Politics Doesn't Trump Physics, Nor the Economics of Collapse
Politics can be egalitarian when going up Hubbert's Curve, but it's a whole different story when going down [part 2/4]
Much as it came as a surprise to me, it's probably not very well known that Naomi Klein comes from a rather politically active family, and that she ended up marrying into a very politically active family. While Klein had a "very public feminist mother" who was notable for her anti-pornography work, her husband Avi Lewis' mother, Michele Landsberg, was not only a well-known feminist columnist for the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail for many years, but also managed to write three bestselling books. Moreover, Lewis' father, Stephen Lewis, was the leader of Ontario's (socialist) New Democratic Party (NDP) for several years in the 1970s (to go along with later stints with the United Nations), which coincided with the period when his father, David Lewis, was leader of Canada's federal NDP. (For those who aren't aware, the NDP is one of Canada's three major political parties, and whose leader that preceded David Lewis, Tommy Douglas, helped usher in Canada's health care system.) But although Avi Lewis shares many of his father's and grandfather's leanings, he chose not to follow in their footsteps. As he put it many years ago,
As far as making the arena of politics the main stage, I could do it, but I don't feel a compulsion to. As far as I'm concerned, winning has replaced change as the goal of the party and that's wrong.
So not to shirk Klein's own accomplishments in the slightest, but she most certainly has some rather accomplished families to draw upon. Having said that, I do kind of wonder if having such a strong political background and leaning can somewhat muddy one's perceptions a bit when it comes to interpreting the effects and implications of fossil fuel depletion. As Klein put it a few days ago,
It has been one year and one week since a coalition of dozens of organizations and artists launched The Leap Manifesto, a short vision statement about how to transition to a post-carbon economy while battling social and economic injustice. A lot has changed: a new federal government, a new international reputation, a new tone... But when it comes to concrete action on lowering emissions... much remains the same. Our new government has adopted the utterly inadequate targets of the last government.
In other words, one year on and the issue is that (the) government – a new government at that! – is still the problem. But to look at this a bit differently, and to quote George Mobus (author of the book Principles of Systems Science) from his blog Question Everything,
People have gotten used to thinking that solutions come from politics – having the right officials in place means that they will solve the problems.
Sure, having "the right officials in place" when the pie is growing – when going up Hubbert's Curve – has definitely been a good thing to have when we've wanted to make sure that everybody gets a fair share of the ancient sunlight (and all its proceeds) going around. Like health care. However, while this has been useful when making sure that everybody gets more of more, it's a bit different when we start going down Hubbert's Curve, particularly when since birth it's been ingrained in the head of virtually all involved that more is a right and that progress is a given. That's bad enough. But it's possibly even worse when the egalitarian politicians doing the doling out also get the impression that more of more is normal, and that it's their inherent duty to fight back against the greedy cretins calling for austerity.
As far as I can tell, and as I explained in part 1, it seems to me that Klein subscribes pretty heavily to this left versus right, Keynesianism (of whatever stripe) versus austerity logic. Or perhaps "of whatever stripe" isn't quite correct, since one of The Leap Manifesto's 15 pillars was the call for the implementation of the all-of-a-sudden reputable notion of a basic income. (I don't inherently disagree with the notion of a basic income, although my post questioning a bit of its underpinnings will be forthcoming.)
Having said that, over the past week or so it has crossed my mind several times that perhaps I was being a bit too harsh and/or critical of Klein, and some comments garnered on a re-posting of part 1 on another website made me question myself yet again. So I went digging in some boxes of mine and found that copy of Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present and Future of Rationing by Stan Cox (plant geneticist at the Land Institute), and checked out that blurb of Klein's I remember being on the back cover. This is part of what she writes:
In this richly informative and deeply courageous book, [Cox] tackles one of the greatest taboos of our high-consumer culture: the need to consume less and to fairly share what's left.
In other words, and perhaps contrary to what I was saying in part 1, Klein does readily recognize that there's going to be less to go around and that we all need to consume less. However...
I got to thinking about the Leap Manifesto again, and the notion that there's going to be less to go around isn't exactly what it says (particularly when it comes to energy). For as The Leap Manifesto claimed, and as per "the latest research," we (specifically Canada) can apparently replace 100% of our electricity usage with renewable sources within two decades, and 100% of everything else by 2050. This then begs the question: If we can get 100% of all of our energy from renewables, where does this need "to consume less and to fairly share what's left" come from?
