalypse offers both, and offers them from the real world and not from the empty rhetoric of the popular narrative and political hype that imperils our progress today. Worth 15 minutes? I think so. Here is the link .
One could read the book, of course. I will. But in this deeper dig, a new facet of the official faking of prosperity emerged yesterday that makes a good contrast; setting Andrew Simms’ approach apart from the mainstream story. The topic is one we have touched on before: manipulating the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) calculation to make the economic picture look rosier than it really is. This slight of numbers even got the attention of the BBC Business report last night, and it is summed up pretty well here by Agora Financial, folks I don’t always agree with on social policy matters, but whose independent thinking I appreciate:
July 31, 2013
Around here, we consider GDP a nigh-useless metric -- for reasons we've laid out on several occasions. And as of this morning, it's even more hinky.
Every few years, the Commerce Department changes the way it calculates GDP... inevitably to make it look better. At the height of the dot-com bubble in 1999, for instance, the statisticians reclassified software purchases by businesses as "investment" (good for GDP!) and not "expenses" (very bad for GDP!).
This time, research and development costs are getting the same treatment. Even sillier, pensions are now being counted as they accrue, instead of when they're paid out. So the money a company or government agency is salting away for a 45-year-old worker is now counted basically as if it were the worker's current income. That has the effect of goosing not only GDP, but also the bogus "savings rate."
As Chris Mayer, our most trenchant critic of GDP, would say, "You can't make this stuff up."
The revisions go all the way back to 1929... but the biggest impact is on the "Great Recession" and its aftermath...
As suspect a figure as GDP is in the first place, John Williams at Shadow Government Statistics nonetheless calculates it the way the government did in the 1970s. By that reckoning, the U.S. economy has been shrinking ever since July 2000 -- except for three quarters of infinitesimal growth in 2004.
Hmm.. that would explain a few things, wouldn’t it?
The New Reality Quiz.
First, last week’s quiz question: On Sunday, June 30th, the US Weather Service recorded the highest June temperature ever on US soil. How hot was it, and where was this temperature recorded? Answer: 129 degrees F in Death Valley, California. Interestingly, this record was set 100 years to the week from when the highest temperature ever recorded on planet Earth was established. That record is 134F and was also set in Death Valley. (In fact, some experts are challenging the 134F record, which could make June’s 129F the hottest temperature ever recorded on the planet)
This Bi-week’s Quiz Question:
According to one Georgetown University researcher, President Obama only mentions the poor in one quarter of his speeches and public pronouncements. What recent US President mentioned them in fully two thirds of his public communications?
The Story of More | July 18, 2013
The New Reality Check draws on another short but very information –dense video this bi-week; a recent TEDx talk by our good friend, Richard Heinberg, entitled “The Story of More.” While some of the information in this short talk may be well known to regular readers of this blog, what elevates this piece above the dozens of competing articles and stories in my file is the remarkably skillful way in which Richard connects all the important dots in what constitutes the New Reality. He weaves together:
· economic history
· the role of fossil fuels in the development of the industrial economy
· the creation and fueling of consumerism
· population growth
· the growth of consumer debt and the finance industry
· the growth of federal spending and debt
· the growth of globalization
· limits to growth
· climate change
· the concept of a steady state economy
· renewable energy
· sustainable lifestyles
· building community
· Gross National Happiness
and manages all this in just under 14 unhurried minutes. If you can find something better to do with 14 minutes, by all means, do it! Otherwise, this is a pretty good choice.
As discussed many times in these posts, the biggest barrier to us making appropriate preparations for the real future is our collective failure to fully comprehend and come to grips with the enormity of the human predicament at this time in our history. Richard Heinberg in this video may help us make that case. Click here for the link.
Another great voice that has helped make this case for many years fell silent earlier this month when Randy Udall died on a solo backpacking trip in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming. In fact, the New Reality Check recently featured an article Randy wrote for the Christian Science Monitor in my April 13th, 2013 post entitled; “The Fatal Flaw.” Here is what I said about Mr. Udall in that piece:
- Randy Udall is the son of one of America’s greatest environmental champions, Rep. Mo Udall of Arizona. Mo’s legacy is being carried forward in the US Senate by both his son Mark, senior Senator from Colorado, and by his nephew Tom Udall, Senator from Arizona. Randy’s great career has focused on the role of energy in environmental issues, and he is co-founder of ASPO – USA, on whose board I now serve.
In his last communication with ASPO Staff member D. Ray Long, Randy tweeted; “Do what you can in the face of the hype-hurricane.” Will do, Mr. Udall. Rest in Peace.
For an extended tribute to Randy Udall, see this piece published by ASPO – USA.
The New Reality Quiz First, last bi-week’s question: Of the top 15 non-renewable resources demanded by our industrial economy, how many are showing signs of economic scarcity, and which one isn’t? Answers: 14 (duh) and Bauxite, the ore from which we extract aluminum.
This bi-week’s quiz question On Sunday, June 30th, the US Weather Service recorded the highest June temperature ever on US soil. How hot was it, and where was this temperature recorded?
Stay cool. Back on August 2nd.
The Pursuit of Laziness | July 5, 2013
Thomas Jefferson’s great prose in his July 4th,
1776, Declaration of Independence enshrined the Pursuit of Happiness as
an inalienable right of all people. This week the New Reality Check
goes to that source rock of all
wisdom and enlightenment, Wisconsin, to see how one Permaculture
live-action hero, Mark Shepard, pursues happiness through the diligent
pursuit of, well, a most virtuous form of laziness.
We join Mark on a rainy video tour of New
Forest Farm and Forest Agriculture Enterprises, a Permaculture-designed
operation in southwestern Wisconsin. (Don’t go away, urbanites, there’s
plenty here for you, too.) Mark’s signature
contribution to Permaculture (and to agriculture and to
environmentalism and the quest to feed the world) is a farm management
system he dubs STUN, which is an acronym for
Sheer, Total, Utter, Neglect. (Laziness, of course, is pretty laid back, but it should be pretty clear from this video that the
pursuit of laziness is anything but.) Before giving you the
link, I offer a couple of thoughts: In a casual viewing, this is a sort
of interesting, sort of amusing recap of a rainy farm field day.
Listen carefully, however, and you will find valuable
clues to some of the key issues facing humanity and the Earth today.
and as an added bonus…
maximizing food production per acre to feed 7 Billion Earthlings
the conservation and renewal of increasingly scarce freshwater resources
the conservation and rebuilding of rapidly depleting fertile topsoil
incredibly efficient use of solar energy for food production
restoration of healthy ecosystems for plants, animals and humans
a land ownership/business enterprise model that works for everybody involved
building designs for an energy constrained future
the correct way to understand investing in renewable energy technologies
a workable strategy to reverse global warming and save the planet, maybe
Not bad for a 23 minute video. Click here for the link.
One of the key ways to increase security and resilience for low income
families and communities is to decrease their dependence on an
increasingly strained global food production
and distribution system. The ability of Permaculture design to
maximize food production in both rural and urban environments is
remarkable. The food is better too. Much better. Future New Reality
posts will explore this in greater detail. Another possible
role for Community Action that came to mind while watching this video
is the idea of a land-based business incubator. Many Community Action
Agencies operate business incubators as part of their low-income job and
business development strategies, but most
are based on a small factory models. This is an idea that deserves
some serious thought, I think.
The obvious place to go here is to Mark Shepard’s recently revised and updated book,
Restoration Agriculture: Real World Agriculture for Farmers. At
least, that’s where I’m going. But there is an even deeper, much
deeper, reality to the Permaculture design frame; a reality alluded to
very briefly in Mark’s video with this phrase: “Biology
takes time.” Permaculture at its most basic core value is about
healing the Earth from the severe injuries inflicted on it by Industrial
Age humans. This is a massive undertaking and one which will not only
take great effort, but which must continue for
generations to ensure that the planet will, in fact, support future
generations. So as of this post, July 5th, I turn 63, and on
our small farm we will soon plant nut trees which will not fully mature
until long after I long after I have begun
pushing up wild roses. This is deeply satisfying to me; not only
because it helps me to get my head out of my, er, personal issues and
concerns, but also to participate in an entirely positive link to the
future of a small patch of ground I have come to love,
and to the humans and other critters who will be nourished by this land
farther into the future than I can even comprehend.
This week, as the nation mourns the loss of 19
brave firefighters in the record shattering heat and drought of
America’s southwest, the urgency of this healing work is painfully clear
New Reality Quiz
First, last week’s quiz question: For every BTU of energy released when
fossil fuel is burned, how many BTU’s are added to planet Earth from
the effects of the CO2 and other greenhouse
gases also released by that combustion? Answer: 20. Which
brings up an interesting point. Generally, a high EROEI (Energy Return
on Energy Invested) is a good thing. In this case, not so much. It’s
sort of an evil form of the gift that keeps on
This bi-week’s quiz question Of the
top 15 non-renewable resources demanded by our industrial economy, how
many are showing signs of economic scarcity, and which one isn’t?
Work on that. The New Reality Check is back on July 22nd.
Paradign Shift or Phlogiston | June 20, 2013
Writing about my spring “vacation” in the last New Reality Check post on June 7th, I made this observation: “I went to the Permaculture pre-conference training looking for some fresh insights on how to deal with the New Reality as it unfolds around us. This turns out to have been a good call.” This week’s post begins to explore the concept of Permaculture more fully, and begins to explore ways in which Permaculture may be very helpful as Community Action, low-income families and communities, and the rest of our society, moves ever more deeply into an increasingly challenging time.
This exploration begins with the surprisingly difficult task of defining Permaculture; a task taken up in this week’s link by long time Permaculture design instructor and practitioner Toby Hemenway on the Permaculture website “Pattern Literacy”. The piece is entitled: “What Permaculture Isn’t – and is.” After describing various manifestations of the confusion around defining the term, Hemenway concludes:
- I’m going to argue here that the most accurate and least muddled way to think of Permaculture is as a design approach, and that we are often misdirected by the fact that it fits into a larger philosophy and movement which it supports. But it is not that philosophy or movement. It is a design approach for realizing a new paradigm.
- Humans are a problem-solving species. We uncover challenges—How do we get food? How do we make shelter? How do we stay healthy?—and then we develop tools to solve those problems. Permaculture is one of those tools. For the last 10,000 years, agriculture and the civilization it built have been the way humans attacked the problems of meeting basic needs. Because we live on a planet that for millennia was large compared to the human population and its needs and impact, our species could focus on expanding and improving agriculture’s immense power to convert wild ecosystems into food and habitat for people, and we could ignore ecosystem health. But our industrial civilization of seven billion is chewing up ecosystems relentlessly. We are learning that without healthy ecosystems, humans—and everything else—suffer. So we cannot focus solely on the problem, “How do we meet human needs?” but must now add the words, “while preserving ecosystem health.”
There are two aspects to this new paradigm. The first is pretty straightforward and supported by compelling evidence from many sources noted in these New Reality posts: In the 21st Century world, “meeting human needs” is inseparable from “preserving ecosystem health”. The human impact of increasingly violent storms, prolonged and deeper droughts, depleted fresh water and other natural resources, and pollution of a thousand kinds are just a few areas where this inseparability is growing increasingly clear.
The second aspect of the new paradigm will no doubt engender the fierce resistance that makes paradigm shifts so difficult and so necessary. As Hemenway puts it:
- I don’t think it’s abusing the term to view the change in humanity’s principal goal from “meeting human needs” to “meeting human needs while preserving ecosystem health” as a paradigm shift. It changes the tools that we use, and the mindset required to develop and use new, appropriate tools. It restores a relationship between people and nature that agriculture, by treating nature like a mere resource to be subjugated and consumed, had severed. Suddenly, agriculture and industrial society look like scourges and technologies of destruction, rather than the saviors of humanity that we’ve regarded them. That’s quite a shift.
- (Note: I believe that Hemenway’s use of “agriculture” in this paragraph refers primarily to very large, industrial scale agriculture. Permaculture itself is largely about the promotion of agriculture, albeit in a non-conventional form. Even the term was originally coined as a contraction of “Permanent Agriculture” at a time when the currently more common phrase “Sustainable Agriculture” was largely unknown. I further believe that Hemenway is writing primarily for Permaculture insiders who would understand this distinction. Despite this confusion, I thought the quote worth highlighting because of the extreme importance of the fact that we need to fundamentally change our thinking about agricultural practice in the Age of Limits. – PHK)
The landscape of the New Reality is challenging to some of our most deeply held paradigms; the belief that the future will only get better and better, which John Michael Greer dubs the Religion of Progress, or the belief that economic growth can continue forever. The longer we cling to these failing paradigms, the longer we postpone finding the new tools we need to successfully adapt to the challenges ahead.
This week’s featured article goes far beyond this discussion and is well worth the read. And as a bonus, you will learn what phlogiston is. Click here for the link.
For Community Action, meeting human needs is the core of our mission. That, at a minimum, is why we fight poverty. Without meeting those basic human needs of food, water, shelter, health and security, the higher goals of supporting lives of dignity and realizing human potential are unattainable. If the Permaculture folks are correct that meeting human needs is inseparable from preserving ecosystem health, and the ongoing flux of history increasingly suggests that they are, then preserving ecosystem health must be part of our mission as well. As we will explore in future posts; Permaculture can help with that.
One interesting thing about Permaculture is that it is both cerebral – it’s about design, and physical – it’s about practice. And as it turns out, theoretician Toby Hemenway is also an accomplished practitioner and has authored a great gardening book: Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. I found one surprise connection on the back of this book. New Realty author and Partnership Annual Conference keynoter (and avid gardener), Sharon Astyk, was quoted there with these words; “Gaia’s Garden is simply the best book on Permaculture ever written, and is in the running for best gardening book ever written. No one should be without it. ” So if you want to dig a little deeper, grab this book and a hoe.
New Reality Quiz
First last week’s quiz question: The horrific tornado that smashed through Moore, Oklahoma on May 20th and took 24 lives, produced 295 MPH winds, the second highest US land wind speed ever recorded. The highest wind speed ever recorded in America was 302 MPH in a 1999 tornado which hit what US city?
Answer: Moore, Oklahoma. I have nothing but sympathy and admiration for the suffering and courage of the good citizens of Moore, OK., but to me anyway, this is a reminder that we are entering a period where human desires and decisions are losing ground to the laws of Nature. No matter how badly people want to live in certain locations, the changing climate and its effects may rule out many of those choices.
This week’s quiz question: For every BTU of energy released when fossil fuel is burned, how many BTU’s are added to planet Earth from the effects of the CO2 and other greenhouse gases also released by that combustion?
Unfortunately, even being a predictor of New Reality circumstances does not shelter one from its effects, and one prediction from my introduction to the “Facing the New Reality” report: “Dramatic cuts in government services as debt liabilities grow”, is having quite an impact on my day job as a CAP executive director. Between that and the time demands of helping to design and implement a Permaculture plan for the family farm in my “free” time, I have come to realize that cranking out a (hopefully) quality Weekly New Reality Check every week is a bit much. So, for the summer and fall anyway, the Weekly New Reality Check becomes simply the New Reality Check on a bi-weekly schedule. When the firewood is all stacked and the harvest is done in the fall…..well, we’ll see.
The Age of Limits | June 7, 2013
Admittedly, it may not be everyone’s idea of a vacation, but being overly normal has not been my primary problem over the years. I took vacation the last half of May to attend two back-to-back events at a rustic and highly unusual religious retreat center in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains. The first event was a five-day intensive training in basic Permaculture called Sustainable Life Skills, the second, a return to an event I attended and reported on last year; a serious and unflinching look at our growing human and environmental predicament called The Age of Limits Conference.
I went to the Permaculture pre-conference training looking for some fresh insights on how to deal with the New Reality as it unfolds around us. This turns out to have been a good call. As a reader of this blog, you are likely familiar with the central New Reality themes of resource depletion, environmental degradation, and economic turmoil as they impact on low income families and communities. This description of Permaculture from the US Permaculture Institute web site suggests why I went here looking for clues:
- “Permaculture is an ecological design system for sustainability in all aspects of human endeavor. It teaches us how build natural homes, grow our own food, restore diminished landscapes and ecosystems, catch rainwater, build communities and much more.”
The Permaculture intensive I attended provided an overwhelming amount of information which I am still mulling over and working through in order to make some meaningful connections to the work of Community Action. Expect to see more of this in the weeks to come.
The main event was the Age of Limits Conference itself, with its name based on the famous 1972 Club of Rome Study Limits to Growth which predicted many of the factors now severely challenging economies and societies around the globe. The basic premise of the conference is that we are hitting those limits now and must figure out how to adapt to this New Reality.
One limit that made itself very apparent at this event is this: We have clearly exceeded the limit of the atmosphere’s ability to absorb CO2 and other pollution without triggering major climate disruptions. Last year’s Age of Limits Conference was held the same weekend at the same place as this year’s. Temperatures then were in the mid-90’s following a snowless winter and the earliest, hottest spring on record. This year it got down to near freezing at night as the coldest, latest spring in living memory hit the Alleghenies. And of course, the conference opened just two days after the Moore, Oklahoma tornado, which recorded the second highest wind speeds ever clocked on American soil (to be followed on May 31st by the El Reno, OK tornado which was the widest tornado ever measured in the world). So the urgency of what is often now called Climate Chaos was certainly not lost on this crowd. When Guy McPherson, conservation biologist and professor emeritus of natural resources and the environment at the University of Arizona, presented the worst-case climate change scenario (trust me, you don’t want to know), he at least had the audience’s full attention.
Other presentations on the economy, the depletion of energy and other resources, and some very interesting research Dmitry Orlov has done on enduring, resilient communities, should provide grist for this mill for several weeks to come.
In my experience and to the best of my knowledge, the Age of Limits is the most honest and courageous public discourse on the most pressing issues of our times, and for our species anyway, perhaps of all time. It was both sobering and invigorating to be in a community, however temporary, where reality was the norm and the endless blaring illusions of the popular culture were largely absent.
The graph at the top of this piece is from the Limits to Growth report issued over 40 years ago. Roundly discredited by the “endless growth” economists in vogue these days, the reality actually unfolding is proving the Limits to Growth projections to be remarkably accurate. Note what happens to the orange “Services per Capita” line projections for, oh, about now, and square this with the actual austerity programs wrecking havoc in southern Europe, and Federal human service program budget cuts here at home. The future of Community Action is riding on this curve and if we want to reverse its trajectory, something is going to have to change.
If last year is any guide, presenters at the Age of Limits will post their presentations and/or blog about the conference in upcoming posts. I will keep an eye out for these and pass them along in the Weekly New Reality Check if they are especially relevant to the mission of this blog. For now, a good place to do some interesting digging would be in the very fertile soil of Permaculture. Here is the link to the US Permaculture Institute.
Here’s the link to the main Permaculture Research Institute in Australia’s enews.
New Reality Quiz of the Week
First, last week’s quiz question: There is a fair amount of buzz these days about taking America’s (temporarily) abundant natural gas, liquefying it by cooling it to minus 260F, and selling it abroad where it can fetch much higher prices. This would result, of course, in higher prices for our low income families for natural gas heating, cooking, and electricity, but that’s OK, I guess, because the gas companies would make more profits which would, of course, trickle down to the poor as they always do, right? But beyond that, what percentage of the total energy in that natural gas would be consumed just in the process of liquefying it? A) 2%, B) 8%, C) 19% or D) 25%? Answer: 25% So, in an age of increasing energy demand and decreasing global supply, does it really make sense to literally burn 25% of this climate-damaging fossil fuel just to help some rich energy companies get richer? This is, of course, a rhetorical question, not this week’s quiz question which is:
This week’s quiz question:
The horrific tornado that smashed through Moore, Oklahoma on May 20th and took 24 lives, produced 295 MPH winds, the second highest US land wind speed ever recorded. The highest wind speed ever recorded in America was 302 MPH in a 1999 tornado which hit what US city?
Getting Religion, Part 3: The Religion of Progress | May 17, 2013
A couple of week ago I was helping my daughter Ingrid bone up for a Civics quiz and one question on her study sheet was; “What is religion?” The study sheet said something along the lines of; “A shared belief in a supernatural being or beings…” and so on, but I disagreed that being a religion requires belief in a supernatural deity, as does the author of this week’s post, John Michael Greer. On more than one occasion as I have given presentations on New Reality issues and revealed my lack of faith in either Progress or the belief that Technology Will Save Us, I have provoked a response that is best characterized in one word: “Blasphemy!” It’s one thing to have a civil disagreement about some facts or the conclusions to be drawn from some particular data set; it’s quite another to seen as attacking the very foundations somebody’s deeply held religious beliefs.
I have childhood memories of my Lutheran minister father referring to “Man” as “the religious animal.” Recent research in Social Psychology strongly supports this view. (See the book recommendation a couple of weeks ago for Jonathon Haidt’s The Righteous Mind.) In his current series of posts, John Michael Greer makes the case that our species’ tendency toward religious beliefs and behaviors is not limited to theistic religions, but also extends to what he calls “civic religions” like Communism, Americanism and the Religion of Progress.
In his words:
- “[R]eligion” isn’t a specific thing with a specific definition; rather, it’s a label for a category constructed by human minds—an abstraction, in other words, meant to help sort out the blooming, buzzing confusion of the cosmos into patterns that make some kind of sense to us.
- To say that Americanism, Communism, and faith in progress are religions, after all, is simply a way of focusing attention on similarities that these three things share with the other things we put in the same category. It doesn’t deny that there are also differences, just as there are differences between one theist religion and another, or one civil religion and another. Yet the similarities are worth discussing: like theist religions, for example, the civil religions I’ve named each embody a set of emotionally appealing narratives that claim to reveal enduring meaning in the chaos of everyday existence, assign believers a privileged status vis-a-vis the rest of humanity, and teach the faithful to see themselves as participants in the grand process by which transcendent values become manifest in the world.
Greer takes this analysis a little deeper and notes the high degree of similarity in the narratives of the theist religion, Christianity, and the civil religion of Communism:
- Primitive communism is Eden; the invention of private property is the Fall; the stages of society thereafter are the different dispensations of sacred history; Marx is Jesus, the First International his apostles and disciples, the international Communist movement the Church, proletarian revolution the Second Coming, socialism the Millennium, and communism the New Jerusalem which descends from heaven in the last two chapters of the Book of Revelations.
- The devout Communist, in turn, participates in that sweeping vision of past, present and future in exactly the same way that the devout Christian participates in the sacred history of Christianity. To be a Communist of the old school is not simply to accept a certain set of economic theories or predictions about the future development of industrial society; it’s to enlist on the winning side in the struggle that will bring about the fulfillment of human history, and to belong to a secular church with its own saints, martyrs, holy days, and passionate theological disputes.
These brief quotes offer only a taste of Greer’s fascinating argument. For a much fuller picture and a deeper exploration of his concept of “civil religion”, here’s the link.
The main connection here follows a quote I’ve shared before; “The first step in attaining wisdom is knowing what you’re up against.” It has been a deeply frustrating experience for many in the “Peak Oil – Climate Change – Economic Turmoil” camp who have been trying for years to alert our communities to the potentially catastrophic effects of these trends; especially as unfolding history continues to relentlessly validate most of our predictions. Our data is very good, and with no exceptions I can think of, the primary motivations of folks like the New Reality authors your read here and the non-profits working on these issues, is to help millions of people avoid unnecessary hardship and suffering. And yet, our message has been largely passed over in favor of unsubstantiated and physically impossible predictions of perpetual prosperity and abundance. It is from this experience that more of us are looking into the nature of the human mind and how it processes information, in order to figure out how to frame these issues to better effect. Once you realize that you are often up against deeply held religious beliefs, which always trump mere empirical facts, at least this challenge comes into clearer focus.
As noted earlier, John Michael Greer is in the middle of a series of posts on religion as it relates to what I have called New Reality issues. They have all been great, but an especially good follow-up to “The Religion of Progress” is his post of a couple of weeks ago, “The Shape of Time.” Here is the link.
The New Reality Quiz of the Week
First, last week’s quiz question: Climate Change is having a huge impact on the Black Hills National Forest. What is the nature of this impact? Answer: To date, the Mountain Pine Beetle has infected and devastated 450,000 of the 1.2 million acres of the Black Hills National Forest by killing untold millions of Ponderosa Pines; beautiful stands whose deep green needles give the Black Hills their name. Two climate change effects are at work here: First, years of prolonged drought have weakened the Ponderosa’s natural resistance to pine beetle infestation. Second, a there has been a steep reduction in the annual deep cold, sub-zero winter spells which used to kill off most of the beetle population and keep the balance. Here is the result.
This week’s quiz question: There is a fair amount of buzz these days about taking America’s (temporarily) abundant natural gas, liquefying it by cooling it to minus 260F, and selling it abroad where it can fetch much higher prices. This would result, of course, in higher prices for our low income families for natural gas heating, cooking, and electricity, but that’s OK, I guess, because the gas companies would make more profits which would, of course, trickle down to the poor as they always do, right? But beyond that, what percentage of the total energy in that natural gas would be consumed just in the process of liquefying it? A) 2%, B) 8%, C) 19% or D) 25%?
Off to see the Wizard, again. The Weekly New Reality Check will be AWOL for the next two weeks while I take some vacation days and head back to a religious retreat center in Pennsylvania for a five day Sustainable Life Skills training based on Permaculture principals and practices, and three days of The Age of Limits Confrence with some noted New Reality authors like Dimity Orlov and the Green Wizard himself, John Michael Greer. I hope to come back with more practical and useful ideas on how we may all better adapt to the New Reality unfolding all around us. This post returns on June 7, 2013.
Getting Religion, Part 2: Kurt Cobb’s Cat | May 12, 2013
In contrast to Larry Rasmussen’s serious challenge to his fellow Christians in last week’s post, Kurt Cobb takes a somewhat more lighthearted, though insightful, look in this post at “religion.” He draws on what appears to be a religious belief of his cat as a way to understand part of the challenge of getting people to mobilize around the New Reality and to get down to the serious work of addressing its imperatives. Regular readers of this post will recognize Kurt Cobb as a frequent contributor. He shows up often here because he is consistently one of the more thoughtful and articulate voices of reason and common sense across the whole spectrum of inter-related trends that drive the New Reality Initiative.
Kurt basically uses “religious beliefs” in this short piece as a metaphor for a belief that does not need, and often does not heed, scientific evidence. In Christianity, such blind faith may be a virtue (Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed. John 20:29). As Cobb observes:
- Some ideas find their basis in fact, while others fall under the category of faith. As it turns out, those that are faith-based are the most difficult to overturn. I rarely try. But, then there is the vast sea of ideas parading as fact, when really, they are nothing but ideology based on ideas that are empirically false or at least suspect.
And this is where it gets tricky; when ideology takes on the qualities of, or substitutes for, religion; and becomes subject to the same priority ranking of faith over reason and science.
- Such is the ideology of the fossil fuel optimists who tell us that the marketplace will bring forth whatever fossil fuel supplies we need when we need them at prices we like. Some, but not all, tell us that fossil fuel supplies have no practical limits because it is our imagination that brings them out of the ground. Statements like that are part and parcel of the kind of magical thinking that infects the public discussion about the future of energy…
- The fossil fuel optimists in the world tend to be economists, not geologists (who generally take an empirical rather than religious approach to matters). Those economists simply know that they know that the marketplace is a superior force—even a god-like one—to which we should exclusively entrust our energy future.
The premise of the book recommended in last week’s “Digging Deeper” section, The Righteous Mind, is that we humans are genetically hardwired to be religious, and sometimes the religious and empirical realms get a little mixed up. Kurt’s insights may help us decide where and with whom to make the scientific case, and perhaps where and with whom to make the religious case, as Dr. Rasmussen laid out for Christianity in last week’s post.
Here is what Kurt has to say about himself and his approach to these New Reality issues: “I style myself as an energy realist with an emphasis on risk management. No one can know the future. That's why it is important to use our imagination to picture outcomes that might hurt us badly and to suggest measures to prevent or mitigate those outcomes.” And that is exactly what the New Reality initiative is trying to accomplish for Community Action and our low-income families – a little prudent risk management in the face of some compelling evidence that the emerging trends of resource depletion, environmental degradation, and economic turmoil may cause severe and long-term harm, especially to poor Americans. Kurt Cobb’s piece is titled “Scientific viewpoint or ‘religious’ belief: My Cat Explains Energy Optimism.” Click here for the link.
Next week the Weekly New Reality Check will take one of a number or recent posts by John Michael Greer to wrap up this little series on religion. His post of March 27, 2013, “The Sound of the Gravediggers”, begins his series on religion, and is a good place to start getting a handle on Greer’s view of the connection between religion and the New Reality. Click here for the link.
The New Reality Quiz of the Week
First, last week’s quiz question: What is the highest mountain range between the Rockies and the Alps? While not intended to be a trick question, several folks noted accurately that it depends a great deal on which way you go around the world. The answer I was looking for assumed that you would take the short route going east from the Rockies, in which case the answer was thought to be – The Black Hills of South Dakota whose highest point, Harney Peak, is at 7,242 feet. Well, as it turns out, there is another problem with last week’s quiz. The anecdotal and widely believed information on which I based the quiz turns out to be only true if you fly in a very limited straight line over the upper Midwest.
There are, in fact, seven points between the Rockies and the Alps that are higher than Harney Peak, even if you go the right direction, and the technically correct answer is the Watkins Mountains in Greenland with a peak called Gunnbjornsfjeld at 12,139 feet – also the highest point north of the Arctic Circle. So, no winners this week, self included. And yet, this whole little exercise is a great example of why reality checks are a good idea. As Mark Twain once noted: (I checked!) “It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”
This week’s quiz question: Climate Change is having a huge impact on the Black Hills National Forest. What is the nature of this impact?
Getting Religion, Part 1: An Earth-Honoring Faith | May 3, 2013
Climate change gained some converts in central Wisconsin this week as another foot of wet, heavy snow capped the foot of snow still in our woods; snow not yet melted since December, and damaged millions of the beautiful trees which grace this part of the country. The white pines native to this region have been especially hard hit, with piles of broken green boughs now littering the ground at their feet. (A friend quipped on this, another snowy morning, that by her reckoning today is the 82nd of February.) While this blizzard was doing its worst in my home region, I was in our state capital, Madison, for our state association annual meeting. In Madison it was 87 degrees. As Minnesota native Bob Dylan penned a few decades ago, “You don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows.” Climate change is here, and it’s not just the tree huggers who need to be concerned. With the farmers around here already at least a month behind and facing a shorter growing season and other climate change challenges across the country, people who eat also have a big stake in this issue. So this week’s New Reality post, written before this storm, is timely.
Except for the occasional reference to some rosy prognosticator’s “faith-based” energy predictions, the Weekly New Reality Check has pretty much avoided the topic of religion. Community Action is, after all, secular in nature and unaffiliated with any particular religious faith. Still, religion has been on my mind a good deal lately for several reasons. Here are two of them: 1) I am preparing to spend a few days next week in a remote log cabin in South Dakota with two Lutheran ministers. (And you thought you were planning a wild and crazy vacation!) And 2) A few noteworthy pieces on the important links between religion and New Reality issues have recently appeared; articles which not only serve to illuminate our understanding of America’s current predicament, but also provide some guidance on how we may widen the circle of folks who are working to make the best of our emerging challenges.
