Fake news, failed states

Also published at Resilience.org.

Many of the violent conflicts raging today can only be understood if we look at the interplay between climate change, the shrinking of cheap energy supplies, and a dominant economic model that refuses to acknowledge physical limits.

That is the message of Failing States, Collapsing Systems: BioPhysical Triggers of Political Violence, a thought-provoking new book by Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed. Violent conflicts are likely to spread to all continents within the next 30 years, Ahmed says, unless a realistic understanding of economics takes hold at a grass-roots level and at a nation-state policy-making level.

The book is only 94 pages (plus an extensive and valuable bibliography), but the author packs in a coherent theoretical framework as well as lucid case studies of ten countries and regions.

As part of the Springer Briefs In Energy/Energy Analysis series edited by Charles Hall, it is no surprise that Failing States, Collapsing Systems builds on a solid grounding in biophysical economics. The first few chapters are fairly dense, as Ahmed explains his view of global political/economic structures as complex adaptive systems inescapably embedded in biophysical processes.

The adaptive functions of these systems, however, are failing due in part to what we might summarize with four-letter words: “fake news”.

inaccurate, misleading or partial knowledge bears a particularly central role in cognitive failures pertaining to the most powerful prevailing human political, economic and cultural structures, which is inhibiting the adaptive structural transformation urgently required to avert collapse.” (Failing States, Collapsing Systems: BioPhysical Triggers of Political Violence, by Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, Springer, 2017, page 13)

We’ll return to the failures of our public information systems. But first let’s have a quick look at some of the case studies, in which the explanatory value of Ahmed’s complex systems model really comes through.

In discussing the rise of ISIS in the context war in Syria and Iraq, Western media tend to focus almost exclusively on political and religious divisions which are shoehorned into a “war on terror” framework. There is also an occasional mention of the early effects of climate change. While not discounting any of these factors, Ahmed says that it is also crucial to look at shrinking supplies of cheap energy.

Prior to the onset of war, the Syrian state was experiencing declining oil revenues, driven by the peak of its conventional oil production in 1996. Even before the war, the country’s rate of oil production had plummeted by nearly half, from a peak of just under 610,000 barrels per day (bpd) to approximately 385,000 bpd in 2010.” (Failing States, Collapsing Systems, page 48)

Similarly, Yemen’s oil production peaked in 2001, and had dropped more than 75% by 2014.

While these governments tried to cope with climate change effects including water and food shortages, their oil-export-dependent budgets were shrinking. The result was the slashing of basic social service spending when local populations were most in need.

That’s bad enough, but the responses of local and international governments, guided by “inaccurate, misleading or partial knowledge”, make a bad situation worse:

While the ‘war on terror’ geopolitical crisis-structure constitutes a conventional ‘security’ response to the militarized symptoms of HSD [Human Systems Destabilization] (comprising the increase in regional Islamist militancy), it is failing to slow or even meaningfully address deeper ESD [Environmental System Disruption] processes that have rendered traditional industrialized state power in these countries increasingly untenable. Instead, the three cases emphasized – Syria, Iraq, and Yemen – illustrate that the regional geopolitical instability induced via HSD has itself hindered efforts to respond to deeper ESD processes, generating instability and stagnation across water, energy and food production industries.” (Failing States, Collapsing Systems, page 59)

This pattern – militarized responses to crises that beget more crises – is not new:

A 2013 RAND Corp analysis examined the frequency of US military interventions from 1940 to 2010 and came to the startling conclusion: not only that the overall frequency of US interventions has increased, but that intervention itself increased the probability of an ensuing cluster of interventions.” (Failing States, Collapsing Systems, page 43)

Ahmed’s discussions of Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Nigeria and Egypt are bolstered by the benefits of hindsight. His examination of Saudi Arabia looks a little way into the future, and what he foresees is sobering.

He discusses studies that show Saudi Arabia’s oil production is likely to peak in as soon as ten years. Yet the date of the peak is only one key factor, because the country’s steadily increasing internal demand for energy means there is steadily less oil left for export.

For Saudi Arabia the economic crunch may be severe and rapid: “with net oil revenues declining to zero – potentially within just 15 years – Saudi Arabia’s capacity to finance continued food imports will be in question.” For a population that relies on subsidized imports for 80% of its food, empty government coffers would mean a life-and-death crisis.

But a Saudi Arabia which uses up all its oil internally would have major implications for other countries as well, in particular China and India.

like India, China faces the problem that as we near 2030, net exports from the Middle East will track toward zero at an accelerating rate. Precisely at the point when India and China’s economic growth is projected to require significantly higher imports of oil from the Middle East, due to their own rising domestic energy consumption requirement, these critical energy sources will become increasingly unavailable on global markets.” (Failing States, Collapsing Systems, page 74)

Petroleum production in Europe has also peaked, while in North America, conventional oil production peaked decades ago, and the recent fossil fuel boomlet has come from expensive, hard-to-extract shale gas, shale oil, and tar sands bitumen. For both Europe and North America, Ahmed forecasts, the time is fast approaching when affordable high-energy fuels are no longer available from Russia or the Middle East. Without successful adaptive responses, the result will be a cascade of collapsing systems:

Well before 2050, this study suggests, systemic state-failure will have given way to the irreversible demise of neoliberal finance capitalism as we know it.” (Failing States, Collapsing Systems, page 88)

Are such outcomes inescapable? By no means, Ahmed says, but adequate adaptive responses to our developing predicaments are unlikely without a recognition that our economies remain inescapably embedded in biophysical processes. Unfortunately, there are powerful forces working to prevent the type of understanding which could guide us to solutions:

vested interests in the global fossil fuel and agribusiness system are actively attempting to control information flows to continue to deny full understanding in order to perpetuate their own power and privilege.” (Failing States, Collapsing Systems, page 92)

In the next installment, Fake News as Official Policy, we’ll look at the deep roots of this misinformation and ask what it will take to stem the tide.

