Thursday, May 24, 2007

Don't Tell me Technology Will Save Us, Please!

Let me first apologize to those who may find this piece a bit over the top, polemic and bleeding heart. From time to time the idealist in me pushes me to rail at the injustices we inflict upon ourselves as a species, upon the other species with whom we begrudgingly share this planet and upon this, our home planet, all in the name of the pursuit of profits and power. If I bottle up that frustration it taints everything I write so I find it more productive to say/write my feelings, vent my frustrations, get it over with and get on with my normal routine and work.

Peak oil is upon us, or just around the corner. Global warming will continue to worsen as there are no foreseeable energy options that will allow us to replace our profligate use of fossil fuels. Global dimming, which has been weakening the impact of global warming over the past several decades, is now on the wane as we have declared war on the visible air pollutants responsible for it, clearly achieving a hollow victory in the process. This will allow the full impact of anthropogenic global warming to become very apparent over the coming decade. But please, please, please don't tell me that technology holds the solutions to these or other global problems, that technology will save us. Don't tell me about hybrid vehicles, EVs, carbon sequestration, bio-fuels, bio-diesel, tidal power generation, thin film solar, the hydrogen economy, nuclear pebble bed reactors, clean coal, GTL, CTL, LNG, space mirrors, genetically modified GW-resistant plant species, scattering particulate matter in the upper atmosphere to neutralize global warming. Don't tell me that Monsanto or Dupont or Cargill will genetically engineer some new grain seed that will double global grain production and save billions from starvation. They've done enough damage with their GMO monstrosities to last forcountless generations. It is our pursuit of and overuse of technology, including our flagrant abuse of genetic technology, that has driven us to this cliff in the first place. A problem cannot be its own solution.

Tell me, instead, that people are learning that we must reduce our energy consumption. Tell me that politicians are ready to negotiate our lifestyle, with our blessing and support. Tell me that the global bullies will not invade or economically destroy more poor, weak nations that just happen to have fossil fuel resources. Tell me that multinational corporations are ready to put the health of the earth and the survivability of our future generations ahead of their greed for short-term profit. Tell me that we are embarking on a cooperative global effort to reverse the trend of the past century and steadily reduce the global energy consumption per capita to pre-industrial levels. Tell me that governments throughout the planet are cooperating to dismantle the personhood of corporations and the easily abused economic and political power that grants them. Tell me that all air conditioners and furnaces are going to be sold with governors on them to restrict the temperature range in which they can be set. Tell me that the electric can opener has been banned. Tell me that the 48" television has been banned. Tell me that all goods being transported over 100 miles are going by rail. Tell me that all municipalities embrace mixed residential/retail zoning. Tell me that governments have declared a moratorium of indefinite length on highway construction. Tell me that municipal public transit is free, subsidized through punitive urban road tolls. Tell me that we as a species have experienced an epiphany and are moving toward embracing simplicity rather than sinking ever-deeper into the abyss of complexity that has so disenfranchised the majority of the world's population. Tell me that New Yorkers or Torontonians understand and accept that fresh, field-grown tomatoes in February are no longer an option. Tell me that the right to control the global food supply has been stripped from corporations and that the right to produce food has returned to being an inalienable human right. Tell me that the corporate-friendly Codex Alimentarius is dead and that people have the inalienable right to grow and use their own medicinal herbs. Tell me that we are going to stop poisoning and destroying the natural fertility of the soil that we so desperately need to grow the food we need to feed our dangerously growing human population. Tell me that we are going to look to the plant kingdom rather than the feedlot for the majority of our protein intake. Tell me that the average person on the street understands that the earth's resources are finite and we are rapidly depleting them. Tell me that the rights to control the planet's fresh water has been stripped from corporations and that the right to clean water is again an inalienable human right. Tell me that the average person finally understands that exponential population growth is not sustainable. Tell me that a big-screen television is no longer included in anyone's definition or list of needs. Tell me that there is an international political effort to require environmental cost to be built into the cost of every product. Tell me that the average person understands that our collective energy use grants us all an equivalent of 300 wage slaves per person. Tell me that the average economist and energy analyst, let alone the average person, understands the peak oil implications of entering a period of perpetually shrinking global economies, signals the end of the growth of the money supply. Tell me that people in general realize and understand that peak oil is not going to be like the oil crises of the 1970s and '80s.