This week’s featured link was sent to me by one of the Lutheran ministers noted above. The author, Larry Rasmussen, Th. D, is a distinguished Lutheran theologian from Minnesota who went on to become the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor (now Emeritus) of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He gets both the seriousness of our environmental crisis and how this and energy resource depletion will impact the poor. In this piece entitled “An Earth-Honoring Faith,” Rasmussen challenges fellow Christians with some very hard questions:
- What kind of Christian faith and ethic is committed to justice and honoring the Earth, with a moral universe encompassing the whole community of life? What kind understands justice as the never-ending project to reach across the whole community of life in order to set wrongs right and establish the conditions for all nature’s well-being, ours included?............
- Who is being taxed for the ecological debt already owed future generations and the poor? Who is paying interest on all we’ve borrowed against our children’s future? Why hasn’t a faith that knows from its own scriptures about blessings and burdens redounding unto the third and fourth generations (Deuteronomy 5:9-10) picked up on this?
- Ignorance cannot be the reason. After all, the science is clear: We are wreaking havoc on innumerable lives and their home habitats in a planetary creation that is seamless. Why is this not declared a mortal sin, at least by those who profess love of life as the gift of God for which we have that tilling-and-keeping responsibility?................
- Maybe the moral void in Christian faith and ethics rests in a curious omission that stretches back much farther than the industrial era. Why doesn’t our elaborate understanding of human nature include species pride as sin?
And some pretty hard answers:
- The reason for extinctions and species holocaust is hardly shrouded in mystery. Species disappear because of encroaching human habitat and the toxic consequences of life lived as industry—“The power industry, the defense industry, the communications industry,” as Wendell Berry puts it, “the transportation industry, the agriculture industry, the food industry, the health industry ... the entertainment industry, the mining industry, the education industry, the law industry, the government industry, and the religion industry,” and I’d add even the hospitality and the cancer industry.
- So why don’t we stop?
- Maybe because we still cling to the illusions of a way of life made possible by compact, stored energy in the form of abundant fossil fuel………………
- Yet somehow we still imagine that we can have infinite growth on a finite planet. Even the notion of limits offends our way of life and its values. The biblical notion that just enough is enough, rather than either poverty or riches, doesn’t register with us (see Proverbs 30:8-9)…………………
- To remember this means living by a different faith and ethic. It will be an Earth-honoring faith and ethic, asking all those questions with which we began. What kind of Christian faith offers renewable moral and spiritual energy for living our “tilling-and-keeping” responsibility (Genesis 2:15)? What kind understands that justice is not just us, but rather the never-ending project to reach across the whole community of life in order to set wrongs right and establish the conditions for all nature’s well-being, ours included? This needed restructuring will center God and the primal elements of God’s creation—earth, air, fire, water, light. It will, in a word, reframe our lives at a time when both beauty and necessity ask that of us.
This is just a taste. Click here is the whole of this excellent piece.
While Community Action is secular, most if not all our agencies are very connected to the faith communities and faith-based organizations in our service areas. We often share a common mission to the poor and cooperate in day-to-day service delivery. Few, in fact, would dispute the claim that Christian teaching is the primary source of the compassion and social justice values that gave rise to Community Action in the first place. Now, as we move deeper into the New Reality and the struggle to ignore its ramifications grows more difficult, we need to reach out to these religious groups to enlist their support in what will be ever more challenging and painful real-life tests of faith, ethics and morality. Framing these issues within the theology of Christianity, by far the dominant religion in America, will become increasingly important.
Part of the preparation for my upcoming retreat (besides packing up the poker chips and some great Wisconsin micro brew – I mean c’mon; man does not live by bread alone..) is some mutually assigned reading, including the book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. Dr. Haidt is not a theologian, or for that matter even a believer; he is a social psychology professor and researcher at the University of Virginia. This is a fascinating book, a well-written best-seller described by the New York Times Book Review as “a landmark contribution to humanity’s understanding of itself.” Amongst other things, it makes a compelling case for why, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, most folks find the issues raised in the New Reality Initiative so hard to accept and address. Very helpful for those who are trying to raise awareness around these important issues. Highly recommended.
The New Reality Quiz of the Week
First, last week’s question: In the middle of the last decade, the miracle oil extraction technology of fracking began to be dramatically expanded, and is now the basis for all the hype about America becoming the next Saudi Arabia, etc. So, since 2004, oil production by the world five biggest oil companies (Exxon Mobil, Shell, British Petroleum, Total and Chevron) has: A) increased by 18% B) increased by 4% C) decreased by 11%, or D) decreased by 26%?
Answer? D) decreased by 26%. The Source? The oil companies own annual reports. We’ll circle back to what this means down the road a bit. Here it is for graph lovers:
This week’s quiz question: What is the highest mountain range between the Rockies and the Alps?
"C" Words | April 26, 2013
This week the Weekly New Reality Check returns from a month of attempting to dispel some of the misleading happy talk out there about our energy abundant and prosperous future, and gets back to the preparations and adaptations required of the New Reality. Our good friend, New Reality author and Partnership Conference Keynoter, Richard Heinberg, turns out to be just the guy to bridge us back to the real world. In this week’s featured link, Richard touches on two “C” words, one rarely mentioned by the Energy Abundance crowd (Conservation) and one that is akin to blasphemy to the chorus of Perpetual Economic Growth cheerleaders (Contraction.) The title of this essay sets the stage: “There's Only One Real Option for Averting Economic and Ecological Ruin -- So Why Aren't We Talking About It?” That option is less consumption (Conservation) which means a smaller economy (Contraction).
The first half of this well-reasoned narrative lays out the basic, common-sense reasons why banking on a future of resource abundance and economic growth is a very risky proposition. A taste:
- “….it doesn’t matter which path we choose: With human population numbers growing and energy constraints looming, we will have less energy to burn per capita in the future. Plot any scenario between the low-carbon and high-carbon extremes and that conclusion still holds, which means less energy for transport, for agriculture, and for heating and cooling homes. Less energy for making and using electronic gadgets. Less energy for building and maintaining cities.” “Now the discussion must center on how to contract. So far, that discussion is radioactive—no one wants to touch it. It’s hard to imagine a more suicidal strategy for a politician than to base his or her election campaign on the promise of economic contraction. Denial runs deep, but sooner or later reality will expose the delusion that endless growth is possible on a finite planet.”
Mr. Heinberg then lays out some broad areas where we need to focus our efforts in order to make the inevitable transition as painless as possible:
- Much of the current public discussion about our energy future tends to turn on the question of which alternative energy sources to pursue and how to scale them up. But it is even more important to broadly reconsider how we use energy. We must strategize to meet basic human needs while using much less energy in all forms. Since this will require major societal effort sustained over decades, it is important to start implementation of conservation strategies well before actual energy shortages appear. (Emphasis mine as this is a core premise of the New Reality Initiative – PHK)
The second half of the article gives some over-arching objectives for various aspects of our civil life, from food production and transportation to urban design. And in the conclusion, Richard offers an important reminder that, with some proper planning, Conservation and Contraction don’t necessarily have to give way to another truly scary “C” word – Collapse. In fact, there are some real benefits to the Conservation/Contraction path:
- The shift to a conserver society could hold benefits for people as well as for nature. As we begin to measure success not by the amount of our consumption, but by the quality of our culture, the beauty of the built environment, and the health of ecosystems, we could end up being significantly happier than we are today, even as we leave a far smaller footprint upon our finite planet. But those benefits will be delayed and diluted for as long as we deny the conservation imperative.
An excellent essay. Click here for the link.
Community Action and low-income households are no strangers to conservation. We practice it every day in Weatherization programs, budget counseling and low-income life skills education. Our low income families practice conservation from absolute necessity; a reality destined to spread to ever wider segments of our society. Here again, Community Action may be well positioned to exercise some leadership in these matters for the benefit of the whole society.
The very concept of Economic Contraction is an anathema to mainstream economics, but some very thoughtful folks are getting serious about challenging this prevailing “wisdom”. I recently read an analysis which concluded that, if you exclude the growth in GDP that accrued to just the top 1% of American earners, the result would actually be negative growth in the America economy since 2008. If this analysis is correct, and I suspect it is (though I need to do some additional verification), 99% of Americans are already living in a contracting economy. And while it hasn’t exactly been pretty, it hasn’t released the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse either. Future posts will delve into steady-state economics and other alternatives to the Too Big Not To Fail path we are on now.
The New Reality Quiz of the Week
First, a correction. Proving once again that there is tremendous value in a liberal arts degree with a minor in geography, a reader noticed an error in last week’s quiz response. Saudi Arabia, it turns out, is not in Africa. It’s in Asia. Too bad too, because “Which Asian Absolute Monarchy ….” would have been a better question. Now, on to the last week’s quiz question: With Daniel Yergin’s sad and very public record of failed predictions, why is he still the person the media always goes to for oil and energy predictions? Answer: Beats me, but here he is, predicting away again today in the New York Times.
This week’s quiz question
In the middle of the last decade, the miracle oil extraction technology of fracking began to be dramatically expanded, and is now the basis for all the hype about America becoming the next Saudi Arabia, etc. So, since 2004, oil production by the world five biggest oil companies (Exxon Mobil, Shell, British Petroleum, Total and Chevron) has: A) increased by 18% B) increased by 4% C) decreased by 11%, or D) decreased by 26%?
The Yergin | April 19, 2013
In a couple of previous posts that contained references to Daniel Yergin, I noted that I would deal with him in a later post. That time has arrived.
Perhaps no individual in America is a more prominent evangelist for the Don’t Worry – Be Happy religion of Future US Energy Abundance and Prosperity than Dr. Daniel Yergin. (I call it a religion for several reasons, but mostly because it appears to be more faith-based than fact-based). By all accounts, Daniel Yergin is an impressive guy. A former Harvard professor, he’s highly credentialed, articulate, credible, pleasant, reasonable, authoritative, confident and, well, highly believable. Yergin is the founder and chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA) and the author of The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power (for which Yergin won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992) and The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, in 2011 (801 pages and drafted in longhand, no less). He is everywhere on the TV, press, and conference circuit when energy issues are the topic at hand.
So it’s perfectly understandable that Daniel Yergin is the go-to guy when you want to do a story on the future of energy in America, like the CNBC “Power Shift” story featured in this blog on March 29th. There only one problem: While Yergin may be a very good historian, his record as a predictor of energy trends is flat-out lousy. So lousy in fact, that in 2008, the folks at ASPO – USA (The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas – USA), a non-profit national organization made up mostly of petroleum geologists, academics, practitioners and investors, very publically bet $100,000 that Daniel Yergin and CERA’s predictions of worldwide oil production by 2017 would prove false. Seriously. Here is the text from a Wall Street Journal article about the wager:
- If CERA proves correct in its prediction that global oil production will rise by 20 million barrels per day by 2017, then the challengers, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas, will hand CERA a check for $100,000 nine years hence. If oil production falls short of CERA’s projection, as the group known as ASPO projects, ASPO will get the bragging rights and the check – and donate the money to charity.
And here is the whole WSJ article .
Neither Yergin nor anyone else from CERA responded in any way, nor have they ever accepted repeated invitations to debate with the experts at any ASPO – USA annual conference. Turns out it was a pretty safe bet on ASPO’s part. Worldwide oil production in 2008 was 72,152,000 bbl/day. In 2011, it was 72,889,000 bbl/day. No miracle in sight gets that up to 92 million bbl/day by 2017.
As you can imagine, this constant dismissing of ASPO’s work and important message by such a persistent and outwardly credible source is vexing to the organization. This did not, however, keep the Peak Oil folks from having a little fun with Yergin’s predictions. Here are some favorites:
-- In November of 2004, oil was trading at over $50 a barrel. While the Peak Oil folks predicted that the price would keep rising, Dr. Yergin predicted that the price of oil would go down to $38/bbl, and stay there. In fact, the price of oil went up and up until it peaked in 2008 at $147/bbl before (and I would argue causally related to) the Great Recession. During the price ramp up, some Peak Oil folks started using “The Yergin” as a unit of cost equaling $38, as in “Oil is trading at 3.2 Yergins today.”
-- Now, as Dr. Yergin and the Energy Cornucopians are out in full force once again touting the wonders of fracking and other technological marvels, this exchange recently appeared:
Person A: How many Yergins to the dollar?
Person B: How many Yergins does it require to change a light bulb?
Person A: It’s the same answer to both. However many you need! It’s brilliant! No more shortages of anything!
-- And finally: Your Every Requirement Given In No-time-at-all. All hail the magic Yergin.
OK, enough fun. This is, in fact, serious business as the fate of industrial society is at stake here. This week’s link is a serious critique of Daniel Yergin’s view of future energy abundance; a report by Daniel Davis entitled: “Evidence, Logic and Performance: Energy Independence Unsubstantiated; a Shortfall Between Energy Supply and Demand Looms.” (OK, so the title does not exactly trip lightly off the tongue. It’s a very good report.) So, who is Danny Davis and why should we believe him? Well, there’s a clue in this paragraph. See if you can find it.
- Daniel L. Davis is a field grade officer in the United States Army, having served four combat deployments (Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Afghanistan twice). He has a master’s degree in International Relations from Troy University. He has been writing on oil and energy issues in major national publications since 2007, but has been writing on foreign, diplomatic, and military affairs for over two decades. His work has been published in the Washington Times, Armed Forces Journal, Dallas Morning News, Defense News, Philadelphia Inquirer, Army Times and other publications. He has appeared on CNN, Fox News, PBS News Hour, NPR, Democracy Now, and other broadcasting organizations on defense-related subjects. Davis is also an advisory board member for the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, United States (ASPO-USA) and was awarded the Ridenhour Prize for Truth Telling in 2012.
And the Ridenhour Prize for Truth Telling? This may surprise you. Click here.
The Davis report is a 43-page, well written and convincingly documented critique of three major recent sources of the US Energy Abundance Message. Written by a person to for whom telling the truth is, shall we say, of uncommon importance. Click here for the link.
This will be the last post for awhile that seeks to pop the Don’t Worry – Be Happy bubble when it comes to America’s energy and economic future. Next week we will be getting back to how it is that we can best adapt to the real future; the one best supported by the most credible evidence.
If you really want to more deeply understand and evaluate the many claims of energy abundance ahead, the Post Carbon Institute has recently published a tour de force on the topic authored by J. David Hughes, who worked for 32 years as a geoscientist with the Geological Survey of Canada. It’s called “Drill, Baby, Drill: Can Unconventional Fuels Usher In a New Era of Energy Abundance?” Real busy? The answer is “no”. Got a little more time? Click here for the executive summary . Actually want to know what you’re talking about? Click here for the full 178 page report.
The New Reality Quiz of the Week: First, last week’s quiz question: What African non-democratic absolute monarchy owns half of the largest oil refinery in America? Answer: (surprise, surprise) Saudi Arabia. This from the New York Times article where I picked up this little tidbit: “The giant Motiva oil refinery, which just completed a $10 billion expansion that makes it the largest processor of gasoline, diesel and other petroleum products in the United States, is owned by Saudi Aramco and Royal Dutch Shell in a 50-50 partnership.” So, about that energy independence thing, who do you suppose gets the products of this refinery?
This week’s quiz question: With Daniel Yergins sad and very public record of failed predictions (his oil price prediction failures 2002 – 2007 are conveniently graphed below), why is he still the person the media always goes to for oil and energy predictions?
The Fatal Flaw | April 12, 2013
This morning as Missouri and Arkansas survey the damage from another powerful storm, Wisconsin’s endless winter adds another couple of inches of snow to the foot still left on the ground at our farm. It’s startling to remember that by this time last year, we had experienced temperatures on the 80s for over a month, everything was green and growing, and some of the early wildflowers in our woods had already peaked for the season. So with climate change in the air and on my mind, the Weekly New Reality Check turns to Randy Udall, son of one of America’s greatest environmental champions, Rep. Mo Udall of Arizona. Mo’s legacy is being carried forward in the US Senate by both his son Mark, senior Senator from Colorado, and by his nephew Tom Udall, Senator from Arizona. Randy’s great career has focused on the role of energy in environmental issues, and he is co-founder of ASPO – USA, on whose board I now serve.
Randy Udall recently wrote a guest column in the Christian Science Monitor which is right on point for this series of posts debunking the ubiquitous claims that the newly ramped up oil and gas technology of fracking has solved America’s energy crisis - putting us on the road to energy independence and economic prosperity once again.
Udall is more than willing to give the oil and gas industry it’s due for amazing technological achievement in extracting hard-to-get oil and gas:
- The tight oil fields we’ve developed since 2003 would make America the world’s 14th largest oil producer, ahead of Norway. The shale gas we’ve brought to market would make America the world’s second largest gas producer, after Russia. Together, the tight oil and shale gas would make the United States the third largest petroleum power on the planet, behind Saudi Arabia and Russia, but ahead of Iran and Canada
- This is a marvel, a stunning tour de force, and it’s not surprising that the mainstream media has touted it so heavily. Consider, as just one of many examples, The New Yorker magazine’s 2011 article, “Kuwait on the Prairie ,” extolling the Bakken boom.
Yet there’s a problem. A big problem.
- But when you look more closely, comparing North Dakota with Kuwait is ludicrous. Kuwait claims about 100 billion barrels of reserves; North Dakota may have 10 billion, if that. An average Kuwaiti well produces 1,600 barrels a day, 10 times the output of a typical Dakota well. Kuwait has produced 2 million barrels a day for decades, and will do so for decades to come. North Dakota will be lucky to hit 1 million barrels a day by 2017, before its production tapers off.
- Why would production fall in North Dakota? Is something rotten in Bismarck? For that matter, why would a new well in North Dakota produce so much less than an old one in Kuwait?
- Herein lies what most talking heads have missed: Having exhausted most of our best petroleum reservoirs, we’ve moved to much worse ones. Thanks to Yankee ingenuity we’ll drill more than 15,000 shale wells this year. That’s the good news. The bad news is that shale formations are tighter than tombstones, and as a result all these wells have an abbreviated lifetime.
This brief paragraph sums it all up beautifully…
So, yes, celebrate the shale miracle, but forswear the hype. If geology is destiny, decline rates are its script. The American future isn’t a romance with abundance; it’s a plea bargain with depletion.
There is much more great information in this article than I’ve summarized here. An important read. Click here for the link.
For this series of posts, the connection is pretty much the same; we plan for the future we believe will come to pass. As the best evidence makes clear, if we plan only for a future of abundance and prosperity, our plans will most likely fail, and our agencies and low income communities will pay a great price for that failure.
For the graphically inclined, here is the story in chart form:
Note the production graph for individual conventional (non-fracked) oil wells in the graph above; a ramp up of production, flat production for a number of years, then decline as the pool is sucked dry. This alarming depletion picture is the basis for the Peak Oil model that existed before fracking became common. Now compare that with the graph below of a typical fracked oil well in the Bakken field in North Dakota, and Randy Udall’s point on depletion becomes pretty clear. Depletion rates in fracked wells are about 10X those in conventional wells, and this “fatal flaw” will, probably within the next five years, pop the fracking bubble for good.
The New Reality Quiz of the Week: First, last week’s quiz question: Developing and drilling and fracking and bringing new oil wells on line in North Dakota’s Bakken Field costs about $8 million per well. How many new wells have to be drilled in North Dakota each month just to keep production levels from declining? Answer? 90, or roughly ¾ of a $Billion each month in new well development alone just to keep ahead of the depletion curve. Sound sustainable to you?
This Week’s Quiz Question: There are several huge problems with the notion of American Energy Independence. This week’s quiz hints at one of them. What African non-democratic absolute monarchy owns half of the largest oil refinery in America?
The Source | April 4, 2013
The process of de-mythifying the Don’t Worry – Be Happy energy prognostications promised for this week got off to a bit of an unexpected but welcomed start.
While putting the finishing touches on last week’s post, I had a technical question about a claim in the CNBC “Power Shift” piece that I had not seen before. It concerned the amount and recoverability of tight oil from shale formations near tapped out old conventional oil wells in Texas. Wanting to get things right and being a CAP director and not a petroleum geologist, I fired my little query off to an expert forum of ASPO – USA folks; Board and Advisory Council members and other interested parties, hoping for a little clarification. A few minutes later, I heard the friendly “ping” and found, much to my surprise and delight, a response from Collin Campbell. So who is Collin Campbell, you ask? Well, Collin J. Campbell is a retired petroleum geologist who had done high level work with Texaco and Amoco, and who, along with Jean Laherrere, the also-retired chief petroleum geologist of the French petroleum giant, Total, authored an article in Scientific America in March of 1998 titled; “The End of Cheap Oil.” Still not impressed? OK, this article caused quite the stir in the world of oil and ultimately led Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere to found The Association for the Study of Peak Oil, now based at the University in Uppsala, Sweden, which started the whole energy resource limitation awareness campaign of which, among other things, the Partnership’s New Reality Initiative is ultimately an offshoot.
La Tee Dah, you say? Hmm.. maybe this will help. From the perspective of the enormously important issue of the future of energy and thus, the future of the economy and all of industrial society, it was a little like having a question about some social justice issue, firing it off to a social justice chat room, and getting an email back from Nelson Mandela. Well, almost. Anyway, I was pretty stoked. The other amazing thing about the email was its content. Dr. Campbell laid out in a page and a half, the entire 150 million+ year history of petroleum and natural gas formation and its relationship to the current economic crisis, in twelve short points, and got to the answer to my question. So, in case you are not ready to spend the better part of a decade as I have, trying to understand this stuff, here it is in a five minute read:
Thank you for forwarding the article. I am an old (very old at almost 82) petroleum geologist but can explain the essence of the issue. The main points are as follows:
- The continents moved around on the back of deep-seated convection currents over geological time. Mountains developed where they collided and rifts formed where they moved apart.
- There have been epochs of global warming. The lakes and seas in the rifts warmed up: the surface waters were hotter than the depths and the normal circulation ceased, giving anoxic conditions at depth. Furthermore algae and other organic material proliferated and the remains sank to the depths where chemical reactions converted them to kerogens. The rifts then filled up and when the organic material was buried to about 2000 m it was heated enough to be converted into oil and gas. If the oil-bearing material was more deeply buried it was overheated and converted into gas.
- There were two prime epochs of oil generation, 90 and 150 million years ago, but also several other lesser ones.
- Once formed, the oil, being less dense than the interstitial water, tended to migrate upwards, following fractures.
- The rifts were filled and buried beneath younger sediments which were in turn compressed into folds and faulted by subsequent earth movements.
- The oil seeping upwards along the fractures locally encountered a porous and permeable rock, mainly sandstone, and was able to flow more easily through it. If it led straight to the surface, the oil escaped, with the tar sands of Canada being a classic example. In other cases it was folded into dome like structures called anticlines forming traps for oil that accumulated at the top, given there was an overlying seal (salt being the best). Some was also trapped against faults or where the carrier bed died out.
- t is evident that all the major provinces of Regular Conventional Oil and Gas have now been found along with the major fields within them that were too big to miss.
- The resource of the Regular Conventional is of course finite, and my estimates are that the peak of oil production was in 2005 and that the peak of gas will follow around 2015. Production thereafter declines at about 2.5% a year for oil and slightly less for gas.
- The peak of Regular Conventional, which costs on average $10 to 20 a barrel to produce, prompted prices to soar as traders bought contracts on the futures market leading to the surge to almost $150 a barrel by mid-2008. This in turn prompted an economic recession and financial crisis as the modern economy is built on cheap oil-based energy. The banks had been lending more than they had on deposit, confident in ever onward growth, and failed to realize that peak oil meant that growth was no longer feasible. Furthermore money ultimately has to reflect energy, so the high prices, which were essentially profiteering from shortage, further destabilized the financial system.
- The peak of Regular Conventional (which the oil companies could easily see coming) prompted more attention to the Non-Conventional sources, comprising
a) Heavy Oil and bitumen
b) Oil Shale (immature source rock that can give up oil when cooked)
c) Deepwater Oil (>500m)
d) Polar Oil
e) Tight Oil (also confusingly called Shale Oil)
- Tight oil is now attracting much interest especially in the USA. It involves drilling a well 2000-3000 m deep and then deviating it to run parallel with the geological formations for another +/-2000m. The well is aimed to tap fissures and fractures in the source rocks along with interbedded siltstones and other rocks lacking adequate natural porosity and permeability. Fluids under high pressure are injected to tap the oil in the immediate vicinity of the well bore. The wells are both expensive and short-lived but apparently viable at oil prices of around $100. Naturally there are better and worse situations, with the sweet spots being drained first.
- The resource of this stuff (tight oil and shale gas) in the ground is enormous and unquantifiable, but I imagine that there are serious economic constraints, such that production in each of the productive provinces declines once the prime situations have been tapped. My own guess is that production will rise from about 1000 kb/d today to about 5000 kb/d by 2020 falling to 4000 kb/d by 2030 and 1500 kb/d by 2050.
That is about the situation so far as I can see it. I am afraid this got a bit longer than intended, but as always on the subject nothing is simple. By all means contact me if I can be of any help.
The central theme in this series of posts is trying to figure out whose predictions of the future to believe, and why. Much needless suffering may result from getting this wrong, especially for low-income families. So we come first to the seemingly obvious, but strangely almost always ignored first test: Whose predictions from the past has time proven right? In contrast to Daniel Yergin featured in both of last week’s links (we’ll get back to him), Colin Campbell has been pretty much on the money every time. In 1998, he and Jean predicted that conventional oil would peak within ten years. It peaked in 2005. In this foundational prediction for much of the New Reality issues, Dr. Campbell passes the first test. And for what it’s worth, I sent him a copy of our “Facing the New Reality” report, to which he replied: “Thank you for your message and for the report which sums up the situation well.” That was encouraging.
For the interested, here is a PDF of the 1998 Scientific American article referenced above. You may be especially interested in the manipulations and vagaries of stated petroleum reserves around the world, and who controls that information. Click here for the link.
New Reality Quiz of the Week
First, last week’s quiz: Some bloggers on energy site “The Oil Drum” suggested giving an award to this chart from the “Power Shift” piece discussed in this post. Was it:
a) The Most Deceptive Chart of the Year?
b) The Most Deceptive Chart in History?
c) The Most Deceptive Chart ever in the Western Hemisphere?
d) A Really, Really Good Chart Making Everything Exceptionally Clear?
Hint. Extra credit will be given for a good explanation of your choice.
Note: Sorry about the poor resolution, but that’s how it showed up in this otherwise crystal clear web story. And NBC made the chart. Go figure.
Answer? The Most Deceptive Chart of the Year. While it looks like US production now almost equals US consumption and is way above net imports, in fact US production (the red scale on the right) is under 7 million barrels per day (mbd), while our consumption is almost 19 mpd (from the blue scale on the left.) So where is the rest coming from? Well, 7 mbd are imported, and the rest is a mix of other hydrocarbons that are now often lumped in with “oil” but generally aren’t, like natural gas liquids (NGLs) which cannot be made into diesel fuel, fuel oil, or gasoline. More on this in future posts. Perhaps the most important question is: Why did the folks at NBC feel the need to produce such a misleading chart? A little problem with the truth maybe?
This week’s quiz question: Developing and drilling and fracking and bringing new oil wells on line in North Dakota’s Bakken Field costs about $8 million per well. How many new wells have to be drilled in North Dakota each month just to keep production levels from declining?
The Fox and the Hedgehog | March 29, 2013
I found myself seated with a casual acquaintance at fundraiser breakfast recently; a person I had not seen in a several years. He is a smart guy, a published environmental writer and active in local affairs. As we were catching up our respective lives and interests, he was clearly surprised to hear that I was still very engaged in the Peak Oil awareness campaign and had a hint of I-am-sorry-this-poor-guy-didn’t-get-the-memo in his voice as he shared the news that fracking and the North Dakota Oil Boom had put the Peak Oil issue to bed for good. (In fact, I got the memo pretty early. I just didn’t believe it.) The truth is that I run into this fairly often these days, especially from folks who pretty much bought the Peak Oil story when I made the case several years ago. Being seen as clueless by folks you respect can be a little deflating, though by now I have had plenty of opportunity to get used to it.
Actually, I am pretty sympathetic with those who believe that “America has 100 years of natural gas” and that “America will be the new Saudi Arabia” and so on because that is what everybody, liberal, conservative or whatever, is saying these days in the mainstream press and on popular web sites. There are three problems with this. 1) It’s not true. 2) The belief that it is true greatly inhibits the vital work of preparing for scarcities to come. And 3) Even if it were true, given what we are learning about the severe impacts of rapidly advancing climate change, if we actually burn the stuff we will wreak absolute havoc with the planet and most of our favorite foods and life forms. Like humans, for instance.
Last week stated with a real doosie of a rosy dose of cornucopia on my CNBC home page; a piece entitled “Power Shift: Energy Boom dawning in America” Its full of experts and words like “miracle” and “amazing” and “economic growth for years to come”. If you want to feel good all over, here’s the link . About halfway down you will find a graph with the title “Narrowing the Energy Gap”.
Study it carefully, and you may win this week’s quiz.
So given the fact that all this mis or misleading information is eating away at the foundation of the New Reality Imitative, I feel compelled to set aside some of my plans for upcoming posts and to do a little eating away of my own; this time at the pillars of propaganda that support the popular narrative of emerging energy abundance and robust economic growth. This rather large task will begin with this week’s featured post entitled “Why Energy Experts Get Things Wrong So Often.” It is a very interesting and sometimes amusing piece. Here is the link.
Two of the main expert sources noted and quoted in the “Power Shift” piece are Daniel Yergin and the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), an agency within the Department of Energy (DOE). Daniel Yergin is a special case worthy of his own piece in this series, but the track record of the US Energy Information Administration is pretty clear and pretty bad. I turns out that they did something both commendable and rare in the energy forecasting world; they looked back at their own prediction track record, and here is what they found:
"For instance, EIA, by its own admission, states that they had overestimated crude oil production 62 per cent of the time; they had overestimated natural gas production 70.8 per cent of the time; and they had overestimated natural gas consumption 69.6 per cent of the time. Not the best track record by anyone's estimation, except perhaps EIA's."
The EIA also overestimated the energy intensity ratio (a measure of total energy consumption and GDP) "a whopping 96.5 per cent of the time."
Concluded Rogers: "In short, EIA is not very good at forecasting. But what is even more interesting is that Dr. Montgomery, the lead author of this new study, was once in charge of models and forecasts at EIA."
Last December, a delegation from ASPO – USA (Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas) met with senior officials from the EIA, including the new Administrator, Adam Sieminski, also quoted in “Power Shift.” Here is what ASPO – USA Director Jan Lars Mueller reported publically after that meeting:
Of relevance to our concerns, we learned that EIA information on drilling costs and other costs of oil and gas production may not be very robust. Their projection models, therefore, may grossly underestimate the significance of increasing production costs as a constraint on oil or gas supply. EIA’s projection models seem to be more demand-driven than supply-driven in general.