Top photo: Flying over the Trans-Arabian Pipeline, 1950. From Wikimedia.org.

Oil well in southeast Saskatchewan, with flared gas.

Energy at any cost?

Also published at Resilience.org.

If all else is uncertain, how can growing demand for energy be guaranteed? A review of Vaclav Smil’s Natural Gas.

Near the end of his 2015 book Natural Gas: Fuel for the 21st Century, Vaclav Smil makes two statements which are curious in juxtaposition.

On page 211, he writes:

I will adhere to my steadfast refusal to engage in any long-term forecasting, but I will restate some basic contours of coming development before I review a long array of uncertainties ….”

Link to Vaclav Smil series list.And in the next paragraph:

Given the scale of existing energy demand and the inevitability of its further growth, it is quite impossible that during the twenty-first century, natural gas could come to occupy such a dominant position in the global primary energy supply as wood did in the preindustrial era or as coal did until the middle of the twentieth century.”

If you think that second statement sounds like a long-term forecast, that makes two of us. But apparently to Smil it is not a forecast to say that the growth of energy demand is inevitable, and it’s not a forecast to state with certainty that natural gas cannot become the dominant energy source during the twenty-first century – these are simply “basic contours of coming development.” Let’s investigate.

An oddly indiscriminate name

Natural Gas is a general survey of the sources and uses of what Smil calls the fuel with “an oddly indiscriminate name”. It begins much as it ends: with a strongly-stated forecast (or “basic contour”, if you prefer) about the scale of natural gas and other fossil fuel usage relative to other energy sources.

why dwell on the resources of a fossil fuel and why extol its advantages at a time when renewable fuels and decentralized electricity generation converting solar radiation and wind are poised to take over the global energy supply. That may be a fashionable narrative – but it is wrong, and there will be no rapid takeover by the new renewables. We are a fossil-fueled civilization, and we will continue to be one for decades to come as the pace of grand energy transition to new forms of energy is inherently slow.” – Vaclav Smil, preface to Natural Gas

And in the next paragraph:

Share of new renewables in the global commercial primary energy supply will keep on increasing, but a more consequential energy transition of the coming decades will be from coal and crude oil to natural gas.”

In support of his view that a transition away from fossil fuel reliance will take at least several decades, Smil looks at major energy source transitions over the past two hundred years. These transitions have indeed been multi-decadal or multi-generational processes.

Obvious absence of any acceleration in successive transitions is significant: moving from coal to oil has been no faster than moving from traditional biofuels to coal – and substituting coal and oil by natural gas has been measurably slower than the two preceding shifts.” – Natural Gas, page 154

It would seem obvious that global trade and communications were far less developed 150 years ago, and that would be one major reason why the transition from traditional biofuels to coal proceeded slowly on a global scale. Smil cites another reason why successive transitions have been so slow:

Scale of the requisite transitions is the main reason why natural gas shares of the TPES [Total Primary Energy System] have been slower to rise: replicating a relative rise needs much more energy in a growing system. … going from 5 to 25% of natural gas required nearly eight times more energy than accomplishing the identical coal-to-oil shift.” – Natural Gas, page 155

Open-pit coal mine in south-east Saskatchewan.

Open-pit coal mine in south-east Saskatchewan. June 2014.

Today only – you’ll love our low, low prices!

There is another obvious reason why transitions from coal to oil, and from oil to natural gas, could have been expected to move slowly throughout the last 100 years: there have been abundant supplies of easily accessible, and therefore cheap, coal and oil. When a new energy source was brought online, the result was a further increase in total energy consumption, instead of any rapid shift in the relative share of different sources.

The role of price in influencing demand is easy to ignore when the price is low. But that’s not a condition we can count on for the coming decades.

Returning to Smil’s “basic contour” that total energy demand will inevitably rise, that would imply that energy prices will inevitably remain relatively low – because there is effective demand for a product only to the extent that people can afford to buy it.

Remarkably, however, even as he states confidently that demand must grow, Smil notes the major uncertainty about the investment needed simply to maintain existing levels of supply:

if the first decade of the twenty-first century was a trendsetter, then all fossil energy sources will cost substantially more, both to develop new capacities and to maintain production of established projects at least at today’s levels. … The IEA estimates that between 2014 and 2035, the total investment in energy supply will have to reach just over $40 trillion if the world is to meet the expected demand, with some 60% destined to maintain existing output and 40% to supply the rising requirements. The likelihood of meeting this need will be determined by many other interrelated factors.” – Natural Gas, page 212

What is happening here? Both Smil and the IEA are cognizant of the uncertain effects of rising prices on supply, while graphing demand steadily upward as if price has no effect. This is not how economies function in the real world, of course.

Likewise, we cannot assume that because total energy demand kept rising throughout the twentieth century, it must continue to rise through the twenty-first century. On the contrary, if energy supplies are difficult to access and therefore much more costly, then we should also expect demand to grow much more slowly, to stop growing, or to fall.

Falling demand, in turn, would have a major impact on the possibility of a rapid change in the relative share of demand met by different sources. In very simple terms, if we increased total supply of renewable energy rapidly (as we are doing now), but the total energy demand were dropping rapidly, then the relative share of renewables in the energy market could increase even more rapidly.

Smil’s failure to consider such a scenario (indeed, his peremptory dismissal of the possibility of such a scenario) is one of the major weaknesses of his approach. Acceptance of business-as-usual as a reliable baseline may strike some people as conservative. But there is nothing cautious about ignoring one of the fundamental factors of economics, and nothing safe in assuming that the historically rare condition of abundant cheap energy must somehow continue indefinitely.

In closing, just a few words about the implications of Smil’s work as it relates to the threat of climate change. In Natural Gas, he provides much valuable background on the relative amounts of carbon emissions produced by all of our major energy sources. He explains why natural gas is the best of the fossil fuels in terms of energy output relative to carbon emissions (while noting that leaks of natural gas – methane – could in fact outweigh the savings in carbon emissions). He explains that the carbon intensity of our economies has dropped as we have gradually moved from coal to oil to natural gas.

