Thursday, November 10, 2011

Relieving urban traffic congestion and reducing fossil fuel dependence

Every major city and large urban center shares a common problem, traffic congestion, particularly during rush hours. And in virtually every instance a major, if not the dominant, contributor to that congestion is commercial delivery traffic. Primary traffic corridors and the primary concentration of retail and commercial businesses to which deliveries are being made are on the same routes, the same streets.

In an era of dwindling fossil fuel reserves, resulting in punishing increases in fuel costs, and stressed budgets at all levels of government resulting in curtailment of funds for infrastructure development and maintenance, some serious thinking outside the box is needed to deal with this combined problem.

I believe there is a simple, efficient, and cost effective solution available in most large cities.

The other thing large cities share in common is that they have a major investment in a public transit infrastructure. In most large cities this includes subways, streetcars and trolleys. These are all powered by electricity, not fossil fuels, though the electricity they use may, today, be generated using fossil fuels. But that is a situation that will undergo dramatic changes over the next couple of decades as existing power generation plants age and are pulled offline.

That electricity driven public transit system and infrastructure can serve as the foundation for solving both urban fossil fuel dependence and urban traffic congestion. All three system infrastructures (subway, streetcar and trolley) can double as effective and efficient urban freight distribution networks. The chassis on which these three vehicles are built can be used as the chassis for freight vehicles that will run on the same infrastructure as the current passenger vehicles.

Subway cars are ideally suited as urban freight carriers. They have four sets of extra-wide, double entry/loading doors, car to car connection, driver compartment built in, and the ability to be run individually or linked together as a train. Use the same chassis, strip out the seating and hand-holds, eliminate the climate control system, eliminate the windows, build in the necessary racks/shelves and partitions and you have an ideal urban freight carrier. They use an existing track infrastructure that also carries people. They can be run 24-hours a day, in any weather because the infrastructure is underground. With retail and commercial concentrated along the same corridors served by the subways it is the most efficient system for delivery to those businesses or strategically located depots. Freight sidings could be relatively easily added where needed so as not to impede passenger traffic while loading/unloading. And it could be undertaken now to great advantage for the city in easing the traffic congestion of delivery trucks on city streets.

A simple, effective dispatch control system could easily be developed, probably using some form of bar-code system. The whole freight system could be privatized, bringing revenue to the city and eliminating the bureaucracy needed from city payroll and expense.

In the same way, streetcar infrastructure could be used for surface freight cars, freight vehicles built on a streetcar chassis. Sidings could be easily added where needed, running down alleys for example. These could serve secondary commercial concentrations not on the subway lines.

Freight trolleys, likewise, could be built on the same chassis as passenger trolleys, use the same power line infrastructure and routes, have additional sidings built so as not to impede passenger traffic on the same lines. These would service those secondary commercial concentrations similar to but not served by streetcars.

All of this is akin to the way in which freight planes have become so ubiquitous at our airports. Freight has piggybacked on an infrastructure that was already in place for passenger traffic, with the addition of extra terminals at airports to divert freight away from passenger terminals. The air traffic control, runways, route management and tracking systems, and route protocols were all already in place.

The decline in reserves of all fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal) is a certainty over the next couple of decades and well beyond. They are not replenishable, at least not in human time-scales. One way or another all facets of our society dependent on these fossil fuels are going to have to find ways to adapt as reserves diminish.

Although electricity has its own problems, such as aging infrastructure and a reliance on massive power generation facilities and long-distance transmission lines, one certainty is that electricity generation has many renewable options such as solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, tidal, and more. We are not forever tied to fossil fuels for electricity generation. And there is the clear additional benefit that these options can be at a smaller scale and distributed. Any city, for example, has within it's boundaries sufficient rooftop space that, with solar power, most of it's electricity for the transportation and freight infrastructure could be generated within city boundaries. Add wind power to that and possible other options like power generated from burning trash, and much of the power needs can be readily satisfied internally. Local options can reduce, or eliminate, the dependence on long distance power grids. With privatization of the urban freight system, the city could also expect those companies using that infrastructure to share in the cost of building and maintaining the local power generation facilities.

Those corporations that currently supply the passenger vehicles for the public transit system could be commissioned to use their chassis and develop the freight options on that chassis. Similarly, however, third party corporations could be allowed, on a competitive bid basis, to develop the freight vehicles, in the same way that third party companies produce specialized truck bodies for truck freight.

Any city that prides itself on being forward looking cannot afford to ignore the elephant in the room of dwindling fossil fuel supplies over the coming decades. Any city willing to take such an innovative, pro-active approach to pre-avoiding the problems that fossil fuel depletion will inflict on them will have a clear leg up on the fossil fuel downslope.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Peak Oil: Is There Any Longer a Valid Debate?

It has been some time since I sat down to analyze what is happening with peak oil. It has been difficult to see that there is any meaningful response from government, business and the media. They are still very busy characterizing minor new discoveries of oil as the saviors of society, as though there is a pervasive fear of admitting the truth to the public. The pieces of the puzzle that one has to fit together are very fragmented and misrepresented in the media.