In short, EIA’s models appear to be based on estimates of future demand with the “Field of Dreams” assumption that “if the demand is there, the oil and gas will appear.” In other words, it is an economic model, not a geophysical model. As the New Reality Initiative has been trying to make clear from the get go, economic models developed in an Age of Abundance don’t work so good in the Age of Limits – the age we are now entering. Here is how Swedish professor Kjell Aleklett puts it: "I frequently say that we have entered an era when physics is more important than economics. I'm a professor in physics (and global energy systems) and it is the laws of physics that are limiting to oil production in the future."
Their economic model approach was made very clear in EIA’s 2009 World Liquid Fuel Supply forecast chart:
Note that the future supply growth and the replacement of depleting
known reserves is all from “Unidentified Projects”, or as I call it,
faith-based forecasting. Yes, since 2009, the explosion of fracking
technology has been significant, but to a much lesser and shorter-lived
degree than “Power Shift” would have us believe. We’ll start on
fracking next week.
The “Power Shift” piece also references a
study from Bureau of Economic Geography at the University of Texas in
Austin where they predict getting 44 Trillion cubic feet of natural gas
from a formation known as the Barnett Shale. Perhaps, but what doesn’t
come out of the story is that that production looks like this chart from
the actual study:
Pretty much your standard peak oil scenario, rapid early production, then decline staring, oh, about now. The depletion rates also look very optimistic from what we see in other fracking plays. More on this next week.
it’s no exaggeration to say that we are betting the farm on our judgment of what our future energy supply will be. Virtually our entire economy runs on fossil fuel, so it is very important to get this right. So who you believe, and why, becomes extremely important as well. That’s what today’s link, and the analogy of the foxes and the hedgehogs, is all about. Given the track record of the experts underpinning the popular media’s energy extravaganza frenzy, we need to be very diligent in ascertaining fact from fantasy – or as this week’s post suggests, to find and follow the foxes, not the hedgehogs. Here is some good advice from the article:
Nearly 30 years ago, the nuclear physicist Alvin Weinberg noted that the failure of energy forecasting taught two lessons: "We must try to formulate energy policies that finesse uncertainties and that are resilient to surprises."
But Tetlock's research combined with the sorry record of energy forecasters offers a few disquieting truths worth pondering.
1. First and foremost, regard all energy forecasts, whether boom or gloom, with radical skepticism. Recognize that many are paid for by dominant energy players in a world where fewer and fewer corporations now control energy flows the way 18th century slave traders once did.
2. Search out humble foxes. They draw their information from a diversity of sources and are accountable for their actions. They tend to be geologists and physicists (like the ASPO folks- PK) and not economists.
3. Accept that our energy future will not only be uncertain but largely unpredictable. Unanticipated surprises will shock a highly complex system into unforeseen directions.
The most baffling and disturbing thing to me about the whole energy boom coverage these days comes from the disconnect between these stories and my third point in the second paragraph of this piece: “3) Even if it were true, given what we are learning about the severe impacts of rapidly advancing climate change, if we actually burn the stuff we will wreak absolute havoc with the planet and most of our favorite foods and life forms. Like humans, for instance.” I mean, the whole “Power Shift” story is about extracting and burning mega-tons of fossil hydrocarbons. We can’t do that. Period. Yet in that story, there is only a nod to carbon and the main specific environmental reference is to pollution of the groundwater in the Ogallala Aquifer. Important yes, but where is the link to climate change? We no longer have the luxury of focusing on the energy question alone when the literal lives of billions hang on the energy/climate connection.
New Reality Quiz of the Week
October 2012 was the 323rd month in a row that the global temperature was above the historical average. What are the odds against this occurring randomly, in other words without there actually having been a major change in the climate? (Hint #1 If you want to save wear and tear on your “0” button, you will need to use scientific notation to express the improbability of this happening by chance alone.) (Hint #2 If you are a little rusty on your exponential math, the total number of atoms in the entire universe is estimated to be 1 X 10 to the18th.) Answer 1 X 10 to the 100th. At least according to my favorite environmental writer, Derrick Jensen, writing in the current issue of the journal Orion. I didn’t check his math, but I accept the point. The climate has changed. Now we must deal with it.
This week’s quiz question: Some bloggers on energy site “The Oil Drum” suggested giving an award to this chart from the “Power Shift” piece discussed in this post. Was it:
a) The Most Deceptive Chart of the Year?
b) The Most Deceptive Chart in History?
c) The Most Deceptive Chart ever in the Western Hemisphere?
d) A Really, Really Good Chart Making Everything Exceptionally Clear?
Hint. Extra credit will be given for a good explanation of your choice.
Note: Sorry about the poor resolution, but that’s how it showed up in this otherwise crystal clear web story. Go figure.
American Dream: The Next Generation | March 22, 2013
There are encouraging signs that a couple of key aspects of the New Reality are gaining a foothold in the popular narrative generated by our mainstream media. The first is the seriousness of climate change. The severity of Superstorm Sandy seems to have struck a chord in the American collective psyche and another winter of extremes has helped to drive that reality home.
It is also dawning on America’s shrinking and beleaguered middle class that for the first time in our history, our children will most likely be worse off economically and enjoy much less of the American Dream than their parents.
The reason for this newfound awareness is somewhat discouraging; Americans don’t seem to respond too well to data, and they do seem to respond too well to unsubstantiated happy talk, but it’s pretty hard to ignore the college-graduated, unemployed, debt-burdened and unhappy kid who has moved back in with you because there are no decent jobs available. Or worse yet, would have moved home if your house itself hadn’t been swept away by the second 500-year storm in a year. Or if you lost your farm to the worst drought in sixty years. As more Americans directly experience the hard leading edge of the New Reality, so grows the number of believers.
For about a decade now, It has been the intent of this writer and of most of the folks you will read here in the Weekly New Reality Check, to move people to prepare for the multiple impacts of resource depletion, particularly of energy resources, of environmental degradation, particularly climate change, and of the consequences of our debt-based economic system – before these realities become full blown and inexorably progress to the stage where there is little time or resources left for preparation – to a time when we can only react to an increasing tempo of unfolding disasters. This effort has so far largely failed, and predicted outcomes are becoming more apparent in the daily lives of more people with each passing year. Nonetheless, some preparation is better than none, and there is still important work that we can do to mitigate the hardships that will result if there is no preparation at all.
In this week’s link, Adam Taggart from Chris Martenson’s “Peak Prosperity” web site takes a hard look at the real numbers and puts his conclusion in the title of the piece: “Let’s Stop Fooling Ourselves, Americans Can’t Afford the Future” Here’s Adam’s basic premise:
The American spirit is rooted in the belief of a better tomorrow. Its success has been due to generations of men and women who toiled, through both hardship and boom times, to make that dream a reality.
But at some point over the past several decades, that hope for a better tomorrow became an expectation. Or perhaps a perceived entitlement is more accurate.
It became assumed that the future would be more prosperous than today, irrespective of the actual steps being taken in the here and now.
And for a prolonged time – characterized by plentiful and cheap energy, accelerating globalization, technical innovation, and the financialization of the economy – it seemed like this assumption was a certain bet.
But these wonderful tailwinds that America has been enjoying for so many decades are sputtering out. The forces of resource scarcity, debt saturation, price inflation, and physical limits will impact our way of life dramatically more going forward than living generations have experienced to date.
And Americans, who had the luxury of abandoning savings and sacrifice for consumerism and credit financing, are on a collision course with that reality. Like the grasshopper in Aesop's fable, they have partied away the fair seasons and winter is now on the way, which they are not prepared for.
The information is well organized, well presented, and in keeping with my commitment to ferret out hope and realistic optimism in these forays into reality, the piece ends with 14 recommendations on how best to position yourself for the real future.
Of course, as you read through these 14 recommendations, it will no doubt be obvious to the Community Action world that most of these recommendations will be much easier for middle to upper class families to implement than for our low income households. Like loading up on some precious metals, for example. Other recommendations are less dependent on family affluence and may be well within reach of low income families and the scope of Community Action programs.
In a sidebar under John Michael Greer’s overview in the “Facing the New Reality” report I wrote these words: “In the New Reality, the mission of CAPs may need to shift from eliminating poverty to creating new understandings and new forms of wealth in a contracting economy.” I took some grief for this from a couple of folks who viewed this as a form of heresy contrary to our Community Action core beliefs. Given the flux of events since I wrote that sentence three years ago, and with a reminder that I used the phase may need, I remain convinced that the idea is worth serious consideration. In this week’s post, Adam Taggart takes a whack at this too under the heading of Redefining Prosperity:
As dire as the trends look, there is much that can be done to ameliorate their impact – and enter the future with grace and optimism – if as a society we have the courage to do it.
There's no doubt that simply continuing along the status quo is a vote for digging ourselves deeper as the constraints of the future arrive. Behavior change is necessary in order to improve our chances.
At the core of the needed change is redefining prosperity. In modern society, it has largely come to be defined by material possessions, usually assuming that the more (and the more expensive), the better.
In the future, we'd do much better to define it by:
· our health (both physical and emotional)
· our purpose
· our ability to meet our needs sustainably
· our relationships
· our level of happiness
All things that were once valued much higher in our culture.
Embedded in the Peak Prosperity post is a link to a very informative recent piece by Chris Martenson entitled: “The Real Reason the Economy is Broken (And Will Stay That Way)”
Chris is another one of the New Reality thought leaders that this weekly blog has featured before and will turn to again in the weeks ahead. Chris is a smart and interesting guy; PhD in neurotoxicology, MBA in Finance, he ditched a very successful career in a Fortune 300 company, downsized from a McMansion to a small rural house, homeschools his kids, gardens and raises chickens, and has made it his life’s work to help others prepare for what we call here, the New Reality. Amongst other works, he developed the video Crash Course which I have referenced in two previous posts.
New Reality Quiz of the Week
First, last week’s quiz: Another fill in the blank/multiple choice. October 2012 was the _______ (13th, 31st, 42nd, or 323rd) month in a row that the global temperature was above the historical average. If you picked the obvious 323rd, you’re a winner, sort of.
This week’s quiz question: OK, you got that one right and are feeling pretty smart. This week we take last week’s quiz one step further and into a more challenging arena. So, October 2012 was the 323rd month in a row that the global temperature was above the historical average. What are the odds against this occurring randomly, in other words without there actually having been a major change in the climate? (Hint #1 If you want to save wear and tear on your “0” button, you will need to use scientific notation to express the improbability of this happening by chance alone.) (Hint #2 If you are a little rusty on your exponential math, the total number of atoms in the entire universe is estimated to be 1 X 10 to the18th.)
Giving Up | March 15, 2013
Exactly thirty years ago I had the good fortune to spend the winter months at Holden Village, a Lutheran Retreat Center resurrected from an abandoned mining town high in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state. Holden Village sits in a stunningly beautiful and isolated narrow valley up near the Continental Divide. The only road winds down to a dock on nearby Lake Chelan (the third deepest lake in America) and all personnel, equipment and supplies for the village arrive by ferry. Electricity is provided by a beautifully crafted and highly reliable 1904 General Electric small hydro plant powered by a mountain stream, and the usually reliable pinsetters in the four lane bowling alley have names like Bill, Sally and Toni. The place gets so much snow that in the winter folks stop walking between buildings on the main floor, and go from building to building on packed snow paths from second story porches. There were no radios, televisions, telephones, cell phones, internet, email, iPods or smart phones on site in the winter of 1983. Holden Village was generally pretty quiet. The winter community numbered about sixty, and I was the village “garbologist”, carefully re-cycling, composting and compressing the community trash. It was a wonderful winter full of great memories and the beginning of some wonderful friendships that have endured to this day.
The center director that year was a Lutheran minister named John Schramm. Rev. Schramm and his wife Mary were leaders in the Lutheran Church for the newly emerging voluntary simplicity movement before it became a fad, then a form of ostentation, then a big commercial enterprise complete with a glossy magazine full of glossy ads, and then pretty much abandoned altogether as full bore excess became fashionable once again in the later 1980’s and 1990’s. But back in 1983, simplicity was virtuous and cool and very much connected to social justice and equity, to the care of Creation, and to non-violence. It fit in pretty well at Holden Village where the physical constraints of its remote location lent some clarity to a whole set of issues around material wealth.
One of John Schramm’s favorite sermon stories was about a young newlywed couple vacationing in rural mid-America and getting lost on the back roads, and having their car break down on a dark and stormy night. Seeing a faint light in the distance, the couple walked to a farmhouse in hopes of finding dinner and warm, dry bed. They were relieved when a friendly Amish farmer met them with a lantern at the front door, but a bit shocked when he didn’t invite them in. Instead, he gladly offered to let them sleep for the night on the loose hay in his horse barn. The farmer began to close the door while the couple stammered a disappointed, rain-drenched “Thanks”, then opened the door again and offered this bit of added hospitality: “And if there is anything else you need, anything at all, just stop back up to the house and I will tell you how you can get along without it for one night.”
When the white and polite Lutheran laughter died down, Rev. Schramm would elaborate on the point that the hospitality lesson of the Amish farmer was really much more valuable to this young couple than providing for their immediate comfort. The New Reality Initiative is intended to be a little like that farmer; not so much comforting as useful in helping us all prepare for the less materially abundant years ahead.
Which gets us close to this week’s featured link by New Reality author, and 2012 New York City Partnership Annual Conference keynote presenter, Sharon Astyk. Her piece is not really about voluntary simplicity or giving up things per se, but about why we are so unwilling to even consider giving up things that are not necessities even when we know they may be extremely damaging. Things for example like those electronic gizmos that were not present, and not missed in the least, in Holden Village in the winter of 1983. A taste:
- The issue, of course, is that once we are accustomed to it, ALL technologies are too useful to give up, except the salad shooter. If you want to piss people off, suggest they can live without a technological device, even thrive that way. Nothing enrages people more, because the benefits of technology are ALWAYS presumed to be self-evident – it is self-evident that anything that saves human labor (even though with 7 billion humans and a chronic global unemployment problem human labor is one of the most abundant things on the planet, we feel we must husband it as though it were platinum) or makes life work even a little better must be something we can’t do without.
- Note that I am NOT claiming here that everyone should give up cell phones or laptops, or any particular technology – what strikes me as interesting and important, however, is the fact that we shy so strongly away from any claim that we ought give up the technologies to which we have become accustomed, no matter how enormous the potential cost to all of us.
A good read. Click here for the link.
As I have noted before, there a sense in which those in poverty may have a leg up on the rest of our society in that, from necessity, they have learned to live without so many of the gadgets and comforts that more affluent Americans have come to view as necessitates. As we move further into the New Reality, we may look to the poor for some needed guidance.
The point of the Holden Village reminiscence is not to dream of a lost, simpler time and its simpler pleasures. The point is twofold. First, we need to sharpen our sense of what are necessities and what are the luxuries we can readily discard as we move further into a resource constrained world. If we don’t make these choices with some thoughtful preparation, the choices will be made for us by other means.
The second point is a bit more subtle. Retaining a life of dignity and joy and community and meaning in the challenging times ahead will also require some creativity and some new ways of relating to one another. An example of this creativity is also the source of one of my favorite memories from the Holden Village experience. Our isolated little community decided to have a St. Valentine’s Day banquet, and did it like this: We split up into three groups of about 20 persons each, and had a three hour banquet. For the first hour, Group 1 dined in relative luxury while Group 2 waited on them hand and foot, and provided nice, live background music in the dining hall. Group 3 staffed the kitchen, cooking and washing dishes and the like. For the second hour, the groups rotated roles; Group 1 went from dining to waiting tables, 2 went from waiting tales to kitchen work, and the kitchen crew freshened up, found their dates, and dined in spender. In the third hour, the rotation was completed, and a great evening was had by all. As I recall, no one felt exploited, no one felt sorry for anyone, and no one wished that they could have just spent the night being served by everybody else. No, this is not a call for the perfect Communist Worker’s Utopia. I’m just saying that the future is not going to be the current version of the American Dream for All, but it doesn’t have to be Hell on Earth either. The sooner we begin to think and live in accordance with New Reality imperatives, the better our lives will likely be in the future.
New Reality Quiz of the Week
First, last week’s quiz: last week’s quiz question was inspired by a recent segment on Fox and Friends where their guest business expert claimed that the reason Germany has been so much more successful than we have in implementing their solar photovoltaic program is that Germany is so much sunnier than the US. So, dropping off gloomy Alaska and tropical Hawaii for balance, how many of the contiguous 48 states of America get less average sunlight per unit area than Germany? ANSWER: ZERO. Actually, several readers responded to this quiz, and they all got it right. Here is a link to the Fox and Friends segment along with the actual sunlight data map. Pretty hilarious, or at least it would be if so many people didn’t believe this nonsense. Click here for the link.
This week’s quiz question: Another fill in the blank/multiple choice. October 2012 was the _______ (13th, 31st, 42nd, or 323rd) month in a row that the global temperature was above the historical average.
A Site for Sore Eyes | March 8, 2013
This week, the Weekly New Reality Check will give all our eyes a rest by drawing on a recent podcast featuring Ugo Bardi, Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Florence, and president of ASPO Italy. In fact, the eyes get a double break because Professor Bardi has, surprise, surprise, a fairly heavy Italian accent, and may be best understood with one’s eyes closed entirely. The podcast itself is a little whacky, but entertaining. It originates in Ireland, has a very eclectic set of interludes, including a bit from the trailer of the movie Oz the Great and Powerful, some cool music and an, er, interesting host. Still, it made the cut for the Weekly New Reality Check for several reasons. Here are four of them.
First, it follows up on last week’s theme; how the factors that most affect the prospects for low income Americans are moving from a largely social/political sphere into a more physical one. Still true even though this piece is being written on the day the dreaded sequester is to take effect, and even while I am packing for the NCAF conference and some intense visits with our congressional delegation next week in DC. Don’t get me wrong, the social/political realm is still very important to our work.
Second, the interview illustrates an important distinction between the social/political arena and the realm of Natural Law that is rarely noted: These two realms operate on vastly different timescales. To understand the magnitude of the forces shaping our collective future and the challenge of remediating damage done to ecosystems formed over hundreds of millions of years requires some comprehension and appreciation of vast time. While a societal injustice can, in some cases, be rectified by an act of Congress or a Supreme Court decision and take effect almost immediately, climate change, resource depletion, and the collapse of ocean fish populations have no quick fixes at all. Far from it. As Americans raised with an almost religious devotion to the Can Do Spirit, we understandably have trouble getting this. Nonetheless, if we hope to cope effectively with what confronts us as we move deeper into the New Reality, we’re going to have to make the effort. This 45 minute interview with Ugo Bardi is a pretty good place to start.
Third, professor Bardi makes important connections between geologic time and processes, and the contemporary social, political and economic reality that we may find more familiar. This is especially important to us because the first Europeans entering the Americas conquered a continent overflowing with untapped natural resources, and through most of this country’s history we have not had to concern ourselves with resource depletion. But those days are over both in our country and worldwide now, and the Age of Limits plays by fundamentally different rules than the Age of Abundance.
And finally, part of what I am trying to do with the Weekly New Reality Check is to identify and introduce to Community Action some of the key thought leaders in New Reality issues, and Ugo Bardi is right up there. The podcast is entitled: “Plundering the Planet” Click here for the link.
Ugo Bardi also blogs at Cassandra’s Legacy, a very interesting site to explore.
Twelve years ago, in a reflective moment on my 50th birthday, I decided that before I took my leave of the planet (in the ordinary way, not in a UFO, in case you’ve wondered), I would take a serious stab at trying to answer this question: What are people and why do they behave the way they do? Perhaps not surprisingly, the trail of this little inquest keeps leading back ever farther in time. So I was pretty excited when I stumbled across this gem in a used book store last year: The Time Before History: 5 Million Years of Human Impact. The book was written in 1996 by Colin Tudge, a British science writer and former BBC broadcaster trained in zoology at Cambridge University, and it has been a most interesting and illuminating read. The guy has a sense of humor to boot. The jacket, in this case, gets it right: “Drawing on the disciplines of geology, anthropology, archaeology, earth science and climatology, The Time Before History is a truly original contribution to the intertwined narratives of humanity and its planet.” These are also some of the key source disciplines that provide the foundation for the New Reality Initiative. The book is still in print and available at the usual places. Highly recommended.
New Reality Quiz of the Week
First, last week’s quiz: On April 10, 1912, the HMS Titanic set sail with 2,224 passengers and crew and ______________ lifeboats. (10, 20, 40 or 80?) Answer: 20. I’m going to go out on a limb here and speculate that a fair number on the passengers on the Titanic that night came to consider this inadequate preparation. Inadequate preparation for the future is what the New Reality Initiative is trying to avoid.
This week’s quiz question is inspired by a recent segment on Fox and Friends where their guest business expert claimed that the reason Germany has been so much more successful than we have in implementing their solar photovoltaic program is that Germany is so much sunnier than the US. So, dropping off gloomy Alaska and tropical Hawaii for balance, how many of the contiguous 48 states of America get less average sunlight per unit area than Germany?
A Different Animal | March 1, 2013
As promised last week, the New Reality Check takes another whack at establishing a fundamental precept of this initiative – distinguishing between when we humans are in control of our fate and when that control passes out of our hands to reside with the consequences of Natural Law. I first wrote about this in the NR check on April 13th, 2012 – The Iceberg – which drew its lessons from sinking of the Titanic. This week’s featured link looks at the same reality through a different lens, contrasting social imperatives with the relentlessness of gravity. It is titled “Oil, Climate and Time: Why Some Problems Will Wait and Others Will Not.” The piece is written by Kurt Cobb, noted author, speaker and ASPO – USA board member. A clear and compelling voice on New Reality issues, Kurt has been featured before in this blog, and will likely be featured again. In his words:
"Climate change is not struggling to be emancipated or seeking the right to vote or to marry. It cannot be put off with assurances that it will have to wait until next year when the political climate might be better.
Climate change is indifferent to such condescension and remorseless to boot. It proceeds whether we like it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not.
The same can be said of resource depletion. We can pretend that America is heading toward so-called “energy independence,” even as worldwide oil production remains stalled for seven years running . But oil cannot be cajoled to do anything that the laws of physics will not allow."
The human social agenda, however desperately important and urgent and compelling, is a fundamentally different animal than the New Reality. Getting our heads around that is a key first step toward making the right use our ever decreasing time and resources as we move forward. Is there any good news in this? Yes there is, from a social equity perspective. We profess in America that all are equal before the law, yet our prison statistics clearly belie this claim. But as the richest man in the world, John Jacob Astor, found out on the Titanic, we are all absolutely equal before the Laws of Nature.
Throughout its 50 year history, Community Action has been primarily a social justice movement, and arguably, one of the best and most enduring. We inhabit the arena of the human social agenda. Even as we work in energy conservation by weatherizing low income homes, we do so primarily in order to improve the economic condition and quality of life for that household rather than to mitigate climate change or to conserve natural resources. Our success or failure has depended largely on public policy, Congressional funding decisions and the compassion of the electorate and the elected. We have not had to pay attention to issues like resource depletion and environmental degradation. Until now. As we move further into the New Reality (or the Age of Limits or the Long Emergency), we will continue to see the arena of the human social agenda shrink as the arena of Natural Law grows. Our choices will get fewer as decades of living unsustainable lifestyles generate their inevitable consequences.
So what do we do about this? First of all, I am quite certain that Kurt Cobb is not saying forget social justice. I have been getting to know Kurt through our shared service on the ASPO Board, and his compassion and concern for the poor would make him right at home in Community Action. He is saying is what the New Reality Initiative has been saying all along: If we are truly compassionate and truly care about the lives of low income Americans, we also have to pay attention and respond to these new emerging physical realities; factors that will have the most impact on this population, along with everybody else, going forward. Increasingly, the drivers that determine the future are moving from the social and political arena to the physical. And increasingly, as Community Action leaders, boards and staff, the lives that Community Action changes need to include our own.
There is another arena intentionally left out of the discussion above, and that is the economic arena. I left it out because unlike the reality of gravity, “economic reality” is growing increasingly abstract, moving from fact to fantasy. I will circle back to this in some later post if I can figure out a way to get at it, but for now, let’s just look at this: The Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) which provides core funding for the entire country’s 1000+ Community Action Agency network, cost the taxpayer (before sequestration) about $670 Million per year, or $1.34 Billion in 2011 & 2012 combined, and we had to fight for every dime. Here’s what one aspect of the New Reality, Climate Change, cost the taxpayers (one way or another) in the same period: $188 Billion, or about 140 times what the Community Action network cost. Nobody voted to give Climate Change $188 Billion. It just took it. That’s the way the physical arena works. So the question is, how much longer can America pay for both, and which one gets paid, and which one doesn’t? Yet another reason why Climate Change is a Community Action issue. Here’s a link to the cost of climate change from the Center for American Progress.
New Reality Quiz of the Week
First, last week’s quiz: on the topic of bio-fuels, what percentage of the energy in the sunlight falling on a plant is converted through photosynthesis and stored as chemical energy in that plant? (hint: This is the process by which all fossil fuels; oil, coal, natural gas, tar sands, natural gas liquids etc. got their energy in the first place.) Answer: It depends. For algae and other wild plants in general which did all the heavy lifting for fossil fuels, the range is between .1% and 1% efficiency. So fossil fuel creation took tens of millions of years and an unimaginable number of plants. How foolish it would be to blow it all in a few short decades while trashing the environment. What civilization could possibly be that shortsighted? In any event, cultivated crops are around 2% efficient and up, with the Grand Champion Sunlight Converter apparently being sugarcane, at 8% efficiency.
This week’s quiz question is a multiple choice/fill in the blank question about adequate preparation: On April 10, 1912, the HMS Titanic set sail with 2,224 passengers and crew and ______________ lifeboats. (10, 20, 40 or 80?)
New Oil – New Gold | February 15, 2013
This week and next, the Weekly New Reality Check will return to a broad theme that, to my mind anyway, cannot be emphasized enough: The critical importance of discerning when humans are the primary drivers of the future, and when the steering wheel is taken over by the inhuman forces of nature. Many of us, especially here in America, have been raised with the optimistic fiction that “We can do anything we set our minds too”, or some variation of the same sentiment. It is a useful sentiment to be sure as we seek to encourage our children and those who have suffered setbacks in their lives, to put forth their best efforts and to reach their full human potential. And yet, this sentiment ultimately needs to face the reality that in fact, nature bats last. If we fail to acknowledge that the natural and unsentimental laws of physics, chemistry, geology, biology, ecology and the lot will always prevail, we run risks of disappointment and failure. In some areas, the cost of such failures can be catastrophic.
Which gets us to the natural fact that humans need to eat, and to this week’s featured link by the venerable Lester R. Brown of the Earth Policy Institute. Lester has been relentlessly trying to get what is essentially the New Reality message out there for over thirty five years. As Wikipedia notes: “The recipient of 26 honorary degrees and a MacArthur Fellowship, Brown has been described by the Washington Post as "one of the world's most influential thinkers." This piece is entitled “New Era of Food Scarcity Echoes Collapsed Civilizations.” Here is the opening paragraph:
- The world is in transition from an era of food abundance to one of scarcity. Over the last decade, world grain reserves have fallen by one third. World food prices have more than doubled, triggering a worldwide land rush and ushering in a new geopolitics of food. Food is the new oil. Land is the new gold.
The link: http://www.earth-policy.org/book_bytes/2013/fpepch1
What I like about this article is that it provides a very concise and compelling summary of our current worldwide food predicament. As we move further into the Age of Limits, food can be expected to move up the value hierarchy pretty much everywhere, and to dominate policy decisions regarding the allocation of the planet’s diminishing resources.
As most of us in Community Action know, low income households spend a much higher portion of their income on essentials like food and energy than do the more affluent. It is the poor who get hit first and hardest by rising food costs and possible food shortages. The best protection from such shocks is to be more closely connected to, or better yet, to participate in, the production of your own food. The good news embedded in this reality is that it is possible to produce food in almost any locality, and as many CAPs are demonstrating all over America right now, Community Action can help with that.
This week we are digging deep down right through one important aspect of this issue, the competition between using arable land for growing food versus using it for growing bio-fuels, until we hit rock: Specifically, rock phosphate. The food vs. bio-fuels debate gets quite a lot of coverage in the alternative energy/environmental world, but most of the discussion I have seen revolves around land and water issues. Yet the modern, high-yielding agriculture that dominates worldwide commodity food production is also dependent on many additional inputs like petroleum, herbicides, insecticides, and perhaps most important to sustaining these unsustainably high yields; fertilizer. A key component of this fertilizer is rock phosphate, and rock phosphate is following the same production pattern that crude oil, lithium and every other mineral resource extraction process follows: Discovery leads to extraction of the easiest resource first, followed by extraction of the material that’s harder to get and more expensive, followed by declines in supply as deposits are depleted. As the population increases and food surpluses are in decline, this is already an alarming situation.
And now, in another example of the kind of serious resource competition that will only get worse as we move deeper into the New Reality, there is growing enthusiasm for obtaining bio-diesel derived from hydroponically grown algae. (See link below.) Like many popular techno-fixes to our energy and resource predicament, it sounds great and its disciples claim it can save the world, but there is a hitch – it needs huge amounts of rock phosphate. So we have to circle back once again to that place so few seem willing to acknowledge and accept – that the future is about making due with less, and not so much about finding substitute ways of sustaining our unsustainable lifestyles.
The article is entitled “The Achilles' Heel of Algal Biofuels - Peak Phosphate. - An Update.” It is a bit technical, but an interesting read nonetheless and a pretty good primer on bio-fuels in general. It also holds out some hope for possible partial recovery of the phosphorous from this process and for possible alternative phosphorus sources, so it is a technology worth watching. As emphasized last week, while not the panacea some suggest, ideas like this can still be pieces of the puzzle that helps us to navigate the trying decades ahead. Click here for the link.
The New Reality Quiz of the Week
First, last week’s quiz: On the topic of burning wood, how many acres of (mostly) forest were burned in US wildfires in 2012? (hint; you can round to, say, the nearest million.) Answer: 9,221,639 acres, which equals 14,409 square miles, which is larger than the size of New Jersey and Connecticut combined. Yikes!
This Week’s Quiz Question: So on the topic of bio-fuels, what percentage of the energy in the sunlight falling on a plant is converted through photosynthesis and stored as chemical energy in that plant? (hint: This is the process by which all fossil fuels; oil, coal, natural gas, tar sands, natural gas liquids etc. got their energy in the first place.)