On top of that, and at risk of being called nit-picky, did it just so happen that "the latest research" discovered that we can get exactly 100% of our current energetic usage from renewables, or was it somewhere around there? It certainly wouldn't have been less than 100% because then the researchers involved would have been misleading the public (and I doubt that that was their intention), and they also would have been setting themselves up for some major scorn once their fraud was discovered. In other words, it's quite likely then that according to "the latest research" we can (supposedly) get more than 100% of our current energy usage from renewables. Which kind of makes me wonder how much that would actually be. 102%? 110%? 150%? And depending on how much higher than 100% that figure is, how many other problems and resource shortages of ours might actually be fixable by these "technological breakthroughs"? Can we use all that extra renewable energy to desalinate all the freshwater we need? Can we power inner-city vertical farms to provide ourselves with uber-local food? How about power all the carbon capture and storage that our hearts desire? Thanks to 100+% energy, might it be possible that we can do it all? Because that's what 100+% means to me, and I can't see how your average Josephine, upon hearing the news that 100% renewable energy is possible, is going to think that we actually need to change anything about the way we go about our lives.
In other words, and regardless of what that 100+% number supposedly is, it seems to me that working off of what the Leap Manifesto and "the latest research" is telling us, we don't actually have much of a climate change problem anymore. Besides some issues with Bessie the Belcher and such, the causes of climate change have essentially been solved by a bunch of engineers and their "technological breakthroughs." As a result, all that really remains is the political problem of not having the right policies in place to make 100+% happen.
But that's all based on the idea that it's even possible that we can get 100% (or 100+%) of our current energy usage from renewables. Although I'm by no means a scientist or an engineer, and although I recognize that there are those much more learned than I on these issues who say that this is in fact possible (such as Ugo Bardi), I'm nonetheless still very sceptical about this – there seems to be just too many things that must go right in order to make it work – and wonder how wise it is to be throwing the precautionary principle to the wind as we put 100% of our eggs in the 100% renewable energy basket.
As a bit of a counter-example, it wasn't too long ago that corn-derived ethanol was widely touted as a replacement for gasoline thanks in part to an inflated EROI level provided by insufficient research, and whose inclusion in gasoline was then mandated by governments (E85 and such). But with an EROI that turned out to be barely higher than 1:1, the most significant accomplishments of corn-derived ethanol have been an increase in natural gas consumption in order to create nitrogenous fertilizers to douse corn fields and hypoxicate (no, that's not actually a word) the Gulf of Mexico with, and the winning over of farm lobbies by a few shrewd politicians.
In a different example, a study by Charles A.S. Hall and Pedro A. Prieto (Spain’s Photovoltaic Revolution: The Energy Return on Investment) showed that photovoltaics actually only get an EROI of 2.45:1, which with the boondoggles of various biofuels makes me wonder if windmills and the rest of the renewable gamut are all they're cracked up to be and if the two studies The Leap Manifesto reference – "the latest research" – are as accurate as some may assume. For as Hall recently stated, "There are at least three reasons that EROI estimates appear much wider than they probably really are," the first two being that "They are often done by advocates one way or another" and that "a common protocol is not followed." Which is enough to stoke my scepticism, although Klein appears to be fully convinced. As she put it herself,
The time for this great transition is short. Climate scientists have told us this is the decade to take decisive action to prevent catastrophic global warming. That means small steps will no longer suffice. So we need to leap.
For posterity's sake, let's put aside the amount of times I've heard "this is the decade [or year] to take decisive action" or Now or Never or whatever (and all their bygone expiry dates). For as Alice Friedmann uncannily stated in her book When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation (which is more recent than the two studies that The Leap Manifesto and Klein reference, if "the latest" is what we're going by), "We need to look before we leap":
There has been considerable discussion about whether the EROI of wind and solar are sufficient to support modern society, especially if backup systems are included. Charles Hall and other scientists believe this issue is not resolved yet, especially if the high costs of batteries or other backups are factored in (p. 88).
And as she concludes,
Even if we continue building wind and solar at the current record rates, it would take centuries to reach half of our total power generation from wind and solar (p. 94).
But for argument's sake, let's also put aside all the "doomer" talk about intermittency, low EROI levels, scarcity and depletion of rare earth metals, the longevity and replacement requirements of renewable systems and their batteries and inverters, transmission losses, the fact that renewables aren't liquid fuels, and so forth. Let's give the benefit of the doubt and suppose that deriving the equivalent of 100% of our current energy usage from renewables is in fact technically feasible (never mind desirable).
But even if we assume that, there's still another problem besides technical feasibility, and that's the viability of implementing such systems under times of economic duress. For starters, over the past couple of years or so we've seen the loss of over 350,000 (high-paying) jobs in the energy sector alone due to the crash in oil prices, which itself was brought on by demand destruction: consumers and businesses unable to afford (for too long) the new high prices that energy companies now need to charge in order to pay for the expensive unconventional supplies of oil they're increasingly forced to tap into now that the cheaper to extract and refine conventional oil supplies peaked back in 2006.
While noting that correlation does not imply causation, Hall and Kent A. Klitgaard astutely noted in their book Energy and the Wealth of Nations that when the expenditure of oil as a percentage of GDP has been above 5.5% or so for long enough, economies have gone into recession. With that being the case, since energy companies are continually having to extract more and more of the poor quality, costly (energetically-wise) to extract and refine stuff, what this is all pointing towards is a future of energy-induced economic breakdowns brought on by a system that has troubles maintaining the economic growth that its Ponzionomic setup of fractional-reserve banking and interest bearing debt require.