But he also makes it clear that this relative decarbonisation has been far too slow to stave off the threat of climate change.

If he turns out to be right that total energy demand will keep rising, that there will only be a slow transition from other fossil fuels to natural gas, and that the transition away from all fossil fuels will be slower still, then the chances of avoiding catastrophic climate change will be slim indeed.

Top photo: Oil well in southeast Saskatchewan, with flared gas. June 2014.

Insulators on high-voltage electricity transmission line.

Timetables of power

Also published at Resilience.org.

accounting_for_energy_2For more than three decades, Vaclav Smil has been developing the concepts presented in his 2015 book Power Density: A Key to Understanding Energy Sources and Uses.

The concept is (perhaps deceptively) simple: power density, in Smil’s formulation, is “the quotient of power and land area”. To facilitate comparisons between widely disparate energy technologies, Smil states power density using common units: watts per square meter.

Wonkometer-225Smil makes clear his belief that it’s important that citizens be numerate as well as literate, and Power Density is heavily salted with numbers. But what is being counted?

Perhaps the greatest advantage of power density is its universal applicability: the rate can be used to evaluate and compare all energy fluxes in nature and in any society. – Vaclav Smil, Power Density, pg 21

A major theme in Smil’s writing is that current renewable energy resources and technologies cannot quickly replace the energy systems that fuel industrial society. He presents convincing evidence that for current world energy demand to be supplied by renewable energies alone, the land area of the energy system would need to increase drastically.

Study of Smil’s figures will be time well spent for students of many energy sources. Whether it’s concentrated solar reflectors, cellulosic ethanol, wood-fueled generators, fracked light oil, natural gas or wind farms, Smil takes a careful look at power densities, and then estimates how much land would be taken up if each of these respective energy sources were to supply a significant fraction of current energy demand.

This consideration of land use goes some way to addressing a vacuum in mainstream contemporary economics. In the opening pages of Power Density, Smil notes that economists used to talk about land, labour and capital as three key factors in production, but in the last century, land dropped out of the theory.

The measurement of power per unit of land is one way to account for use of land in an economic system. As we will discuss later, those units of land may prove difficult to adequately quantify. But first we’ll look at another simple but troublesome issue.

Does the clock tick in seconds or in centuries?

It may not be immediately obvious to English majors or philosophers (I plead guilty), but Smil’s statement of power density – watts per square meter – includes a unit of time. That’s because a watt is itself a rate, defined as a joule per second. So power density equals joules per second per square meter.

There’s nothing sacrosanct about the second as the unit of choice. Power densities could also be calculated if power were stated in joules per millisecond or per megasecond, and with only slightly more difficult mathematical gymnastics, per century or per millenium. That is of course stretching a point, but Smil’s discussion of power density would take on a different flavor if we thought in longer time frames.

Consider the example with which Smil opens the book. In the early stages of the industrial age, English iron smelting was accomplished with the heat from charcoal, which in turn was made from coppiced beech and oak trees. As pig iron production grew, large areas of land were required solely for charcoal production. This changed in the blink of an eye, in historical terms, with the development of coal mining and the process of coking, which converted coal to nearly 100% pure carbon with energy equivalent to good charcoal.

As a result, the charcoal from thousands of hectares of hardwood forest could be replaced by coal from a mine site of only a few hectares. Or in Smil’s favored terms,

The overall power density of mid-eighteenth-century English coke production was thus roughly 500 W/m2, approximately 7,000 times higher than the power density of charcoal production. (Power Density, pg 4)

Smil notes rightly that this shift had enormous consequences for the English countryside, English economy and English society. Yet my immediate reaction to this passage was to cry foul – there is a sleight of hand going on.

While the charcoal production figures are based on the amount of wood that a hectare might produce on average each year, in perpetuity, the coal from the mine will dwindle and then run out in a century or two. If we averaged the power densities of the woodlot and mine over several centuries or millennia, the comparison look much different.

And that’s a problem throughout Power Density. Smil often grapples with the best way to average power densities over time, but never establishes a rule that works well for all energy sources.

Generating station near Niagara Falls

The Toronto Power Generating Station was built in 1906, just upstream from Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls, Ontario. It was mothballed in 1974. Photographed in February, 2014.

In discussing photovoltaic generation, he notes that solar radiation varies greatly by hour and month. It would make no sense to calculate the power output of a solar panel solely by the results at noon in mid-summer, just as it would make no sense to run the calculation solely at twilight in mid-winter. It is reasonable to average the power density over a whole year’s time, and that’s what Smil does.

When considering the power density of ethanol from sugar cane, it would be crazy to run the calculation based solely on the month of harvest, so again, the figures Smil uses are annual average outputs. Likewise, wood grown for biomass fuel can be harvested approximately every 20 years, so Smil divides the energy output during a harvest year by 20 to arrive at the power density of this energy source.

Using the year as the averaging unit makes obvious sense for many renewable energy sources, but this method breaks down just as obviously when considering non-renewable sources.

How do you calculate the average annual power density for a coal mine which produces high amounts of power for a hundred years or so, and then produces no power for the rest of time? Or the power density of a fracked gas well whose output will continue only a few decades at most?

The obvious rejoinder to this line of questioning is that when the energy output of a coal mine, for example, ceases, the land use also ceases, and at that point the power density of the coal mine is neither high nor low nor zero; it simply cannot be part of a calculation. As we’ll discuss later in this series, however, there are many cases where reclamations are far from certain, and so a “claim” on the land goes on.

Smil is aware of the transitory nature of fossil fuel sources, of course, and he cites helpful and eye-opening figures for the declining power densities of major oil fields, gas fields and coal mines over the past century. Yet in Power Density, most of the figures presented for non-renewable energy facilities apply for that (relatively brief) period when these facilities are in full production, but they are routinely compared with power densities of renewable energy facilities which could continue indefinitely.