* There is a renewed effort in the US to paint the tar sands as an ethical source of oil. I still believe Chris Skrebowski is right in his projection that the tar sands will peak in 2015. I covered this in the article, Will the tar sands peak in 2015?, on my blog. The essential limiting factors on tar sands are flow rate (the amount that can be extracted at one time from all mines) and the density of hydrocarbons in the formation which tends to decrease toward the periphery of the formation. The latter is the basis for Skrebowski's 2015 peak projection.
* The US was putting a great deal of stock in shale gas as the future of energy for the US. With all of the environmental problems from fracking, the public is, even now, split on the validity of that as an energy source. In addition the IEA and USGS(EIA) have now downgraded the estimates for the Murcheson Shale formation in eastern US from over 400 trillion cubic feet to something less than 50 trillion cubic feet. There is also serious doubts about the validity of the estimates for the Bakken shale formation in north central US and southern prairie provinces of Canada. This is a tremendous blow to US energy plans. It is also very likely that estimates on recoverable energy from other shale formations, both in the US and abroad, have been dramatically overstated. At the same time the true cost of extraction and site restoration have probably been dramatically understated.
* It is strongly believed, in the peak oil community, and recently being tacitly admitted in the mainstream press and political circles, that the OPEC reserve estimates for Saudi Arabia, and potentially other OPEC members, are vastly overstated and that even Saudi Arabia has reached or surpassed its production peak. The Saudis are only managing to keep up their production with the injection of tremendous volumes of sea water to keep up the wellhead pressure. But they are now experiencing water cut up to as high as 90% on some wells. In the process they are also destroying their critical fresh water aquifers by contaminating them with salt water. In addition OPEC nations are increasingly consuming their own oil resources meaning as their standard of living rises and the disparity between production and exports is growing each year. From a global perspective it is not production that matters but rather exports.
* Emerging nations such as China and India are still experiencing exponential growth in their energy consumption every year. Both use a tremendous amount of coal as well (China has vast coal reserves but they are also a net coal importer), but coal reserves are significantly declining, with production rates now also on the decline. Energy consumption tends to follow economic growth and decline and there is still a tremendous amount of economic growth possible in these two large population giants. As is always the case, the more the economy grows the greater are the population's expectations for standard of living and consumption. This is certainly proving to be the case in these two nations.
* Deep water oil is not the panacea that western nations had painted it to be. The recovery of deep water oil is very technically challenging, expensive and risky, both in terms of safety and environmental well being. BP's Deepwater Horizon loss was the first major deepwater oil disaster, but it definitely will not be the last. There will always be a high risk of methane explosions and the resulting leak is extremely damaging to the environment. It is also very likely that the optimistic estimates of how much undiscovered deep water oil exists have been dramatically overstated. Deep water wells also tend to peak much more rapidly than land-based wells - vis-a-vis the North Sea and Mexico's Cantarell - so their benefit is short-lived. Considering the cost of exploration and discovery, the long lead time needed to put safe extraction technology in place, and the limits on the number of recovery wells that can be sunk into a single reserve, deep water oil is very unlikely to keep up with the declines in land-based production. It is very possible that deep water oil may quickly become non viable economically and have to be abandoned.
* Methane hydrates (as well as coal bed methane and bio-mass methane) are seen as a strong potential as the next great energy source. Certainly with the decline in viability of shale gas this will renew the expectations for methane hydrates. I have covered this extensively in my blog. The estimates for recoverability of Methane Hydrates are all over the map, as are the reserves that have a potential for economic recovery if the technology can be sorted out. In general, however, the recoverability estimates, I believe, are badly overstated. In addition it would take a whole new energy infrastructure to take full advantage of these resources, an energy infrastructure that I believe we are already past the point of possibility of developing.
* There is an ever growing disparity between WTI crude prices and the other, more realistic prices of oil such as Brent. The WTI, NYMEX-traded, American price is being kept artificially low as the US, the world's largest oil importer, attempts to impose prices on the rest of the world in order to keep it's ever increasing energy costs in check, particularly as it tries to recover from the 2008 global economic recession, which it still has not managed to do. Increasingly global oil producers will not trade their oil contracts on NYMEX because they are able to get much better prices on other global oil commodity exchanges which more accurately reflect the state of global oil reserves. With the US credit rating having recently been downgraded by S&P there is an increasing possibility that the US dollar will be overthrown as the global reserve currency. This will make the US/NYMEX oil pricing increasingly irrelevant and drive the cost the US must pay for oil up to realistic levels equivalent to what the rest of the world pays.
* Over the past several years there is a clear, but unprovable pattern, of the US waging war after war against oil-rich countries in the hands of rulers, usually dictators, not friendly to the U.S. First there was Iraq and Afghanistan (the gateway to the Caspian Sea oil province), then the suspected involvement in the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt, the invasion of Libya, the suspected involvement in the division of Sudan, the continued saber rattling at Iran and Venezuela, and the increasing rhetoric, now that Libya is more or less settled, over Syria. After the invasion of Afghanistan a former executive of Conoco Phillips, Ahmid Karzai, was installed as ruler and plans immediately began for a pipeline to bring Caspian oil to a Pacific port via Afghanistan. After the invasion of Irag western oil companies immediately began negotiating for their share of the Iraqi oil pie. The same is about to happen in Libya. And when Sudan was partitioned the US took aim at the oil reserves in the newly separated south Sudan. The saber rattling over Iran, Syria and others has as much to do with their oil reserves as politics. And in all, the US has more military presence in the Arabian Gulf than anywhere else in the world except the US itself.
* Despite several years of teeth gnashing and negative press in the US over Canada's tar sands oil being dirty oil (complete with bans against it in several states including California), the US government has a measure on the table for building a high volume pipeline, the Keystone Pipeline, from Alberta to the major US oil refineries in Texas and elsewhere along the Gulf coast. It is obvious they only consider tar sands oil dirty when they can get adequate supply from elsewhere in the world. With the reality of declining OPEC, Mexican and other sources of oil staring them in the face, they desperately want to tie up that Canadian tar sands oil, particularly since China is making increasing investment in the tar sands also in an attempt to ensure future oil availability. Venezuela has vast oil sands, in the Orinoco region, that probably equal those in Canada, but Venezuela is not friendly to US interests.
* The US is quietly but increasingly reducing its investment in automobile infrastructure (highways, tunnels, bridges, etc) including new construction and maintenance of existing infrastructure. This is obviously partly due to the long recession that has gripped the country but it is a clear indicator that when budgets are tight they are no longer prepared to give top priority to automobile infrastructure.
* Most developed nations such as the US and European nations are placing increased emphasis on electric cars as the centerpiece of the future of the automobile. That, however, ignores the simple and glaringly obvious reality that electrical generation and transmission infrastructure is rapidly deteriorating and will require massive billions of dollars of investment in order to support an electric car culture. In addition, any sort of serious government push to accelerate the conversion to electric cars will dramatically increase the drawdown of increasingly rare resources, particularly for the production of the batteries needed to run those electric cars. It is clearly doubtful if the hundreds of millions of cars in the US and Europe will ever be replaced wholesale by electric vehicles.
* Increasingly over the past decade, published oil production and reserve figures have been broadened to include more and more questionable commodities such as synthetic oil from tar sands, liquid fuels created from coal and natural gas condensates, liquid fuels produced from shale formations, ethanol, bio-fuels and more. The simple reality already is that traditional crude oil is no longer satisfying the demand but is increasingly reliant on these other non-traditional sources to make up the shortfall. But even the figures reported by the EIA, of crude plus condensates, are already on the decline.