The Optimist's Dilemma, part 2: Solar for Some | February 1, 2013
Late last fall we installed a wood cook stove in our small house on our small farm in west central Wisconsin. It’s a pretty cool contraption, in a steam punk sort of way; lovely to look at and, well, interesting to operate, makes comforting noises and doubles as the heating source for that side of the house in the winter. It is distinctly low-tech, doesn’t plug in to anything but the stove pipe chimney, and though newly manufactured, probably hasn’t had a significant design change in a hundred years. It has a single dial, a simple circular mechanical temperature gauge on the oven door. It runs on recent sunlight stored in our wood shed, not on fossil fuel, and with proper care can be expected to keep cooking food and heating the kitchen for a hundred years to come.
Now, I am not the primary cook in our household (to which the late, great Douglas Adams would likely append… “in much the same way as the sea is not above the sky”), but I do cook some and prefer the somewhat more challenging and subjective experience of cooking on the wood range to cooking on the stainless steel, digitally controlled, propane gas range still hooked up across the room. The difference to me is like the difference between operating a steam locomotive and operating a modern diesel – electric train. (Not that I have ever done either.) Of course, if you come home from work with visions of pepperoni pizza dancing in your head and no one has been there to keep the stove fired, you will find out just how long it takes a small firebox to get 700 pounds of cold cast iron up to 425 degrees F. Better hope you’re not too hungry. You will also get some clues as to why homemakers across America embraced the new-fangled gas and electric ranges as soon as they appeared, much as America’s railroads scrapped about 40,000 steam locomotives in the 1940’s and 50’s as fast as diesel-electrics could be manufactured to replace them. Cheap oil saved enormous amounts of time, money and human labor, no doubt about it. We’re going to miss it.
So in a recent conversation about ways to reduce our use of diminishing and dirty fossil fuels, I noted the wood range installation above. Which elicited a rather strident response that went something like: “Wood cook stoves are not the solution. If everyone cooked on wood cook stoves, the air would be totally polluted, and there would be no trees left in the world!” As it turns out, I basically (though not entirely*) agree and still think this wood range is a great idea, which gets us to point one of this week’s two-point post.
And point #1 is simply this: while there is merit in considering global “solutions” to the world’s energy, environmental, and economic problems, the appropriate response to these challenges may vary greatly from country to country, region to region, and even from house to house on the same street. For us, on a farm with 60 acres of hardwood forest and a couple of strong daughters still at home, cooking and heating with clean, dry firewood harvested on site may be a fine idea. For a family in a high-rise in Phoenix or a retired couple in Manhattan, not so much. But they might be great candidates for a neighborhood community solar project like those featured in last week’s post, or participating in urban agriculture, or better yet, adopting a car-free lifestyle, which in rural Wisconsin pretty much makes you a hermit. But then again, there is a company not far from here which manufactures bio-diesel from locally produced canola and sunflower seeds, which just may have something to do with my choosing to drive a 22 year old diesel car, while some good folks with good reason are dead set against liquid biofuels, and I generally agree with them too. Another story and another dimension of the optimist’s dilemma. The essence of point #1 is this: Author and New Urbanist, James Howard Kunstler predicts that when the New Reality (a period he calls the “Long Emergency”) really kicks in, life will become, in his words, “profoundly and intensely local.” If he is correct, and I suspect he is, the strategies we will all have to employ to function in this New Reality will vary greatly depending on where each of us are and what we have right there at that time.
Which gets us to yet another facet of the Optimist’s Dilemma. Our Waterford wood cook stove was ordered on the internet, paid for with a credit card, and shipped from Ireland. This was all done five years ago in preparation for a time when supplies of propane and electricity may be in short supply, and ordering something on the internet with a credit card and shipping it from Ireland may no longer be an option. But of course it is still possible to do just that (though the price of this particular item has gone up by 50%, so no regrets yet), and for all the time that wood cook stove sat it its shipping crate until last fall, those dollars were not available for the day to day life and needs of our family. In fact, many of the tools, information and resources we will likely need a little further down the road are readily available now, but will likely be hard to come by if we wait until they are necessities before we attempt to acquire them. So here’s the dilemma; compromise the present for an uncertain future, or just optimistically assume that “they” will come up with some solutions to these New Reality issues, and take life as it comes. It is the generally the position of the New Reality Initiative that preparation is the wiser course, some sacrifices notwithstanding.
Which gets us at along last to this week’s link, and to point #2 of this post. Point #2 is that we really can’t wait around for either 1) somebody, somewhere to come up with some great techno-fix for our global energy/environment crisis (they won’t) or 2) for us as individual families to get that self sufficient farm established or whatever our personal great plan might be to prepare for the post-industrial world. (That most likely will not happen either. In case you’re wondering, I acquired our farm 40 years ago.) For all but a fortunate few, we are going to have to work with what we have, where we are, right now. The link is a post from last June by John Michael Greer entitled: “Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush.” Here is a sample:
Individuals, families, and communities faced with this predicament still have choices left. The most important of those choices parallels the one faced, or more precisely not faced, at the end of the 1970s: to make the descent in a controlled way, beginning now, or to cling to their current lifestyles until the system that currently supports those lifestyles falls away from beneath their feet. The skills, resources, and lifeways needed to get by in a disintegrating industrial society are radically different from those that made for a successful and comfortable life in the prosperous world of the recent past, and a great many of the requirements of an age of decline come with prolonged learning curves and a high price for failure. Starting right away to practice the skills, assemble the resources, and follow the lifeways that will be the key to survival in a deindustrializing world offers the best hope of getting through the difficult years ahead with some degree of dignity and grace.
Collapse now, in other words, and avoid the rush…. The way to avoid the rush is simple enough: figure out how you will be able to live after the next wave of crisis hits, and to the extent that you can, start living that way now. (emphasis in the original)
Click here for the link.
First of all, let me be clear that few low income families are going to be able to afford or most likely do not live in a home where it is possible to install a wood cook stove: That is not the point. This is. Part of the foundational theory of Community Action from its inception has been that poverty and its solutions are best addressed at the local level, informed by local residents and designed to best fit local social structures and available resources. That is pretty much the central theme of this post and Greer’s piece as well. Of all the institutions that can be most helpful as the New Reality unfolds, I can’t think of any that are better suited to this essential task than Community Action Agencies in their local communities.
Frankly, a careful read of Greer’s link may be about as deep as any of us are ready for. This week I think we will call that deep enough.
* About the question of which cook stove is more polluting, the wood range or a modern gas, propane, or electric model, I am going to go down to the lowest level of the Hierarchy of Truth to a level I call the Hunch. Here is my hunch: I believe that if you actually accounted for all the pollution generated by the modern gas or propane range, (propane is a product, by the way, of natural gas liquids) including the very energy intensive natural gas extraction process, methane itself escaping in the extraction and refining process and at many points in the trans shipment of gas, pollution from the energy used in refining natural gas liquids, from the flaring of gas in the remote gas and oil fields and the underground and above ground pollution from increasing use of fracking to extract that gas, right up to the gas released into the atmosphere as that little ignition spark on the range is trying to light the stove, to the fossil CO2 released in the little blue flame itself, not to mention all the pollution from coal-generated electricity, that a good wood range burning dry, well seasoned firewood harvest on site might well prove to be the less polluting option. Furthermore, the smoke from burning wood may be pollution of a sort, but that smoke has been part of our evolutionary history for eons and is of a different quality then, say, the pollution caused by a burning chemical plant. Just a hunch.
The New Reality Quiz of the Week.
First, last week’s quiz: These days we hear about many new and exciting energy sources from geothermal to wave energy to thorium reactors to algae-derived diesel to you name it. So what energy source is growing most rapidly in the world today? Answer: COAL-, set to overtake oil as the largest single energy source used in the world by 2030, or even sooner. Can’t imagine that causing any problems…..
This week’s quiz question:
On the topic of burning wood, how many acres of (mostly) forest were burned in US wildfires in 2012? (hint; you can round to, say, the nearest million.)
The Optimist's Dilemma, part 1: Solar for All | February 1, 2013
Serious and credible research from University College London, England, has established that about 80% of the world’s humans are literally born with an optimism bias. (A story worth its own post, and I will do that soon.) This essentially means that 80% of us believe that the future will be better than it actually will turn out to be. I am clearly in this 80% as evidenced by a little reflection on my 62 years on the planet and the actualization rate of many of my plans, hopes and dreams for my future; a future which is now largely a known past. Still, having an optimism bias has many benefits.
Optimists are happier, healthier, more motivated, funner to hang out with and apparently more attractive as mating partners than realists or pessimists, hence the evolutionary success of the hard-wired optimism bias over the millennia. So what’s the dilemma? Well, it starts to get a little tricky when you realize that you, and just about everyone else, have this optimism bias; an inaccurate, overly rosy view of the future, and then you uncover some really bad news about what lies ahead for us all. Its analogous to getting a bad diagnosis from your doctor, only this one also applies to just about everybody, most of who are just beginning to notice some troubling symptoms but are still pretty sure that if they ignore these symptoms, they will go away and everything will be fine.
So here’s the dilemma; as you move closer to reality, you are likely to alienate and lose credibility with ever larger numbers of the optimistic majority, but as you move away from reality and toward a more optimistic view of the future, you risk giving folks a false assurance that everything will be OK when, in fact, they really need to get to the doctor ASAP and start treatment.
The New Reality Initiative finds itself squarely between the horns of this dilemma.
With this in mind, we turn to this week’s featured link, a piece that appeared in the current issue of Sierra magazine, a publication of the Sierra Club. The article is entitled “Solar for All.”
“Solar for All” is about strategies for making it possible for people who can’t afford their own solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, or whose homes are poor candidates for such systems, to participate in, as the article puts it, …”the clean energy revolution that's going on across the country.” In this well written, very informative and distinctly upbeat article, the author highlights several successful existing examples of “community solar” and “solar garden” projects around the country, while not minimizing the difficulties in getting such projects off the ground. Here is the link .
The photo above this article is of a home owned by my agency, West CAP, in rural Wisconsin. This was our first “deep retrofit” project in which we took a thirty year old duplex and rehabbed it extensively to reach net zero energy use for heating, cooling, hot water and ventilation. The low income occupants save an average of $400 per month in energy costs, $200 in each of these four-bedroom units, and their energy costs will not go up no matter what happens to heating fuel or electricity prices. That’s resilience. For some urban neighborhoods, the strategies laid out in “Solar for All” could increase the resilience of their households as well, and Community Action Agencies with extensive residential energy conservation experience may be well suited for leading or participating in such projects.
Here is where the dilemma comes in. First of all, let’s look at the language:
Solar for All
Until now, rooftop solar has only worked for those with hefty electric bills and sunny roofs. Community solar could make it available to everyone.
If "revolution" sounds like hyperbole, consider this: U.S. solar installations more than doubled from the second quarter of 2011 to the second quarter of 2012. Last August, California's utility-scale solar plants hit 1 gigawatt—as much energy as can be generated by a large coal- or nuclear-fired power plant. Less remarked on during the celebration of that milestone was the fact that at the same time, "distributed solar"—the thousands of rooftop systems in the state—was exceeding that number by 20 percent, producing 1.2 gigawatts. In 2008, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory put the annual technical potential of rooftop solar in the United States at 819 trillion watt-hours, equal to about a fifth of the nation's 2011 electricity demand.
While this sounds great, and in a sense it is, solar PV amounts to slightly less than .7 of 1% of total electric generating capacity in America. There is nowhere near the capacity to make solar PV available to “everyone” no matter what community strategies are employed. Nor is it realistic to expect solar PV to make up a significant part of the projected decline in fossil fuel generation, especially if we do, indeed, get serious about mitigating climate change. Solar PV also has a relatively low Energy Return on Investment (EROI as noted in the NR January 11th post.) In fact, some studies suggest that when all energy inputs are factored in, including mining and transport of materials and whatever storage or added generation capacity is needed for when the sun doesn’t shine, it may take more energy to install a solar PV system than you can ever get out of it. And finally, PV panels require rare earth metals and lots of fossil fuel energy to manufacture which, given their low EROI, may make them lower priority products in a more energy and resource constrained world. I would say that the prospect of ever getting to the National Renewable Energy Lab’s estimated US solar PV technical capacity of 819 trillion watt-hours (still only 20% of our current electricity use) is slim to none.
I also did a little digging into this claim in the article:
Even more striking are the policies enacted in Germany, which boasts more than a million solar systems, four times as many as the United States despite the fact that it has about one-fourth of the population. Last May 26, these mostly rooftop arrays produced 22 gigawatts—enough to meet half the country's electricity demand. It's worth noting that the "insolation," or sunniness factor, of Germany is worse than that of everywhere in the contiguous United States except rainy Seattle.
This just didn’t quite sound plausible, and when I looked a bit, I found the following on the solar-friendly “Climate Progress” web site:
On the 25th and 26th of May, Germany was able to meet one third of its peak demand with solar alone. There are now over one million solar systems installed across Germany. In 2011, solar accounted fo r 3 percent of the country’s total electricity generation (emphasis mine – PK) — a 60 percent increase over 2010.
Impressive yes, but a distinctly less glossy picture than we get from “Solar for All.” So the Weekly New Reality Check pulls back a bit from the clearly overly optimistic perspective in this week’s featured article. Does all this mean solar PV is a bad idea? Find out next week in: The Optimists Dilemma, Part 2: Solar for Some
New Reality Quiz of the Week First, here is the question from the last quiz:
Recently, former National Science Board Member James Powell (first a Ronald Regan then a George H. W. Bush appointee) looked for all the peer-reviewed scientific papers on global climate change published between 1991 and 2012. He found 13,950 of them. Of these 13,950 papers, how many rejected the prevailing belief that human-caused climate change is occurring? Answer: 24. Graphically inclined? It looks like this:
The week’s quiz question: These days we hear about many new and exciting energy sources from geothermal to wave energy to thorium reactors to algae-derived diesel to you name it. So what energy source is growing most rapidly in the world today?
Prevention, Mitigation, Adaptation | January 25, 2013
This post follows up on my New Year Post of January 4th, (The Promise) where I committed to three pursuits for the Weekly New Reality Check in 2013: to tell the truth, to look for hope within that truth, and to focus on strategies for building resilience within our network of agencies and the families and communities we serve. This week I knock off two if not all three of these commitments by going to EcoOptimism and a blog post entitled: Resilience – 2012 Word of the Year? The piece was written by EcoOptimism founder, accomplished “green” architect and self described optimist-in-chief, David Greenberg.
What I like about this piece is the way it embeds Resilience in the larger context of responses to the human predicament that I call the New Reality. In the face of a serious and credible threat like global warming, the primary focus of Greenberg’s article, resilience is framed by the three realistic and constructive, but contrasting and in many cases, competing strategies that are the title of this post: Prevention, Mitigation, and Adaptation. While the concept is really pretty simple, the choices it demands are very difficult. In the case of most serious threats - fire, disease, war, floods, poisoning the environment, you name it; prevention is the generally the most effective and least expensive strategy.
But if prevention is ignored or inadequate, you start moving along the continuum from the impossible toward the inevitable, and your choices get fewer and generally more costly in human suffering as well as in money. The middle of that continuum is particularly tricky because it can very difficult to figure out where to best put our limited resources; in prevention, in mitigation, or in adaptation to the inevitable. This too is part of the predicament we have created as countless lost opportunities for prevention have set the stage for the New Reality.
Hard choices are very familiar to families in poverty as well as to Community Action Agencies; nonprofits that rarely have enough resources to fully meet the compelling needs of their communities. Even so, as funding from our debt-burdened federal and state governments stagnates or shrinks, and as more demands are made on foundations and other funding sources, and as the ranks of Americans in poverty continue to grow, Community Action will have to make these hard choices very carefully. This week’s link may help us get our heads around this very tall order.
This week’s link contains a link which does exactly this; digs deeper into the concept of Resilience, in this case by contrasting resilience with sustainability. The link is an Op-Ed piece from the New York Times on November 2, 2012 by Andrew Zolli, co-author of the book “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back”. Here is a taste from the NYT Op-Ed:
- Hurricane Sandy hit New York hardest right where it was most recently redeveloped: Lower Manhattan, which should have been the least vulnerable part of the island. But it was rebuilt to be “sustainable,” not resilient, said Jonathan Rose, an urban planner and developer.
- “After 9/11, Lower Manhattan contained the largest collection of LEED-certified, green buildings in the world,” he said, referring to a rating program for eco-friendly design. “But that was answering only part of problem. The buildings were designed to generate lower environmental impacts, but not to respond to the impacts of the environment”
And this, which speaks to a point I have made a time or two about the contribution that low-income communities may make to addressing the challenges of the New Reality:
- In a reversal of our stereotypes about the flow of innovation, many of the most important resilience tools will come to us from developing countries, which have long had to contend with large disruptions and limited budgets.
Click here for the link to this thought provoking Op –Ed.
New Reality Quiz of the Week
First, here is the question from the last quiz: Since petroleum is used directly or indirectly in almost every activity in our economy, the price of oil is closely correlated to many other prices. Between 1999 and 2009, the price of oil rose by 497%. So how much did the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) core inflation rate, or core CPI, rise during that same period? Answer: 28.8% Go figure.
This week’s quiz question is on climate change. Recently, former National Science Board Member James Powell (first a Ronald Regan then a George H. W. Bush appointee) looked for all the peer-reviewed scientific papers on global climate change published between 1991 and 2012. He found 13,950 of them. Of these 13,950 papers, how many rejected the prevailing belief that human-caused climate change is occurring?
Tilting at Wind Generators | January 10, 2013
Last week’s post committed the Weekly New Reality Check (WNRC) to finding and highlighting areas of hope in a future reality that is growing ever more troublesome and challenging. This week we will take a whack at that commitment and see what happens. The arena for this week’s WNRC is renewable energy technology featuring a piece by Kurt Cobb entitled “The Clunky Lagging Transition to Renewable Energy” that appeared in the Christian Science Monitor on October 1, 2012.You may remember Kurt Cobb as the author of another WNRC link, also to a Christian Science Monitor piece, for the October 26th post, The Whopper, where he did a good job dismembering the US Energy Independence myth. In this piece, he lays out in detail why relying on renewable energy alternatives to provide the growing energy supplies that are required to grow the economy is also problematic. He notes:
- Perhaps the most important thing that people don't realize about building a renewable energy infrastructure is that most of the energy for building it will have to come from fossil fuels. Currently, 84 percent of all the energy consumed worldwide is produced using fossil fuels--oil, natural gas and coal. Fossil fuels are therefore providing the lion's share of power to the factories that make solar cells, wind turbines, geothermal equipment, hydroelectric generators, wave energy converters, and underwater tidal energy turbines. Right now we are producing at or close to the maximum amount of energy we've ever produced from fossil fuels. But the emerging plateau in world oil production, concerns about the sustainability of coal production, and questionable claims about natural gas supplies are warnings that fossil fuels may not remain plentiful long enough to underwrite an uneven and loitering transition to a renewable energy society.
So where is the hope? The hope does not lie in coming up with ever more exotic schemes to keep growing our energy use; it lies in the opposite direction, in taking action to reduce our energy demands. From the article:
- As for heat for buildings, certainly we could insulate and seal our existing buildings better. And, this points the way to achieving an energy transition within the time we need to achieve it.
This is pretty straightforward stuff in an area in which many Community Action Agencies have a great deal of experience through our many years of low-income residential weatherization work. There is a lot of other good information and ideas in this article. Well worth the read. Here is the link.
It often seems that low income households are at a disadvantage in every sector of our economic and social reality, but as we move deeper into the New Reality, there is one area where the poor, and Community Action Agencies that work with these families, may have an advantage. We understand the monetary value of energy conservation and have a lot of experience figuring out how to get by with less. These will be valuable skills in the coming years.
You may recall from an earlier post a discussion of Energy Return on Investment (EROI). This concept was pioneered by State University of New York Professor Charles Hall, and is very important to our understanding not only of our energy future, but also to our understanding the energy and economic history of the past 150 years or so. It is well worth noting that much of mainstream economic theory was formulated and “validated” during an historical period when our energy investments were yielding 50:1 energy returns. (a topic well worth a few posts of its own) Those days are long gone; EROI for all future energy sources will not come close to those returns from the early days of fossil fuel extraction, and is a major challenge for renewables as. This chart is from a paper by Charlie Hall and others on the EROI for corn ethanol:
Here is another take on the same concept from the Clean Energy Wonk web site:
The concept of Energy Return on Investment (EROI) , alternatively called Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI ) has been widely used to quantify this concept. The following chart, from a SciAm paper , shows the EROI of various sources of energy, with the tan section of the bar representing the range of EROIs depending on the source and the technology used. I’ve seen many other estimates of EROI, and this one seems to be on the optimistic (high EROI) end for most renewable energy sources.
The general trend is clear: the energy of the future will have lower EROI than the energy of the past. Low carbon fuels such as natural gas, nuclear, photovoltaics, wind, and biofuels have low EROI compared to high-carbon fuels such as coal and (formerly) oil.
The whole article is interesting; it’s entitled “Managing the Peak Fossil Fuel Transition”.
New Reality Quiz of the Week
First, the answer from the last quiz of December 14th: 353. Anybody remember the question? I didn’t either. Here it is: 15 years ago this week, an international treaty was adopted called the Kyoto Protocol. 191 nations (not the US) have since signed and ratified the binding agreement obligating them to cut greenhouse gas emissions to an average of 5.4% below 1990 levels by, well, right now; the end of 2012. Today, there are 392.8 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide (CO2)in the atmosphere. How many ppm of CO2 were in the atmosphere in 1990? [Note: The Doha climate agreement just concluded basically just extends this not-so-successful Kyoto Protocol.]
This week’s quiz:
Since petroleum is used directly or indirectly in almost every activity in our economy, the price of oil is closely correlated to many other prices. Between 1999 and 2009, the price of oil rose by 497%. So how much did the BLS core inflation rate, or core CPI, rise during that same period?
The Promise | January 4, 2013
Happy New Year to all of you from all of us here at the Weekly New Reality Check headquarters. Let’s see, counting everyone, that would be, er, me.
Like a lot of folks, I like to spend some time at the dawn of a new year to reflect on the year past and to give some thought to how that experience may inform my life and work in the year ahead. With regard to the Weekly New Reality Check (WNRC), my thoughts for this blog in 2013 have landed on these three closely related, and on the surface at least, sometimes conflicting areas; 1) Sustaining a commitment to the Truth, 2) considering the New Reality Initiative’s relationship to the pledge in our Community Action Promise* that Community Action “Embodies the Spirit of Hope,” and 3) putting a greater emphasis on practical ways of developing Resilience in our communities.
Sustaining a commitment to the Truth is a tricky and potentially embarrassing promise to make (see “correction” below). Albert Einstein, no less, made this point quite dramatically:
“Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.”
Now, being shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods, though a little unclear in terms of how that would actually work, seems like a thing to avoid if at all possible. So I will not claim to be a judge of Truth and Knowledge, but rather will do my best to present what I believe to be the most reliable, best documented and data-supported information I can find on these very important New Reality issues. Then you can be the judge (and face the gods.) What I will do my best to avoid is “confirmation bias” – seeking out and sharing only information that supports the basic tenants of the “Facing the New Reality” report while ignoring credible evidence that doesn’t. Nothing would make me happier than to be wrong about some of the grimmer aspects of the future shared in these posts, but I won’t pass along unsubstantiated nonsense just to give an appearance of “balance” either. To the Weekly New Reality Check, being truthful trumps all other considerations.
So, how does this square with our Promise to “embody the spirit of Hope?” This question was recently raised by a CAP director in our network. I think it is a very good question and I am thankful for having it raised. The phase “embodies the spirit of hope” sounds great and positive and all, but what does it really mean? We have no guidance on this, so its meaning is left to those who commit to the Promise. I don’t think anybody would seriously propose that to embody the spirit of hope is to deny reality, put on our rose colored glasses, cross our fingers and kid ourselves into thinking that everything is going to be OK, when the facts argue otherwise. To me meaningful hope is found in facing reality squarely and finding what hope we can within that reality. And despite the seriousness of the human predicament at this time in our history, I find that there is still much to be hopeful for in the months and years ahead, especially if we take action now to prepare for that real future. This to me truly “embodies the spirit of hope.” It also captures the essence of the New Reality Initiative itself, which is intended to spur action toward the creation of the most hopeful future realistically possible for our agencies and communities.
Which get us to the third track in this post; Resilience. What is resilience? Here is how resilience.org , a new creation of our friends at the Post Carbon Institute, answers that question:
Resilience is a rich and complex concept. It has roots in systems theory , and it has a variety of interpretations and applications including for ecosystems management, disaster preparedness, and even community planning. Our interpretation is based on the work of the Resilience Alliance , the leading scholarly body working on the resilience of social-ecological systems. In that field, resilience is commonly defined as the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and re-organize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks.
Or for the rest of us, resilience is the ability to best survive and even thrive in the challenging times ahead. So in 2013, I will be putting more emphasis on ways that Community Action can foster and enhance the resilience of our agencies, communities, and the systems in which we are embedded. And having started the year dangling over the fiscal cliff with much potential for disturbance ahead, a little more resilience will likely come in pretty handy.
Back to the familiar Connection – Digging Deeper – Quiz of the Week format next week, but for now:
Part of the commitment to the truth is to own up to any failures to get it right, and a regular WNRC reader pointed out two errors in my post of November 30, 2012. In that post I stated “… the consumer price index (CPI) on which social security increases are based does not include food and fuel in the calculations so the total increase in CPI is only 4.4% for the same period” Not so. The index upon which annual Social Security increases are based is the CPI – W, which does include a weighted calculation for food and gasoline. This reader also used a different calculation for the increase in gas prices for the period of February 2010 to October, 2012 and got a 42% increase as opposed to the 49% increase I had calculated using figures I have not been able to find since. That said, when you use the actual increase in Social Security based on the CPI-W for that period, it is still only a 5.4% increase for the period when gas prices went up by at least 42% and food prices rose by 7.4% (according to the USDA), so the point of the paragraph and of Chris Martenson’s “Fuzzy numbers” link, that these CPI calculations do not accurately reflect the real purchasing experience of low income buyers, still appears valid. To be fair, here is what the Bureau of Labor Statistics says in response to critics like Chris Martenson:
My careful read of the BLS response above, however, did as much to confirm Chris’ position as it did to refute it, but I did email Chris Martenson for some clarification. I have not yet heard back from him, but I will share his response if I get one. If you want to check Chris’ Fuzzy Numbers again, click here for the link.
I apologize for the errors and have thoroughly chastised the Weekly New Reality Check Research Department for their sloppy work on the 11/30/12 post.
* For those of you not familiar with the Community Action Promise, it always appears in the right hand column of this website.
You Can't Say That! | December 14, 2012
On December 3rd, the day after I returned from the ASPO Conference in Austin, it hit 55 degrees F in Minneapolis. The temperature here on this date typically varies from 21°F to 29°F and is rarely below 5°F or above 43°F, so this is, or at least used to be, abnormal. A week later we got 16 inched of heavy, wet snow dumped on us, then last night the thermometer bottomed out at -7 F. More records broken and more just weird weather. We are used to all these things around here, but not at the same time. So climate change is on my mind again. More specifically, I’m wondering where our national leadership is on this really very important issue now that the election and all its carefully crafted “messaging” is behind us.
This week’s featured link, a very short piece written by “Facing the New Reality” contributing author and Partnership Conference keynoter, Richard Heinberg, sheds a little light on this question. The title of the piece is the title of this post; “You Can’t Say That!,” in which Heinberg responds to these comments President Obama made at a press conference on November 14th:
- “There’s no doubt that for us to take on climate change in a serious way would involve making some tough political choices and understandably, you know, I think right now the American people have been so focused and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth that if the message somehow is that we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anyone’s going to go for that. I won’t go for that. If, on the other hand, we can shape an agenda that says we can create jobs, advance growth, and make a serious dent in climate change and be an international leader, I think that’s something that the American people would support.”
I rather like this statement. It appears to lay out very clearly what the President’s thoughts are on climate change and when and how he plans to deal with it. And that’s the problem. Or as Heinberg puts it: “What’s wrong with this picture? Well, almost everything.”
Before I continue though, I want to make a rather important point. I am not writing this to bash the President or even to imply that he is not a good president, nor was I trying to do so in previous “Change We Can Believe In” posts. What I am trying to do is make it clear why pronouncements from this president or any president or politician are not a good place to look for reliable information about what the future holds in store, especially about the tough parts. That’s why the whole New Reality Initiative draws on the best science and the best factual data that we can dig up, and on smart folks like Richard Heinberg whose analysis of these data can be more objective than the constraints of political or commercial reality allow for many of the voices in the popular narrative. Its as simple as that.
Heinberg ends up here:
- “So the real trade-off, the real choice we face, is not between climate protection on one hand and economic growth on the other. It’s between planned economic contraction (with government managing the post-carbon transition through infrastructure investment and useful make-work programs) as a possible but unlikely strategy, and unplanned, unmanaged economic and environmental collapse as our default scenario.”
Nobody has a crystal ball, but if these are the future scenarios best supported by the facts, then at least some of our efforts need go toward planning and preparing for them. Its pretty much as simple as that, too.
Click here for the link :
For a good piece on the current state of climate change negotiations, this post by Albert Bates from The Great Change web site does a good job of summarizing the recently concluded UN Framework Convention on Climate Change - Conference of the Parties in Doha, Qatar, and puts it in a useful historical perspective. It also links to the decidedly upbeat official web site of the conference. For those serious about the urgency of climate change, however, the outcome of the Doha conference will provide little comfort.
By complete coincidence though, the most recent book I have read was also written by Albert Bates, and it is the most encouraging book about the possibility of averting climate change disaster that I have yet encountered. Titled The Bio-Char Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change, Bates makes a compelling case for a plan that just might work! Watch this space. Who knows, maybe the Weekly New Reality Check will be a place to find some good news for the New Year.
The New Reality Quiz of the Week
Last week’s quiz question was a little complicated, so I repeat it here: “OK, so the worldwide annual depletion rate for existing oil wells is 4% per year. This is also known as “the problem” because you have to extract an additional 4% of “new” oil every year just to stay even, and they aren’t making the stuff anymore and the cheap, easy stuff is gone. So, what is the annual depletion rate for the much-touted Bakken oil field in North Dakota? Or as the popular media would have us believe, “the solution?” The answer? 40%, ten times the already problematic 4% depletion rate of conventional wells. You might want to noodle on that a bit.
This weeks quiz:
15 years ago this week, an international treaty was adopted called the Kyoto Protocol. 191 nations (not the US) have since signed and ratified the binding agreement obligating them to cut greenhouse gas emissions to an average of 5.4% below 1990 levels by, well, right now; the end of 2012. Today, there are 392.8 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide (CO2)in the atmosphere. How many ppm of CO2 were in the atmosphere in 1990?