So is it really true that power density is a measure “which can be used to evaluate and compare all energy fluxes in nature and in any society”? Only with some critical qualifications.

In summary, we return to Smil’s oft-emphasized theme, that current renewable resource technologies are no match for the energy demands of our present civilization. He argues convincingly that the power density of consumption on a busy expressway will not be matched to the power density of production of ethanol from corn: it would take a ridiculous and unsustainable area of corn fields to fuel all that high-energy transport. Widening the discussion, he establishes no less convincingly, to my mind, that solar power, wind power, and biofuels are not going to fuel our current high-energy way of life.

Yet if we extend our averaging units to just a century or two, we could calculate just as convincingly that the power densities of non-renewable fuel sources will also fail to support our high-energy society. And since we’re already a century into this game, we might be running out of time.

Top photo: insulators on high-voltage transmission line near Darlington Nuclear Generating Station, Bowmanville, Ontario.

Tractor-trailers hauling oil and water on North Dakota highway.

‘Are we there yet?’ The uncertain road to the twenty-first century.

Also published at Resilience.org.

What made the twentieth century such a distinctive period in human history? Are we moving into the future at an ever-increasing speed? What measures provide the most meaningful comparisons of different energy technologies? Is it “conservative” to base forecasts on business-as-usual scenarios?

These questions provide handy lenses for looking at the work of prolific energy science writer Vaclav Smil.

accounting_for_energy_1Smil, a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba, is not likely to publish any best-sellers, but his books are widely read by people looking for data-backed discussion of energy sources and their role in our civilization. While Smil’s seemingly effortless fluency in wide-ranging topics of energy science can be intimidating to non-scientists, many of his books require no more than a good high-school-level knowledge of physics, chemistry and mathematics.

This post is the first in a series on issues raised by Smil. How many posts? Let’s just say, to use a formulation familiar to anyone who reads Smil, that the number of posts in this series will be “in the range of an order of magnitude less” than the number of Smil’s books. (He’s at 37 books and counting.)

The myth of accelerating change

In early 2004, I wrote a newspaper column with the title “Got Any Change?” Some excerpts:

Think back 50 years. If you grew up in North America, people were already travelling in cars, which moved along at about 60 miles per hour. You lived in a house with heat and running water, and you could just flick a switch to turn on the lights. You turned on the TV or radio to get instant news. You could pick up the phone and actually talk to relatives on the other side of the country.

For ease of daily living and communication, things haven’t changed much in the last 50 years for most North Americans.

My grandparents, by contrast, who grew up “when motorcars were still exotic playthings”, really lived through rapid and fundamental changes:

The magic of telephone reached into rural areas, and soon my grandparents adjusted to the even more astonishing development of moving pictures, transmitted to television sets in the living room. The airplane was invented about the time my grandparents were born, but they lived long enough to fly on passenger jets, and they watched the live newscasts as astronauts landed on the moon. (“Got Any Change?”, in the Brighton Independent, January 7, 2004)

As it turns out Smil was working on a similar premise, and developing it with his customary authority and historical rigor. The result was his 2005 book Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact. This was the first Smil book I picked up, and naturally I read it while basking in the warm glow of confirmation bias.

In the course of 300 pages, Smil argues that many world-changing technologies swept the world in the twentieth century, but nearly all of them are directly traceable to scientific advances – both theoretical and applied – during the period 1867 to 1914. There is no other period in world history so far, he says, in which so many scientific discoveries made their way so rapidly into the fabric of everyday life.

Most of [these technical advances] are still with us not just as inconsequential survivors or marginal accoutrements from a bygone age but as the very foundations of modern civilization. Such a profound and abrupt discontinuity with such lasting consequences has no equivalent in history.

For anyone alive in North America today, it’s easy to take these advances for granted, because we have never known a world without them. That’s what makes Smil’s book so valuable. In detail and with clarity, he outlines the development of electrical generators, transformers, transmission systems, and motors; internal combustion engines; new industrial processes that turned steel, aluminum, concrete, and plastics from scarce or unknown products into mass-produced commodities; and the ability to harness the electromagnetic spectrum in ways that made telephone, radio and television commercially feasible within the first few decades of the twentieth century.

Ship docked at St. Mary's Cement plant at sunset.

The Peter R Cresswell docked at the St. Mary’s Cement plant on Lake Ontario near Bowmanville, Ontario. The plant converts quarried limestone to cement, in kilns fueled by coal and pet coke. Photo from July, 2015.

Energy matters

There is a good deal in Creating the Twentieth Century on increasingly efficient methods of energy conversion. For example, Smil writes that “Typical efficiency of new large stationary steam engines rose from 6–10% during the 1860s to 12–15% after 1900, a 50% efficiency gain, and when small machines were replaced by electric motors, the overall efficiency gain was typically more than fourfold.”

But I found it odd that Creating the Twentieth Century gives little ink to the sources of energy. Smil does note that

for the first time in human history the age was marked by the emergence of high-energy societies whose functioning, be it on mundane or sophisticated levels, became increasingly dependent on incessant supplies of fossil fuels and on rising need for electricity.

Yet there is no substantial examination in this book of the fossil fuel extraction and processing industries, which rapidly became (and remained) among the dominant industries of the twentieth century.

Clearly the new understandings of thermodynamics and electromagnetism, along with new processes for steel and concrete production, were key to the twentieth century as we knew it. But suppose those developments had occurred, but at the same time only a few sizable reservoirs of oil had been discovered, so that petroleum had remained useful but expensive. Would the twentieth century still have happened?

Perhaps we shouldn’t blame Smil for avoiding a counterfactual question about epochal changes a century and more ago. After all, he has devoted a great deal of attention to a more pressing quandary: how might we create a future, with the scientific knowledge that’s accumulated in the past century and a half, while also faced with the need to move beyond fossil fuel dependence? Can we make such a transition, and how long might it take? We’ll move to those issues in the coming installments.