There is no question that we are a very adaptive, inventive, creative, innovative species. We've proven it over and over, especially over this last century. We could even create (perhaps we should) a monument to our creativity, place it outside the United Nations maybe, show it on the morning sign-on of TV networks and stations throughout the world. We are the greatest! Now, can we just move on? Can we strive for wisdom maybe? We seem to be a little light in that department. Where is it written that every piece of technology we can imagine should be invented? Why should the majority of our labours be devoted to the development and production of so-called labour-saving devices? Shouldn't the first question an inventor ask be "Is this needed?" or "Does this invention improve the long-term survivability of our species or the health of the planet?" Why should the first application of so many technologies and breakthroughs be in the development of weapons? If our lifestyle will be unsustainable twenty or thirty years in the future is it not also unsustainable today? Do we have to prove that we are the only species capable of destroying this planet by doing it? Is our species ego that fragile? Maybe that's another monument we should erect in front of the UN; "R.I.P. Here lies Man, the only species capable of destroying this planet, and we proved it!"

Sorry. I just had to get all of that off my chest.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Global Dimming, Global Warming & Peak Oil

Okay. Hands up all of those who have even heard of Global Dimming. You'd be forgiven if you hadn't. After all, it hasn't exactly been the bread and butter of the morning newspaper or the evening TV newscast. The majority of those, in fact, in the Peak Oil movement and a good share of those in the Global Warming movement haven't yet heard of it either. If you are not yet aware of it I suspect it will distress you to hear that it may be more important and more serious and more complicated than either Peak Oil or Global Warming, and is intricately bound to both.

The Global Dimming phenomenon is not new to those like Stanhill and Cohen or Farquhar and Roderick(2,3) who have been studying it for over a decade. It is only in the past three or four years, however, that it has been understood and accepted by a significant portion of the climate science community. Despite that it still seems to have not made it into the 2007 IPCC report that has raised such a clamour in recent weeks, a shortcoming that will hopefully be corrected in the next report.

What is Global Dimming? Briefly, Global Dimming is the reduction of sunlight striking the planet's surface from a combination of factors such as particulate matter suspended in the atmosphere from pollution such as soot, ash, sulfur
emissions, volcanic eruptions, CFCs, chemtrails, contrails, and from increased cloud formation and cloud density, also at least partially a result of atmospheric pollution. Atmospheric pollution increases the density of clouds by causing greater water droplet formation around microscopic specks of pollution.(1, 2, 4) That all means that a greater amount of the sunlight striking the earth is being reflected back into space, reducing the amount striking the earth's surface.

Okay. So what? That can't be all bad. Can it?

That depends, of course, on your perspective. Scientists now understand that this has had two effects on global warming, one predictable and one quite surprising. Understandably the decrease in sunlight striking the earth's surface has had a significant neutralizing effect on the potential global temperature increase caused by anthropogenic Global Warming. It may, in fact, be responsible for slowing that temperature increase to a fifth or a tenth what it would have been without Global Dimming. This has raised doubts and concerns about efforts throughout the world to reduce visible atmospheric pollutants. "We're going to be in a situation, unless we act, where the cooling pollutant is dropping off while the warming pollutant is going up. That means we'll get reduced cooling and increased heating at the same time and that's a problem for us," says Dr Peter Cox, one of the world's leading climate modellers.(2) Climate experts are beginning to believe that we could be facing as much as a 10C rise in global temperature by 2100.