Happy Holidays! This volunteer blogger is going to hang up his quill til January 4th, 2013. Peace and Joy to you all! - Peter
Heresy! | December 7, 2012
From its inception, the Weekly New Reality Check has been about telling the truth, even though that truth may be difficult to hear and hard to believe. Key to that mission is figuring out what to believe and why, and what not to believe and why not. This is a rather tall order, actually, and one which this writer at least, finds both challenging and humbling. I no doubt fail at times. The challenge is especially daunting these days, when the “popular narrative” is riddled with false and misleading information, and we live in an optimistic country that really, really wants everything to be OK. And we really, really don’t like being told that our future may be, as the New Reality report’s subtitle suggests, “ … Harder Times Ahead.” But if in fact harder times are coming, we really, really need to prepare for that reality.
Last week, ASPO – USA (Officially the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas - USA), the most fact-founded and brainy bunch of energy realist I have yet encountered, held their eighth annual conference, this year entitled: “The Next Energy Crisis: Is the Boom Just Another Bubble?” It was held in the heart of oil country on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin, and co-sponsored by the University of Texas Energy Institute, no less. Here is what the Dallas Morning News had to say about the event:
This story is remarkable for several reasons, not least of which is that it ran in the apparently courageous Dallas Morning News. I attended the conference, and near as I can tell, the reporter pretty much got it right. I especially appreciate his insights into the challenge of bringing the “New Reality” message to a public happy to believe that America is on the way to becoming the next Saudi Arabia, and energy independent to boot. The first couple paragraphs:
- It sounds like heresy but there’s a discouraging word coming out of energy-rich Texas: the days of booming oil production are almost over. A group of scientists, scholars and energy activists is meeting this week at the University of Texas to discuss what they see as an impending global decline in oil production. That would mean higher prices, more conservation, an emphasis on alternatives and lots of lifestyle changes. That’s not something people want to hear – or that politicians are inclined to talk about, which has made it difficult to advance their message.
- It’s a big debate. Optimists say, no problem, there’s plenty of oil underground — so much so that the U.S. will soon overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s biggest producer. That’s the prediction from the International Energy Agency. On the other side are the peak oil advocates who arrived on the UT campus this week with facts, figures, scholarly papers and a dire warning – the end is near, like it or not.
The story also attributes this quote to Tad Pazek. “It’s very difficult to fight the religious beliefs of anyone. And beliefs about energy supplies are very akin to religious beliefs.” So, what does Tad Pazek know? Well, quite a lot as it turns out. Dr. Pazek is the chair the 800-student Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering at the University of Texas, and a wide-ranging deep thinker on many topics. He is also the President of ASPO – USA. And a real nice guy.
There are many things I like about ASPO – USA. Like the Community Action Partnership and all of our agencies, ASPO – USA is a nonprofit with a mission. They aren’t selling anything or running for anything and are not discreetly funded by some folks who are. I’m on the ASPO Board and I see the books. (Got too much money? Send me some, then send some to ASPO) It’s also no coincidence that their new tag line, “Helping America Adapt to a New Energy Reality” may sound a tad familiar to anyone reading this blog. The other main thing I like about ASPO – USA is that their Board and the ASPO community are largely energy industry practitioners, financiers, researchers and academics. These aren’t folks who have just read a couple of books and have strong opinions. Their information is first rate, unspun, and reliable. And they are doing what they are doing for the same reason The New Reality Initiative exists; to help people understand and prepare for a very challenging future. This is a good relationship.
I have spent a little time with Tad Pazek’s blog, LifeItself: http://patzek-lifeitself.blogspot.com/ and that is a very interesting and information-rich place to hang out. Highly recommended. It may also be instructive to take a look at the Featured Speaker bios from the conference. You will be impressed and, quite possibly, a bit surprised. In future posts you will likely be exposed to some of their important work. Here is the link.
The New Reality Quiz of the Week
First, last week’s answer: Utah. (The one state where bullion coins are legal tender) This week’s quiz comes from the conference discussed above. OK, so the worldwide annual depletion rate for existing oil wells is 4% per year. This is also known as “the problem” because you have to extract an additional 4% of “new” oil every year just to stay even, and they aren’t making the stuff anymore and the cheap, easy stuff is gone. So, what is the annual depletion rate for the much-touted Bakken oil field in North Dakota? Or as the popular media would have us believe, “the solution?”
Change We Can Believe In — Part 2, Part 2: Getting to the Point | November 28, 2012
The last Weekly New Reality Check got a little long, so this week will restore the balance by being a little short. I will begin by proposing a new way to think about money, or more specifically, the dollar. You may recall that the last post discussed seven different things that function as dollars in America, and the New Reality Quiz of the week suggested that there was an eighth. Nobody correctly guessed what the eighth dollar is. It is the Silver Eagle pictured above (Note the date). I start this week by taking the unusual if not unprecedented step of ranking these various kinds of dollars in terms of their quality as money. (Yes, this is on the road to The Point.)
Highest Quality: The Silver Eagle.
This US minted coin is made of one oz. of 99.999% pure silver. About 40 million are minted every year and, as the coin says, it is legal tender as a dollar. But nobody uses them as money because these one dollar coins, in regular dollars as of today, contain $34.18 worth of silver. Silver Eagles are all about the intrinsic value of the object itself, and are minted as a way for folks to invest in physical silver. BTW, if you had bought $1,000 worth of Silver Eagles ten years ago, they would be worth $7,550 today. Compare that to the stock market or, say, your house.
2nd Best: The Silver Dollar
A bit of this dollar’s history was noted in the last post, but for the most part, these dollars (and the dollar equivalents of half dollars, quarters and dimes through 1964) were made from ¾ oz of 90% silver. So if you stuck a silver dollar, or four quarters, under your pillow in 1929, even if it was totally worn and useless as a collector coin, it would still be worth $23.07 today as “junk silver” in any coin shop. Note how nicely these keep up with inflation.
3rd Best: The Silver Certificate One Dollar Bill
Stick one of these under your pillow in 1921 and if you pulled it out in 1968, any bank teller would give you a silver dollar with $1.73 dollars worth of silver in it. Give it to your granddaughter for her 18th birthday today, and it would be worth at least $23.07. But if you if you didn’t exchange that silver certificate for a silver dollar in 1968 it would only be worth 7 cents today, except maybe to a collector if it was a rare issue.
4th Best: The Dollar Bill
Now almost totally devoid of intrinsic value, the humble dollar bill is only worth whatever folks generally believe it to be worth at whatever time it is spent. It almost always loses value over time, and can become worthless if the currency collapses, as currencies do from time to time. This can cause problems such as they had in Zimbabwe a few years back when the Zimbabwe Dollar, the Zim, collapsed and Zims were commonly used as toilet paper. The heavy paper they were printed on clogged toilets all over the country. Still, when Sandy hit New Jersey and all the cash machines and credit card readers failed, folks with dollar bills at least could buy gas and some necessities, while folks with credit cards and checkbook balances had to barter as best they could.
The Worst: Bank Money
Not only is this digital bank money completely devoid of intrinsic value, it is vulnerable to instant evaporation if the lights go out. Bob Halsch, a fellow Community Action Agency ED in Bergen County, New Jersey sent this out five days after Sandy hit his community:
- Things here are borderline desperate, even five days later. The devastation, in every aspect of that word is immense. This is the first moment I have had to stop and communicate with you about this. We are all cold and tired and the desperate hunt for gas is literally causing a violent breakdown of civil norms. And gas is the hottest commodity just now, especially to power generators where we can get them. And cash machines are depleted and no one can take credit cards. So commerce has virtually stopped in some neighborhoods. We are actually in a barter economy in some places.
Interesting how quickly the failure of this high-tech 21st Century monetary system drove the local economic arrangements back to somewhere around 1000 B.C. Which gets us, at long last, to The Point.
As folks in the anti-poverty biz, we spend a lot of time and money trying to get more dollars into the hands of low income families either by increasing income or by reducing expenses. While this is still the only monetary system we have, and while this work is extremely important for the security and well being of the growing numbers of poor families in our society, current dollars are increasingly problematic for two reasons. First, as the last two New Reality posts illustrate, the connection between dollars and real assets, or as I call it, real wealth, has continually eroded over time, and for reasons we will get into later (think derivatives) this process may be farther along then we realize. Second, unlike hard assets such as a house or a car or land or Silver Eagles or hand tools, or a bag of well preserved heirloom vegetable seeds, all of this dollar wealth is subject to manipulation and devaluation of all kinds; the topic of this week’s “Fuzzy Numbers” link below. As we move ever deeper into the New Reality and a contracting economy disguised as “slow but steady growth”, the disconnect between dollars and real assets will only increase, and may well separate entirely. What will we do if this happens?
The link and the newly-edited Connection and Digging Deeper paragraphs are repeated here from the “Hidden Poverty” Weekly New Reality Check of March 29th in the hopes that the discussion of dollars in the last two posts will shed some more light on the importance of Chris Martenson’s “Fuzzy Numbers” piece below, and his entire Crash Course.
The misleading methods used to calculate the government statistics noted above have very real consequences for poor Americans. For example, gas prices have gone up 49% since February of 2010 and food prices have skyrocketed, but the consumer price index (CPI) on which social security increases are based does not include food and fuel in the calculations, so the total increase in CPI is only 4.4% for the same period. This means that folks on social security have lost much of their buying power and are rapidly getting poorer year by year even as their checks get a little bigger. Many other programs like Medicare and even the annual adjustments in the Federal Poverty Guidelines themselves lose out to similar calculations. Here is an example from Wisconsin that should make this very clear. In 1997, Wisconsin replaced AFDC with Wisconsin Works (W-2). At that time, the maximum cash benefit a qualified household could receive was $673 per month. Now, 15 years of inflation later, the maximum cash benefit is all the way up to (wait for it) $673 per month. Or as the Bureau of Labor statistics calculates it, $489 today. Or as the more accurate Shadowstats calculates it, about $200 today. As state and federal debt pressures further constrain these programs, going deeper into the New Reality will mean going deeper into poverty for millions of Americans.
Take some time and watch all 20 chapters of the Crash Course available for free on chrismartenson.com. The course is designed to be consumed in small bites over several days, but its only 3hr 20m in length and gluttons for punishment like me have watched it all in an afternoon. There is also a middle ground, a 45 minute condensed version of the Crash Course also available on the site.
New Reality Quiz of the Week In the paragraph above about the Silver Eagle, I wrote “But nobody uses them as money.” While this is true in 49 states, it is a lie in one. There is a state which passed a law in 2012 that makes Silver Eagles and other precious metal coins legal tender based on their current market value by weight as precious metals. Which state passed this law?
Change We Can Believe In — Part 2 | November 16, 2012
In the Kilde household we save all pennies dated
1982 and older, all half dollars, quarters, and dimes dated 1964 and
older, and all nickels. We do this because with all of these coins,
the present day value of the metal these coins were made from exceeds
the nominal value of the coins. The copper in the pre-1982 pennies is
worth more than twice its nominal value and in the case of the 1964 and
older half dollars, quarters and dimes, the silver value exceeds the
nominal value by as much as 2100%! So when my 11-year old daughter
Katherine overheard me talking about the title I was thinking of for
last week’s post, Change We Can Believe In, she pipes up with; “Hey,
all those old coins we collect that are really worth something? That’s change we can believe in.” Katherine is a hoot.
story but what’s the point, right? Well, the journey to The Point has a
few twists and turns and will take at least two weeks, but The Point is
actually pretty important, and I will try to make the trip as
interesting as possible. I might even throw in a couple roadside
journey starts in ancient Egypt, which built one of the most elaborate
and enduring cultures the world has ever seen with no money at all.
Still holding the record for the largest tombs and temples ever, the
Egyptian labor force (not slaves) worked for (take note, Wisconsin)
beer. And bread. And, it’s believed, the honor of participating in
some of the coolest building projects the world had ever seen. The
Egyptians also placed a high value on gold and silver.
Roadside attraction #1.
In pharonic Egypt around 1213 BC, silver was much more highly valued
than gold. The minor, insignificant and short-lived pharaoh Tutankhamen
was buried in a casket of pure gold. Nicely tooled too. But Ramesses
II who reigned for 66 years and is generally regarded as the greatest of
all the pharaohs, was buried in a casket of pure silver. Cruder by far
in execution, presumably since the Egyptian metal workers had little
experience with silver, but impressive nonetheless. Next time you are
in the area, swing by the Cairo Museum where you can see them both.
It’s just a couple blocks off Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt’s
early as 650 BC, Lydian then Greek coins made from these precious
metals became the first widely accepted money because of the intrinsic
value of the metal in the coins themselves. Interestingly, an ounce of
gold would get you about as much stuff in ancient Rome as its current
value of US $1727 will get you today in modern Rome. By contrast, that
American dollar bill you stuffed under your pillow in 1971 will only get
you about 7 cents worth of stuff in 2012. (The first road sign
indicating where this road is headed).
Roadside attraction #2:
The thirty pieces of silver paid to Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus
would be worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $1000 today if the coins
were in the popular one-ounce size. Enough to tempt a modern Judas?
forward to 1880s America, and the dollar was a ¾ oz. coin made of 90%
silver, the half dollar, 3/8 oz. of 90% silver, the quarter 3/16 oz. and
dime 1/10th the weight of the silver dollar. All based somewhat on the
actual value of silver and assuring the powerful silver mining lobby a
fairly steady and profitable market. My 1862 penny is pure copper and
bigger than a modern quarter. In 1956, when my father gave me six new
dollar bills for my 6th birthday, the paper note boldly proclaimed “One Silver Dollar Payable to Bearer on Demand”.
Roadside attraction #3.
The British currency, the Pound, was originally 240 pennies made of
pure silver which weighed (wait for it…) a pound. It was dramatically
debased by the ever-popular Henry VIII who upped the copper content to
2/3, so much that the coins looked like copper. Later, the lighter but
purer 92.5% silver Pound Sterling became the standard.
1971, the government had printed five times more “silver certificates”
and other gold-backed treasury notes than they actually had silver and
gold, when France, worried about how Richard Nixon could pay for the
Vietnam War without raising taxes,(sound familiar?) showed up at the US
teller window with $191 million in US Treasury notes and said, in
effect: “We’ll take that gold now.” They got it. But when they came
back for more a few days later, Richard Nixon replied, in effect, “You
didn’t get the memo? America just went off the gold standard, er,
yesterday. But trust me, that paper note you hold is still worth a
dollar because I say it is.” (Or as we like to call it in 2012; seven
1971, we entered the modern experience of “fiat” currency; currency that
has its value simply because it is declared to be worth some abstract
value by its government and floated against all other major currencies
also of abstract relative value. Its intrinsic value has evaporated completely. It is just pretty paper.
the first known attempts at fiat currency was when the late Roman
Emperors, like the ever popular Nero, realized that it was costing more
to support the Empire than the Empire returned in taxes, tributes, and
loot (because they had already depleted the resource, so to speak) and
didn’t have enough money to pay all the soldiers, farmers, potters,
vintners, bureaucrats, loyal patricians and hangers on. So these
emperors repeatedly debased the originally pure silver denarius by
mixing it with ever more copper and declaring that it was still worth as
much as the old coins because they said so, and they were emperors, for
God’s sake. They even fixed the price of common commodities. But by
274 AD, the denarius was only 2% silver. Nobody bought it anymore and
the empire collapsed. (I know this is far from the whole story, but
it’s a bigger part than most realize.) This is pretty much the story of
fiat currencies ever since, all of which have either gone from their
original declared value to no value at all, or like the US dollar and
the Greek drachma, are headed in that direction.
various reasons, the minting of 90% silver dollars ended in 1935.
Then, due in part to the inflationary effect of the US government
printing way more one-dollar bills, or “silver certificates” than we had
silver to back it up, the next silver dollars minted from 1971 - 1976
were only 40% silver, and the last “silver dollars” minted from 1976 –
1978 contained no silver whatsoever. Sound familiar? And all those
lovely 90% silver half dollars, quarters and dimes? A few half dollars
were also minted until 1970 of 40% silver, but, like all quarters and
dimes minted since 1964, they are now made from copper with a little
nickel plating. The nickel? Well, that’s 75% copper, and that old
copper penny, that’s now 97.5% zinc. There have also been three other
US one-dollar coins, the ever popular Susan B. Anthony (92% copper, 8%
nickel), and the further debased Sacagawea and Presidential coins (both
only 77% copper, 12% zinc, etc). Interesting how well this turned out
for the Romans.
2012, even the heavily debased and abstract dollar bill is losing
ground, and most of our money supply is even less substantial and more
abstract: it’s just computer digits, commonly called “bank money”. This
road is going downhill and The Point is coming into view. Once again,
it is costing more to maintain the empire than the empire returns in
taxes, tribute (economic advantages) and loot (oil and other natural
resources). You can’t debase digits by mixing them with copper and
zinc, so our government does something Nero couldn’t: it crushes its
children and grandchildren under mountains of debt and jiggers the
figures to obscure the reality of our economic predicament.
I wouldn’t want any faithful Weekly New Reality Check readers to have
nothing to think about for a couple of weeks (I’m kidding, OK?!), so I
will close this week with a troubling observation shaped in part by New
Reality author, Dr. Nate Hagens: We have robbed trillions of dollars
from our children and grandchildren by racking up this huge debt for
them to deal with. (Note: Some folks use the term borrowing from our
children, but we did not ask them for a $20 Trillion loan and we have no
plan to pay it back, so it’s much more like stealing than borrowing.
Imagine going into a bank with your 413 credit score, asking for an
unsecured $1 Million loan and telling them there is no way you can pay
back that loan so the bank will just have to pay it back themselves.
How do you suppose that would go over?) Even worse, we have used much
of that stolen money to rob them of their natural inheritance too. We
used it to finance our current lifestyle that burns their oil, depletes
their soil, pollutes their air and water, destroys their ocean fisheries
and mines as much of their metal, fertilizer and minerals as we can
possibly consume. This New Reality is beginning to dawn on the younger
generation across the world. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and
predict that ancestor worship will not be a big part of the religious
and cultural experience of the next few generations.
Be thankful that you won’t be asked to consider anything like the last
paragraph. Not by me anyway. The Weekly New Reality Check is taking
Nov.30th? Change We Can Believe In – Part 2 – Part 2: Getting to The Point
New Reality Quiz of the Week.
With last Weeks’ question answered above, here is this week’s
question: This post mentions seven different kinds of dollars – ¾ oz.
silver dollars (or their silver fractional equivalents), one dollar
silver certificates, post 1971 dollar bills, three other recent and
wildly unpopular dollar coins, and digital or bank dollars. There is
yet another US-issued dollar that is legal tender in America. What is
it? (Hint: It’s not food stamps or SNAP cards)
Change We Can Believe In — Part 1 | November 9, 2012
Most of you will recognize this as President Obama’s key slogan in the 2008 election. It referred primarily to his promise to change the partisan gridlock that had become business as usual in Washington, D.C. Well, it did change. It got worse. Now to be fair, the other party did employ a favorite political tactic for sabotaging a person (or program) you don’t like – you do everything possible to make that person (or program) fail, then stand back with great indignation, point accusingly, and exclaim; “Look! He/She/That program-is a failure!” So Mitt Romney, standard bearer for that other party, shows up in 2012 to mock Obama with this slogan; “Real Change on Day One”. The Audacity of Hype. Didn’t work. I’m glad it’s over.
In reality of course, after spending about $6 Billion on the election, or 9 times the annual federal Community Services Block Grant expenditure deployed to address one of this campaign’s totally missing issues – poverty - we are pretty much back where we were before. Except that all the problems these courageous politicians kicked down the road to post-election, are now sitting there waiting for them; bigger, uglier and meaner than ever. So much for change.
But this post is about change we really can believe in – Climate Change. It follows directly on last week’s post, but digs a little deeper into the significance of a few events that have already profoundly changed America early in the 21st Century. Its featured link very thoughtfully makes the New Reality connections between climate change, resource depletion, and economic turmoil. Forwarded by a friend and former CAP director, the piece has appeared in several places, linked here to Resilience.org . Entitled, ominously but appropriately, “The Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse” it was written by long-time progressive author and reporter, Rebecca Solnit. Click here for the the link.
This really is a deep and important read. Solnit looks for the messages in “911”, in Katrina, in the Wall Street Collapse, and now in Sandy. A taste from the second horseman:
- Katrina’s message was that we needed to face the dangers we had turned our back on when the country became obsessed with terrorism: failing infrastructure, institutional rot, racial divides, and poverty. And larger than any of these was the climate -- the heating oceans breeding stronger storms, melting the ice and raising the sea level, breaking the patterns of the weather we had always had into sharp shards: burning and dying forests, floods, droughts, heat waves in January, freak blizzards, sudden oscillations, acidifying oceans.
There is another kind of change we can believe in – the change we make ourselves. In the Community Action Promise, we affirm that our work is about “changing lives”. I believe in these changes because, like you, I see them every day in the results of our work in low-income households and communities. But among the lives we need to change are our own. Rebecca Solnit says it very well in her conclusion:
- As the horsemen trample over all the things we love most, it becomes impossible to distinguish natural disaster from man-made calamity: maybe the point is that there is no difference anymore. But there’s another point: that we can prevent the worst of the impact in all sorts of ways, from evacuation plans to carbon emissions reductions to economic justice, and that it’s all tied up together.
- I wish Sandy hadn’t happened. But it did, and there have been and will be more disasters like this. I hope that radical change arises from it. The climate has already changed. May we change to meet the challenges.
So why can we believe in Climate Change and not believe in Change We Can Believe In? (Yes, writing can be fun.) This is where a little effort and discipline come in. We have to, as I wrote last week, shut up and listen. We also have to shut off the hollow yammering of the popular narrative and seek out more authentic voices. Like our own eyes and experience. Like facts. Like trustworthy sources. Like the National Academy of Sciences who wrote this in 2009. “Researchers used:
- … an extensive dataset of 1,372 climate researchers and their publication and citation data to show that 97 percent to 98 percent of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of [anthropogenic climate change] outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [or IPCC] and the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of [anthropogenic climate change] are substantially below that of the convinced researchers”.
I'm a believer.
New Reality Quiz of the Week
Last week’s quiz question was: How much have average US workers’ wages risen since 1998? Answer: 49% (source , Social Security Administration) Remember, the price of gasoline has gone up 300%. More on this kind of targeted inflation and its effects in upcoming posts.
This week’s quiz question: OK, so what’s Change We Can Believe In – Part 2 about? (hint: the idea for next week’s post was suggested by my 11 year old daughter.)
Quiet Everybody! Sandy has the Floor | November 2, 2012
“Frankenstorm” Sandy has a very important message for the humans in the room, and we humans need to do something we are not very good at. We need to shut up and listen.
With a little digging, you can find some discussion of the relationship between Sandy and Climate Change in the mainstream media, but all the headline stories I saw were about how, once again, a rare freak of nature has occurred. Sandy is categorized as a 1,000 year hurricane, meaning a hurricane whose size and intensity makes it such a rare occurrence that such a storm only occurs on average once every 1,000 years. A 500 year hurricane is a storm that occurs, on average, once every 500 years. So when did the last 500 year hurricane hit the New York region? It was Hurricane Irene, just last year. What is Sandy telling us?
Sandy is telling us that we have entered a New Reality. Supported by the massive, record shattering Pakistan floods of 2010 (and 2011 and 2012), the Russian heat wave of 2010, the Australian Drought/Floods of 2011 and America’s 2012 record breaking temperatures, droughts, forest fires and tornados, and hundreds of other “freaks of nature” around the world, all happening at an accelerating pace and an increasing intensity, this message is only ignored at our deep peril. And for all practical purposes, unconscionably, ignored as well by both presidential campaigns.
Here is more of Sandy’s message:
- As far as weather is concerned, the past can no longer accurately predict the future.
- We have entered a more dangerous and damaging climactic era which will only get more dangerous and damaging in the decades ahead, no matter what we do.
- Climate Change mitigation must begin in earnest NOW to lessen the ferocity and speed of this inevitability in order to give us as much time as possible to adapt.
- The stakes are very high. It is not just jobs and property that are in play, its life and death, possibly on an unprecedented scale.
- We must face this New Reality by adapting to its changes and preparing for the real future, not the La-La Land of the popular narrative.
My ongoing inquiry into the question of why we humans have such a hard time getting our heads around the New Reality leads ever deeper into the way humans process information and assess risk. It is in this arena that the author of this week’s linked article, George Lakoff, makes a significant contribution to our understanding of weather disasters and climate change and to help move us, at long last, to begin taking appropriate action. Lakoff is Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley and author of 10 books, including the 1997 classic, Moral Politics. In this week’s article, “Global Warming Systemically Caused Hurricane Sandy” posted on 10/30, Lakoff’s well reasoned parsing of the distinction between direct causation and systemic causation may help move the climate change/extreme weather (so called) “debate” in much the same way as the smoking/ lung cancer “debate” was finally resolved 30 years ago. Here is a taste:
The precise details of Hurricane Sandy cannot be predicted in advance, any more than when, or whether, a smoker develops lung cancer, or sex without contraception yields an unwanted pregnancy, or a drunk driver has an accident. But systemic causation is nonetheless causal.
Consider this quote from "Perception of climate change," by James Hansen, Makiko Sato, and Reto Ruedy, Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:
...we can state, with a high degree of confidence, that extreme anomalies such as those in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow in 2010 were a consequence of global warming because their likelihood in the absence of global warming was exceedingly small.
The crucial words here are high degree of confidence, anomalies, consequence, likelihood, absence, and exceedingly small. Scientific weasel words! The power of the bald truth, namely causation, is lost.
It’s way past time to be immobilized by the “debate” on climate change. Time for a little Community Action!
Click here for the link.
The Connection In the Community Action network, we know all too well how the aftermath of events like Sandy unfold. It is tough for everybody affected, but it is devastating for those who lose everything and have no insurance or savings to help them rebuild their lives. Our folks. Not to mention the economic impact of these events and all the ways that will compromise low-income families. If any sector of society should be actively addressing this issue, it’s us.
It was once again a little discouraging to see Lakoff’s very well thought out piece end up with an incomplete and slightly misleading final thought:
Next. Do all we can to move to alternative energy worldwide as soon as possible.
Implied here, once again, is that alternative energy will substitute for fossil fuels, which is simply not true. I am all for renewable alternative energy, and soon, but folks have to understand that this will also mean much less energy per person and much less per economy. That part of the message is rarer than, say, a 1000 year hurricane.
On the bright side though, another article appeared in the Scientific American, also posted on 10/30 and addressing the same issue as Lakoff. Entitled, “Did Climate Change Cause Hurricane Sandy?” the opening sentence pretty well sums it up:
If you’ve followed the U.S. news and weather in the past 24 hours you have no doubt run across a journalist or blogger explaining why it’s difficult to say that climate change could be causing big storms like Sandy. Well, no doubt here: it is.
This clear, unambiguous statement from an authoritative source also is a sign of some progress within the scientific community’s understanding of how to frame climate science for public consumption. Click here for the link.
One of the central themes of the New Reality Initiative is that over time, the issues laid out in the Facing the New Reality report will move from the abstract to the concrete, from the theoretical to the undeniable. Sandy is another clear milepost on that road.
New Reality Quiz of the Week
Last week’s quiz question was: What is the most recent year in which gasoline prices in America averaged $.95 a gallon? Answer: 1998. (If you guessed the early 1980’s, you’d be wrong, but you’d have lots of company.) Since this year’s average gasoline price, despite the little pre-election dip, is about $3.80 per gallon, this represents a 300% increase since 1998 in the cost of a product that is a necessity for almost all working Americans.
This week’s quiz question is: How much have average US workers’ wages risen since 1998?
The Whopper | October 26, 2012
In Monday's presidential debate, President Obama objected to Governor Romney’s characterization of his early mid-east trips as an “apology tour” by calling this allegation “ the biggest whopper that has been told in the course of this campaign.” I beg to differ. The biggest whopper that has been told in this campaign has been told by both sides which is, in effect, “We will make America Energy Independent (by 2020 in the Romney plan, Obama is a bit vaguer on the timing) and restore the economy to growth and prosperity for all.”
To my mind, at least, what makes a lie a whopper is not just how far it deviates from the truth, but how important the truth is in the matter. The statement “The Man in the Moon is angry” may be a total stranger to truth, but who cares? As for the promise to a hurting nation to make America Energy Independent and restore the economy? That’s a falsehood with consequences; a Whopper. What is particularly vexing about this particular campaign promise is that there is a profound truth imbedded here – that restoring our economy and lifestyles to “growth” depends on access to abundant, cheap energy. That’s the truth. And that’s the problem.
(OK, time to insert the caveats. Caveat #1) Is a lie still a lie if the teller thinks it’s the truth? Probably not. I rather suspect that it works something like this. Both candidates truly believe that their getting elected President would be better for America than if the other guy gets elected. Both candidates probably believe that everyone knows campaign promises are, to put it charitably, exaggerated. Both candidates surround themselves with credible experts who help formulate energy/environment/economic positions that they believe will appeal to their base and to most undecided voters. So you stretch the truth a little to get elected. The end justifies the means, right? Caveat #2) The purpose of this post is not to dump on either campaign or to influence how or if anyone votes. The purpose is to persuade the Community Action network, and anyone else who might be listening, to prepare for harder times ahead. The New Reality Initiative approach is to make this case with sound reasoning and solid data.)
Since America currently imports close to 9 million barrels (October 19, 2012 DOE Energy Information Administration data) of crude oil each day (about 60% of what we use) from the world markets, we are a long way from energy independence. For both parties, the road to the kind of Energy Independence they envision relies heavily on the continued rapid development of “unconventional” liquid fuels like shale oil, oil shale, tar sands, and natural gas liquids which are not what we have generally known as “oil”.
As it turns out, production of the familiar stuff, sweet crude, has been on the decline in America for most of the last 40 years despite the drilling of literally millions of wells. So this increased production from unconventional sources has to keep expanding by 500,000 to 600,000+ bbl/day each year just to keep up with the accelerating depletion rates of existing wells in order to just maintain our import oil dependence at 9 million barrels a day. Here we must compete successfully (i.e.; pay whatever that market demands) with China, India, and 155 other oil importing countries in a shrinking global oil market. So much for the cheap part. (for more on the shrinking global market, see the August 10, 2012 Weekly New Reality Check entitled “Welcome to the club” )
How likely is it that these unconventional oil sources will get us to Energy Independence by 2020? Well let’s see. Overall net “oil” production in the US has increased slightly in recent years, thanks to $100/bbl oil and a “fracking” boom, but let’s not go hog wild on the rosy predictions here. Note for example that in January of 2012, Alaska and the North Dakota Bakken (fracked shale oil) fields combined produced 1.5 mbbl/day. In June, however, they were producing…. 1.5 mbbl/day. Not encouraging. Montana’s shale oil production has gone down 40% since the fracked shale oil production peaked there in 2006. And as Jeffrey Brown, independent geologist and ASPO- USA Board Vice-President recently wrote:
- In Texas, which has had the longest recent history of the use of widespread modern drilling and completion efforts in shale gas plays, we have seen a steady year over year increase in Barnett Shale gas production, through 2011. However, total Texas natural gas well production started declining in 2009, as rising shale gas production could no longer offset declines elsewhere (Texas RRC data). The Texas data are not encouraging for either the longer term US shale gas outlook or for the longer term US shale oil outlook.