Top photo: Trucks hauling crude oil and frac water near Watford City, North Dakota, June 2014.

Freight expectations

Also published at Resilience.org.

Alice J. Friedemann’s new book When Trucks Stop Running explains concisely how dependent American cities are on truck transport, and makes a convincing case that renewable energies cannot and will not power our transportation system in anything like its current configuration.

But will some trucks stop running, or all of them? Will the change happen suddenly over 10 years, or gradually over 40 years or more? Those are more difficult questions, and they highlight the limitations of guesstimating future supply trends while taking future demand as basically given.

When Trucks Stop Running, Springer, 2016

When Trucks Stop Running, Springer, 2016

Alice J. Friedemann worked for more than 20 years in transportation logistics. She brings her skills in systems analysis to her book When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation (Springer Briefs in Energy, 2016).

In a quick historical overview, Friedemann explains that in 2012, a severely shrunken rail network still handled 45% of the ton-miles of US freight, while burning only 2% of transportation fuel. But the post-war highway-building boom had made it convenient for towns and suburbs to grow where there are neither rails nor ports, with the result that “four out of five communities depend entirely on trucks for all of their goods.”

After a brief summary of peak oil forecasts, Friedemann looks at the prospects for running trains and trucks on something other than diesel fuel, and the prospects are not encouraging. Electrification, whether using batteries or overhead wires, is ill-suited to the power requirements of trains and trucks with heavy loads over long distances. Friedemann also analyzes liquid fuel options including biofuels and coal-to-liquid conversions, but all of these options have poor Energy Return On Investment ratios.

While we search for ways to retool the economy and transportation systems, we would be wise to prioritize the use of precious fuels. Friedemann notes that while trains are much more energy-efficient than heavy-duty trucks, trucks in turn are far more efficient than cars and planes.

So “instead of electrifying rail, which uses only 2% of all U.S. transportation fuel, we should discourage light-duty cars and light trucks, which guzzle 63% of all transportation fuel and give the fuel saved to diesel-electric locomotives.” Prioritizing fuel use this way could buy us some much-needed time – time to change infrastructure that took decades or generations to build.

If it strains credulity to imagine US policy-makers facing these kinds of choices of their own free will, it is nevertheless true that the unsustainable will not be sustained. Hard choices will be made, whether we want to make them or not.

A question of timing

Friedemann’s book joins other recent titles which put the damper on rosy predictions of a smooth transition to renewable energy economies. She covers some of the same ground as David MacKay’s Sustainable Energy – Without The Hot Air or Vaclav Smil’s Power Density, but in more concise and readable fashion, focused specifically on the energy needs of transportation.

In all three of these books, there is an understandable tendency to answer the (relatively) simple question: can future supply keep up with demand, assuming that demand is in line with today’s trends?

But of course, supply will influence demand, and vice versa. The interplay will be complex, and may confound apparently straight-forward predictions.

It’s important to keep in mind that in economic terms, demand does not equal what we want or even what we need. We can, and probably will, jump up and down and stamp our feet and DEMAND that we have abundant cheap fuel, but that will mean nothing in the marketplace. The economic demand equals the amount of fuel that we are willing and able to buy at a given price. As the price changes, so will demand – which will in turn affect the supply, at least in the short term.

Consider the Gross and Net Hubbert Curves graph which Friedemann reproduces.

Gross and Net Hubbert Curve, from When Trucks Stop Running, page 124

From When Trucks Stop Running, page 124

While the basic trend lines make obvious sense, the steepness of the projected decline depends in part on a steady demand: the ultimately recoverable resource is finite, and if we continue to extract the oil as fast as possible (the trend through our lifetimes) then the post-peak decline will indeed be steep, perhaps cliff-life.

But can we and will we sustain demand if prices spike again? That seems unlikely, particularly given our experience over the past 15 years. And if effective demand drops dramatically due to much higher pricing, then the short-term supply-on-the-market should also drop, while long-term available supply-in-the-ground will be prolonged. The right side of that Hubbert curve might eventually end up at the same place, but at a slower pace.

The most wasteful uses of fuels might soon be out of our price range, so we simply won’t be able to waste fuel at the same breathtaking rate. The economy might shudder and shrink, but we might find ways to pay for the much smaller quantities of fuel required to transport essential goods.

In other words, there may soon be far fewer trucks on the road, but they might run long enough to give us time to develop infrastructure appropriate to a low-energy economy.

Top photo: fracking supply trucks crossing the Missouri River in the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota, June 2014.

Does your city have a future?

In the past, as in the future, local ecosystem resources were the key to the economies of cities. A review of America’s Most Sustainable Cities & Regions.

Also published at Resilience.org.

America’s Most Sustainable Cities and Regions, by John W. Day and Charles Hall, published by Springer, 2016

America’s Most Sustainable Cities and Regions, by John W. Day and Charles Hall, published by Springer, 2016

Readers hoping to find their home town rated in America’s Most Sustainable Cities and Regions may be both disappointed and enlightened.

Disappointed, because the book doesn’t provide a systematic listing that covers all American cities – either the most sustainable or the least sustainable. Enlightened, because the authors do provide a systematic way of looking at sustainability, which can be applied to cities across the USA and around the world.

The authors are counted among the pioneers of ecological economics, and their new book is a lucid introduction to the fundamental concepts of this viewpoint.

While a textbook of ecological economics might lose some readers in abstraction, this book moves fluidly between abstract concepts, and easy-to-follow application of these principles to the past development, and possible futures, of twelve cities and ten regions.