Peak oil is not an event wherein all of a sudden one day governments, business and the media will announce that peak oil has arrived and we all need to adjust the way we live on this planet. It won't be sudden. It won't be clear. And in the initial stages of the decline following peak there is plenty of wiggle room to disguise the fact that we are in decline, and room to perpetuate the state of denial in which we have existed for the past couple of decades. As has often been said, peak oil ultimately will only be recognized in the rearview mirror.
I believe peak oil has already arrived. I believe, in fact, based on the data available, peak oil arrived in 2005. In the several years since then enormous effort has been put into disguising that reality and turning to other energy sources and classifying them as oil to allow that facade to be maintained. I do not believe we are adjusting to the reality of peak oil. I belief we are firmly entrenched in trying to deny that reality and scrambling ever harder to find some viable energy alternative that will allow us to carry on business as usual to keep us from ever having to deal with that reality. The chances are very slim, however, of finding any energy source that will allow us the massive amounts of cheap energy that we derive from crude oil. Peak oil will probably mean peak net energy and be followed by an accelerating decline in all forms of energy.
The news, however, is not all bad. Peak oil and peak net energy will also mean peak CO2 emissions. That will allow the planet a chance to begin recovering from the damage our high energy human lifestyle has inflicted on the planet. That at least improves the prospect of the long term survivability of our species and that of other species with whom we reluctantly share this planet.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

How I Shed 45 pounds in 21 days

This isn't a pitch for some new dieting product, a promise of tighter, sexier abs, a miracle pill. No come-ons. No promises. No fancy new exercise equipment.
This is a personal story of heart disease. I was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy about three years ago after experienced mild congestive heart failure. Since that time I have had a consistent problem, due to my weakened heart condition, of retaining excess fluid in my body, particularly in my abdominal cavity and my lower extremities.

Over a four-five week period this spring my body simply slowed down the elimination of these excess fluids. Over that period of time I put on nearly forty pounds in weight, all unexpelled fluid. My abdomen swelled up to the point that I looked like I was eight and a half months pregnant, with twins. After a couple of weeks of testing - ultra sounds, X-rays, CT-scans - it was confirmed that it was all a result of fluid retention.

At that point my family doctor checked me into the hospital and referred me to my cardiologist, my gastro-enterologist, my nephrologist and to a respirologist because of a mass spotted on my right lung.

The first order of business was a paracentesis, a draining of excess fluid from the abdominal cavity. In that procedure they drained nearly seven liters of fluid representing about 16 pounds of that additional body weight. That, of course, is included in the forty-five pounds total that I managed to shed. The rest was achieved through a massive increase in my diuretic (Furosemide, a lasix product) from 20 to 120mg per day, and adding an additional high potency diuretic, metolazone, of 2.5mg per day (the latter added when the lasix proved unable to do the job on its own).