Which gets us to this week’s link, part 3 of a 6 part series recently published in the Christian Science Monitor. The piece is entitled “Tar sands, oil shale and heavy oil: Why the conventional wisdom about unconventional oil is likely to be wrong” The excellent author is also a fellow ASPO – USA Board member, Kurt Cobb. Click here for the link. The best evidence makes it clear that future US energy supplies will be neither cheap nor abundant, and that pretty much pulls the rug out from under the hope for a booming economy and all its promises. Pop goes the Whopper.
Many may be tempted to believe, based on their claims, that the election of either candidate will lead to Energy Independence, renewed prosperity and all the rest, and thus encouraged, plan accordingly. Let me put it this way; if you believed, as you boarded that plane, that you were going on a two week vacation cruise in the Bahamas and in fact you were parachuted alone into the Yukon in the dead of winter, you might find yourself wishing that you had packed a little differently.
There are, in fact, many more problems with this “Energy Independence” promise than this brief post can address. But here is one: Astute observers may note that both campaigns’ visions of Energy Independence do not rely on “oil” alone, but include nuclear and coal generated electric power, wind power, solar power and other renewables. This is true, but electricity is not a substitute for gasoline or diesel, and 93% of all American transportation is run on these fuels. Of that, 10% of the gasoline is ethanol, and 2% of the diesel is bio-diesel, and even this level of production is under great pressure in drought stricken America from the growing scarcity of two great bio-fuel competitors some view as necessities; food and water.
New Reality Quiz of the Week Back by wildly exaggerated popular demand, this weeks’ quiz question is: What is the most recent year in which gasoline prices in America averaged $.95 a gallon? You have to guess first, and then look it up if you want to. Answer here next week.
Elephants | October 17, 2012
I am not really trying to get an exotic animal theme going with these posts, but Elephants: the Metaphor is what this week’s featured link is all about. The format is a video of Dr. Nate Hagens’ June 18, 2012 closing presentation at the ASPO International Conference in Vienna, Austria. (ASPO International is the Association for the Study of Peak Oil. I serve on the Board of Directors for the American Affiliate; ASPO-USA) Nate’s presentation is entitled: “Navigating through a Room full of Elephants.”
In what is sometimes referred to as the “Peak Oil Community”, Nate Hagens is one of the most highly regarded thought leaders. Nate has appeared on PBS, BBC, and NPR, and has lectured around the world. He holds a Masters Degree in Finance from the University of Chicago and a PhD in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont. Previously Nate was President of Sanctuary Asset Management and a Vice President at the investment firms Salomon Brothers and Lehman Brothers. After leaving Wall Street, he was, for a number of years, the chief editor for the Oil Drum, an authoritative web site devoted to energy resource depletion and related issues. Dr. Hagens currently works part-time for the Geneva based Institute for Integrated Economic Research. And most importantly, (well, to me anyway) he was also one of the select few who participated in the August 2010 Community Action Partnership retreat that gave rise to the Facing the New Reality report, for which he was a contributing author.
This particular presentation winds up here as part of the current series focusing on what to believe and what not to believe about our all-important energy and economic future. Nate’s presentation draws on behavioral science, natural history, economics, and other wide-ranging disciplines to challenge many of the elephants in the room that are the glaring deficiencies in the popular narrative. This is good stuff. I have watched this video three times in the past month and have drawn more from this deep well on every visit. The presentation is engaging, humorous at times, and non-technical. 48 minutes very well spent. Click here for the link.
Many years ago I was the beneficiary of some good council from a wise and experienced elder. He said; “The first step in attaining wisdom is to know what you are up against.” So what are we up against when we encounter all these optimistic claims about a resource intensive future that simply isn’t possible given the physical constraints of planet Earth? Nate goes to the root of this really basic question by shedding some light on a question I have been noodling on for some years: What are humans and how did we get this way? This, in turn, gets to the question of why are we so prone to believe things that are clearly untrue. Getting a handle on that makes the truth more accessible: a key goal of the New Reality Initiative.
The 2012 ASPO International conference at which Nate spoke also included presentations from other first rate experts from around the world. Some of the most popular are linked on the right side of the site and are well worth the listen if you want to dig deeper into the latest and greatest thinking in the energy resource depletion arena. You may also note that Nate’s presentation has been viewed almost twice as often as the next closest presenter, a further testament to his stature in this field.
The Details | October 12, 2012
The central campaign message of both major parties in US presidential elections boils down to this: “Vote for me and everything will get better.” But a third party candidate from 20 years ago (and one whose warnings about “the giant sucking sound” of jobs leaving America and the looming dangers of an exploding national debt have proven prophetic) made a very important observation about the rosy promises of his major party rivals. In 1992, Ross Perot hammered home the notion that; “The Devil is in the details.”
So once again, we are promised a big economic recovery and something called “energy independence” (a complex topic for a future post) from both Romney and Obama, though their plans vary a bit as to how this will be achieved. Both plans agree, however, that abundant affordable energy is key to the future widespread prosperity they plan to provide for the electorate. Enter the Devil and all those pesky details.
The bright prosperous future for America’s energy and economy relies heavily on recent developments in the extraction of “unconventional” oil and natural gas, and these details are crawling with devils. This week’s link by professor Michael T. Klare entitled “The New Golden Age of Oil that Wasn’t: Forecasts of Abundance Collide with Planetary Realities” does an excellent job of parsing the hype from the hard realities that shed some serious darkness on these sunny predictions. It also serves as an excellent summary of where we stand overall with regard to shale oil, oil shale, tar sands, deepwater drilling, fracked gas, the Keystone XL pipeline and the whole composite US energy picture that all this future prosperity depends on. Here is the link.
If these campaign promises are, to put it kindly, unrealistic: then what? The answer is found in the hard facts that the New Reality Initiative is all about – resource depletion and environmental degradation in a world with an ever-growing population, and the inevitable economic contraction that these facts portend. This week’s link also does a nice job of illustrating another key theme of the New Reality which is that the often segregated issues of resource depletion, environmental degradation and economic turmoil are, in fact, inseparable. Check this quote from the article:
“The drought’s impact on hydro-fracking became strikingly evident when, in June and July, wells and streams started drying up in many drought-stricken areas and drillers suddenly found themselves competing with hard-pressed food-producers for whatever water was available.”
Note too that this is not a prediction. This is last summer’s reality.
Here is an interesting little opinion piece on Ross Perot from the Washington Post entitled “Ross Perot 2012!”.
And the feature article for this post is full of links to sources which provide more detail and background on the major points of this very informative piece. The more important deeper dig here, however sadly, is found in the concluding paragraph:
“The truth is this: there is just one possible golden age for U.S. (or any other kind of) energy and it would be based on a major push to produce breakthroughs in climate-friendly renewables, especially wind, solar, geothermal, wave, and tidal power”.
While Klare obviously did a great job researching the body of this article, he concludes with what reads like a faith statement or, if you will, a campaign promise. I am all for the development of the renewables he lists (though perhaps for slightly different reasons), but this image of a new Golden Age of US Energy dodges the larger truth which is that we as a society and as individuals are going to have a lot less energy and other vital resources at our disposal than we do today no matter what we do. And the details that flow from that are devilish indeed.
Ingrid, Mitt, and Green That Isn't | October 5, 2012
Like most of you, I like these concise, unambiguous article titles. Anyway, my daughter Ingrid and Mitt Romney have something in common – an active interest in dressage. This would be the very formal, competitive English equestrian sport that is not, shall we say, generally associated with low-income communities. While I am pretty comfortable in asserting that Ingrid’s investment in dressage is vastly more modest than Mitt’s, the Kilde and Romney households likely have something else in common; we both surely receive numerous equestrian equipment and supply catalogs. On the cover of one such catalog just received, I saw a little green (of course) emblem with this message:
Too many catalogs? Call or email us to cancel. Then visit us online for eco-friendly shopping!
Setting aside the oxymoronic concept of eco-friendly consumerism and the subtle fact that getting customers to data enter their own orders so the catalog store investors can increase profits by cutting low-wage workers and print shop employees, this post is really about the implied notion that the internet is “eco-friendly”.
Not so, claims an extensive and thoroughly investigated September 22nd article in the New York Times. Titled “Power, Pollution and the Internet” this piece lifts the veil off the popular narrative of a cheap, clean, marvelous, eco-friendly Internet. Here are some choice quotes from the article:
- These physical realities of data are far from the mythology of the Internet: where lives are lived in the “virtual” world and all manner of memory is stored in “the cloud.”
- In fact, …”Worldwide, the digital warehouses use about 30 billion watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants.”
- And .. “In Silicon Valley, many data centers appear on the state government’s Toxic Air Contaminant Inventory, a roster of the area’s top stationary diesel polluters.”
Currently, data centers in America consume 2% of the nation’s electricity, and the “need” for additional data storage capacity is growing exponentially. For the complete picture, we have to add to this the power requirements of the countless computers, servers, smart phones and other equipment on the receiving end of all this stored data. Click here for the link .
Most experts agree that electricity generation worldwide is the leading cause of global warming, with transportation and agriculture coming in at distant second and third places respectively. So the rapidly rising “demand” for ever more data storage = exacerbating the global warming crisis. It’s pretty much that simple. And what happens when the three million (and growing) data storage centers worldwide have to compete with real needs like food production, manufacturing, air conditioning in a warming world, and mass transit, for diminishing and ever more expensive fossil fuels? As the New Reality report notes, it is by no means a certainty that the Internet we have come to depend on for every system and economic function imaginable, will be there for us when the New Reality itself really kicks in. Guess what segment of the population will be the first to lose access? We are not even thinking, let alone preparing, for this very real possibility.
The Internet, which I love and hate and use for hours every day, is problematic in many more ways than touched on above. The whole system is not only an energy hog, it is also totally reliant on staggeringly complex systems, supply chains, rare and exotic and toxic materials, and very specialized knowledge. Unfortunately, the history of human civilization suggests that increasing complexity does not generally lead to happy endings. A great place to start digging is anthropologist Joseph Tainter’s 1988 classic, The Collapse of Complex Societies. Still in print and highly regarded by the prognosticators with the best track records.
Another aspect of the deeper dig here is a thread that connects all of these New Reality Check posts, which is this fundamental question: With all the conflicting information out there, who can we believe? One of the reasons I pay close attention to the “Peak Oil” writers and their ilk is that they have been the most right the most often of any group I know. New Reality report author, Dmitry Orlov, was blogging about this topic just now hitting the New York Times - the tremendous power consumption of data centers - three years ago. These folks have also been way ahead of the popular media on a host of other important issues like the housing bubble collapse of 2008 and the current European debt crisis.
PS: For those New Reality Check readers who have been struggling tirelessly trying to answer last week’s extra credit question, time’s up. You lose. With the exception of Robyn T. of Downsville (I am not making this up) Wisconsin, who got it right: Tom Robbins’ Still Life with Woodpecker. She gets chocolate.
PPS: Thanks to Jim L. for sending me to the NYT story featured in this post.
The Mongoose Fix | September 28, 2012
When European sailors first landed on Hawaii’s shores, they offloaded some familiar stowaways. Rats. Soon Hawaii had a big rat problem. By the late 19th century, rats in Hawaii were raising Cain, or more precisely, raising hell with the farmers who were raising cane, so the farmers imported 72 Indian Mongooses to deal with the rats. They did eat rats. They ate just about everything else too, including, insects, spiders, snails, slugs, frogs, lizards, snakes, birds, eggs of birds and reptiles, all kinds of rodents, crabs, fish and fruits, wreaking havoc with both the native ecosystem and Hawaiian agriculture. And so, with no natural predators, Hawaii soon had a HUGE mongoose problem. Still does. Still has a rat problem too.
This cautionary tale came to mind when I read the New York Times piece last June that is the focus of this week’s post. In a nutshell, the industrial world came together in1987 under the Montreal Accord and agreed to replace Ozone-destroying HFCs in air conditioners with ozone friendly CHFC’s. A major environmental success story. Except it turns out that the now ubiquitous CHFCs are 2100 times more potent global warming gasses than CO2, that air conditioner using CHFCs are selling like hotcakes in an ever hotter and more prosperous India, that up to 27% of global warming is expected to be caused by CHFCs by mid-century, and that the massive atmospheric shifts caused by that global warming is moving one mostly forgotten but still growing Ozone Hole from the Arctic, where it really didn’t do too much damage, to more populated areas of northern Europe, where the potential for damage to humans (skin cancer) and wildlife (blindness) is much greater. Click here for the link .
Two elements of this story connect in important ways to the New Reality report and initiative. The first is the importance of seeing the Big Picture and all its related parts. If one only looked at reducing the size of the ozone hole, the Montreal Accord was a great environmental success, just as the early results from the mongoose rat control looked great to the Hawaiian sugar cane farmers, for awhile. But if the price of the ozone hole fix is a global warming disaster, it is a losing proposition. We need to look for a third way, or prepare for the change. Similarly, the big switch from coal to natural gas-fueled electric power plants is still generally praised for its reduction of the greenhouse gas, CO2, but in fact it has greatly increased emissions of methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas in the short term.
Thanks, in part, to the explosion of the fracking technology discussed in earlier posts, which has also unleashed a witches’ brew of other serious environmental threats. Another solution that may end up worse than the problem it was meant to solve. This is not to suggest, of course, that all technological solutions are worse than the problems they mean to solve, but countless examples of this pattern in our history urge strongly for caution when it comes to depending on the notion that we can fix everything and make it better. Sometimes we fail and some problems, like the depletion of non-renewable, essential resources, and species extinction are simply not solvable. Gone is Gone. Period. We just have to adapt to the outcome.
Which gets to the central message of the New Reality Initiative. We need to stop waiting for some great techno-solutions to come along and fix the huge environmental and resource depletion problems that are at the core of the New Reality. While doing what we can to mitigate these problems, we also need to get ready; to prepare for increased hardships in a more challenging world. Learning to live locally with less, with fewer resources per capita, is our safest bet.
The reference to the Arctic Ozone hole moving south is not in the NYT article. Some info about it can be found here. As for the interesting and one would hope, illuminating history of rats and mongooses in Hawaii, here is a brief recent account.
P.S. Extra credit for correctly guessing the title of the popular 1980 novel that first clued me in to the Hawaii Rat/Mongoose predicament.
Read Any Good Tools Lately? | September 21, 2012
I am back from a great, well, mostly great, family vacation out west. (I won’t ask if you missed me. I’m not that
crazy.) There was literally a dark cloud that hung over most of the
trip – smoke from dozens of forest fires burning continuously over vast
areas of the northern Rockies. We were a week in Yellowstone where four
fires were burning throughout our stay. Coming home from Portland we
drove up the smoke filled Lochsa River gorge in Idaho one evening and
watched the flames consuming a hillside across the river. I have
written about this in earlier New Reality Check posts, and you can
follow this in the Digging Deeper link below, but what I most want to
share with you from this trip is on a much more positive note: I want to
tell you a bit about the North Portland Tool Library.
it turns out, Doug Hartman, a good friend since childhood, has lived in
Portland for many years and has been serving on the Board of Directors
of the nonprofit North Portland Tool Library. He took me to their site a
couple years ago in a re-purposed old neighborhood fire station, and
that uplifting experience has stayed with me ever since. This group not
only lends tools free of charge to folks in their low and moderate
income neighborhood, they also teach tool safety and use. This is a
great, community-based empowering program, and their success has led to
the creation of at least two more tool libraries in Portland alone. The
link this week is a two minute video that tells the North Portland Tool
Library story well.
One of the key elements of the emerging New Reality is the growing
need for local communities to work together, to share tools, skills and
resources, and to be less dependent on dwindling government resources
and indeed, on the money economy itself. The North Portland Tool
Library is one of the very best examples I have seen of an effective,
grass-roots program that serves this increasingly important purpose. As
a volunteer, community supported effort; it is also a great example of
how Community Action Agencies could advance self-sufficiency and
self-reliance in a most cost effective and forward looking way.
There are a couple of good Portland Tool Library links on the video
above, and Wikipedia has many links to tool library information and
resources across America and abroad. For a very good overview of the
forest fires in the West and the unprecedented impact they are having on
those ecosystems, check out this link from the journal Nature just out this week.
Too Much Magic | August 31, 2012
Flying back from the Partnership’s exceptional Annual Conference in New York last week, (kudos to Don, Avril and the Partnership staff and to New Reality author Sharon Astyk for her excellent closing) I cracked open a book I have been wanting to read for awhile, James Howard Kunstler’s recently released: Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation. It was Kunstler’s 2005 book The Long Emergency that probably woke up more Americans to what we call the New Reality than any other single book or event to date, and he has been one of the most prescient, if somewhat controversial, voices in the movement ever since.
While his tendency to lambast, mock, and heap withering ridicule on folks who, for the most part, richly deserve it, is off putting to some, his writing also has a clarity and courage about it which appeals to many others. Like me. I think we need a lot of voices in the choir to drown out the incessant nonsense I have been writing about in recent posts, and always find Kunstler’s blogs and writings to be important as well as entertaining reads.
For those without the time or inclination to read Too Much Magic, the following excerpt from a Rolling Stone interview entitled “Why Technology Won’t Save Us” around the book release sums up Kunstler’s case pretty well. These are the last two questions in that interview:
- Do you have a solution to our troubles?
I don’t like talking about "solutions." I prefer talking about intelligent responses. My beef with the whole "solutions" thing comes from my travels around the country, talking on college campuses and such; there is this whole clamor for "solutions." The idea is, if you’re not optimistic enough, you should shut up. But there are subtexts to all these things. And the subtext to that particular meme is, "Give us the solutions that will allow us to keep running our stuff the same way we’re running it now, except by other means." They don’t really want to hear about other arrangements. They want to keep on running all the cars, only differently. You know, like hybrid electric cars, or electric cars, or cars that run on algae secretions. But they don’t get that we’re done with that way of life. The mandates of reality are telling us something very different. They are telling us we have to inhabit the landscape and move around in it very differently in the future.
- You end the book talking about the importance of facing future with hope. What gives you hope?
That reality will compel us to change our behavior, whether we want to or not. We’ll probably be dragged kicking and screaming into a new arrangement of everyday life. We will probably adjust to it once we get there. But there are liable to be a lot of losses along the way. I think the key to getting through this is to understand that that our main political task for the next few decades will be to manage contraction in a way that minimizes human suffering.(emphasis mine) All the magical thinking that is going on now is just an attempt to evade that mission.
The sentence I put in italics in the paragraph above struck me as a great summary of the purpose of the Partnership’s New Reality Initiative as well. We know that it is the poor who are getting hit first and hardest by this unfolding contraction and all credible signs point to harder times ahead for our low income communities. Minimizing human suffering will be an increasingly important part of our work as we move further into the New Reality.
Here is the full Rolling Stone interview. Prepare for some, er, graphic language. A read through the comments below the article is also pretty revealing, particularly regarding the resistance to the message of a future with less rather than more. Deeper Still? Read the book. Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation [Atlantic Monthly Press, June 2012].
A personal note: I’m on vacation for the next couple of weeks, so you get a vacation from the Weekly New Reality Check. Enjoy! I plan to be back with more upbeat, inspirational happy talk on September 21st. – Peter Kilde
Food, and Food for Thought | August 17, 2012
week, the Weekly New Reality Check departs from its usual format to
bring you a “guest post” from Sharon Astyk, the closing speaker at this
year’s Community Action Partnership Conference in New York City. Sharon Astyk is a former academic who is a writer, subsistence farmer, parent, activist and prolific blogger (www.sharonastyk.com and http://henandharvest.com/).
She farms in upstate New York with her husband and five children,
raises livestock, and grows and preserves vegetables. She is the author
of Depletion and Abundance, Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage and Preservation, and co-author of A Nation of Farmers.
Sharon is also contributing author of the Partnership’s “Facing the New
Reality” report and serves, as I do, on the Board of Directors of the
Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas – USA.
piece, “How Expensive is Food, Really?” was posted in February of
2011. With this year’s drought in “America’s Breadbasket” and
predictions of food supply shortages and rising prices in the months
ahead, it is a very timely subject. The link: http://scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook/2011/02/14/how-expensive-is-food-really/
week the Weekly New Reality Check will be taking a break as everyone
involved will be in New York City for what promises to be a great annual
conference. Hope to see there!
Welcome to the Club | August 10, 2012
As the title font suggests, it is a very small club; small at least as a percent of the population. Finish this post and the brief commentary attached and you will be among the informed elite that understand a very important reality about America’s energy and economic future and be one step closer to the goal of this series of posts; teasing the truth out of the wildly varied claims about our collective destiny.
Today we are looking at an assertion often repeated in the popular media that America is on the road to becoming Energy Independent. There are many fallacies in this claim, but this critique will look at just one. It’s based one facet of how the global energy market really works.
It’s actually pretty simple. There are 27 countries that are major net exporters of oil (in excess of 100,000 barrels per day of net exports) and more than160 countries that are net importers of oil are and competing for those exports.
As recently as 2005 there were 33 countries that were major net exporters of oil. Following a common trend, by 2011 that number was down 18% to 27 countries because Vietnam, Argentina, and Malaysia had gone from being net exporters of oil to being net importers during that period, and Denmark, Syria and Yemen (net) exported less than 100,000 bpd in 2011. Indonesia flipped from being an exporter to an importer in 2003, and Mexico is now on the same trajectory. The reason they went from being exporters to importers is a combination of two factors: declining production with stable to increasing consumption, as their populations are rapidly growing and they need the oil themselves. The end result is the same – less oil on the market for the 160 importers. Jeffrey Brown, the geoscientist who authored today’s link refers to the oil on the market as Global Net Exports or GNE.
The net importers include most of large developed industrial countries like Germany, India, China and America as well as all the world’s desperately poor counties. They all compete for the same GNE and the price of oil is set by the highest bidders. And despite all the claims about new production and other media hype, America actually imported 58% of the crude oil it consumed in 2011. (An upcoming post will address the number confusion, what is called “oil”, etc, but this 58% figure refers to conventional crude oil.)
One of several very big problems for America and its prospects for Energy Independence is that China and India are consuming a larger portion of the oil on the market (GNE) each year, and the trend is alarming. Here is the picture:
- In 2002, there were 11 barrels of GNE for every barrel that China and India net imported.
- In 2005, there were 8.9 barrels of GNE for every barrel that China and India net imported.
- In 2011, there were 5.3 barrels of GNE for every barrel that China and India net imported.
Given this trend, Jeffrey Brown takes a look at the diminishing GNE left for the countries that now compete for what remains after China and India get their cut (they will get their cut because they have the money and the oil contracts), and refers to the remaining oil on the market as the Available Net Exports (ANE). Long before we could hope to meet our projected petroleum needs ourselves (which is probably not even possible unless those projections are lowered significantly), we will most likely be driven out of the oil market by shrinking supply and/or rising price.
The piece is entitled “Commentary: America’s new energy reality - A bidding war for declining global net oil exports”
To put it simply, diminishing oil imports = a contracting US economy. A temporarily contracting economy is a recession. A longer term contracting economy is a depression. A permanently contracting economy is a revolutionary paradigm shift, the end of material prosperity as we now understand it, and in all probability, a full flowering of the future envisioned in the Partnership’s “Facing the New Reality” report. This analysis points to the high likelihood of what we would call, for all practical purposes, a permanently contracting economy in the decades ahead.
One of the best resources for gaining a deeper understanding of the US and global oil and natural gas realities, as well as other related issues, is a web site called The Oil Drum. This site tends to be more technical than most discussions of these issues in the general press, but it is in the actual data that the real story is revealed. Highly recommended. Here is a taste related to the supply and demand issues covered in today’s post: http://www.theoildrum.com/node/9106
Environmental Justice | August 3, 2012
I can’t remember the last time I heard anyone utter the phrase, “environmental justice” which was kicked around a bit in the 1980’s, but given some of our nation’s current fossil fuel extraction practices, it may be time to blow the dust off this old hat and see if it still fits. Hey, guess what? It does. The basic idea stems from the age-old practice of locating poor folks in the least desirable locations, which in the industrial age has often meant in locations that have highest levels of pollution; some combination of poor air quality, toxic soil, bad drinking water, or polluted streams, lakes and shorelines, not to mention excessive and incessant noise, traffic and light pollution. In some cases these have been modest but very livable communities that families have loved and have called home for generations.
This week’s post comes at the question of evaluating the truthfulness of information from the perspective of environmental justice and the duty of corporations to take responsibility for the environmental and social consequences of their actions. In short, to clean up their messes and provide redress for any damage they may have caused. The piece is entitled; ‘Study Finds Toxins From Mountaintop Coal Mining Sites.” Click here for the link. The article concerns a recent study done by the US Geological Survey showing that (the mostly low-income) residents in the areas affected have very high rates of serious health problems and birth defects. Here are a couple excerpts from the coal mining industry’s response to this study.
- When the studies on birth defects first came out, a law firm hired by the industry, Crowell & Moring, put an item on their website criticizing the papers for failing to account for “one of the most prominent sources of birth defects” — inbreeding. Crowell & Moring later removed the memo and issued an apology, but not before Appalachian media noted the firm’s ties to the National Mining Association and coal giants like Massey Energy, now owned by Alpha Natural Resources.“Their first response was to say that West Virginians can’t refrain from committing incest,” said Kincaid (board president of Coal River Mountain Watch, an environmental group). “That’s what we’ve come to expect from the coal industries. They absolutely refuse to deal with the reality of what they’re doing.”
- Coal mining is not “per se an independent risk factor for increased mortality in Appalachia,” concludes Dr. Jonathan Borak , professor of epidemiology and medicine at Yale University, in a paper funded by the National Mining Association (emphasis mine). Borak said poor health in Appalachia was caused by “a very marked cultural problem” characteristic of low-income coal-mining communities. You get the drift. It’s an interesting read and one of the more breathtaking examples of “blaming the victim” in recent memory. Read with an eye to evaluating the truthfulness of the claims and the science involved.
The Connection In our agency’s tri-annual needs assessments, health and health care concerns consistently top the list on low-income household responses. The health effects stemming from having to live in unhealthy surroundings often play a role, and with these effects relegated to the immobilizing realm of “debatable” by well funded PR machines, it is very difficult to get support or resources to needed to address the problem.
The story takes on a new dimension in an article that was published in the July/August 2012 issue of Sierra Magazine. Here the victims are not always poor. Rather they are whoever happens to be unlucky enough to live near a natural gas fracking well above Pennsylvania’s gas bearing Marcellus Shale formation. Rich, poor or anywhere in the middle, if you are between shale gas and its extraction, your lives will be affected, sometimes very dramatically. Entitled “Fractured Lives”, this is also one of the best articles I have seen on the whole shale gas fracking boom and its effects on families and communities. Click here for the link . You deeper diggers may be interested in an update to this just-published story. First though, check out this paragraph from the story for a pretty good taste of how this game is played:
- TO GET ITS WAY, THE GAS INDUSTRY has employed prodigious lobbying, campaign donations, even the hiring of retired military psychological warfare experts to tar opponents as antibusiness, job-killing eco-fanatics. One result has been the unprecedented move in January by Pennsylvania's pro-fracking governor and legislature to strip towns and counties of their traditional zoning authority, which they were using to create no-frack buffers around homes and schools. The law also imposes a gag order on physicians, barring them from revealing the trade-secret chemical ingredients of fracking fluid--even to their patients.
While I don’t know if it ruled on the physician gag order (!), a Pennsylvania court did just rule last week that the legislature could not usurp the local zoning authority. This is considered a major victory for the anti-fracking faction. I can’t help but wonder though, how this would have gone if the victims were all poor. In any event, I boldly predict that the ruling will be appealed by the gas drilling industry. I will, as they say, keep you posted.
Seeds of Doubt | July 27, 2012
Last week I commented on the disparity of information out there on important topics like climate change and the future of energy, and noted parenthetically my reluctance to refer to this disparity as a “debate”. As the Weekly New Reality Check continues to work on the challenge of sorting out fact from fiction in a media environment characterized increasingly by missing and misleading information, we will shed some light on why casting these issues as “debates” is such a big propaganda victory for the industries that benefit from this ambiguity, and such a big loss for the rest of us.
The story this week starts with the 2010 Oscar nominated documentary, GasLand, written and directed by Josh Fox. If you are familiar with the film GasLand, an image will likely come to your mind of tap water exploding in flames in a kitchen sink. This created a huge public relations challenge for the natural gas fracking industry. They responded with an all-out and largely successful campaign to discredit Josh Fox, GasLand and all the information in the film, and to turn their public relations problem in an opportunity to promote natural gas production. So if you stayed with the GasLand story, the first word likely to come into your mind now is “debunked.” But this story is far from over.
While more ambitious types might want to view or re-view GasLand, this week I am suggesting a less time consuming process. First, take a look at this one-pager “The Truth About Gasland” from the American Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA)web site. Pretty convincing. Here is their opening sentence:
“Natural gas is a clean, abundant and domestic energy source that holds vast potential to promote cleaner air, grow local economies and enhance energy security in the United States and, increasingly, around the world.”
Well, who wouldn’t want that? The link: http://www.anga.us/TruthAboutGasland
With the ANGA piece in mind, please invest 18 minutes in a recent follow up documentary film by Josh Fox entitled The Sky is Pink. Click here for the YouTube link . Clearly, these two perspectives on natural gas fracking are different as day and night. They foretell visions of the future that differ as widely. It really is important that we know what future to plan and prepare for, but who is telling the truth? How can we know? The temptation to shrug it off as a debate between special interests, to disengage and proceed with business as usual is understandable, but dangerous. As the entire New Reality Initiative attests, we need to get this right, and time is short. Upcoming posts will further explore the evaluation of claims and information.
The Big Obvious Connections are the real world ramifications of extensive natural gas fracking on public health, the economy, and the environment. In all three of these huge arenas, it is our low income families who are most impacted by this New Reality, especially on the down side. And if we let the ambiguity and confusion purposely generated around these important issues remove us from the public policy discourse, we leave the field to those with the most PR, campaign contribution and lobbing money, and leave ourselves with the consequences of their success.
A less known connection is what has been called Environmental Justice, the main focus of next week’s post.
I may deal with this as its own post down the road a bit, but to me, the real eye-opener in The Sky is Pink is the information about the failure rates of cement around the outside of oil and gas well casings, the primary protection against the contamination of the groundwater we depend on for drinking water and irrigation. (See ANGA’s response “The Sky is Blue” linked to the bottom of “The Truth About Gasland, above. We will circle back here too in the weeks ahead.) Add to this that there have been 2.6 million gas and oil wells drilled in America since 1950, plus close to 400,000 disposal wells, and the magnitude of the potential threat to our water supply begins to emerge. For a concise summary of relevant info on what has been called “pincushion America”, I found this handy fact sheet, “Oil and Gas Drilling in America: Some Key Facts” compiled by the Wilderness Society. Here is the link .