In the process, Day and Hall show that cities which grew up before the heyday of the fossil fuel age were sited to benefit from strong ecosystem services:

until the beginning of the twentieth century, cities like New York, Albany, Chicago, and New Orleans grew up in resource-rich areas and along waterways that provided food and fiber and convenient trade routes. Second, the climate of all of these early cities was moist …. (America’s Most Sustainable Cities and Regions, page 16)

The combination of adequate rainfall, benign climate and fertile soils leads to high potential for agriculture, as shown in a map of Net Primary Productivity:

The growth rate of plants (expressed as NPP or net primary productivity in grams per meter square per year) across the central part of North America. The tan areas have very low productivity, and dark green areas are highly productive. From America’s Most Sustainable Cities and Regions, Springer, 2016, page 132

The growth rate of plants (expressed as NPP or net primary productivity in grams per meter square per year) across the central part of North America. The tan areas have very low productivity, and dark green areas are highly productive. From America’s Most Sustainable Cities and Regions, Springer, 2016, page 132

By contrast, some major cities in the arid west enjoyed minimal ecosystem resources to begin with, and they had scarcely outgrown village status before requiring vast resource inputs that could only realistically be supplied by fossil fuels.

Las Vegas, for example, was located at a small oasis fed by artesian wells amidst vast deserts. And the Los Angeles River initially supplied enough water for a small town, but as groundwater was withdrawn the River ceased to flow year round, and dried up in the 1920s. Thus both Las Vegas and Los Angeles had to wait for the high-energy economy of the fossil fuel age, which built dams and pumped water from hundreds of miles away, before they could grow into large cities.

Not surprisingly, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, along with other sunbelt cities in arid regions, get dismal ratings for sustainability in a future when cheap fossil fuels run short, and climate change exacerbates droughts.

At the other end of the spectrum, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is located in a still-fertile plain with adequate rainfall for farming. Freight transportation is close at hand via the Mississippi River system, and relatively clear skies and dependable breezes can provide solar and wind generation of electricity (though the authors make clear that these energy sources are unlikely to provide anything like the quantities of energy we now routinely use). Perhaps most critically, Cedar Rapids is a small city, whose population can conceivably be supported by nearby resources in a low-energy future.

New Orleans was founded in an area with some of the continent’s richest ecosystem resources. But residents may not have the option to rely on these resources in future:

The ecosystem that has supported the unique, vibrant culture of the city is rapidly eroding into the sea as the impacts of sea level rise, levees, and oil industry canals exacerbate the natural land loss rates of the subsiding deltaic wetland environment that surrounds the city. (America’s Most Sustainable Cities and Regions, page 64)

Unless there is a major and effective restoration program, New Orleans’ future prospects are not good. Undoing the damage wrought by fossil-fueled projects will be difficult in a lower-energy economy – and doubly difficult as climate change brings stronger hurricanes, higher sea levels and storm surges, and more extreme fluctuations in the flow of the Mississippi.

Other cities are in very hard times currently, but the regional ecosystem services are still relatively strong, leading to more hopeful future prospects:

There are active plans in both Flint and Detroit to develop urban agriculture on vacant land. “Urban farms” from a few acres to several hundred acres have sprung up in both cities with vegetables, fruit trees, chickens and eggs. … Thus, in the face of pervasive urban decay and collapse, these cities may be able to produce a significant amount of food. (America’s Most Sustainable Cities and Regions, page 49)

While the book is a strong addition to the literature on sustainability, I do have a few quibbles. First, a reader expecting discussion of the sustainability of average citizens’ lifestyles in various cities will be disappointed. It gradually becomes clear that current per capita ecological footprints are not the subject of this book, nor are Hall and Day ranking the degree to which the economies of various American cities are sustainable in their current configurations. Rather, they elucidate the degree to which these cities will be sustainable as they cope with 21st century megatrends. A clear statement early in the book, explaining what the authors mean and what they don’t mean by “America’s most sustainable cities”, would have been helpful.

Finally, the book’s predictive usefulness is weakened by a lack of any mention of either large-scale migrations or political factors on future sustainability.

The authors note that the resources in the area around Cedar Rapids could likely support the current population (though not their current lifestyles). On the other hand, the population of the megalopolis from Washington DC to Boston, including New York City, is far too great to be supported by local resources. In theory, then, the current Cedar Rapids could become sustainable, while the current New York City cannot.

Eventually that which cannot be sustained, will not be sustained. However, suppose a severe resource crunch hits rapidly. Assuming the millions of people in New York City don’t just ascend in The Rapture, many will move to someplace that can provide the necessities of life. A large outflow of people from cities like New York, and an inflow into the smaller, theoretically sustainable cities like Cedar Rapids, would quickly alter the sustainability calculus.

Likewise, if sustainability is threatened for large numbers of people on a short time-line, political leaders could force through desperately short-sighted measures to feed populations. Thus regions which currently have relatively strong ecosystems may not be able to maintain those environments, as more populous and more powerful regions exert their demands.

In summary, John W. Day and Charles Hall have provided a great overview of the factors that can make a city and a region sustainable, even in the face of restricted energy shortages and the challenges of climate change. If we move quickly enough in adopting an “economics as if reality matters”, then this book may also serve as a road map to a reasonably prosperous future.

Can we afford the energy demands of “the fourth industrial revolution”? Don’t ask.

Also published at Resilience.org.

Are you wishing you could be at Davos, Switzerland this week, taking in the stimulating and deeply insightful discussions on the theme “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”? If so, reading the pre-conference book of the same name may leave you reassured that you aren’t actually missing much.

Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, released his Kindle book The Fourth Industrial Revolution just a few days ago, providing a free copy to Davos attendees. (That way they needn’t stretch their expense accounts to cover the $9.91 Kindle fee that the rest of us must pay.)

Schwab has doctorates in economics and engineering, plus a master’s in public administration from Harvard. And he says that The Fourth Industrial Revolution is “a crowd-sourced book, the product of the collective enlightened wisdom of the Forum’s communities.” If credentials alone would create a good book, this would be a humdinger.

Schwab book cover 400What is the Fourth Industrial Revolution? In Schwab’s words,

today we are at the beginning of a fourth industrial revolution. It began at the turn of this century and builds on the digital revolution. It is characterized by a much more ubiquitous and mobile internet, by smaller and more powerful sensors that have become cheaper, and by artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Elsewhere he also throws genetic engineering and the editing of genomes into the mix.