The surprising finding was to do with plant photosynthesis. It had long been believed that a reduction in sunlight would decrease the amount of plant photosynthesis. It is now understood that quite the opposite is true. The amount of photosynthesis actually increases. It is thought this is a function of the sunlight being more diffuse due to the same conditions causing the global dimming. The more diffuse light reaches more of the plants below the forest canopy increasing their photosynthesis while having only a small negative impact on the photosynthesis in those plants normally exposed to the sunlight. This greater level of photosynthesis increases the amount of CO2 being absorbed by plants, thus reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, one of the primary Greenhouse Gases responsible for Global Warming.

At first glance, therefore, Global Dimming appears to a blessing in disguise. It reduces two of the prime contributors to Global Warming; increased surface temperature and increased CO2. The prime contributor to anthropogenic Global Warming, however, is our burning of fossil fuels, a source of both Global Warming (in CO2 and other GHG emissions) and Global Dimming (in atmospheric particulate matter like soot, ash and smoke). But we are fast approaching peak oil, peak natural gas and even peak coal. Once we pass peak our burning of all these fossil fuels will gradually decrease on the downslope on the other side of the peak. Once that reduction begins, the short term problem is that the particulate matter in the atmosphere that causes Global Dimming will quickly begin to settle out of the atmosphere while the Greenhouse Gases like CO2 and Methane will continue to increase. These gases will also take much longer to settle out of the atmosphere than do suspended particulates.

There will also be an unusual side effect which will be important from a perspective of global carrying capacity. As the concentration of suspended particulates reduces and the effects on global cooling diminish, the enhanced levels of photosynthesis will reduce as well. This will reduce the amount of CO2 uptake by plants, meaning it will take longer for earth to cleanse the atmosphere of anthropogenic Greenhouse Gases. It also, unfortunately, means that the level of plant photosynthesis will be declining at the same time as our ability to produce and afford petrochemical agricultural additives like artificial fertilizers and pesticides will be on the decline. With the wholesale destruction of natural soil fertility throughout the planet over these past fifty years through the use of those petrochemicals, we will be faced with a double hit in our ability to produce enough food to support our still exponentially growing population.

There is a very good documentary produced by BBC which I strong suggest you should watch to understand the interconnections between Peak Oil, Global Warming, and Global Dimming. It is available on Google Video at;

Global Dimming is also believed to be responsible for other important events and impacts. It is now believed that Global Dimming is responsible for blocking the seasonal shift of the Monsoon Belt from the tropics into the northern hemisphere sub-tropics. This is believed to have been responsible for the droughts in the 1970s and '80s that caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Ethiopia. The fear is that if it halts the monsoons in Asia it could affect billions, half the world population. The potential impact would dwarf the loss of life in the African droughts.(2)

More on this important topic later.


1) Global dimming
2) Global Dimming
3) Goodbye sunshine

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Peak Oil is not About Running Out of Oil!!!!

I'm getting tired of hearing it. Some economist or financial analyst or some talking head in the employ of one of the oil majors gets in front of a camera and declares something to the effect that, "The peak oil theory is dead wrong. We are not running out of oil!" The only people who ever connect peak oil and running out of oil are those who do not understand the peak oil theory, those who have a vested interest in creating confusion about peak oil because there's far too much profit to be made in people not knowing, and those attempting to discredit the peak oil theory. No one in the peak oil movement, unless they too are new to the movement and do not yet understand, ever says, or ever would say, that peak oil means the end of oil, means we are running out of oil. Most in the peak oil camp, in fact, believe we will never consume all of the oil there is, for a wide variety of reasons. In general only about thirty percent of the oil in a reserve is recoverable so there is always going to be oil left over in a field after the last well has been shut down.

Peak oil is about a global society and global economy that have become hopelessly dependent on an ever-increasing supply of cheap, high-grade oil, increasingly dependent also on natural gas and coal, the other main fossil fuels. It is about the impact on that global society and global economy when the supply of oil can no longer be increased, when the demand for oil exceeds what the world's oil fields can produce, when the primary sources of oil remaining contain only low-grade, high sulfur crudes, when we have to increasingly rely on expensive, low-output sources like tar sands and deep water wells, when the majority of the oil reserves left are in areas of high political volatility or under the control of governments increasingly intent on preserving their resources for their own future use, when there is no longer a supply buffer available to absorb market disruptions, when we have to increasingly rely on synthetic crudes produced from coal, natural gas, bio-mass, tar sands and oil shales, when all sources can no longer produce enough energy to support a growth economy and the perpetual-growth global economy begins to go into irreversible contraction.