Runneth Over or Runneth Out? | July 18, 2012
Two weeks ago the Weekly New Reality Check raised the question of how to discern the truth, particularly about America’s energy future. Serious people with impressive credentials are all over the media and giving presentations at numerous prestigious conferences with charts and graphs and PowerPoints showing how America is on the verge of becoming the “new Middle East” in petroleum production and that “new fracking technology” ensures that America has a “hundred year supply of natural gas”, and will once again be “energy independent” etc.
So, everything’s cool, right? The economy will spring back, jobs and prosperity will return, new tax revenues flooding into the federal coffers will erase our huge national debt, programs for low income Americans will be fully funded, and who knows, maybe the spirit of generosity will fill the soul of a grateful nation….. Oh, and all those new fossil energy sources dumping methane and CO2 into the atmosphere will magically have no effect on this lovely weather we are having, apparently.
As a person who has spent an inordinate amount of time studying and weighing the impact of energy resource depletion and climate change on all aspects of our quality of life going forward, not to mention being the father of three lovely young daughters who will spend most of their lives in that future, few things would please me more than to have these folks be right. But if they are wrong and the future anticipated in “Facing the New Reality” is much closer to our shared destiny, failure to prepare for the real future will be a disastrous error resulting in unprecedented hardship for everybody, especially those with few resources and little resilience to begin with.
So it is vitally important to get this right, and that’s going to take some time and effort. That’s why, at the end of the July 6th post, I promised to dig a little deeper into these cornucopian claims. The process begins with this post.
I chose for openers a recent piece by Richard Heinberg, a New Reality author and general session presenter at our national conference in San Francisco last summer. Richard is a Senior Fellow-in Residence at the Post Carbon Institute and the author of ten books on resource depletion and its impact on the economy and on the larger environment. Entitled “Peak Denial”, this piece gives a good overview of the current disparity in information (I won’t call it a debate for reasons I will take up later) concerning America’s energy future. The piece asks the right questions:
“The Peak Oil debate is not a sporting event. What matters is not which side wins, but what reality awaits us. Will we see a continuing plateau in global crude oil production? How long will it last? How big a proportional contribution to total liquids production will we see from tar sands, shale, and other unconventionals? What will be the climate impact as the world’s petroleum supply is increasingly derived from lower-grade resources? And what will be the economic impact?”
This article also touches on some of the less familiar realities this blog will explore in future posts, things like EROEI (Energy Return On Energy Invested), ANE (Available Net Exports), conventional vs. unconventional oil etc., which are, like it or not, the keys to making sense of the confusion around some of the most important issues facing Community Acton today. Click here for the link .
More than capital, credit, markets, labor, or technology, it's Affordable Energy that drives the industrial economy and creates the wealth that mobilizes the food, shelter, health care, education, mobility and economic opportunities that Community Action strives to provide for all. Without affordable energy, or a dramatic reduction in our dependence on unaffordable energy, our mission of reducing poverty and promoting economic security and social justice will fail.
One of the reasons I chose to start this inquiry with Heinberg’s “Peak Denial” is that the article itself has embedded links to good examples of both the recent energy cornucopian pronouncements and some of the better responses from the Peak Oil community and others. In the end, everybody gets to decide what to believe and what they deem to be propaganda. Putting some time into these links will help inform that important decision.
Monday, Monday | July 13, 2012
I was listening public radio on the way to work on Monday morning when they aired a brief story about how the heat and drought conditions in the Midwest are projected to reduce corn yield by up to 40% this year. At work, my default home page is MSNBC, and here are some of the headlines that were all appeared on that one source, all on that same day:
1) Arkansas drought threatens cattle industry
The most severe drought in the state’s history has taken a devastating toll on the state’s cattle ranchers, and beef prices are expected to rise by as much as 10 percent over the next year. NBC’s Janet Shamlian reports.
2) Blazing sun leaves scorched crops in its wake
Although temperatures have dropped across the Midwest and Northeast, irrigation ponds in southern Illinois are drying up and crops such as corn and soybeans are shriveling in the fields. NBC’s John Yang reports.
3) Dangerous storms replace scorching heat
TODAY’s Al Roker tracks dangerous storms moving in from the West after sweltering heat blanketed most of the country.
4) Deadly flooding in Britain, Russia
More torrential downpours are expected in Britain, and dozens of people have been killed as flash floods swept through southern Russia. CNBC's Amanda Drury reports. (As I write this on 7/12, in western Japan today almost two feet of rain fell in 8 hours with more on the way, with widespread destruction and deadly flooding.)
5) Another sign of the (heat) times
It turns out that as water heats up, it loses its ability hold the oxygen fish need to survive. Another important food source diminished by climate change.
6) Feeling the Heat: First Half of 2012 is Warmest on Record
The national temperatures averaged 52.9 degrees — "4.5 degrees above the long-term average," NOAA said in a statement. For reference purposes, most scientists agree that any sustained rise above 3.6 degrees F in global temperature would be catastrophic.
Beyond the obvious point that denying climate change any more is just dangerous foolishness, the main point here is this: For all the totally legitimate concern raised about devastating tornados, hurricanes, floods and wildfires and the impact they have on our low income families, for we humans at least, climate change is most importantly a food crisis. While the localized tragic devastation noted in earlier posts and in some of these stories is truly alarming, it is the impact climate change is having on the global food supply that will dramatically impact the most people on the planet. In America, we tend to keep our population from starving, but even this year we must plan for a significant rise if food prices, adding a further financial burden on the households we serve.
The USDA has just declared 1016 US counties, about one third of all counties in America, to be natural disaster areas. This is the biggest such declaration in USDA history, and it is because of drought conditions in these areas. About 1/3 of the Midwest, “America’s bread basket”, is included in this declaration. Click here for the link. Already, international grain prices have increased by 35% in response to the US drought. In February, 2011, Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute wrote this piece entitled “World One Poor Harvest Away From Chaos” which factors in the very important additional elements of global population growth and aquifer depletion from excess irrigation. Here's the link. A central theme of the New Reality initiative is that the issues of resource depletion, environmental degradation and economic turmoil are deeply interconnected, and this is very evident in the whole food production and supply arena.
Freedom and Independence | July 6, 2012
I was raised in a Lutheran parsonage where the teachings of Jesus were the gold standard of Truth. One of my favorite of those teachings is this: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) Jesus was talking specifically about being free from the slavery of sin, but my 62 years on the planet has made it very clear to me that the power of this teaching is much broader. Truth is indispensible to freedom in all its forms. And truth in America seems to be rapidly diminishing along with the rest of the nation’s important natural resources as we move further into the New Reality. One of the areas where I see this most plainly is in the area of energy information. I first wrote about this in my post of February 22, 2012, shedding a little darkness the President’s rosy assertion in his State of the Union address that we had nearly a one hundred year supply of natural gas. Here are a few more recent examples:
This on June 6th from Ed Morse, the commodity research chief at Citicorp: Morse writes that "peak oil biases continue to blind analysts to an emerging oil cycle turning point" and that "unless the end of history has arrived, the long period of price increases that started in the last decade appears to be coming to an end,” and “he [Morse] expects crude prices to stabilize around $80-90 per barrel by 2020.” Click here for the link.
LONDON (Reuters, June 14th, 2012) – “ConocoPhillips Chief Executive Ryan Lance has caused a stir by warning an audience including OPEC oil ministers that North America could become self-sufficient in oil by the middle of the next decade, ending the region's dependence on imports.” The rest of the article does a fair job of qualifying that “could”, but to a proud nation desperate for a message that Energy Independence will be ours once again, those nuances are lost on all but a few. Click here for the link.
And another from a prominent futures trader blog post entitled Peak Oil; prices that is, where a “senior energy analyst” offers support for… “[his] prediction that U.S. gasoline prices may have peaked forever..” (A little free advice: Don’t bet the farm on that one.) Later in the article, this analyst takes another stab at eternity with this surprising leap; “Gas demand, as inferred by the EIA data, is still down 4.8% from a year earlier. This is a clear sign that gas demand in the United States has been hit with permanent demand destruction.” Permanent? Really? It is possible, I suppose, if you also believe that the economy is in a state of permanent contraction and decline, but that doesn’t appear to be his position. Click here for the link.
And here is a doosie from the climate change front, this one from a talk last week that ExxonMobile CEO Rex Tillerson gave to the Council on Foreign Relations: "Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around -- we'll adapt to that. It's an engineering problem and it has engineering solutions," Hmm… I wonder how the 600 plus families that have lost their homes in the Colorado fires or the millions who were without electricity in the record heat following the freakish “land hurricane” that ripped through the nation’s Capital last Friday feel about just adapting to climate change. As for the engineering solutions to climate change, maybe a future post will deal with the role such hubris has played in bringing the planet to its current perilous state. Click here for the link.
It is interesting to note that all of the articles and references above are laced with truth. A fact here and a statistic there may be real and accurate in all these examples, but all these little truths, and the conclusions drawn from them, add up to one very big and very dangerous lie: “Everything is going to be OK. Trust us. We can fix it.” No, they can’t. We need to free ourselves and become less dependent on those who are misleading leaders and on their false assurances. That’s the New Reality we have to adapt to.
The confusion over the mixed messages in the media about how everything is falling apart / everything is going to be fine has a paralyzing effect on just about everybody when it comes to taking action on these important issues. Often we don’t know who to believe, and we don’t know what to do. So many of us go on doing basically what we have always done with our fingers crossed hoping that our agencies and communities will not suddenly become the victims of some aspect of the New Reality like the poor folks in Colorado or DC last week, or the millions who saw their livelihoods or retirements evaporate in the Great Recession. These are tough calls, yet we are Community Action, and we need to take action when our communities are threatened.
So who’s to say these optimists are wrong? After all, they are highly paid experts and executives who surely have access to the best information, right? This is a very important question, and one which the Weekly New Reality Check was created to address. This week, a careful read of the articles linked to this post will reveal many weaknesses in the rosy assertions I quoted above. Future posts will dig (drill?) even deeper.
A Walk in the Woods | June 29, 2012
many years, one of my favorite ways to shed some stress and re-energize
a weary mind has been to take a walk in the woods. I have been
fortunate to live and work where such walks are within easy reach.
Beyond the expected benefits of the relative peace and quiet and a
little low impact exercise, one of the things I like most about such
walks is that I almost always discover something new and unexpected and
fascinating in the forest. This week’s post is a little like that, a
break from the darker side of the New Reality and an unexpected
encounter with something new and wonderful – a whole new kind of forest
now being planned for the city of Seattle, Washington.
In a nutshell (pun slightly intended) the Beacon Food Forest is ..
“a seven-acre plot of land in the city’s Beacon Hill neighborhood
[that] will be planted with hundreds of different kinds of edibles:
walnut and chestnut trees; blueberry and raspberry bushes; fruit
trees, including apples and pears; exotics like pineapple, yuzu citrus,
guava, persimmons, honeyberries, and lingonberries; herbs; and more.
All will be available for public plucking to anyone who wanders into the
city’s first food forest.” Click here for the link .
don’t like this idea, I love it. As we move further into the New
Reality, this is an extraordinary example of how communities, even large
cities, can begin to move from being concentrations of individual food
consumers toward becoming collaborative communities of food producers
meeting an ever growing percentage of their food requirements right in
their own neighborhoods. Food Forests combined with the vertical
gardens, window box gardens, rooftop gardens, community gardens and even
household scale urban poultry operations that are emerging across the
country may become real lifesavers if and when the complex supply chains
feeding local supermarkets begin to break down. (Future posts will
look at Farmers Markets and the food producing capacity of land adjacent
to our urban centers.)
Community Action Agencies can lend support to community efforts like
the Beacon Food Forest and ensure that they are accessible to our low
income families. Many Community Action Agencies are also getting
involved in other local foods initiatives as part of their food security
or health and wellness programs. In our agency, we have made tilled
land and gardening equipment available for tenants in some of our
affordable housing projects. A surprising number of our tenants are
working together and taking advantage of this opportunity, another good
example of “helping people help themselves, and each other” as we
profess in our Community Action Promise.
The Food Forest concept touches on so many possibilities for further
exploration that is difficult to focus the topic. Community forests,
urban planning, Permaculture, the concept of the Commons, and several
branches of the exploding Local Foods movement are all worthwhile
candidates. I am going to stick with the upbeat nature of this post and
suggest a somewhat unlikely resource that touches on them all, a
documentary about Cuba. The film is entitled The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil,
which tells the encouraging story of how a Cuba very dependent on
regular oil and food imports from the Soviet Union permanently lost 50%
of their oil and 80% of their food imports virtually overnight when the
Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, and how it not only survived but emerged
as a healthier and better fed society. It was produced by New Reality
contributor and two-time Community Action Partnership conference
presenter Megan Quinn Bachmann, and is available for purchase from
Community Solutions at http://www.communitysolution.org/poc.html. This $20 DVD makes for a great discussion lead and introduction to many New Reality issues.
Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future | June 22, 2012
Variously attributed to Yogi Berra or Nobel physicist Niels Bohr, the veracity of this quote is very familiar to New Reality authors like Dmitry Orlav and to all of us who spend a good deal of time and energy trying to understand and prepare for our emerging future. In this piece, the final offering from the Age of Limits conference discussed here at length in recent weeks, Dmitry tackles the thorny issue of predictions in a piece entitled: “Fragility and Collapse: Slowly at first, then all at once" taken from his conference presentation.
As a thoughtful eyewitness to the collapse of the Soviet Union twenty years ago, Dmitry has a unique gift for comparing and contrasting their experience with America’s own as we travel further down a disturbingly similar road.
Here, Dmitry offers some very useful guidance on how to approach predictions of collapse and other “black swan” events. It is a rather challenging and provocative piece, like much of Dmitry’s writings on what he sees as the pending collapse of America’s financial and political structures. (Let me note here that the views and opinions expressed in all Weekly New Realty Check featured writings are those of the authors alone and not necessarily those of the Partnership.) So if you are up to a challenge, this read will be well worth your time. Click here for the link.
Good strategic planning is essential to the operation of a well-managed Community Action Agency, and all strategic plans are based, explicitly or implicitly, on predictions of the future. As we move further into the New Reality, the pace of change and growing uncertainty in many areas important to our work increases the difficulty of making such predictions accurately. Orlav’s approach may help to get it right. At the agency I direct in Wisconsin, we are currently in the process of updating our strategic plan and are incorporating (surprise!) some these New Reality concepts. For those who may be interested, click here to see the worksheet for program directors which illustrates how we are approaching this in our planning.
In 2006, after thinking about it for a decade or so, Dmitry Orlav posted a presentation entitled “Closing the Collapse Gap”, which went viral, at least in the Peak Oil community. Serious, funny and profound, this piece instantly established Dmitry as player in the world of the New Reality. Click here to read this article.
Deeper still, Orlav’s book Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects was published in 2008 and updated in a revised edition in 2011. Get the 2011 version if you can. This is a pretty fluid field.
Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush | June 15, 2012
As I indicated last week, there are a couple of more nuggets to share from the rich mine that was the Age of Limits conference held at the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary in Pennsylvania over the Memorial Day weekend. Here is the first. As I also noted, the overall tone of the event was pretty upbeat despite the seriousness of the issues we faced. Unsurprisingly, there was a little gallows humor tossed in from time to time as evidenced in the title of this week’s post. (Which is also the title of this week’s link) John Michael Greer’s post found here: June 6th, 2012 post “Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush”
Once again, this post may be most useful for those who already understand and accept the basic premises of the New Reality report. The practical advice is summed up in this quote from Greer’s article: “Starting right away to practice the skills, assemble the resources, and follow the lifeways that will be the key to survival in a deindustrializing world offers the best hope of getting through the difficult years ahead with some degree of dignity and grace.” In a nutshell, that is what the New Reality Initiative is trying to communicate as well.
In an earlier presentation at the Age of Limits, Greer gave some direction with regard to making preparations for the New Reality unfolding all around us, and what resources we can hope to utilize in that effort. He summarized it this way: “Where you are, with what you have, right now.” He was directing these comments primarily to those who get the situation but are doing nothing now because their “plan” is to acquire a small, self-sufficient farm or to form a “lifeboat community” up in the mountains somewhere, someday. While it can happen, these are pipedreams for most that serve only to justify postponing the real work that needs to happen right now, right where folks are. It may be blessing that poor families and communities can’t even afford these self-deceptions. In Community Action, we have many years of practical experience in identifying both the needs and the assets of our communities. While we can and should try to bring more funding and other resources to assist in our efforts to adapt to the changes we are already experiencing, the first and most reliable place to look for the tools we need is in our own agencies and their existing relationships; our own back yards and local communities.
In my post of May 25th, I suggested two books by John Michael Greer as resources for digging deeper into that week’s topic. This week let me suggest another: The Long Descent (2008) described as “a user’s guide for the end of the industrial age.” An elaboration of some of the basis for this week’s link, this book also has as an appendix, Greer’s “How Civilizations Fail: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse.” A most interesting and insightful read.
Reverse OZ – mosis | June 8, 2012
You may recall from my May 25th post that my daughter and I were “Off to see the Wizard”, joining John Michael Greer, Dmitry Orlav and others at a Memorial Day Weekend event called The Age of Limits: Conversations on the Decline of the Global Industrial Model. Despite the fact that we were tenting camping in oppressive heat, humidity, and impressive thunderstorms, it was an exceptional event and well worth the effort to wind our way out to the Four Quarters Inter-faith Sanctuary in the beautiful Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania. Part of what made the event exceptional and encouraging was the fact that, by and large, all the participants, including the staff of the facility who organized the event, had already come to the realization that the unsustainable Global Industrial Model and its requirement for Endless Growth is beginning to come apart.
So the weekend’s discussions centered on the question that is also the heart of the New Reality initiative: What’s coming and how do we deal with it? In fact, the Age of Limits was a pretty upbeat event, complete with some hot live traditional fiddle and banjo tunes and impressive clog dancing as the weekend drew to a close. Once you have come to grips with the profound implications of the New Reality and accept that limitless prosperity is not our collective future, it is a relief to move on to the business of making the best of a more realistic vision.
What turns the Wizard of OZ reference on its head (alluded to in the almost but not quite clever enough title of this post) is that unlike the movie, where Dorothy and Toto leave the hard reality of Kansas for the fabulous fantasy opulence of the Emerald City then returned to their Kansas farm, in our case we left the make believe world of Happy Motoring and Limitless Prosperity and went off to see the realists. Now we are back, and I will spare you any tortured references to the Wicked Witch of the European Debt Crisis and the Flying Monkeys of Climate Change darkening the skies.....
There are two aspects to the New Reality Initiative. The main thrust to date has been mostly about raising awareness within the Community Action world of the seriousness of our predicament, for without that there is no motivation to act. The larger and harder work is in the preparation for the New Reality itself. That is precisely the work that Four Quarters founder Orren Whiddon and his small community is doing in Pennsylvania. As we advance further into this challenging future, the pioneering work of Four Quarters and that of the Transition Town movement this blog featured on May 18th, may provide very valuable guidance for our own preparations and adaptations to the changing world unfolding around us.
I was going to write up some of the highlights of the Age of Limits, but no less than six articles which have been written about the event already, five by Age of Limits presenters, and one by a participant. They pretty much have the topic covered. The links below gets you to the first four articles, while the next two may be stand alone features of subsequent posts.
There is a lot of useful information in these links, especially about how to frame and think about these profound changes. These articles also consider the psychological and spiritual aspects of the New Reality, dimensions of our experience rarely addressed in conjunction to these issues, but very important on the rocky road ahead.
1. The Rumbling of Distant Thunder – John Michael Greer post of May 30th, 2012
2. Sustainable Living as Religious Experience – Dmitry Orlav post of May 29th, 2012
3. Limitless Wisdom in the Age of Limits – Carolyn Baker post of May 29th, 2012
4. Give me that Doom Time Religion – Erik Curren
A Republican, Christian Believer . . . in Climate Change | June 1, 2012
Recently, a community action leader and good friend from Minnesota, Arnie Anderson, sent along the article that is the focus of this week’s post: A Message from a Republican Meteorologist on Climate Change. The author, Paul Douglas, is pretty much a household name in Minnesota and western Wisconsin thanks to his 30 years as the premier TV weatherman in the region. He is also a leader in the Republican Party and a devout Christian. And he is as appalled as I am at those, especially in his own party, who confuse politics with science. Here is a taste from his well-reasoned piece:
“I'm going to tell you something that my Republican friends are loath to admit out loud: climate change is real. I'm a moderate Republican, fiscally conservative; a fan of small government, accountability, self-empowerment and sound science. ..No, you're not imagining it: we've clicked into a new and almost foreign weather pattern. To complicate matters I'm in a small, frustrated and endangered minority: a Republican deeply concerned about the environmental sacrifices some are asking us to make to keep our economy powered-up. It's ironic. The root of the word conservative is "conserve". A staunch Republican, Teddy Roosevelt, set aside vast swaths of America for our National Parks System, the envy of the world. Another Republican, Richard Nixon, launched the EPA. Now some in my party believe the EPA and all those silly "global warming alarmists" are going to get in the way of drilling and mining our way to prosperity. Well, we have good reason to be alarmed.”
Click here for the link .
To be honest, I don’t think Mr. Douglas understands as much about energy and resource depletion as he does about Climate Change, so his “Green Economic Recovery” vision is much too rosy for me. (The Democratic leadership appears to share this same unhelpful “irrational exuberance” to quote Alan Greenspan, when it comes to the green recovery.) Nonetheless, this effort to get the Republican mainstream to pay attention to this extremely important aspect of the New Reality is highly commendable. It is a very interesting read, too.
This blog has discussed at length the devastating impact that Climate Change will increasingly have on low income families, but our current deeply partisan political climate makes constructive engagement of real climate issues almost impossible. Paul’s attempt to bring sanity and science to bear on the Republican mainstream may help in the much needed effort to get government back in the business of putting our common welfare above partisan power struggles. Please pass this piece along to any of our Republican friends who may be in the “climate change denier” camp to help achieve this worthy end.
The Peak Oil case is one of the core foundations of the New Reality Initiative. It predicts that we will have continually greater challenges meeting our requirements for affordable energy, especially liquid fuels, as time moves on. I believe that the evidence for the Peak Oil view is very solid, but the media has been inundated of late with stories of America’s progress toward energy independence and energy abundance once again. Upcoming posts will address this fiction, but Paul Douglas makes a very important point in this article when he correctly points out that even if there is abundant oil or crude oil substitutes yet in the ground and technically recoverable, we have to leave them there because if we burn them we virtually guarantee a climate catastrophe. From the article:
“Proven U.S. reserves of carbon-based fuels are estimated to be 586 GtCO2, according to the Congressional Research Service. Think Progress's Brad Johnson calculates America has roughly $10 trillion worth of carbon resources still left in the ground (coal, gas and oil). "If we are to avoid the catastrophes associated with greater than 2 C warming, sovereign states and public corporations must strand 80 percent of proven global carbon reserves (emphasis mine), a loss exceeding $20 trillion" he said in an e-mail. This is what the fight is about. Big Energy wants to keep us addicted to carbon-based fuels indefinitely; shareholders want to keep the money-spigot flowing, and lock in future profits. Surprised? Me neither. But in business, as in life, you hedge your bets.”
So in the end, both the Climate Change imperative and the Peak Oil imperative arrive independently at the same conclusion: There is much less use of fossil fuels in our future and we must prepare for all the ways that reality will deeply impact our lives.
Off to See the Wizard | May 25, 2012
As this post is going up on the web, my daughter and I should be well on our way to a retreat center in rural Pennsylvania to spend our Memorial Day weekend at an event called The Age of Limits: Conversations on the Collapse of the Global Industrial Model. Now, before you grab the phone and call Child Protection Services to turn me in for inflicting such an experience on my child, let me point out two things.
Thing #: She is 18 years old and neither of us consider her a child any more. Thing #2: One of the New Reality luminaries with whom we will have ample time to converse and interact at this event just so happens to be one of her (an one of my) favorite writers and thinkers, New Reality author John Michael Greer. Dmitry Orlav, another favorite writer, thinker and New Reality author familiar to those of you following this blog will also be a resource for this event. So we are both greatly looking forward to the experience. Here is some info about the Age of Limits event: I expect to return with some new insights and perspectives on these matters and will share what seems useful to Community Action in the weeks ahead.
All of which is a roundabout way to get to the last of this series of Posts for the Convinced. A couple of years ago, on June 30th, 2010, John Michael Greer’s weekly offering on the Archdruid Report was a piece entitled “Merlin’s Time”. With this post, Greer launched a weekly series promoting what he called “Green Wizardry” in which he laid out a program of sorts for learning a broad range of practical skills based on the alternative technology movement of the 1970s. He also wrote in great depth about all these low-tech, hands on skills, mixed in his hallmark insightful reflections on current events along with his notable scholarship in history, physics and many other disciplines, offered up loads of useful resources, and made a very convincing case that those who master these skills will be tomorrow’s “Green Wizards”; very useful folks to have in your community in the years ahead. Click here for the link.
One concern that many of us have about our society’s collective resilience in the face of our challenging future concerns the extent to which we have become dependent on distant experts, high-tech devices we can’t repair, and big-box stores and chain restaurants to meet our basic needs. As individuals in this society, we have lost much of our knowledge and practical skills in areas like gardening, cooking, basic home repair, use of simple hand tools and the whole range of do-it-yourself approaches to managing our lives. We will need these skills again in the era of the New Reality, and Community Action’s contribution to the resilience of individual households could expand to include some offerings from the Green Wizard’s bag of tricks.
The “Green Wizard” series ran from June 30, 2010 through March of 2011. All this posts are archived and easily accessible on the Archdruid Report web site , and a compilation of these posts could easily be a full book. And speaking of books, Greer’s The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a Post Peak World and the Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered are both excellent resources in this general vein.
Finally, if anyone wants to get even more deeply into this world, John Michael Greer hosts an ongoing forum for Green Wizards and wannabes here: http://www.greenwizards.org/
Transition Towns | May 18, 2012
Last week I offered up some perspectives on finding the gumption to do something about the alarming challenges presented in the New Reality report along with, admittedly, another pretty sobering assessment of our collective predicament. This post is aimed at those readers who have seen the light (hmm… maybe “seen the darkness” is a better metaphor) and have found the motivation to get busy preparing for, and helping to shape, the world to come.
One thing you could do is link up with your local “Transition Town” movement. They’d love to have you, and you could harness all that anxious energy to the hard but rewarding task of helping your community make the transition from the old un-reality of endless growth and prosperity to a leaner, more sustainable New Reality.
The Transition Town movement was founded in Totnes on Devon, England in 2006 by Rob Hopkins, a college teacher who saw the darkness pretty early, connected with New Reality author Richard Heinberg, ASPO International co-founder Colin Campbell and others, and established a community organizing model that has spread rapidly around the world. America’s Transition Town organization claims to have 116 active chapters throughout almost every state in the Union, so chances are there is an active Transition Town group near you. Note how well their self-description lines up with the New Reality themes:
“The Transition Movement is a vibrant, grassroots movement that seeks to build community resilience in the face of such challenges as peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis. It represents one of the most promising ways of engaging people in strengthening their communities against the effects of these challenges, resulting in a life that is more abundant, fulfilling, equitable and socially connected.”
Again, this sounds like Community Action to me. Click here for the link to Transition United States.
It seems pretty clear that Preparing Poor America for Harder Times Ahead is not going to be a Homeland Security program coming out with a NOFA any time soon, though that is an eventuality that may be well worth pursuing. For now and the foreseeable future, this will be a grassroots, community organizing effort coming together one community at a time. Making sure that the growing ranks of low income families in America are included in this process could be a great role for Community Action.
Rob Hopkins’ Transition Town Handbook is an excellent tool for understanding the movement and for getting started.
And if you can’t find a Transition Town chapter nearby, you could start one.
From the Dead to the Living | May 11, 2012
As I mentioned last week, I am going to offer some fodder for the believers; those readers of this post who accept the broad tenets of the New Reality and are looking for some clues on navigating the troubled waters ahead. As luck would have it, the Magic Hat of the Internet produced just such a resource on Monday in the form of a letter from the grave of an early New Reality thinker and novelist, Ernest Callenbach.
Mr. Callenbach wrote a very popular and truly visionary novel, Ecotopia, in 1975 during the first big energy crunch and the early flowering of an understanding of ecology and resource limits. After he died last month at age 82, this letter, entitled Epistle to the Ecotopians, was found on his computer and released. It is addressed, in his words, “To all brothers and sisters who hold the dream in their hearts of a future world in which humans and all other beings live in harmony and mutual support -- a world of sustainability, stability, and confidence.” Well, that sounded like Community Action to me, and I am happy to share this letter with all my sisters and brothers in our movement. Click here for the link.
Among the growing movement of folks who get the New Reality, one of the main areas of discussion and debate can be summed up in this question posed recently by New Reality report author, Dmitry Orlav; “Why it is that, given compelling evidence that action is needed, we fail to act?” Figuring out what to do is actually easier than finding the gumption to get started, and the first part of the letter is about finding hope, and that gumption, without the self-defeating denial of reality that is the false hope of politicians, sellers of stuff, and the mainstream media. The second part of the letter, the Big Picture, is a frank and sober assessment of our collective predicament from a serious and insightful thinker, giving us his best parting shot in the face of his own mortality. Powerful stuff. No spin.
While I tend to believe that there is way too much fiction in this world, I do value the role some good fiction plays in illuminating our understanding of a period in history or a vision for a possible future. Ecotopia is still in print, and can be procured at your local, independent book store or at the library. It is also available on Amazon for about $11.
The Bad, The Good and the Ugly | May 3, 2012
In Novermber, the International Energy Agency released a very stark report concluding, in the words of UK news giant, The Guardian; “The world is likely to build so many fossil-fuelled power stations, energy-guzzling factories and inefficient buildings in the next five years that it will become impossible to hold global warming to safe levels, and the last chance of combating dangerous climate change will be "lost forever", according to the most thorough analysis yet of world energy infrastructure.” Pretty gr
The good news in this case is not the message, it is the messenger. The International Energy Agency was formed during the 1970’s oil crisis by several of the “western” world’s largest economies in order to provide solid information of global energy supplies, productions and trends. It currently is supported by 28 member nations, including the United States. No lefty tree-huggers, the IEA is well described here by the Guardian; “The IEA's data is regarded as the gold standard in emissions and energy, and is widely regarded as one of the most conservative in outlook – making the warning all the more stark.” So when the IEA talks, people listen. It will be very difficult for any climate change deniers or apologists to ignore this dire warning.
There are two uglies in this story. Ugly #1 was covered in last week’s post. The grim warning by the IEA is about the present danger of locking in a CO2 level above the “safe” level of 450 parts per million (ppm), but in fact the best science is pretty clear that anything above 350 ppm is courting disaster. We need to do far more than the IEA calls for, which gets to Ugly #2. As this story makes clear, even the prospects of getting to the 450 are slim to none as no deal works without the US and China, and they show no signs of a willingness to do what has to be done.