While noting that billions of people have yet to “fully experience” the second and third industrial revolutions, Schwab believes that “the fourth industrial revolution will be every bit as powerful, impactful and historically important as the previous three.” In his view it’s not just likely but inevitable that “major technological innovations are on the brink of fuelling momentous change throughout the world.”

Inevitable? Can we be perfectly confident that we’ll have plenty of affordable energy to power communications among trillions (literally trillions, in Schwab’s vision) of internet-connected sensors in the “Internet of Things”? Will our new fleet of self-driving cars have plenty of fuel to keep us moving en masse in individual pods?

All recently discovered fossil fuel deposits cost more to extract than the market will currently pay. And international banksters can’t get economic growth moving lately no matter how much extra money they print.

While the uncertainty of our long-term energy supply doesn’t even rate a mention in Schwab’s account, he does pause to worry a bit about the slowdown in economic growth.

A key problem for the future, he says, is that economic growth will remain slow, unless the inevitably arriving technological revolution finally produces a commensurate improvement in productivity. Alas, he says, the recent lack of productivity growth “is one of today’s great economic enigmas … for which there is no satisfactory explanation.” (But students of energy economics will note that the years of reduced productivity cited by Schwab correspond neatly with a steady decline in energy return on investment (EROI).)

Likewise, Schwab sees increasing economic inequality as potentially ominous, though he doesn’t suggest anything to ameliorate the trends. It’s possible that large numbers of blue-collar workers will lose their jobs to robots, and white-collar employees will be replaced by artificially intelligent algorithms. The growth of “the human cloud” may end regular employment, with pensions and benefits, in favor of ad hoc tasks assigned by websites.

So will a dire employment outlook be part of the new technological future? Schwa says “The choice of ours” – but he doesn’t say who is included in the “we” and “ours” of that choice. “It entirely depends on the policy and institutional decisions we make”, he says, and then exhibits a distinct “free market” bias when he adds “a regulatory backlash could happen, thereby reasserting the power of policymakers in the process and straining the adaptive forces of a complex system.” (Yes, the dreaded regulation. The Guardian reports this week that in a survey of chief executives by PricewaterhouseCoopers, over-regulation topped all worries.)

While Schwab fears that government might over-regulate business, he is also concerned that government may lose some power to regulate the public. “Growing citizen empowerment … could result in political systems that make governing more difficult.” As marvelous as computer technology may be, “The digital age undermined many of the barriers that used to protect public authority, rendering governments much less efficient or effective as the governed, or the public, became better informed and increasingly demanding in their expectations.”

While the ongoing technology revolution may have the unfortunate side-effect of empowering citizens, Schwab shows no such misgivings about how technology empowers us as consumers.

The consumer seems to be gaining the most. The fourth industrial revolution has made possible new products and services that increase at virtually no cost the efficiency of our personal lives as consumers. … The benefits of technology for all of us who consume are incontrovertible.

Left unanswered is just how we’ll find the cash for this “efficiency of our personal lives as consumers”, once robots and algorithms have taken our jobs.

One last thing. If you’re concerned that climate change might be a downer in our future, perhaps Schwab will allay your fears. The phrase “climate change” appears only once in the book, and Schwab turns away worries about carbon emissions and resource depletion with this paean to new (and as yet uninvented) technologies:

The fourth industrial revolution will enable firms to extend the use-cycle of assets and resources, increase their utilization and create cascades that recover and repurpose materials and energy for further uses, lowering emissions and resource loads in the process. In this revolutionary new industrial system, carbon dioxide turns from a greenhouse pollutant into an asset, and the economics of carbon capture and storage move from being cost as well as pollution sinks to becoming profitable carbon-capture and use-production facilities.

If you’re not content to take that on faith, then this book may not be for you.

The Conquest of a Continent

A review of

The Conquest of a Continent

Siberia & The Russians

by W. Bruce Lincoln, Random House, 1994
Originally published in 1994

Siberia and Canada have much in common by way of geography and history. Europeans were first attracted to both regions by the lustrous furs to be taken in the taiga, tundra and boreal forests. In each case, trappers and traders soon proved it possible to deplete animal populations, even in seemingly limitless regions, unless attention was paid to conservation. In the ensuing centuries, prospectors in both countries found precious minerals, heavy metals, and petroleum in the most inhospitable of locations, spurring engineers to learn about permafrost, meltwater bogs, and shifting ice floes.

In both countries, colonizers have overwhelmingly clustered in a narrow band along the southern borders. Finally, the ways of the peoples who have made the northern lands their homes for millenia have been generally ignored by the newcomers.

If Siberians and Canadians have a great deal to learn from each other, there was little opportunity for contact for most of this century. But in the last few years, many Canadian companies with experience in resource extraction and arctic construction techniques have been welcomed in Siberia, while travelling delegations of native peoples have shared perspectives on preserving their cultures in an industrial age.

With these new opportunities for interchange, a familiarity with Siberia’s history is essential to many people. W. Bruce Lincoln’s new book tells part of this story ably, although Lincoln gives us only fleeting glimpses of the native peoples of Siberia, and almost no sense of how their cultures fare today or how they have contributed to Siberia’s history.

Lincoln’s opening sentence provides a controversial if succinct interpretation of history: “Nations are born of battle, and conquest makes them great.” The gory opening chapters on the Mongol armies, who exited history’s centre stage as quickly as they entered, may lead some readers to conclude that the book will equal the average action movie in its insights into the human condition.

Deeper into the book, however, Lincoln rounds out the story, even though the tales for the most part remain chilling. We learn about the slow progress of Siberian industry, as hundreds of thousands of workers carve railways through mountains and dig mineshafts in rock-hard permafrost. Lincoln weaves together many threads of political economy, to illustrate how the maneuverings of empire-building politicians in Europe often resulted in the starvation of prisoners thousands of miles away.