Peak oil is not about the oil! It is about what we do with it. It is not about motor fuel. There are over 300,000 other products in everyday use around the globe made from oil or oil derivatives. Peak oil is about the gradual disappearance of one after another of those 300,000 products because their producers can no longer afford or obtain the raw materials. Most importantly, peak oil is about the ubiquitous agrochemicals that our modern agriculture has become critically dependent on, about our ability to feed ourselves. We have so denuded our commercial agricultural soils of their natural fertility that, without petrochemical inputs, many experts suggest those soils will, at least temporarily, only be able to produce one tenth to one fifth the crop yields that are being produced through the artificial fertility achieved with petrochemical inputs.

Quite literally, the lives of billions of people will be affected by peak oil and the ensuing decline in oil and the other fossil fuels. We can't produce enough food now to feed our 6.6 billion population. Every day 20-40,000 people around the world are dying of starvation and other nutrition-related diseases and illness. If the agrochemicals modern agriculture needs have to compete for raw materials with other, high-profit uses of oil, under the normal functioning of the market the high-profit uses will get the oil because they can afford to absorb higher costs than pesticides and fertilizers. If we leave it to the markets to transition us through peak oil into the long slope of oil decline we can expect those ever-dwindling reserves of oil to follow the money and go where the profits are.

With these stakes I would strongly suggest that we cannot tolerate any person, corporation, organization or government intentionally creating confusion about the state of the world's oil supply, about when we will hit peak (if, indeed, we have not already hit it which we very much appear we might have), about how the use of the remaining oil reserves will be prioritized for social need rather than corporate profits. Sooner, rather than later, those nations sitting on significant remaining oil reserves are going to decide that those reserves are far more important as a future resource for their own nation and people than they are as a means of enriching a few of the world's most profitable corporations. Sooner or later energy sovereignty is going to trump corporate globalization. Sooner or later producers are going to be unwilling to part with their precious remaining oil reserves at any price. When we reach that point, those nations which are net oil importers are going to be the first and hardest hit on the downslope. The only question then remaining is whether the people of those importing nations are going to insist or even accept their nation fighting resource wars around the planet in order to maintain their lifestyle.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Post-Peak Agricultural Capacity

Agricultural Capacity is affected by a number of important variables; crop variety, water (both rainfall and irrigation), natural soil fertility, artificial inputs, climate, and length of the growing season. Of the total global land mass, about 35 percent is arable land, 31 percent forested and 34 percent is either desert, tundra and permafrost or dedicated to other uses such as urbanization and other human activity such as mining. Globally there are about 7.8 billion acres that are potentially arable of which 3.5 billion acres are known to be productively being used to produce food. Statistics are scanty from poor nations where the bulk of farming activity is at the subsistence level. The unused potential land is generally in areas lacking essential transport for moving product to market or infrastructure needed for the maintenance of commercial food production.(1) An unknown portion of this is in use by indigenous peoples for subsistence agriculture.

Of the 35 percent of the total global land mass that is arable or suitable for agriculture, 24 percent or about two thirds is pasture or meadowland used for animal production. Another 10 percent (about 350 million acres) is used for grain and cereal production (75 percent or about 270 million acres), much of that also used for animal production, and for annual root, tuber, vegetable and fruit crops (about 25 percent or 80 million acres). Despite the global attraction of and growth in permaculture, only 1 percent of arable land is dedicated to permanent crops such as fruits and nuts. Essentially, all of human food production, excluding meat, dairy and sea food, is grown on less than 400 million acres. Each of those acres is, therefore, feeding about 15-17 people.