As far as I understand it, none of that, or the fact that money is but a proxy for energy, is taken into account when Klein states that "The money we need to pay for this great transformation is available – we just need the right policies to release it." As I put it earlier, all we (supposedly) have is a political problem.
Sure, Klein can decry things like growth, but in place of her or the Leap Manifesto mentioning how our monetary/banking system requires growth – which to me is a political issue if there ever was one – what we hear instead is the call for the egalitarian method of essentially maintaining growth – the basic income. (It could have been different if at least the basic-income-as-usual's dependence on steady energy supplies was mentioned, or the possibility that nationalizing the currency [not the banks] could get us off the Ponzionomic growth habit, but they weren't.)
If economic contraction turns out to be the case – and for some people on the poorer end of the scale it already is the case – how motivated (and financially capable) are even the most altruistic of governments going to be about installing massively-scaled renewable energy systems, and how concerned is your average person going to be with being 100% renewable three decades or so down the road, when in the present time it's getting harder for people to fill up their cars, pay their rent, or even put food on their tables? And just because it isn't currently happening to you (or me), doesn't mean that it isn't currently happening to others.
Sure, these might be the rantings of some random blogger who doesn't realize that he's not living in unique times and that things like the recent Hanjin Shipping bankruptcy (which incited the Los Angeles Times to print an article titled "Hanjin bankruptcy is the tip of the iceberg for flailing shippers") is just a classic case of boom and bust.
But maybe not.
And "lucky" us if not, because then what we're due for is another recession (or even depression) which will induce another all-too-rare reprieve of greenhouse gas production, a boon for an already ravaged climate. But once again, this economic contraction is guaranteed to induce another round of calls for how to get growth going again in order to spur recovery (from a reduction in greenhouse gas production?), particularly when the constituents that most current politicians tend to be primarily concerned with start to get testy when they're increasingly forced to cut back on how many overseas vacations they can take every year.
But none of this is to suggest, as some have mused, that I'm dismissing concerns for climate change with concerns for peak oil. As Nafeez Ahmed has noted, Syria is a textbook case of a country that is being ravaged from both ends – climate change-induced drought for one, and an economy hit by oil production that peaked back in 1996. As Ahmed put it in what's been the best article I've read on both climate change and peak oil,
from 2010 to 2011, the price of wheat doubled – fueled by a combination of extreme weather events linked to climate change, oil price spikes and intensified speculation on food commodities – impacting on Syrian wheat imports. Assad's inability to maintain subsidies due to rapidly declining oil revenues worsened the situation.
Sure, many of the things that we need to do to deal with the effects of climate change are the exact same as those we need to do to deal with the onset of peak oil (and resource depletion in general) – in (very) short, localize our economies. However, and as far as I see it, if Naomi Klein and movements like The Leap Manifesto fail to take fossil fuel depletion as seriously as they do climate change (which is rather scant I think), the attendant lack of understanding of the economic effects that peak oil will imply – is implying – will continue to result in missing out on many of the underlying causes of current economic problems, and while progressives or lefties or whatever continue to point the (political) finger at the boogeyman of austerity, the disaster profiteers that Klein spoke of so forcefully in The Shock Doctrine – some of whom may very well be shrewdly clued into the effects that fossil fuel shortages are already having – may very well be given carte blanche to work their magic. In effect, and without some kind of a Redux, the original Leap Manifesto comes across like little more than a bunch of socialist-flavoured techno-evangelism in climate change clothing.
Regardless, none of these issues I write of are anything new, and I'm 99.979% sure that at least some of those on the left have been aware of the looming collapse of industrial civilization – or at least of its warnings – for more than a decade now. For although I didn't plan it that way, the last movie I ever saw in a theatre, in mid-2006, just so happened to be the peak oil documentary A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash. And although I didn't plan it that way either, while waiting in line outside of the Bloor Street Theatre it just so happened that I spent about half an hour standing right next to none other than the working-on-his-first-feature-film movie director himself, Avi Lewis. (I suppose there's a 0.021% chance that he didn't see the movie and was actually in line to get some of that tasty movie theatre popcorn, but I kind of doubt it.)
We didn't say anything to one another, partly because I was just some stranger that Lewis had no reason to randomly start chatting with, partly because there was plenty of other people in other parts of the line that Lewis kept going to speak to, and partly because I didn't exactly want to make an ass out of myself:
Hi, I'm Allan. I dropped out of film school at Ryerson University and went WWOOFing in New Zealand for a year.
I think peak oil is cool!
I'll try and not make too much of an ass out of myself in part 3.
Update 28/09/2016: Quotations added around the word "doomer," and upon finding out that I'm apparently not a dumb-ass I changed the words "dumb-ass blogger" to "random blogger." Stupid me.