After eight days in the hospital I was released. At home I continued on the diuretic regimen and, over the next two weeks, shed another 29 pounds of excess fluid at an average rate of over 2 pounds a day, for a total weight loss in 21 days of 45 pounds, nearly one quarter of my bloated body weight.

The combination of that and several other adjustments to my medication and significant changes to my diet, most to do with restricted fluid intake, has left me feeling better and stronger than I have felt in several years. And after 29 days my total body weight has dropped by 55 pounds and leveled off.

Of course, this tale ends with a caveat. Don't try this at home.

Monday, May 02, 2011

The Death of Osama bin Laden

Monday, May 02, 2011.
Osama bin Laden has reportedly been killed by a select unit of U.S. navy seals in a raid yesterday on his "luxury" compound in Abbottabad, a city deep inside Pakistan less than an hour's drive, 60 kilometers, from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. The compound was only about a mile away from a major Pakistani military academy and garrison. Coupled with the suggestion that the compound was the largest building in the community with barbed-wire-topped eighteen-foot walls, brings into serious question Pakistani claims of lack of knowledge of his whereabouts and their lack of cooperation and efforts in finding him, and their repeated claims that bin Laden was still in Afghanistan.

The fact that bin Laden's body was seized by U.S. forces after initial identification (which reportedly included DNA analysis?) and removed and buried at sea over 800 miles away (to supposedly prevent the establishment of a martyr's grave site) will, of course, have the conspiracy theorists working overtime. There are already claims by the "birthers" (Donald Trump among them) that the timing of this whole "fictitious" event was staged to draw attention away from what they describe as the "obviously forged" long-form certificate of Barrack Obama's birth in Hawaii that has been posted on the "official" White House web site.

Regardless of the "true" story, this event has been portrayed in such a way that it is obviously going to have serious geopolitical ramifications over the coming weeks and months.

It would seem very likely that there is now going to be a serious redrawing of the diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and the Pakistani government. Their blatant lack of cooperation in the U.S. war on terrorism had only been tolerated because the White House still considered that the hunt for bin Laden and al Qaida still needed Pakistan's help. The announcement that U.S. special forces raided bin Laden's compound deep inside Pakistan (the Pakistan government apparently declined a request for their forces to be involved), seized the body and disposed of it at sea themselves, is a clear signal that Pakistan's cooperation is no longer needed and the price of whatever cooperation they were giving was not worth it. They were clearly more a hindrance than a help.

It will, undoubtedly, also spell an end, or at least a serious curtailment, of U.S. financial and military aid to Pakistan, a serious blow to a regime locked in a perpetual confrontation with neighboring India, both countries with nuclear arsenals, and reeling under tremendous financial pressure after a series of devastating natural disasters.

The other obvious and very expected outcome of this event is that leaders of every western nation immediately issued a warning that this was likely to lead to a short term outbreak of new terrorist activity from al Qaida cells as well as other terrorist organizations. In other words, the fear level has been ramped up amid the euphoria surrounding bin Laden's death. Fear is good for the economy. This expectation of terrorist activity takes the focus off the still faltering global economic recovery, at least for now.

At the same time, however, this is very likely to bring on renewed and stronger calls, both in the U.S. and in other involved western nations, to withdraw troops and military support from Afghanistan. After all, those troops were only there because of al Qaida and because of the hunt for bin Laden. Now that it is clear he was not there but in Pakistan, and now that he has been "brought to justice", the supposed need for a military presence there has been eliminated. It will be argued that it is time to withdraw and focus on protecting the homeland.

To offset those calls, however, it is very likely that a new threat will be "created" to replace the current al Qaida as justification for the continued use of the military in the global war on terrorism. War is good for business and the fear engendered by war and the threat of it is good for eliciting the support and placid cooperation of the citizenry.

The other thing that will be very interesting to watch over the coming months is the middle east and Muslim countries in general, including Pakistan and Indonesia. Despite some discomfort within the Muslim world about al Qaida's tactics, there was and remains widespread support for bin Laden's message and objective of the overthrow of brutal dictatorial regimes in Muslim countries. The wave of citizen protest in Muslim countries like Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, and Syria that has dominated world media for the past several months is, at least in part, a result of that very bin Laden message. If bin Laden is going to be seen as a martyr in the Muslim world it is most likely now to be as a result of that message and objective because of its broad appeal. And it is very likely that the strength and commitment of those citizen revolts will now increase in recognition of bin Laden's martyrdom.

That martyrdom is also very likely to strengthen the anti-west and, particularly, anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world. I believe this is very likely to result in increased serious terrorist acts not on the U.S. but within those Muslim countries against oil-supply infrastructure from which U.S. imports originate.

At a time when the U.S. is quietly having to increase its imports of oil from Saudia Arabia, because of the rapidly dwindling availability of supply from Mexico due to an annual 14% decline in output from the Cantarell field, this is likely to finally wake the American people up to the realities of peak oil and make it increasingly difficult for politicians to hide, ignore and deny those realities. We will be smack up against the reality that the vast majority of the world's remaining oil reserves are within those very Muslim nations whose America-friendly dictatorial regimes are under tremendous and increasing pressure from their own citizens to step down and be replaced with "democratically elected" governments. It is unlikely that any of those replacement governments (all likely wanting to return to a more traditional Muslim society governed by Shariah law) are going to be as friendly to the U.S. or as sympathetic to its needs as the regimes they are replacing. The U.S. may now find itself increasingly hard-pressed to get the quantities of oil it needs on a day to day basis, let alone the higher volumes it would need for a serious economic recovery and increased industrial activity if it tries to repatriate production that it has shipped offshore over past decades.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Can we survive our successes?