All of our food crops are produced on about 400-million acres out of a total global land mass of about 20-billion acres. That is at once a very discomfiting statistic and a clear sign of hope for the post peak world. It is discomfiting knowing that the entire 6.6 billion human population is dependent on such a small portion this planet for producing its food. And we are systematically destroying the natural fertility of that land through unwise agricultural practices. It is hopeful in that there are 4.3 billion acres of potentially arable land not currently in use under managed agricultural practices. If, as many experts generally concur, our agricultural productivity will, at least temporarily, be reduced to 10-20% our current levels with the loss of fossil fuel based agrochemicals, there is cause for hope in that that land currently producing our non-animal foods is less than ten percent of the potentially arable land not currently in use for agricultural production. If we bring all of that land into agricultural production, however, with the same patterns as at present (85%+ for food-animal support) we would net very little additional food-production land (about 600 million acres) to offset the 80-90% drop in productivity on those current 400 million acres. This would barely allow us to absorb the impact of a 25% drop in productivity.

But there is one other simpler and overriding problem. The unused potentially arable land is not in the same place as the 6.6 billion of us for whom it could reduce the impact of soil productivity loss following peak oil. That unused potentially arable land is not sitting there in some undiscovered country which can be populated by billions of food refugees. It exists in pockets within the boundaries of already sovereign nations throughout the world, nations which themselves may be impoverished and unable to currently produce enough food for their own people. Much of it may be in extremely isolated mountain valleys, in need of massive reclamation projects, in national parks and wildlife preserves, in areas where there are extreme water shortages. Much of it is in private holdings intentionally held back from agricultural production in order to facilitate future expansion.

For this land to be brought under agricultural production as a solution to the post-peak food crisis, assuming it is even possible to do so, without some form of global population redistribution, would still necessitate the maintenance of a heavily-energy-dependent global food distribution system (in an environment of declining energy availability) to move that food to the people who need it. It is this same global food distribution system that is already taxed to the limit moving food from those few nations that can and do produce surpluses to the more than half the planet's countries that are seriously dependent on it for survival. To create and maintain the additional infrastructure that would be necessary to bring these additional lands into productivity would add considerable cost to the global production of food. In all likelihood, based on current patterns, developing these lands would far more likely be focused on high-profit crops such as corn, soy and sugar cane that can be used to produced bio-fuels in a world increasingly deficient in fossil fuel energy.
1. Agribusiness in a Global Environment Comparing Global Agricultural Production Systems
2. Global Water Shortage Looms In New Century
3. To Fertilize or Not to Fertilize .. That is the Question$department/newslett.nsf/all/wfbg7088
4. Global study reveals new warning signals: Degraded agricultural lands threaten world's food production capacity

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The High Cost of that Last 2% of Certainty

It is odd for me how one personal event can draw into crystal clarity both what is terribly wrong with the current medical systems (specifically here in Canada but, in general, all western nations), and the terrible medical risks before us as we slide down the downslope on the other side of peak oil. It is also odd to me the extreme contrast between how I viewed this event over the past few days and how I would have viewed it even five years ago. But five years ago I still hadn't evolved myself and my view of the world as much as I have now.

A little over a week ago I was developing what I thought were cold or hay fever symptoms; inflamed sinuses, difficulty breathing, dry raspy cough. Been there, done that, may times. By this past weekend, however, it blew way past being annoying and started to develop into a bit of a crisis. That shortness of breath was now into the extreme range. I was severely weakened. I had pains in my chest, which I assumed were from the dry cough. I was having difficulty sleeping at night because of the laboured, shallow breathing.

At 9:00am on Monday morning I walked (under considerable duress) into Emergency at the local hospital. I sat down in Emerg-Triage and, between frantic attempts at taking a breath, explained what was happening and answered all the questions of the Triage nurse. The very fact that Emergency has a Triage function is a sign of one of the things that is seriously with our medical system. They are there to sort out the sore toes and runny noises and overindulgent gassiness (all of those who should have gone to their family doctors or one of the numerous available walk-in clinics) from those small percentage of people who really do need Emergency services.