Here is the link to the story.
This excellent piece in the Guardian also makes clear a central theme of the New Reality, which is that “Harder Times Ahead” is our future. The IEA report offers a simple choice; radically reduce our fossil fuel use by implementing a massive restructuring of the world energy infrastructure, or face irreversible catastrophic climate change. The first option would require such an unprecedented commitment of government and private resources that there would likely be very little funding for anything considered optional, like social programs, while the resulting higher energy costs would cripple the economy. The second option, irreversible climate change, is far, far worse. So we need to prepare for this New Reality without delay, and that is a tall order. Unless something compelling knocks it out of the queue, I plan to spend some time on what this preparation entails in upcoming posts.
New Reality author John Michael Greer made a decision last week to set aside his scheduled post for his weekly blog, The Archdruid Report to focus on a somewhat lesser known but extremely important component of the climate change predicament, methane plumes rising from the thawing Arctic Ocean. In this excellent April 25th post entitled “Seascape with Methane Plumes”, he also tackles the larger question of why we do not act effectively on climate change despite the compelling evidence. Greer, however, is no alarmist. Quite the opposite. He is a first rate scholar and excellent writer, and one of the clearest thinkers I have found on the state of the world at this time in our history. If you wanted a better understanding of the whole New Reality picture and could only spend fifteen minutes a week reading up on these issues, this would be a great place to go every Thursday morning: http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/
The Titanic Sinks Again, and other Good News | April 27, 2012
While I was ready to let the Titanic rest after all the recent attention around the 100th Anniversary of its sinking, a post on the site ThinkProgress Climate Progress struck me as being too good to pass by. The rather unwieldy title of the article is “The Titanic at 100 Years: We’re Still Ignoring Warnings, This Time Its Climate Change, Says Director James Cameron”. In addition to being a multiple Oscar winning movie director, Mr. Cameron recently completed the deepest solo submarine dive ever, and is the Executive Vice President of Climate Change Capital, a firm specializing in sustainable business investment. While this article has many interesting threads running through it, what I think is particularly useful is the attempt to get at this REALLY IMPORTANT QUESTION: With all this overwhelming evidence on Climate Change and its devastating consequences, why aren’t we seriously addressing the problem?
And for those of you, who love weird, check the bottom section of the article about the 1898 novel that is a creepily close foreshadowing of historical Titanic. Click here for the link.
The good news? Well, that showed up in the New York Times on 4/17 in a story entitled; “In Poll, Many Link Weather Extremes to Climate Change”. The title of this story seems a bit understated. “Many”, this major poll reveals to be a whopping 2 to 1 majority. I also question the accuracy of the story’s first sentence (Scientists may hesitate to link some of the weather extremes of recent years to global warming), but enough quibbling, the poll makes it clear that the American Public is trusting their own eyes and intelligence and is finally making the connection between Climate Change and all the crazy weather we experience these days. This is good news because it is an election year and politicians read polls, even the politicians who have been falling all over themselves this past year reversing their previous reasonable stands on climate change to become the climate change deniers their “base” demanded. This should be fun. Click here for the link:
A fundamental premise of the New Reality is that the reality of the three mega trends of Resource Depletion, Environmental Degradation, and Economic Turmoil are at odds with the “popular narrative” which is the loose totality of media coverage on these issues and our future. But last week’s post from the Scientific American and this NYT story suggest that the popular narrative may be unable to avoid the obvious much longer. Yes, it’s late, but that can’t be helped. The sooner we take some action on these New Reality issues, the more hardship we can avert.
A good place to start understanding Climate Change science is to go to 350.Org and click on the 350 Science tab. Very clear and concise, the bottom of the page links you to other sources for a deeper dig.
The Missing Link | April 20, 2012
As another spate of deadly tornadoes raked the Midwest this past weekend, and the 2012 tornado season moved further into record territory, we look to the heart of “tornado alley”, Kansas, to find something very positive; a link in a mainstream publication between Peak Oil and Climate Change. The article was published on March 23rd, 2012, which, coincidentally, was the very day that the US broke its all time record for the number of tornadoes this early in the year. The Scientific American article: “Spread Reckoning: U.S. Suburbs Face Twin Perils of Climate Change and Peak Oil” is an excerpt from the new book Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us by Maggie Koerth-Baker.
The article focuses on a Kansas City suburb named Merriam, not because it is particularly unusual, but because it isn’t. It documents the climate changes already evident in Merriam and notes some good (more English Ivy) with the bad (more Poison Ivy), but ends up linking climate change with a host of major health issues like a rise in asthma and allergies, and increased outbreaks of water-borne pathogens in drinking water.
The good news for the New Reality Initiative is that the article also links these and other particularly suburban issues like car-dependency, with Peak Oil. For my take, they are a little optimistic on Peak Oil (“some time before 2030”), but overall, very good reading on these closely related issues.
This rather extensive article connects with Community Action in many ways, but I will highlight two. First of all, it documents some of the health impacts of Climate Change, and a common feature of poverty is sub-standard health care. The second connection may be even closer. As noted in this article in CNN Money from September 2011 , US poverty is no longer primarily an inner city and poor rural issue; most Americans in Poverty now live in Suburbia. Incidentally, the CNN article also quotes Marcy Harris of the Community Action Partnership of Suburban Hennepin (a CAP serving suburban Minneapolis, MN).
A good place to begin would be to read the whole book noted above. The CNN Money story is also interesting.
The Iceberg | April 12, 2012
This week the world remembers one of the greatest shocks of the early 20th century; the sinking of the Titanic. Like countless others, I have been fascinated and moved by this tragic event for as long as I can remember. In fact, I took my family to St. Paul, Minnesota on February 21st, 1999 when the great ship’s recovered horns were connected to an air compressor and sounded for the first time since the ship broke in half and sank in 12,000 feet of icy water 87 years before. 1514 lives were lost. The Titanic disaster still has such a grip on our collective conscientious that thousands of people filled the streets of downtown St. Paul on a frigid afternoon just to hear that sound. Though the audio on this YouTube clip does not come close to my memory of that experience, you can get an idea of what this event was like.
So it is no surprise that the story of the Titanic is so often used as a morality tale and for countless analogies to this day. I am adding one more example to this list, an analogy I have used in several presentations to illustrate an important point about the New Reality. Here it is:
The story of the Titanic has two parts, divided precisely by the few seconds when the ship sideswiped the iceberg which punctured five of her sixteen watertight compartments. In Part I, before the collision, humans were in charge of the Titanic and all its truly amazing qualities. Humans designed, funded, constructed, hyped and launched this magnificent machine, and humans decided it would be great to wow the watching world by crossing at such speed that they would arrive in New York harbor a day ahead of schedule. Humans decided how many lifeboats were needed, and humans forgot to put a pair of binoculars in the crow’s nest where a sailor kept a lookout for hazards ahead. In Part II, however, humans can only react, often helplessly, as a very different set of players become the primary drivers of the Titanic story. These new players have no compassion, no mercy and no capacity for negotiation. They aren’t even human. The Part II drivers are physics, metallurgy, mathematics, chemistry, biology, and finally, gravity.
This is a fundamental point about the New Reality. While the New Reality, really the unfolding history of our civilization, will not have the precise division between Part I and Part II that we see in the Titanic story, we are on a collision course with a reality as cold as that iceberg as we come up against the hard limits of resource depletion, the ability of the atmosphere to absorb carbon dioxide and methane-causing climate change, the capacity of a degraded environment to feed a growing population, and the unforgiving math of exponential growth. As we begin to hit these limits, we also begin to reach an end of the time when humans, for all our brilliance and ingenuity, can direct and manage all the important outcomes.
The new drivers will again be physics, chemistry, geology, agronomy, ecology and the lot. These drivers do not care about our opinions, party affiliations, dreams for our children or deeply held beliefs. They will follow their own immutable laws to their inevitable conclusions, just like they did with the Titanic. We too are not properly prepared for this slow motion, ongoing collision which is already in progress, and we too will find that we have too few lifeboats, too little time for an orderly transition to a more sustainable future, and if we don’t get our act together very soon, hardship on a scale unprecedented in human history. It’s time to take this very seriously.
Writing in the current issue of National Geographic, Hampton Sides put the disaster in this context:
“But something else, beyond human lives, went down with the Titanic: An illusion of orderliness, a faith in technological progress, a yearning for the future that, as Europe drifted toward full-scale war, was soon replaced by fears and dreads all too familiar to our modern world. ‘The Titanic disaster was the bursting of a bubble,’ James Cameron told me. ‘There was such a sense of bounty in the first decade of the 20th century. Elevators! Automobiles! Airplanes! Wireless Radio! Everything seemed so wondrous, on an endless upward spiral. Then it all came crashing down.’” (p.88)
Off to Texas | April 5, 2012
Once again the fast pace of change in the unfolding New Reality has altered my posting schedule and once again, tornados are the cause. On Tuesday, up to twelve tornados ripped through Dallas, Texas causing tremendous destruction. As I have noted before and will continue to emphasize, even if single storms are unusually intense, their most important place in the New Reality of climate change is in their contribution to significant trends. You may recall from my March 8th post “Bad Weather ”, that 2011 saw a dramatic increase above historical norms in devastating weather events in America. With this latest multiple-tornado event in Dallas, NBC reports that the number of recorded tornados in America in 2012 is already 50% above the norms for this date, and the tornado season is just begun. (To say nothing of the record shattering heat waves across most of the country a couple of weeks ago.)
By coincidence, on Monday, the day before the Dallas tornados, KERN, the public radio station in northern Texas, interviewed Bill McKibben on its Think program. McKibben is arguably America’s foremost climate change writer and activist, and is the founder of 350.org, a very successful international organization dedicated to building global awareness and action to address climate change. This 48 minute audio file, which you can also download as a podcast from KERN, provides a great summary of climate change and why our society is slow to come to grips with this extremely important issue. Click here for the link.
Climate change, like peak oil, will impact virtually every aspect of our society. From rising insurance costs and rising food costs to the destruction of poorly protected mobile homes often inhabited by our low income families to greater energy costs for both heating and cooling as temperature swings increase, climate change will magnify the hardships that fall most heavily on the poor.
For a more in-depth look at climate change, Bill McKibben’s 2010 bestselling book Eaarth (yes, I did spell that right) is a good place to start. In addition, http://www.350.org not only has some very good and easily understood information and FAQs on the science of climate change, it also offers great opportunities to take some action on this issue for those interested in doing so. A little deeper still, Storms of My Grandchildren (2009) by Dr. James Hanson, probably the country’s preeminent climate scientist, is a great resource. Hanson’s web site will also get you to some excellent information.
Hidden Poverty | March 29, 2012
A couple of weeks ago I got invited to give a presentation to a local county chapter of a major political party on the topic of “Hidden Poverty.” Always happy for an opportunity to tell a community action story to a new audience, I enthusiastically agreed. This particular county, one of seven we serve, is in the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) for Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota, and is the wealthiest county in Wisconsin. While they expected, and received, some stories of food pantry users in late model SUV’s, foreclosed McMansions and married children moving back in with stressed-out parents, most of my presentation was a bit of a surprise.
I talked about poverty hidden in government statistics; in the consumer price index, the unemployment rate, the gross domestic product and the federal poverty guidelines. This is a story that most Americans do not know, but you will after you have looked at the 16 minute video that is the subject of this week’s New Reality Check. This video is one chapter of a much longer video production called the Crash Course produced by Chris Martenson. Chris is a scientist with a PhD who saw the New Reality early on, left a very successful business career in order to live a life consistent with that new awareness, and to help educate all of us in how to better understand and prepare for the challenges ahead. This is not only good information; it is presented in a very clear, entertaining and engaging way. Here is the link.
The misleading methods used to calculate the government statistics noted above have very real consequences for poor Americans. For example, gas prices have gone up 49% since February of 2010 and food prices have skyrocketed, but the consumer price index (CPI) on which social security increases are based does not include food and fuel in the calculations, so the total increase in CPI is only 4.4% for the same period. This means that folks on social security have lost much of their buying power and are rapidly getting poorer year by year even as their checks get a little bigger. Many other programs like Medicare and even the annual adjustments in the Federal Poverty Guidelines themselves lose out to similar calculations.
In this case, digging deeper is easy. Take some time and watch all 20 chapters of the Crash Course available for free on chrismartenson.com . The course is designed to be consumed in small bites over several days, but its only 3hr 20m in length and gluttons for punishment like me have watched it all in an afternoon. There is also a middle ground, a 45 minute condensed version of the Crash Course also available on the site.
How the Game is Played | March 15, 2012
I had planned on moving from climate change to “fuzzy math” this week, but when our friend Ken Ackerman of Virtual CAP sent along this article from Rolling Stone, I decided to take a U turn and head back for one more whack at fracking. Not only is the article that good, but the need for a New Reality Check on the growing belief that shale fracking and North Dakota oil have solved our energy problems forever just has to be challenged. If we bet our economic fortunes and future wellbeing on these dreams of energy independence and prosperity for all, I am afraid we will wake to a very real nightmare of precious time and resources wasted and an even harsher reality ahead.
“The Big Fracking Bubble: The Scam Behind the Gas Boom” is illuminating for several reasons, but mostly it provides a window into the workings of the largest fracking company in the world, Chesapeake Energy, and in the process greatly enhances our understanding of the gas fracking industry and its’ fantastic promises. Regular readers of these posts will recognize the name Art Berman cited once again as an expert in the field. Art is on the Board of Directors of ASPO – USA (the Association for the study of Peak Oil and Gas), an organization with which I, and the Partnership, have some growing ties.
All of the main drivers of the New Reality can be found in this article; resource depletion, environmental degradation and, to a lesser degree, our increasingly frail economic foundation. The only thing lacking is what is most needed, the realization that we all need to learn how to live, and hopefully to live well, using much less fossil fuel energy. In Community Action, our agencies and the millions of low income families we work with may have much to teach the rest of our energy dependent society in this regard.
The other connection relates to my earlier assertion that we all need to become much better educated in the new realities we are facing. This knowledge is the only defense we have against the propaganda of special political and economic interests which comes at us from all directions these days.
Actually, digging deeper is the main intent of this post, but for extra credit, the response of Chesapeake Energy to the Rolling Stone article, and Rolling Stone’s response to Chesapeake, both linked at the bottom of the article, are very interesting and instructive. The article also has several links imbedded in the text which are well worth the look.
The Big Fracking Bubble: The Scam Behind the Gas Boom
Next week, Spring Break. Back on 3/30 or thereabouts.
Bad Weather | March 8, 2012
When last week’s post on climate change went up on March 1st, no one knew that we were on the verge of another catastrophic and deadly tornado event in which at least 40 people perished and hundreds lost their homes across a dozen states. Dr. Kevin Trenberth, the former head of the Climate Analysis Section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research noted that this event was “Likely …. the most prolific five-day period of tornado activity on record for so early in the year“
And as some of the tornado ravaged communities were just coming to grips with their losses, their misery was compounded by another weather event that we don’t expect after a tornado: Snow.
So what’s going on here? Every major media story I saw treated this again like another isolated incident, just like their coverage of last year’s extreme tornados, floods, hurricanes and wildfires. While it is true that no single storm or weather event either proves or disproves climate change, it is the very clear trend data that is truly alarming. Many Americans are waking up to the new reality that our historical weather patterns have changed, and would agree as I do with another quote from Dr. Trenberth; “It is irresponsible not to mention climate change in stories that presume to say something about why all these storms and tornadoes are happening.”
In this week’s post, Climate Progress editor Joe Romm updates a piece he did during last year’s devastating tornado season. It is provides a good overview of the basic science linking anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change and these extreme weather events. Click here for the link to the article: Update: Tornadoes, Extreme Weather and Climate Change, Revisited.
Community Action Agencies are often deeply involved in the recovery efforts of communities that suffer natural disasters, but tornadoes have another connection to our work because so many low income households live in mobile homes which offer very little protection from these storms. Once again, it is the poor who get hit first and hardest when any disaster occurs, from the financial collapse to the flooding of low-lying poor neighborhoods in New Orleans with Katrina. .Add to all this rising insurance costs that every family and every organization must bear as these insured storm losses grow to billions of dollars annually in America, topping $12 Billion in 2011. These insurance costs rise for every sector of the economy, which drives up prices for all goods and services, which means that the few resources of the poor are further stretched and poverty increases. No matter where these tornados touch down, they touch us all.
Climate change is a global phenomena, and the big climate change story right now is the incredible flooding in eastern Australia. You may remember the catastrophic flooding there last year, and here we are again. Consider this news quote from Australia today. “After weeks of rainfall, more deluges have seen a wall of water smash through rural Australian towns, with dozens of people reported missing. Local residents were left stranded on the roofs of their homes and vehicles after the unprecedented (emphasis mine) rainfall that shows few signs of slowing down.” And even weirder, this from Reuters; “Thousands of spiders have cast eerie webs over vast areas of flood-hit Australia after being forced to seek shelter by the rising waters. Experts said the spiders may be spinning the sticky webs to help them survive the deluge, which has forced thousands of people to leave their homes over the past week”
Again, nature is very good at recovering from discreet events, but what these quotes suggest is the possibility that we are altering the entire ecosystem in ways we can neither predict or control, and it is the ecosystem that all seven billion of us rely on to keep us fed.
March 1, 2012
This week we give the shale frackers a bit of a break and turn our attention to another of the three main unfolding crises that together are driving the New Reality: environmental degradation, particularly climate change. Getting to the truth on climate change is harder than it should be for many reasons. Not only have the climate change deniers been very effective in framing the issue as a “debate”, much as the Tobacco Institute successfully cast doubt for decades on the causal connection between smoking and lung cancer, now the issue has been politicized to the point where no major presidential candidate from one major party will publicly state their acceptance of the overwhelming scientific basis for concluding that human activity is warming the planet and causing climate change. Not even those candidates who had previously accepted this science with even less compelling evidence. Add to this that the mainstream media continue to treat each catastrophic weather event as an anomaly rather than part of an overwhelmingly obvious trend. In 2011, for example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that catastrophic weather events in the US were up and astounding 350% over our historical norms, but this week’s post on the Texas drought makes no mention of climate change or these trends. It is no surprise that the general public is confused.
Despite this omission, this Reuters story from a few weeks ago deserves a thoughtful read. This quote from the story grabbed my attention:
“The size and speed of the shrinkage in the U.S. cattle herd has left the industry reeling. As the national cattle and calf inventory fell 2 percent from a year ago to its smallest since 1952, (emphasis mine) the herd in Texas dropped 11 percent or 1.4 million head, the biggest decline in nearly 150 years of recorded data”
I looked it up. In 1952, the US population was just over 157 million, almost exactly half of the 311 million in the US today. And one of our major food sources, beef, is in steep decline. The story noted an overall 20% increase in beef prices since 2009, and all time record high prices for some beef cuts, citing “soaring feed costs”. Soaring in large part because our insatiable energy appetite diverts many feed crops to bio-fuels; corn to ethanol and soybeans to bio-diesel.
The connection to Community Action? Climate change is creating higher food prices right now further stressing low income budgets, and future scarcity will only make matters worse.
Here is the link: “The Great Migration: Texas Cattle Heading North”
Next week we will dig a little deeper into the New Reality of climate change, and how it impacts our work. We will also begin looking at some government “fuzzy math” that masks the full effects of these food and energy implications.
February 22, 2012
As I noted in the first post in this series, we are doing a New Reality Check on the three claims made about the US natural gas supply in the President’s State of the Union speech a few weeks ago. Here is his exact quote: “We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly one hundred years, and my Administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy. Experts believe this will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade.” Similar claims for this US natural gas bonanza have been all over the media for months, and have become a standard feature in the current “popular narrative”. Having provided some hard data over the past couple of weeks that attempts to bring these lofty supply and job creation claims back down to earth, we look this week at the challenges and even the possibility of safely developing this energy resource.
Proponents of the hydraulic fracturing of America’s massive shale formations, (“fracking” for short) in order to extract this large natural gas reserve generally refer to “clean natural gas” and point out that natural gas burns cleaner (i.e.: produces less carbon dioxide) than coal or petroleum. The popular narrative likes to call natural gas a “bridge fuel” to get us safely to an alternative renewable-fueled future by reducing the greenhouse gas effects of burning coal. But a closer look reveals a very different Reality once again.
In short, while natural gas does produce less carbon dioxide (CO2) when it burns, the production and distribution of natural gas releases large quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas, which in the first decades after its release is 20 – 25X worse than CO2 in heating up the planet and causing climate change. Several studies have concluded that in the end, burning natural gas is actually more harmful to the planet than burning coal. So we turn this week to Bill McKibben, America’s most prominent climate change crusader and founder of 350.org, an international campaign to slow our decent into climate chaos. This piece: “Why Frack?” is from the New York Review of Books. In his review of two new books about fracking, Bill McKibben does a nice job of summarizing a complex issue.
Why should we in community action care about this? Because if fracked natural gas fails to live up to its hype, higher energy costs, higher food costs, and more unemployment in a contracting economy are the most likely results, and these impact Community Action every day.
February 17, 2012
In this week's New Reality Check, we are taking another look at "fracking" (the much touted hydraulic fracturing of shale to release natural gas). This time we are not focusing on the claim of a "near 100 year natural gas supply", but on the various claims that America's growing Fracking industry will produce hundreds of thousands of good jobs over the next few years.
In his State of the Union speech, the President said of fracking: "Experts believe this will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade." In Community Action, we all know that 600,000 jobs would be great, but if we are relying on this and similar claims to reduce growing poverty in America, we might want to take a closer look. In this week's story, Helene Jorgensen, writing for the Center for Economic and Policy Research takes just such a look in "Fracking Nonsense: The Job Myth of Gas Drilling" published on January 8th, 2012.
The link: Fracking Nonsense: The Job Myth of Gas Drilling
February 7, 2012
For this week’s post, we take another look at the claim, widely prompted by the gas industry and by politicians promising prosperity for all just past the next election, that we have nearly a 100 year supply of domestic natural gas thanks to the “new” technology of hydraulic fracturing (generally referred to as “fracking”) of gas-laden shale formations found under large areas of the country. The attached article by Chris Nedler appeared on Slate on December 29, 2011.
It drills down (pardon the pun) on the 100 year supply claim with a very thorough detailing of where the claim originated, what it is based on, and what is a more realistic estimate of future gas supplies. I can imagine that for some readers in the Community Action network, a couple of questions come to mind, like “What does this have to do with me and my work?”, and, “With all these conflicting claims, who should I believe?”
To the first question, if our natural gas supplies (along with other energy resources) are much more limited and expensive to produce than claimed, then rising energy costs and supply constraints will cripple the economy and greatly increase poverty. This is a central message of the New Reality Initiative.
The question of who to believe is a little trickier. In my 62 years on the planet, I have found Deep Throat’s advice to Bob Woodward in the movie Watergate to be pretty consistently accurate when he famously advised; “Follow the money.” Here, the big money (and the political power) line up behind the piece of the “popular narrative” claiming that our energy supplies are sufficient to get our economy roaring along again and to meet our energy demands for many decades to come. Just the fact that so many powerful interests have so much to gain by popular acceptance of this claim, and so much to lose if those claims are not widely believed, make the claim worthy of a closer look at best.
In this article, the challenge to the 100 year supply claim comes primarily from a petroleum geologist named Arthur Berman. Mr. Berman has been working in the gas field for 30 years and has a great deal to first-hand expertise in the area of natural gas drilling and geology. He also lectures widely on peak oil and gas issues and serves on the Board of the non-profit Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO). I had the pleasure of spending a day on the Hill in DC with Art and some other ASPO folks last fall. I found him to be a serious and knowledgeable expert and, more to this point, a person sincerely motivated to shed a little Truth on the exaggerated domestic energy claims which help to further delay what is arguably America’s most important task; preparing for the New Reality.
One final point. This story is another case of; “The Devil is in the details.” And while some of this article is a little technical, I think you will find it pretty accessible. As folks in a non-technical field, we have generally relied on others to keep the lights on and to keep us informed on the general state of our energy resources. In the New Reality, however, I believe we will all need to gain a better understanding in number of areas, particularly in energy, environmental sciences and economics. I hope these posts are helpful toward that end.
The link: What the Frack
February 7, 2012
The first article in this series is from ASPO - USA, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas.
ASPO is a national nonprofit organization made up mostly of petroleum engineers, researchers, economists and investors which currently
describes itself as “A Non-profit, Non-partisan Research and Public Education Initiative to Address America’s Peak Oil Energy Challenge's ASPO has access to great expertise in the energy area and the Partnership is looking to this expertise in furthering its New Reality
Initiative. To that end, I have accepted an invitation to serve on ASPO’s Advisory Board. I also gave a presentation entitled “Peak Oil in Poor America” at the last ASPO convention in DC last November.
This article addresses what I consider to be one of the main misleading stories in the popular narrative; the belief that the Canadian tar sands
and North Dakota’s oil boom will meet all our petroleum needs, and thatnewly developed “fracked” shale gas will provide us with a 100 year supply of natural gas. Indeed, this believe was specifically stated in the President’s recent State of the Union address when he said, “We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly one hundred years, and my Administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy. Experts believe this will support more than 600,000
jobs by the end of the decade.”
Over the next few weeks, this post will take a hard, objective look at the issues of supply, safety, and job creation captured in this single
sentence and repeated endlessly in the popular media. http://www.aspousa.org/index.php/2012/01/fossil-fuels-vs-renewables
The Energy Bulletin is hands down the best web site for information on New Reality issues. Updated daily, the Energy Bulletin acts as a clearinghouse, gleaning information from many sources all over the world on issues of energy and resource depletion, climate change, food and the economy. If you only have time to check one site regularly, this is the site: http://www.energybulletin.net/.
THE NEW REALITY ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY
Compiled and Annotated by Peter Kilde | Updated 7/5/2011
THE LONG EMERGENCY (2004) by James Howard
Kunstler. The Long Emergency has probably woken up more sleep-walkers to the grim realities facing our world today than any book written on these topics. Essential reading for coming to grips with New Reality.
OUT OF GAS: THE END OF THE AGE OF OIL (2004) by David
Goodstein. This, however, is the book that woke me up several years ago when the author was interviewed on NPR. Goodstein is a physics professor at Cal-Tech and this little gem is also a great primer on energy in general.
THE LONG DESCENT (2008) by John Micheal Greer, an excellent writer and a really deep thinker; wise, well read, funny and very perceptive. Greer's 2010 book, THE ECOTECHNIC FUTURE, moved instantly to the top of my recommended list, and his latest THE WEALTH OF NATURE: ECONOMICS AS IF SURVIVAL MATTERS (2011) is an excellent resource for understanding and dealing with the economy as we near the end of the industrial age.
THE PARTY'S OVER (2003) by Richard Heinberg. Richard Heinberg is the most prolific of the New
Reality writers and all his books are very good. Others include POWERDOWN (2004), THEOIL DEPLETION PROTOCOL (2006), PEAK
EVERYTHING, a collection of essays published in 2008, and BLACKOUT,
a book on coal which sheds a little darkness on the "clean coal future" myth. His most recent book, THE END OF GROWTH; ADAPTING TO OUR NEW ECONOMIC REALITY (2011) has just been released. Richard is a Senior Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.
REINVENTING COLLAPSE: THE SOVIET EXAMPLE AND AMERICAN PROSPECTS (2008, revised and updated in 2011) by Dmitry Orlov. With great insight and a wicked sense of humor, Orlov's comparison of the Russian economic collapse in the early 1990's and what we are likely to face in the near future, is another great andsobering read. Not for the faint of heart.
DEPLETION AND ABUNDANCE: LIFE ON THE NEW HOME FRONT (2008) by Sharon Astyk. Highly respected in the Peak Oil community and one of only a handful of women writing on New Reality topics, Astyk literally brings home the issues of Peak Oil,
Climate Change and the coming hard times. Again, full of good, practical ideas and some plausible hopefulness as we enter "the long emergency".
PLAN "C": COMMUNITY SURVIVAL STRATEGIES FOR PEAK OIL AND CLIMATE CHANGE (2008) by Pat Murphy. Coming out of an organization called Community Solutions, this is a really good book for community based groups like Community Action. It is jam packed with useful data and ideas.
TWILIGHT IN THE DESERT: THE COMING SAUDI OIL SHOCK AND THE WORLD ECONOMY (2005) by Matthew Simmons. If you like technical analysis, this book lays out in great detail what is happening to Saudi and other oil fields. No lefty tree hugger, Simmons was an influential Republican and leading energy investment banker and a member of Dick Cheney's infamous secret energy task force. He passed away in 2010.
EMPIRE OF DEBT (2006) by Bill Bonner and Addison
Wiggin. Having read this book when it came out, the 2008 economic collapse came as no surprise. This book also provides some great insight and background for the current debt ceiling and budget debate in Washington.
THE BLACK SWAN: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2006) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Already a best seller in 2006, Taleb and this book got a lot of renewed attention when the Great Recession and near total collapse of the global financial system in 2008 caught most of the world by surprise. An intellectual heavy weight and successful Wall Street quant derivative trader, Taleb has some great insights into why we (the BIG WE) find it so difficult to comprehend or prepare for rare events, like the unprecedented New Realities. Very important read for those of us already pulling out the last of our few remaining hairs over why the country is so blind to these issues and how to maybe get through a little better.
THE VANISHING FACE OF GAIA: A Final Warning (2009) by James Lovelock. I hated this book. Not because his arguments are flawed and misleading, but because they aren't. Lovelock is a serious, accomplished, independent scientist whose 40 year old Gaia Theory (that life on Earth has self-regulating mechanisms and behaves as though the Earth itself is a living organism) has beat the pants off most other predictive models on climate change. Folks, it doesn't look too good for the naked ape that is pulling those self-regulation triggers with senseless abandon. We are very deep into this mess, and Lovelock, now 90 years old, pulls no punches.
EAARTH (2010) by Bill McKibben. An environmental writer whose 1989 Book THE END OF NATURE woke up many, many folks the seriousness of our environmental predicament, McKibben takes on Climate Change in EAARTH. Read this book and you will understand the weekly barrage of dramatic, record-breaking weather events occurring throughout the world. Not just a writer but also a very effective activist, McKibben has founded 350.org to spur serious action to avert the worst effects of global warming.
STORMS OF MY GRANDCHILDREN: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity (2009) by James Hanson. America's preeminent climate scientist, Dr. Hanson's climate work at NASA was heavily censored by the Bush Administration. But the courageous Hanson took his case to "60 Minutes" and prevailed. Both a great scientific explanation of climate change and a fascinating recent history of how politics distorts
science for its own purposes, this book will help anyone cut through the confusion and get to the truth about this very serious matter.
THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA (2006) by Michael Pollan. As the New Reality kicks in, the whole arena
of food will become increasingly important. This book gives a great overview of food in America today and many of the food safety, environment and supply chain issues that we need to understand as we create a more healthy, resilient and localized food system. The Omnivore's Dilemma is also a great read; funny, entertaining and engaging.