As advanced technological societies like ours fall apart with the accelerating decline in resource availability, I believe survivability is going to have to be accomplished at the community level, not as a scattering of rugged individualists living on their backwoods homesteads. We are still going to need some separation and specialization of skills and responsibilities and the optimum economies of scale that are afforded by the community that cannot be achieved by one individual. And, of course, from a natural selection point of view, we are going to need a broad, varied and healthy gene pool to avoid the problems of long term interbreeding.

Most importantly, however, if any significant portion of the current level of human population is to survive into the future, we are going to have to rely on agriculture. There simply are not enough resources, or wilderness left for those resources, to support any more than a very small human population well below one billion, probably closer to 100-200 million globally. Without the massive fossil fuel inputs on which modern agriculture critically relies, however, the new labor-intensive agriculture of the future is going to have to be community dependent and community supporting. It is going to have to become a key, even dominant part of the community's way of life.

I believe the appropriate size of community in a post-carbon world will be relatively small, with more than a few hundred but no more than perhaps ten thousand in total. That size allows for a diverse collection of specialized skills, helping to ensure the community's self-sufficiency and self-reliance. But I still see trade between neighboring communities for specialized goods and services (e.g. high education) that there is no justification or benefit in replicating in every community. That size is also still small enough to have and maintain a truly homogeneous sense of community and community spirit, a pulling together for the benefit of all. And yet large enough to allow, even encourage, friendly competition both within and between communities.

The first key to the community's self-sufficiency must be agriculture. The community has to be able to produce all of the food needed to sustain its whole population. This is one of the areas where the efficiencies of scale and specialization must come strongly into play.

Everybody needs potatoes, but not everyone is good at growing potatoes, and not everyone's soil is good for growing potatoes. But somewhere in the broader community is a patch of the ideal soil for growing potatoes and someone who grows potatoes better than anyone else. True community efficiency is achieved by bringing those two elements together, not just for the benefit of the best potato grower but for the benefit of the whole community. Each crop, be it potatoes, corn, pole beans, tomatoes or whatever, has its own specialists who produce enough for the whole community.

The same thing applies to animal husbandry. Someone in the community is probably best at raising chickens and getting optimum egg production and growing the best eating birds. Someone else is good at managing a dairy herd. Someone else is exceptional at raising rabbits, someone else sheep or goats. And someone is best at breeding and raising the all important horses, or even oxen, on which, over time, the community will become so dependent. With specialization optimum community efficiency will result.

That specialization would, of course, carry over into trades. Someone is excellent at making and repairing furniture. Another is an excellent potter. Someone else is a good sheet-metal worker, another a blacksmith, yet another is the best house-builder, or chimney builder, or barn builder or saddle and harness maker. Someone is best at making pants, or shirts, or sweaters, or mitts, or hats, or toques, or shoes, or underwear, or coats.

The key to all of this, however, is how to value the effort that everyone contributes to the welfare of the community. What is someone's time worth? Is the cabinet maker's time more valuable than the farmhand who milks the cows in the dairy? Is the dressmaker more valuable than the milliner? The blacksmith more valuable than the potter? In the truest sense of community the answer on all is; no. Everyone's contribution is of equal value. Were it otherwise then people naturally will want to specialize in those skills that are considered more valuable and the tasks considered to be of less value will always be short-staffed. And it is that artificial valuation of skills, based on their ability to make money for other people, that has been the underpinning of eco-destructive, resource-consuming, profit-driven capitalism. It is what has turned us all into wage slaves.

By now, of course, you are saying to yourself that this all sounds like communism and you will see it as good or bad depending on your gut reaction and view of communism. But that is just a word. We don't look at a herd of elephants and label them communists. Nor a herd of cows, a pack of wolves, a flock of geese, a pride of lions. If I had to put a label on it I would define it as tribalism.

The tribe appears to be the evolutionary ideal structure of human collective. Even within the larger social structures and communities of modern civilization, tribalism still prevails as a homogeneous unit within those larger communities. But too often the traditional tribe is plagued by the problems inherent in inbreeding in a small gene pool. Neo-tribalism would attempt to capitalize, through knowledge we have gained over milennia, on the benefits of the tribal model and community size without the downsides.

Tribalism, essentially, implies broad blood relationships. It is generally focused on the multiple generations of the extended family, strengthened and broadened by marriage between members of separate tribal units. And that blood relationship within the group is the commonality across a wide variety of animal species. It is common not only to humans but to all herding and group-based species, like elephants, lions, wolves, geese, buffalo, gnus, gazelles, lemurs, ants, bees, and many, many more. And it is the basis of a group dynamic that has remained remarkably and unshakably consistent through all of evolutionary history.