With only a few brief exceptions, each brutal regime seemed to beget an even more brutal regime, until the Bolsheviks, desperate to create an industrial colossus out of the reach of rival armies, sacrificed forced labourers by the hundreds of thousands. In the process, land and people suffered equally: “Siberia’s Soviet masters had transformed the fragile ecology of the tundra and taiga . . . into some of the most noxious surroundings on earth.” While Russia’s most recent rulers are seeking technical help to make Siberian industry more productive, the whole world, and especially the circumpolar countries, have an interest in helping Siberian industry clean up its act.

Lincoln’s book relates hundreds of tales of conquest in Siberia, but very little that could pass for greatness. With a lot of luck, perhaps the greatness will yet come.

Review originally published in the 150th Anniversary Edition of the Globe & Mail, March 5, 1994.

Inuvik History

Inuvik History Project

In 2006 I was approached by Dick Hill, the first mayor and long-time resident of Inuvik, Northwest Territories, to work with him in transforming his extensive notes and photos into a history of the community. The result was a two-volume set published in July 2008 and launched at the community’s 50th Anniversary celebration.

My role included writing and editing, research in digital photo archives from Ottawa and Yellowknife, scanning and touch-up of photos and slides, design, layout, and liaison with the printer.

Inuvik: A History is approximately 240 pages, with a selection of photos, maps and illustrations in black and white. Inuvik In Pictures is 48 pages, with full colour pictures throughout.

More information on these books is available here.
Below: front and back cover of Inuvik: A History

Cover photographs for Inuvik: A History

Front Cover, top, Inuvik from the air, 1995, photo by Staffan Widstrand/Corbis; Olympic skiers Sharon & Shirley Firth, photo by Dick Hill; loading gravel at Twin Lake gravel pit, 1955, photo by Curt Merrill; RCMP officer Gerry Kisoun, photo by Raymond Gehman/Corbis. Back cover photographs show the ‘Ice Worm’ Carnival, 1960s, photo by Dr. Norris Hunt; and author Dick Hill.

Below: front and back cover of Inuvik In Pictures


Cover photographs for Inuvik In Pictures:

Front Cover, top, raising the first large warehouse, 1956, photo by Curtis Merrill. Bottom left: Prime Minister and Mrs. Diefenbaker in Inuvik, 1961, NWT Archives. Bottom centre: civil servant housing, photo courtesy of Dr. N.E. Hunt Collection, Inuvik Centennial Library. Bottom right: Bill Nasogaluak at the Great Northern Arts Festival, 1992, photo by Tessa Mcintosh, NWT Archives.
Back Cover photographs: top row, left to right, Johnny Semple; Peggy Curtis; Nap Norbert; Cece McCauley; Rose Anne Allen. Second row, Cynthia Hill; unidentified; Martha Kupfer; unidentified. Third row, Billy Day, Doug Billingsley, Diane Baxter. Fourth row, Peter Clarkson, Victor Allen. Fifth row, Louis Goose.

The Arctic Grail

No oil slicks on the carpet, please

Launching Pierre Berton’s The Arctic Grail

Originally published in November, 1988

As photo opportunities go, the book launch for Pierre Berton’s The Arctic Grail was one of the most elaborate in publishing history. As arctic voyages go, the trip to a Beaufort Sea oil rig was somewhat less demanding than picking up Berton’s tome for an armchair expedition.

The Arctic Grail is an account of the romantic age of arctic exploration. Nineteenth-century audiences snapped up reports of their heroes fighting bitter blinding blizzards over vast uninhabited ice fields.

But a warm sun rose in a clear sky as two helicopters left Inuvik, 350 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. As we flew north over the Mackenzie Delta, three-metre spruce gave way to one-metre scrub willow; soon we saw only lichens and lakes, and it seemed we were far from civilization.

The illusion was dispelled when we reached Tuktoyaktuk – Inuvialuktun* for “looks like caribou.” Herds of oil tanks flanked a winding shoreline, dwarfing the houses, the Catholic Church, even The Bay.

Berton closes his saga in 1909, when the motor age was just beginning. Eighty years later, prospectors are staking claims at the ends of the earth, oil companies are pumping gas from beneath the ice pack, and 20,000 horsepower icebreakers are making test runs through the Northwest Passage.

If thirst for petroleum sparked new interest in the north, it also made Berton’s book launch possible – the author and most of his entourage were escorted from Calgary by Gulf Canada Resources Limited. When the helicopters set us down on a deck 40 nautical miles from shore, our hosts began a tour of the Molikpaq oil rig.

Here came the day’s moment of high adventure – a crane lifted a dozen of us over the water to a tug boat. We stood on a swinging two-metre ring, clutching a rope rigging, while sparkling waves bobbed beneath us – more fun then the CNE**, and absolutely free. Gulf employees patiently followed photographers’ directions to put Berton in just the right position for the cameras.

Several hundred blinks of the shutter later the party was reunited in the dining hall, where we toasted our exploits with Carl Jung De-alcoholized Wine – the town of Tuktoyaktuk and Gulf’s northern facilities being “dry” zones.

Early explorers in Berton’s account were too stubborn to follow Inuit advice: “Could any proper Englishman traipse about in ragged seal fur, eating raw blubber and living in hovels made of snow?” They caught chills when their wool uniforms got sweaty, and suffered scurvy because they cooked the vitamins out of their meat.

As guests of Gulf we had no such worries. We filed past the fresh salad bar in stocking feet (no oil slicks on the carpet, please), and our musk-ox and caribou were served well-done.

Written during a stint as reporter for the Inuvik Drum, and published in NOW, Toronto, November 17, 1988.

* The original version stated “Inuktitut”, the more general name for Inuit languages, instead of “Inuvialuktun”, the language of the Inuvialuit of Canada’s western arctic region.

** CNE = Canadian National Exhibition, known to generations of Toronto youngsters for its amusement park rides.