I was fast-tracked and deep into the bowels of middle earth Emergency by 9:30am. Over the next one and a half hours I was attended or examined by two doctors, three nurses, had been X-rayed, had my blood pressure checked three times, my blood sugar and blood oxygen levels checked twice, and had given up three vials of blood for them to run blood work. All of this was done by 11:00am. It was not until nearly ten hours later, around 9:00pm, after mildly displaying my impatience at the length of the wait, that a new doctor finally deigned to come talk to me about the results of the tests that had been completed ten hours earlier. About 8:00pm the night shift ER nurse had come and given me an injection in my stomach with no explanation as to why.

The doctor, when he arrived, explained that there was either a blood clot or fluid in my right lung and that they were going to have to run several more diagnostic tests the next morning. He told me he wanted to keep me in overnight so we could get right to those tests in the morning. I explained that unless there was a medical reason for me to stay in overnight, like maybe they wanted to keep me under observation, I would prefer to go home. I lived just five minutes away, after all, and was up by five every morning. Unless their diagnostic labs were up and running at 4:00am I would be up and ready long before they were ready for me. He quickly retreated from the suggestion that I stay overnight, said the lab would call me in the morning when they were ready. He prescribed me a water pill (because of the fluid build up in my lower legs) to be started in the morning.

I received two phone calls from two different departments before 8:30am. Over the next several hours I was put through a CT-cardiograph scan, an echo-cardiogram, an ultrasound, a PFT (Pulmonary Function Test) and had three more vials of blood drawn for more analysis, had my blood pressure checked a couple more times, as well as my blood sugar and blood oxygen levels, then had to go back through Emergency Triage and check-in (because I had gone home for the night and was now classed as an outpatient). A close friend of the family who is in hospital services (not at the same hospital) estimates that all of the tests I was put through add up to more than $8,000.

Another ER doctor sat down with me when the results of all of these tests were completed. He explained that they were still not certain what we were dealing with, that he had set me up with the hospital's Urgent Care Clinic for ongoing testing and observation and that they would be contacting me over the next couple of days to come in for a consultation.

Now after two days, several doctors and nurses and technicians and over $8,000 in diagnostic testing, I still knew no more than what the Triage nurse hinted at five minutes after I entered the doors of Emergency, a hint that conformed to the same uninformed self-diagnosis I had made before I even headed for the hospital. And I still very strongly suspect in the end, when they finally do make a diagnosis, it will pretty much conform to my own pre-hospital self-diagnosis made on Monday morning, actually Sunday afternoon.

Here's the rub. We have already spent close to $10,000 trying to close that gap between 98% certainty and an actual diagnosis. The best of a physician's diagnostic skills (assuming they are even taught true diagnostic skills in medical school) seems now to simply serve as a basis for deciding which expensive diagnostic equipment and technicians need to be scheduled to help close that 2% gad to arrive at a diagnosis. When did skilled hands and training of the physician go from being the difference between life and death to being just a part of the input stream to a technological process where machines are the trusted end authority in the diagnosis?

And here's the real rub? As we pass peak oil and the availability of energy begins to get prohibitively expensive, erratic, and increasingly unavailable, and all of that technology becomes an expensive pile of wires and electrodes that can't be run for want of power, where are the doctors that have the diagnostic skills to diagnose a patient's condition without all of those technological inputs? Just as modern day business farmers have lost touch with the soil and no longer know traditional, non-mechanized farming skills, our modern doctors have lost touch with the patient and the traditional, non-mechanized diagnostic skills that has made medicine such an important force in our lives since the Industrial Revolution. Health care has become the greatest single social cost we have and the bill has been growing at a super-exponential rate for the past half-century. Doctors have become slaves to all that technology that is intended to close that last 2% gap and in the process have been losing the skills responsible for that first 98% of the diagnosis.

As the technology begins to go dormant for want of energy there is going to be a dangerous and growing gap in our medical coverage that will, in my opinion, be exacerbated at a rate much more rapid than the rate of decline in energy. Medical dependence is going to prove a very risky condition.

End of rant.