We are, after all, gene machines, each and every one of us. Our intellect cannot overcome that. And why would we want to? If it ain't broke, why fix it? Every other method of artificial social organization that we have tried to use as a motivational force to hold a group together has had a beginning, middle and end to its period in human history. Through all of those competing structures the one consistency has always been the tribal unit of the extended family. And as each of those social structures have fails it is the tribal extended family that becomes the glue that holds society together while we search for the next artificial, human-created social unit. When times get tough, it is the extended family that endures and sustains. When a community disintegrates it is not the community which moves out to start over again. It is the extended family.

Our modern societies have allowed, even encouraged us to pursue individualism, to move away from the nuclear family and seek our own individual destiny within the larger social unit of city or nation. And yet when those pursuits fail it is the welcoming bossom of the extended family that we return to. Very often those larger social units see the tribalism of the extended family as a threat, a competitor. They feel they must break up that blood-based unit in order for their own artificial unit to succeed. That has almost become human nature over these past several centuries. We believe that all things natural are to be overcome, defeated, rather than worked within. As a species we are so intent on proving that we are somehow separate and apart from and superior to the natural world that we leave ourselves no choice but to do battle with it.

This has been a very long way of saying that community in the post-carbon world, I believe, is going to have to be tribal in nature, based on the blood relationships of the extended family. It is the only truly enduring form of human collective that will see us through the extremely difficult adjustments that are going to be thrust upon us as the planet's varied energy resources are driven into terminal decline by our species-centric overuse of them. I say species-centric rather than human-centric because it is not just the human population that has exploded with our overuse of fossil fuels. There have been parallel explosions in cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens, dogs, cats, a very narrow selection of plants, and selective others at the incredible expense of the other tens of thousands of species with whom we are supposed to be sharing this planet. We have chauvinistically embraced the belief that if it's of no apparent use to humans it has no place in the world and can be eliminated.

Forget the debate. Forget what economists keep saying. Forget the pandering of politicians and the ludicrous reassurances of professional, paid deniers. Take this to the bank. Things are going to get very tough in the balance of your lifetime! And no one will be immune. Not the rich, nor the powerful. Not those with the biggest armies or the fattest bank accounts. They are all critically dependent on the fossil fuel economy we have created over these past couple of centuries. Those fat bank accounts will be meaningless when all of our debt-based, fiat money becomes worthless in a sea of noncollectable debt. Those armies will go nowhere when their fossil-fuel driven machines run out of fuel for the last time. And the food and goods to sustain even the rich will no longer arrive when the heavily fossil-fuel dependent global food and goods distribution industry grinds to a halt for lack of fuel.

This won't happen tomorrow. It may not even be rapid, but if we continue to plan our future in an intentionally entrenched state of denial it may very well be. More likely it will unfold over the course of decades, perhaps even a century or longer. More important, however, is the fact that it has already begun. The stresses created by the early declines in availability of the preferred light, sweet crude oil are already taking their toll globally.

America, fifty years ago, was the prime exporter of oil to the world. It now relies on foreign imports for over seventy percent of its oil, much of it from very politically unstable parts of the world. And an endless stream of wars are being fought in an attempt to ensure continued access to those ever-shrinking reserves. The Gulf of Mexico has been turned into a cesspool by offshore drilling with greater risks being taken daily with drilling in methane-prone deep-water areas. Northern Alberta has been turned into a lifeless and life-threatening moonscape, clearly visible from space, by the tar sands industry. In our quest for feedstock for biofuels we have pushed food prices to the breaking point for over a billion of the planet's poor and starving, while destroying a full quarter of equatorial rain forests to replace them with oil palm plantations. Our pursuit of alternatives, in the form of nuclear energy, have turned vast tracts into radio-active wastelands from Chernobyl to Fukushima to Three Mile Island. And, after over half a century, no one has yet figured out a workable method for the safe long term storage of deadly, highly-radioactive nuclear waste. Saner heads are finally beginning to prevail with nation after nation deciding to decommission its nuclear power plants. Entire mountains in many areas have been scraped away strip mining for coal with several underground coal seam fires have been burning unchecked for decades. Every major river has been dammed up to provide hydro-electricity to offset our diminishing fossil-fuel resources, destroying the habitat for hundreds of unique species. Vast tracts of prime agricultural land and critical fresh water aquifers are being destroyed by fracking in pursuit of natural gas as our oil resources diminish. And there is nowhere left on this planet that has not already been touched and despoiled by our refuse.

Put simply, we are destroying this planet and its life-support capability in the pursuit of the energy resources critically needed to maintain our institutionally-imposed, highly-unsustainable human lifestyle. I believe strongly that the greatest contributor to that unsustainability and eco-destruction is the city, the mega-community that has become so prevalent over the past two centuries. Cities, at least as they exist today, are totally artificial constructs that cannot be readily made self-supporting and self-reliant. They are totally dependent on resources attainable only beyond their limits. To even become self-reliant and self-supporting in terms of food would require a massive restructuring of the urban environment.

The primary justification for the manic growth of cities, particularly in this past century, has been the achievement of economies of scale in the mass production of industrial, commercial and consumer goods. Small workshops and cottage industry simply could not achieve those types of economies. But the goods manufactured in those massive, mechano-efficient factories have not been for the satisfaction of basic needs, not life-supporting. They are targeted at wants, artificial needs often having to be created and maintained with massive advertising campaigns. The purpose is selling product. And the focus is on the producers and their products, not the customers and their needs. We have completely turned the law of supply and demand on its head. The producer needs to sell product and lots of it and we have all been turned into consumers, not users, not purchasers, not customers, but consumers with an assumed and accepted duty and responsibility to continue to be good consumers buying products we do not need. And that is exactly what we are doing, consuming, consuming the planets critical, finite, non-renewable resources for the sake of amassing profits for the producers and their shareholders.

Those cities, especially western cities as they have evolved over the past half century plus, with increasingly separated industrial, business, retail and residential zones, have become totally dependent on the automobile. Take it away and they simply cannot function. And possibly the first real casualty of the decline in oil availability will be the automobile, or at least the private, family automobile. No great loss from a planetary survival perspective. That one item has been responsible for the greatest consumption and misuse of this planet's resources in human history.

The small, agrarian community is the only realistic model for a post carbon society capable of supporting a reasonable percentage of our current, global population. But the vast majority of that population has no life experience of the small community, especially one devoid of the technology on which we have become so fixated and dependent. And the transition to that lifestyle will, for most, be very difficult. But consider the alternatives.

Whether you like it or not, believe it or not, accept it or not, the world, especially the highly urbanized world of cities, is not run by politicians and governments. It is run by global corporations and banks, each with more power than the government of any single nation within whose borders they operate. Probably the greatest social mistake made since the onset of the industrial revolution has been granting these soulless organizations the status of artificial people. Corporations have been granted all of the rights of an individual under the law, without the limitations that make life for real individuals a struggle. And the single most important difference between the corporation and you or I is longevity. We live an average of seventy years or so. A corporation, as they exist today, can go on, in theory, for hundreds or even thousands of years.

This was not always the case. When corporations were first created they were incorporated or set up to bring together the large amounts of capital needed to achieve a specific objective (e.g. the building of bridge, construction of a railway, the digging of a canal, establishment of a plantation in a far-flung corner of the world). They were chartered with a sunset clause, a time and a specific event that would initiate their unwinding. And they were limited to activities consistent with the satisfaction of the terms of their charter. Somehow, that simple, controllable, purpose-driven organization has been allowed to evolve into a cancerous blight that grows out of control destroying or devouring everything around it.

Was it ever possible to imbue the corporation with a soul, a conscience? Perhaps, perhaps not, but it is probably too late now. But, if we do not strip corporations of their unchecked power to gobble up this planets resources in the single-minded pursuit of profits they will collectively complete their assumed job of converting everything available into money, into profits. They will go on as long as there are resources available. They will ultimately destroy the planet, with no compunction, in that pursuit and leave the whole damned thing a barren wasteland just like any of the thousands of other abandoned, toxic factory and industrial sites they have already left behind.

I know I'm being melodramatic, totally impractical, polemic. But nothing else we try to do to save this planet as our home has any chance of working as long as corporations continue to be allowed the rights and powers they now enjoy and so vigorously abuse. We may as well stand before the factory doors, bend over and kiss our collective asses goodbye.

Embleton out!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

I Haven't Abandoned Peak Oil!

Several readers have recently asked me why I stopped writing about peak oil? I could simply say that I turned my writing energy loose on novel writing; already having finished one and now half way through another. But I am accustomed to balancing multiple different writing projects, especially when they are in totally different genres.

What really happened is that I got tired of banging my head against the wall. Nobody is listening, and certainly not the people who need to; politicians and industry leaders, business executives and media pundits. The primary objective of all of them is perpetuation of business as usual. And that business as usual is the problem, not the solution.

I doubted whether my voice was needed any longer. There are, after all, many other voices out there still talking peak oil, most much stronger voices than myself. They seem content to carry on the fight even in the face of endless losses, all in the belief that no matter how many battles they lose they will eventually win the war. I can't do that. I'm much too pragmatic. I see no redeeming value in continuing to fight a battle which I know I will lose in the end. It is better, in my mind, to walk away and live to fight another day.

I have not abandoned peak oil. I can't. It is, in fact, the primary backdrop to the first novel I mentioned above. It is also the defining issue of our time for humanity, even if humanity thus far refuses to see that. But when you are faced with overwhelming opposition, the only way to carry on the fight is to go underground. And that is what I have done.

I have done a lot of thinking about why people refuse to face the reality of peak oil, all in an attempt to figure out how to force them to face it and deal with it. On the surface it appears that the answer is simple. People are afraid of what peak oil will do to their lives and, therefore, hope that it is not true and hope that by not accepting it, it will simply go away so they don't have to deal with it. It's an odd form of denial.

On the other hand, however, it is possible that the majority of people simply do not know about peak oil, are not aware that there is a very serious crisis ahead, do not yet understand that their lives are going to be turned upside down and they will be faced with a battle just to survive. That would be understandable.

Government, business, industry, and the mainstream media are all declaring that there is no problem, that we have more than enough oil and other energy to keep the lights on for millennia to come. Every new oil discovery, no matter how small and inconsequential, is touted as undeniable proof that there is an endless supply of oil and that all we have to do is find it and extract it. Who cares if we destroy ANWR as well as the Gulf and virtually all of Northern Alberta and wherever else we pursue a major oil play. From time to time they still trot out that old, totally discredited chestnut of the Russian abiotic oil theory that claims oil is being constantly generated in the earth's mantle from inorganic material and will never run out.

It leaves one to wonder, therefore, not why people are in denial or ignorant of the issue but, rather, why is so much effort being made by government and industry to keep people in denial, to keep them ignorant of the looming disaster? It's like not going public with the news that a one-hundred-mile-wide asteroid is headed directly for the earth. Better to let the masses enjoy their final days in ignorance. But as long as that much effort is being lavished on denial, a critical mass of people who understand and accept peak oil will never be achieved. And that is the real tragedy here, that that ignorance robs people of the option to prepare for what is coming.

Why, you may ask, should it matter? So people are kept ignorant of the looming crisis. So what? One very simple reason.... Peak oil is survivable, with knowledge and proper preparation. Even more importantly, however, is this reality. The worst impact of peak oil on global society could be prevented if we acted now with a radical change in direction in the way human society operates.

Preventable! If we change course!

The corollary to that, of course, is that if we do not change course and persist with business as usual, the entire human population will face the most extreme consequences of peak oil when it arrives. Guaranteed!

That is why, to me, it has always been a no-brainer. If we change course, we can prevent the worst impact. If we don't, we'll face the worst head on. Duhhhh! Let me think. Do I want to stare death in the face, with a one in ten chance of survival, and see if I can survive it or do I want to change direction and avoid it?

That's right! I said a one in ten chance of survival.

The human carrying capacity of the earth following the depletion of the planet's fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas) is generally estimated at between .5 and 1.5 billion people. We currently have a global population approaching 7 billion and if the population trend continues for the next 40-50 years it will top 10 billion. Even if the carrying capacity is twice the estimate, which is very unlikely (it has been estimated that in the 2-3 decades immediately following depletion of the fossil fuels the population could drop to under 500 million) that would still mean that 3-4 out of every 5 humans alive at that time will not survive. Are you willing to gamble that you will be one of the survivors with no advance preparation?

In case you haven't heard, or have heard and still refuse to believe, peak oil is not, as some professional denialists would have you believe, some radical, fringe theory put out by a bunch of wacko conspiracy theorists. And it is not, as some of those conspiracy theorists suggest, a con job by the oil, coal and natural gas industries to keep the price of their products high. It is, in fact, in my opinion, not a theory at all. It is an inescapable reality that is unfolding even now.

The peak oil philosophy is supported by, taught about, lectured on, and written about by college professors, former energy industry executives no longer beholden to an industry paycheck and free to speak openly, some current and former national leaders, several major entertainers, a plethora of writers, a variety of reputable energy industry analysts, many leading economists, some brave, outspoken serving politicians, and a few brave mainstream journalists.

So why aren't people hearing the message? Noise! There are simply far more promoters of denial, pushers of business as usual, salesmen of the American dream, peddlers of happiness, all hawking their wares at maximum volume for any note of reality to possibly squeeze into the public consciousness. Who wants to hear about some threat to the good life when they can buy a car that parks itself? Who wants to hear about a looming disaster when American Idol is there on our high-definition, dolby stereo, flat-screen 64" plasma TV to entertain us? You mean The Osbornes and Survivor aren't really reality? You mean we aren't in Iraq to bring them democracy and freedom? And yes, Virginia, there really is no frickin' red-suited Santa Claus!

Wake up people! Before it's too damned late! You've got some changes to make! Turn off the TV. Park the Hummer in the garage. Turn off the damned air conditioner and open the windows. Boycott MacDonalds and WalMart and everybody else who's pushing the American dream of cheap and fast. Walk to the damned convenience store next time you need a quart of milk. Trade in those damned gucchi loafers for a pair of cheap sneakers. Sell all that expensive jewelery and buy a year's supply of rice and dried beans. Turn that 1/2 acre of grass in front of your house into a garden that produces stuff you can actually eat. And get the hell out of that 5000 square foot Mcmansion that you can't afford to heat and into something practical.

I don't know what to tell you, and I don't think it's my job. You have to educate yourself and decide what is the best way for you and your family and friends and community to survive. Every case is different. All I know is, if you are an average American, you're going to have to change a lot. And there's no time like the present. So don't wait. Get on with it. And if there are hurdles in the way, like zoning laws, work on changing and eliminating them now rather than later. Once we have passed peak oil, which I honestly believe has already happened but has been disguised by the prolonged economic downturn, it will become increasingly difficult to get your preparations done in time. You have to be prepared before things reach the critical stage.

I don't believe we will ever recover from the current global economic downturn. But we will, unfortunately, try very hard to recover. And those attempts at recovery will likely push us ever faster toward that post-carbon world and leave us wholly unprepared to deal with it.

I am glad that my age any deteriorating health make it unlikely that I will have to deal with that. It's not going to be pretty. But if you are younger, especially if you are still in or have recently left school, for God's sake do yourself a favour and stop listening to CNN and Fox and reading the mainstream daily for your news. They aren't going to tell you what's really happening until its too late. Don't let them keep you in the dark. You've got to get ahead of the game because it's all going to come apart in your lifetime.